The American Scene

An ongoing review of politics and culture


Heighten the contradictions

Suppose that party A habitually engages in actions that party B finds morally offensive. Party B then finds various ways to obstruct this offensive action, but only partially, so the effect is to make the action more dangerous, but not impossible. Party A continues with the (now more dangerous) course of action and predictably problems ensue. Who is morally at fault? Or more to the point, who receives blame and is the ensuing policy push to prohibit A from engaging in the offensive action or instead for B to cease obstructing and switch to accomodation and harm reduction?

For instance, if I am morally opposed to clear-cutting an old growth forest and so I spike the trees, but it gets logged anyway and some lumberjack get injured or killed, who is at fault: Me or the loggers?

Well, as in so many things, I think who you blame ultimately comes down to confirmation bias and we can see this play out in a few recent incidents.

Over the last months there has been a great deal of outrage over botched executions in Oklahoma, Ohio, and Arizona in which the executions did not go as planned and in at least one of the three cases the condemned suffered prolonged excruciating pain. Many stories about these executions explained that states had been experimenting with new formulas because anti-death penalty activists and governments had systematically cut off their supplies of sodium thiopental — the old and much more reliable lethal injection chemical. However this was all in terms of the historical chain of events and I saw basically nobody saying that the anti-death-penalty activists were morally at fault for preventing a well-established and relatively effective means of execution or that the Lockett, McGuire, and Wood executions demonstrate the need to restore access to sodium thiopental. Rather the ubiquitous assumption was that once sodium thiopental was cut off that the states of Oklahoma, Ohio, and Arizona should have said “wow, looks like you got us into a checkmate, guess we’ll just commute every sentence on death row even though our electorates favor capital punishment.”

Conversely one of the issues with state-level marijuana decriminalization is that it’s a cash-only business which creates problems like armed robbery. The reason is that while many state governments have decriminalized marijuana, the federal government still opposes marijuana decriminalization and pressures banks not to service marijuana businesses. This means that marijuana businesses are easily identifiable as having large amounts of cash and/or frequent deliveries of cash to safe deposit boxes, all of which makes them inviting targets to armed robbers. The marijuana industry recognizes this, but you won’t be surprised to hear that their interpretation is not that they should stop selling cannabis until they are allowed to process credit cards. Rather Mike Elliot of the Marijuana Industry Group told Vox “If somebody gets killed because of this issue, we’re going to be pointing our finger at Congress saying, ‘This is your fault. You should have acted.’”

Probably the most severe current example is the current Gaza war, where Hamas appears to be deliberately placing military targets within or in close proximity to especially sensitive civilian areas. Despite fairly heroic efforts to minimize civilian casualties, Israel is thus in the position of either forgoing its offensive to destroy rockets and tunnels or destroying schools, hospitals, and many noncombatant human beings. Predictably those who see Israel as responding as any state would to an intransigent terrorism campaign see this as Hamas’s fault whereas those who were always inclined to see Israel as a colonialist apartheid regime see it as disproportionate.

I’m not trying to make a substantive argument that the obstinate actor A or the heighten-the-contradictions actor B is morally at fault when A continues to act under the circumstances made more dangerous by B. What I am saying is that whether you blame A or B largely depends on whether you sympathized with or opposed A’s action ex ante. Nobody who opposes the death penalty is going to say that the people who prevented state prisons from getting access to sodium thiopental are at fault when states wing it and botch executions badly. Likewise nobody who favors marijuana decriminalization is going to say that shops should cease selling marijuana if the federal government doesn’t let them bank. And nobody who already thinks Israel is a colonialist apartheid regime is going to say that it is justified in attacking military targets commingled with civilians. However, logically these conclusions have a lot in common, even though most people would agree to some but not all of them. And I’m just gonna lay out a marker here that any arguments I get on this will be to the effect that one issue is substantively different from the others, and I don’t necessarily disagree, but it really does prove my broader point that it’s all about whether you sympathized with the person engaging in the action or the person opposing the action in the first place and not about whether we should generally hold responsible actors who heighten the contradictions of an action as part of their attempts to abolish it.

Obfuscation Form 700

The Supreme Court recently ruled in favor of Hobby Lobby but among the many things that are not widely understood is that the decision did not actually result in the firm’s employees losing insurance coverage for IUDs. The actual result is that the employees will still have coverage for IUDs, but the insurance processor rather than Hobby Lobby will have to pay for it (at least in theory). That is, Hobby Lobby was seeking to take advantage of the Obama administration’s own proposal for faith-based nonprofits. As Julian Sanchez at Cato observed, the entire case turns on an entirely symbolic issue of whether the Greens explicitly have to pay for IUDs or are allowed to wink at an obfuscation in which their insurance company bears the cost (at least theoretically).

