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

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The Newest Catholic

Now I can't make my favorite infant joke (next to "Well, he wasn't born yesterday") about my little heathen baby.
"D'you know, if you weren't an agnostic, I should ask you for five shillings to buy a black god-daughter."

"Nothing will surprise me about your religion."

"It's a new thing a missionary priest started last term. You send five bob to some nuns in Africa and they christen a baby and name her after you. I've got six black Cordelias already. Isn't it lovely?"

--Bridehead Revisited

An Information Addiction

As the bailout package went down in congress yesterday, and the stock market starting dropping like a stone, I was trying to solve a problem in a database at work -- with a pair of web browser windows set to National Review's The Corner and the WSJ Financial Page that I would click over and refresh every five or ten minutes. In the "information age", it's easy for the information hungry to go on an information binge: Ah, the Dow is down 600 points. Oil is down. Now the Dow is only down 500. Representative Cantor criticizing Pelosi's politicization of the bailout -- Pelosi is a piece of work but that seems like a dumb reason to vote against it. Now the Dow is down 650. On, and on, and on.

Information is not the same as knowledge, however, and it is most certainly not doing anything. Not only does my instinctual desire to find out what's going on fail to achieve anything that I'm actually supposed to be getting done (professionally, personally or intellectually) but it does not actually achieve my goal of being informed, because from minute to minute there is not generally anything to know. We have, in this modern age, the ability to push images and text out to the world constantly, but that does not necessarily mean that there is anything worth reading among the stuff produced in the last five minutes at any given time.

In a sense, the old morning and evening newspaper editions cycle reflected the speed at which real information becomes available better than the age of blogging and 24-hour news channels does.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Some Thoughts on Homeschooling Young Children

In the week after young Jack's birth, I was doing the full time Daddy thing and had the opportunity to start the homeschooling year out with our two oldest (ages 5 and 6). Knowing that we had a baby due in early September, we hadn't really got going prior to this, and being tied up with baby things, we hadn't done a great deal of thinking about it either. So this represented a simultaneous launch of the new school year and planning session of what we're going to do differently from last year.

First off, here's the new schedule that we worked up:

Morning Read Alouds:

Religion - a short saint's life, story from the bible, or lesson from Faith & Life Book 1 (from Ignatius Press)

Written Work:

Math: Julie (5) is pretty good at math, while Eleanor (6) struggle a bit more, so they're effectively at the same point. Both spend 15-30min on a workbook page. After this week's experience I decided to ditch last year's Modern Curriculum Press workbooks and ordered the first book of Miquon Math from Key Curriculum Press. (Recommended by Opinionated Homeschooler, whose family knows a bit about math.)

Handwriting/Spelling/Grammar: The three are currently all rolled into one. Current format is each girl gets a sheet of lined paper. (We picked up some K and 1 size handwriting paper at a teachers' supply store.) I ask each girl for a topic and then write out a sentence to be copied. We discuss what makes the sentence a complete sentence, any any tricky spelling rules which the sentence illustrates. Then each one copies out her sentence carefully for handwriting practice, and illustrates it with a picture. Picture drawing goes on for a while, so this is a 30-60min block.

Reading Practice:
One or both girls take a turn at practicing reading while the other is still coloring and writing. (It's especially important to keep the elder away while the younger is reading, because otherwise miss first grade wants to butt in and do all the reading herself.)

Julia (K) is finishing Teach Your Child To Read in 100 Easy Lessons and Eleanor (1) is working through selected short stories and Beverly Cleary's The Mouse And The Motorcycle. (more on that in a minute)

Closing Read Alouds:
Selections from 2-3 different books so that each of History, Literature and Science are covered at least 3 times a week.

Last week we were covering the first couple chapters of E. H. Gombrich's A Little History of the World and stories from Tales From Near And Far for history.

We read from After The Dinosaurs (about pre-historic mammals -- it's a Golden Book from the early 90s, but I can't seem to find it online) for science.

And we read a few Grimms fairy tales and the first couple chapters of Stuart Little for literature.

One of the big issues I found myself bumping up against in both reading and real alouds is age. The two "in school" are 5 and 6.5, and we've got little miss 2.5 running around and wanting to be involved too. (She works on her alphabet coloring book during writing practice.) This gets tricky because while the eldest had hit an age where she really enjoys things like detailed science picture books and Gombrich's Little History, but the younger two are left pretty cold by these. Being energetic little girls, when the younger two are bored, crazy things tend to happen. And the eldest is still young enough that when crazy things happen, she wants to go join in. (Sending the younger two off to play doesn't work well either, as then the eldest wants to go going them.) So balancing the interests of all three girls without things exploding into chaos is very tricky -- and sometimes frustrating.

The other tricky thing about age is finding good stuff for Eleanor (age 6.5) to read. Over the last year her reading has become quite good -- probably something like a 4th grade level so far as I can tell from what she can read. However, her interests and experiences are still very much those of a six year old. So much of the things available to read at a level that stretches her simply aren't that interesting to her. After a couple of false starts, we're currently trying The Mouse And The Motorcycle, which has the benefit of being about an animal and a piece of machinery, two things generally dear to Eleanor's heart.

It does, however, underline for me that there's a limited virtue (other than bragging rights at gatherings with other parents) to a child that young reading far beyond his or her age level. By age eight or nine, there are a wide variety of books written for a general audience that will be interesting, but at age six there's a lot that just doesn't hold her attention (and that she wouldn't understand at all even if she did spent the time to read it) even if she could theoretically read it. So while we're trying to make sure that she keeps reading stuff that's at the outer edge of her abilities for practice, she's mostly reading much easier picture books which are more at her interest level. If you can't get your child to take off on reading level until a year or two later, it seems to me like it's nothing much to stress about. Sure, if you could somehow get your seven year old to read War and Peace you could annoy numerous other parents at social gatherings by talking endlessly about it, but the seven year old would get basically nothing from the experience.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

How can a Conservative Support the Bailout?

Kyle asks, quoting Glenn Greenwald, how one can support government intervention into the US economy on the massive scale that the proposed $700B bailout would constitute.

Greenwald, politically tempestuous but ideologically difficult to place, asks in
Can anyone point to any discussion of what the implications are for having the Federal Government seize control of the largest and most powerful insurance company in the country, as well as virtually the entire mortgage industry and other key swaths of financial services? Haven't we heard all these years that national health care was an extremely risky and dangerous undertaking because of what happens when the Federal Government gets too involved in an industry? What happened in the last month dwarfs all of that by many magnitudes.
Greenwald's position is, it seems, basically that "Wall Street greed" is responsible for the problem, and that "Wall Street" thus deserves to take the hit without help:
What is more intrinsically corrupt than allowing people to engage in high-reward/no-risk capitalism -- where they reap tens of millions of dollars and more every year while their reckless gambles are paying off only to then have the Government shift their losses to the citizenry at large once their schemes collapse? We've retroactively created a win-only system where the wealthiest corporations and their shareholders are free to gamble for as long as they win and then force others who have no upside to pay for their losses. Watching Wall St. erupt with an orgy of celebration on Friday after it became clear the Government (i.e., you) would pay for their disaster was literally nauseating, as the very people who wreaked this havoc are now being rewarded.
The "let the greedy ones take the fall" idea is widely popular throughout the left, so far as I can tell, reading around the last few days. On the conservative side, many are concerned about the precedent of the government stepping into the private sector in such a massive way. Mark Hemmingway of National Review Online writes:
Paulson and Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke would have you believe that it’s perfectly natural that the solution to a large financial crisis is throwing a large amount of money at the problem. They seem to hope that no one will notice that the problem with the bailout isn’t ironing out some of the fiscal particulars: It’s philosophical.

When government seizes control of a critical industry, that’s, uh, what do you call it? Oh, yes, socialism. “The government is telling us that capital and credit markets cannot, for several reasons, solve the current crisis on their own — only the federal government and its massive taxpayer base have the authority and the resources to solve it,” noted financial columnist James Ledbetter. “That is state socialism: the philosophy preached by the founders of the Second International, by the radical wing of the American labor movement, through the formation of the Soviet Union and its satellites, and now by Henry Paulson.”
While readily open to the criticism that I am in no position to throw stones when it comes to lack of knowledge, it seems to me that both of these approaches fail to understand what it being proposed, and why it is probably a good idea under the circumstances.

What a lot of people seem to have convinced themselves is going on here is that either lots of major companies are being "nationalized" (that is: taken over and run by the government) or else that the government is planning to give away $700B to large Wall Street firms in order to keep them from going bankrupt. Neither one of these is really true.

