Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Name That Quote

Because for some reason it's on my mind. Who's the first to know where it comes from and who said it?

"In a world where carpenters get resurrected, anything is possible."

A virtual Manhattan to whoever guesses first. I'm off to drink a real one...

Can a Really Big Carrot End Abortion?

Last week, Jay over at Pro Ecclesia linked to another piece by the Catholic law professor (and at least formerly avowed conservative) Douglas Kmiec in which the professor outlined how he though Obama could bring an end to the "clash of absolutes" which has dominated the abortion debate for so long.

Kmiec advocates that Obama endorse the "95-10 Initiative" which has been put forward by Democrats for Life. The aim of this initiative is to reduce abortion 95% over the next ten years. Who could not be in favor of that? Heck, if I thought it seriously within the power of the Democratic Party to reduce abortion by 50% in ten years, I'd pretty seriously consider voting for them. Is it time for me to consider changing my voter registration? Perhaps not yet.

So what exactly does this 95-10 Initiative consist of?
Preventing pregnancy is an important part of reducing the abortion rate in America. There are several ways to address prevention, but there is no clear consensus because of ethical, religious or personal reasons. There are several bills before Congress that address pregnancy prevention. While we have not endorsed a particular bill, we support finding the most effective way to reduce unplanned pregnancies. We cannot deny that abstinence is the only sure way to prevent pregnancy, but we also cannot turn our heads and pretend that our children are not engaging in risky behavior or the fact that contraception is not 100 percent effective. The Federal government has made a commitment to support prevention efforts and allocated a record $288.3 million in FY 2005 for family planning under title X. The program provides access to contraceptive supplies and information to all who want and need them. A priority is given to low-income persons.

The Federal government has not made that same commitment to those who wish to carry their children to term. We support helping pregnant women many who believe abortion is their only option. Congressman Lincoln Davis (D-TN) and Pro-life Democrats in Congress who share this same commitment will introduce the Pregnant Women Support Act, a comprehensive bill to provide support for pregnant women who want to carry their child to term. Some of the programs included are: establishing a toll-free number to direct women to places that will provide support and Pregnancy Counseling and Childcare on University Campuses, requiring doctors to provide accurate information to patients receiving a positive results from prenatal testing and counseling in maternity group homes, making the Adoption Tax Credits Permanent and Increase Tax Credit The legislation would eliminate pregnancy as a pre-existing condition, supports Informed Consent for Abortion Services, increases Funding for Domestic Violence Programs, requires the SCHIP to cover pregnant women and unborn children. It further provides free home visits by registered nurses for new mothers, incentives to reduce teen pregnancy and provides protection for pregnant college students who wish to continue their education.
So unless I'm missing something: the two things which are intended to reduce abortion by 95% are an increase in funding for both abstinence-based and contraception-based programs to avoid "unwanted pregnancies", and an significant increasing in funding (active and through tax credits) supporting adoption and providing services to single mothers.

Is that even vaguely realistic?

I must admit, I'm very, very skeptical. Imagine you had unlimited financial and human resources to throw at the problem of providing enough support to women with "unwanted pregnancies" that they would not abort. Truly unlimited. Could you provide enough support that there would be a 95% reduction in abortions?

Well, one thing you could clearly not do is reduce how physically arduous pregnancy is. (Watching the intrepid MrsDarwin, this is rather top-of-mind for me lately.) You gain weight. You get sick. You're tired all the time. You have trouble getting around. And labor and delivery are clearly not fun. I in no way think that these difficulties justify abortion, but if you're dealing with someone who does not think that abortion is morally wrong, and who really didn't want to be pregnant in the first place, I can see why the physical effects of pregnancy (even if there were no financial or familial or career hardship at all involved) would seem like a good reason to abort. And there's nothing that financial incentives could do to reduce that.

But let's say that our hypothetical woman with the unwanted pregnancy is not daunted by pregnancy itself -- she's worried about what having a child will do to her plans in life. Can enough support be provided to her that she sees adoption or single-parenthood as being a better option than abortion? I'm not sure.

If you don't have either a conviction that abortion is wrong, or an inability to practically and safely get an abortion, what makes adoption a better option? Either way, you have no kid to look after in the long run, but with adoption you have to go through pregnancy, and you have the knowledge that you do indeed have a child out there, who doesn't know you. So it seems like short of a conviction that abortion is wrong (or an inability to get one) abortion is probably more attractive unless there's some sort of big benefit you get for putting your child up for adoption. One could provide such a benefit, say some sort of large monetary compensation for putting a child up for adoption, but if one did that, one would have the side effect of encouraging women desperate for money to have "extra" children, and also put a strong financial incentive on women/families that would otherwise want their children to give them up for financial gain.

Let's leave that for a moment and instead consider a woman in an unwanted pregnancy who doesn't like the idea of adoption, but might be open to keeping her child if she can get enough support that it won't be a major burden on her life. Can we provide enough support to her that single parenthood looks like a better option than abortion? Certainly, if she believes that abortion is wrong, or has a desire to be a mother, then we can remove the obstacles that seem to make that impossible. But if she doesn't think it's wrong and is not enthusiastic about becoming a mother unless it means no setbacks in her existing plans, the situation becomes much more difficult. Even in a stable, married family parenthood involves a lot of sacrifices. Being a single parent is, by nature of not sharing the work, even harder. So if we were to somehow overcome all those difficulties, we'd actually be making it easier and more attractive to be a single parent then to be a married parent. It doesn't take a whole lot of imagine to recognize that if that were even possible, which I rather doubt, it would mean mounting a fullscale assault on marriage.

But let's return to the first half of the 95-10 Initiative, the pregnancy prevention program. This seems to contain the usual contradictory "abstinence works best, but let's push birth control as well" approach. As it concedes, all forms of contraception have a failure rate even if used well. If used inconsistently or incorrectly (as is clearly possible or even likely when we're dealing with the young, the uneducated, and the poor -- the three groups with the highest abortion rates) the rate at which those using birth control get pregnant becomes much higher.

And, of course, the more we encourage people to use birth control (and the more we try to reduce the difficulties associated with single parenthood, as discussed above) the less scary we make the consequences of pre-marital of sex look. So by pushing birth control and making single parenthood easier, we make it likely that more people will be sexually active before marriage, which in turn means more people getting hit with the birth control failure rate.

Looking at all this, I can't see how this proposal would reduce abortion much at all, much less 95%. It's a valiant attempt, and very well intentioned I am sure, but I just don't see how it could achieve much of what it hopes to achieve. That's because, at root, if you really don't believe that abortion is wrong, you don't have much of a reason not to have one. And if you don't think that having sex outside of marriage will result in seriously bad consequences, you're a lot more likely to try it.

That's not to say that we shouldn't be providing help to those brave women who decide to follow through with unexpected pregnancies -- especially young or single or poor women who stand to suffer the most for making the right decision. We should do all that we can to help them. But if we want to see a significant reduction in abortion and in unwanted pregnancies the only way to achieve that is through words and deeds that convey having sex outside of marriage is wrong (and also a very bad idea) and that abortion is very wrong indeed. And it's hard to insist that abortion is wrong while at the same time insisting that it should be legal, widely available, and state funded.

I do very much want to see a viable pro-life movement within the Democratic party, even if that would decrease the electoral success of my own preferred party, but I don't see how you can get anywhere with it unless you go at the root of the matter and insist that abortion is wrong and should not be available. And that means going up against the Democrats (and Republicans) who are pro-choice.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Burning Food

As food shortages have grabbed headlines over the last few weeks, a lot of conservatives have pointed to bio-fuels and opined that if we weren't burning such a large amount of grain (a petroleum alternative which is currently more expensive than petroleum itself -- yet increasing rapidly in use due to government subsidies here and in Europe.)

