The American Scene

An ongoing review of politics and culture

das Kacey Musgraves Problem

Reihan recently tweeted “A thought: could it be that the problem with the world is people not caring enough about other people’s biscuits?” As I replied at the time, Kacey Musgraves’s “Pageant Material” has the potential to be even more fruitful for conservative thought than was Marilyn Manson’s “Mechanical Animals.” Much as Adam Smith is best known for Wealth of Nations but das Adam Smith Problem emphasizes the difficulty of reconciling his themes there with those in Theory of Moral Sentiments, we can use das Kacey Musgraves Problem to refer to how Musgraves both braces against and embraces gemeinschaft.

As Reihan suggested, a central theme in Kacey Musgraves’s oeuvre is a rejection of the constraints of moral judgment. The verses of her current single, “Biscuits,” decry discussion of moral failings as nothing but the envy of lesser beings and the chorus advises to “mind your own biscuits and life will be gravy.” Likewise “Follow Your Arrow” on the previous album mostly consists of a list of pairs of social expectations, each of which form a Scylla and Charybdis of prudery and libertinism. The explicit theme being that social acceptability is impossible and so do what thou willst. We thus see a theme of rejecting the slave morality that would constrain an East Texas ubermensch.

But in parallel and contradicting this is an embrace of the inescapable necessity of community. We see this most obviously in “This Town,” which describes a town that is too small to be mean. Ironically, the song is immediately preceded by “Biscuits,” even though it has almost exactly opposite themes. Likewise, “Family is Family” expresses the theme that however aggravating they may be, the ties of kinship are uniquely indissoluble. Finally, the value of gemeinschaft is expressed negatively by showing the desperate neediness of isolation in “It Is What It Is,” in which the singer solicits someone to come over for casual sex, but resists the idea of a persistent relationship.

Whereas James Poulos derives from Marilyn Manson an ironic but nonetheless unified synthesis of hedonistic authoritarianism that James calls the pink police state, Musgraves is better described as emphasizing the duality of human emotional dependence upon other people and resistance to the moral constraints it demands. If one assumes that sin is inevitable (as does “Biscuits”) or that proper behavior is an impossible catch-22 (as does “Follow Your Arrow”), then by inference, moral judgment itself is nothing more than cruelty. And so Musgraves’s paradoxical relationship to gemeinschaft ultimately stems from a stultified WEIRD moral vocabulary, which Jon Haidt has shown to rely ultimately on harm and liberty, and where sanctity and loyalty are threatening insofar as they are conceived of as offering nothing more than harm and constraints on liberty. That this town is too small mean implies that one should therefore mind one’s own biscuits.

Or maybe I’m overthinking this.

When to Control for X

At Vox, Ezra Klein raises an important meta-theoretical point in social science analysis, which is that it is very hard to distinguish mechanisms from controls. If there is a zero-order correlation between X1 and Y, but it drops out when you introduce X2, this in of itself does not tell you if the X1~Y relationship is spurious or if it is mediated. If being shot at is correlated with death, but the effect falls out of significance once you control for exsanguination, one would not say that the probabilistic effect of being shot at on death is spurious. Rather you would say that losing a lot of blood is the mechanism by which being shot at often kills you.

I have been attentive to this issue at least since I read Lieberson’s Making it Count in grad school. In practice this sometimes comes out as fighting with peer reviewers who demand that I throw controls in a model, when the controls are closely related to the mechanism I had posited and so my model would predict that some or all of the effect would drop out when the controls/mechanisms are introduced. So I was glad to see Klein take up this issue at Vox. Klein’s particular case was that when you introduce a lot of controls, a lot of of ascriptive inequality effects drop out. He argues, very plausibly, that this is missing the point since this does not mean there is no effect, only that the effect is mediated by causal pathways.

There are two issues with this.