In the case of AIG, it has effectively been partly seized by the government to the extent that the US government now owns 79.9% of the AIG's stock. As the majority stock holder, and as the provider of a $80B line of credit, the government also demanded some management turn-over at AIG. However, AIG is not being actively run as a government institution. Rather, it's being broken up and its segments and assets sold off until the remaining core of the company can pay of the US government and become fully independent again. That is indeed a very large intervention, and I wouldn't normally like to see that sort of thing being done under non-emergency circumstances, but it is not the sort of active government running of major industries that socialism (or fascism) involves.

In regards to the $700B bailout -- the government is not planning (under any of the plans under discussion) to simply give money to companies in order to keep them from going bankrupt, nor is it buying all the defaulted mortgages and thus investing in a total loss. Rather, the idea is to allow the treasury department to buy and hold, and then eventually resell, assets which are currently in trading free fall due to market fears. It goes basically like this: Because of all the fear in the market right now, and because companies known to hold a lot of mortgage-based securities are seeing their stocks go into freefall, and because no one knows exactly how many of the mortgages rolled into a given security will go bad -- no one wants to buy mortgage backed securities at all right now. Because no one wants to buy them at any price, their effective sale value is approaching zero in many cases. And yet, the majority of the mortgages behind many or most of these securities will indeed pay off in the long run. So there is a value to the security -- if you are willing to hold onto it until the market for them picks up again or until the mortgages are paid off.

What Paulson is proposing to do is give the US Treasury a very large pot of money, and allow it to invest in these securities.

I'd say that Megan McArdle has it right when she says:
Any bailout plan needs to walk a very, very fine line. It must let straightened financial institutions sell the debt that is dragging down their portfolios. But it must do so in a way that does not convince future bankers that excessive risk taking can be nearly painless. That means paying just enough for the securities to keep the banks from failing, not enough to let them avoid painful losses.
Investing legend Warren Buffet (whose political views I almost universally disagree with, but who is a very smart guy when it comes to business) has weighed in arguing that a bailout is seriously necessary, but also pointing out that due to the buy, hold, sell nature of the proposed bailout plan, the US government might actually end up making a good deal of money at it before all is said and done. (He's also shown some confidence in the underlying "fundamentals" of the economy by choosing this moment to invest $5B, about 1/10th of his fortune, in Goldman Sachs.)

So, if done right, the $700B isn't just gone, in fact it's possible that the government would actually turn a decent profit on it in the end. The devil is, however, in the details. As McArdle and Buffet both say, it's important that the government buy these securities at a market rate. On the one hand, they're propping up the market by keeping these assets from going to a value of zero, which would result in cascading bank failures. On the other hand, they need to buy them at rates that reflect (and indeed are discounted below) what the securities are likely to eventually pay off at.

Unfortunately, all this needs a little bit of calm thought, and not many people seem eager to give it that. CNN, which over the last few weeks has been solemnly opining on the importance of experience and elite credentials, is now going full-throated populist and running a raft of v-logs by people describing "What I would do with $700 billion."

In democracy, we generally get the government we deserve, and my fear (given that I'm fairly well convinced that failure to do anything in this situation could cause a pretty massive economic meltdown as a result of the freezing over of the credit markets) is that we may find ourselves deserving to engage in populist histrionics rather than pulling our collective rear end out of the fire. It is satisfying, in a sense, to say, "Why should we bail out these stupid rich people who took unsafe risks," but if telling things sort themselves out really did result in the credit market coming to a standstill, we could end up seeing a pretty massive contraction of the GDP, and a lot of us who work for companies that give credit or get credit or have their cash-on-hand invested in money market funds would find ourselves out of a job. We could assure ourselves that Wall Street had deserved all this, but in the end it's not the Wall Street barons who would end up in the bread lines -- it's the low level workers who found themselves out of work without savings who would be suffering a lot more than the millionaires who had to cancel their European vacations and yacht orders.

But even with all these: Why do I not as a small government conservative (who's argued we should avoid centralizing health care because it would be bad for society) also oppose such a massive government economic action?

Well, I'm not opposed to large government action in principle, I'm opposed to it in most circumstances because I think it's often worse for society than private action. However, government (indeed, government acting in a centralized and semi-dictatorial fashion rather than consulting the maximum number of voters at every step) is often the best approach to large emergency situations that require risky and decisive action.

For instance, the presidents during both our largest wars (the Civil War and WW2) assumed powers that bordered on the dictatorial, and controlled massive portions of the economy through government spending. (During the peak of WW2, government spending accounted for 50% of the GDP.) Similarly, after a truly massive natural disaster, the federal and state governments are often the best positioned to move in large amounts of manpower, material and money in order to get things back up and running quickly. Waiting for things to get fixed organically might conceivably be better in some sense, but I think most people would agree that it's appropriate for the government to step in during such disasters.

There is inevitably a lot of foolishness and waste perpetrated by governments even in such dire situations (the whole "greatest generation" idea came later -- read the novels written during the 40s for commentary on the complete absurdity of much that was done during the war, despite the overall good aims and results) but because they are large and capable of acting decisively to achieve specific aims, they seem to be best suited to deal with certain kinds of situations. So my support for the government stepping in to try to stabilize credit markets is based on this idea that it is sometimes in times of huge crisis appropriate for the government to step is as and take massive and purposeful action. And in keeping with that kind of theory, it seems to me that the number of decision makers should actually be quite small, as with generals in a war. In that sense, I would support Paulson's request for no oversight -- though I'd feel a lot more comfortable if the legislation put one person or a small board of people in charge for the duration of the exercise so that it couldn't become a political football.

Why not, by the same rationale, declare an "emergency" and nationalize healthcare? Because while I think that the government can at times succeed well in taking massive action to achieve very specific objectives in the short term, it seems to me that massive centralized organizations (whether governmental or private) are very bad at running operations on a day-to-day basis while keeping their priorities straight. Providing "universal health insurance" is thus something I think the government (or any other large single institution) is very badly suited to do. I would support a huge centralized government action to deal with a specific health problem, say a sudden and deadly epidemic. But I think that if put in charge of everyone's day-to-day healthcare, it would almost inevitably make things much worse for us in the long run.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Beach reading

We didn't take a vacation this year (except vicariously, through TS's travel posts), so I have to make my escape through reading. Yesterday I went to the beach, courtesy of Jeff Sawyer.

Outside on the small deck of the Isle de Veau, Jack squinted into the concrete gray sky as he cranked open a half-dozen blue Cinzano umbrellas, in case anyone actually showed up for lunch in this lousy weather. Three-foot waves gnawed at the beach in the distance, the wind occasionally carrying spray through angled palms all the way to his tan, tired face. It dampened the faded tee that hung loosely off his frame, and his cargo shorts, and his mood. Little electric Japanese lanterns strung around the deck arbor had twisted up tight, hanging themselves in their cords, the relentless wind shifting their vibe from island chic to bleak. The whole island felt like that to Jack these days, like paradise lost. Just a photo in a glossy brochure faded to light blue after sitting too long in the window of a travel agency in some snowy New England town.

Every morning he’d see crusty old retirees who’d responded to brochures like that, pensioned dinosaurs plodding along the beach on crunchy knees, bracing their backs with one hand to stoop and pick up shells with the other, artifacts they mailed to grandchildren back home. Under floppy cotton hats, their thin, hoary hair was whipped by the wind against cocoa wrinkles. Where did they get those ridiculous faux Hawaiian shirts, stretch pants and giant sunglasses, he wondered, what were they thinking? He devised a name for their geezer ensembles, and reminded himself to see if it’d get a laugh out of Car when she arrived at the Isle for dinner that night: Last Resort Wear.

Shipwrecked on the Isle de Veau, Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3

Normality in Iraq

If it bleeds, it leads. If it doesn't, it's often forgotten. Still, it's interesting to read this NY Times reporter's account of returning to Iraq after a two year absence to find a country he barely recognizes.
...When I left Baghdad two years ago, the nation’s social fabric seemed too shredded to ever come together again. The very worst had lost its power to shock. To return now is to be jarred in the oddest way possible: by the normal, by the pleasant, even by hope. The questions are jarring, too. Is it really different now? Is this something like peace or victory? And, if so, for whom: the Americans or the Iraqis?...

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

What to Make of the Financial Meltdown

What are we to make of the recent financial crises and the proposed solution to it?