Common sense would suggest that the world population hasn't massively increased in the last couple weeks, and so in all likelihood the food cost increases and shortages (many grains have increased in price over 100% on the world market over the last year and China and India have announced they will stop exporting rice in order to make sure they have enough to feed those in their own countries) are at least somewhat related to a decrease int he supply of food resulting from diverting grain to fuel production.

However, I try to keep a wary eye on explanations that are too ideologically convenient, so I'd assumed that the impact of bio-fuel couldn't be all that increadibly huge, and that a fair amount of the increase in grain cost must be mainly the result of increased oil costs driving up the costs of running farm equipment and transportin grain to market destinations. Perhaps I was too cautious in this, however. Deroy Murdock writes in a piece last week:
As ReasonOnline’s Ronald Bailey observed April 8, “the result of these mandates is that about 100 million tons of grain will be transformed this year into fuel, drawing down global grain stocks to their lowest levels in decades. Keep in mind that 100 million tons of grain is enough to feed nearly 450 million people for a year” — assuming 1.2 pounds of grain each, daily.

In short, car engines are burning the crops that feed a half-billion people. That has to hurt.
His source on the tonage of grain slated to be turned into bio-fuels this year is this Reuters piece. Not only are we burning all that grain at a time when grain is in short supply in poverty-stricken parts of the world, but since producing ethanol as fuel is currently less efficient than using petroleum, one can't even argue that all this is necessary to keep transportation costs from skyrocketing further and increasing food costs.

Not to say that bio-fuels will never under any circumstances be a good idea. It's quite possible they will be someday. But I don't see how the mandated burning of enough food to feed half a billion people is a good idea at a time when there are bread riots in the third world.

Friday, April 25, 2008

For unto us a son is given!

It's a BOY!

The three young ladies are bearing up well under the disappointment of no new princess.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Virtual vacation

Feel like you just need to get away, but can't? Don't worry -- TS goes to the beach so that we don't have to.

Oh how ineffably cruel, the car that takes you away, away from that bay. How cruel the jet that takes you from the sparkling sands and jet-blue skies!

Too soon by a half! I’m suffering from post-traumatic non-stress syndrome.


Running down the run-down Mandalay road along the beach you can see why ex-pats from the North descend here to live out a Jimmy Buffet song. The boxy motels along the sun-drunk lane lends a fittingness to Florida’s claim as the last home of Jack Kerouac.

Reminds me of a college town, with the sleepy, sunny mornings, the shopkeepers just opening up at 10am, the modest squat houses of ‘60s & ‘70s vintage with “For Rent” signs. The languor in the air. The young people and cigarette smoke, the beer-drinkers in the stoop.

Beer, like heaven and hell, transcends time at Clearwater Beach. At the sit-up window outside the Mandalay Grill a middle-aged couple are happily consuming beer, an hour and a half before noon. At Kelly’s, a sign redefines the word ‘hour’: “Happy Hour 12-7”. This too was college, when alcohol wasn’t just for lunch & dinner.

I always imagine vacations as Larry Hagman days. Hagman, the actor who played JR Ewing, had at least two eccentricities. One, is he spent one day not uttering a word, a natural enough thing for an actor given how he spends his or her time. Their way of resting. The other is that he went though every waking moment slightly tipsy. It cost him his liver, but I figure I can do the same for a few hours daily while on vacation.

T-shirt sighted: “Give me a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he’ll sit in a boat and drink all day.”
Don't miss the photo of him using his hat to open a beer.

Children's Mass Book

A bleg for all the Catholics parents out there:

Our parish is looking at using a recent donation earmarked for "something related to the mass" to get a shelf full of children's missals or mass picture books which will be available in the back for families to pick up as they go in.

Our main masses are very heavy on children under 10, and the parish has put a lot of work into encouraging families to keep their kids in the church rather than the cry room (unlike many local parishes, we don't even offer babysitting.) However, far too often people attempt this with barbie dolls and toy trucks and strawberry shortcake coloring books. The hope here is to make sure that mass-appropriate materials are available for all young children, and then start to apply a little gentle pressure that these be used instead of some of the more distracting alternatives. It's also intended to fit in with our priests' and RE teachers' work to make sure that kids know what's going on in mass and why it's important.

Being the person on parish council with kids in the age range, I'm on search duty to identify some good choices for what book to buy 100-150 copies of.

Does anyone have any suggestions in this regard? I spent some time the other night looking through Aquinas And More and Amazon, and I'm seeing some familiar stuff there, but before ordering everything in sight so I can look through the pictures and such, I figured I'd ask all of you if you had favorites and suggestions. I'd like something that hits the important images and words of the mass, and that has good illustrations. (So much children's stuff is saccharine or silly.)


Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Benedict: Back to the Basics

One of the things that really struck me reading and watching Benedict XVI's addresses during his recent visit to the US was how much he was sticking to basic and powerful themes within the Christian message.

As the Vicar of Christ came to walk our soil, I think a lot of people had their own set expectations, or at least hopes, as to what he would say. Some hoped that he would speak extensively about the war in Iraq (to which he in the past said he was opposed) and environmental stewardship. Others hoped he would take the chance to take a number of bishops to the woodshed of their handling of clerical sexual abuse, and to call out the presidents of Catholic colleges for allowing the Catholic foundation of those institutions to attenuate. Others hoped for major changes in interfaith dialog, contraception, married priests, or any of a number of other hot-button issues.

In this sense, many were, I think, seeing Benedict's visit as the infrequent visit of some sort of moral/ecclesiastical magistrate -- during which all the issues which had captured people's concern since the last papal visit would be sorted out.

Instead, the pope stuck close to his theme of "Christ, Our Hope" and emphasized the need for us to keep Christ's message central to our lives in an affluent and secular society; the true nature of freedom as something that requires responsibility and an ordering towards the good; the universality and dignity of human nature; the need for an increased focus on the sacramental life, vocations and religious eduction; etc. On all occasions, Benedict called on us to renew our determination to follow in the steps of Christ, and to see Christ's hope as our goal in all things.

For some, this may have meant that he did not touch on favorite topics as specifically as they might have wished. And yet this back to the basics approach is very much the same as that of Christ, toward whose example Benedict constantly points us. When Christ was confronted by the religious scholar asking what he must do to be saved, He did not dig into the details of social justice, environmental stewardship, proper catechesis and sexual morality. Nor did he point to the established Jewish religious law code of the ten commandments and numerous other religious regulations. Rather, he summed up all religious and moral practice into two commandments: Love God with all your mind, all your heart and all your strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.

All the multiplicity of moral codes and social teachings are contained in these two, and in a certain sense more truly so, because in their simplicity they leave little room for us to focus upon the letter rather than the spirit.

Similarly, Benedict focused on the most basic of all possible theological messages, that Christ died for our sins, and rising won for us forgiveness and triumph over death. This startling truth, that Christ died for us and rose from the dead on the third day, is itself so central, so powerful, that it bears constant repetition.

This is not to say that the detailed understandings of theological and moral analysis are "all vanity" or some such nonsense. But there is always a danger of getting so far into tree study that one loses track of the forest. For many of us "Catholic geeks" who real all sorts of gooks and encyclicals and blogs, it's easy to get lost in the details. I recall a while back hearing a recently engaged Catholic woman remark that she was really looking forward to studying NFP in more depth because she wanted to "understand all the details of when you morally can and can't decide to space children." I don't mention this to pick on her or on NFP fandom generally, because it's frankly so unusual for people to care enough about Church teaching to want to make sure they're living by all the details that it should be encouraged. But there is a sense in which this kind of statement suggests that we've lost the point of why we have the "details" in the first place.

Certainly, living in accordance with God's will as preserved and taught by His Church should be of paramount importance in our lives. And as such, we try to tease out moral guidance in order to understand how it applies to the details of our daily lives. And yet in doing so, we fall into the danger of a sort of "lifestyle morality", in which the detailed applications of morality to everyday life (what movies are appropriate to watch, how far is too far, how much is a "just wage", when is it acceptable to space children and when is it "selfish", is "local food" more incarnational, does suburban living create spiritual isolation, public school or parochial or homeschooling) start to become ends to themselves. And when they become ends to themselves, divorced from the most basic moral and theological teachings of the Church, they cease to edify and elevate.

