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

Thursday, July 31, 2008

May I Say Tribe?

Two and half years ago, when the situation in Iraq was pretty much at its worst Bush's popularity was already headed steeply down (though not yet as low as it is now), I was talking to one of my very liberal friends, and he commented: "You Republicans enjoy it now. We'll take back congress at the next election, and there is no Republican on earth who could win the presidency after eight years of Bush. He's destroyed your party for a generation."

"What if we nominate McCain?" I asked.

He considered. "There's no way. McCain is the one Republican I would consider voting for -- and that means you people would never elect him. Maybe he'll switch parties when we take over."

Well, here we are. And now my liberal friends assure me that "this is not the McCain we knew." He's "McSame". He's "Bush's third term". He's "McFossil". He's a "batshit insane" warmonger who wants to start World War III. And yet four years ago, when he called out Michael Moore in a speach at the Republican convention, Moore claimed he was hurt and said the he liked McCain and admired him. Senator John Kerry reportedly wanted McCain as a running mate.

What happened here? So far as I can tell, McCain is still very much whatever he always was. I'm not myself a fan, but he does have an Old Roman sort of virtue that I admire to an extent. He is not a principled conservative, or indeed an adhereant to any intellectually defined political or economic philosophy. But he is clearly a firm believer in honesty, honor, and service to the Civitas. He's devoted his life to the Res Publica, and I think he would probably do less damage to the country and the world than Obama -- though I suspect that if he is elected it will be longer before a real conservative is able to win back the presidency than if we have a Democrat in the White House. (However since we vote for the good of the country rather than the party -- I will probably vote for him.)

However, McCain has lost all his support from across the aisle because electoral politics is not just a matter of competing political philosophies -- it is also a matter of tribalism. While there are very real and important differences of political, moral and economic philosophy between the two major parties in America, the tribalism of party membership at times seems to have equal or greater force in fueling debate.

Tribalism can cut both ways. Although he sustained a good bit of criticism from conservatives, President Bush did not have the fight from congressional Republicans over No Child Left Behind, the Medicare Prescription Drug Benefit or the creation of the Department of Homeland Security that any Democratic president would have recieved over such massive increases in government power and beaurocracy. In that case, tribalism protected him.

Over the years, McCain has received much admiration from liberal and moderate quarters -- but in an election year (and with a new, younger media darling for the Democratic nominee) his proposals (even some very liberal ones which I do not like, such as his cap-and-trade carbon policy) are being ignored or greeted with derision. Tribalism requires that any policies put forward by the presidential nominee of one party be scorned by members of the other party -- even if they themselves advocated similar proposals in the past.

The tribal lense also affects how people view the world. For instance, expect many Democrats to be much less worried about government wiretaps and the continued presence of US troops in Iraq if Obama is president rather than McCain. Similarly, expect a number of Republicans who have been curiously quiet on such issues to recall that they don't trust the government and don't want it doing wiretaps, and that they don't think that US troops should be used for open-ended nation-building exercises, if Obama wins.

And notice how it is always whichever party is out of power which is able to notice what things are going wrong (or may go wrong) with the economy -- while those in power may recognize are problem here or there, but are sure it is only the result of the cycle and we're doing everything we can.

None of which is to say that there aren't very real points which are made, and sincerely meant, by the most partisan. (And certainly, I can be one of the more partisan at times.) But especially for the six months leading up to the presidental election every four years, one can expect much of the political discourse to be more about tribe than about principles.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Peak Oil -- When Do Equations Break

A couple times over the last several months readers have emailed me to ask if I have any thoughts on Peak Oil. For those not familiar with the idea, Peak Oil is the idea that at some point the world oil production will (as production at any individual oil field eventually does) reach its peak and begin to fall off. This in itself is not a controversial idea. So far as we are aware, oil is a finite resource, and we certainly are having to drill deeper, travel farther, and work harder to continue to produce more oil every year. Eventually (whether in a year or a hundred years) it makes sense that he'd hit a practical maximum point and the annual production would fall off from there one.

But if the idea that global crude oil production will eventually peak and go down is uncontroversail, the term "Peak Oil" is generally used to refer to something a bit more specific and a bit more controversial which we might refer to more specifically as the Catastrophic Peak Oil theory.

The question here is: how quickly would oil production fall off after the peak, and how much would the increase slow before reaching peak. And also: how well can the world economy cope with stalling and then falling oil production.

Those who take the Catastrophic Peak Oil theory seriously believe that it will stall fairly suddenly, and then begin to drop fairly steaply (or that the world economy is ridigly incapable of adjusting to a more gradually stall and fall.) By this theory, the entire world economy might collapse, with trade breaking down, cities being abandoned, a billion people or more around the world starving, and technology falling back 150 years or more.

Clearly, this preys on some of our most basic fears as members of an affluent society. In an agricultural, subsitence society, fears were basic and can be well summarized by a reading of ancient mythology. Would the weather be good -- or would there be drought or flood? Would the plants grow? Would pestilence wipe out half the village? Would war break out?

Today we live in a society with a highly specialized economy, and so much of what we deal with looks a little like magic. Food shows up in the supermarket. Gas is available at the pump. Money spits out of the ATM. A credit card can buy you almost anything. And yet, because the systems which deliver all these things are too complex to understand in all their details, we can't help but harbor (even if far below the surface) a certain fear: What if it all stops working? What if we go to the pump and there's no gas? What if we go to the store and there's no food? What if the whole magical system suddenly just stops?

The Catastrophic Peak Oil theory appeals to these fears. But is it likely?

My tendency is to think that the economic laws that drive our economy are more flexible than we sometimes imagine. And we are simply so far above the subsistence level in our society that we could go through a fairly catastrophic economic reorganization without starving. (Cuba's sudden oil dearth when the Soviet Union collapsed perhaps provides a micro example of how we might cope with such a peak oil situation.) So I'm fairly optimistic about our prospects, even if the global oil peak turned out to be fairly soon.

The point where equations potentially fail to capture a situation, however, is when change is very sudden. If oil levels off and begins to decrease over the course of a decade or more, we might go through some pretty hard times, but we'd find other energy source and/or tighten our belts and we'd be fine. The point where it's very hard to predict how we'd do is if oil peaked in a truly sudden fashion. Imagine that one day all the Saudi oil fields just stopped, like a spigot turned off. That's the sort of event that we really can't project the outcome of based on a supply/demand economic model. Fortunately, it's probably the sort of situation that's pretty unlikely to happen.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

We Always Live in the World We Have

We live in a democratic republic, and having been formed by the culture of such a country, we are used to putting a lot of thought and passion into the question of what the nature of our governing systems and laws should be. This is, overall, a very good thing, as I think it breeds a sense of collective responsibility for us to think seriously as a nature about how we should govern ourselves. And yet, the temptation that comes with that is to view a certain set of government policies and systems as essential to the good or virtuous life.

Especially for those of us who are particularly interested in the political process, passions can run sufficiently high that we begin to see certain political goods as necessary for human thriving. The man of the right begins to think that life without certain political freedoms is barely worth living. The man of the left convinces himself it is impossible to live a moral and satisfying life without certain structures of social justice.

And yet, one of the liberating aspects of studying history is to discover that people are people throughout history. The personal concerns, struggles and triumphs of individual people through many times and places bear more similarities than differences. And from the Christian perspective, men and women have struggled to live in accordance with Christ's teachings in a wide variety of societies: oppressive and free, secular and religious, rich and poor, tolerant and persecuting.

None of which is meant to undermine the importance of struggling to achieve the best political order that we can. As the experience of many centuries has shown us, the culture and political institutions can provide a powerful incentive for virtue, or for vice. Yet we must do so with the clear understanding that no political order will make everyone virtuous, nor will any political order force everyone to be corrupt. Improving the social order is at best a means to an end.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For

[with apologies to U2]

Nearly thirty years of experience going to mass every Sunday (though I suppose the first few hardly count since I'm sure I spent the time squirming around under the pew in the fashion that I am constantly trying to discourage our offspring from doing) allows one to build up certain habits of expectation. Thus, after having heard a great number of sermons, one comes to realize that a sermon which begins, "When I was growing up, my favorite comic strip was Peanuts. And in one of my favorite Peanuts strips..." one is likely headed in for a rather disjointed ride. It's not Peanuts per se which is the problem, but that it often seems that when one starts out with pop culture reference chosen for its utter generality (Peanuts, Gilligans Island, etc.) the reason is that the homilist isn't actually all that sure what the readings are about, and so has picked the most general possible interpretation.

I am one of those people who, when he reads a book or sees a movie which fails to live up to the potential of its premise, can't seem to help endlessly revising the work in my head after the fact trying to figure out how it could have been good. Indeed, MrsDarwin and I sometimes spend rather more time discussing movies and books that were not quite good than ones that were. And so this week I found myself pondering the gospel reading rather more than I might have had the homily been more focused.