I work with economics of a sort all the time, but what I deal with is the economics of price, supply and demand for product -- not high financial markets, interest rates and money supply. If, like me, you're trying to understand what's really going on (and you've caught on by not that very little said by political candidates at the moment is likely to be at all illuminating) the following are pretty good posts:

The Freakonomics blog at the NY Times provides a guess post on the meltdown. (H/T: Razib)

Megan McArdle also has some very illuminating posts on the topic:
How close was the financial system to melting down?
Why we need a bailout, even if not this bailout.
Even the easy answers aren't easy.

From what I can make out, one of the key things to keep in mind is that the crisis is not simply a matter of "bailing out" institutions which hold securitized mortgages. The issue is that although very few mortgages are actually defaulting, the knowledge that a number of them have or will has cratered the market for such securities. The institutions that hold these securities thus have assets which currently have no or little saleable value, even though if they continue to hold these assets they will pay off fairly well. However, accounting rules require that financial institutions value their investment assets at their current market value. This is causing massive losses in asset value for financial institutions, which then find themselves looking like increasingly bad credit risks as they seek short term loans to finance their normal cashflow. And yet they're already so heavily leveraged that if their debt ceases to roll over it can wipe them out -- taking down in the process the heavily interconnected web of other companies, institutions and individuals with capital invested in money market accounts.

The idea behind the $700B fund that Treasury Secretary Paulson wants is for the US government to buy many of these distressed securities allowing the companies that hold them to recover some measure of stability. The Treasury fund would then eventually sell the securities off again as it became clear which ones were good and the market for them recovered. By making sure that there remains a market for these securities, it keeps the whole edifice from coming down. (On why that's a good idea, go read Megan McArdle's posts.)

So it sounds to me like something like this bailout is probably necessary, and to the extent that it is, I would tend to follow Secretary Paulson's reasoning that the legislation setting it up should be short and clear.

Many on the left (Senator Obama among them) want to take the opportunity to put in some good "stick it to the rich" criteria, like only letting the fund buy assets from companies that fit congressionally mandated standards of not having "excessive executive pay", and also want to see "help the little guy" features that would help individual homeowners avoid being foreclosed on.

Many on the right are concerned about providing so much money and power to a treasury secretary -- who may well be replaced by an Obama appointee in four months depending on how the electoral winds blow.

And many in congress, on both sides, would much rather be able to oversee things themselves rather than leaving the decision-making to an appointee.

It's a messy situation which one wishes one were not in in the first place. I don't claim to have any insight into what the right answer is -- though my instict is that perhaps this is one of those situations in which putting the power in the hands of a few people (who aren't elected) might be safer than putting it in the hands of many (who are).

In the Roman Republic, they had a legal provision for installing a tyrant in times of national emergancy, who weilded absolute power for one year, after which power reverted to the Senate. That's always struck me as a very interesting provision, and one which is appropriate in certain kinds of grave emergency. Perhaps this is something of the financial equivalent.

New Japanese Prime Minister

Mr. Taro Aso has just been elected the president of Japan's ruling party (the same party, the Liberal Democratic Party, has held power in Japan for the last 50 years) and is thus almost certain to be elected Prime Minister shortly.

Mr. Aso would be the first Catholic to be elected Prime Minister in Japan. He was also, it seems, a member of Japan's olympic shooting team (1976 Summer Olympics) and remains a big manga fan.

Monday, September 22, 2008

About a Boy

First, let's clear up this clairvoyant rumor and tell the not-so-exciting truth. The reason I could predict baby's birth date and time with such accuracy was not second sight, but insider trading. I had a midwife appointment on the 10th and I knew that she would strip my membranes (that's loosening the bag of waters from the wall of the uterus), a maneuver that has, in conjunction with other therapies, always brought on labor for me in less than 24 hours. (Confidential to TS: next time you play the lottery, try the numbers 09-11-08.)

And the birth. It was pretty uneventful for everyone but me and baby. I started with the contractions at 12:17, called the midwife at 1 am, spent the next few hours pacing and feeling increasingly miserable, and baby was born at 4:33 am. I did not need stitches, for which I'm still thanking the good Lord.

Sounds easy, no? No. I knew labor was coming the night before, and I was scared. I prepared for birth by reading the lives (or more accurately, the deaths) of the North American martyrs. Contractions, I reasoned, could hardly be as bad as having your thumb bitten off. And given that a week and a half later, I'm not in pain and still have my thumb, I think that assessment was correct.

I think it's a crying shame that hospitals will sterilize women right after they've given birth. No one wants to have a baby again right after she's just pushed a head through her pelvis or had major surgery. It's coercion of the worst kind.

But! To balance out all this toil, I present the sweetly cross-eyed reward:

Who wouldn't go through nine months of discomfort and four hours of agony for that precious boy?

Superstition and Unbelief

Friday's WSJ contained an interesting piece about a new study entitled What Americans Really Believe out from Baylor University and the Gallup organization. Some more information about the study is available from Baylor here. The full version is in book form from Baylor University Press and does not appear to be available online at this time.

From the WSJ piece:
"You can't be a rational person six days of the week and put on a suit and make rational decisions and go to work and, on one day of the week, go to a building and think you're drinking the blood of a 2,000-year-old space god," comedian and atheist Bill Maher said earlier this year on "Late Night With Conan O'Brien."
"What Americans Really Believe," a comprehensive new study released by Baylor University yesterday, shows that traditional Christian religion greatly decreases belief in everything from the efficacy of palm readers to the usefulness of astrology. It also shows that the irreligious and the members of more liberal Protestant denominations, far from being resistant to superstition, tend to be much more likely to believe in the paranormal and in pseudoscience than evangelical Christians.

The Gallup Organization, under contract to Baylor's Institute for Studies of Religion, asked American adults a series of questions to gauge credulity. Do dreams foretell the future? Did ancient advanced civilizations such as Atlantis exist? Can places be haunted? Is it possible to communicate with the dead? Will creatures like Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster someday be discovered by science?

The answers were added up to create an index of belief in occult and the paranormal. While 31% of people who never worship expressed strong belief in these things, only 8% of people who attend a house of worship more than once a week did.

Even among Christians, there were disparities. While 36% of those belonging to the United Church of Christ, Sen. Barack Obama's former denomination, expressed strong beliefs in the paranormal, only 14% of those belonging to the Assemblies of God, Sarah Palin's former denomination, did. In fact, the more traditional and evangelical the respondent, the less likely he was to believe in, for instance, the possibility of communicating with people who are dead.

This is not a new finding. In his 1983 book "The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener," skeptic and science writer Martin Gardner cited the decline of traditional religious belief among the better educated as one of the causes for an increase in pseudoscience, cults and superstition. He referenced a 1980 study published in the magazine Skeptical Inquirer that showed irreligious college students to be by far the most likely to embrace paranormal beliefs, while born-again Christian college students were the least likely.

Surprisingly, while increased church attendance and membership in a conservative denomination has a powerful negative effect on paranormal beliefs, higher education doesn't. Two years ago two professors published another study in Skeptical Inquirer showing that, while less than one-quarter of college freshmen surveyed expressed a general belief in such superstitions as ghosts, psychic healing, haunted houses, demonic possession, clairvoyance and witches, the figure jumped to 31% of college seniors and 34% of graduate students.... [Darwin: Insert your favorite joke about long term grad students here.]
Must we now suspect that Richard Dawkins and the folks from the Skeptical Enquirer are slipping out for a quick palm reading before publishing their debunkings of religious belief? It's amusing to picture, but no.

What's actually going on is rather more interesting.

According to the information on the Baylor site, the survey found 11% of Americans said they had "no religion" but of those only 4% described themselves as atheists who believed that nothing exists other than the physical world. The remaining two thirds, reject existing religions, yet live to the full Chesterton's quip that those who believe in nothing soon find themselves believing in everything.

So it's not necessarily the hard core atheists who are believing in astrology and Big Foot.

However, it's also interesting to see that the more "modern" Protestant denominations show signficantly higher rates of superstition than the "fundamentalist" ones. In a sense, though, it shouldn't be surprising. Fundamentalist forms of Protestantism are built around the idea that the universe is fundamentally knowlable -- though what they think they know differs from that which is held by others. Many mainline Protestants these days, on the other hand, are in the habit of defining reality by preference. In that case, why not assume that the resurrection was metaphorical, but that palm reading is real?