First, as Klein appreciates, but which I feel may be lost, identifying mechanisms is crucial for crafting a critique and a solution. Or for that matter, deciding whether a solution would be too intrusive and clumsy to be worthwhile. Take the women make 77 cents on the dollar factoid. This is often implicitly or explicitly taken as the boss ashing his cigar, laughing, and saying “A raise? Haven’t you heard? It’s a man’s world.” And this model underlies things like the Ledbetter Act and political mobilization premised on it. But if social science can show us that almost all of the gender gap is really a) a mommy gap and b) occupational sorting, then this is profoundly misleading and all we could expect of the Ledbetter Act is to make a few lawyers rich and maybe at best push the figure from $0.77 to $0.78. Working on the other $0.22 would require stuff like family-friendly workplaces and comparable worth laws, and even that probably would only get you halfway there in the absence of fairly radical changes in gender roles. Personally, I think things like comparable worth laws would be absurdly intrusive manipulations of labor markets that are likely to create innumerable absurdities and distortions, but at least they’d be addressing one of the key mechanisms instead of targeting a caricature of minor contemporary relevance and in practice do little more than give a handout to trial lawyers and an extra bullet point to the Life of Julia slide deck.

As more sophisticated critics of ascriptive inequality appreciate, the vast bulk of the action is structural not discretionary, let alone discretionary and volitional. Indeed under some circumstances they will craft theories that argue that even discretionary inequality is ultimately structural insofar as counterfactual structures would have reduced the scope of discretion. And yet when somebody is writing a story on racism the editor goes for a stock photo of a Klan rally, not a heat map of public transit commuting times to geo-tagged entry level retail positions.

Second, I expect any day now Vox will update this piece “ Debunking the most pervasive myth about black fatherhood, “ which shows that black men are great dads controlling for whether they live with their kids. The article hilariously acknowledges a few paragraphs in that black men are much less likely to live with their kids than white men, but then hand waves at how this is in turn probably caused by mass incarceration. Curiously, the “myth” piece on how the racial disparity in parenting goes away (and maybe even reverses sign) when you control for living with your kids was written after the piece on how it doesn’t matter that most of the racial disparity in criminal justice goes away when you control for offending rates, allocation of policing resources, etc. because controls are better conceptualized as mechanisms. Maybe Lopez doesn’t read the boss’s copy. How embarrassing.

Now it’s tempting to leave it at pundit, voxsplain thyself. However I have a broader point. To paraphrase Schmitt, the intellectual is he who decides on the control variables. Whether we call something a control or a mechanism is not a statistical issue in the sense that there is no R function or Stata postest command that will give you the answer. Rather, distinguishing a control from a mechanism is a theoretical issue. And in practice, theoretical issues are often political issues and so control versus mechanism is yet another instance of our old friend, that depending on how we feel normatively about a factual premise our epistemological standard shifts from “can we believe it” to “must we believe it.” If you find a zero-order association consistent with your worldview, then anything that threatens to explain it away is a mechanism. And if you find a zero-order association inconvenient for your worldview, then anything that promises to explain it away is a control.

Lacedaemonia: Disrupt

I was reading the house rules of Startup Castle and thought it sounded familiar. And then I realized the reason was because this. is. Sparta.

Here’s a comparison of a few Startup Castle house rules (in bold) with parallel passages from Plutarch’s Life of Lycurgus (in plain text).

Prefer organized systems and common rules
Things being in this posture at his return, he applied himself, without loss of time, to a thorough reformation and resolved to change the whole face of the commonwealth; for what could a few particular laws and a partial alteration avail? He must act as wise physicians do, in the case of one who labors under a complication of diseases, by force of medicines reduce and exhaust him, change his whole temperament, and then set him upon a totally new regimen of diet.

Watch more than 4 hours of TV/movie/game entertainment per week
In the next place, he declared an outlawry of all needless and superfluous arts

Exercise at least 15 hours in a normal week
Their discipline continued still after they were full-grown men. No one was allowed to live after his own fancy; but the city was a sort of camp, in which every man had his share of provisions and business set out, and looked upon himself not so much born to serve his own ends as the interest of his country. Therefore, if they were commanded nothing else, they went to see the boys perform their exercises, to teach them something useful, or to learn it themselves of those who knew better.

we even stock the ‘generosity kitchen’ with basic foods like eggs, milk, cheese, bananas, rice, beans, potatoes, oats, cereal, and anything else that gets contributed.
They met by companies of fifteen, more or less, and each of them stood bound to bring in monthly a bushel of meal, eight gallons of wine, five pounds of cheese, two pounds and a half of figs, and some very small sum of money to buy flesh or fish with. Besides this, when any of them made sacrifice to the gods, they always sent a dole to the common hall; and, likewise, when any of them had been a hunting, he sent thither a part of the venison he had killed; for these two occasions were the only excuses allowed for supping at home. The custom of eating together was observed strictly for a great while afterwards; insomuch that king Agis himself, after having vanquished the Athenians, sending for his commons at his return home, because he desired to eat privately with his queen, was refused them by the polemarchs; which refusal when he resented so much as to omit next day the sacrifice due for a war happily ended, they made him pay a fine.