The parable of the treasure in the field has always struck me, despite its brevity, because as with the parable of the dishonest steward, we have here another story that essentially centers around crooked business dealings. In this instance: a case of insider trading. Some fellow is digging around in a field not his own and discovers that a treasure has been buried there. Obviously, it's not his, and he doesn't know whose it is, but he wants it. So he takes all that he has and buys the field. (One assumes that since the owner sells, the owner must not know the value of the treasure either.) The fellow thus turns a tidy profit because he knew more about the value of the field than did its previous owner.

Why bring up this not particularly honorable exchange?

Plato argues that no one ever desires anything other than the good -- and thus any object of desire must (at least in the mind of the desirer) be good. Thus, one can (and Christ in several parables does) take positive lessons from an otherwise negative example. Our treasure hunter may not be treating the field owner very honestly, but he has identified what is to his mind the greatest possible good: a tremendous treasure. In pursuing this good, he is ready to risk everything. He sells all that he owns.

Picture selling everything you own for a moment. I know the things I'd find hard to give up: my books, our furniture, our house, our computer. Picture selling absolutely everything you own, because you desperately want to have enough money to buy that field.

And keep in mind, our treasure hunter does not yet know for sure that the owner doesn't know about the treasure. He may refuse to sell. He may sell, but dig the treasure up and take it with him before vacating the property. Yet our treasure hunter is so focused on the good that he has found, so bent on owning the treasure, that he is willing to risk everything he owns on the chance of attaining the treasure. He sells everything.

The owner does indeed sell, and the hunter attains the treasure that he desired. He is now far more rich than he ever was before, and can buy back the possessions that he sold -- or even better ones. Yet now we can, as Christians, flip the story around and ask ourselves: Was this enough for him? Now that he owns the treasure, is he permanently and abidingly happy? Has he found his purpose in life?

It seems to me that the story cuts two ways.

On the one hand, the example of this treasure hunter spurs us on. He was willing to risk up everything, sell every possession that he owned, in order to attain the treasure. If we believe, as our faith tells us, that the prospect of eternal life in heaven is before us, should we not be equally ready to offer up all that we own, all that we hope for, in order to attain the Kingdom of God?

On the other, there seems to be an implicit contrast between this man's treasure and the eternal treasure that we are called to seek. He was willing to give up everything he owned, and yet what did he get? Gold? Silver? Precious stones? Just some cold hunk of matter that sat on a shelf. Like the treasure hunter, we are often ready to make great sacrifices in work, time and money for material gain. And yet, no amount of material gain will permanently slake our thirst. Our hearts are restless, Lord, until they rest in you.

And so even as we admire the utter devotion with which the man in the parable sought after what he imagined to be the highest good, we must ask ourselves: Is this kind of intensity to be lavished on things which will not, in the end, make us truly happy? And so we also recognize that the treasure hunter's zeal is misplaced. Our greatest efforts and sacrifices should be directed towards, not some treasure buried in the ground, but what will happen to us after we are buried in the ground.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Human Life

Papal Encyclicals are traditionally named after their first few words, rather than given a title. (This must give the popes good cause to seriously consider a good strong opening rather something something along the lines of "It has often been observed..." or "In my last encyclical I discussed...")

Pope Paul VI's encyclical issued forty years ago today began: Humanae vitae tradendae munus gravissimum, ex quo coniuges liberam et consciam Deo Creatori tribuunt operam, magnis semper ipsos affecit gaudiis, quae tamen aliquando non paucae difficultates et angustiae sunt secutae.

Roughly speaking: Human life, the passing on of which is one of the gravest responsibilities from which spouses freely and knowingly take on the work of God the Creator, the which always gives them great joy, but also not a few difficulties and a shortage of security.

Given that the Church is often accused of ignoring science and the wonders of human advancement, and that the Church's opposition to birth control is one of the most frequently cited examples of this, it is ironic that the Church's stance on sex and birth control is essentially a restatement of indisputable biological fact: Sex exists, at a biological level, for the creation of children. That's why we have "reproductive organs". Certainly, sex (now that it exists) fills several other purposes as well, but its primary purpose is indisputably reproduction.

The question that faced and continues to face humanity is what to do about this in the face of modern technology which allows us to strip that reproductive function (with degrees of success depending upon the method) out of the sexual act. Starting at the turn of the last century, and with gathering speed with each passing decade, the wider society embraced artificial birth control and the split between sex and human reproduction that this new technology allowed.

The results of this split are still being sorted out, and I suspect that it will be near the end of the new century before we begin to see with any clarity what a society in which sex is only optionally tied to reproduction looks like. With typical progressive zeal, few in the secular realm seemed to imagine at the time (from what I can tell) that anything but good could come from giving people the ability to regulate their fertility with relative certainty through cheap and widely available technology. Surely, people would live just as they had before, but with the ability to make sure they had children only when they were ready to lovingly care for them. How could this be anything but a blessing?

Lots of people with a supposedly rational and naturalistic view of the universe apparently imagined that changing a fundamental element of human physiology (which from a strictly naturalistic point of view must clearly be one of the biggest shapers of human society and culture) would leave existing social structures intact while allowing people to be just a bit more free and joyful in their sexuality. It did not prove to be so. People may not consciously think, "I will get married and be faithful to my spouse because having sex with lots of partners before and outside of marriage might result in having children who would not be raised in a stable family environment." And yet, at a naturalistic level, one of the primary reasons for marriage itself and for chastity before and faithfulness during it is that a stable family environment is required in order to raise the children which naturally result from sex. (Picture, if you can, that there was something we were capable of doing as humans that was as pleasurable and produced as a strong a sense of union as sex -- and yet which never resulted in any consequences other than physical pleasure and emotional closeness. Would society have organized itself in such a way as to require that one shared this act only within monogamous relationships?)

Paul VI, on the other hand, courageously and contrary to the advice of many who had their fingers upon the pulse of the world, reaffirmed in Humanae Vitae that human life is, as God's creation, meant to work a certain way. That sex results in new life is not some accident or medical deficiency to be "cured" by new medical technology, but rather the way in which humans were meant to cooperate in God's creative work. The reproductive potential of intercourse is inherent and essential to it, and to actively remove that potential changes the act in a fundamental way.

The Catholic teaching which he reaffirmed is not, as some critics claim, that women are baby-making machines or that it is immoral to have sex if you can't get pregnant at the present moment. Rather, the Church's acceptance of NFP but rejection of birth control and sterilization amounts to saying: Remain human. Play by the rules we were given. Our bodies are meant to work the way they work. And if you want to avoid having children, you will have to at the very least have less sex.

This is not necessarily easily lived out, even for those of us who accept it, since we cannot help but imbibe the modern ethos in which the sex life has nothing to do with creating human life. Yet this difficulty that we experience is essentially that of living as humans are -- rather than becoming one of that artificially created new race of the optionally fertile. And since we choose to continue living a human life, rather than a sex life, we know roughly what our social institutions and familial relations will continue to look like. We will continue to live as humans have always lived.

How exactly those who have chosen to live a sex life instead of a human life shall eventually sort out their society remains to be seen.

I Dream of Craigslist

About ten years ago, I went into the Mission in Steubenville, OH, looking for a desk. I had the budget of a college student supporting herself on a minimum-wage campus job, and the tastes of the yuppie demographic specifically targeted by Pottery Barn. The Mission was (and still is, for all I know) a second-hand store that rambled all the gutted shell of a once-ornate Victorian manse -- perhaps in reflection of the decline of the Steubenville area, which once had one of the highest per-capita incomes in the country in the grand days of steel and the mob. Styles were changing in the Ohio River Valley, and the Mission was jam-packed with stuff people had cleared out of grandma's sitting room or attic. Unfortunately, even at fire-sale prices most of the elegant pieces were well out of my reach, but I did find a cute little corner desk with an old fashioned drawer handle and a veneer top on which I could and did set drinks.

The corner desk held up fairly well over the years, but with the advent of small children who would sit and kick it while watching a movie on the computer, it became time for something more sturdy. However, second-hand stores are passe now with the redecorating crew. If you want to buy used, you've got to turn to the local Craigslist.

Spending a few days scouring Craigslist reveals much about your own tastes. I've found that I will almost automatically click on any listing (regardless of item for sale) which contains the following terms:
  • vintage (this one is often disappointing -- people try to foist their burnt-orange 70s-era couches on innocent buyers by labeling them "vintage")
  • antique
  • solid wood
  • green (the color, not the environmental designation)
  • armoire (unless designated as pine)
  • Pottery Barn (yes, I'm a sucker)
  • victorian
  • craftsman
  • queen sleigh bed (in honor of the bed that the roach destroyed, still not replaced)
Terms that repel me:
  • southwestern
  • rustic
  • pine
  • Eurway (ultra-svelte modern is not my style, it seems)
  • IKEA
  • plaid
When designations coincide -- "Solid wood pine plaid victorian couch from IKEA!!!" -- I skip it. The seller is obviously crazy.