And there is, of course, the gnostic-inspired mysticism that sometimes floats around the periphery of modern Christiantiy. An interesting snippet from the Baylor site:
Among other interesting findings on paranormal or occult beliefs: People who have read The Purpose-Driven Life or any book in the Left Behind series are less likely to believe in the occult and paranormal, while those who have read any book on dianetics or The Da Vinci Code are more likely to believe.
I do not see any information in the WSJ article or the Baylor release about Catholics, but I wouldn't be surprised to see much the same divergence between "liberal" theology and non-church-going Catholic on the one hand and orthodox Catholics on the other that is found between fundamentalist and liberal Protestants.

And while one shouldn't unduly tar seriously atheists with this brush, there are of course those annoying public personalities who leave themselves wide open. From the WSJ article:
But it turns out that the late-night comic is no icon of rationality himself. In fact, he is a fervent advocate of pseudoscience. The night before his performance on Conan O'Brien, Mr. Maher told David Letterman -- a quintuple bypass survivor -- to stop taking the pills that his doctor had prescribed for him. He proudly stated that he didn't accept Western medicine. On his HBO show in 2005, Mr. Maher said: "I don't believe in vaccination. . . . Another theory that I think is flawed, that we go by the Louis Pasteur [germ] theory." He has told CNN's Larry King that he won't take aspirin because he believes it is lethal and that he doesn't even believe the Salk vaccine eradicated polio.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

I Have Had It With "Catholics United"

Somehow, I've found myself on the email list of a group calling itself "Catholics United". It's a progressive 527 which is attempting to make the case for Barack Obama and against John McCain by using "common good" language out of Catholic Social Teaching.

They are running their own TV ad titled Actions Speak Louder Than Words, in which they remonstrate with Senator McCain, "You voted against one of the largest support programs for pregnant women. You voted against health care for our children. And you voted for a war that has killed thousands of Americans. Senator McCain, when will you start defending all human life, without exception?"

Now they have sent me an email entitled "Knights of Columbus Distracts Catholics from the Real Issues of this Election" in which they denounce the K of C for publishing (and paying to place in a number of newspapers) an open letter to vice presidential candidate Senator Joe Biden. The Open Letter from the Knights of Columbus to Senator Biden can be found here, and I strongly encourage you to read it. It is a thorough and thoughtful letter.

Catholics United executive director Chris Korzen is quoted as saying:
The Knights of Columbus' ad campaign is yet another unfortunate distraction from the serious and urgent issues Americans are facing in this campaign: lack of health care, a crumbling economy, a war that has gone on far too long, and solutions to the tragedy of abortion that offer results instead of rhetoric. By choosing to focus on Senator Biden's own unhelpful comments instead of offering a comprehensive vision of what it means to be pro-life, the Knights are doing a major disservice to the unborn, indeed to all Americans.
Let me reply, both as a fellow Catholic and as a Knight, to Chris Korzen and to James Salt, the "organizing director" who is the signatory to all the emails that go out from Catholics United:

Your attitude towards the open letter from Supreme Knight Carl Anderson is not only disappointing, it is deplorable. You and your organization should be ashamed of yourselves and of your politicization of Catholic teaching in order to support the most pro-abortion candidate ever to seek of the office of President of the United States.

Further, your attempts to attack McCain and uphold Obama on "pro-life" grounds are misguided to the point of being morally disgusting.

This is not because I think that every good Catholic must support McCain because of the abortion issue. Far from it. I know orthodox Catholics and other people who are genuinely pro-life who believe that a progressive approach to economics and social services (or a change in foreign policy) are so desperately needed in this country that they consider them more than proportionate reasons to support Senator Obama for president. I respect such people's position, though I by no means agree with it.

However, in your ad you elide some important moral and political distinctions. A desire to help the poor, expectant mothers and those in need of medical treatment is not the exclusive domain of social progressives. Nor are the particular pieces of legislation which you fault McCain for opposing necessitated by Catholic Social Teaching or a pro-life commitment. Catholics who hold conservative and progressive economic views are united in their desire to help those in need, but we disagree on the best way to do so. Principled conservatives do not believe that continuously expanding social welfare programs at the federal level is the best way to alleviate suffering in our communities. And a great many of us provide significant donations to crisis pregnancy centers and other charities designed to achieve these very goals via private means in our communities. (In stark contrast, it might be noted, to Senator Biden's virtually complete absence of charitable giving. And Obama's similar tendencies.)

So while being pro-life in a comprehensive sense most certainly requires "caring for people outside the womb as well as inside" (as the phrase goes) it does not necessarily require that one share the progressive politics of Messrs. Korzen and Salt.

Moreover, it is doubly hypocritical for you to first attack Republicans for not agreeing with your opinions as to what specific policies are actually most conducive to the common good, and then denounce the Knights for asserting basic Catholic teaching about the morality of abortion. The truth can never be a distraction from the "real issues".

I assume that you are in earnest in your belief that progressive policies are most conducive to the Common Good. If you called yourselves "Progressives United" that would be all well and good. But to call yourselves "Catholics United" and then denounce those who put forth basic Catholic teachings, while acting as if your personal policy preferences have the stamp of doctrinal necessity is the height of dishonesty.

Friday, September 19, 2008

My pirate name is:

Captain Charity Read

Even though there's no legal rank on a pirate ship, everyone recognizes you're the one in charge. Even through many pirates have a reputation for not being the brightest souls on earth, you defy the sterotypes. You've got taste and education. Arr!

Get your own pirate name from
part of the network

I'm a bit late for International Talk Like A Pirate Day, mateys, but here's me name in the local pARRRlance.

H/T Happy Catholic

Time and Achievement

According to Plutarch's "Life of Julius Caesar", there came a time when Caesar was thirty-seven years old and serving as a quaestor in Spain when he was seen bursting into tears after reading a biography of Alexander the Great. (Suetonius tells a version in which it is seeing a statue of Alexander that sets Caesar off.)

Of course, among the things which Alexander had achieved by age thirty-seven was dying, and in the end, I think one could say that Julius Caesar achieved more than Alexander ever had. Or at least, made a more lasting impression upon the world.

Yet Caesar's reaction strikes me as very natural and familiar. Every so often, I find myself looking back on the various ambitions that I had while in high school and college and asking myself: what have I done?

Well, not much, and a great deal, depending upon how you look at it. The dreams we have while young are usually of large and obvious achievements: publish a wildly popular novel, become a jet pilot, direct a movie, climb Mt. Everest, run for office, have a new species of slime mold named after you. Or, in Alexander and Caesar's case: conquer the known world.

But the very thing that makes and Alexander or a Mozart a "prodigy" is that few achievements come young. It is unusual for an artist to do his best work or a leader to attain the highest reaches of power at a young age.

Yet even in regard to our much more modest ambitions, it is often difficult to remember that life is long, and there are plenty of things which you are not working on right this very moment which you will nonetheless have the chance to achieve later on. As an inveterate planner (and a starter of many things -- though a finisher of fewer) this is particularly difficult for me.

At twenty-nine, I can like Caesar reflect on the amount of mayhem and recognition which Alexander had achieved by my age. And that I've thus far achieved few of the "great things" which I had while younger dreamed of. On the other hand, it has occurred to me in these last few days that when my father was my age his first child was not yet born. Some times, even those things one thinks of as "ordinary life" are, from a certain point of view, achievements.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

A Little Thought, Please

It's hardly news that thought is generally a stranger to political advertising, no matter which party is responsible for it. However, one talking point which, for whatever reason, is starting to particularly grate upon my nerves is: "The economy is in crisis -- banks failing, plants closing, jobs lost. We can't afford four more years of Bush's tax cuts and policies that protect Wall Street while hurting Main Street."

What exactly is the logical relation between the first and second parts of this argument? If low taxes and pro-business policies are bad for the country, wouldn't it be equally wrong to support them whether the economy is doing well or doing poorly? If high taxes and more regulation is good for the country, then one's support for them should be independent of current economic conditions. And if one things, as I do, that high taxes and heavy regulation are generally bad for the economy, than telling me that the economy is already weak will do nothing to change my mind. (That turns the argument into: The economy is weak right now, lets kick it while it's down so we all feel better.)

I suppose it's wishful thinking to imagine that political advertising could rise above the level of "Four legs good, two legs bad!" but one still can't help being annoyed.

Particularly amusing in this case is that Senator Obama has said that he will hold off on raising taxes on "the rich" if the economy is in recession when he comes into office. This would seem to imply that he's aware that raising taxes has a slowing effect on the economy. (After all, one could hardly hold that "the rich" desperately need that the Bush tax cuts in order to buy food and make their mortgage payments -- because if that were the case they wouldn't be "rich".)