Have more than one internet app date per week
And so [the bridegroom] continues to do, spending his days, and, indeed, his nights with [his bunkmates], visiting his bride in fear and shame, and with circumspection, when he thought he should not be observed; she, also, on her part, using her wit to help and find favorable opportunities for their meeting, when company was out of the way. In this manner they lived a long time, insomuch that they sometimes had children by their wives before ever they saw their faces by daylight.

Drink alcohol more than 3 drinks per week
It is confessed, on all hands, that the Spartans dealt with [helots] very hardly; for it was a common thing to force them to drink to excess, and to lead them in that condition into their public halls, that the children might see what a sight a drunken man is; they made them to dance low dances, and sing ridiculous songs, forbidding them expressly to meddle with any of a better kind.

Own any clothing, shoes, watches, or handbags costing over $500
After they were twelve years old, they were no longer allowed to wear any under-garment; they had one coat to serve them a year; their bodies were hard and dry, with but little acquaintance of baths and unguents; these human indulgences they were allowed only on some few particular days in the year.

Caesaropapism is Our Greatest Strength

A few months ago I read TAS alum Alan Jacobs’ book The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography and it was truly fascinating. Probably the most entertaining bit was how early on the English attempted to impose their (high church) liturgy on the Scots and a Scotswoman hurled a chair at a priest, after which the bishop of Brechin “read his first service from the prayer book, he did so with two loaded pistols placed on the desk before him, in plain sight of the restive congregation.”

Less entertaining, but ultimately more worthy of reflection is the story of George C. Gorham, a priest who was denied a post by his bishop in a doctrinal dispute over baptism. Gorham then appealed his bishop’s decision to the Judicial Committee on the Privy Council. That is, a so-called “Episcopalian” system saw the decisions of an episkopos reversed by the British equivalent to the Supreme Court. Alan interprets this incident (pp 132-133):

The Judicial Committee’s “neutral reading” was, effectively, a plea that everyone just get along, and get along by vowing obedience to the Book of Common Prayer while allowing one another a good deal of freedom to read that book according to theological preference. The members of the committee were not saying that Gorham’s interpretation of the prayer book’s teaching on baptism was superior to the bishop’s, but rather that the bishop was ruling too narrowly and should have made more room for theological variance. They did not believe that every minister should be Latitudinarian, but they did, it seems, believe the boundaries of the Church of England as a whole needed to be set as broadly as possible.

In contemporary terms we would say the lay court was standing up for the individual’s right to freedom of conscience. We can go further and say that the court was not endorsing a particular view of baptism, but a diversity of belief about the sacrament. Of course in traditional Christian orthodoxy, bishops are supposed to enforce orthodoxy. (Presbyterianism and Congregationalism are early modern exceptions to this long-standing ecclesiastical rule, which dates at least to late antiquity and has antecedents in the New Testament era). For a secular authority to interfere with the internal doctrinal disputes of a church is traditionally understood to be Caesaropapism, a term that carries the pejorative understanding that it is as a form of tyranny.

So we are left with a paradox, when pushes comes to shove whose conscience do we respect? Gorham’s or his bishop’s? Or more broadly when an individual is affiliated with an institution, do we demand that the institution respect the individual’s conscience (and by implication that corporate freedom of conscience does not exist)? Or do we allow the institution to impose its own conscience on those who fall within its dominion (and by implication require that dissenting individuals either exit the institution or suck it up)? The classical liberal notion of freedom of association solves the problem by generally siding with the institution, at least insofar as the individual is free to exit the institution and seek another. (The legal term “public accommodation” is now so expansive that it is hard to identify things that are not public accommodations, but it originally only applied to monopolies and the like). Of course in fairness to Gorham, even if he were free to disaffiliate from the Church of England and seek ordination with a free church, there is a sort of moderate level of coercion insofar as doing so would require forgoing the state support that only the CoE, as the established church, enjoyed. Hence I have more sympathy with Gorham in the British context than I would were he to have pressed a similar case against an Episcopalian bishop in a country like the United States with no established church. Of course as the kind of people who are want to invoke argumentum ad Myhrvold’s Gulch are quick to remind us, the American government does subsidize religion indirectly through tax exemptions and the like, but much like our tacit arts policy (which also mostly consists of tax breaks) and our early tacit media policy (which mostly consisted of things like widespread literacy and favorable postal rates), the indirect nature of American subsidies for religion is consequential in establishing neutrality that promotes both flourishing and diversity of organizations in a way that facilitates dissenters from any particular organization voting with their feet.