I also skip any ad without a picture. It boggles the mind how anyone thinks they're going to sell a $700 dining room set without providing an image for the prospective purchaser to consider. What am I, crazy? I'm not even looking for a dining room set, and it annoys me.

As it happens, Craigslist provided us with a desk: a old teacher's desk remaindered by the Boston public school system, and as sturdy as you like. It was a bit battered, but Darwin sanded it down and refinished it, and I scrubbed the drawer handles with steel wool until they shone. It looks pretty fine, and I'll put up a picture if I can ever find the cable for the digital camera.

And I have a corner desk, medium honey tone with veneer top, one leg kinda wobbly but still works okay, if anyone's interested.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

A Secular Kingdom

I am, perhaps, the last person in the Catholic blog world to get around to reading Benedict XVI's book Jesus of Nazareth. However, I am finally getting the chance to read it, and yesterday I struck a section which seemed so clearly to summarize some of the trends that I have seen that I wanted to type it up and post it whole:
Then there was a shift to Christocentrism, to the doctrine that Christ is the center of everything. But it is not only the Church that is divisive -- so the argument continues -- since Christ belongs exclusively to Christians. Hence the further step from Christocentrism to theocentrism. This has allegedly brought us closer to the community of religions, but our final goal continues to elude us, since even God can be a cause of division between religions and between people.

Therefore, it is claimed, we must now move toward "regnocentrism," that is, toward the centrality of the Kingdom. This at last, we are told, is the heard of Jesus' message, and it is also the right formula for finally harnessing mankind's positive energies and directing them toward the world's future. "Kingdom," on this interpretation, is simply the name for a world governed by peace, justice, and the conservation of creation. It means no more than this. This "Kingdom" is said to be the goal of history that has to be attained. This is supposedly the real task of religions: to work together for the coming of the "Kingdom." They are of course perfectly free to preserve their traditions and live according to their respective identities as well, but they must bring their different identities to bear on the common task of building the "Kingdom," a world, in other words, where peace, justice and respect for creation are dominant values.

This sounds good; it seems like a way of finally enabling the whole world to appropriate Jesus' message, but without requiring missionary evangelization of other religions. It looks as if now, at long last, Jesus' words have gained some practical content, because the establishment of the "Kingdom" has become a common task and is drawing nigh. On closer examination, though, it seems suspicious. Who is to say what justice is? What serves justice in particular situations? How do we create peace? On closer inspection, this whole project proves to be utopian dreaming without any real content, except insofar as its exponents tacitly presuppose some partisan doctrine as the content that all are required to accept.

But the main thing that leaps out is that God has disappeared; man is the only actor left on the stage. The respect for religious "traditions" claimed by this way of thinking is only apparent. The truth is that they are regarded as so many sets of customs, which people should be allowed to keep, even though they ultimately count for nothing. Only the organization of the world counts. Religion matters only insofar as it can serve the objective. This post-Christian vision of faith and religion is disturbingly close to Jesus' third temptation.
Jesus of Nazareth, 53-55

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Riparians at the Gate

A newer blog to watch, recently added to the blogroll, is Riparians at the Gate, written by Jennifer Fitz. Jennifer writes some very good stuff on economics and historical issues from a level-headed Catholic perspective -- and she has also taken up the laudible approach of pacing herself to a specific publication schedule. Would that I had the discipline to do the same (and use the resuling free time wisely.)

Iraq Revisited

TS of Video Meliora has a post up which I think presents some sound and reasonable thinking about the Iraq War, with the benefit of hindsight. I find myself pretty much universally in agreement with him.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Why Conservatives Oppose "Universal Health Care"

Zach of Civics Geeks has a good post in which he addresses a question posed by Matt Talbot of The Hopeful Populist. In a post entitled "Calling All Conservatives", Matt asks:
What alternative do you propose to universal health care, on the European model? Whatever the problems there, everyone is guaranteed basic care, no one there is bankrupted by medical bills, and everyone seems (by and large) happy with it.

How, as a Catholic, can you oppose that?

Just...explain to me why it would be so horrifying to just have universal health care in the United States. Yes it would cost money, and yes, taxes would go up - but so what? Isn't working people not being bankrupted by hospital bills ever again worth a few more percent at tax time? Isn't a society where everyone can go to a doctor when he's sick better than a society where he delays going because then he won't eat or won't be able to buy gas, or can't pay his car payment or whatever?...

The reply, "we ought to care for each other in the community" sounds good - heck, I even agree with it. But the price of modern health care is too much for that kind of community-provided care. I have no idea what an MRI machine costs, but I can't imagine my local parish can fork over than kind of cash....
Not, perhaps, the most temperately phrased question, but one that deserves a good answer. Zach's answer is a good and honest one, he lists off nine reasons ranging from the legal to the economic to the moral why one would be hesitant about "universal health care". I encourage you to read his post. But always being one to gild the lily (or at least to run on at length) I thought I'd add my own thoughts as well.

I'd like to start off by taking the last claim first. Is modern health care so insanely expensive that it's simply unreasonable to expect that a community could pay for its health care bills? Well, our parish is made up of 3,000 families. A large parish, perhaps, but far, far smaller than your average insurance pool. From dealing with small business insurance a while back, I can tell you that $500/mo is a fairly normal-to-low all in cost for insuring a family. So let's say that our parish became a community medical collective and assessed every family to pay $500/mo to meet everyone's health care costs. Let's also say that the parish absolved 1/3 of the families from paying anything, because their incomes were too low. So 2000 families each paid $500/mo into the parish medical fund. How much does that work out to? One million dollars per month. It's amazing what a large number of people all chipping in together can add up to. (As per Matt's rhetorical question: My friend Google tells me that MRI machines cost about one million dollars. A parish could buy one every month.)

But I don't realistically expect to see parish-based health care cooperatives any time soon, so let's leave that aside and answer the more general question: Why are conservatives down on "universal health care" according to the European model? And can one be so as a Catholic?

I think there are a couple main reasons:

1) The need for personal responsibility in providing for others.
In his post, Matt throws around lots of worries that people will be bankrupted in paying for doctor's bills, that people who are sick will have to decide whether to see a doctor or make their car payments, etc. Let's look wider for a moment in order to understand the principle we're bumping up against here. Why do we pay rent or mortgage? Why do we pay for our cars? Why do we pay for clothes and food and books and computers and game systems and beer? Is it fair that someone should have to choose between paying his rent and his car payment? Should he have to decide between his mortgage and food? Why do we pay for things? Why don't we just get all that we need?

Well, there's a practical reason: Fully collective organizations of society have not, historically, worked well at all except in the case of small religious communities.

But there's also a reason rooted in human nature: The natural state of man is one in which he works in order to provide for himself, his family and his community. At a biological level, we are descended from primates that lived in small social groups, and survived on the basis of group members foraging for food and sharing food with their dependants. At a religious level, when Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden, God told them that from that point on they would live from the sweat of their brows. In both senses, we are meant at a very deep level to provide for ourselves and our families through our own work -- and even though we now live in a far more complex economy our senses of health, self-respect and well-being are directly tied to toiling in order to provide for ourselves and our dependants.

Money is how, in a complex economy with extensive specialization and trade, we pay for each other's time and labor. And so, paying for things with money that we earn through our labor is how we are at a fundamental level meant to provide for ourselves and those who depend on us.

What are the necessities of life? Food, shelter, clothing, medical care, education.

If our purpose and happiness in life consists of providing the necessities for ourselves and our dependants, we should want to see the connection between our labor and the provision of these necessities be as direct as possible. Toiling to provide these for the ones we love if not something that keeps us from being human, it's what makes us human.

Now I am not a radical individualist or libertarian. Most certainly, this does not mean that those who cannot at some point afford shelter should be homeless, that those who cannot afford food should starve, etc. As I kept reiterating above, one of our main duties in life is to provide the necessities for ourselves and "our dependants" and "those we love". As Christ taught us in the story of the Good Samaritan, we are called to love all those around us who are in need. We are social animals and social creatures, and as such we have the natural and moral duty to care for those in our communities who are in need. We absolutely need to have provisions for providing food, housing, clothing and medical care to those who cannot at this time provide it to themselves.

However at the same time, all those who are in any sense able bodied (and able minded) have not only a duty to avoid being a burden to others unnecessarily, but a human need to provide for themselves through their own work. So while we have a human duty to help those currently unable to provide for themselves, we also have a need as a society to help as many people as possible provide for themselves rather than relying upon help. We have a duty to avoid incenting dependency.

Now some readers may be frothing to rejoin: "But what about our current system? People don't pay for health care now. Massive, impersonal insurance companies do." This is true, but only in a sense. After all, the fact that my money resides in a massive impersonal bank (in which it is directly deposited by my employer, and which cashes the checks which I write to pay my bills) does not mean that I do not in fact earn my money and use it to pay for things. Similarly, I know that by holding the job that I currently do, I earn as a form of compensation a certain level of heath coverage, which I provide to my family as the head of my household. Many people do indeed pick our specific jobs and stick with them because they know that the benefits they can thus provide to their families are more valuable than the higher salaries they might be able to get elsewhere.

