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

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Limits of Pluralism

Kyle would like to give a shout out to secular pluralism, and pluralist secularism:
Pluralism, which entails both a plurality of worldviews and a widespread respect for that plurality, helps keep secular society from becoming an authoritarian instrument of a particular secular worldview. It shies away from forcing people to think and act in a certain moral way. It prefers dialogue and persuasion to command and enforcement. It values hospitality and dissent and disagreement and criticism. It looks suspiciously at all grand narratives and comprehensive doctrines, especially those espoused by people with guns.
It was the people with guns who might espouse grand narratives and comprehensive doctrines that got me. I had to respond.
Men with guns aside, there's an extent to which I perhaps agree with Kyle. If by secularism, one simply means not having the state enforce the practice of religion, then I of course support it. And if my pluralism one means keeping the power of the state modest enough (in certain dimensions at any rate) to allow as many different sorts of people to practice their beliefs, rather than imposing a uniformity of life and practice on all of them, then again I am for it.

The problem seems to be that when "pluralism" is actually stated as a goal, people seem to develop a sort of gardener's eye about the whole thing. Those protecting pluralism start to look for all the way in which those with one set of beliefs might be stepping upon those with another set. Not "imposing beliefs on others" becomes and end unto itself, and since most beliefs actually do have implications that would touch on others, soon the gardener is uprooting one thing and then another, sorting and separating and trying to impose and orderly "pluralism" on the whole. Just as the parent who tries to stop all fights and unfairnesses among a large gathering of children tends to make them either bitter or bored (or occasionally both) if we set the goal of rigorously enforcing pluralism, we soon find ourselves wiping out nearly all beliefs other than the admiration of pluralism itself.

It seems to me that what is more likely to achieve real pluralism if one does "impose" certain shared values or beliefs, while leaving a fairly wide range for people to do as they will in other areas. Ironically, given my jumping off point, imperial might ("men with guns") has, in some cases, been one of the less problematic shared values to tie a highly pluralistic empire together. Thus, for instance, the British empire was, in a sense, able to maintain a more pluralistic society than its successor states of India and Pakistan, because it was clearly being run for the benefit of the British empire. Once that layer of force and order was accepted, pluralism was possible because it was not necessary to define what it was to be Indian other than "the British rule it". Independence brought the necessity of definition, and with national definition, such high levels of pluralism were no longer tolerable.

Brandon on the State of Liberal Education

Speaking of college, Brandon has an outstanding post over at Siris entitled "The Unservile Arts":
An interesting article by Andrew Delbanco on the endangerment of liberal arts in the college context. It really does seem that liberal arts at the college level is in very bad straits. In any case, just some random thoughts on the subject:

(1) College is an extraordinarily inefficient way to teach workers what they need in order to work. The best way to teach workers what they need to do is to give them on-the-job training, or to make use of a workshop-and-licensing system. Sending someone to college so that they will be a more productive filer of papers is truly absurd; and right now the only thing that a college degree really signals to most businesses is that you can stick with something for a few years.

Likewise, you don't get a competitive and productive workforce by sending them to school; you get a competitive and productive workforce by making it worth the time and effort it takes to work competitively and productively, and by giving them the resources required to do so. We do, in fact, do this, in part by putting an immense amount of pressure on people to get things that most people can only get by being good workers; and school does, in fact, contribute directly to this by teaching people to sit at desks and do work, and the like, but this direct contribution is minor. Education mostly contributes indirectly, by turning out people who can do things and make things that make other people more competitive and productive.

Everyone should remember the Gilbert & Sullivan song about the modern major-general, which was making precisely this point.

(2) Our current system of higher education has all the features typically associated with an educational system on the verge of breakdown....[Continue Reading]
No, really, go read it. This is one of those posts where quoting the entire thing is nearly irresistible.

Monday, February 27, 2012

What a College Education Gets You

While I very much see the primary purpose of going to college as intellectual rather than practical (perhaps majoring in Classics is a dead give-away in this regard), for a lot of people one of the primary motivations for going to college is to improve their earning potential and employment prospects. This isn't crazy. In 2010, the median income for men with a bachelor's degree of higher was $61,388 a bit more than twice the median income of $30,232 of men with only a high school diploma. For women, the difference is even more stark: $41,132 for women with a bachelor's degree or higher vs. $17,830 for women with only a high school diploma. [source]

There's an interesting report out from the Social Science Research Council entitled Documenting Uncertain Times: Post-graduate Transitions of the Academically Adrift Cohort which sheds some interesting light on how a college education affects the employment prospects of people just out of college, and specifically, how their major and their academic performance their income, employment, debt, etc. The study is a followup to a book, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses which used academic assessment tests to track how much students appeared to be actually learning while in college -- and found the results more modest than might have been hoped. This followup study is based on a detailed survey of roughly 1000 students, most of whom graduated in 2009 and the rest of whom graduated in 2010 or 2011.

Some of the things I found particularly interesting included:

65% of them reported having student loans, with the average student debt for those with debt being $27,200. 15% owed more than $50,000. (This is a lot, but given the stories one reads along the lines of "I owe $100k in student loans and can't get a job!" it's actually better than I expected.)