This case reminded me of a general issue that cuts across many of our recent debates involving a paradox of freedom and diversity. In particular, are institutions free to restrict the freedom of individuals, each in their own way and so we see diversity between institutions as they exert varying degrees and varieties of restrictions on those individuals who sort into them? Or rather, are individuals to be free to act regardless of which institution they are within, with the corollary that institutions are to be coerced into liberating individuals? That is, will we have a program of intolerance for intolerance and an outcome of institutions that are homogeneously diverse?

For instance, consider the case of Gordon College, an evangelical college near Boston. (And full disclosure, whose president is a friend of mine from grad school, although we have not discussed these issues). Gordon has instituted a policy all students are required to restrict their sexuality only to heterosexual marriages, but gay students (and for that matter, straight single students) are welcome so long as they abide by the school’s conception of chastity. The Gordon policy restricts the freedom of its students, and let’s be honest, it makes especially strong demands of gay students, who Gordon expects to remain abstinent, whereas straight students are allowed to marry, and this is what makes people upset. Now, I work at a public university, which we can think of as the established church of Our Lady of Credentialism, and in the extremely unlikely event that such a proposal were to be proposed at UCLA, I would adamantly oppose it. This is not only because of my personal preferences, but because I feel a public institution has a special responsibility for inclusion and liberty. But even as Gordon’s policies would be unconscionable for a state college, it is also extremely disturbing that a quasi-public accrediting body is attempting to coerce Gordon into dropping this policy. That is, I think a free society should emphasize individual liberty when it comes to the state (including semi-autonomous arms of the state, like public colleges) but freedom of association, even at the expense of individual liberty, when it comes to private institutions. There are hundreds of liberal arts colleges in America, 28 of them in Massachusetts alone, and a free society can allow some of them to restrict student freedom, so long as students uncomfortable with these restrictions are free to choose other schools.

Of course, it’s possible to overdo it. It is troubling to remember that one of the key precedents in the development of the autonomy of the Church from the state was when Ambrose forced Theodosius to reverse an edict demanding restitution from a Christian mob that burned down a synagogue. We moderns think it is just that churches should be subject to the impartial administration of civil and criminal law even as their internal doctrinal matters should be immune to interference. Of course, it’s not always possible to clearly draw the line between internal matters that deserve autonomy and matters of public concern (cough Little Sisters cough), though I’m comfortable with saying Ambrose drew it wrong. I don’t really know whether the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council got it right or wrong, but I do think this is the kind of dilemma that can often be avoided or mitigated by not having an established institution but a plurality of private ones.

Evolutionarily Stable Strategery

Yesterday somebody asked Governor Walker if he believes in evolution and he ducked the question. As Ramesh argued, this was a mistake, and there was a fair amount of snark directed at this. Then there was a wave of counter-snark, stemming from the same impulse as Cooke’s recent NR cover story about how the NdGT “I love science” fan club is really about mood affiliation, much of it semi-sublimated anti-clericalism, and not really very much about scientific knowledge.

I totally understand the impulse to call out the extent to which affirmation of science is 99% mood affiliation and only 1% knowledge, but I actually didn’t enjoy this whole fracas last night on Twitter, especially from Sean Davis of The Federalist (who did some good reporting a few months ago showing how NdGT basically makes stuff up), who barraged Ben White of Politico with pointed quiz questions about the mechanisms of evolution. Meanwhile Davis got many a #sickburn type compliment. I found the whole spectacle lamentable for two reasons for this:

1) Criticizing the gotcha question, and particularly asking, ok smart guy, if you “love science” then how does genetic drift work, etc, sounds very similar to the rhetorical tactics of intelligent design folks and so plays into the idea that the right are a bunch of creationists and the intellectual right are still a bunch of creationists, just ones with a list of talking points that sound like someone ran an EEB textbook through a Markov Chain word salad generator. Note that this is still the impression I get, and I would imagine many other people do, regardless of whether the people issuing the “OK smart guy” snark are actually young Earthers, ID, or totally orthodox EEB. Remember, we live in a world where you still see headlines saying “Man Bites Dog: Pope Francis Believes in Evolution” and it’s only after the jump, if at all, that there’s the caveat “just like the last half dozen or so occupants of the throne of St Peter.”