However, I do agree that our current system is overly indirect. And indeed, I think that some of the inflation of the cost of basic care is the result of that indirectness. As such, I would strongly favor a change to a system in which we pay for basic care more directly (either our of pocket or through small community health care pools -- no larger than a parish) and where we carried insurance only for large medical expenses. However the fact that our current system is very much imperfect does not make me want to adopt a European-style system, which would be a move in the opposite direction from what I believe we need to go in.

2) The need for checks and balances to prevent abuse.
People often complain about insurance companies denying coverage for certain people or certain procedures. That is unquestionably a problem. However, all honest analysts agree that a completely government run system would also involve denying coverage for a number of high expense/high risk procedures. The difference is that under a government system the fox is in charge of guarding the hen house.

I recall hearing a while back about a woman who was approached by Michael Moore for his documentary Sicko. He wanted to interview her about how her insurance had refused to pay for a procedure for her husband. She called the insurance company and said: "Remember that procedure you turned us down on? Michael Moore wants to interview about my experience. Are you sure you don't want to reconsider?" The insurance company, whose profitability relies in part in maintaining a positive public image, caved and paid for the procedure. Similarly, the government routinely (indeed, sometimes unwisely) steps in and rules that certain procedures must be covered by insurance.

All this works because people can switch insurance companies, and because the government regulates insurance companies from an outside perspective. Those checks and balances would be lost in a government run program. The result would probably be (as is currently found in the differences between health in the US and in countries with socialized medicine) that people would get better routine and preventative care under a government system, but those with truly serious illnesses would have worse outcomes than under the current system.

3) Hesitance to make irrevocable change.
Once people start to get something "free" from the government, it's nearly impossible to ever scrap the system and move to a different model. No matter how bad the government system is, it's "free" (as in paid invisibly through paycheck withhold and probably mostly by people richer than you), it's there, and no one wants to deal with the inherent uncertainty of privatizing.

As such, any suggestion of going to a European system for US health care is a suggestion of heading down a one way street. We won't get to change our minds without a total fiscal melt-down or political collapse.

It is, thus, a change I am very, very hesitant to make lightly. I'd happily commit lots of my own personal money or government taxes to a program designed to provide basic healthcare only to those who can't pay for their own first. That would meet the immediate need, without committing us irrevocably to a path about which I have grave doubts.

By proposing instead a full switch to a European-style system, progressives do themselves no favors when it comes to building bridges. (Which is, incidentally, probably why none of the viable Democratic candidates proposed such a program -- no matter how much they might have personally preferred such a move.)

Monday, July 21, 2008

It's Called a Market, Mr. Gore

Former Vice President Al Gore went on Meet the Press on Sunday, to talk (among other things) about his challenge to the country to switch to 100% "non-carbon" energy sources for electricity generation in ten years. The latest data I found in my quick check was from February, and it shows the US getting 6.2% of its power from hydro-electric sources, and 3.1% from "other" which includes wind, solar, biomass, etc. 19.7% of our power comes from nuclear, which is "non-carbon" although Gore fails to mention it and talks of going entirely to wind, solar and hydro-electric. So taking the most reasonable (if that word can be used when referring to things that come out of Mr. Gore's mouth) interpretation of Gore's suggestion, he wants to switch out the source of 71% of our power generation in ten years -- and do so by switching to sources from which we currently only manage to get 9.3% (Realistically, most of this would have to come from from the wind and solar sources -- since there's a limit to how many more major rivers we could dam up for power generation.)

Interviewer Tom Brokaw gets points for asking the question that many on the right wing have frequently posed. If reducing power consumption is so important, why does Gore live in a notoriously electricity hungry 10,000 sq. ft. mansion?
MR. BROKAW: Let me ask you about your personal lifestyle, because it's been the subject of a lot of dialogue on the blogs, as you know. You and Tipper have bought a big home outside of Nashville, and you had it retrofitted. But for a time there was a comparison between what the president has in Texas at his home as being more environmentally correct than your home. The Building Green Council gave you its second highest award. But Stephen Smith, who is with the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, is troubled by the scale of your home. He said, "We all need to evaluate what we ... need in square footage." Present company included. We all have to look at scale, don't we? Why was it necessary for you to have a 10,000 square foot home? Because that is going to be more energy intensive than a smaller home for just the two of you.

VICE PRES. GORE: Well, there--I don't claim to be perfect, and all of us who care about this issue are, are trying to do our part, but I, I will say this. We buy green energy. The issue is carbon. The issue is carbon, and we have, essentially, a carbon-free home. We buy from wind energy and solar energy. Our roof is covered with solar electric panels, a geothermal system with all these deep wells, and we cut our natural gas bill by 90 percent, and I'm, I'm--we're, we're walking the walk and not just talking the talk. There are always people who are going to try to aim at the messenger if they don't like the message, and I don't claim to be perfect, but we are walking the walk.
This is in keeping with Gore's comments elsewhere in the interview in which he asserts that there is so much power available via wind and solar power that we really don't need to worry about reducing consumption but rather switching out sources. He throws out the rather meaningless figure, "There's enough solar energy that hits this--the surface of the planet in 40 minutes to provide a full year's worth of energy for the entire world." Perhaps so, but you would have to capture every bit of that solar energy, putting the entire world into a forty minute night by building a solar cell the size of the earth. The more relevant question is: how much power can realistically be generated by a sane number of solar cells, and how long does it take a solar cell to generate the same amount of energy that was required to manufacture it.

But let's get back to Gore's claim that the power consumption of his mansion is okay because it all comes from "green" sources. If I wanted, I could actually claim the same, because our electric billing company commits to getting all its electricity from hydro-electric, wind and solar. (I picked it because it doesn't scale billing rates according to usage, which is key around here in the summer.) But when there are power trading companies such as ours which will only from the "green" generators, that simply means that those companies which don't discriminate by source will by a higher mix of coal and natural gas produced power. Because power is interchangeable, the market will move the mix around to fit the available supply.

So unless Gore's use of a "green" power company is specifically tied to that company building more renewable power production facilities (and in de-regulated states where power providers and producers are split, this is not the case) it really doesn't matter if he buys from a "green" provider or a "dirty" provider. The same amount of power is generated from the same sources. And since burning coal or natural gas is much more scaleable (at low investment) than building more dams, windmills and solar panels -- if he uses more power that will result in more combustion-based electricity being produced, even if he is personally only paying a "green" company.

If he really wants to reduce the amount of CO2 he puts out, he needs to use less electricity. (In which having a house a fifth the size of his current mansion would be a good start.) And if he wants to make sure that more electricity comes from "non-carbon" sources, he needs to put his money where his mouth is and fund alternative energy production start ups. (He has done some of this, but given the starting costs, buying a few green energy stocks is not going to be nearly enough.) How about if instead of lecturing everyone, he first moves to a much smaller house, and then uses his political pull to get together the money to launch a major "green" power production company. This would give us the chance to sit back and see if Gore actually has the ability to run anything, and it would also be a very good test case to see if its actually possible to build and run additional "alternative energy" sources in anything like a net positive fashion.

Personally, if we want to switch out power production, the only real alternatives I see are nuclear in the near term and fusion in the very long term. But it would certainly be interesting to sit back and watch if Gore wants to give real work a serious try. Maybe he'd even learn a little bit of basic economics in the process!

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Only Very Mildly Quirky

Kyle of Postmodern Papist has tagged us on the Six Quirks meme. There's nothing like trying to come up with six quirks to write about to make you feel terribly mundane and ordinary, but here is our best shot on a Sunday evening.
1. Link the person(s) who tagged you
2. Mention the rules on your blog
3. Tell about 6 unspectacular quirks of yours
4. Tag 6 fellow bloggers by linking them
5. Leave a comment on each of the tagged blogger’s blogs letting them know they’ve been tagged
I'm not sure that we're quirky enough to muster illustrative songs as Kyle has, and one of my quirks which I shall not officially enumerate at this time is that I never tag people on memes, but that aside:

1) We do not currently have a TV. This does not mean we never watch anything, as we continue to slowly work through our NetFlix queue on the iMac, and there's an old 12 inch TV/VCR combo on which the girls are occasionally set loose with their children's videos, but when the TV died some months ago we took the opportunity to cancel the cable subscription and have since been cut off from the act of "watching TV".

2) While we have an affinity for large projects (reflooring the downstairs, this weekend spent refinishing a newly acquired old desk, etc.) there are many small upkeep things around the house that have been waiting for our time for months, and continue to wait: a curtain rod needing to be re-hung in our bathroom (thus we must shower in the dark at night), the seats on our kitchen chairs have not been screwed back down since they were refinished eight years ago, etc.

3) Darwin eats his cereal without milk and Mrs Darwin hates Oreos.

4) We are both of the as yet small group of home school graduates now homeschooling our children.

