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

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Reader, I Married Her

Today marks ten years that MrsDarwin and I have been married. We were two twenty-two-year-olds just out of college who, looking back, did not know as much as we thought. But one thing that we had known for nearly four years was that we were going to get married, and so we did.

A lot has changed since then, though I'm sure there are those (perhaps including ourselves of another ten years or more hence) who would assure us that we still know less than we think. Another thing that hasn't changed is that we'd rather do just about anything together rather than apart, whether it's going through the frustration of going grocery shopping together with all the kids in tow, or having the fairly unusual status of being a husband-wife team blog.

I hope we're given enough years to roll our eyes at people our own age who go around talking about how boring it is to be retired and have their spouses around all the time. I really can't think of anything better than being able to spend most of the day with my wife. And one of my most frequent prayers for our children is that they will be as happy in their vocations, whatever they may be, as we have been blessed to be.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

A Jesuit and a Franciscan...

Brandon posts a great lineup of Jesuit jokes. I was reading them to Darwin, and we started cracking up at the first lines because they were such classic setups:

1) One day a priest was visiting one of his parishioners, and, asking about her teenage son, discovered that she was worried about what career he would choose.

2) The Franciscans, the Dominicans, and the Jesuits were having a meeting...

3) A Dominican and a Jesuit were arguing about whether the Dominicans or the Jesuits were more favored by God.

4) A Jesuit and a Franciscan were eating a meal together...

5) A Franciscan and Jesuit were walking in a forest...

6) A Jesuit, a Franciscan, and a Dominican were playing golf...

7) At a conference discussing various religious orders and societies, the Jesuit representative was asked how Jesuits managed to maintain their vow of obedience.

8) A miser had three sons, one of whom became a Dominican, one of whom became a Franciscan, and one of whom became a Jesuit.

9) A man walked up to a Franciscan and a Jesuit and asked, "How many novenas would I have to do in order to get a Maserati?"

10) A Jesuit and a Franciscan were involved in a car accident.

Read the jokes here.

Mamet's Conservative Turn

The Village Voice is not known for publishing conservative manifestos, but then, David Mamet isn't your typical conservative or conservative convert. It was in 2008 (not exactly a time when people were blocking to the conservative cause) that Mamet wrote an essay published by the Village Voice entitled "Why I Am No Longer a 'Brain-Dead Liberal'". Now Mamet has a book out about his political epiphany, The Secret Knowledge: On the Dismantling of American Culture, and although I generally don't like current political conversion stories or manifestos, I confess myself curious to read it.

I went through a Mamet phase in college and read all of his plays that I could lay my hands on, and since he turned to movies I've been enjoying seeing him hit more of a balance between his characteristically stylized dialog and telling a story. While you don't get much spectacular dialog than Blake's rant in Glengarry Glen Ross (language warning: Mamet makes Quentin Tarantino sound like a schoolboy)

It seems to me that Spanish Prisoner is a better movie qua movie:

And from that point on Mamet's movies have generally balanced story and style rather than relying entirely on the latter.

Still, the author of Sexual Perversity in Chicago turns conservative? I feel like I have to read it just to find out what he's up to.

Monday, June 27, 2011

A Shot of Grace

Odd how it is that when things are going so pleasantly, I have nothing to say. Betty Duffy once wrote a post about right now being the golden age (which I'm not going to look up and link to at this moment, as that's one of the things that bogs me down and keeps me from posting; you can go search her archives yourself, which will be a fruitful and fascinating endeavor). That's how I feel: right now is the golden age, the time I'll look back on and think, "Everything was perfect then." I have the minor stupid frustrations of the parent of a bunch of energetic young children; I have the constant nagging suspicion that my house is full of piles of carefully sorted junk; I have an increasing awareness of my own sinfulness and tendency toward petty and pathetic sins. And yet. I am happy and productive and at peace.

A month ago, Darwin and I went out on a long-overdue date night. We poured out our frustrations to each other, and were surprised and relieved to find that we were both feeling exactly the same way: that we were at the end of our reserves. All these years we've benefited from good early training, from the constant prayers of our parents, and from basic good choices we've made along the way. Yet it seemed like we were depleting these reservoirs of grace, as it were, and had nothing of our own to keep filling them. The thread running through our whole discussion was one of weakness and discouragement, as if we needed a real shot of grace to pick us up off the floor before we could begin to take even the most halting of baby steps toward making life changes. I knew I needed to pray more, and yet I felt like I needed a infusion of grace (that word again; everything comes back to grace) before I could even say a rosary.

By ourselves, we were not enough.

After chewing on the situation from all angles, we decided to make one change, and make it permanent. We get up early, together, and get completely ready for the day. Then we go downstairs and say Morning Prayer. This sounds ridiculous even as I write it. For ten years of marriage we've not had a set morning routine, nor a shared prayer life. We never felt like we needed it, and when we did need it, there was nothing there.

There's an epitaph for you: We didn't do anything we didn't need to do. And suddenly we were in need, and there was no was no there there.

This has been great for the old perspective. Knowing that one is a fallen creature and actually realizing that fact are two different things. My own inadequacy has been borne in on me, and I'm glad. Here's an example: I've been talking for a month about my new-found awareness of the importance of the rosary. There are so many people to pray for, so many needs to bring to God, and I can't take all of them on my shoulders. I want to give them to Mary. Yet the first time I've said a full rosary in ages was this weekend.

So now: we get up, and we pray together. There's still not much order to our lives, though that's mitigated by the happy, lazy days of summer. Our long-term planning problems are not solved; the next school year is still a hazy blur in the distance; once again, I need to cut out the late-night snack. But I am at peace. I'm trying a new thing: begging God to supply what I lack and provide my husband, my children, my family, my friends, everyone, with what I can't give. And I'll keep tossing back those shots of grace as quickly as He pours 'em.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Choice and Gendercide

Last weekend's Wall Street Journal featured an interesting review of Mara Hvistendahl's new book Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men. The topic is one that pro-lifers are all to familiar with -- the use of sex selective abortion throughout the world which has resulted in the death of 163 million unborn girls being aborted over the last 40 years, specifically because their parents wanted a boy instead. (In other words, over and above all of the abortions going on for other reasons.) The sheer number of "missing girls" is staggering -- imagine a number of women equal to the current total populations of France and the UK combined.
Mara Hvistendahl is worried about girls. Not in any political, moral or cultural sense but as an existential matter. She is right to be. In China, India and numerous other countries (both developing and developed), there are many more men than women, the result of systematic campaigns against baby girls. In "Unnatural Selection," Ms. Hvistendahl reports on this gender imbalance: what it is, how it came to be and what it means for the future.

In nature, 105 boys are born for every 100 girls. This ratio is biologically ironclad. Between 104 and 106 is the normal range, and that's as far as the natural window goes. Any other number is the result of unnatural events.

Yet today in India there are 112 boys born for every 100 girls. In China, the number is 121—though plenty of Chinese towns are over the 150 mark. China's and India's populations are mammoth enough that their outlying sex ratios have skewed the global average to a biologically impossible 107. But the imbalance is not only in Asia. Azerbaijan stands at 115, Georgia at 118 and Armenia at 120.
But oddly enough, Ms. Hvistendahl notes, it is usually a country's rich, not its poor, who lead the way in choosing against girls. "Sex selection typically starts with the urban, well-educated stratum of society," she writes. "Elites are the first to gain access to a new technology, whether MRI scanners, smart phones—or ultrasound machines." The behavior of elites then filters down until it becomes part of the broader culture. Even more unexpectedly, the decision to abort baby girls is usually made by women—either by the mother or, sometimes, the mother-in-law.