2) Specifically because I am a conservative, I believe in deference to legitimate authority and the limitations of human reason. One particular manifestation of this is that I think we should embrace scientific orthodoxy even when we don’t personally understand it. To jump on people for demanding affirmation of science but without being able to distinguish allopatric from sympatric speciation makes about as much sense, and for similar reasons, as jumping on people for affirming belief in democracy without being able to explain the Arrow impossibility theorem or the median voter theorem, or for calling themselves Christians but without being able to explain “consubstantiality” (or for that matter, for being excited about just having just learned the word “eschatology” if you recall that recent circle jerk of Christian intellectual snobbery). It’s a good thing when people embrace the consensus of legitimate experts. When people start thinking things through for themselves and bullying those who naively accept orthodoxy this is when you get anti-vaxxers, truthers, religious heresy, etc.

(For what it’s worth, I personally have a very solid working understanding of evolutionary biology and so could answer pretty much all of the Jeopardy with your host Sean Davis questions, but I am fairly ignorant of most of the other hard sciences and could not explain, for instance, the Big Bang).

Anyway, knock it off guys. Sure, it’s obnoxious that the left and/or journalists confuse mood affiliation with knowledge, but just let it go.

Will Obamacare "Destroy" America? How Would We Know?

A long, long time ago I said on Twitter that there is a 50/50 chance that Obamacare will “destroy America.”

This has been throwing Twitter maven Richard Yeselson into conniptions for literally months now so I figure some clarification is in order.

Obviously I did not mean that Obamacare will cause a destructive meteor shower, or an alien invasion, or the second coming.

So, what did I mean?

Quite simply this: I think most observers, whatever their political outlook, would agree that there is something unique or at least different to the political economy of the United States. There’s a bit of a “je ne sais quoi” to what Jim Manzi has called “the American system”, but it mainly has to do with a greater comfort with economic risk-taking, creative destruction, entrepreneurial spirit, and so on, than in most, if not all, other countries on the planet. Some might deplore that this is so, but saying that American culture is uniquely friendly to the capitalistic ethos is the most commonplace thing in the world.

I also think many people (though not enough) would agree that a political economy is a delicate and intricately complex thing. It depends not just on policy, or law, or levels of taxation, but also on the underlying culture. The rule of law, for example, which is so crucial to economic flourishing, depends not so much on what laws are on the books as in the way that they are applied.

I also think that many people (though not enough) would agree that social policy can often have unintended consequences, and that these unintended consequences can ripple out into second, and third-order differences and cause widespread social change. For example, nobody, even the most rabid opponent, would have said in the 1960’s and 1970’s that no-fault divorce laws would lead to a 50% divorce rate, and yet in hindsight that is obvious.

Now, where does that leave us with Obamacare?

Well, I think that, broadly speaking, the US political economy is in danger of losing that “special je ne sais quoi” I mentioned earlier.

The size of government, the size of the tax code, the size of government regulation, occupational licensing, all of them have increased over the past decade and a half.

Furthermore, if you count up the number of sectors where government influence is preponderant, they have increased, both in terms of the number of sectors and their relative importance. For example, the entire government contracting industry has ballooned over the past 15 years, meaning that (just with one industry) an increasing % of GDP is government-directed. More importantly, an increasing percentage of people in the workforce are in danger of having a “controlled economy” ethos rather than a “free enterprise” ethos.

That is the problem I see in France. When businesses in Sector X have a problem, the instinct is to get together and lobby the government for a fix. That is not the American Way. But it is increasingly the way in a number of sectors (finance is a very striking example). And the problem is that this phenomenon is self-sustaining, and even snowballing. Once the door is open to using lobbying to get an advantage in the marketplace, everybody floods. If your competitor is doing it, you have to do it.