8% are married
9% are cohabiting
24% have moved back in with parents.

Their average income (for those working full time) is just under $35,000/yr. That average income is pretty much exactly the same if you look a the top 20% academically or the bottom 20% academically, but top 20% are only 3% unemployed while the bottom 20% are 9.6% unemployed.

Social Science/Humanities majors had an average income slightly higher than Science/Math majors ($32,200 vs. $31,721) but they were significantly more likely to be unemployed (6.9% vs. 4.8%)

Engineering/Computer Science majors had the highest average income ($50,625) while Education/Social Work majors had the lowest income ($28,500) and the highest unemployment (13%).

Those with the bottom 20% of the academic assessment scores were just as likely as those in the top 20% to have gone on to full time graduate school (31% vs. 30%). Students who had majored in science or math fields were the most likely to be in grad school (49%), humanities majors were about average (32%) and business and education majors were the least likely (16% and 17% respectively.)

And when it comes to the love life, those with health related majors were the most likely to be married or cohabiting (35%) while those who'd majored in engineering or computer science were the least likely to be so (13%).

Thursday, February 23, 2012

With Defense Like This, Who Needs Prosecutors

French economist and politician Dominique Strauss-Kahn can't seem to stay out of the news -- or a few other things -- according to the latest reports. When he was arrested in New York on accusations of raping a hotel maid (Strauss-Kahn claimed that he had had a "moral failing" with the maid, but insisted he had not forced her) many in Europe worried that American prudery had caused a rush to judgement. Now French police have brought Strauss-Kahn in for questioning on charges of being involved with an international prostitution ring.
According to French news reports, Mr. Strauss-Kahn allegedly was invited to parties by the prostitution ring that took place in Paris as well as in Washington—with the last one taking place in the U.S. capital just days before Mr. Strauss-Kahn's ill-fated trip to New York. The reports allege the expenses were covered by the prostitution ring.

A person familiar with the matter confirmed that "prostitutes were brought from France for these parties," saying there were at least "three trips to the U.S. which were for orgies." The person said the "last trip was just before the Sofitel case."

Paying prostitutes isn't illegal in France, but encouraging prostitution by offering them to others and using corporate funds to pay for them is.

Mr. Strauss-Kahn's lawyers have stated repeatedly their client wished to be heard by Lille prosecutors "as quickly as possible," saying they wanted to put an end to a "press lynching." His lawyers weren't available to comment Tuesday.

In a colorful exchange in a recent radio interview, one of Mr. Strauss-Kahn's lawyers, Henri Leclerc, said the former IMF chief wasn't aware that the women at these parties were prostitutes. "He could well have not realized it, because you see, in these parties, one is not necessarily clothed and I challenge you to tell a naked prostitute from a naked worldly woman," Mr. Leclerc told Europe 1 radio.
Really, Monsieur should fire his legal counsel if they are going to suggest that he is so unworldy as not to be aware of these fine distinctions. What will they suggest next, that he can't tell good wine from bad when it's not in the bottle?

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Income Inequality: 1945 Edition

I guess it's a sign that I'm a hopeless econ wonk that one of the things that I came away thinking about after watching The Best Years of Our Lives with MrsDarwin the other night (a good movie, which I'd strongly recommend) was how the income situations of the major characters would translate into modern terms.

Released in 1946, when it won the Academy Award for Best Picture, The Best Years of Our Lives follows the return to civilian life of three service men who all came from Boon City (a fictional Midwestern city) but didn't meet each other until they were hitching a ride on a B-17 back to their home town after the war.

Sailor Homer Parrish went straight into the Navy from high school, in which he had been an athlete, but he lost both his hands in a fire when his aircraft carrier was hit, and he now has a set of hooked metal prosthetics instead of hands and forearms. Before leaving he got engaged to his high school sweetheart, but he doesn't know how she'll react to his disability.

Capt. Fred Derry is slightly older. He comes from a fairly poor family and worked as a soda jerk before the war, but during the war he was the bombardier on a B-17. During training, he got married, but he and his wife had only a month together before he shipped out and he hasn't seen her since.

Sgt. Al Stephenson is in his 40s. Before the war he was a loan officer at a bank in town, and during the war he served as an infantry platoon sergeant in the Pacific. He's been married 20 years and has two children: a son just finishing high school and a daughter who graduated and has been working in a hospital for the last two years.

Much of the drama stems from the efforts of these three characters to integrate back into normal, civilian lives. However, a good portion of this conflict also relates to jobs and what place these characters will take in the post war economy.

Al comes back to a promotion: his bank puts him in charge of the small loan department, tasked with dealing with GI loans. He's given a salary of $12,000/yr. I wanted to get a feel for how large an income that was. Running it through a basic inflation calculator, 12,000 in 1945 translates to $143,792 in 2010 dollars. That's very good money now. Compared to how most people were doing, it was even better money then. I discovered that although many of the more detailed historical income tables on the website only go back to 1967 (or in some cases even just 1991) it's possible to access scanned copies of the original Current Population Surveys dealing with income back to 1946. According to the 1946 report, the median income for a man engaged in full time civilian work in 1946 was $2600, which translates to $28,714 in 2010. By comparison, the median income for a full time, year round male worker in 2010 was $50,063. According to that 1946 report (page 15) only 2% of city-dwelling families in 1946 had incomes over $10,000 ($110,440 in 2010 dollars) putting Al very close to being in "the 1%" despite working for a very small bank by modern standards. Clearly, material want is not going to be among Al's problems. The conflict he deals with centers around the different experiences he's had over the last three years compared to the other managers at the bank -- and the personal difficulties of integrating back into family life.