But then, I suppose even the increasingly cynical American public wouldn't go for an ad that said, "My opponent has the misfortune to be a member of the incumbent party at a time when our economic cycle is facing a downturn. Though this has little to do with his policies, and my policies would do nothing to alleviate it, I'd like you to vote against him just to show that bad luck will not be tolerated in our country."

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Marriage -- Path to Prosperity

There's not a lot to make you feel great about finances this week, but for the longer term, this WSJ piece from yesterday struck he as very interesting. According to the latest Census data, the real median family income in the US hit $50,233 in 2007, up $600 from 2006. However, the real median income for intact families -- mother and father in the home -- rose to $78,000, an all-time high.

Among the factors that tends to throw off statistics about household income or family income over the last 50 years is the fact that families have become both smaller (as in fewer children) and more splintered (as in more divorces and single parents) over the last 50 years. So flat household income can often represent an increase in real family income when you control for family size and marital status.

In the other interesting stats the piece presents: women and minorities showed the greatest increases of median income in recent decades, while white men have shown the least.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Welcome to our life

It's like David Malki! went with us on our last Half-Price Books run.

Got yer fix

I find it impossible to write an objective post about giving birth less than a week away from the event (right now my summary would be: "pain sucks") but here's a few pix of baby for them as is interested.

Even the cat likes the baby.

Knowledge and Democracy

Myron of Working Towards Something That Makes Sense (a very interesting fellow) suggested to me the other day the idea that democracy is a superior form of government in that by allowing all members of the polis to vote, one incorporates the collective knowledge of many more people than are involved in an oligarchy or monarchy.

The idea is attractive to me in that it ties in with what I find attractive about a free economy and decentralized approach to charitable action: that people in a given situation are more likely to know the details of what is the best choice than is some distant, centralized authority. People often fail when they try to centralize or re-engineer important functions in society, because the centralizers seldom are able to know enough about all the different situations their actions will affect to correctly account for all of them. An open market (or a decentralized system of charity/safety net institutions) thus incorporates the knowledge and decision making capabilities of many more people and is able to achieve better solutions.

However, when it comes to democracy, I'm not sure that that argument works as well. (My own reason for preferring democracy is the more negative precept that democracy gives the people the government they deserve.) Here's the reason: In a democracy of any real size, the people as a whole are not deeply involved in drafting laws and policies. Rather, they either vote to elect leaders (in a republic) or in a more direct democracy vote on laws and policies which are crafted by a relatively small governing set or class.

The act of voting, in itself, does not do much to collect information from the populace as a whole. Nor can I think of any practical means (in a democracy of any size) whereby one could easily harness that information.

It seems to me that the only way to take advantage of this collective knowledge is to keep the number of things administered at the national level to a minimum, while allowing the most intrusive services (in which I would put education, health care and unemployment/poverty alleviation) to be administered at the most local level possible. (Preferably something rather smaller than most cities these days.)


Friday, September 12, 2008

Do "Family Values" and "Pro-Life" Clash?

Ross Douthat has been examining the odd phenomenon of a number of left leaning commentators suddenly realizing in retrospect that they thought there was value to the old "family values" approach by conservatives, only to lament that it has now been destroyed from the inside by those villainous pro-lifers.

In a Jacob Weisberg piece in Slate entitled, "Whatever Happened to Family Values?" we hear:
In fact, these two conservative social goals—ending abortion and upholding the model of the nuclear family—were always in tension. The reason is that, like it or not, the availability of legal abortion supports the kind of family structure that conservatives once felt so strongly about: two parents raising children in a stable relationship, without government assistance. By 12th grade, 60 percent of high school girls are sexually active or, as Reagan put it, "promiscuous." Teen-pregnancy rates have been trending downward in recent years, but even so, 7 percent of high-school girls become pregnant every year. And the unfortunate reality is that teenagers who carry their pregnancies to term drastically diminish their chances of living out the conservative, or the American, dream....

Give the anti-abortion extremists credit for living their principles. If they weren't deadly serious, they wouldn't sabotage their party's political prospects or sacrifice so many other values they hold dear for the sake of denying exceptions in cases of rape and incest. But Sarah Palin's pro-life extremism is as ethically flawed as it is politically damaging to the GOP. By vaunting their pro-life agenda over everything else, conservatives are abandoning one of their most valuable insights: that intact, two-parent families are best for children and for the foundation of a healthy society....

Remember Murphy Brown? I always thought the former vice president was on solid ground when he called it morally irresponsible to encourage women without the TV character's resources to embark on child-rearing on their own. In today's GOP, Quayle wouldn't condemn Murphy Brown. He'd call her up to the stage and salute her for choosing life.
Yes, you just heard the Editor In Chief of Slate Magazine say that Dan Quayle was right about Murphy Brown. Nor is Weisberg alone in this tactic.

Leon Wieseltier writes at The New Republic:
...The world is aflame and we have been pondering the knocked-up daughter of a pert and uncannily confident Alaskan mediocrity who was elevated to a national ticket for the purpose of changing the conversation. The Republicans wanted a new conversation, and they got one. Juno in Juneau! The anthropological harvest has been rich: what a carnival of double standards Palin provoked. I was unaware of the tender feelings of conservatives for sex outside of marriage.... Some commentators have detected moral relativism in the untroubled, even edified conservative response to the obstetric developments in the McCain campaign; but I see something even more sinister. I see the teleological suspension of the ethical. You remember the teleological suspension of the ethical. It is the recognition that, whereas there is morality in religion, religion is not the same as morality, and may justify an exemption from morality. I know of no religion in which this handy power of extenuation is not used. The telos, in the case of Bristol Palin, is life; and a fine telos it is. The casuistry goes something like this: since there are no unwanted babies, there are no unwanted pregnancies. "It can sometimes result in the arrival of new life and a new family," Gerson cheered. For "evangelical Christianity (in most modern forms) is not about the achievement of perfection." If evangelicals are so exquisitely conscious of our creatureliness, why have they devoted so many decades to reviling the imperfections of others? If they are, as Gerson says, "about the acceptance of forgiveness," why do they diabolize difference? The fecundity of Bristol Palin is a windfall for Jesus, but the fecundity of black girls is the doom of the republic. Spiritually speaking, the forgiveness of oneself or of one's own is a smaller attainment than the forgiveness of the other or of all. My friends, the politics of virtue is a vice.
And yesterday the Editor in Chief of the National Enquirer had an editorial piece in the Wall Street Journal, attempting to defend the importance of the sort of muckraking that his venue is known for, fired a few passing shots of a similar variety:
Unlike during the Edwards affair, the mainstream media instantly joined the fray, questioning Mr. McCain's people about the report and triggering Mrs. Palin to announce that her teenage daughter was pregnant. After a collective right-wing gasp, the only sound that could be heard clearly was erasers furiously dragged over the "family values" section of the Republican Party platform....

In this fractious environment, politics has made for more than strange bedfellows. Witness Mr. McCain greeting Levi Johnston and quickly becoming buddies with the 18-year-old hockey player who impregnated the daughter of his running mate.

Mr. McCain presumably did not have a copy in his pocket of the recently adopted platform of the Republican Party, which contained within its instructive gospel of morality and values: "We renew our call for replacing 'family planning' programs for teens with increased funding for abstinence education, which teaches abstinence until marriage as the responsible and expected standard of behavior. . . . We oppose school-based clinics that provide referrals, counseling, and related services for abortion and contraception."
Now, it's political season, so one must expect people to try to score their points, whether they make any sense or not. But given how proud all these authors seem of this talking point, I can't help wondering if they actually believe what they are saying. If so, they've long misunderstood what it is that the "family values" crowd is about. And badly.

All of these writers seem to believe that conservative Christians believe in some sort of outcome-base morality -- in which it is having a child while not being married that is wrong. In their imaginations, Christians then use these distinctions to divide the world into "good people" and "bad people". Good people white, married married and have three children and a dog. Bad people are dark, have children out of wedlock, and collect government assistance.

Perhaps there are a few people like that in existence, but it's certainly not what most conservative Christians are like. Rather, Christians belong that in any given situation, some choices are right, and some are wrong. Having sex before marriage is one of those things that we think is wrong -- but once it's been done, destroying the evidence (especially when that evidence comes in the form on an innocent human life -- is not what we believe is the right thing to do.

Nor is the predicament that the Palins find themselves in one which is unfamiliar to active Christians. Most of us have several friends in our local churches who have an oldest child whose birthday is separated from their anniversary by less than nine months. Truth, conversation and repentance are all central themes in Christianity. And so Christians will seldom have a problem with people who have made mistakes, so long as they acknowledge the truth and resolve to attempt to live in accordance with it.