So in focusing on "the basics" I think Benedict achieved two important things: He emphasized the most essentially and compelling aspects of Christian revelation for those without much familiarity with the faith -- opening to them the power of Christ's message; and he reminded those of us who are deep, deep among the trees what this is all about in the first place. Both of these strike me as incredibly important, and an example of Benedict's profound pastoral sense.

Proving Out Beliefs

John Derbyshire of NRO's The Corner has been sounding off a bit lately (how can one not expect a bit of "no popery" nonsense out of a crotchety Anglican turned atheist at a time like this) calling pope Benedict XVI's denunciations of relativism silly.
Of course religious belief is relativistic. Religious people say it is! Suppose I line up a Christian, a Moslem, and a Hindu, and ask: "You guys all promote a different set of 'fundamental truths.' How can I figure out who's right and who's wrong? What external test can I apply? What can any of you point to in the beliefs of the others that doesn't square with observable facts about the world, or about human life?" What will they say? After a lot of babbling and pointing, it will boil down to: "You gotta have faith. You have to feel the truth within yourself." In other words, it's an interior, subjective experience. What's more relative than that?
There's much more, but you get the idea. Derb goes on to assert that this is what differentiates science from religion -- that in science there's always a way to prove out a question.

Well, as it happens, Derb's imagination is failing him. There's a very clear way to prove whether the Christian, Moslem or Hindu is right, and all of them would agree that the test would work.


The one difficulty is that it's rather difficult to publish a peer reviewed article about the experience afterwards. But it is definitely the way to get to the truth of the matter. And what's better yet, death is one of the most universal human experiences. So although Derb rants that he doesn't have the time or interest to read any books on what the pope has been up to lately, he will eventually get the chance to perform the experiment, just like all the rest of us, and will know the truth of the matter for himself.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Carter: Peace In Our Time

Former President Jimmy Carter has been working hard to get a peace process going between Hamas (which controls the Gaza Strip between Israel and Egypt) and Israel, under the supervision of the United States -- this despite the fact that both Israel and the US have ordered him to have nothing to do with the terrorist organization.

However, yesterday President Carter announced that he had achieved significant progress:
The former US president Jimmy Carter today said Hamas was prepared to accept Israel's right to "live as a neighbour next door in peace".

Carter was speaking after meeting Khaled Meshal, an influential leader within the militant organisation, in Damascus last week.

The former president insisted Hamas would not undermine efforts by the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, to reach a peace deal with Israel.

Hamas believed any peace agreement negotiated by Abbas would have to be submitted to the Palestinian people in a referendum, he added.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas apparently disagrees.
Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter failed in his attempt to talk Hamas into accepting a future two-state peace deal with Israel, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said on Tuesday.

Carter said after private meetings with Hamas leaders in Egypt and Syria last week that the Islamist group, which is shunned by Israel, Abbas and the West, would accept a peace deal signed by the Palestinian president if it passed a referendum.

But Hamas said it would continue to reject the Jewish state's right to exist and turned down a proposal by Carter -- whose mission was disavowed by the Israeli and U.S. governments -- to halt rocket fire from the Gaza Strip unilaterally.

"Carter gave them (Hamas) the right advice," Abbas told reporters in Iceland, where he made a stopover en route to talks with U.S. President George W. Bush in the United States.

"He urged Hamas to accept a two-state solution and accept past Palestinian agreements with Israel, but unfortunately he failed to convince them and his visit did not end up with positive results."
And in case you wanted to hear it straight from the horses ass mouth the Guardian fills us in:
However, Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas spokesman, later said Carter's comments "do not mean that Hamas is going to accept the result of the referendum".
All this makes you wonder what the negotiations actually sounded like. We asked our staff of skilled humor writers to provide a sample:

Carter: Let's talk concessions and quid pro quo. What would Hamas be willing to offer in return for an Israeli promise to end all cross-border incursions into Gaza?

Meshal: We would wipe Israel off the face of the earth, driving them into the sea, and killing every man, woman and child of the Jewish pigs.

Carter: Well, that sounds like a good starting point for our discussion. Clearly, economic concessions are also important. If the US were to promise one billion in aid annually to the Hamas government in Gaza, what further concessions could you consider?

Meshal: In that case, perhaps we would wipe Israel off the face of the earth.

Carter: That's better, right?

Meshal: Yes. Much better. We would drive them into the sea and kill every man, woman and child.

Carter: I'm sensing that this killing every man, woman and child point would cause some international controversy. Could we examine a compromise on that point?

Meshal: We would be happy to kill only the men.

Carter: That is exactly the sort of give and take we need.

Meshal: Of course, afterwards, we would like to kill the women and children too.

Carter: But you'd be willing to stick to just the men as a preliminary settlement? That's definitely progress. We'll come back to this. Can we discuss disarmament?

Meshal: We are fully in support of Israel's disarmament.

Carter: Outstanding! I think I'll call a press conference.

Textual Moments

Abu Daoud writes about a day with the Sermon on the Mount -- in Arabic and English.

Monday, April 21, 2008

How Violent is the US?

It is frequently observed that the US murder rate is much higher than those of other affluent Western nations. Razib has an interesting post from a couple days back where he stacks the murder rates of individual US states versus Western nations.

The Chasm

I'm tempted to not even bring this up, because in some ways it runs counter to the general lessons that I drew from Benedict XVI's visit to the United States, but it struck me as so typical that I think it deserves a brief look.

On Tuesday last week, as millions of Americans watched Pope Benedict XVI touch down at Andews Air Force Base and be welcomed personally by the president, Senator Brownback (R-KS) and Senator Casey (D-PA) jointly introduced a Senate resolution welcoming the pope to American soil. Both senators describe themselves as devout Catholics, and the language of the welcome would, one would think, be fairly uncontroversial.
Welcoming Pope Benedict XVI to the United States and recognizing the unique insights his moral and spiritual reflections bring to the world stage.

Whereas Pope Benedict XVI will travel to the United States for his first pastoral visit as Pope and will visit Washington, DC, and New York;

Whereas Pope Benedict XVI was elected as the 265th Bishop of Rome on April 19, 2005, succeeding the much beloved Pope John Paul II;

Whereas the visit of Pope Benedict XVI will mark the 9th visit of a pope to the United States, recognizing the historical importance of the Catholic Church in American life, the deep faith and charity of its members, and the responsibilities of the United States in world affairs;

Whereas Pope Benedict XVI has spoken approvingly of the vibrance of religious faith in the United States, a faith nourished by a constitutional commitment to religious liberty that neither attempts to strip our public spaces of religious expression nor denies the ultimate source of our rights and liberties;

Whereas Pope Benedict XVI remains committed to ecumenical dialogue and, during his trip to the United States, will meet with leaders of world religions and representatives of other Christian denominations and will visit a synagogue in New York City, all demonstrating his commitment to sincere dialogue and unity among all members of the human family;

Whereas Pope Benedict XVI has authored 2 encyclical letters inviting the world to meditate on the virtues of love and hope, ‘‘Deus caritas est’’ and ‘‘Spe salvi’’;

Whereas millions of Americans have discovered in Pope Benedict’s words a renewed faith in the power of hope over despair and love over hate;

Whereas Pope Benedict XVI has been a clear and courageous voice for the voiceless, working tirelessly for the recognition of human dignity and religious freedom across the globe;

Whereas Pope Benedict XVI has spoken out for the weak and vulnerable, witnessing to the value of each and every human life;

Whereas Pope Benedict XVI seeks to advance a ‘‘civilization of love’’ across our world; and

Whereas Catholics in parishes and schools across the Nation, and countless other Americans as well, eagerly await the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to the United States: Now, therefore, be it Resolved, That the Senate welcomes Pope Benedict XVI on the occasion of his first pastoral visit to the United States and recognizes the unique insights his moral and spiritual reflections bring to the world stage.[source]
You might think this was the kind of nice gesture which even in our highly partisan political atmostphere could fly right through the Senate on a wave of goodwill. After all, 25% of Americans identify as Catholic, the pope is a unique world figure, and the resolution was joint sponsored by a Republican renowned for his work on social justice issues and a Democrat who has been held up to Catholics as a sign of a new tollerance for pro-life Democrats and a "seamless garment of life" approach to moral/social issues.

However, Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA), by whom I had the dubious honor of being represented before moving to Texas, held up the resolution until Thursday when Senator Brownback agreed to remove two "controversial" phrases:

"witnessing to the value of each and every human life"


"that neither attempts to strip our public spaces of religious expression nor denies the ultimate source of our rights and liberties"

Jay Anderson and his commentors note that one could see this as a startling honesty on Sen. Boxer's part, since generally pro-abortion politicians insist that there is no "human life" involved in abortion, but merely "pieces of tissue" or "potential life".

More deeply, though, I think this speeks to a chasm that runs through American politics. There is a not-so-small portion of the American citizenry for whom the idea that Pope Benedict and the Church he leads should have anything to say on issues such as human life, the source and nature of human freedom, etc. is not only incorrect, but also offensive. The Daily Kos is so consumed with hatred at the idea that the pope might mean anything for Americans and American civic discussion that in its coverage of the stalling of the Senate resolution, it refers to the pope only as "this pedophile enabler". And Senator Boxer sees the pope so exclusively through the lens of American partisan politics that she sees the phrase "witnessing to the value of each and every human life" as offensive.

It's clearly not the case that all those who tend to vote Democrat are radical secularists and abortion advocates. However, a large enough number of those who are radical secularists and/or abortion advocates are also passionate Democrats that any national-level Democratic candidate who wants to be successful at this time seems to feel it necessary to do nothing that will seriously offend that constituency -- and a certain amount to please them. (Thus the invariable realization by any Democratic politican who decides to run for national level office that any pro-life convictions he personally held were only "personal".)

This is what makes me deeply, deeply skeptical of the claim, by self-identified conservatives and Catholics such as Prof. Kmiec, that an Obama presidency would somehow bring in an era of self responsibility and respect for others that would help heal the abortion issue more than anything continued restrictions and conservative Supreme Court appointments could achieve. It's not that many on the liberal side of the political spectrum do not have passionate feelings about helping "the little guy" as they identify him, but those feelings are always couched in terms that make abortion, euthenasia, and a host of other, smaller (and thus far more widely accepted) assaults on human life not only credible, but merciful.

Some might argue that Senator Boxer is some sort of fringe character -- and it's true that California is one of the bluest of blue states. However she is by no means seen as fringy in the Democratic Party itself.

Boxer, and a not small portion of the base she represents, seems to see the pope and the Church he leads in strictly partisan terms. So rather than taking the phrase "witnessing to the value of each and every human life" to be something that everyone could agree to in a spirit of welcome (while in her mind holding to disagreement as to what the term "every human life" could be taken to mean) she sought to have it struck out, along with the suggestion that religious belief had a place in public conversation and as the root of our liberties.

Until someone seeks to root this kind of thinking out of the Democratic Party mainstream, I think serious Christians would be right to remain leary of a claimed openness in that party to "people of faith". If positions and beliefs are to be held to mean anything, it would seem that one of the things that the Democratic Party would like to tell us is: However much you may agree with us on other issues, pro-lifers and Christians need not apply -- unless you want to leave your faith at the door and act like a good little secularist.

No amount of platitudinous words will bridge this chasm which has been dug throught he center of American political discourse if there is no effort to get rid of the attitudes and ideologies which dug the chasm in the first place.

Friday, April 18, 2008

More Renovation Madness

Perhaps you were looking for insightful commentary on the Pope's visit, but instead I'm going to regale you with a picture of last week's work on the floor.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Papal Muzak

I was a bit disappointed that Benedict didn't mention improving the quality of liturgy in his address to the bishops yesterday, but perhaps the odd selections presented at the mass this morning will change that.

Praying with the Church

Catholic prayer can be a little on the complex side. My single volume version of the Liturgy of the Hours (the full version is four volumes) and my daily missal add up to over 3,500 pages of liturgical prayer between the two of them. And then there are other versions of the Office, and there is the Graduale, which holds the official chants of the Church which go with each mass and so on. Over the last 2,000 years, we've put together a lot of pages worth of prayer.

Some of my more Evangelical friends find this very odd about the Catholic idea of liturgy. Why have so many pages and intricate systems just to pray? Why not just open your bible or lift your heart up to God in your own words? Why should the mass be so "scripted"?

The answer is that as Catholics we do not just pray individually, as persons or as congregations, when it comes to liturgical prayer. We pray as the one Body of Christ. And all those thousands of pages serve to keep Catholics throughout the world on the same page, as it were.

Never has this been so immediately illustrated to me as today, when I had the chance to watch via the USCCB's web streaming as Pope Benedict XVI prayed Vespers with out nation's bishops at the National Shrine.

I pulled my copy of Christian Prayer out of my briefcase and began following along.

There I was, a thousand miles away, holding and praying the same text as the Holy Father and all our bishops. And rippling backwards and forward through the time zones of the world, priests, religious and laity across the globe were doing the same, praying the same psalms and antiphons and readings. The Body of Christ praying as one.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Watching the Pope

Sitting here behind the no-video-streaming corporate firewall (and having no TV in the house these days) the internet is pretty much my only window on Benedict XVI's visit to the US.

Chris Blosser is doing an amazing job of providing the comprehensive collection of links and blog coverage at Benedict in America. This is the kind of blogging that makes the mainstream media look unprofessional.

Rich Leonardi, David Alexander and Fr. Martin Fox are among Catholic blogging regulars who will be attending one or more of the papal events. Fr. Martin Fox, lucky man he, will be concellebrating with the Holy Father at the DC mass.

The site is run by the USCCB and provides live coverage -- which apparently our IT department doesn't recognize as streaming. (Which is how I know that Bush just quoted St. Augustine as saying "Pax te cum." Someone needs to tell his speechwriters that that Latin phrase did not originate with Augustine. Still, who would have imagined 100 or even 50 years ago we'd see an American president trying so hard to welcome our Pope with Catholic language.)

The New York Times papal blog is also surprisingly good, including coverage by Catholic pro-blogger Amy Welborn.

UPDATE: The Cranky Conservative was at the White House event this morning and will be posting pictures on his blog later today.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Tax Man Cometh

Blackadder reminds us that it's tax day (I'll confess, I'd forgotten, having filed back in February) with a quote from the first book of Samuel warning the Israelites that if they choose to have a king they can expect him to confiscate a whole tenth of their income in taxes. As of this year's tax bill, ancient Isrealite tax rates are sounding pretty good to me!

In honor of the day, Blackadder also quotes a range of tax reform proposals.

There I things I like about many of these approaches to reform, simplification and reduction, but for the moment, I'd like to throw out something which might sound odd coming from an avowed conservative: I'm concerned many Americans don't pay enough taxes.

It's not that I want government spending to go up, or that I want to see tax rates raised. I'd much rather see spending down and rates lowered and simplified.

But it does worry me a bit how progressive the tax system has got. That's not progressive as in "liberal", but progressive as in taxing the rich more than the poor and the middle class.

It does seem quite fair for the rich to pay higher tax rates than those with less. After all, someone who makes 1 million dollars a year will experience considerably less diminution in living standards by giving up 30% of his income than someone who makes 25k per year.

However, our current system is so progressive that the top forty percent of tax payers pay 85% of all income taxes, and the bottom forty percent of tax payers pay less than 5%. Now, that's a great help if you're hard up. Three out of the first four years we were married, we actually got more money back from the feds than they'd originally witheld in the first place (due to child tax credits.)