5) We have a very rapid family linguistic cycle, most especially for nicknames. One or more of our three girls have, over the last few years, borne the names: Noogs, Babs, Toogs, Cake, Bella, Belly, Shabs, Pigs, Snooglet, or any of the above with -belle or -let added as a suffix.

6) Mrs Darwin hates romance novels, and Darwin is completely bored by sports (except when the boys at work are following a cricket match between India and Pakistan).

Friday, July 18, 2008

Want an Analyist? Call an Indian

This week we've been interviewing candidates for a new slot on our team at work (though due to budget constraints this is an "internal only" hire.) The resumes we got from HR which fit the job requirements totalled four Indian immigrants and one Pakistani. Not a single US born or educated candidate among them.

So far as I can gather, this is not unusual in technical areas. (And although we're a marketing team, this is a slot for a heavily analytical person.) And while fifteen years ago the joke was, "If you want to be an engineer, learn Japanese." These days, I guess it would be, "If you want to work with computers, learn Hindi."

While some of this has to do with India currently providing the combination of a business friendly climate, comparatively low wages and a good educational system, from my conversations with Indian co-workers it sounds like it's also the result of India actively fostering a highly technical citizenry over the last 30 years. Based mainly on standardized tests (and to some extent on student preference) students are put onto various pre-professional tracks at in junior high or high school, with the coveted areas being medicine, accounting and technology. Very, very few people, I'm told, go into the arts or humanities, and the idea of taking a college majors that doesn't have an obvious target career is very alien to my Indian co-workers.

On the basics, my co-workers have an outstanding education. Their math skills are better than those of most US-education people I know, and their reading and writing are also generally better -- though with a few oddities that are the result of trying to bridge the gap between Indian and American English. (And while their usage can be odd, their grammar and spelling are generally much better than those of us from the US.)

But while I admire the overall emphasis that Indian society apparently puts on education, I find the idea of an educational system which is entirely based on preparing people for careers (and thus gives little time to history, literature and philosophy) rather dispiriting. Certainly, we do little better in the US, where our humanities departments are too often given over primarily to political activism, and a lot of people manage to graduate college with little familiarity with Western Culture. Still, I would like to see such enthusiasm for learning focused on the full range of subjects, not just ones relevant to specific careers. And if my own experience is any gauge, having a primarily liberal arts education is not a barrier to pursuing a very analytical career.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Calling all movie buffs

All right, sports fans, here's the quote:

"Let's never speak of this again."

Who said it in what movie? Darwin and I have been going nuts all week trying to remember what this is from. Google and IMBd provide no real answers.

When Metaphors Outlive Reality

In an early morning meeting, one of my Indian-born coworkers complained in her Mumbai accent, "It's like a game of whack-a-mole. Every time you deal with one thing, something else pops up."

Whack-a-mole has become a standard metaphor, but I wonder how many people have ever actually seen the carnival game that it derives its name from. (Unless there's a computer version that I'm not aware of which keeps it in current. Wii mole, anyone?) Certainly, I've never seen a whack-a-mole game in person, and I'm guessing that it's not very common on the west coast of India either. However I've certainly made whack-a-mole analogies myself, despite never having experienced the game myself.

Some things seem to live on almost primarily as metaphors. A number of common metaphors center around arrows and archery, yet how many people (other than those of us who got the chance long ago at Boy Scout summer camp) have actually seen an archer fire an arrow?

I wonder how long a metaphor can live on in common usage after the reality it's based on has faded into obscurity.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Good People vs. Bad People

Jen of Conversion Diary has a very good post up about the myth of "good people" and "bad people", as opposed to moral agency.

Divided We Stand

Every couple of days, someone tells me, "It's going to be such a relief come January when Obama is president. Finally we'll have someone in the White House we can all come together and respect."

We all have a tendency to assume that most other reasonable people think roughly the same way that we do. And thus, those who believe President Bush to be despicable and embarrassing tend to assume (and going around liberal Austin assume out loud) that all reasonable people agree with them, and that aside for a bunch of low IQ rednecks at a NASCAR rally somewhere in flyover country, everyone will feel united in admiring a future President Obama.

I can sympathize with being desperately eager to see almost anyone in the oval office other than someone for whom you have no respect. I spent much of the Clinton years trying to reign in the more over-the-top excesses of some of my relatives: No, Clinton is not going to invite the UN to invade the US. No, he has not sold Long Beach Harbor to the Chinese. No, he is not going to stage a coup and become dictator.

Even so, I recall watching the coverage when Israeli President Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated and realizing that I disliked Clinton so much and trusted him so little that his speach of condolence sounded like a lie to me -- while Yasser Arafat sounded more genuine. Just hearing Clinton say something made me want to disagree, even if it was something that I essentially agreed with.

For those who find Obama exciting and inspiring -- at least have the objectivity to realize that there is a very significant percentage of the American population who will never agree with you on that, unless Obama changes his positions in such a way that you cease to like him. As a country, we are very, very deeply divided on a number of issues that cut to the very root of what it means to be a human being, what it means to live a moral life, what is the nature of the family, and how society should be organized and administered.

Those divisions are not going away: they are the product of fundamentally differing ideas of how the world and the human person work. A charismatic speaker is not going to make them go away. As a result of our cultural and moral fragmentation over the last 50 years, we are now in a period in history during which at least 30% of the population is pretty much guaranteed to despise any given president, for reasons that cut much deeper than "just politics".

Obama supporters are welcome to think that they have the best candidate, and they are welcome to be eager to win, but please stop telling me that Obama will begin the process of "bringing us all together". Our house is divided, and divided it will remain until one of the halves of the country changes its entire worldview.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

A few prayer requests

Please pray for the repose of the soul of Joseph Krug, Jr., who was killed in a car crash a few days ago. "Gordo" was a college friend of my brothers, and played accordion in their Irish band. I never met him, but he sounds like he was a great guy.


Also, please keep our college friend Christa Herbert in your prayers. She's a young mother, newly pregnant with her third child, who just discovered that she has colon cancer. She's scheduled for surgery tomorrow.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Getting there

Here is a preview of what the finished project will look like. Not all that shoe molding is nailed on yet, and we need to caulk and paint (it came pre-primed), but at last, we have a foretaste of final floor bliss.

It's also amazing what a difference it makes when you dig through the garage for the paint can and touch up all the scuffs and nicks and long gouges on the walls. Makes the paint look fresh. Perhaps I should do that in the kitchen as well, which looks a bit like a war zone only three years after being painted.

See those darker bits in the corner? Funny story about that. Unfortunately, we ran out of wood and adhesive with about five square left to lay; fortunately, we had to make a trip down to the flooring store anyway to return an unused bucket of sealant. Unfortunately, down at the flooring store, we couldn't match the color exactly; fortunately, the closest match was still teak. Unfortunately, we had to buy the entire box just to get five square feet; fortunately, the salesman priced the box at fifty cents a square foot. (That's $0.50/sq. ft., if you like your figures expressed that way.) I defy anyone to find a better deal. And since we were returning the sealant, we actually made money on the deal (though buying molding ate through that, and then some).

Just to contrast, here's what the rest of the living room currently looks like.

Virtue Isn't Quick and Easy

A follow up thought on the Obligation vs. Individualism post: Several people have pointed out to me here or elsewhere that if there is not a single, government run, consistent program to provide certain benefits to those who need them, there is no guarantee that people will receive the benefits that they need.

Not only does this not surprise me, but this was, at least so I intended, conceded in my argument. One of the reasons why we set up bureaucratic social programs is because we don't want to accept the level of inconsistency and unfairness that can result from organically developed community systems of mutual obligation.

Some have, however, taken this argument farther and suggested that it is simply impossible for needs such as health care, unemployment, etc. to be provided through any system other than a large government run one, which spreads the risk across millions of people (and allows nearly unlimited deficit spending.) It's all very well to want personal mutual obligation to take care of things, I'm told, but you simply can't deal with some issues that way.

I disagree. It is possible to take care of all of these things at the community level through mutual obligation. And there is a test case which we can look at to see how that looks. The Amish applied to congress to receive an exemption from social security. They do not pay into it and cannot receive benefits. They also avoid Medicare and Medicaid, and do not purchase health or homeowners insurance. They do this not primarily because such things are not mentioned in the bible (as is their motivation for avoiding many modern technologies) but because they believe that it is their duty to care for the elderly and the sick directly through the community. They do use modern medicine, but they pay out of a self-administered community mutual aid fund.

This can be especially rough on them, because after having a number of generations in a fairly closed community, some Amish groups suffer from increased incidence of genetic diseases. (Things are made further difficult, as the WSJ article linked describes, because many hospitals refuse to give the Amish the same prices that they give standard insurance companies.)

I think we could generally agree that the Amish have us beat when it comes to maintaining a solid community and sense of mutual obligation.

Now lest anyone get the wrong idea, I'm not saying that society as a whole should drop all safety net programs and live like the Amish. They manage to pull off what they do because they have a long community history and a religious commitment to sticking to what they're doing. And what they're doing is I think, in regards to community mutual obligation, right. However, the country as a whole is massive, religiously and ideologically diverse, and has no history of enforcing that kind of community commitment. If we tried to provide health care the way the Amish do, it would not work.