If you peer hard enough at the data, you can actually see parents demanding boys. Take South Korea. In 1989, the sex ratio for first births there was 104 boys for every 100 girls—perfectly normal. But couples who had a girl became increasingly desperate to acquire a boy. For second births, the male number climbed to 113; for third, to 185. Among fourth-born children, it was a mind-boggling 209. ...

Ms. Hvistendahl argues that such imbalances are portents of Very Bad Things to come. "Historically, societies in which men substantially outnumber women are not nice places to live," she writes. "Often they are unstable. Sometimes they are violent." As examples she notes that high sex ratios were at play as far back as the fourth century B.C. in Athens—a particularly bloody time in Greek history—and during China's Taiping Rebellion in the mid-19th century. (Both eras featured widespread female infanticide.) She also notes that the dearth of women along the frontier in the American West probably had a lot to do with its being wild. In 1870, for instance, the sex ratio west of the Mississippi was 125 to 100. In California it was 166 to 100. In Nevada it was 320. In western Kansas, it was 768.
What's at the same time interesting and dissonant is that Ms. Hvistendahl comes from entirely outside the pro-life movement, nor does her horror at the idea of people aborting girls for being girls carry through to opposition to abortion itself.
There is so much to recommend in "Unnatural Selection" that it's sad to report that Ms. Hvistendahl often displays an unbecoming political provincialism. She begins the book with an approving quote about gender equality from Mao Zedong and carries right along from there. Her desire to fault the West is so ingrained that she criticizes the British Empire's efforts to stamp out the practice of killing newborn girls in India because "they did so paternalistically, as tyrannical fathers." She says that the reason surplus men in the American West didn't take Native American women as brides was that "their particular Anglo-Saxon breed of racism precluded intermixing." (Through most of human history distinct racial and ethnic groups have only reluctantly intermarried; that she attributes this reluctance to a specific breed of "racism" says less about the American past than about her own biases.) When she writes that a certain idea dates "all the way back to the West's predominant creation myth," she means the Bible.

Ms. Hvistendahl is particularly worried that the "right wing" or the "Christian right"—as she labels those whose politics differ from her own—will use sex-selective abortion as part of a wider war on abortion itself. She believes that something must be done about the purposeful aborting of female babies or it could lead to "feminists' worst nightmare: a ban on all abortions."

It is telling that Ms. Hvistendahl identifies a ban on abortion—and not the killing of tens of millions of unborn girls—as the "worst nightmare" of feminism. Even though 163 million girls have been denied life solely because of their gender, she can't help seeing the problem through the lens of an American political issue. Yet, while she is not willing to say that something has gone terribly wrong with the pro-abortion movement, she does recognize that two ideas are coming into conflict: "After decades of fighting for a woman's right to choose the outcome of her own pregnancy, it is difficult to turn around and point out that women are abusing that right."

Late in "Unnatural Selection," Ms. Hvistendahl makes some suggestions as to how such "abuse" might be curbed without infringing on a woman's right to have an abortion. In attempting to serve these two diametrically opposed ideas, she proposes banning the common practice of revealing the sex of a baby to parents during ultrasound testing. And not just ban it, but have rigorous government enforcement, which would include nationwide sting operations designed to send doctors and ultrasound techs and nurses who reveal the sex of babies to jail. Beyond the police surveillance of obstetrics facilities, doctors would be required to "investigate women carrying female fetuses more thoroughly" when they request abortions, in order to ensure that their motives are not illegal.

Such a regime borders on the absurd. It is neither feasible nor tolerable—nor efficacious: Sex determination has been against the law in both China and India for years, to no effect. I suspect that Ms. Hvistendahl's counter-argument would be that China and India do not enforce their laws rigorously enough.
These struck me, in particular, because this odd police regime she recommends sounds very much like what pro-choice advocates often accuse pro-lifers of wanting to institute. Obviously, it takes a much more invasive regime to allow abortion but only for reasons that you approve of than simply to ban it as a legitimate medical procedure. Once again, there is a police state supporter in the room, and it's not the person standing on the right.

That said, like the reviewer, I hope that Ms. Hvistendahl's work will, contrary to her wishes, call attention through the wider culture to the shocking nature of abortion, and not leave them thinking, "It's horrible to abort a baby just because she's a girl, but on the other hand, if you want to abort her because you don't want to have to shop at Costco, well, go right ahead!" Perhaps it can even do a better job of that since it comes from the "safe" source of a pro-choice feminist.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Public Figure as Character

I am not a Franzen fan (haven't read any of his novels and from the descriptions don't really plan to) but I was oddly fascinated by this article by a Kenyon professor who was in charge of hosting him for a speech he made at the college:
At the podium, I turned to welcome him and saw that he was crossing the stage still hanging on to his leather briefcase, which suggested either a charming geekiness or a spy headed to a drop. ...

Franzen admitted upfront that this would be a recycled talk, one that he hadn't looked at since giving it at a conference in Germany a year ago. Would the audience, which consisted largely of students, be charmed by this slacker admission? In fact, a prim article appeared later that week in the college paper, gently reminding the reader of the Tenets of Public Speaking, the first of which was: Be prepared. If you are invited to speak in front of any group -- from your local Girl Scout troop to a huge convention -- consider it an honor. The article seemed to fault him, not for giving the same talk again, but for not having readied it.
Then he began reading, and the tempo, unlike his own conversational rhythm, was very, very fast. His sentences were elegant and complex and they were difficult to grasp upon first hearing, even without the added velocity. I tried to telepathically urge him to slow down, but I saw that, for all his formidable intellect, for all his "awkward," as the students called it, he was enjoying himself. He enjoyed being onstage. He enjoyed the hair-trigger laughter he got every time he critiqued one of his own sentences or acknowledged a passage that only made sense in Germany.
The students later discovered that Franzen's talk was already circulating on YouTube; he'd given a portion of it last fall at the National Book Festival. Instead of Germany, Franzen had begun by saying that he hadn't looked at the talk since he'd given it in Seattle. He used the same kind of comic asides, pausing after a given sentence to announce that it would be rewritten. Or he'd say "good evening" and then correct it to "good morning," in order to bring the audience into the joke of the recycled talk. I thought of something Anna Deavere Smith had written: "Public figures are so expert at ... performance that they have a greater gift than actors for making what they have said before seem as though they are saying it for the first time." The students pointed to this clip as evidence that they'd been had, and their mortification morphed into indignation. They began to speak of Franzen as if he were a freshman friendship that they were so over.
From an acting point of view, the idea of having a canned spontaneous performance is kind of fascinating. Indeed, for someone to talks to huge numbers of people each year, many of whom are yearning for some idea of "what he's like" I would think that it would be almost inevitable that one would, out of defense, adopt a fictional version of oneself, a character, which would be one's primary public face in such situations. This fellow has simply picked one which presents features that he likes: the appearance of being awkward, spontaneous, and a bit self deprecating.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Moral Sense and Unequal Exchange

Every week I make a point of finding the time to listen to the EconTalk podcast -- a one hour interview on some economics related topic conducted by Prof. Russ Roberts of George Mason university. Roberts himself has economic and political views I'm often (though not always) in sympathy with, but he's a very fair and thoughtful interviewer and has a wide range of guests. This week's interview was with a semi-regular on the show, Prof Mike Munger of Duke University, and the topic was the concept of euvoluntary exchange which Munger has been attempting to create.

Munger's project aims to identify why it is that some seemingly voluntary transactions are seen as morally repugnant by most people, and are either socially disapproved of or outright outlawed. So for example, say that Frank is very poor and desperately wants to provide for his family. Tom is very rich and is loosing eyesight in both his eyes. His doctor believes they can pull off a revolutionary new surgery and transplant a healthy eye into him, but they need the eye of a live, healthy person who matches Tom's blood type and DNA well. Frank is a match and is willing to give up an eye in return for a million dollars.