I found this interesting not only because it’s a much discussed case but also because it’s a close fit with my article published a few months ago in Sociological Theory. (Here’s an ungated version that lacks the benefit of some really good copy-editing). In the article I talk about situations where a moral objection gets in the way of a transaction but the transaction nonetheless occurs through the expedient of obfuscating that a transaction is occurring at all. I describe three mechanisms for accomplishing this and the nonprofit exemption which now also applies to Hobby Lobby is characterized by two of them, brokerage and bundling. That is, the employer does not buy the IUD for the employee but rather pays a broker (the insurance processor) who in turn provides the IUD. Moreover, the IUD is bundled together with other health coverage. The third model which is not at issue in Hobby Lobby but which I describe in the paper is gift exchange, where explicit quid pro quo is replaced with tacit reciprocity.

Of course for an exchange to be morally objectionable or for it to be koshered is entirely subjective. Most obviously in Hobby Lobby there is a range of opinions about the moral acceptability of birth control and abortifacients and where to draw the line between the two. More interesting to me is that opinions vary on what counts as “buying” the contested commodity and whether to seize on obfuscation and denounce it. On this issue the irony is that while the Obama administration itself came up with this obfuscation for nonprofits it opposed extending it to for-profit firms. At a general level, obfuscation doesn’t objectively exist but rather it creates a permission structure that actors can choose to consent to.

This becomes clear when we contrast Hobby Lobby to Little Sisters of the Poor. Whereas the owners of Hobby Lobby sued to avail themselves of the obfuscatory accomodation, the Little Sisters of the Poor who (as a nonprofit) already have this obfuscation available to them but are suing to denounce it as mere obfuscation and completely remove themselves from even obfuscated provision of all birth control. Specifically, the Little Sisters are refusing to fill out EBSA Form 700 stating their objection to providing contraceptive coverage since to do so would trigger provision through their insurer and they see this as involving themselves in something morally objectionable. That is, while Hobby Lobby would be delighted to wink and nod (and the Obama administration was reluctant to allow them to do so) the Little Sisters are adamantly opposed to a fig leaf (and the Obama administration would be delighted were they to play along with the face-saving obfuscation).

Rape Culture/Structure

In Sunday’s column, Ross provided three proposals for reducing campus rape. (1. Lower the drinking age, 2. End the party school system, 3. Loco in parentis lite for dorms). For the most part it was well received (including by many people who generally disagree with Ross), but sampling on the derpendent variable reveals no shortage of people saying some version of “how about we just tell men not to rape” which in its more concrete version takes the form of some sort of sexual consent education class as part of orientation. What I find interesting about this is that this answer is essentially to tackle culture, whereas Ross called for tackling structure.

I found this ironic since in other contexts (most notably, poverty) the right tends to emphasize cultural explanations and cultural solutions which the left meets with structural explanations and structural solutions. For instance, in explaining why there are such disordered family lives among the poor, the right tends to emphasize a declining interest in marriage (or in more subtle and accurate versions of the argument, the shift towards a cornerstone conception) whereas the left meets this with structural arguments about the shortage of marriageable men in low-income communities. And it is worth noting that while the right is probably correct that marriage is causally important and not just an issue of selection, the evidence seems to be on the left’s side that marriage promotion doesn’t work.

The general tendency seems to be that if I say culture, you say agency, and vice versa. As in so many other things, I see this switcheroo as not entirely motivated by a cold-eyed analysis and saying, eureka, it looks like the schwerpunkt of rape is culture whereas poverty is better solved by concentrating on structure (or vice versa). Rather the heuristic seems to be avoiding actions we find intrinsically objectionable and a related one of assigning responsibility for reform to the parties we find morally culpable and avoiding placing demands upon sympathetic people. We see the first heuristic operating in the many responses I saw to Ross that were much more enthusiastic about lowering the drinking age than his other two proposals. This is predictable given that all three of Ross’s proposals load on Haidt’s moral foundation of “liberty/oppression,” but one goes one way and the other two the other way. Even if it is in fact the case that increasing liberty in some respects and restricting it in others is the best way to reduce a horrific crime, fewer people think in terms of “does this work” than “is it moral.” The other heuristic is a sort of who/whom logic that (understandably) wants to punish the guilty while holding harmless the victim. This most obviously manifests in the common (morally sympathetic but not terribly prudent) criticism of anything that tacitly “blames the victim” through offering advice on how to avoid victimization. In the reaction to Ross’s piece we see it in the largely sympathetic reaction to his proposal to wage total war on fraternity row compared to his mostly reviled (and frequently distorted) proposal to bring curfew lite to the dorms. The former punishes the aggressors and so is intrinsically worthwhile, but the latter restricts the autonomy of the victims and so is unacceptable. Whether either of them would be effective at reducing the rate of a felony second only to murder is at best a post hoc consideration.