If Al comes back to a cushy job, job woes are very much center stage for Fred. During the war, Fred was making $400/mo as a Air Corps bombardier. That's $57,517 in 2010 dollars. It also would have put him in the top 20% of incomes according to the 1946 income distribution tables. (By comparison, the threshold for the top 20% of incomes now is right around $100k.) Returning to civilian life, Fred is determined to find a good job, but in the post-war labor glut he finds that his status and pay from the Air Corps don't translate to many advantages in civilian life. At one point we see him in a job interview:
Manager: Did you do any work with supply or logistics in the Air Corps?
Fred: No.
Manager: Did you do any staff work? Did you lead men?
Fred: No.
Manager: Just what did you do, Captain?
Fred: My job was to sit behind the Norton Bomb Sight and get the bombs onto the target every time no matter what happened.
Manager: Well, we don't have much call for that here.
In the end, Fred finds himself back at the store where he had been a soda jerk, now working as an "assistant floor manager", a position more galling because the floor manager he is assistant to used to be his assistant at the soda fountain. This job pays $32/wk, which in turn works out to $1,664/yr. Run that through the inflation calculator and Fred is now making $19,939 in 2010 dollars. This now puts him in the bottom 33% of incomes in 1946. If we assume that the $32/wk rate is for the equivalent of 40 hours, Fred is making an hourly rate of $0.80, which makes an inflation adjusted $9.59/hr. I'm struck by the inflation adjusted hourly rate for Fred, since it's probably moderately close to what you'd make in retail now, though with his "assistant floor manager" title, perhaps he'd make closer to $12-$13/hr now (as compared to the $8-$9 which is common for basic retail). I was curious how other major expenses compared then to now. Table 7 of the 1946 census report shows median rents paid by income. For families making $1,500 to $1,999 per year, the median monthly rent was $25. That works out to $299/mo, a good deal less than you'd be able to find even a very cheap apartment for in most Midwestern cities now. Fred is making a little bit below the median for a man in Retail Trade, according to Table 17 of the 1946 census report, which gives the distribution of income by employment sector and lists the median income in retail at $1,927. I think it's probably arguable, at least from those few facts, that living on a retail job was significantly more possible then than now.

Homer, meanwhile, is trying to adjust to ordinary civilian life with his prosthetic hands (the actor playing Homer was a real veteran who had lost both hands in an explosives accident, he was one of only two non-professional actors ever to win an Oscar.) Income is not an immediate issue for him as he receives a disability payment from the government for his war injuries: $200/mo (which translates to $28,758/yr in 2010 dollars.) This actually puts Homer pretty much right at the median income for full time civilian workers. Given the sacrifices he'd made for his country, it's good to see that set of worries being taken care of.

Monday, February 20, 2012

The Unmanly Bitterness of the Manosphere

Sin has the tendency to inspire sin. The abused becomes the abuser, the person who believes himself oppressed begins to take on all the least likeable characteristics of his oppressor.

This has always been struck me with particular force when I've stumbled across the writings of the "manosphere", a region of the internets in which men wail about how in the post-feminist age women are all money hungry cheaters with inflated senses of entitlement.  The solution to this is, allegedly, to use to the rules of "game" to dominate women by proving the practitioners to be "alpha males". A highly technical process with all rigor of a pseudoscience behind it (perhaps some enterprising gamester can introduce the taking women's head measurements into the process) practitioners council each other on how to deliver "negs" (negative compliments) which will cut women down to size by informing them of their SMV (sexual market value).  Then once the women feels like she needs to pursue since she isn't being pursued, she melts when given "kino escalation" (he touches her).

You get the idea. I always get the sense of a couple rather mangy looking lions hanging around outside the pride talking about how they're really more alpha than the lion who actually has all the mates and cubs. For all the acronyms and specialized terminology, you can tell that these boys' manes are more than half weave.

As with most wrongheaded worldviews, there are some insights buried in there. The Sex-in-the-City feminist manifesto "from now on, we're going to have sex like men" (which in feminist speak apparently means without thought or commitment) is most certainly something which has managed to make a lot of women (and men) unhappy -- potentially for life. Once having correctly diagnosed this as seriously messed up, however, the manosphere solution appears to be that men should retaliate by turning into a bunch of whiny Carrie Bradshaws themselves. A group of guys supposedly outraged by the fact that many modern women demand special treatment and aren't interested in marriage spend their time whining about how mean girls are and generally advocating an approach to dealing with women that seems guaranteed to make them singularly unattractive marriage material.