Now, there are a few people who lean heavily in the rationalistic direction who would say this sounds like a great idea because it makes most people better off, but most people would react to this with revulsion, and it is in fact illegal to do this kind of thing in the US.

The interesting thing is that voluntarily donating an organ (so long as giving it up isn't considered too big a detriment to you) is considered morally admirable, and is legal. So, for instance, there was a case a year or two ago in our parish where one young woman in the parish donated a kidney to another parishioner who needed a transplant.

Munger's argument is that in the Frank and Tom example, the transaction may seem voluntary but it's not really voluntary because of the disparity in means between Tom and Frank. Transactions that are really, truly voluntary (euvoluntary) are, he argues, always just, at least, in and of themselves as transactions. This is leaving aside the question of whether the thing one seeks to procure is something which you should have or not -- say weapons grade plutonium.

The reason why we're comfortable with someone donating a kidney but not with someone selling a kidney is that in the case of selling the kidney we assume that someone may be doing the act out of desperate need for money rather than a true desire to help. Thus, we approve of the donation of the kidney because it is clear that it's motivated out of a sincere desire to help the other, but we deprecate the selling of a kidney because we fear that someone is being taken advantage of.

To distinguish between euvoluntary and non-euvoluntary transactions, Munger suggests that we'd look at the BATNA or Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement.

The example that he gives is as followed (rewritten because the transcription is a little hard to follow, sounding too much like conversation): Say you walk into the grocery store and you see that they're selling bottles of water for $1000. This is totally outrageous, but there's another store right across the street selling water bottles for $0.99, so rather than getting upset you walk across the street and buy water for a dollar. The $1000 price may be stupid, but it isn't seen a really wrong because your alternative to paying that $1000 price is just a five minute walk and a good laugh.

Now, say you've been lost in the desert for two days and you're on the point of dying of thirst. Someone drives up in a Jeep and you ask him if he has a bottle of water. "Sure," he says, "But it'll cost you $1000." When you hesitate, he starts to drive away, leaving you to die. So you agree to give him $1000 for his water.

I think most people would agree that this was an incredibly unjust thing to do, and the reason, Munger argues, is because there's a huge disparity in BATNAs between the two parties in the exchange. If the guy in the Jeep doesn't make the sale, he just drives on and is none the worse. If I don't buy, I die. Thus, the transaction is seen as unjust because it's not really free -- no more so that if he put a gun to my head and demanded a thousand dollars -- even though both parties are, on the face of it, better off because of the transaction. (You don't die of thirst and the guy in the Jeep has $1000.)

Now, I'm not entirely sure whether this is a moral intuition that we have (we certainly treat it as one) or if it's just a matter of social conditioning: we as Americans don't like things which we see as unequal or unfree. But it becomes an important question because through this moral sense we sometimes avoid transactions which could arguably benefit both parties a lot -- usually the "unfree" one far more than the better off one. Russ Roberts provides some interesting anecdotes later in the interview:
[These are from the show transcript, so forgive the conversational tone.]
[O]ne of the students in the class told me a story I found fascinating and that relates to what we've been talking about. She had been visiting in Nepal, and she had clothes that needed cleaning; and she found out she could hire a washer woman to do your clothes for you. No washing machine or laundromats where she was. So, she went to hire someone and the wage was so appallingly low--let's say it was ten cents an hour--she was so horrified that she decided not to hire this woman. It would be exploitative.

I said: You've exploited her by not exploiting her. Maybe she'll only find something much worse. Maybe she'll take it voluntarily, not euvoluntarily. She was looking for work. Maybe she had a hungry child or needed money for medical care; she was desperate enough to work for ten cents and hour; and the student refused to engage in this transaction allegedly because she cared about the woman. As an economist this is very difficult to understand. The more I thought about it, the more I understood it.

When I tell this story to my students, one of the reactions is always: She should have paid her more. Then you ask the question: How much more? American minimum wage? American living wage? And if you offered her $10 an hour instead of ten cents an hour, what would her reaction be? Would she be thrilled? Offended? Where would the line form when the word got out that you were paying 100 times the going rate. There'd be a giant rent-seeking contest. How would you deal with that. I put myself in my student's shoes and tried to think about why you could come to that conclusion and feel good about it. It's the disparity in betnas. This is a student who was going to come back to American life, earn an extraordinarily large income by Third World standards and perhaps even a decent income by Western standards, and certainly compared to this woman. The gap between their wellbeing was so large over a lifetime that this was simply an unimaginable transaction. It's as if that transaction is inherently exploitative, not because of the features of the transaction, but because of the disparity in betnas. Because both people clearly could be made better off? Why wouldn't you joyfully engage in this transaction? She couldn't do it. The punchline to the story is that she did her own laundry, threw out her shoulder, and ended up hiring the woman anyway eventually.
The personal experience that I had like this was I was once house sitting for someone while I was in Santiago, Chile, working at a think tank there the summer between years in graduate school. And it turned out that with the house there was a cook. So, I came home the first day I was house sitting and I put my feet up on the coffee table to read the newspaper, and a woman comes out of the kitchen and asks me in Spanish what I'd like for dinner. And I said: What do you mean? And she informed me she was the cook and was going to make whatever I wanted. And I was extremely uncomfortable with this; I said: Well, make whatever you feel like. And she was extremely uncomfortable.

So we eventually came to some conclusion about what she was going to cook, and she's in the kitchen cooking and I'm in the living room reading and I realize this is making me very uncomfortable. This woman is cooking for me who I'm only implicitly paying. She was being paid, but only a small amount. I went into the kitchen to chat with her, which totally violated the social norms; she was very uncomfortable. We proceeded to have an awkward conversation in very bad Spanish. I asked what music she liked; she liked Frank Sinatra and Julio Iglesias. I came to like Frank Sinatra.

[Munger] It's painful to hear this.

[Roberts] The next part was the more interesting part. I thought, sports is something people have in common; I asked her what her favorite football, soccer team. She rooted for Colo Colo, which is what the poor people in Santiago rooted for.

[Munger] You could see that coming.

[Roberts] And of course, all my friends rooted for Universidad de Chile. And I have to mention--what I loved about soccer in Chile, when my friends told me that was their favorite team I asked how it was tied to the University of Chile. They said: Well, there isn't one. I said: What do you mean? They said: They just use the name of the school. I thought how nice, because in America we pretend that the people with the name of that team are associated with the school--in fact, they are kind of like employees, unpaid employees in college. But here they actually totally sever the connection. The Duke University basketball team could be, like, the Celtics. But anyway, I realized again the disparity in our lifetime situations was just inherently uncomfortable. I did not like this woman cooking for me.

[Munger]You felt you were exploiting her somehow.

[Roberts] Right, and I was trying to soften that by chatting with her. As if that was going to help. Oh good, he came in to chat with me--

[Munger]--is he going to grab me?

[Roberts] Not just that. I don't think that was the worry. First, I violated the social norm that I'm trying to make conversation with her, and two, my conversation is not very good; all it does is enhance the feeling that I'm the Universidad de Chile fan and she's the Colo Colo fan. It was a total failure. I would have much preferred that she would not cook for me. I didn't want her there. I didn't want her to do that.

[Munger] Maybe even to the extent of if they had offered, you wouldn't have fired her, but if you said--maybe they'll give her a sabbatical, we'll give her the month off. And they wouldn't have paid her.

[Roberts] I would have said: Great!