But since I think they do have something rather close to the right model, if we believe that community and mutual obligation are virtues, we should when changing our system seek options that are more like it rather than less like it. And always try to gauge how our well intentioned attempts to provide services for everyone will effect social cohesion.

The problem is, the quick and dirty solutions is much, much easier. Our national government is so big and so powerful that its easy to convince ourselves that if we bring it into play and throw money at a problem, we can fix the problem and let our consciences rest easy. Because federal programs can be so big that they touch everyone in the country, it seems much simpler to say, "We should have national single payer health care" than it is to try to push hundreds of thousands of communities (which are hard to even define in any rigorous sense) to take responsibility for caring for all their sick members.

Encouraging millions of people to behave virtuously is a very difficult job, and will never meet with complete success this side of eternity. Massive government effort can sometimes ammeliorate some of the social ills resulting from people not being systematically virtuous -- at at the same time it reduces people's incentive to be virtuous. (Indeed, not only reduces the incentive, but to an extent removes the opportunity and obscures the need.)

The difficulty (which we spend a great deal of energy in the political sphere fighting it) is deciding where to strike the right balance between making sure that the worst suffering in society is avoiding, while not removing the need for community obligation. Because sadly, given our tendencies towards selfishness, if our need for community is removed, we will often fail to practice it.

Preparing to Meet his Maker

Samuel Johnson said that nothing concentrates the mind like the prospect of immanent death. Tony Snow, who died this weekend, apparently found it so. A year ago he wrote a deeply moving article for Christianity Today about how cancer strengthened his faith. (H/T Pro Ecclesia)

Friday, July 11, 2008

Obligation vs. Individualism

I ran into the following argument in favor of pro-life Catholics supporting Obama in the comments of another blog the other day, and since it seems like the summary of a commonly held view (which I think is erroneous) I think it's worth taking a detailed look at:
I believe that an Obama presidency is better equipped to serve the broad Catholic social justice agenda than a McCain presidency. I despair of effectively making this arguement in comboxes, but I’ll give it a go: 1. Neither candidate comes even close to embracing the Catholic social ethic; 2. One, Obama, shows promise of challenging the reigning ethic of individualism and autonomy that holds sway in this country and advocates many positions that would address economic explanations for resorting to abortion; 3. The other, McCain, endorses legal protection for the unborn but is more inclined to uphold the individualistic, autonomy-focused ethic that weakens bonds of mutual obligation; 4. A transformation away from individualism and autonomy toward community and reciprocal obligation is the only soil in which a truely prolife ethic can grow; 5. In the last analysis, even with restrictive legislation, no woman can be effectively compelled to give birth so the issue is which candidate can *simultaneously* inspire cultural changes that will encourage the reemergence of this ethic and prepare the way for protective legislation; 6. So, whether we like it or not, it’s all about hearts and minds and I submit that restrictive legislation initiated without cultural support could well swing the broad, ambivalent middle permanently agaist legal protection.
One of the broadly held generalizations (and true enough that it's useful at times) about our political spectrum in the US is the conservatives want to see less government and less taxes, while progressives want to see more government programs designed to help those less fortunate in society, and higher taxes to fund those programs. Based upon this generalization, it is often argued by more politically progressive Christians that conservatives have a highly individualistic philosophy, while progressives' desire for more government intervention to help the less fortunate represents an appreciation for "community and reciprocal obligation".

My question is: Is this true?

My contention is: No, it's not. Indeed, the reverse is the case.

Let us examine...

I'd like to start with a couple of examples, the first of which I'll take directly from my own life.

When we had been married a few years, things came to a crisis point with the care of my paternal grandmother. My grandfather had died several years before, and grandma was in increasingly poor health, not able to get around by herself well. My dad was her only surviving child, and he was in the middle of chemo therapy. Her niece, who had been living with her for several years to provide in-house care, had to move back to Colorado to help one of her own children. So two options lay before us: We could put grandma into a nursing home, an idea which she absolutely hated but which medicare would pay for, or MrsDarwin and I could move in with her to provide full time care -- despite having a one-year-old and MrsDarwin being pregnant.

We did the latter. It was a difficult period, though in the end it was much shorter than we expected, because grandma died (in her own house, as she had always wished) not much more than a month after we moved in.

This is, I think, exactly the sort of community and mutual obligation that we all agree our culture needs more of: The older generation helping to rear the young, the young in turn taking care of the old. All too often, people are "too busy" and older relatives are left along, whether in their own homes or in "group homes".

How does this relate to progressive versus conservative approaches to social services? Well, by offering to pay for nursing home care, medicare essentially sends the message "You can save yourself a lot of trouble" (and believe me, caring for a very elderly relative is not only hard work, but puts serious stresses both on the caretakers directly and on the wider network of family) "by putting your elderly relatives in nursing homes, and we'll foot the bill." (Actually, I forget at this moment whether it was medicare or medicaid which was involved. We dealt with the cleaning and lifting and bedpan changing, not the paperwork. But I think the point remains the same.) By removing the cost from what would, in our case, have been the selfish choice (put her in a home and not have to bother, even though there was someone in the family able to provide care in the home), government social programs essentially encourage an individualistic, selfish approach to these matters. Clearly, such funding is needed by some people. There are families in which no one is available to provide the needed care for an elderly relative, and the money is not available to pay for a nursing home out of pocket. Nevertheless, we must admit that in the process of provided the much needed help to those who have no other option, the program also radically reduces the incentive to personally care for the elder generation.

Let's consider an imaginary, but I think fairly realistic, example now: A seventeen year old girl, already doing poorly in high school, finds herself pregnant. Let's assume that, contrary to certain pressures, she is committed to bringing her child to term and raising the child herself. Two paths are possible:

1) Her family and friends rally round to provide her with support. Her family moves people around in their small house to make sure she and the baby have a room to themselves, and her parents, siblings and friends provide free childcare so that she can go back to finish her high school degree and get some job training. Everyone chips in to pay for baby clothes and other baby equipment. After a couple years, she gets a good enough job that she and her baby are able to move into their own apartment, though they still rely heavily on her parents and relatives for childcare.

2) Instead of her family, she turns to the government. She's able to get into public housing and get food stamps to supplement her meager income. She's lucky to be able to finish high school at one of the few campuses in her city which provides a free childcare center, and she's able to collect government assistance (monetary and subsidized childcare) for a year while she gets some job training. Finally she lands a better job and is able to move out of subsidized housing, though she still needs subsidized childcare in order to meet her work schedule.

In situation 1, we see true community and mutual obligation at work. In situation 2, we don't so much. Sure, the government money came from people's taxes which means that in theory all 300 million other residents of the US were meeting their "mutual obligations" by helping her, but none of them really knew it. Everyone continued to wish that they paid less taxes, and no one really knew whom their tax dollars went to help. However, the mere existence of such programs effectively imposes a penalty on families that do act as in example 1 rather than as in example 2. Imagining that the girl's family in 2 could have helped her, but either did not want to or she preferred a greater degree of independence, they ended up with more disposable time and income because they weren't directly helping her. Perhaps their taxes were a little higher, but as far as their direct actions go, they were left with their money and free time. The girl also gets some benefits by going the government route: she gets her own individual place to live, rather than going through the inevitable stresses that come from lots of people sharing the same quarters, and the strife the often results when hard-working people are constantly having to give more time and help to each other. She is able to have a more individualistic lifestyle if she moves out with the help of anonymous government help.

Now let me be very, very clear: I am not saying that medicare and government help to single mothers should not exist. In many circumstances, providing the necessary help from within available family and/or immediate community resources is impossible. Many families simply do not have enough time and resources to give to meet the needs before them. And many people do not have loving families to fall back on.

But the above reasons why we starting building a centralized, governmental set of social services basically boils down to: sometimes mutual obligation and community action can't provide enough services to certain people, and so to get around these breakdowns we set up a government system designed to be more fair. In other words, we have a government social services infrastructure because we don't trust community and mutual obligation to get the job done. And yet, one of the side effects of setting up such a social services structure is that it serves to undercut community and mutual obligation by making them less necessary.

This is the part of the argument that people seem to either lose track of or disagree with, so indulge me while I focus on it for a bit longer.

Imagine for a moment that there are no social services at all. In both the case of an elderly relative needing care and a young single mother needing housing, childcare and education, family would be the first source of help for the individual. Failing the family, friends and neighbors and fellow parishioners might be turned to. Given a large group of people, there are always going to be some families that need help, and so one of the main ways that friends, neighbors and parishioners saw each other would be through efforts to help out one person or another. And the knowledge that help in times of trouble primarily comes from such sources would give people a strong incentive to help: you help others now so that they will want to help you in turn when you are in need. So providing help to members of the community provides both community social outlet and a very strong incentive to keep up community ties.