Betty Duffy wrote a moderately good piece on this whole mess over at Patheos, cutting through all this sex war silliness with the eminently Christian point that the sexes are created to be complimentary, not in competition. The answer to the war between the sexes proposed by secular feminism is not, "No, we will dominate you," but rather Christ's description of marriage which looks all the way back to the Genesis account of the creation of man:
“Have you not read that from the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female’ and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, no human being must separate.”

They said to him, “Then why did Moses command that the man give the woman a bill of divorce and dismiss [her]?”

He said to them, “Because of the hardness of your hearts Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. I say to you, whoever divorces his wife (unless the marriage is unlawful) and marries another commits adultery.” (Matthew 19: 4-9)
Interestingly, this got quite a backlash even in highly traditional 1st century Israel:
[His] disciples said to him, “If that is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.”

He answered, “Not all can accept [this] word, but only those to whom that is granted. Some are incapable of marriage because they were born so; some, because they were made so by others; some, because they have renounced marriage for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Whoever can accept this ought to accept it.” (Matthew 19: 10-12)
The internet being what it is, Betty's post soon attracted the ire of manosphere inhabitants, including one "Dalrock", who wrote an airily dismissive counterblast:
New commenter thule222 shared a link the other day to a blog post on the “balanced”* “religion and spirituality” site Patheos by Elizabeth Duffy titled Complementarity, Not Competition. I’m alarmed at the emotionalism of Ms. Duffy’s post along with the lack of intellectual rigor it displays. It contains a number of vague statements, a quote from the Pope about how some men are bad and others are good, and a picture of a man who appears to be taking the risk of launching a new business venture. After reading the post several times, my best take on what she is trying to get across is Shame on you if you read (or write) blogs in the manosphere. She could of course have had another point in mind entirely. Instead of my take on her blog post, she may have actually meant I like pizza. Her lack of specific assertions backed up by facts and logical argument makes this impossible to know. This is tricky business, and I’ve learned recently that you can’t take a woman’s own written claims as indicating her own opinion. It could even be the case that I need to tell her what she meant before she can decide if she will or will not back up her own assertions.
Now, with an opening like that, you might think that you're going to get a thorough evisceration of Betty's post. You might think that you'll see clearly reasoned arguments, citations of evidence, etc. After the huffing and puffing, however, the post turns out to be a rather glancing blow. Mostly, the post wanders off into Dalrock's musings about how he thinks women are not capable of behaving like adults (adult men, one presumes) but want to be taken seriously anyway.
Aside from being about a general sense of unhappiness, feminism at its core is a rejection of the patriarchal view that women at times behave like children, and a deep desire of women to be taken seriously. With this in mind, I can only assume that Ms. Duffy very much wants us to take her seriously when she tells men not to take women too seriously.

Women have demanded and been granted the right to have their finger on the nuclear button and the unchecked power to destroy the nuclear family. How can we not be alarmed at the thought that they might not have the capacity to keep their emotions in check?
I don't know if it's his emotions that are out of check or merely his prose writing ability, but Dalrock never seems to be able to come around to any kind of a point, though he has a lot to say. Much of it, curiously, seems to have virtually nothing to do with Betty's post:
The first feminists felt (and many women still do feel) that they needed to keep their emotions in check and perform up to high male standards in order to blaze the trail for other women. However, they either never figured out how to transfer this ethos to the larger population of women or never really intended to deliver on this promise. What has made this much worse is newer generations of feminists don’t consider themselves feminists, they consider themselves traditional conservatives. This gives us women who have post grad degrees in women’s studies who also expect men to at times afford adult women the understanding and protection granted to an eight year old.
From this, we can learn that Dalrock thinks feminists are devilishly clever, and that he really likes to link to his own posts, but what objection he has to Betty's description of how relations between men and women (and marriage in particular) should be complementary rather than competitive is unclear. We get a rant about how feminists have ruined everything, but the connection of those paragraphs to his (never clearly stated) objection to Betty's post is tenuous at best. Near the end, he tries to tie it all together:
For her part Ms. Duffy appears to absolve herself of any responsibility for the great harms of feminism while both defending it and enjoying the benefits of it. At one point she uses standard feminist language to shame men who raise concerns about it (emphasis mine):
There is a corner of the internet known as the “manosphere.” In a backlash to perceived cultural bias against men due to the mainstreaming of feminist principles, some men, feeling oppressed and trampled into submission by strong women…
Elsewhere in the post she writes:
The married portion of the manosphere has gained traction among some Christian and Catholic men, who—perhaps raised in broken homes—are looking for male role models as they strive to build a marriage and a family that will last.
Not only does she ridicule and belittle those who voice concerns with the immense damage caused by feminism without seriously addressing the actual issues, in the subtitle of her post she washes her hands of any responsibility for the harms of feminism. In truly childish form, if there are any negative outcomes to the changes women have demanded she decides that it must be men who are to blame:
For feminism to have gained a foothold, men had to collude with it, and it has been in their interest to do so; this leaves the message of the manosphere ringing hollow.
Yes, that's the end of the post (except for a footnote). It goes out with more a whimper than a bang, and one never really is clear what the author's substantive critique of Betty's post is. Perhaps the key issue here is that Dalrock is so busy defending the honor of the manosphere and describing the evils of feminism that he doesn't really seem to ever grasp what Betty is saying with the quote that he chooses to end his response with. She is not saying, as he claims she is, that "if there are any negative outcomes to the changes women have demanded she decides that it must be men who are to blame". Far from it. Rather, Betty points out that the blame for the moral and societal breakdown is shared. Feminist thinkers latched onto divorce, sex outside of marriage, abortion and contraception as means to allow women to enjoy "equality" with men in society and the workplace, and to free themselves from "oppressive" moral and social structures. Sex takes two, however, and it clearly was not the case that men were all saying, "Whoa there! Let's not break up this great social order we've got. If you sleep around for fifteen years before you feel like getting married, things aren't going to work out so well!" (And, come to that, the idea that marriage was oppressive and people should all go try the Sex In The City life arguably wouldn't have been so salable if a certain portion of men and women hadn't labored to make their marriages convincingly oppressive.) Our society got messed up (in the particular way our society is -- in a fallen world all societies are messed up in one way or another) through the sins of both men and women, and it's certainly not going to get healed if all the members of one sex sit around saying, "No, you shape up first!"