[Munger] My question is: how much would you have paid to avoid having to deal with that, with that sense of exploitation?

[Roberts] The answer is some. Maybe even up to the point of saying: Lay her off for a month.

[Munger] Even though you wish her no ill.

[Roberts] Correct. It was an uncomfortable experience. It gave me an insight into my student, when I thought back on it. I think it's really no more complicated than that--just having such a big disparity in life situation. And in particular, if some of my life situation is contingent on the consummation of this contract. That explains why all of these different transactions are illegal, why all of these different situations we feel bad about if not formally illegal. Maybe it's not a transaction, but a sort of social relationship.
This is pretty much exactly the kind of thought process which often causes people to impose regulations (say relating to third world manufacturing, or to child labor) which end up hurting the people they seek to help. No question, it's appalling that people should be working away for fourteen hours a day sewing undershirts for only $2 a day, or that twelve year old kids are working in factories, but often these "sweatshop" and "child labor" conditions have waiting lists, because the alternatives for those seeking work are picking over garbage heaps or being sucked into prostitution at age 12 rather than factory work.

To the extent that we often leave people in even worse conditions for fear that engaging in business with them would be exploitive, it seems like the effort to understand why we make these moral intuitions (and how valid they are) is important. I'm not sure that Munger has really got much further than describing the phenomenon, but it seems an interesting and important first step.

Seven Quick Takes, Wednesday edition

1. Everyone offer lots of prayers for Jennifer Fulwiler, who is having her fifth child today. Four girls and a boy -- it don't get much better than that, sez I.

2. While you're at it, read Jen's take on the Father Corapi mess. I've never heard Father Corapi speak, so all I know about him is the highly negative fact that he chose to announce that he's stepping away from his priestly ministry on Father's Day, but some people feel very strongly about him, and Jen provides a nicely balanced analysis and conclusion:

And so this turn of events is upsetting to the thousands of us who were led home, at least in part, by this particular shepherd. As I thought about it and followed the commentary all weekend, I felt distress at the news. But I also sensed something else, something surprising, something good:


The truth that Fr. Corapi led me and so many others to did not originate with him, or from any man. The Catholic Church isn’t a bunch of guys who sit around and come up with brilliant insights about Jesus; its doctrines don’t come from the pope, the bishops, the priests, Fr. Corapi, or anyone else – they come from God himself. The men who make up the Magisterium are simply the tools God uses to convey his message.

3. I haven't written much lately, despite the numerous elegant and lucid posts that are bouncing around in my head. Here's what's been eating my time:

That would be my newly refinished screen door. It took a lot of woman-hours and more than half a can of marine spar varnish to get that shine, but nothing's too good for my front porch. I've got two more doors to work on now, doors on which the finish was so old (I'm guessing they hadn't been touched up in 80 years) that it hung in flakes which brushed off with the swipe of a hand. One more summer and they might have been unsalvageable.

My tip on getting that mirror-like shine: lots of thin coats of marine spar varnish, with a light sanding in between. It takes time, but boy is it worth it.

4. Gotta get a dehumidifier for the basement before we sprout black mold on everything. When I go downstairs my hair springs out like a bush, it's just that moist. Any recommendations on brand? Talk to me about the good, the bad, and the muggly.

5. Darwin and I went to a most excellent party this past weekend, at which Midsummer Night's Dream was read aloud (casting was done via random drawings from the casting hat). I was Titania, Queen of the Fairies; Darwin drew Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons. Make of that what you will.

Why don't we have more Shakespeare reading parties? The ones I've attended have been hysterical. Maybe that's because we were reading comedies and not, say, Titus Andronicus.

6. Our ten-year anniversary is coming up, and we'd like to get a new bed. (You all will recall that a roach was the catalyst for the destruction of the last incumbent, almost exactly five years ago.) We'd like something of a higher quality than we normally buy, it being a significant anniversary and having five years to save up and all. Usually we Craigslist for our furniture needs, but we haven't found anything that we like there. Antique beds are usually full-sized, and we need a queen.

So where does one go to shop for good heirloom quality furniture? Neither Darwin nor I come from families where good furniture was purchased -- at least not in our generation. My family's mainstay was Goodwill or St. Vincent de Paul. It's possible that something fine might turn up used at one of the usual outlets, but our anniversary is next week. Time's running short.


Monday, June 20, 2011

A Father to Everyone

The conjunction of Trinity Sunday and Father's Day had me thinking yesterday about the fact that we are urged by Christ to call God our Father. Every so often you hear someone claim that we only call the first person of the trinity "God the Father" because it has been men doing the talking through most of Christian history. Had it been women in charge of things, so the claim goes, we might be talking about "God the Mother" instead.

It strikes me that the basic problem with this point of view, from a human perspective, is that it assumes that the relation of men to their fathers is more like the relationship between women and their mothers than it is like that between women and their fathers. This suggests that sex is the primary determining factor of the relationship we have with our parents -- one sort of relationship with the parent of the same sex, a different sort of relationship with the parent of the opposite sex.

Like all mistakes, there is, I think, some element of truth to this. The parent of one's own sex serves as an example (even if in sad circumstances a negative one) of how the child will be a parent. Sons know that some day they may be fathers. Daughters know that some day they may be mothers. And yet, this sense cannot be the sense in which we see God as father. We will not grow up to be God like Him, we will not become creators of our own universes. We will not become all knowing, all powerful and eternal. So the sense in which we (or according to that theory, men) see God as a father is not the "I could be like him someday" sense.

At the more basic level, it seems to me that "father" and "mother" are archetypes which are different -- and although sons and daughters may relate to their father differently, the ways in which both sons and daughters relate to and understand their father are more similar to each other than the way daughters relate to their mother is to the way sons relate to their father.

When Jesus told us to call God our Father, He didn't mean in the most literal and physical sense, one which would have come naturally to many pagans at that time. God the Father does not come down, like Zeus to some pretty girl, and father each one of us. And yet, we understand God as our Father because as human persons our understanding of "father" is an imperfect understanding of what our relationship with God the Father is.

As such, it seems to me that all of us, men and women, can equally relate to God as being our Father. If anything, the difference in this for men and women would not be that men see God as a father while women see Him as a mother, but rather that men relate to Him as sons while women relate to Him as daughters.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Shopping with Betty Beguiles

I spent this last week in deep fashion consultation with the talented Betty Beguiles, who signed on to give my wardrobe a much-needed update through her new Personal Shopping service.

It was a clarifying experience for me. I thought that what I needed was to "shake things up" and get out of my comfort zone, but in the course of having to articulate why I did or didn't like certain options, I came to realize that there was an underlying ethic to my various fashion choices. I have a fairly hour-glass figure and middling legs, and so I'm always trying to find styles that will give me the illusion of looking longer and leaner than I really am, or at least not make my hips look as wide as a doorway. Also, I run shrieking from anything that smacks of being "bohemian" or "earthy". Betty patiently sifted through all my feedback and pontificating, and then (once I stopped micromanaging the process) produced a number of elegant and wearable outfits.


She's got the other outfits up at her blog, Betty Beguiles.

Anyone interested in learning more about Betty's personal shopping services can click here to read more.