But there are two opposite things that bother me about this situation:

1) Generally, people are much less careful with other people's money than their own. If fifty percent of the American people can vote to fund this, that, or the other thing while knowing that they'll only have to pay ten percent of the cost (and many of them won't pay any) what real sense of responsibility will that foster?

2) Generally, if you pay for something, you own it. If ten percent of the population pays more than half of all income taxes, you can bet that one way or another, that ten percent will end up being the tail that's able to wag the dog. So all populist pretensions aside, I can't help imagining that our "soak the rich" tendencies simply end up putting the rich more firmly in charge than they were before.

It's all very well to worry, but what to do? On that I'm less sure. There are a lot of problems with the current system -- one of them being that unless you spend a fair amount of time staring at your check stub it seems like taxes are all about getting money back every April rather than paying out every time you get paid. (Indeed, most of my coworkers intentionally have extra withheld because "then you get more back".) Witholding makes tax paying comparatively painless.

And there is a certain oddity in collecting taxes from someone so low on the income ladder that you're simply going to have to turn around and give him some sort of payout of equal or greater value in order to keep him off the streets.

But we are a democratic republic, and as such all citizens are expected to share in responsibility for how our government is run. It strikes me as hard to have that if most people do not have much of an experience of what our government costs.

My Patch of Green

There is a spot of earth supremely blest,
A dearer, sweeter spot than all the rest,
Where man, creation's tyrant, casts aside
His sword and sceptre, pageantry and pride.
From "Home" by James Montgomery
Seeing as I spend most of my time at work sitting behind a desk crunching data and writing emails and PowerPoint decks, I find myself strongly drawn towards means of relaxation that involve doing something physical. Thus, to a desk-worker like me, spending my free time on furniture building or flooring or gardening is hard work, but it's highly pleasurable as satisfying. (It may well be that many who farm or build for a living have similar senses of accomplishment, or perhaps more likely, due to the human desire for that which we do not have, those who work actively long to sit still and work with mind rather than hands.)

Whatever the general tendencies involved, I found myself this year enthusiastic to start a garden.

Spring comes early in Texas, and is soon chased away by summer, so I broke ground in February, and now in early April nearly everything is in the ground. We've got a variety of heirloom tomatoes, basil (Genovese and purple), oregano, bell peppers, hot peppers, cucumbers, onions, carrots and lettuce. Those latter two are expected to die off by June due to Texas heat, and which point some eggplants and additional varieties of bell peppers are waiting in the wings to take their place.

Most of the tomatoes aren't large enough yet to set healthy buds, but this cherry tomato has some coming.

A few of the bell peppers seem to be starting on their way towards bearing fruit as well.

Generally I find myself going out to look at the progress of the plants every morning before leaving for work (coffee cup in hand) and every evening after getting home (wine glass or beer bottle in hand). It's relaxing, and with the alternating sun and rain of spring, it often seems that they grow noticeably between inspections.

And all the while visions of big, juicy heirloom tomatoes and crunchy bell peppers and cucumbers loom. Mmmmmmmmm.

Monday, April 14, 2008

The Cost of an Education

Last week, philosophy professor Scott Carson linked to a New York Times article on how Philosophy is increasingly seen as a good major from a career perspective -- at least relative to the complete irrelevance it was generally accused of before. Scott asked, and rightly, I would say, whether this really is philosophy (as in love of wisdom, the examined life, etc.) if one is studying it under the assumption that it will give you the skills to "get ahead" in the working world.

The NY Times article further opened itself up for this criticism by noting that "philosophy has attracted students with little interest in contemplating the classical texts, or what is known as armchair philosophy." Somehow I doubt that the insights derived from neuroscience and modern analytical philosophy really provide so much more value than Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, Epicurus, etc. that their writings need be consigned to the dust heap, or even a dusty shelf.

Still, it was this "get ahead by studying philosophy" idea which was still percolating in the coffee maker of my head when I came across a Wall Street Journal article about the class of 2008 looking for jobs. And what should that article include but a chart showing average first-job-out-of-college salaries by college major. Philosophy comes in dead last. Now my own major, Classics, isn't listed, but I did indeed score exactly 28k as my starting salary out of college, so I think I can claim to have picked a major with equal earning potential to philosophy -- and perhaps even less trendy!

I'm not surprised by this. While I agree with the NY Times article that a solid education in Western thought and culture (if the philosophy departments described are still given that) will provide one with better stronger analysis skills and thus become a job benefit in the long run, one needs to expect before taking this route that taking a major in one of the humanities will probably cost you about five years of "catch up" if you go out into the business world before you find yourself making as much as the Math, Computer Science and Economics majors -- much less the engineers.

On a side note: I noted with interest that Business/Marketing majors make about the same as History majors. This fits, generally, with my doubtless elitist impression that many Business or Marketing majors simply didn't know what they wanted to do but figured they'd get a job by pursuing one of those fields. The fact is, there is no such thing as "business" in the general sense. Adaptation to any one particular company invariably means learning about its type of business in detail, and as such a familiarity with learning the details of something is always going to be better than a preference for generalities.

In the long run, the reasoning and categorizing skills one gains from "contemplating the classical texts", the skills one builds when learning rigorous and structured languages (whether ancient or modern), and the cultural and historical perspective one develops from studying history and literature all serve to make one not only a better person, but also in the end a better business person -- if that is the career on chooses to follow. I would heartily recommend to everyone studying the humanities, it not as a major than at least as a hefty sideline to a technical degree.

But if my personal experience is anything to go by, it will then take five to eight years of catch-up until you're making as much as the person who took a Computer Science or Engineering or otherwise job-specific degree. It can also take a certain amount of scrambling and worrying, since there isn't an obvious "person with humanities degree" industry for you to step right into. However much it may be the case that a philosophy major could (if sufficiently adaptable in mindset) be just as productive in a first job as an economics major, it generally takes a few years to prove it -- and once you prove it, it takes a few years of good annual raises to actually catch up.

Sadly, this sometimes leads to a bias in conservative religious circles towards strictly technical approaches to education. In the Catholic homeschooling group my family belonged to when I was in high school, there tended to be an idea that guys who intended to be priests could study philosophy or ancient languages, but guys who wanted to get married should study engineering so they could get married right out of college, have a good job, and have lots of kids.

So study the humanities -- but understand that to everything there is a cost.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

The Tissue Tragedy -- More at 11

In honor of Texas allergy season, I'm reposting a news story from 2005 which pretty much sums up our current tissue usage.
Round Rock, TX -- Officer Sean Davies is still stunned at the magnitude of it all.

"I've never seen anything like it before," he said. "We've had our share of sickness at my house, but it's never come to that."

"That" is the situation that Officer Davies encountered yesterday at the home of the Darwin family. Concerned friends had been unable to contact Mrs. Darwin for several days and had telephoned the police. After attempts to raise her, police finally entered the home and encountered a sight that still makes witnesses shudder.

The house was completely filled with wadded-up tissues.

Police used an industrial vacuum to clear path into the house and began searching for Mrs. Darwin, 27, and her two daughters, 3-year-old Noogs and 2-year-old Babs. The trio was finally located in an upstairs bedroom, where they had been desperately trying to make their way to a window. All three were alive, though weak and suffering from a lack of oxygen.

The family had been fighting runny noses for weeks, but things apparently went downhill after Mr. Darwin had to leave town to visit his family in Los Angeles.

"The bottom layer of tissues was two weeks old," Officer Davies stated. "It was almost like looking at rock strata. Our experts could date each layer."

Dr. John Maxwell at Round Rock Memorial Hospital said he'd never seen a case like this before.

"The children had ear infections, and Mrs. Darwin was suffering from flu-like symptoms. The combined tissue usage was simply too great to be contained by trashcans, and so started to overflow. By the time Mrs. Darwin realized the dangerous situation she was in, it was too late."

"You hear of cases like this," the doctor said, shaking his head. "I'd hoped I'd never have to see one myself."