Sticky demand

Miriam Weeks (aka Belle Knox) has an op-ed at Time about rising college tuition, subsidies, and the high implicit marginal tax rates the means-tested subsidy regime implies for students like herself who have relatively high earnings during college. But rather than focus on her (quite reasonable) argument about the abuses of an industry in which I am objectively a member of the exploitative class, let’s change the subject to exegesis of a tangential sentence about another industry:
“Demand for education, kind of like demand for porn, is pretty inelastic.”

This glib remark strikes me as highly dubious but also typical of libertarians, which I understand to be Ms. Weeks’ political perspective. Just as when liberals say something (say, health care not directly related to communicable diseases) is a “public good” they don’t really mean that it is non-rivalrous and non-excludbale, but only that they think the state ought to pay for it. Likewise when libertarians say something (and in particular a vice) is demand inelastic they don’t actually mean that quantity demanded doesn’t respond to changes in price, but only that they don’t want the state to regulate it. (Conversely, libertarians tend to play up elasticity with regards to taxes that they don’t like).

But let’s unpack what it would mean for porn demand to be inelastic. First, we can consider short-run elasticity. Elasticity is largely a function of substitutability and purchasing porn has good substitutes (starting with rewatching previously purchased porn) and so should be elastic. Moreover, demand for vices tends to follow a zero-inflated count distribution which means much of the total demand is concentrated among the heaviest users and which in turn means that you have to worry about income effects imposing a hard constraint as heavy users simply run out of money and therefore their demand is relatively elastic in terms of purchasing power even if their desire is unsatiated.

Moreover, we can take a long-run view. In the long-run as people shift to new margins very few things are inelastic. For instance gasoline is famously inelastic in the short run but this isn’t really true in the long run as we saw when the price of gasoline rose in 2006 and 2007 it led to a decrease in demand for exurban housing and SUVs and so the price of gasoline was less inelastic in the long-run than in the short-run. For vices we have the rational addiction model that suggests that even if demand is inelastic in the short-run (ie, addicts gotta get their fix) it is elastic in the long-run as price hikes motivate current users to quit and/or potential new users to refrain from starting. That is, if porn becomes expensive we should expect to see some current consumers learn to rely on their imaginations and new potential users fail to have sufficient exposure to be captured and conversely if porn becomes cheap we should expect to see more people develop the habit of frequently consuming it.

And putting aside theory, it’s something of an empirical question since first VHS and then the internet radically reduced the price of pornography (especially if one includes “transport” costs of hassle, shame, etc). I am highly skeptical that this decrease in the total price has led to no more consumption, as we would expect if demand were perfectly inelastic. That is, if demand for porn were perfectly inelastic this would imply no greater consumption today than in 1995 or 1985 or 1975 and this strains credulity.

The reason this matters is that if demand for vices is in fact elastic, or even just imperfectly inelastic (like gasoline), then it matters what the total price (including transport) is. This in turn means that decriminalizing vices is not a free lunch of just giving up enforcement costs (and evasion of enforcement) but you’ve also got to face the facts of increased demand.

The Internet of Selves (Elliot Rodger)

When the Columbine massacre happened one of the first things I thought of, thanks to Hegel and Nietzsche, was the internet.The internet was just then becoming this participatory thing, for everyone, and I had the Hegel-inspired bad feeling that one effect of this new technology of self-assertion would be a nagging and widespread condition of abstract discontent. In the olden days of Aristotle summoned by Hegel in the Phenomenology, it was only rich guys, who’d proven themselves in battle and owned slaves they’d taken in battle, who had the freedom to make a huge deal about their public reputations, gild those reputations through public performance. Honor-consciousness, the willingness to kill and die for the sake of one’s name, the cultivation of an expansive self to contest with other excellent selves in this zone of assessment and esteem, was a luxury of aristocrats. The long Occidental story Hegel tells is of the sublimation of this abstract, aristocratic self-assertion through progressive immersion in, and growing understanding of, material nature – foreshadowed in this dialectic’s first moments by the (Greek) slave’s practical wherewithal and his (Greek) master’s practical heedlessness and cluelessness.