Friday, June 17, 2011

On Book Hauls

I'm not terribly "with it", generally speaking, and so I was unaware of the YouTube genre of "Book Haul" which Donald references in his post today. Like the woman in the parable who calls in all her neighbors to celebrate the finding of her lost coin, the bibliophile cannot rejoice alone in a good haul. Perhaps one of the reasons such joys must be shared is that there is a glorious commonality to the experiences of all book hoarders. Don writes:
You could do a lot with a dollar when you were a kid in the sixties. Comic books cost 12 cents, cokes were a dime, candy could be purchased for a nickel to a dime. However, I spent a fair part of my money at the local Goodwill. Paris did not have a bookstore, but the Goodwill had a bookcase with used paperbacks and hardbacks. The paperbacks were a nickel and the hardbacks were a dime. New used books came in fairly frequently. Most Saturday mornings I would go into the Goodwill and search through the books. It was there I first made the acquaintance of Plato, Aristotle and Aristophanes. On one memorable day, the divine Dante came my way for the first time with a paperback copy of Purgatorio, and a “new life” began for me. History books were plentiful, especially on the Civil War and World War II and I gobbled them up. Thus I began my personal library, and I have some of those books to this day. And so my shameful addiction devotion to purchasing mass quantities of books as cheaply as I can began.
The times and places were different, but certainly by age ten I had caught the book bug, and talked about "my library", which I consciously built -- acquiring copies even of books my parents already owned so that years hence, when I was on my own, my library wouldn't have gaps in it. (Ah, the idealism of youth. I did not realize how inevitable it is that every library have gaps in it.)

And from the comments, what clearer sign of a bibliophile can one find than this from Joe Green:
Unfortunately, over the years my book shelves got so crowded I was forced to donate many to local libraries and charities, and sometimes would find them recycled at area flea markets, where, succumbing to a sentimental streak, I would often buy them back.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Patrick Leigh Fermor

Some years ago, I wrote here about Patrick Leigh Fermor's A Time of Gifts, a beautifully written travel book about the first stage of the author's 1933 walk across Europe from from Holland to Constantinople.
The only customer, I unslung my rucksack in a little Gastof. Standing on chairs, the innkeeper's pretty daughters, who were aged from five to fifteen, were helping their father decorate a Christmas tree; hanging witch-balls, looping tinsel, fixing candles to the branches, and crowning the tip with a wonderful star. They asked me to help and when it was almost done, their father, a tall, thoughtful-looking man, uncorked a slim bottle from the Rudesheim vineyard just over the river. We drank it together and had nearly finished a second by the time the last touches to the tree were complete. Then the family assembled round it and sang. The candles were the only light and the solemn and charming ceremony was made memorable by the candle-lit faces of the girls -- and by their beautiful and clear voices. I was rather surprised that they didn't sing Stille Nacht: it had been much in the air the last few days; but it is a Lutheran hymn and I think this bank of the Rhine is mostly Catholic. Two of the carols they sang have stuck in my memory: O Du Heilige and Es ist ein Reis entsprungen: both were entracing and especially the second, which, they told me, was very old. In the end I went to church with them and stayed the night. When all the inhabitants of Bingen were exchanging greetings with each other outside the church in the small hours, a few flakes began falling. Next morning the household embraced each other, shook hands again, and wished everyone a happy Christmas. The smallest of the daughters gave me a tangerine and a packet of cigarettes wrapped beautifully in tinsel and silver paper. I wished I'd had something to hand her, neatly done up in holly-patterned ribbon -- I thought later of my aluminum pencil-case containing a new Venus or Royal Sovereign [pencil] wound in tissue paper, but too late. The time of gifts.
I've since read what was intended to be the second volume of a three part narrative of the trip, Between the Woods and the Water. It is similarly a joy to read.

Fermor died last Friday, June 10th, the third volume still unpublished, and with him passes not only that part of the narrative which remains unwritten, but a man of a kind little seen in this day and age. Christopher Hitchens (who whatever else his faults can certainly recognize brilliant prose) writes about Fermor's life in Slate, including Fermor's time with the guerrillas in Greece during World War II. He includes a quote, which if memory serves comes from Time of Gifts, where Fermor recalls in a flash forward (Time of Gifts was not actually written until 1977, though it makes use of his diaries from 1933, so it is consciously written about pre-war Europe by one living with the aftereffects of the war) an incident during one of his more famous wartime escapades -- kidnapping the Nazi commander of all German forces in Greece and taking him as a prisoner to Egypt.
We were all three lying smoking in silence, when the general, half to himself, slowly said: Vides et ulta stet nive candidum Soracte. ["See how Mount Soracte stands out white with deep snow."] It was the opening of one of the few Horace odes I knew by heart. I went on reciting where he had broken off. … The general's blue eyes swiveled away from the mountain top to mine and when I'd finished, after a long silence, he said: "Ach so, Herr Major!" It was very strange. "Ja, Herr General." As though for a moment the war had ceased to exist. We had both drunk at the same fountains long before, and things were different between us for the rest of our time together.

If you haven't read any Fermor, treat yourself and do so. You won't regret it. Seldom do we see his like.

UPDATE: From yet another Fermor book In Tearing Haste: Letters between Deborah Devonshire and Patrick Leigh Fermor comes this follow-on to the story of his wartime capture of the German general:
from ‘In tearing haste’ letters between PLF and Deborah Devonshire, page... 121, May 1972:
Darling Debo,
(…) I had an extraordinary experience three weeks ago; meeting General Kreipe on a television programme, with all his Cretan captors, after 27 years. After the programme, all the Cretans – about 20 – the General & his wife (very nice), a niece of Field Marshal v. Rundstedt, and I had a huge banquet in a taverna. Lots of Cretan songs and dances, a few German folk songs sung by the General and me, after much wine had flowed. Some journalists got wind of it and broke in. One asked the General how I had treated him when he was my prisoner in the mountains and the Gen said – wait for it! – most energetically: ‘Ritterlich! Wie ein Ritter’ (‘Chivalrously! Like a knight!). I felt a halo forming and it took me days to get back to normal. I took them out to all sorts of meals and, and showered Frau Kreipe with roses when they left (she was extremely nice). She said: ‘You’re just like my husband told me you were all these years!’ (Three cheers again! Forgive me retailing these dewdrops – but nobody else can, you do see.) It was somehow a wonderful rounding off to this ancient story. I’ve just got a charming joint letter from them!

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Small Amounts Still Matter

One of the oddly persistent mistakes people seem to fall into in a whole host of areas of life is the idea that small amounts don't matter.

Take, for instance, the illusion that I so often fall into: "This will only take me ten minutes a day. No matter how busy I am, I always spend at least ten minutes just wasting time. Clearly, I can add this one extra activity."

With sufficient determination, and a low enough starting level of commitments, one can pull this off. But in point of fact the day is made up of a finite number of ten minute increments, and one cannot add an unlimited number of them. Sometimes, adding even one ten minute commitment ends up having more ramifications than one would imagine. And time "wasted" is often curiously hard to stamp out.

People often have this same issue with regards to money. For instance, there was a lot of buzz a little while back about a study purporting to show that Walmart could offer all of its workers a wage of at least $12/hr and pass the cost on to customers, with the result that the average Walmart purchase would go up from 43.95 to 44.41 -- a mere forty-six cents!

Small increases in cost, time commitment, etc. often seem as if they were "free" because the amounts are small enough that we have a great deal of difficulty figuring out where they come from. Our natural tendency is thus to assume that they don't come from anywhere, they're just "extra". But of course, they're not.

If I decide to set aside ten minutes each day to work my way through the Oxford Book of English Verse, I may not be able to track what it is that I forgo doing in order to spend that time, but I clearly am forgoing something. Similarly, if I pick up fast food for lunch twice a week and the restaurant I go to raises its prices by $0.20, that $0.40 a week will come out from somewhere else in my budget -- it's just impossible for me to tell what because I'll make the allocation unconsciously.