Tissue pile-up is a rare but often deadly side effect when an entire family comes down with nasal ailments. Nostrologist Anne Hernandez of the Nasal Institute of America said that her group has been working for years to educate the public about the dangers of not throwing away tissues in a timely fashion."

"You get sick, you're weak, your aim is bad, and you miss the trash can when you toss your tissue. But if someone doesn't pick them up, eventually you're faced with a carpet of tissues that can impair movement."

She compares trying to move through tissue pile-up to treading water.

"A person already weakened by a cold might not have the energy to wade through the tissues and so just stay in bed. This compounds the problem because then more tissues are added to the pile. People don't know that help is out there."

Kleenex executives were saddened by the affair.

"When you come that close to losing one of your largest customers, you realize that you have to develop new strategies. We're working now on a tissue that self-destructs after two days on the floor. Testing has been positive, though the process can scorch small pets," said a company spokesman.

Mrs. Darwin, resting at the hospital, was only able to say "Thag you bery much" to her rescuers. Police are seeking a nasal translator so they can interview her more thoroughly. Mr. Darwin was unable to be reached for comment.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Mad as Hell

I hate roaches. Everyone knows that. If there's even the remote possibility that I might see one, I prefer it to be in the evening, when Darwin is home and will come deal with it after rolling his eyes at my initial shriek. So this morning I was infuriated when the four-year-old yelled, "Mommy! A big bug just crawled under the piano!"

In dealing with a roach I'm torn between, on the one hand, calling Darwin home from work, and on the other, not wanting to look like a big wuss in front of my daughters. If I'm gonna kill the thing, I have to get mad. I need the force of anger to kill an inch-long thing that flies and can survive a nuclear explosion.

Here's my Wimp Kills Roach formula: Work up a good head of steam over the fact that the disgusting creature dares to tresspass in my house, wait until it crawls out into the clear (angry mutterings of "Don't you dare go in that closet, or I'll kill you!"), whap it hard with a fly swatter or anything that allows me to stand way back, spray it with cleaning spray until it folds up, and then run the vacuum over it.

Then yell (silently, so the girls won't repeat it later): "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore!"

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Today's literary moment

Every now and then a favorite literary passage will lodge in my mind and make me smile. Here's today's selection, from Jane Eyre:

"Do you say your prayers night and morning?" continued my interrogator.

"Yes, sir."

"Do you read your Bible?"


"With pleasure? Are you fond of it?"

"I like Revelations, and the book of Daniel, and Genesis and Samuel, and a little bit of Exodus, and some parts of Kings and Chronicles, and Job and Jonah."

"And the Psalms? I hope you like them?"

"No, sir."

"No? oh, shocking! I have a little boy, younger than you, who knows six Psalms by heart: and when you ask him which he would rather have, a gingerbread-nut to eat or a verse of a Psalm to learn, he says: 'Oh! the verse of a Psalm! angels sing Psalms;' says he, 'I wish to be a little angel here below;' he then gets two nuts in recompense for his infant piety."

Had a great time; wish I'd been there

Matthew Lickona just returned from Rome, and is starting to post his traveling reflections, written up in a delightfully Lickona-esque style. Be sure and read down his site for the pictures.

I'll Just Read...

Most of our bookshelves are in the living room, and since our living room floor is getting ready to be replaced, the books are all going into boxes so that we can move furniture around as needed. At this point the Literature, History, Classics and half the Religion sections are all packed.

I generally feel like I don't get around to reading much these days. But it's amazing how often, just in the last few days, I've found myself going over to look something up or to read a short selection out of a book, only to realize that it's been packed.

I guess I must get around to reading more than I thought. Having your library packed is a bit like having a loved one missing. One repeatedly thinks, "I'll just ask him this," or "I'll just tell her that," only to find that other, who has become a part of you, missing -- leaving an odd emptiness behind.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Bad Artisanry vs. Globalization

This is year old news, but I just ran into it the other day. It seems that a fasion design teacher in Philadelphia decided to organize the making of a "hundred mile suit" -- a suit made entirely within and using materials made within a hundred mile radius of where she lived. This was intended to create a dialog about local solutions and globalizations. Twenty artisans put a total of 500 man hours into making the suit, which doesn't look very good. (At anything like a living wage, that would put the suit at a value of $10,000+.)

While I'm tempted simply to get a good laugh out of the ad absurdum application of the "buy local" ideal, several people have pointed out this is more an example of utter incompetance at both artisanry and local sourcing. Surely there are much higher quality and low time investment sources of spinning and weaving within one hundred miles of Philly than the products shown here would suggest. And one blogger shows a picture of a hand spun, wand woven skirt she got from Ecuador which looks just great.

So what we're seeing here is as much an example of the bad taste of some "buy local" advocates as the true quality of locally produced goods.

I personally enjoy producing some of my own goods (garden, furniture making, etc.) despite knowing it's not necessarily the most economical way of acquiring the good in question. However, I generally do this both for the pleasure of the process and because I can use time that wouldn't otherwise be productive to produce something of higher quality than I'd be able to justify buying. Why one would put all sorts of time into producing a clearly inferior product, I'm not clear.

When I said "Well, I guess we can't do any more damage tonight"...

I meant it literally.

From which we infer that wall tile is meant to be permanent. I'll be off to the home-improvement store tomorrow for some new wall board.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Charity and Knowledge

Charity is one of those words which, in Christian discourse, is often in danger of meaning everything and nothing. We use it in certain very concrete senses ("giving to charity") and also in very broad senses (Faith, Hope and Charity). At times it is taken to mean simply giving something to someone -- and some even take it in a negative sense in that regard: the rich giving some few spare pennies to the poor. At other times, drawing on the Latin root of caritas, it is taken to be love as a whole in all its senses.

Because as Christians we identify God as being love, love is clearly meant to encompass a wide range of Christian action and experience, and comes in many forms. Right now, I'd like to talk about love of neighbor, and specifically, that love of neighbor which involves providing for the physical needs of others. So for the purposes of this post, I'm going to call the use of "time and treasure" to perform the corporal works of mercy "charity", and let's leave aside the other meanings of that term for now.

Now to me, one of the interesting things about the virtue of charity is that it says a great deal about the sort of relationships we can have as human beings. In the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10, 25-37) we see a scholar of the law (quidam legis peritus) who cheerfully parrots back the great commandments of "You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself." but then wants to know "Who is my neighbor?"

If one indulged in the darker habits of the Old Testament, this was a pretty key question, since the Israelites had a tendency to address things in rather tribal terms. Thus, perhaps the peritus hoped he could define his neighbor as only members of his extended family within three degrees, or only members of the same town and tribe or some such. I think it's fair to take the But because he wished to justify himself, he said to Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?" as meaning that he was hoping to restrict the definition of "neighbor" to some point where he was arguably already accomplishing this.

Christ's parable, which he tells in answer, strikes me as essentially conveying: Any person you meet who is in need is your neighbor.

I'd like to think about the "meet" aspect of this for a moment. Clearly, the parable is couched in terms of a direct personal experience. A man is left for dead on the side of the road and of the three men who walk by, only one successfully responds to the neighbor he sees in distress.

Now, one could argue that in the first century world which Christ was addressing, there was no way to encounter those in need of help other than through personal experience. You couldn't sit down with the NY Times before heading out to herd your goats for the day and be shocked to discover that nearly ten percent of the population was without healthcare. So Christ's parable was necessarily about providing direct help to someone met in person.

But I think the direct nature of the charity exemplified by the Samaritan may be more than a coincidence of history. Charity isn't simply providing for the needs of others, it's providing for the needs of others out of love. Can you love someone you don't even know exists?

Sin and virtue can often be best viewed in terms of relationships. The Trinity is, of course, the ultimate exemplar of loving relationship. We are called to love God with our whole mind, will and strength, and at root sin can often be seen as a violation of that first half of the two great commandments. When we sin, we refuse to conform out will to God's, we break our relationship with God and insist upon being loyal to ourselves before Him.