However, people observe (in this imaginary world) that this community-based approach to providing social services does not always work. If a family is divided or abusive, they don't help each other. Poor neighborhood and parishes don't have enough resources to help everyone in need. And sometimes unpopular people don't receive the help that they should, because no one feels like helping them. There's just not enough consistency in how help is given out, and so a government social services system is put in place in order to fill the gaps. People will still help each other, of course, but the government will help out when that isn't enough.

Now there's a safety net when the community doesn't do its job well enough. That's great, right?

Well, it is, to an extent. But the fact that there is now a safety net for when the community doesn't come through means that now people don't have to try as hard at community. If you're really busy or really hard up for money, you don't need to worry about helping out when the rest of the community is chipping in to help someone, because if they later express their displeasure by not helping you when you're in trouble, you can turn to the government. And if someone's need is really huge, and the community would have to give out of their need instead of just their excess in order to help, well they can sit back and keep in mind that the government will pick up the slack.

Mutual obligation becomes more and more optional, until the point when we have a sea of individuals who are totally dependent on the government for a safety net should things go wrong. Sound familiar?

I don't think there's a simple answer to this problem. Once the cultural assumption that communities should take care of their own is gone, you can't just take the government social services away and expect people to help each other. The cultural machinery and habits for doing so are gone. And even when those habits and institutions are there, they're imperfect. People are not consistent, and they're not always virtuous. So in the absence of a completely "fair" government system, some people who need help will inevitably not get it. And yet, if you provide enough services to fill that gap, you remove the incentives for communities to provide their own social services in the first place.

So I'm not here to argue that we should take away the social services that we have, though I'm sure we could all agree that (the world being as imperfect as it is) there must be better ways to do what we're already doing. However, I do think we need to break out of the idea that conservatives are all radical individualists while progressives all believe in mutual obligation. Certainly, there are some conservatives who when they say "fewer taxes and less government" have no intention of using the greater freedom they are left with to help their fellow men; but at the same time, there are a great many progressives from whom the "let's tax everyone to provide this service" is simply a way of saying, "I refuse to provide help myself unless I know that everyone else is paying his fair share too."

True community and mutual obligation is when people help other people, not when help is distributed to other people through the taxing and spending of an anonymous bureaucratic organization. And yet true community involves rough human edges and failings that, in all honestly, many of us do not really want to accept. We would rather have the dehumanized consistency that bureaucratic organizations provide.

The Floor Show

The downstairs floor is finished. All the wood is installed. (Let's not speak of the baseboards, the grout, or the thresholds.)

To celebrate this, I give you the Misses Darwin, perched upon what are now empty boxes.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Great War and Modern Memory

In six more years, we will mark one hundred years since the beginning of the Great War, the First World War, the War to End All Wars, and the beginning of the modern era. At least according to Wikipedia, there still remain a few living veterans of that war, but it seems likely that by 2014 there will not be.

In some ways, however, the Great War (and more especially, the period before it) has seemed a century away for quite some time. The trauma which the Western World experienced in the great war seems to have quickly colored all perception of the time before it, such that discussion of 1900 in works written in the 1930s seems to put that time (a mere thirty years before) much farther in the past than we would put the 1930s, which are 70 years distant from us.

During the decades immediately after the war, the turn of the century seems to have receded very quickly into "the past", while to us anything in the last seventy years seems fairly recent, in that it is, as we are, part of "modern times".

And yet, the Great War is seldom discussed in our culture. A great many movies and books are set in the Great Depression or in World War II, and even the 20s are fairly familiar cultural territory. But over the Great War has been cast a pall -- and the period before it is "the past". Perhaps, as this has been on my mind lately, it's time that I dig out Fussell's The Great War and Modern Memory

As the centenial of the Great War draws near, however, I hope that perhaps we will see a bit of a cultural re-evaluation of the Great War and the period before it. Because so far as I can tell, though the Great War is often seen as the precursor to the modern era, the period before was in fact much more familiar territory than we would perhaps normally realize. And for all that the nations which vanished or were radically restructured as a result of the war were often ancient kingdoms and empires in name and structure, the problems that they and their people faced in the wider world were not necessarily so very different from those that still drive international politics.

Perhaps it's time that we look again at the Great War, and the decades that led up to it, not as an iconic contrast of "past" and "modern", nor simply as an irrational, meaningless conflagration of humanity, but as a real event that swept up real people for reasons that seemed rational enough at the time.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Mea Patria

Since the computer was unplugged and off in a corner for the long weekend (as we finished with the flooring adventure in the living room) and I returned to an unusually frenetic work week, I find myself posting on Independence Day very late.

The 4th of July is the day on which many Americans pause to be grateful for the sacrifices of those who founded our country 232 years ago -- while a few others pause to decry what they term the "nationalism" and "triumphalism" of their fellow citizens. In one thing, at least, we are most of us united: we take the day off and grill.

Many among our "best and brightest" like to talk about us having entered a post-national age. In this new age, it is imagined, we will all treasure the traditions of our regions and ethnic heritages, but we will be "citizens of the world" first and foremost, and we will think of "nation states" as mere "administrative units".

This modern internationalist/post-nationalist line of thinking has never appealed to me -- perhaps in great part because the available international institutions which these enthusiasts seem to hold dear (the UN, the World Bank, the IMF, the EU, etc.) do not impress me. They seem to provide all the dehumanizing bureaucracy of the various world-spanning empires of history, with none of the cultural heritage which these provided us with. (Imagine, if you will, that the Greeks of Alexander's age and beyond and the Romans, Byzantines, Carolingians, Normans, Holy Roman Emperors, Persians, Turks, Hapsburgs and British had, rather than spreading their cultural and political institutions throughout their spheres of influence, simply set of ponderous committees and NGOs, which provided all corruption and slowness of empire, but none of the cultural legacies. Would we be better off? Perhaps by some standards, but surely not by mine.

And yet, it has struck me increasingly of late that my own attitude towards my country has changed quite a bit over the years -- whether through a shift in philosophy or simply through maturity I cannot say. The Latin word for one's country was patria, a word which would best be translated as "fatherland" if the Third Reich had not forever tainted the connotations of that phrase. And it was very much as a parent that the ancient Greeks and Romans (our cultural forebears) saw the state.

When I first encounter the final Socratic dialogues, Crito and Phaedo, I was deeply disturged by Socrates' notion of the relationship between the citizen and the state. In Crito, Socrates, who has been condemned to death under an unjust charge, refuses the offer of his wealthy friend Crito to help him escape from captivity in Athens to another city state. Socrates refuses, arguing that by living his whole life as a citizen of Athens, and even fighting for it as a soldier, he has committed himself to live by Athens' laws -- and so it would be wrong of him to violate their laws by fleeing punishment, even though he believes that he was wrongly convicted.

To my modern, youthful mind, this was clearly idiotic. Sure, one could love one's country. But if one were wrongly convicted of a crime and sentenced to death, why not skip out? This seemed like an excess of loyalty that bordered on insanity.

Looking back, I think that my line of thinking was that one's association with a country was voluntary: I think this country is basically a good country, therefore I decide to live there. And based on that, it seemed to me that if at any point the country did something wrong, one should have no qualms in severing that voluntary association. At an individual level, that may be an appealing view. But once you get beyond the extreme individualism which is the province of the sixteen-year-old male, you realize that few people ever think themselves in the wrong. If everyone opted out of every country the minute that he felt he was being treated unjustly, we would have anarchy. In order for a nation to provide the order necessary for a stable society that protect the common good, it is necessary that we generally obey that nation's laws even when we think them unjust. (We can work to change them, to be sure, but we can't simply ignore them or leave -- except in the most extreme situations.)

Socrates' other line of thinking was more based on emotion and loyalty: Athens was his polis. One famously cannot choose one's family. Socrates clearly believed that beyond a certain point, one can't choose one's country either. Given that he had remained a constant Athenian citizen during good times, he could not now abandon it in bad. (Much though he might suffer for that decision.)

At the time, thinking of one's relationship to one's country as similar to one's relationship to one's parents struck me as very odd. After all, your parents made you. And much of the time, your parents are responsible for providing your with an educational, cultural and religious background which remains part of you through the rest of your life. A country is just a place where you live, right?

Well, clearly a country is something more than just a place where you live. Nations have specific histories and cultures, and often embody certain ideals or approaches to the world through their laws, culture and national characters. I think most of us acknowledge at least this much. Certainly, I did even in my much more individualistic youth. However, it seemed to me then that countries were spread across the world, buffet like, and that one chose (either actively or passively) with one of them. Thus, I chose to live in the US, partly perhaps because it was where I had been born, but at a deeper level because I thought it was the best country for me to live in based on its culture and founding ideals. If I didn't think that, I could go elsewhere, couldn't I?