Nietzsche, of course, put his own indelible stamp on this account, calling the impulse at play between the master and slave classes the “will-to-power.” This term has several treatments in his work, but in Beyond Good and Evil he gives it a gloss that has chilling resonance for us today. It’s tempting to think of something called a “will-to-power,” and described as fundamental, as some primal appetite, a deep cause, but here Nietzsche calls it, instead, an “effect.” In this it’s related to another great Nietzschean phrase, “the pathos of distance.” In short, a strong guy, looking around and seeing relative weakness in those around him, feeling the elevation that separates him from them as he looks down, wants to realize this merely latent power difference in action. The will-to-power follows something like hydrologic principles. A subject comprehending his own superiority feels the possibility of domination flowing out of him, via this awareness of downward distance, and from this the desire to realize this possibility formulates itself. The will-to-power, as an urge or motive, is thus effect of what the self can actually do. The larger the zone of envisioned latitude, the greater momentum the subject can see itself building up unopposed, the larger the will’s appetite to expand and realize itself will be. The specter of relative weakness is an invitation, a goad

Now, as Hegel described, before Nietzsche applied his dramatic names to the dynamic, even the hungriest subject, embedded in the pressing social and material conditions of work and communal life, will see only small possibilities for its expansion, small margins of self-assertion and recognition to offer as food to its will-to-power. Common life is paltry ground for cultivating existential ambition – and so discontent. For most people throughout historical space and time, the vistas of self were short and narrow. The self, as a projection of the imagination the will-to-power might strive to realize in action, and whose disappointments tend to form in proportion to these ambitions, was small. Its ambitions were small. Its disappointments were small. The phenomenological conditions of self-assertion made delusions of grandeur not just absurd in their content but hard to formulate at all. With the demise of feudalism and the rise of liberal democracy, in the Hegelian story, abstract subjectivity was doled out in modest portions determined by both law and nature (as understood by science), and, in theory, possessed in equal measure by everyone.

The internet both apotheosizes this process, of liberally redistributing aristocratic selfhood throughout the demos, and returns it to its first moment, in which an abstract and unbounded and perhaps empty and brittle subjectivity floats free of material life. It’s brought back Aristotle’s model of subjectivity at its most elevated and abstract, the materially free Greek citizen engaged in an ungrounded textual politics of self-assertion, and it’s globalized its setting. Instead of those standing in earshot of a citizen’s voice, the subject of the internet has a theoretical audience of all of humanity. The ambitions he tends for his own recognition can have that as their measure. And the resentments and disappointments he can husband when reality mocks those ambitions can grow to global size as well.

On this reading of the history of subjectivity, Elliot Rodger’s expression of his existential and sexual ambitions and the attendant disappointments and the much-discussed meanings he assigned to them, via YouTube videos posted on an easily accessed “web” described as “worldwide,” are not incidental but inherent to their formulation, to the construction of a self from which they flowered into an aristocrat’s grand entitlement, and then into disappointment and killing.

Star Trek: Into Dumb

Yeah, yeah, old news. What can I say, I have a family, so I only get to watch movies once in a while, after they’ve been on on-demand TV for a long time.

“Star Trek: Into Darkness”: wow. What a dumb, dumb movie.

“Star Trek” has a big place in my life, and I don’t care who knows. I learned English by watching Star Trek. Star Trek, to me, will always be one of our greatest pop cultural sensations, because it is, as best as I can tell, the only space adventure show for a popular audience that takes ideas seriously; and, starting with TNG, characters.

The first Star Trek reboot movie made it clear that this was all going down the hatch. It was just a fun action-adventure romp, and very consciously and publicly made no effort at grasping what makes Star Trek great.

But boy, is Into Darkness dumb. The plot makes no sense. Whatsoever. The plot holes are big enough to fly the Enterprise through, and I use a cliché phrase like this to honor a movie made up of clichés a bunch of stitched-together clichés. The Klingons are just dumb-ass space thugs. The scrawny, charisma-free British guy they cast as Khan has zero credibility as a genetically-enhanced superwarrior. Starfleet us utterly clueless and ineffective as an organization.

And there is that supremely odd anesthetic quality to big-budget Hollywood action scenes where there is so much CG pyrotechnics that it all adds up to something distinctly underwhelming, and you find yourself unable to care because you know that you’re one hour into the movie and so the main characters are in zero danger.

I have to write this now because I know tomorrow I’ll have forgotten everything about the movie.

At Midnight, All the Economists

Krugman’s Journal. May 1, 2014.
Dog carcass in alley this morning. Only I predicted its stomach would burst like a housing bubble.

When the storm comes the insufficient aggregate demand of all their austerity will foam up about their waists and all the oligarchs and politicians will look up and shout “save us!” and I’ll look down and whisper “stimulus.”