With that idea in the backdrop, then, could it be the case that there could be some sort of tipping point? Some sort of point of no return, where so much of the economy’s productive activity is controlled, directly or indirectly, by the government, that the very ethos, or culture that I have been talking about dies? That, there might be a point at which so many people in the US economy are in a “controlled economy” ethos rather than a “free enterprise” ethos that the process becomes self-sustaining, irreversible, and snowballing? That at some point we head inexorably for what I have called the Francification of America? (And what Hayek in his day called the Road to Serfdom.)

Now, let us look at the healthcare sector. The first thing to note is that it is an enormous part of the US economy, and growing, and set to keep growing, both in terms of GDP % and (especially) employment. The second thing to note, is that there is a bit of a battle for the soul of the healthcare system going on, which is broader than Obamacare. On the one hand, you have a vision which is friendly to decentralized control, a la David Goldhill and the great right-of-center wonks and a bunch of smart left-of-center wonks right up until the point everybody rallied towards Obamacare. On the other hand, you have the vision of Vulgar Arrowism and central control. The US healthcare system, historically and for a very long time, has been a bizarre, even baroque mix of “free market-ish” and “government control-ish” aspects.

The question then arises: does Obamacare “tip the scales” towards the eventual centralization of healthcare in the US (as liberals dream), especially by making anything other than the comprehensive insurance model (which is the devil) unthinkable?

And if that happens, might this not in turn, given the size and significance of the healthcare sector, tip the scales for the entire political economy, towards a “Francified” direction? One in which that special “American Way” is irretrievably lost?

If so, it would certainly represent, in a real sense, the “destruction of America”—of an enormous part of what makes it both so unique and so prosperous.

Is that the most likely outcome? I don’t know. Is it a possible outcome? Is it a more likely outcome than most people think? I very much persist in thinking so.

Have I Stopped Beating My Wife?

Neoconservatives and noninterventionists look at the world from radically opposite perspectives, and unlike the realists in the middle, we have a tendency to view the world through a moralized lens.

One very unfortunate tendency of this is that each side has a tendency to impugn the other’s motives, rather than his view of reality. Neoconservatives just want Iraq’s oil, or they are just White Man’s Burden 2.0. Noninterventionists think the US should cut Israel loose because seeing Jews massacred would tickle their jollies. I think noninterventionists are somewhere in the vicinity of insane (that means not insane), but I don’t doubt that people like Daniel Larison wish as ardently as I do for a free and prosperous world—we just disagree on how to get there. I can’t say that I follow my own dictate with perfect precision, but I self-consciously try not to impugn the motives of those who disagree with me on policy, especially in this particular area.

Another very annoying feature of public debate in general is psychologization: “You support X because you really feel Y.” Which of course is both unknowable and irrelevant.

We don’t have to play this game.

Which brings me to TAS Alum (and friend!) Noah Millman, who has responded to my column envisaging a US-led invasion of North Korea.

Millman takes seriously my humanitarian concern over North Korea, and self-consciously tries to look at it from the same perspective as I do. He feels that the most practical, envisageable outcome would be a “Finlandization” of the Korean Peninsula, denuclearized, neutralized and without nuclear weapons, in order to obtain Chinese collaboration in removing the North Korean regime.

The reason I don’t envisage this outcome, Noah writes, is essentially because I am deluded and corrupt. My solution is “unconscionable”. What’s more, I don’t want to envisage a denuclearized and neutralized Peninsula, because of a psychological motive: that way, the US wouldn’t get to play the savior and “Maybe […] the actual humanitarian outcome is less important than playing the part of the savior.” So in other words I advance under false pretenses. My ostensible humanitarian motive is really straw, and is the mask for American imperialism and onanistic delusions of grandeur.

What is the problem with Noah’s thesis?

Well, there are many, but I know just the place to start. How about the fact that the outcome he envisages, that he claims my not envisaging so reveals my moral corruption, is the one I explicitly endorse in the column?

I mean, it’s right there:

If the U.S. offers the demilitarization and neutralization of the Korean Peninsula to China in exchange for helping rebuild North Korea, China would actually come out ahead by removing U.S. troops from the Peninsula.

I think that China wouldn’t come to see things this way unless it was presented with a fait accompli of a North Korean regime collapse, because status quo bias is so powerful in international affairs. Maybe I’m wrong. But my endgame is a neutral and demilitarized Korean Peninsula.