It's true, one can leave one's country, and indeed, many people do very much become citizens of countries they emmigrate to. (My boss was born and raised in Belgium, but has become very much an American in his thinking over the last 15 years that he has lived here.) But truly becoming a member of another nation involves more than an airline ticket and a citizenship form -- in that very sense in which nations are rather more than "administrative units". Indeed, the process of truly imbibing the culture and ideals of another nation is probably best seen in analogy to the process of adopting another family. It is a process that (unless one is very young) takes a good deal of time -- and is seldom achieved completely and without traces of the old allegiance.

From my current vantage point, Socrates analogy between parent and patria seems increasingly reasonable. There really is a deep sense in which we belong to our nations, we are a part of them, and they are a part of us. Some are founded upon beautiful ideals and have inspiring histories. Others are dysfunctional to the core. Yet others simply have a lot of history, a back story which defines and shapes the current reality. You can move from one country to another, but it takes a great deal of work and abandonment of self to truly become a member of the new country. All too often, one is simply a resident in a strange land. Like it or not, we are the children of our country. And that fact has a great deal to do with who we are.

And so, looking back two hundred thirty-two years and five days, I am thankful to be an American. The United States is the country that gave birth to me, and to a great extent it is responsible (whether I like it or not) for who I am.

Iowahawk has the scoop

Iowahawk presents us with a note from Barack Obama in which he clearly explains his position on withdrawing troops from Iraq:

A Clarification

A Message to American Voters
By Senator Barack Obama (D-IL)

...Let me be crystal clear: if elected president, my first act will be to call for the immediate withdrawal of all American troops from Iraq. I have always been consistent and forthright in this position, and I want to reassure my supporters that my recent statement backtracking from it was just some bullsh*t my staff came up with to tack to the center for the general election. To win this election, it will be critical to appeal to the dwindling but stubborn group of idiots who cling to fantasies of American "victory" in this tragic disaster. It's an unfortunate part of the complicated game of presidential politics, but let's face it: I can't stop this war if I'm not in the White House. However, you should know by now that whatever I may say from now until November, once elected I will immediately pull the rug from these gullible pro-war rubes.

Or will I?
Also, Iowahawkboils down the Supreme Court's recent rulings:

Court Okays Gun Rights for Detainees, Child Rapists

...The petitioner in the case, Abdul Hamid Atwah, was a well known Taliban child entertainer and rapist who was detained by U.S. Marines after a 2005 sweep on an Afghanistan playground and has been held at Guantanamo ever since. In 2007 the court agreed to hear his case suing the government for restricting his Second Amendment rights to keep court-appointed handguns and explosives in his detention cell.

Writing for the majority, Justice William Kennedy said that "as an enthusiastic child rapist and terrorist, petitioner has a reasonable expectation of threats of harm. This court recognize his proportional right to self-defense under the sweet, elusive penumbra of our ever-mutating Constitution."

In his dissenting opinion, Justice Antonin Scalia said "I totally f@*&ing give up."

Read them both in their entirety, and no coffee near the keyboard.

Monday, July 07, 2008

A Sub-par Extraordinary Experience

(Warning: Catholic inside baseball ahead.)

This weekend we had to attend Mass at a different time than usual. Our options were a) the Spanish Mariachi-flavored Mass, or b) the Extraordinary Form down at the Cathedral. Now, Darwin's Hispanic heritage does not extend to the more vernacular forms of Mexican musical expression, and neither do I love me some mariachi, so we opted for b. As we were driving down to the Cathedral, Darwin said, "I feel like we should go down to the Tridentine Mass every so often because I keep thinking that it will get better."

"What's the definition of insanity?" I asked.

Both Darwin and I are of a traditional bent of mind. We've read the 1962 Missal, and we appreciate the richness of the language and the clarity of the rubrics. We love Gregorian chant and own a Graduale. Both of us learned basic Latin responses such as "Et cum spiritu tuo" from our parents, who remembered saying them at Mass as children. So we're predisposed to like the Extraordinary Form. We want to like the Extraordinary Form. And yet every EF Mass we've ever been to has left us wondering, "Is this really what it's all about? Why is anyone attached to this?"

Our Sunday Mass was completely in keeping with our experience of the past five years. It began with a hymn, not the introit (Holy God, We Praise Thy Name -- which I don't have to go to an EF to hear done well on a regular basis), and then... what? I was unclear where exactly the Mass started, since the Mass booklet provided wasn't exactly clear either. Since the vintage priest was inaudible and absolutely unintelligible (in Latin and in English) there was no way of following where he was in the Mass. Nor was it possible to match up his postures to the little pictures in the missal, the which I assume were included to orient those who had no way of following the Latin. We knelt for a long silent stretch, enough time to read several pages several times over while still being unclear what was going on. Darwin, in back with the baby, assured me that faintly through the speakers came the sound of the priest saying the first words of the Confiteor. I thought I heard "Gloria". The children, who had nothing either visual or aural to focus them, began to wiggle and squirm.

There was very little clear consensus on which parts were to be said by the people. Some congregants responded to some things, some to others, some said nothing at all throughout the Mass. The responses that were said were mumbled in such a low and disorganized fashion that I had trouble recognizing them. The sound system had been turned so low that even the readings, read at the lectern, were extremely difficult to follow. (This must be a choice made by the mass group, because at other Masses at the Cathedral we've been able to hear just fine.) During the long sermon I couldn't hear, due to the under-utilized sound system, I pondered the stereotype of the little old lady who said her rosary during Mass and realized that had I a rosary upon me, I would be that lady. At least then I'd have some knowledge of what prayer I was supposed to be saying when.

There is a certain desperation in attending some ritual event or ceremony in which everything seems slightly off-kilter. The sense of a familiar routine being altered in some subtle way that you can't understand or follow becomes disorienting and eventually suffocating. The girls gradually abandoned their efforts to be still and quiet when it seemed like nothing was happening, and I couldn't even show them in the missal where we were and what was going on, since I was floundering myself. Between the deteriorating behavior (which crossed the line, as children's behavior always seems to, right before communion) and my increasing frustration with being unable to align myself with what was going on, we had to drag everyone out directly after Communion -- something we have seldom ever done. (Everyone under seven promptly received a lecture and spanking, from daddy, in the car.)

On the way home, we shook our heads once again over the definition of insanity: doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting a different result.

When the Motu Proprio was issued, we were excited. Pope Benedict's encouragement of one great sacred tradition of the Church inspired us to delve into other traditional forms of worship. Darwin worked hard to form a group to say Vespers, bought books himself, and even typed up one page sheets for each day of the week when the books proved difficult for beginners to navigate. I accosted our associate pastor on his first Sunday at our parish and asked him to use his experience with chant and sacred music to found a schola. We followed blogs and websites devoted to the "reform of the reform", which were bursting with avid devotees of the Extraordinary Form all extolling the pre-Vatican II Mass as the pinnacle of Catholic worship, and triumphantly predicting that as more people experienced the riches of the old Mass, there would be an upsurge in demand for it.

And yet... every time we actually attend the Extraordinary Form we're underwhelmed and disappointed. Perhaps we expect too much, but our expectations are based on the text itself of the 1962 missal. The text suggests an inherent drama and beauty to this form of the Mass that has not been born out by any of our actual experiences of the EF. Oddly enough, our experiences don't jibe with those of our parents and grandparents, who remember the old Mass as celebrated as the norm by parishes. It's as if our local EF Mass is formulated to accommodate those who long for a distant musty past -- as opposed to the way a living parish works, where a priest who strives for liturgical beauty and tradition must be scrupulously excellent to stave off the inevitable complaints from people who don't like "that sort of thing".

Conversely, the few times we've been to the Novus Ordo celebrated in Latin have been wondrously reverent and marvelously beautiful. Perhaps that's because we're attuned to the rhythms of the Novus Ordo and so can immerse ourselves in the richness of this form of worship. But also, the careful planning and preparation and clear love of the form and the language have shown through in the attitudes of the priest and the choir and the congregation. The worship aids have been clear and concise so that even someone who had never attended any mass, let alone a mass in Latin, could follow the prayers and respond appropriately. The same has been true of the few and various Byzantine Divine Liturgies we've attended -- even in a completely unfamiliar language, with an unknown structure, we didn't feel at sea because both the priest and the faithful were unambiguous about what they were doing, and what role each played.

It's enjoyable to click around to various websites and look at the pretty pictures of vestments and gorgeous churches and the inspiring image of the elevation with the priest surrounded by the deacon and the sub-deacon. Darwin can appreciate the richness of the Latin text, with its elevated vocabulary and the layers of ancient solemnity. I love the inherent drama of the ritual gestures and postures, and the spiritual elevation of Gregorian chant integrated into the Mass. But we've never seen these things in person. Some detractors of the Novus Ordo say that although they've heard that the new Mass can be reverently and beautifully celebrated, they've never seen it. For us, it's the other way around.

We'll probably go back to the EF Mass, even though it's unlikely that our local group will deviate from the minimalist pattern we've seen over the last five years. But please, guys. You do have to try to create beauty. At a minimum, decide which responses the congregation should make, and then make them. Even the Novus Ordo can manage that -- even in Latin on occasion.