They had a choice, all of them. They could have followed good men like my advisor, or President Roosevelt. Decent men who believed in counter-cyclical spending. Instead they followed the droppings of racists and goldbugs.

Krugman’s Journal. May 2, 2014.
Slept all day. Awoken at 4:37. Undergrad complaining about a B-. I am sure she cheated on the SAT. Beneath me, the township screams like an eating club full of intoxicated undergrads.

New York. Last month I got hired for a figurehead no show job in New York. Somebody knows why. The dusk reeks of foundation money and bad consciences.

Krugman’s Journal. May 3, 2014.
Meeting with Summers left bad taste in mouth. Possibly Koch-funded? Must remember to investigate further.

Why are so few of us left active, healthy, and without confirmation bias?

Why does it matter where Ronald Reagan gave a speech 35 years ago? Because there is good and there is dog-whistling, and dog-whistling must be punished. Even in the face of austerity I shall not compromise in this. But there are so many deserving of vituperation … and there are only 800 words Mondays and Fridays.

Krugman’s Journal. May 4, 2014.
Thought about Bartlett’s story on way to cemetery. Could all be lies. Could all be part of a revenge scheme. But if true, then what?

Heard joke once. Man goes into doctor. Says he’s confused. Says policy seems full of trade-offs. Doctor says “Treatment is simple. Nobel Laureate economist is in town tonight. Go and see him lecture. That should clear things up.” Man bursts into tears. Says “But Doctor … I am a Nobel Laureate economist.” Good joke, Everybody laughs.

Krugman’s Journal. May 4, 2014.
He knows nothing about any attempt to discredit Medicaid. He has simply been used. By whom? Kochs seem obvious choice. But the Oregon study was conducted by faculty at Harvard Public Health and MIT econ. Doesn’t fit. Can’t concentrate.

Krugman’s Journal. May 5, 2014.
On way out of Princeton met Woody Woo dean. Usual complaints Re: coughing “bullshit” at faculty meetings. There were micro-econ publications on her cv. Fresh ones. Out on Prospect inspected Madison Institute. Man and woman, possibly discussing God. Didn’t like it. Makes campus look haunted.

Krugman’s Journal. May 6, 2014.
Someone tried to kill the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Proves dog whistle theory. Austerity is closing in. Checked comment thread. Thousands of Times readers praising me. Connected, perhaps?

Is everyone but me going mad? This relentless recession: there is only one sane response to it.

Approached policy debate. An attempted discussion of Piketty. The wingnut turned and there was something rewarding in his derp. Sometimes the blogs are generous to me.

Krugman’s Journal. May 7, 2014.
Final entry? Left Princeton just before Midnight. Mayer, convinced Koch’s behind everything, is serious about visiting Manhattan. New Jersey Transit capable, apparently, but are we? Kochs. Cannot imagine more dangerous opponent. Prosperity seems unlikely. This last entry. Will shortly push to op-ed page CMS, only people can trust. For my own part, regret nothing. Have lived life, free from compromise…and step into the shadow now without complaint.

[Inspired by a conversation with James and Alan.]

Everything you need to know about the Old Ones

Who is Cthulhu?

In his house at R’lyeh, dead Cthulhu waits dreaming.

In his house at R’lyeh, dead Cthulhu waits dreaming.

In his house at R’lyeh, dead Cthulhu waits dreaming.

In his house at R’lyeh, dead Cthulhu waits dreaming.

What is the relationship between the Old Ones and the shoggoth?

A 1931 study by the scientific faculty at Miskatonic University found that the shoggoth were the creations of Old Ones. The shoggoth served the Old Ones and built their cities but catastrophe befell them.

What effect does Cthulhu have on mental health?

A 1926 study from the Department of Semitic Languages at Brown University documented multiple cases of men driven beyond insanity by encountering fetishes or dreams of Cthulhu. The study suggests that attempting to grasp the inconceivable power of the Old Ones and their complete indifference to human welfare suggests the utter meaninglessness of existence that shatters the psyche.

Does Obamacare affect Cthulhu?

A 2011 report by the Congressional Budget Office attempted to answer this question. It found that the entirety of human existence is just a transient incident that cannot be leavened by bland optimism about bending cost curves. Following the study, fourteen health economists were committed to the Walter Reed Army Medical Center where they remain catatonic in horror at the realization that the universe is incomprehensible and our own place within it of infinitessimal inconsequentiality.

You didn’t answer my question!

This is very much a work in progress. It will continue to be updated as events unfold, new research gets published, and fresh questions emerge.

So if you have additional questions or comments or quibbles or complaints, go to the swamp and seek out the company of very low, mixed-blooded, and mentally aberrant types and join their ecstatic chanting of “Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn.”

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.)

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