This tendency to assume that small amounts don't matter becomes especially problematic when you start applying it to large groups of people. Say I'm sitting in the headquarters of a grocery chain and I'm deciding whether to increase the price of "Toasted O's" by ten cents. I sell 200 boxes of Toasted O's each week in each of my stores, and I have 700 stores scattered around the country. That means if I raise the price by ten cents, I'll increase my sales revenue by $14,000/wk which is $728,000/year. Three quarters of a million dollars! Just by raising the price ten cents! What could go wrong? No one's going to stop eating Toasted O's or go shop at another store just because of ten cents, is he?

Well, actually, at the margins there probably are a couple people who were already on the verge of switching to some other breakfast food or some other grocery store, and that price increase will happen to be the ten cents that breaks the camel's back. But much more common is that customers won't exactly notice, but something somewhere will change. There's no truly free money or truly free time.

Someone will pass on the Toasted O's that day, someone else will buy them, but end up not buying some other product, yet another person will find that he doesn't have quite enough spare change in his pocket to buy that soda from the machine at work. It all comes from somewhere, even if it's impossible to track.

Friday, June 10, 2011

In the World

Jesus answered, "My kingdom does not belong to this world. If my kingdom did belong to this world, my attendants would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not here."
We know this line from John's Gospel so well that the radicalism of its otherworldliness perhaps escapes us most of the time. We see Christ's encounter with Pilate while knowing that Christ was about to fulfill the purpose of His incarnation by suffering and dying in reparation for our sins. When Christ says, "My kingdom is not of this world," one can picture the glories of heaven and raise an eyebrow at Pilate's belief that he truly stood in power as he "judged" his creator. We know that Christ only suffered at Pilate's hands because He allowed himself to do so. Had He chosen to end it, in an instant He could have done so.

Yet as followers of Christ we are called to be like Him in being not of this world, but of His Kingdom, and if we think of Christ's calmness and resignation in the fact of facing torture and death for a nonexistent crime in relation to ourselves, this idea of being of a kingdom not of this world becomes a whole lot scarier. It's one thing to see Christ, secure in our belief in His divinity, responding to injustice and suffering with the statement that His kingdom is not of this world, but when we are faced with injustice and suffering our instinct is not to think of The Kingdom which is not of this world, but rather to fight back, to demand our rights, and if all else fails to complain and feel sorry for ourselves.

A while back I read this famous quote from the Stoic philosopher Epictetus:
Never say of anything, "I have lost it"; but, "I have returned it." Is your child dead? It is returned. Is your wife dead? She is returned. Is your estate taken away? Well, and is not that likewise returned? "But he who took it away is a bad man." What difference is it to you who the giver assigns to take it back? While he gives it to you to possess, take care of it; but don't view it as your own, just as travelers view a hotel.
Epictetus wasn't a Christian, and my first instinct was to see this quote as alien and almost inhuman in its detachment. As I thought about it, though, I realized that although detachment for the sake of detachment is not itself an aim of the Christian life, this view towards this world is pretty much exactly what we are called to if we are to be truly of Christ's kingdom rather than of this world. "Is your child dead? It is returned," sounds hopeless and inhuman if viewed simply as a need for utter detachment, but speaking within the context of this world all things (including our own lives and those of the ones we love) are but lent. They are not meant to be clung to endlessly in this world, but they are gifts which we must render freely back while placing out hope in the next. And certainly, the detachment from material possessions which Epictetus advocates should not be alien to a faith in which our Savior told His followers to sell all they had, give it to the poor, and then come follow Him. As Jake wrote this week in the second part of his series on the Beatitudes, the Church Fathers did not see material poverty as sufficient to be "poor in spirit" in the sense of the Beatitudes, but they did see it as a necessary prerequisite.

It doesn't take much thinking along these lines to realize how very attached to the world one is -- and in some cases for reasons which are tied up with trying to fulfill my vocation as a husband and father. I spend my fair share of time just worrying about the job, the house (and the mortgage that came with it), the cars, etc. And as for the kids -- I'm certainly not just shrugging and saying, "Well, if something happens to one of them, I will only have given her back, not lost her."

Compared to times past, in the last hundred years or so the Church has done a lot of thinking about the sense in which all vocations are calls to sanctity. There's also been a certain emphasis on seeking a more just ordering of economic and social structures. Yet it remains the case that when we take on great responsibilities in this world, we almost invariably become more attached to it. For all the marriage and parenting have taught me a lot about caring for others more than myself, it has also given me very good reasons to amass and worry about and strive for an awful lot of material things, and to work hard to get more. Indeed, the fact that I'm doing all this for others probably makes me willing to go further than I would if I had only my own material well being to be concerned about. (Is it any wonder, in that context, that political leaders with the well being of millions of people on their minds are sometimes willing to go to very great lengths indeed to protect the countries under their care?)

I certainly don't regret the relationships which tie me closer to this world, but it gives me all the more appreciation for the wisdom of the traditional connection between devoting oneself entirely to God and vowing poverty and chastity.

Are There Two Sides To Opposing Doubling the Minimum Wage In Haiti?

Kyle blasts the Obama administration for weighing in against a minimum wage increase in Haiti from $0.24/hr to $0.61/hr, which would have affected local contractors who sell products to American companies such as Levi Strauss and Hanes. (The wage increase was scaled back to $0.31 for textile workers as a result of Obama Administration lobbying.)

Obviously, anyone who's vaguely human is going to want to see people in Haiti do better than they're doing now. And obviously, the amount of cost that this change would add to jeans and undershirts is pretty minimal.

The thing that's worth asking in this situation is whether the proposed minimum wage increase actually benefits people in Haiti or not. From the source (The Nation broke the story) I would imagine that the assumption is that this is a simple matter of taking a small amount of money from Hanes and Levi and a few other companies (actually, reading around, it appears that Hanes and Levi do not in fact operate the factories in Haiti, they just buy stuff from locally run factories there) and giving that money to workers in Haiti who will clearly be much better off. If that is all there is to it, it's hard to oppose.

To the extent that there's a reasonable cause for the Obama administration to weigh in against this, it would be concern that this move would in fact hurt Haitians overall. The increase from $0.24 to $0.61/hr may seem very tiny to us, but it's more than a doubling of the wages for workers and labor costs for employers on the ground actually in Haiti. This is in a country in which two thirds of potential workers can't get formal jobs anyway. (Meaning that at best the 1/3 best off Haitians would be affected by this increase.) So it could well be that this would result in making the barriers to expanding formal employment even higher than they are already. And at best offer a meager "trickle down" to the two thirds who aren't formally employed from the one third who are.

If this is just a move on the part of the Obama administration to help out some friends in the fashion industry, it's pretty disgraceful. But it may well be that, having been alerted by Levi and Hanes' self-interested complaints, the economists in the administration honestly think that this will overall hurt the Haitian economy, which doesn't exactly have a surfeit of jobs in the first place. Goodness knows, it wouldn't be the first time that Haiti had hurt itself with policies that seemed like they would help people but in fact made things even worse. If there's some example out there in which doubling the minimum wage in an economy with unemployment around 50% was a helpful move, I am not aware of it, though I am sure that those at The Nation are willing to put their full faith into hoping for the best.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Not-So-Phantom Ivy

Well, so much for denial. But there's a certain debased fun in guessing where the blisters will pop up next. I'd forgotten how ugly poison ivy can be.

I'm fine, mostly, as long as I can keep the fingers of my left hand from touching each other. And keep from scratching my eyelid or neck or stomach or foot. The ear is a lost cause though.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

The Grace Period

Betty's working up a great series on childhood nostalgia and the great outdoors. Here's Part 1 and Part 2, with more to come. I'm enjoying reading it as my older three girls are down the street, playing with the neighbors on the corner (and the younger two are napping, A.M.D.G). Our current neighborhood is very conducive to children charging down the sidewalks or popping in at friends' houses, and you can bet I work it to the hilt. This is easy, though -- we live in a fairly middle-class neighborhood in which kids near us (all those we've met, anyway) all come from the same basic class and educational background as we do. And as we're newer in town, we haven't had the chance to meet many people who would challenge our comfy sheltered existence.