And this is where the "culture war" differences come in. Christians do insist that having sex before marriage is wrong. And that intentionally choosing a "lifestyle" of single parenthood is not only wrong, but irresponsible. And that abortion is the taking of innocent life. All of these have to do with what action is the right or wrong thing to do in a particular situation. Christian morality is action-based, not outcome-based. Thus, while having pre-marital sex is wrong, the right thing to do next is not whatever it is that creates the appearance of not having had premarital sex, but rather whatever is actually right to do in the new circumstances.

Religious conservatives are not, thus, saying that it was right or good for Governor Palin's daughter to have premarital sex -- but having done so, getting married and raising the baby is definitely a choice that religious conservatives approve of. And in that it reflects an understanding that childbearing and family are the natural context for sex, it is in fact a "pro-family" approach.

That so many authors think otherwise simply serves to underscore how little they understood about religious conservatives in the first place.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

He Wasn't Born Yesterday

He was born today.

Jonathan "Jack" Ambrose was born at 4:33 on 9-11-2008.

When asked for comment for this article, he waved and arm gently and went back to eating.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

A Republic, Not A Democracy

During the next sixty days, everyone will argue as to what are the best criteria according to which to elect our next president and our other representatives. Part of the difficulty here, I think, is that our nation is a representative republic, and that's a form of government which seems to prove rather difficult for people to wrap their minds around.

Our country is a democracy in the sense that we all vote in order to pick our rulers. However, it is a republic in that once our rulers have been elected, they can do pretty much whatever they want (within the bounds of the constitution) for the duration of their time in office once we have elected them.

Where does this leave us as voters?

Some like to imagine that the US is actually a democracy, and immerse themselves in policy. "It's really all a matter of policies," such people say. "Character and culture are all very well, but the real question is what policies a candidate supports."

The policies a candidate chooses to support can certainly tell us a lot about the candidate's beliefs and priorities. But one does not have to look far to find contradictions and promises that seem unlikely to be kept. (Just what is the Democratic ticket's real position on free trade this year?)

Others are all too conscious of the fact they are electing rulers rather than enacting policies, and either become overly fixated on personality (electing someone they "can relate to" irrespective of that persons policies, wisdom or virtues) or else become completely paralyzed by the knowledge that one can "know" candidates for office at best imperfectly and that rulers can, once elected, behave as they choose rather than as we would like.

What are we to make of it all?

Though I'm rather fixated upon politics at times (what, did you notice?) I think that one must bring a rather pragmatic eye to such things. Due to my impression of human nature, and the experience that we can derive from history, I must think that it is a good thing that we are not a pure democracy, in which all decisions are made directly by the people. Democracy is often a rather flighty thing, and I suspect that we would be more poorly governed if our nation's policies changed as quickly as the opinion polls.

Yet at the same time, despite something of an elitist streak, I cannot reconcile myself to oligarchy or monarchy. (Though as a conservative, if I lived under them, I would doubtless make the best of it.) But really, such systems are generally only attractive to people who imagine themselves to be members of the small governing class -- or those with rather romantically inclined historical imaginations.

So while a system in which we elect our rulers based on limited knowledge of what they will do (and with limited ability to make them do as we wish, other than the threat of not voting for them again) it certainly seems to me better than any of the other options. And while it's true that we necessarily have imperfect knowledge when choosing who to vote for -- what of it? We have imperfect knowledge in all the decisions that we make. And so while it is our duty to make the best decisions that we can when selecting rulers, the fact remains that they are rulers, and as responsible for their actions as such as the unelected variety.

Six Degrees of the Campaign Trail

My 17-year-old sister Anna played hooky from school on Tuesday and headed up to Lebanon, OH to go to a McCain/Palin rally. She and her friends were able to get fairly close to the stage, and she tells me that John McCain looks much younger in person than on camera, and that he spoke well. As Sarah Palin passed through the crowd afterwards, Anna called out something to the effect of, "Stand up for life, Governor Palin! We're counting on you!" She said that Sarah Palin seemed pleased and surprised, made eye contact and greeted her, and gave her an autograph. Here's a picture (the curly head in front belongs to Anna):

First Dude is lookin' pretty fine as well.

(Don't be jealous, but I can also connect myself to Kevin Bacon in less than six degrees.)

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Learning to Like Childrens Literature

As our oldest has reached the ripe old age of six-and-a-half, she's come into a new appreciation of stories and poems I actually find it interesting to read. Thus, for instance, she sat raptly listing to Paul Revere's Ride the other night, while the two younger girls preferred to stage their own revolution against authority by jumping off beds and running around the room.

Similarly, she is now interesting in listening intently to everything from books about dinosaurs and the Egyptian mummies to the original Grimm's Fairy Tales, Hans Christian Anderson, Greek myths, and selections from the Red Fairy Book, Blue Fairy Book, etc. The just-turned-five-year-old will listen for a while to such stories if they involve dancers or princesses, but her retention is not necessarily very good, and her attention wanders if the story goes into much narrative detail. (Or lacks pictures.)

And miss two-and-a-half prefers very short stories with lots of pictures, at which point she seizes the book herself and points out all relevant parts of the illustration, shouting over your attempts to read if necessary.

This is all, so far as I can remember, part of normal development towards a real interest in reading. However, as I was congratulating myself the other night that my oldest was finally starting to be able to enjoy some "interesting stuff", it struck me that a parent has a duty of sorts to develop an actual interest in children's literature. Some people are blessed to have this on their own. Reading Tolkien and Lewis's writing about "fairy stories", you can tell that both of these men had a real and deep appreciation for stories written at a child's level.

I do not, to any great extent.

And yet it seems to me, now I think about it, that reading to one's children will not go as well if one sees it as a duty until they become old enough to enjoy "interesting stuff". Rather, one must be able to develop some degree of appreciation for children's literature for what it is.

So over the last few weeks I've started paging through our older treasuries of children's literature trying to find stories that I like, so that I can bring some genuine enthusiasm to reading to the younger girls. I'm not sure how far I'll be able to get in this. Most of what I truly like in the realm of literature and essays is not written at a level which is fully accessible (or indeed appropriate) for children. But I think I need to come up with some degree of appreciation for the sort of stories and poems which are accessible to 2-6 year olds if I'm to be able to start them on really enjoying reading early enough for the habit to stick.

News Flash

Be advised: Although a 2 1/2-year-old may not be able to open a child-proof cap on a medicine bottle, she can bite a hole through the bottom and cause 3/4 of the contents to disappear. This will occasion much anxiety and several hours in the ER.

Fortunately, it seems that she didn't consume all that medicine, and she shows absolutely no ill-effects today. My biggest fear (unrealized, happily) was actually that I would go into labor in the ER and have to stay there.

Monday, September 08, 2008

In case you were wondering...

The answer is no. Not yet.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Sex Ed Does Not Work

Several times -- when I have observed that I know from my own experience that if one simply does not have sex until getting married, one will in the normal course of things successfully avoid STDs and unplanned pregnancies -- I have had quoted to me the "well known fact" that abstinence only sex education does not work. A quick browse around for studies showed several solid ones, including one commissioned by congress and the Department of Health and Human Services. These all showed that rates of sexual activity, pregnancy and STD infection were not decreased by "abstinence only" sex ed programs.

This didn't really seem like a surprise to me. That a school makes kids sit through several years worth of classes which emphasize that they should wait until marriage to have sex does not by any means mean that the students themselves will resolve to follow that course of action. Heck, schools try hard to teach history, reading, math and science, and students often don't absorb those lessons either -- despite the fact that there is nothing but upside to knowing about those subjects. One must assume that students will be even more unlikely to absorb lessons about abstinence -- since that involves "not getting any" and being something of a social oddity.

I and a number of my peers avoided sex until marriage, but that's because within our particular sub-culture of orthodox Catholics there was a strong reason not to -- something called "mortal sin" that we all believed in. If I had not believed that it was a mortal sin to have sex before marriage, and belong to a peer group that strongly supported that belief, it seems highly unlikely that I would have followed that course. MrsDarwin and I had been dating for nearly four years by the time we were finally able to get married. If we hadn't had a very, very strong motivation to wait -- then why do it?

So I'd essentially figured that the reason why abstinence education "didn't work" was because most of the kids were just sitting there in class thinking "this is stupid" and didn't make any particular effort to be abstinent.