If there's a dark amusement in all this, it's that there's a symmetry between the feminist and "manosphere" views of the world: In the first, men are at fault for everything and they need to be cut down to size and tamed so that women can lead full and fulfilling lives. In the latter, feminists are at fault for everything, and they need to be similarly tamed so that men can be happier. In both views, dominance is the necessary prerequisite for happiness and fulfillment.

In point of fact, gender struggle is no more likely to lead to a happy society (or a happy marriage) than is class struggle to lead to a happy society. Even if the "manosphere" has been right in identifying a few of society's problems, its one-sided solutions and antagonistic attitude provides no solutions.

[Administrative Note: Having seen how the comments at Patheos went downhill fast, let me assure anyone wanting to vent that I intend to maintain standards in my comboxes. Think before you post, and understand that the man of the house has no hesitations here about showing people the door to maintain order. And put the coffee down. Coffee is for closers only. (full David Mamet strength language warning on that link)]

Saturday, February 18, 2012


Moon Nazis, my friends!

Holy UFOs, this is either going to be a fabulous cult classic or the worst movie ever made -- not that the two are necessarily mutually exclusive.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Bad Reaction, Indeed

When you somehow end up on Commonweal's mailing list, your inbox is graced with gems like this editorial entitled Bad Reaction:
Conservative Catholics complain that too many liberal Catholics instinctively greet every statement from the Vatican with suspicion, skepticism, or derision. It’s a fair point. The motives and judgment of those who appear unthinkingly hostile to all hierarchical authority should be questioned. Patient attention to the legitimate concerns of others and the presumption of goodwill on the part of those we disagree with are essential virtues.
Unfortunately, patience and the presumption of goodwill were not much in evidence in the response of the U.S. bishops and many conservative Catholics to President Barack Obama’s compromise on the question of mandated contraceptive coverage for employees of religious-affiliated institutions. 
Oh no! Someone forgot to tell the Commonweal editors that the President isn't the Pope.
What is going on here? Is the question of contraception coverage—something most American Catholics already have, and which the bishops have said almost nothing about before now—really where the hierarchy wants to issue a non-negotiable edict? Why were they not this vocal in their opposition to the Bush administration’s use of torture? Has the USCCB thought through how these demands are likely to undermine the church’s much more important effort to change hearts and minds about abortion? Or how they will further divide Catholics?
They said "torture", so now any counter-arguments are invalid. It's a corollary of Anderson's Law.

It's okay, though, because Commonweal explains the new mandate for us in simple language.
Ideally, the administration would have simply broadened the original religious exemption. Nevertheless, the new plan, which requires insurance companies, rather than Catholic institutions, to cover the cost of contraceptives, is a welcome development. The details of how this will work are not entirely clear. 
The first comment on the post explains the problem with the bishops that got us into this whole political mess:
 Maybe part of the bishops' attitude is caused by the selection process for bishop.  No priest who has not shown himself unquestionably loyal to Humanae Vitae need apply.   And so, even though the majority of Catholics have not received Humanae Vitae, the almost unanimous majority of bishops have received it because only devotees of the encyclical get the job.   This policy began under John Paul II, another example of how that brilliant pope who never knew a doubt has left the Church much more divided than he found it. 
Oh, okay.


This week, the WSJ ran an article on the anatomy of tear-jerking music, featuring Adele's song Someone Like you.
Twenty years ago, the British psychologist John Sloboda conducted a simple experiment. He asked music lovers to identify passages of songs that reliably set off a physical reaction, such as tears or goose bumps. Participants identified 20 tear-triggering passages, and when Dr. Sloboda analyzed their properties, a trend emerged: 18 contained a musical device called an "appoggiatura."