I remember when I was young, being befriended by a girl in my second-grade class named Marcie who was, perhaps, developmentally disabled. She was probably lonely and the butt of jokes, and if I wasn't agape itself, I wasn't unkind to her. She latched onto me, even calling my house several evenings. This made me apprehensive, especially as I had a hard time understanding her thick country slur, and I recall that I begged my parents not to let me talk anymore. And they agreed that a seven-year-old was too young to be getting calls. I felt a great relief at not having to bear the solitary burden of Marcie's social life, with a tinge of guilt that I didn't want to be more compassionate.

In fourth grade, the last year before we started homeschooling, I played with a girl named April. I was uncomfortable around her, for she seemed rough and coarse, but she seemed so genuinely to want me as a friend that I pitied her. I guess I must have liked her well enough, because at some point I invited her over for a sleepover. She in her turn must have liked me well enough, because she came.

We played dolls, lining them up and setting tasks for them. One of the dollies didn't behave to April's satisfaction.

"That's it -- I'm going to have to spank you!" she announced, and began to beat away at the doll.

"Stop!" I cried. But April wouldn't leave off spanking the doll. It had been bad, she explained, and deserved it. She seemed amused by my agitation.

I ran for my mother, who seemed taken aback by the vehemence of the doll's punishment but calmly explained that we didn't play spanking games at our house. April desisted, the sleepover ended, and I didn't see her after we started homeschooling. I didn't mind not seeing her anymore, as she always made me uneasy, but I wondered who would play with her now I was gone.

My children, on the other hand, have always had a very homogenous set of friends. I don't stir far out of my comfort zone these days. We don't volunteer at soup kitchens or protest outside abortion mills or go to mass in the inner city. Come to that, we don't even know any broken families. I want to preserve this idyllic enclave for them, to keep the evils of the world at bay just a bit longer. I'm less worried about injured bodies than injured souls. We're living in the grace period now, and I know it can't last forever.

Individualism vs. Inheritance

Libertarian blogger Megan McArdle is in a contrarian mood, so she makes the case for a 100% estate tax as a nod to good ideas with a leftist slant:
Luckily, I have a bit of contrarianism that I've wanted to air, and a series of Kevin Drum posts on using estates to pay for Medicare that has inspired me to make (drumroll please) . . . the case for the 100% estate tax.

No, really, I'm serious. After all, why should kids be allowed to inherit? I know, you are about to say something along the lines of "I worked hard so that my kids could . . . " That is a noble emotion. But at the point at which this question becomes relevant, you will be dead. And dead people don't have rights. They don't own property. They don't get to make decisions.
This is one of those ideas which combines a leftist desire for leveling of economic and social classes with a strongly individualist line of thinking: Sure, your parents saved up a lot of assets, but what does that have to do with you?

In a world in which each person is a social atom, the idea of money or property being handed down through families is necessarily repulsive. If you didn't earn it, why should you have it? Perhaps this is why this particular leftist idea has a certain appeal to McArdle's libertarian sensibilities.

Although conservatives and libertarians often find themselves treading similar paths in the modern political landscape, this is a sensibility I find pretty unappealing. More appealing to me is the sort of economic aspirations one sees among Austen's characters -- building up and successfully stewarding a family fortune which allows a degree of stability and leisure for future generations. I'd much rather see people working to build a stable legacy for future generations than taking a "I'm going to make as much as I can and blow it all before I die" attitude.

This individualistic view is characterized with startling clarity in this paragraph later in McArdle's piece, in which she considers whether the motive of "earning" an inheritance might encourage some socially desirable behaviors:
Plus, adults hoping to be left something in the will might be performing valuable services for society, like visiting Mom in the nursing home to make sure that they haven't tied her to a bed and left her to die. (on the other hand, there are the rich people who get tied to a bed and left to die by their heirs so that they won't be able to change the will. Which effect is more powerful?) The trend towards a society based more on interactions with strangers, less on kinship ties, is generally a good one. But the family still serves useful functions that we don't want to get rid of. If we mess with inheritance, are we disrupting an institution that's tremendously important to both individuals and to society? [emphasis added]
It strikes me that a mass society based primarily on interactions with strangers rather than kinship ties is precisely the sort of thing which results in all sorts of dehumanization and bad behavior of the sort that conservatives interested in subsidiarity seek to avoid. By chance, I read today one of the most egregious possible examples of the way in which large, centralized organizations and stranger-based interactions can lead to really undesirable and expensive results: The state of New York has been spending $1.8 million dollars per patient per year to put developmentally disabled patients into large state-run institutions which are so negligently run that hiring and re-hiring ex-cons is common and abusing and even killing patients is tolerated. The situation was exposed through just that thing we haven't quite learned how to live without, kinship ties: The family of a patient killed by one of the people employed to take care of him and a whistle-blowing employee who was seemingly unique at her facility in wanting to actually help the patients because her own son suffers from developmental disabilities, and so she didn't see the patients as the "retard" objects of ridicule and abuse which many fellow employees did.

Kinship in the broader sense is one of the most basic ways in which human beings are made to interact with one another. Instinctually, we look out for people to whom we feel kinship in ways that we don't necessarily do for those whom we see as "other". Thus, while it's important to try to broaden this tendency and encourage people to look out for all those they interact with rather than having an exclusionary, tribal approach to social interactions -- it's invariably going to work a lot better to work with the human tendency to take care of kin than against it.

This doesn't touch on the question of whether we should "let" people with assets stretching into the billions pass that money on to their heirs untouched, but the proposals which McArdle and Drum are talking about are much more wide-ranging: basically getting rid of all inheritance (even very small ones) in order to pay for Medicare. On the contrary, it seems to me that if one of our major problems in the economic realm is short term thinking, whether it's people mortgaging their houses to the hilt or playing the stock market for short term gains, then going to a "use it or lose it" approach to wealth would only make things worse. The grandmother who's hoping to leave a stable portfolio of investments and a paid-off house in the suburbs to help pay for her grandchildren's college is going to be much more of force for social and economic stability than the high-living stock flipper who dutifully burns through all his money and dies in debt.

Monday, June 06, 2011

The Kids Are Alright -- Or Are They?

A couple months ago we found ourselves in possession of a teenager for a few days, along with instruction to make sure that the subject "stayed out of trouble." So we set a few basic rules such as, "You don't have to go to bed at any particular time, but you need to turn in your cell phone and get off the computer by 10:30 every night."

The experience got me thinking about my own experiences as a teenager and the prospect that we will have a house full of teenage girls in less than a decade. Restrictions didn't play a major part in my own teenage experience, in part because I was reassuringly out of the social scene. In return for being generally quiet and responsible, my few outlets (flying up on my own to visit family friends in Washington state for a few weeks every summer, a series of increasingly powerful air rifles and eventually trips to the "real" shooting range, monopolization of the computer when I went into a writing frenzy) were tolerated with equanimity. I tried once to stage an argument about dating privileges, but since I didn't actually have anyone who had consented to date me at the time, it was an exercise mostly put on for show. My experience was one of not having many rules, but in great part this was because I wasn't trying to do anything that would cause me to bump up against rules. (There was no curfew because I was never out at night, etc.)

As a result, what I tend to think of as my period of dealing with teenage issues is in fact the first half of my college career -- a key difference as although I went to a college which was intent on enforcing a lot of rules, from a parental perspective I was off on my own as an adult.