I continue to think I'm right on that, but I ran across a post by Megan McArdle who pointed out something that I hadn't noticed: The most comprehensive recent controlled study to date, the one commissioned by the DHHS, found that groups of student put through several years of one of four commonly used abstinence-only programs did not abstain from sex (or get pregnant or get STDs) at different rates from those in the "control" groups. In two of the studied school districts, the control group was receiving only a "health and science" class which provided little to no information on contraception and STDs. In the other two districts, the control group received a fairly comprehensive sex ed program centering on contraception.

In all four districts, there was no significant difference between the students getting abstinence-only education and those in the control group.

What that means is not just that "abstinence-only sex ed doesn't work", it means that neither form of sex education significantly changes the way teenagers behave. There might as well be no sex education at all -- which to my mind would be just fine. This is one of those areas in which any particular approach to teaching on the topic is going to go against the sensibilities of at least some parents. And results like these only serve to underline that there are some areas which public schools (or indeed schools in general) simply don't have much ability to change behavior. This is one of for the parents and culture, not the schools.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

The Race Just Got Interesting

For someone who is a principled conservative, this has not overall been an exciting election season. There's been much to fear, as a gifted young orator with warmed-over ideas from the Great Society whips up crowds into moments of collective ecstasy over plans most of his fervent supporters are too young to remember the failure of. But there's been no one who seems to have real conservative principles at heart. (No, I don't believe Romney is much of a conservative. Huck and Ron Paul both struck me as mildly unhinged. Thompson has a folksy manner, but it takes more than that to make a statesman. Don't get me started on Rudy.)

I've had a sort of grudging respect for McCain for some time. I don't think he's particularly conservative, except in a certain temperamental fashion. There are some issues where I generally agree with him (unlike most conservatives, immigration is one of these) but there are others where I think he's quite wrong. He does, however, have a certain Old Roman sort of honor and civic virtue -- something rare
in politics these days. Though there are issues on which I disagree with him, I do at least respect McCain's gravitas as a Cato or Pliny-like figure -- a respect I do not have for Obama's lightweight Tiberius Gracchus impersonation.

However, I'd basically expected McCain to run a solid (to the point of stolid), honorable and slightly boring campaign, and be patted on the back in November for letting Obama win by "only" 30-40 electoral votes and 2% of the popular vote. However, there's more life and imagination in the old lion than that. When McCain introduced Governor Palin to the nation last Friday, I started feeling enthusiastic for the first time in this election cycle, and it started to seem possible that McCain really did have it in him to lead a winning ticket.

One of my biggest problems with the GOP of late has been its descent into petty corruption, fiscal irresponsibility, and no more than lip service to principled conservative ideals. The Palin pick suggests to me strongly that McCain is prepared to take on the first two of these, and perhaps some of the third.

However, many were clearly not as impressed with the pick as I was. While I'd been reading about Palin and hoping that she'd be chosen for the last few months, reliable liberal media commentator Eleanor Cliff reported that when the McCain pick was announced there was open laughter in many newsrooms. Many analysts immediately claimed that this represented a ham-handed attempt to appeal to feminist Hillary voters -- which was doomed to failure because Palin was hopelessly "anti-choice" and not of sufficiently elite pedigree. When Palin and her husband released a press release on Monday saying that their seventeen-year-old daughter and her eighteen-year-old fiance were pregnant (and expressing the hope that the media would respect their privacy) the media initiated a complete bloodbath (the NY Times ran three cover stories on the daughter's pregnancy) and roundly scolded McCain for incompletely vetting Palin. Many theorized that McCain had become so scared and so desperate after seeing Obama's convention speech Thursday, that he made a desperate gamble by picking a totally unqualified woman for the ticket.

That this line of thinking got so much coverage just goes to show how strongly many in the media are invested in Obama's candidacy, because the facts of the matter were readily available. (And that's ignoring the ridiculous and despicable "her youngest baby isn't really hers" rumors which were happily dug up from the swamps of the Daily Kos and circulated by mainstream press outlets.)

However, it turns out that this theory is very easily refuted. This Washington Post article does a pretty good job of talking to the insiders about the VP selection process, and it definitely sounds like this was no last minute decision.

It seems that McCain first met Palin back in February at a governor's convention, where he was impressed with her reform credentials and her grasp of the all-important energy issue. They talked 1x1 there briefly, and McCain reportedly had her near the top of his VP candidate list ever since.
Far from being a last-minute tactical move or a second choice when better known alternatives were eliminated, Palin was very much in McCain's thinking from the beginning of the selection process, according to McCain's advisers. The 44-year-old governor made every cut as the first list of candidates assembled last spring was slowly winnowed. The more McCain learned about her, the more attracted he was to her as someone who shared his maverick, anti-establishment instincts.

"He looked at her like a kindred spirit," said one close adviser, who declined to be identified in order to speak more freely. "Someone who wasn't afraid to take tough positions."
Six people were involved in the secretive deliberations that led to Palin's selection: McCain; his wife, Cindy; campaign manager Davis; longtime confidant Mark Salter; senior adviser Steve Schmidt; and key strategist Charlie Black. In addition, Washington lawyer A.B. Culvahouse oversaw the vetting.

Starting last spring, the inner circle met regularly with McCain to review and discuss an initial list of about three dozen possible choices. "He and several of us had multiple meetings," one adviser said. "Discussions, strengths and weaknesses of all the candidates. He asked a lot of questions and listened -- didn't tip his hand to too many of us. He was very insistent that this process often wounds people, and we were to stay very quiet."
McCain's advisers conducted interviews with a number of the prospective choices, but McCain did not. Most he knew well enough to have a sense of their personalities, policy positions and character.
For all the focus on Pawlenty, Romney and Lieberman, Palin was the leading candidate by the beginning of last week. Davis had spoken with her a number of times. The McCain camp had reviewed everything it could find on her, including videotapes of her public speeches and interviews. "She makes a great speech," one adviser observed.

Last Sunday night, McCain talked to Palin by phone from Arizona in what aides described as a somewhat-lengthy call that resulted in McCain asking her to come to Arizona.

On Wednesday Palin flew to Flagstaff. That night she conferred with Schmidt and Salter. The next morning around 7, the three of them, along with a Palin aide, climbed into an SUV with tinted windows to begin the 45-minute drive to McCain's retreat in Sedona.

When they arrived, McCain offered Palin some coffee before taking her to a bend in a creek on the property where there are places to sit and a hawk's nest looming above. It is one of McCain's favorite places, and the two talked alone there until they were joined by McCain's wife, Cindy, who is described as having played a key role throughout the selection process.

After about an hour, Palin joined her aide on the deck of McCain's cabin, while the candidate and his wife went for a walk along the creek. When they returned, McCain held one last session with aides Schmidt and Salter. Then he offered Palin the job. The deal was sealed "with a handshake, a pat on the back," one adviser said.
By all accounts, the vetting process was quite thorough. All leading candidates were asked to list any controversial articles or speeches they had given, personal and family problems, etc. The first thing that Governor Palin mentioned in this regard was that her seventeen-year-old daughter was pregnant -- a fact that was already generally known in her home town of Wassilla. McCain said he didn't think that that should be an issue. He and she must have both known very well, however, that it could not be concealed and that the liberal press and blogsphere would have a feeding frenzy over it. I can only assume that Palin discussed this with her daughter, and that they believe that since her daughter's marriage and future rest in a 9,000 person town in Alaska, well away from the DC feeding frenzy, she and her new family will be alright. Power and distance can provide an awful lot of insulation.

Nonetheless, even just reading the print media over the last few days has been enough to make the blood boil. And so by last night, conservatives were ready to get some of their own back and see Palin bring the house down. She did not disappoint.

Not having a TV in the house, I catch speeches less than I might otherwise prefer. The only Obama speeches that I've heard all the way through have been his Philadelphia speech on race and his convention acceptance speech. And so perhaps my expectations have not been correctly lowered by the generally low rhetorical tenor of our times. I'd thought that Palin's acceptance last Friday was decent and solid, but not outstanding. However as I've watched Obama's convention speech, and the speeches by Lieberman, Romney, Huckaby, and the Governor of Hawaii at the GOP convention, I realized that my expectations must be overly high. Obama's speech had struck me as okay (if you can believe that sort of thing) but certainly not great, Lieberman's was limp, the Governor of Hawaii can't speak well, Romney's as not very good and Huckaby delivered fairly well but spent way too much of his time on a weird anecdote about a schoolteacher denying her students desks until veterans brought them in.

Rudy's speech finally started to pick up the tone a bit. I don't like him a bit, but he has the instincts of an entertainer, and he laid into Obama and into the treatment the press had given Palin with a will. It was a fun speech, though not a deep one.