Michael Brendan Dougherty responded to my column by saying that my heart was in the right place but my plan is impossible. That’s fine. I acknowledge that it is far-fetched. Paradoxically, I think noninterventionists should have more sympathy for my wishful thinking, since the number of people who think the world would be improved by an American retreat from its historic role as global security guarantor is about the same as the number of people who think my plan is practical. Both sides see the Washington consensus as hopelessly deluded, and see things as plausible that the consensus most definitely doesn’t. If I had a tendency for psychologizing, I might say that perhaps we so detest each other because we are so alike in this way. But whatever.

(P.S. Another very annoying feature of public debate is when people pretend not to be aware of the constraints of the column format when it suits them. I can’t tell you how many times I was described as “blithe” or some such for brushing off objections to my plan. But in any column you need to gloss over complex side-issues of your main point. Of course, everyone knows this. But making an effort to presume that I am of good faith and not a complete idiot and consider that I might have considered obvious objections but might not have given them a full treatment because of length constraints would involve engaging oneself in a disinterested effort to look for truth, which starts with looking for the best arguments on the other side, rather than in a Kulturkampf where all one does is look for weaknesses on the other side to be exploited. I hope I wasn’t psychologizing just then.)

I Am Hassle, For We Are Many

Starting in the 2012 cycle and in a much more serious way in the 2014 cycle, the Republicans decided that they could square the circle of their conscience clause position on sexual ethics with Democratic #waronwomen attacks through pitching over-the-counter oral contraception. Somewhat surprisingly, the left was not especially enthusiastic about this. The way I’ve been thinking about this is that both liberals and conservatives are addressing hassle. The emerging right-wing position is that the state requiring you to get a doctor’s scrip is unacceptable hassle and some nontrivial number of women have lapses in contraception because they can’t or don’t see their gynecologist, but would have found it easy to visit CVS or Walmart and pay $20 for oral contraception.

The emerging left-wing position has two aspects. The more overt aspect is that some people can’t afford $20 for pills. This is one of those arguments too stupid to put forward credibly, but God bless them, they make the effort. The real aspect to this is that they conceive of contraception as health care and so it is symbolically important that it be covered by insurance as this helps frame it as health care (which is covered by insurance) versus a consumer good (which is out-of-pocket). Economic sociologists call this kind of framing “relational work” (a concept associated w Viviana Zelizer).

However the real left-wing position that is not just #waronwomen “throw the damn incense at the emperor you atavistic theocrat” symbolism, but actually practical is also an issue of hassle. Increasingly health care runs up against limits not of what physicians can do, but “patient compliance” or how diligent patients are at sticking to their treatment. This is most obvious with things like substance abuse or diabetes, which theoretically don’t require medical treatment at all but only lifestyle changes (stop using, go on a diet, etc). However it’s almost impossible to get people to do this, which is why the preferred treatment for morbid obesity is no longer jogging and ricecakes but cutting out most of your stomach and the most promising therapy for opiate/alcohol addiction is Naltrexone.

Similarly, with birth control there is a huge gap between typical use and perfect use. Most forms of birth control, including withdrawal and rhythm, are fairly effective with perfect use, but surprisingly ineffective with typical use because most people are, ahem, boundedly rational. This includes oral contraception, which requires women to take daily pills and which they apparently neglect to do fairly often. Hence the push is to go away from oral contraception and towards more long-term birth control (IUD, NuvaRing, D-P, and sterilization) none of which require people to be especially diligent either during the sex act (like withdrawal or condoms) or on a daily basis (like oral contraception or rhythm). The way you see this in the public debates over Hobby Lobby etc, is distinguishing that they didn’t cover “the most effective forms of birth control” (read: IUD) and which actually are out of reach for out of pocket expense.

So basically, both right and left recognize that the obstacle to effective birth control is hassle. The right’s version is that making it OTC would eliminate the hassle of having to visit the gynecologist to get a scrip. The left’s version is that encouraging a switch from oral contraception to IUD would eliminate the hassle of having to take a pill every morning. There is a philosophical microcosm in that both sides are right about hassle being an obstacle to effective usage, but they emphasize those hassles they find illegitimate. For the right there is a negative liberty issue to the state throwing up the roadblock of a doctor’s visit to getting the pills. To the left your own nature is an obstacle to be solved with technocratically-administrated nudges that obviate the need for individual responsibility on a daily basis and to which you have a positive liberty entitlement.

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 from a cornerstone towards a capstone 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.

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