An appoggiatura is a type of ornamental note that clashes with the melody just enough to create a dissonant sound. "This generates tension in the listener," said Martin Guhn, a psychologist at the University of British Columbia who co-wrote a 2007 study on the subject. "When the notes return to the anticipated melody, the tension resolves, and it feels good." 
...Chills often descend on listeners at these moments of resolution. When several appoggiaturas occur next to each other in a melody, it generates a cycle of tension and release. This provokes an even stronger reaction, and that is when the tears start to flow.  Chill-provoking passages, they found, shared at least four features. They began softly and then suddenly became loud. They included an abrupt entrance of a new "voice," either a new instrument or harmony. And they often involved an expansion of the frequencies played. In one passage from Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 23 (K. 488), for instance, the violins jump up one octave to echo the melody. Finally, all the passages contained unexpected deviations in the melody or the harmony. Music is most likely to tingle the spine, in short, when it includes surprises in volume, timbre and harmonic pattern. 
I don't happen to care all that much for this particular song, but I do have two examples of music that reliably move me to tears, or at least chills.

I always choke up at the last section of Stravinsky's The Firebird, where the thematic chords build up and then resolve into the cadence (about 2:56 in this video). There's something so beautiful and thrilling about the way the music grows more and more insistent and dramatic and then suddenly drops in volume at the beginning of the cadence. And the swell of the ending can draw tears, too.

The article explains:
When the music suddenly breaks from its expected pattern, our sympathetic nervous system goes on high alert; our hearts race and we start to sweat. Depending on the context, we interpret this state of arousal as positive or negative, happy or sad.

Here's another of my misty favorites:

Anyone who remembers "Beef: It's What's For Dinner" knows Hoedown, from Aaron Copland's Rodeo. One hears the main melody several times before Copland throws some dissonance under it, first heard here at 1:09 and then more powerfully at 2:52. Maybe the telegraph-like rhythm at the end throws my heart rate off, but I love it.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Chart Of The Day: Whose Wages Are Stagnating?

I'd been fooling around with Census data a bit over the last week. Here's an interesting chart using Census Table P-36. Full-Time, Year-Round All Workers by Median Income and Sex: 1955 to 2010

Median income for full-time working men first hit 50,000 (in inflation adjusted 2010 dollars) in 1973, and it has been essentially flat ever since (breaking 50k for the second time in 2010.) However, the median income of full-time working women has gone up 35% since 1973. The percentage of full time workers who are women has also increased gradually throughout that time, from 30% in 1973 to 43% in 2010. (In absolute numbers, obviously both the number of male and female full time workers has increased significantly during the same period.)

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

No one is a Monolith

One of the points that Darwin makes about the economy is that there is no "there" there. Broad swaths of individual behaviors that seem to follow the same trend are often lumped together, the better to aid analysis or to make points, but that doesn't negate the fact that each economical decision is made by an individual actor making choices that are tailored to that individual's needs and wants. Economic analysis strays onto shaky ground when it starts to assert that certain trends indicate monolithic tendencies on the part of every member of some group.

I write about myself, because that's what I know, but recently I've been surprised to discover various things about myself on the internet, ascribed to me by insightful people who know what I am like because I happen to fall into some specific categories. I was unaware of what a bitch I am simply by virtue of being a woman until I read the angry reactions to Elizabeth Duffy's excellent piece on the Manosphere. "Woman" is a monolithic group: we all know what they're like! Because I fit into the 50% of humanity with breasts, a guy on the internet can tell you all there is to know about me and my motivations, and how to manipulate me in order to bed me. Truly, pop psychology is a rare gift to mankind.

But I'm not just a Woman, I'm a Catholic Woman. And not just a Catholic Woman, but a Sexually Experienced Catholic Woman. The Guttmacher Institute has something to say about that: “Among all women who have had sex, 99% have ever used a contraceptive method other than natural family planning. This figure is virtually the same, 98%, among sexually experienced Catholic women.” I was about to get excited about being in the 2% -- it's almost like being a member of that other monolithic group, the 1%! -- but Mollie Hemingway does the statistical analysis to show the shocking evidence that the Guttmacher Institute, the stats arm of Planned Parenthood, doesn't even accurately summarize its own (skewed) survey. Turns out Catholic Women aren't such a monolithic group after all.

Moving down to smaller groups, I was a bit dismayed to hear someone claim recently that she wasn't a Super Homeschooler because she was a Non-Crafty Mama. By all means, let us create more sub-groups the better to neatly pigeon-hole mothers according to some ephemeral characteristic, because it's not compelling enough simply to be a mother as part of where one is at one's stage of life. One doesn't have to be a mother to get this treatment. The irritation of our female readers at the facile assumptions in the comments of this post of what it is to be a woman with a career show that "women with a career" is not a monolithic group, but a very diverse set of individuals making individual choices.

There's a reason for labels: they make things simple, for better or for worse. My brother was once involved with a girl whom he would not call his "girlfriend" because "we're more complex than that". Not surprisingly, that relationship failed. I did note that he never had any hesitation in describing his now-fiancee as his "girlfriend" -- the label was a good and convenient shorthand for the way he felt about her, and she about him. It's important to note, though, that her being a "girlfriend" had nothing to do with some vast mythical group called "Girlfriends" and everything to do with her relationship to a specific person, my brother. 