So when the priest and the Levite walked by the beaten man, they were failing to perform the obligations which their relationship with him as neighbors required of them. They owed him help because they knew that he needed help, and they were in a position to give it.

It's not necessary, I think, that this knowledge be in person as it was for the priest and the Levite. For instance, I got a mailer yesterday urging me to provide $2,600 or $175/mo for fifteen months to finance the building of a family home in Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, Haiti or Guyana. Now, I don't know any of the potential beneficiaries of this work, but looking at the blue prints for solidly built 300sq/ft shacks, and comparing those to the pictures of the conditions under which these families are currently living, I'd have a pretty good idea what I was getting involved with if I take this on. (And my inner economist was pleased by the paragraph in the accompanying letter that pointed out that since they employ local labor this helps not merely the family getting the home, but many others throughout the community.)

I'm a marketer, and to an extent, this kind of specificity is good marketing. But I think it's more than that. Marketing, at root, seeks to create or simulate a relationship between the potential buyer and the product or producer. In this case, the description of this particular program at Food For The Poor is intended to create a relationship between the donor and the people the donor is being asked to help. I'd argue that relationship is real, which is why that kind of giving is an act of charity.

This is in part why I'm skeptical as to whether massive government programs aimed at combatting statistical groups can be considered "charity" in any meaningful (as in relationship-based) sense of the term. One cannot have a relationship with "the bottom quintile of lifetime earners" or "those involuntarily without healthcare for more than twelve months". So while it's possible that certain programs may achieve specific advances for a statistical group such as these (though when we get to specifics, I'm also skeptical of the good that is often claimed) it pretty clearly seems to be the case that any good which is achieved is done so without anyone forming a relationship with anyone. Thus, while single-payer healthcare might solve certain problems for certain people, it would do so at the expense of eliminating relationships or potential relationships between people.

I recall when I was young an instance where one of the families among my parents group of friends had had a difficult delivery, with mother and baby both spending time in the hospital at considerable expense. Word went out through the circle, and people started putting money together to help. In the end several thousand dollars were collected, which was a lot more in the early eighties than it is now, covering most of the expenses that the family was responsible for. Similar things happened in response to other financial emergencies. Even on the notoriously impersonal internet, I've several times seen people come together to raise surprising amounts of money to help out a person or family they've never met, but about whose need they've learned via online communities.

In each case, it's the knowledge of the need that triggers the relationship. We hear that a specific person or group need some specific thing, and we work to provide it because we care about that person in need. More impersonal solutions might alleviate the same need, but they would leave both potential giver and potential recipient poorer in terms of community and relationship. If we have no need for each other (other than everyone feeding the tax rolls), we have no opportunity to give and receive active love for each other.

More renovation madness

The floor project continues: today we present the kitchen, sans half the vinyl floor. Vinyl is not hard to remove -- just loosen with a crowbar and peel up. Unless the paper backing wants to stick to the slab, in which case one requires either adhesive remover or a heavy-duty sander.

Final analysis on taking up tile:

Chiseling up tile when it comes off in one piece with the mortar still attached to the back: kinda fun.

Chiseling mortar off the slab: not so fun, very dusty, and likely to leave the chiseler with aching joints and hands.

Monday, April 07, 2008

The Pope and America

Italian journalist Sandro Magister has an article up about Pope Benedict XVI's impending visit to the United States in which he describes the United States as a model for Catholic Europe. (HT: Chris Blosser's Benedict in America blog)
With this pope, the United States is no longer held up for scolding by the Vatican authorities. Until a few decades ago, it was tasked with being the temple of Calvinist capitalism, of social Darwinism, of the electric chair, with a hair trigger in every corner of the world.

Today these paradigms seem to have been set aside to a great extent. The Church of Rome vigorously contested the military attack on the Iraq of Saddam Hussein. Even Benedict XVI. But it is not now pressing for the withdrawal of the soldiers. It wants them to remain there "on a peacekeeping mission," including the defense of the Christian minorities.

In any case, the general judgment on the United States has shifted to the positive, to the same extent that judgments on Europe have become more pessimistic. To ambassador Glendon, Benedict XVI said that he admires "the American people's historic appreciation of the role of religion in shaping public discourse," a role that in other places – read, Europe – is "contested in the name of a straitened understanding of political life." With the consequences that stem from this on the points that are most crucial to the Church, like "legal protection for God's gift of life from conception to natural death," marriage, the family.
There's much more and it's worth reading. When we often read American commentators discussion how we should become more like Europe, it's interesting to see what a European commentator finds attractive about the American version of the modern state.

What cracked us up all weekend

Visit Blackadder's Lair

For some time now, Blackadder has been an interested and level-headed poster at Vox Nova. Now he's got his own blog, the Blackadder's Lair, where he will be cross-posting all his writings. For those who have considered swearing off Vox Nova entirely, whether because reading 50+ comment comment threads is eating into your workday or for other reasons, I'd strongly recommend bookmarking it. (Seeing as I'm headed into a strong of heavy work commitment and home floor replacement, I've switched the blogroll over to his new digs.)

If you aren't familiar with Blackadder's writing, take a look at his post today about World War II as "the good war".

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Race Identity & Ancestry

Race is notoriously one of those topics on which Americans (and we are certainly not alone in this) get a bit squirrely.

One of the things that's been striking me as very odd as I read more of Obama's speeches (since we're going through this campaign season without a TV, this is a campaign strictly of the written word for me -- which is an interesting experience) and selections of his autobiography is his tendency to talk about his mother and grandmother as being of another race, and thus not fully understanding him.

Now clearly, he's half Kenyan, and they're not, but I still can't help finding it rather odd that he in some ways seems to place more of a premium on his skin tone than his ancestry -- especially given that his father abandoned the family when Obama was two. To the extent that race is a matter of biology -- his father is as much "of another race" from him as his mother. And to the extent that race is a matter of experience and culture, you would think that his mother's would predominate, since she raised him. Yet he seems to identify entirely with the "minority" half of his ancestry, while considering his mother and maternal ancestors as somehow alien.

Clearly, he's not at all alone in this. One of the very odd experiences I had growing up was in dealing with a family among our set of close long term friends who had adopted a son from Korea. He was adopted as an infant, and they already had one biological daughter. Now the family was "liberal" in their leanings in a general sort of way and felt very strongly about ethnic identity. So as their adopted son grew up, they were always at pains to make sure he got enough Korean culture. He was always enrolled in Asian-American activities in school. As a teenager, they enrolled him in a separate Korean youth group (they were Methodists, I think). Eventually, he joined a separate Korean church.

Now clearly, they saw this as making sure that he wasn't cut off from the culture he was born in (though I can't imagine he soaked much up in the six months before he came to the US), but to me, as another kid, it always seemed like he was being treated as the outsider in the family. They were WASPs; he was Korean. To me, as the admixture of an Irish-ancesty father and a Mexican-ancestry mother (though admitedly, those are two cultures that may not be seen as very distinct in modern American society) the whole idea of identifying with one ancestry or the other seemed silly. So why treat an adopted child of another national origin as if he were somehow "other" than the biological child?

African ancestry has traditionally been cause for incredible amounts of discrimination and oppression in the US -- though I think one is justified in saying these have got much better over the last 40 years. So I can certainly see how Obama might well feel that he's faced challenges due to his skin color that his mother and grandmother did not face.

But at the same time, consistently referring to your parent and grandparent -- who were the ones who actually raised you -- as "someone of another race" seems very odd to me...

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Wednesday Night Special

When you're in the sort of mood where you think, "At least it's Friday," and then remember it's actually Wednesday... When you've analyzed more than a million rows of data that day and still left stuff simmering on the server when you left... When going in an hour early means you only leave an hour late...

You might need the drink I've tentatively named the Wednesday Night Special.

1.5oz Gin
0.25oz Sweet Vermouth
4 dashes Orange Bitters
1 dash Angostura Bitters
tonic water
ice cube

Now why won't the kids put themselves to bed?