When I think of that period, though, I'm seeing it through the prism of having known that the to-be-MrsDarwin and I were kids with certain principles that we weren't going to violate no matter how much opportunity we were given. Given that we didn't see having extra time together and privacy as a moral danger, we naturally wanted as much as we could get for the obvious reason that we preferred being together to anything else.

Thinking about this from the parent's perspective, though, it occurs to me that there wasn't really anyone who was in a position to know this absolutely other than us. To us it may have been clear that if we were allowed to hang out, alone together, till all hours that "nothing would happen", but however much faith our parents might have had in us if we had still been living at home at the time, they could never have known it absolutely because they weren't us.

It's all very well to say that the parents of "good kids" should have faith in their kids' virtue (which would have been my thought at the time: "You know I'm not going to get into trouble so why have rules?") But the parent can hope, but never be quite sure, whether he is the parent of the "good kid" who stays out of trouble or is that easily mocked creature, the parent who thought his kid as "the good kid" right up until the kid got into trouble and everyone started saying, "If only they'd kept a better watch on their kids."

I'm not one for before-the-fact, absolute rules, so this doesn't lead me to any "The rule in our house will be X" conclusions. (There are those who announce things such as, "My daughter won't be allowed to date until she's eighteen," around the time said daughter is born. From my point of view, that will depend a lot more on the daughter and the prospective date than the age.) But it does certainly give me a lot more sympathy with the parent who imposes certain rules on their "good kids", despite the protests of the kids that they can be trusted to stay out of trouble. Sometimes virtue can use time some and space to lets its roots sink in.

Friday, June 03, 2011

Phantom Ivy

I have a terrible case of phantom ivy: I know it's in my yard, and hence I itch. Even worse, I was pulling up weeds this morning. Worser, I might have been near where the ivy was, though I didn't know that until later when I had my gardening neighbor point out to me exactly which plants were poison ivy. The Girl Scouts lied; the leaves aren't necessarily shaped like mittens. But they are in clusters of three. Say it with me: leaves of three, let it be.

I'm not generally susceptible to scruples, but in the case of urushiol-bearing plants I'm willing to make an exception. I'm shaken in mind and purpose. Do I really itch, or is it all in my head? Should I touch the baby, even after washing my hands three times and my face once?

Those of us who share these epidermic trials understand each other. I still remember the case of poison ivy I had when I was nine, when it got between my fingers. I remember my brother's bout when it was between his toes. I remember huddling miserably in a ball, picking threads of cotton ball out of the pink patches of calamine lotion on my legs. I have no desire to relive these blistery episodes, and now I'm confronted with the culprit in my own yard. Damn you, poison ivy. You're so potent I don't even have to touch you to be infected with itchy doubts and forbodings.

Increasing Inequality and Winner-Take-All Economics

One of the mildly worrying economic trends of the last thirty years has been the increasing gap between rich and poor in the US. Many policy analysts conclude that this is the clear result of not following whatever policies they advocate, and thus demand quick action. However, as a recent OECD study shows, most countries have seen increases in inequality since 1980:

Given that countries as varied as Israel, Germany, New Zealand, Sweden and Finland have all seen increases in inequality of similar or greater scale (though not to the same absolute level, since they started lower) to that of the US over the last 30 years, it seems hard to imagine that it is simply a matter of US tax or social safety net policy which is the cause of the trend.

A more likely cause, to my mind, would be that the combination of transportation and technology with decreasing trade barriers have made it possible for there to be "winners" on a larger scale than was possible in the past. A blockbuster movie in 2011 has literally billions more potential paying viewer than a blockbuster in 1970, due to technology, the economic growth the developing world, and the global marketplace for arts and culture. The web allows single sites/services such as Google and Facebook to dominate not just one country or region but the entire world, thus allowing the founders and owners to become richer than they could have if infrastructure and other barriers. And if it seems odd that Finland is among the countries in which inequality has grown a good deal, check to see if you're carrying a Nokia phone. In a whole range of products and services, it's possible for a small number of winners to win bigger than was possible thirty years ago. For ordinary workers, on the other hand, the number of customers their work reaches has not necessarily increased. Thus the growth in inequality.

And on a minor side note, it's interesting that one of the highest levels of inequality on the chart is in Mexico -- a country which has a tendency to increase its own inequality and that of it's neighbor to the north at the same time by exporting many of its lowest earners across the border. Given that this benefits those who cross the border a good deal, I don't really see this source of inequality as a problem. Poor immigrants from Mexico are generally better off in the US than they would have been at home, even if, in large numbers, their presence can make the US look like it's inequality is increasing (since the population is not held constant.)

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Darwins In New York

In addition to having a wonderful time visiting Pentimento and Paul Zummo (though at different times), the Darwin clan had a chance to take in the sights a bit.

A view from Central Park.

Fr. Duffy memorial in Times Square

The Scribner's building -- now owned by United Colors of Benneton (and home to an American Girl store)

St. Patrick's Cathedral (Atlas failing to shrug in the left foreground)

Seen on the highway, while heading home.

A Few Quick Links

The Darwin clan arrived back at a time that was technically this morning, though those of us in the front seat had, blessedly, refrained from falling asleep in the process. This isn't a state of mind conducive to writing a great deal, between tiredness, chores to catch up on around the house, and getting through the backlog at work. However, catching up on Google Reader a bit this morning and over lunch generated a number of things worth linking to briefly.

Over at The American Catholic, Donald McClarey publishes an address by Pope Benedict XVI about the live of Joan of Arc. Like, I suspect, a lot of Catholic, Joan of Arc is one of those saints which I know about only at the level which one gets from reading retellings for elementary school students. Benedict's description of her life, spirituality and death is typical of his writing in being both easily accessible and opening up unexpected depths to the reader.

Bearing writes about Siegfried Sassoon's poetry for Memorial Day. Like her, I list Sassoon among my favorite poets. Though the more I read of recent Great War scholarship, the more I realized that however much I enjoy their poetry, the WWI poets were part of an overall artistic and intellectual movement which seriously distorted a comprehensive understanding of the causes and fighting of the war which ushered in the modern age. The two books I'm currently working through on the topic are the recent and highly recommended 14-18: Understanding the Great War and Ernst Junger's harrowing Storm of Steel. Reading poetry like Sassoon's, Graves' and Owen's and watching movies like Paths of Glory and All Quiet on the Western Front gives you one narrative about what the Great War was like, Junger gives you the other side of the coin in a way that makes it far more explicable how the continent plunged into war again within a generation.

The Nation is not my usual reading material, but columnist Katha Pollitt's reaction to the Dominique Strauss-Kahn affair (and the defense of him by many French intellectuals of the Left) is interesting and on point: Dear France, We're So Over

There was a quirky calendar published every year by family friends (back in the day when publishing your own calendar involved all sorts of messing about with a typewriter and scissors and rubber cement and then heading off to a quick print shop) when I was young, which commemorated all sorts of odd events. One of them, noted on the January 15 square, was "21 Killed by 10ft Wave of Molasses, 1919". History blog 300 Words provides the story in slightly more detail.

I can only hope that someday Cyurkanin will tackle another favorite commemoration from that calendar: "San Francisco Man Assaults Wife With Frozen Squirrel"

Beth Haile of the Catholic Moral Theology blog writes a compassionate and well thought out article about the Catholic approach to the morality of artificial reproductive technologies, and explains why IVF is not a good expression of couples' loving desire to have children.

As a native (but gladly no longer a resident) of the Golden State, I found myself nodding a bit when reading this piece over at The American Interest.