It's easy to pontificate on Women, or Catholics, or Mothers, or what have you, and to ascribe group attributes based on the sum of the decisions of people who fall into these categories. Analysis gets more complicated when one holds that a person is irreducible to the categories they inhabit. I fall into the above three categories. I also fit into the smaller groups of People Who Bite Their Nails, Children of Divorce, and People Who Hate Oreos. None of these completely define who I am, though some labels are more over-arching than others. Categories are necessary for discussion, but they're only discussion starters. 

I am a person who is a mother, a wife, a Catholic, a reader, a nail-biter, a fan of watching SNL sketches on YouTube, a blogger called MrsDarwin. But these shorthand labels don't fully tell anyone who I really am. I am simply me: my name is Cat, and I am irreducible. 

Not Everyone Has To Get Married (Or Go Into The Religious Life)

Mary at the blog Young and Catholic has a good post up responding to a reader question about Church teaching on contraception versus NFP. Her handling of the NFP issue is great, but I was struck by the framing of her reader's question, because it struck me as getting at a common impression one can get from being around conservative Catholic circles. Her reader writes:
I’m an 18 year old female college student, and I have just gotten back in touch with Catholicism…

…I’ve thoroughly enjoyed getting back into my faith, but there is something that REALLY continues to rub me wrong. I’ve prayed and prayed about it, but I am not getting any answer. I’ve researched it, but just hear the same things over and over and it just doesn’t sit right with me, and that is the issue of contraception. I’ve read humanae vitae, I’ve researched “natural family planning”, and it all still leaves me completely unsatisfied still. I see where the Church is coming from on this issue, however, I feel that God has called me to do something else with my future besides staying at home with my “loving” husband and having a billion children…And then I went to the church and asked my female minister about it. The gist was this: If you have the financial capability, happiness, and wealth, your job is basically to be popping out children.

This just honestly does not sit right with me…Some women love being mothers, and being a mother is certainly an honorable duty, but I don’t think I’m cut out for it. I’m very ambitious and have goals of working for the Department of Defense, not sacrificing all my happiness because the Church says I should.
She goes on to ask about why the Church teaches against artificial birth control, and as I say, Mary's answer is great. However, I think the other thing worth touching on is the impression people sometimes get that from a Catholic point of view you should either be in the religious life or else you should be married and having lots of kids.

But the Church does not teach this. People may well be called to an active single life in the laity. The Church has absolutely no problem with this. If Mary's correspondent wants to pursue an ambitious career, in the Defense Department or elsewhere, without having to worry about getting home on time to spend a few hours with a spouse, that's absolutely fine!

Where the Church does become more countercultural is in saying that sex has an inextricable connection with procreation, and that the only proper place for sex is within marriage. Thus, marriage is a state that should be open to children. During the marriage ceremony, the couple is asked if they will be open to the blessing of children. This isn't just a matter of, "If you accidentally get pregnant, will you keep the baby," (though that's important.) Rather, if a couple seriously intends never to have children, the Church would see that as an obstacle to contracting a valid marriage. Marriage is for the purpose of starting a family. It's not just a romantic relationship, but a familial one. (This does not mean that there's something invalid about the marriage of a couple that is not physically able to have children. This may be a source of sadness to the couple, but it certainly doesn't mean their marriage is defective or invalid. The problem is if a couple actively does not want children in the first place.)

Now, of course, this is not a lot of comfort if what someone wants is to get married and have the love and companionship of a spouse, but not have to worry about the responsibility of having children, which given our culture's assumption that every healthy person must want to get married, and that sex has no natural relation to having children, is going to be a much more common desire than not getting married at all so you can focus totally on your career. (And given that the correspondent is very young, she may well chase her dreams for ten or fifteen years and then realize that she now feels very differently about having children. That's fine too.) Because within the conservative Catholic subculture there are a fair number of people who get married comparatively young and have a lot of kids (and so spend a lot of time defending that lifestyle), I think people can get the impression sometimes that that is the only "really Catholic" way to live. And it's not.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Because I Love You...

Find the rest of my sentimental sentiments at Ben Kling's site.

Speaking the Same Language

It's Valentine's Day again, and for the fourteenth year in a row Darwin and I are doing absolutely nothing to mark the day. It's not a judgment against the day or against people celebrating love, but a personal preference. Valentine's Day as celebrated simply doesn't resonate with either of us, and when I say, "Don't get me anything", I really mean it. For the past three gift giving occasions (my birthday, Christmas, and Darwin's birthday) we decided not give each other presents. It was wonderful. No last-minute shopping, no extra expense, no fuss, and neither of us showed the other up by buying a gift anyway.

It's not that I don't like presents. Everyone likes getting a gift. It's simply that not receiving a gift doesn't indicate a lack of love to me, nor is it proof positive of love if I do get one. They're fun because they're superfluous.

This fell into place when I took the Five Love Languages assessment.

3Words of Affirmation
11Quality Time
0Receiving Gifts
6Acts of Service
10Physical Touch

Obviously, gifts are simply not in my Love Language paradigm. It makes sense that I should score higher in Quality Time than in any other category. I'd rather spend time talking to Darwin than doing anything else, which is wonderful for our relationship and bad for my housekeeping ethic. He's in danger of being late to work almost every morning because we're talking in the kitchen. We sit up way too late because we need to spend time together after the kids go down, and their bedtime gets pushed back because we talk while making dinner, and through dinner, and after dinner.