Then Palin came on stage.

One can quibble with a thing or two. I personally would have preferred to get a bit more policy talk -- though her discussion on energy policy (clearly her strong point given her management of Alaska's oil and natural gas resources -- which the state owns, according to its constitution, and leases extractions rights to) was solid. I wished she had included a few lines on social issues, conservative principles, and abortion. However, she's the VP candidate, the policy properly belongs to the president. I thought Palin did what she needed to do as far as emphasizing her own toughness, poise and readiness; the general conservative worldview; and McCain's personal strengths.

But overall, this was a brilliant performance. She is at least as good a natural political talent and speaker as Obama. And she came out tough and feisty after several days of unimaginably vicious media attacks, and did so with humor and grace rather than anger. A political star was born last night. I would be glad to see her as president in 4-8 years -- and the Obama camp has good reason to be scared as she gets down to barnstorming Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin.

With a speaker like that, I hope that she's assigned a couple of the McCain team's best writers to sit down with her and craft a couple of solid speeches on issues such as:
  • Energy policy

  • "Kitchen Table" issues: Jobs, Housing and Education

  • Principled social conservatism

  • Real feminism

They've got the best political talent the GOP has seen in a long time on their hands, and I hope they don't waste it.

And hey, maybe she can even address national security:

Hair today

I'm sure Darwin will have plenty of reax (my new favorite word mash-up) from last night's speech for you, but here was the best image of the night.

H/T to the Anchoress for the video link.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Sarah Palin, Real Woman Candidate

I've been gradually collecting links and such to put together a substantive post on Palin's vice presidential candidacy -- but between the work schedule and my compulsive reading of political blogs lately, I haven't finished and yet am going to go ahead and wait till after I see her speech tonight. However, I ran into a thought somewhere-or-other that struck me enough to seem worth passing on briefly:

One of the complaints I've heard a number of women, particularly Catholic women, about the modern ideal of feminism is that it seeks to achieve "equality" for women by essentially turning them into men. Whether it's achieving a "masculine" detachment from relationships, or not allowing being a mother to interfere at all with one's ability to hold down a 60-hour-a-week job.

In politics, most major female politicians in our country have fit the woman-as-man model to some extent: women past a certain age, families kept generally out of sight, and bouts of showing "toughness" that occasionally boarder on the ludicrous -- think Hillery's photo op knocking back working class beer and Jack Daniels shots.

Governor Palin very much breaks with this mold. Here was have a woman who is still young looking and has young children who are not kept strictly out of sight. A governor who's been seen at work wearing her baby in a sling. A family load-balancing ethic: apparently she's had her older daughters along on the campaign bus much of the time to help take care of the baby when she's not available.

While most women in politics fit a "professional woman" mode, in which the woman has to essentially function as a man; Governor Palin seems to have more of a "pioneer woman" ethic, taking on massive tasks but remaining clearly a woman and clearly a mother while at her work.

It seems to me a more encouraging type of feminism from a cultural perspective, one that takes human nature into account better and is less artificial. And it may also be one of the reasons why she is being seen as such a different (and generally scorned) creature by the mainstream press.

The Hundred Books Meme

Taken from the always readable CMinor, the Hundred Books Meme.

Bold--I've read it.
Highlighted--I want to.
Nuttin'--I don't care.
Dripping with blood--do I or do I not have better things to do? (Altered from "I'd burn it" , since I wouldn't.)

1. Pride and Prejudice - Jane Austen
2. The Lord of the Rings - JRR Tolkien
3. Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte
4. Harry Potter series - JK Rowling
5. To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee
6. The Bible (Have read much of it, but not all)
7. Wuthering Heights --Emily Bronte
8. Nineteen Eighty Four - George Orwell
9. His Dark Materials - Phillip Pullman
10. Great Expectations - Charles Dickens
11. Little Women - Louisa M Alcott
12. Tess of the D'Urbervilles - Thomas Hardy
13. Catch 22 - Joseph Heller
14. Complete Works of Shakespeare (Have read lots, but not all)
15. Rebecca - Daphne Du Maurier
16. The Hobbit - JRR Tolkien
17. Birdsong - Sebastian Faulks
18. Catcher in the Rye - JD Salinger
19. The Time Traveller's Wife -
20. Middlemarch - George Eliot
21. Gone With The Wind - Margaret Mitchell
22. The Great Gatsby - F Scott Fitzgerald
23. Bleak House - Charles Dickens
24. War and Peace - Leo Tolstoy (But the epilogue drives me batty.)
25. The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy - Douglas Adams
26. Brideshead Revisited - Evelyn Waugh
27. Crime and Punishment - Fyodor Dostoyevsky
28. Grapes of Wrath - John Steinbeck
29. Alice in Wonderland - Lewis Carroll
30. The Wind in the Willows - Kenneth Grahame
31. Anna Karenina - Leo Tolstoy
32. David Copperfield - Charles Dickens
33. Chronicles of Narnia - CS Lewis
34. Emma - Jane Austen
35. Persuasion - Jane Austen
36. The Kite Runner - Khaled Hosseini
37. Captain Corelli's Mandolin - Louis De Bernieres
38. Memoirs of a Geisha - Arthur Golden
39. Winnie the Pooh - AA Milne
40. Animal Farm - George Orwell
41. The Da Vinci Code - Dan Brown
42. One Hundred Years of Solitude - Gabriel Garcia Marquez
43. A Prayer for Owen Meaney - John Irving (I read parts, but found it kinda... not gripping.)
44. The Woman in White - Wilkie Collins
45. Anne of Green Gables - LM Montgomery
46. Far From The Madding Crowd - Thomas Hardy
47. The Handmaid's Tale - Margaret Atwood
48. Lord of the Flies - William Golding
49. Atonement - Ian McEwan
50. Life of Pi - Yann Martel
51. Dune - Frank Herbert
52. Cold Comfort Farm - Stella Gibbons (I honestly can't remember if I've read this, but I love the movie.)
53. Sense and Sensibility - Jane Austen
54. A Suitable Boy - Vikram Seth
55. The Shadow of the Wind - Carlos Ruiz Zafon
56. A Tale Of Two Cities - Charles Dickens
57. Brave New World - Aldous Huxley (Started it, but just couldn't get through it.)
58. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time - Mark Haddon
59. Love In The Time Of Cholera - Gabriel Garcia Marquez
60. Of Mice and Men - John Steinbeck
61. Lolita - Vladimir Nabokov
62. The Secret History - Donna Tartt
63. The Lovely Bones - Alice Sebold (Read the first chapter on Amazon, but I don't like books about children being raped.)
64. Count of Monte Cristo - Alexandre Dumas
65. On The Road - Jack Kerouac
66. Jude the Obscure - Thomas Hardy
67. Bridget Jones' Diary - Helen Fielding
68. Midnight's Children - Salman Rushdie
69. Moby Dick - Herman Melville (I've read it, but geez, what a drag. Didn't help that my prof considered it the equivalent of the Summa.)
70. Oliver Twist - Charles Dickens (I think I've read this.)
71. Dracula - Bram Stoker
72. The Secret Garden - Frances Hodgson Burnett
73. Notes From A Small Island - Bill Bryson
74. Ulysses - James Joyce
75. The Bell Jar - Sylvia Plath
76. Swallows and Amazons - Arthur Ransome (I've started it, though.)
77. Germinal - Emile Zola
78. Vanity Fair - William Makepeace Thackeray (Have read most of it over Darwin's shoulder.)
79. Possession - AS Byatt
80. A Christmas Carol - Charles Dickens
81. Cloud Atlas - David Mitchell
82. The Color Purple - Alice Walker
83. The Remains of the Day - Kazuo Ishiguro
84. Madame Bovary - Gustave Flaubert
85. A Fine Balance - Rohinton Mistry
86. Charlotte's Web - EB White
87. The Five People You Meet In Heaven - Mitch Albom
88. Adventures of Sherlock Holmes - Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
89. The Faraway Tree Collection - Enid Blyton
90. Heart of Darkness - Joseph Conrad (I've seen Apocalyse Now, though.)
91. The Little Prince - Antoine De Saint-Exupery
92. The Wasp Factory - Iain Banks
93. Watership Down - Richard Adams
94. A Confederacy of Dunces - John Kennedy Toole
95. A Town Like Alice - Nevil Shute
96. The Three Musketeers - Alexandre Dumas
97. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - Roald Dahl
98. Les Miserables - Victor Hugo
99. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn - Mark Twain (I don't think I've read all of it.)
100.The Outsiders -S. E. Hinton, I presume.