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Ah, never disappointing

Google and Virgin announce the creation of Virgle, a joint venture to establish a permanent colony on Mars.

In related news, Gmail introduces CustomTime, which allows users to post-date their emails.

Charity vs. Government Responsibility

A National Review piece by Arthur C. Brooks today notes an interesting study result:
In 1996, the General Social Survey asked a large sample of Americans whether they agreed that, “The government has a responsibility to reduce income inequality.” Those who “disagreed strongly” with this statement gave an amazing twelve times more money to charity per year, on average, than those who “agreed strongly.” People disagreeing strongly also gave nine times more to secular causes than those agreeing strongly, and even gave more to traditionally progressive causes, such as the environment and the arts.
He also states (but does not provide a source):
The working poor are America’s most generous givers when we measure giving as a percentage of income. Most studies have shown that the working poor tend to give away between four and five percent of their incomes, on average, while the rich give away between three and four percent. (Both groups give away significantly more than the middle class.)
Now, it makes sense that if one believes strongly that it's the government job to deal with poverty, one would be less inclined to work to solve the problem for them and vise versa. But I was a bit surprised at the degree of difference so I googled around a bit.

I found several other conservative articles which cited exactly the same result, but not the actual source study. The GSS website (which makes their data available) is here, but they don't have any convenient summaries on this question and I don't have time to dig into the question further at the moment. If the result proves consistent (The GSS survey is conducted every 1-2 years) it would be an interesting confirmation of the idea that large institutionalized safety nets tend to discourage people from actively taking care of each other themselves. Since I do believe that our Christian duty to help our neighbors has to do with personal, family and local action rather than the use of the nation state to perform "charity" via taxes and hand-outs, I would have expected such a result. But frankly, the delta in charitable giving is much more than even I would have expected. I don't know if I should suspect it on that basis or take it that I'm even more right than I realized.

Community, Association and Markets

Ever since Blackadder turned me on to them, I've been listening to the weekly EconTalk podcasts. A couple weeks ago, the guest was Stephen Marglin of Harvard, author of the recent book The Dismal Science: How Thinking Like an Economist Undermines Community There are some very interesting things about this interview, though other aspects of it left me deeply unsatisfied.

Marglin's basic thesis is, as his title indicates, that "thinking like an economist" (specifically, making decisions based on an analysis that almost exclusively considers factors of measurable loss and gain) undermines human community. More broadly speaking, Marglin sees personal choice and mobility as detrimental to traditional elements of community.

Now, this is a line of thinking that I'm not generally sympathetic to. However, some of Marglin's distinctions and arguments had enough appeal to me that I keep coming back to them in mental argument.

One of the things I found most interesting about Marglin's analysis was his distinction between "community" and "association". By his definition, community is not merely a place where one finds companionship, society and mutual aid, but also a group which one cannot leave without fairly serious cost. According to the old adage that you can chose your friends but you can't choose your family, community is much more along the lines of family than friends.

An association may seem to have nearly all the same benefits as community: companionship, society and mutual aid. But an association is a group which one joins based on some sort of identified commonality and which one may leave at any time with fairly little cost.

Marglin argues that many structures which used to be communities in the past have become associations. While people used to experience serious costs if they left their occupations or neighborhoods, society and societal expectations have changed to make these relatively painless moves. Similarly, people now church shop with relative ease, while in the past leaving a church was a nearly unthinkable move.

While we naturally find our ability to choose our company to be a good thing, Marglin argues that by making "community" an optional rather than necessary part of our lives, we have fundamentally changed the nature of the relationship we have with others in our lives.

Now, I'm profoundly grateful to have been able to choose to leave the inland valleys of the Los Angeles area where I was raised and move my family to a region with values more in tune with our own, and housing values that are within our income -- not to mention a much better company that I now work for than my employer in California.

At the same time, however, I have a certain sense of the value of community of the sort one is born into and has little choice about membership in. I was born into such a community, though of a somewhat quirky variety, via my parents close set of friends, and though I now live far from these people, I still find myself very much in touch with the same set of people and their children. Perhaps not constantly, but with more regularity and permanence even than my extended family.

Still, what was once a fairly geographically close community (nearly everyone living within a 10 mile radius) has become a group of people who keep track of each other on the internet and meet only at funerals and such. By Prof. Marglin's measure, it seems fairly clear that freedom and markets have taken a serious tole on that community.

Now, Marglin doesn't have a clear answer on how much one should restrict people's ability to make free gain/loss decisions about what to do with their lives. He's sure that we need to give more regard to communities, a good which he believes economics is fundamentally incapable of measuring, but he's not really sure how much we need to pull back on freedom of career, movement, trade, etc.

This stating of a problem without much of a hint of a solution was one of the things which I found very frustrating about his argument. And yet there were other elements which rang surprisingly true to me.

For instance, all to often, when people announce that they are suspicious of markets, they come out instead in favor of some sort of centralization and distribution. Many today announce that they believe markets are bad for society in regards to health care, and that instead the federal government should provide us all with a single payer health plan. Similarly, a fair number of people believe that the centralized state should provide a comprehensive "safety net" against unemployment and poverty, rather than requiring that people rely upon their own work and resources (and the charity of others) to provide for all their needs.

Marglin, however, takes things in a very different direction. He makes the following example: He's looking out the window at his barn. Now, if his barn burned down, he would call his insurance company, they would send out an adjuster, the adjuster would certify that the barn had burned down, the insurance company would issue a check, he would hire a contractor, and eventually the barn would be rebuilt. However, if this were two hundred years ago, if his barn burned down, he would need to rely on his neighbors to rally round him and help him rebuild his barn. He would rely on them because it was more work than he could perform or pay for himself, and they would rely on him in their turn.

In other words, insurance helps people avoid the need of relying on their neighbors. Insurance frees you from needing to have a strong, mutual aid relationship with your community. He points to the modern Amish, who refuse to use insurance, as an example of a group of people who have chosen to avoid individual goods such as insurance, have done so because they believe that the reliance upon each other which is central to community will be destroyed by such things.

Now, Marglin doesn't go into this, but it strikes me that one of the forces that, in a world without individual protections such as insurance, unemployment benefits, etc., one of the forces that keeps community together is the implicit fear that if one does not cleave to one's community, one will be left alone when one is in one's hour of need.

And yet, it is precisely this fear that one may be abandoned by the community that drives us to want insurance, unemployment benefits, welfare, etc. Our fear that the other members of our family, parish, neighborhood, etc. may not take care of us lead us to seek guaranteed protection from the biggest kid on the block -- the national state. And yet, this very move is what is most likely to both enable us to be on the outs with our families, parishes and neighborhoods, and also make those communities feel that they have less responsibility for us.

This really struck me when I came to it. All along as I was thinking about what Marglin was saying, I was mentally rejoining: "Whatever destructive effects that markets may have on community, it must surely be outweighed by one's ability, given sufficient choice, to surround oneself with people who really are kindred spirits."

For all that I often find myself wishing that I lived in a neighborhood that was a community, rather than living 10-20 minutes drive from all our friends, I invariably find this desire outweighed by my gratitude that I am able to socialize primarily with other devout Catholic families with kids rather than whatever people happen to live next door to me. And yet, as I consider it from this point of view, I wonder if what causes the widely fractured religious, social and cultural views that make me prefer to spend my time with the people I choose rather than the people I live near is, in fact, the lack of reliance on those around us which the modern individualistic economy allows. I find the idea of relying on those geographically around me (as opposed to perhaps those in my church or my family) unattractive because I have little in common with them. But perhaps the reason why, by this time, I have little in common with them is because the ability of people to move and switch jobs and protect themselves from disaster via state services, insurance and all the other trappings of the modern, individualistic economy, has allowed people for form much more diverse and at times divisive views than they would if they seriously relied upon their neighbors for essential personal, financial and physical help.