Happily, when Darwin took the quiz our scores matched up almost point for point.

The quiz isn't just for married couples; there are options for singles and children and parents of teens. I also found the Languages of Apology quiz very enlightening.

4Expressing Regret
16Accepting Responsibility
0Making Restitution
0Genuinely Repenting
0Requesting Forgiveness

Accepting Responsibility
You have chosen Accepting Responsibility as your primary Apology Language. What you are looking for in an apology is maturity. You most want to hear the offending party say, I was wrong and I take responsibility for my actions.

 That's pretty accurate. I find it uncomfortably intrusive when people ask if I'll forgive them or how they can make it up to me. That sounds like groveling. But I do appreciate it when someone 'fesses up to his or her faults and takes responsibility, and that's how I tend to apologize when I need to.

Readers, I'd be interested to hear your scores and if you think they're an accurate reflection of your own personalities and relationship styles.

Monday, February 13, 2012

The Weekend in Books and Movies

The three youngest were at Grandma's this weekend, and the house was quiet. Too quiet. In the silence I had to face the disturbing fact that if I only had two children who were 9 and 8, there would be little to goad my natural laziness into action. Secure in the knowledge that the big girls could take care of themselves and weren't likely to fall off the piano bench or write on the walls (I wouldn't put it past them to drag chairs into the pantry to get on the high shelves, but at least they can do it safely), I took the opportunity to read three biographies of the Marx Brothers, simultaneously. They mostly bore each other out. Sometimes they bore each other aloft. Aloft to ask you to leave if the dialogue doesn't improve.

'Atsa no good.

And because we didn't have to spend vast swaths of the evening settling small fry, we watched movies. The girls had been clamoring for Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban -- not a bad outing, if you have to watch a Harry Potter movie. They finally kicked out the director of the first two soppy movies, and found someone who understood tone, and pacing, and how to let young actors act and not mug.

You know what's lousy? When you re-watch a movie that you thought was kinda okay, and it turns out to be a real dog. I hadn't seen You've Got Mail for about 12 years, and I had remembered as being sweet and fluffy. I remembered wrongly. Underneath its fantasy veneer of life on the North Upper West Lower East Side ("I'll lose my job and have to move to Brooklyn!" one character wails) there's an undercurrent of sleaze so palpable that I couldn't wade through it without a drink to brace me up. The spectacle of Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan cheating on their live-ins as glibly as possible was appalling. I turned to my Manhattan as a corrective measure after the jokes about cybersex at the five-minute mark.

Apparently, nothing in romantic comedies has any consequences except being a big-business capitalist who delights in screwing small operations out of a living by opening big box stores in liberal enclaves. I found it difficult to suspend disbelief so much as to buy Tom Hanks' nice guy act when his character was schtupping the most self-absorbed, shallow, high-powered publishing exec. (In the words of Groucho, "What do you think of in bed at night, you beast?") Never do we see Meg Ryan all hormonal from her birth-control pills, even though she's sleeping with a luddite newspaper columnist but declares she doesn't have children because she's not married. Or maybe they use condoms, because the columnist is all righteous about the detrimental effects of new-fangled technology. Tom Hanks and his father make familial banter about how many times Dad ran off with the nanny, with no undercurrent of bitterness or accusation. Both Tom and Meg are able to cozily roll up their old significant others, even though we see no hint of the sniping, weariness, and jabbing that usually accompanies the death throes of a relationship. You never saw a more bloodless breakup than Meg Ryan and Greg Kinnear being chipper about the other's new prospects. Oh, my aching teeth.

As a corrective, the next evening we watched The Best Years of Our Lives, the 1946 best-picture winner about the very current topic of WWII vets readjusting to their previous lives and relationships. The raw honesty of the movie was heart-wrenching, especially in the thread that focused on Homer Parrish (Harold Russell). Russell was a real-life veteran who'd lost both his hands in a training accident, and he received two Oscars for his role as a maimed sailor trying to prove his family or the girl next door that he can manage just fine with his prosthetic hooks.. Fredric March plays a banker who's been away for so long that he has to become reacquainted with his wife (the wonderful Myrna Loy) and grown children, and Dana Andrews is a skilled pilot who returns to find his brief marriage disintegrating and his former job as a soda jerk demeaning. I am no softy, but I found myself crying through the entire movie.

Now we're back to the grind. The house is full of noise, and we'll probably find time this week to re-watch Horsefeathers and Animal Crackers before we ship 'em back to Netflix. That's quality entertainment.

Here's each of the Marx Brothers singing "Everyone Says I Love You", from Horsefeathers.

Think it's too late for me to strike up an anonymous correspondence with Groucho and his cigar?

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Oh yeah? OH YEAH?

"Live in each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influences of each." --Henry David Thoreau

Allergies much, Thoreau?

Friday, February 10, 2012

Money Can Buy You Love

Paul Krugman has been putting up a number of posts over the last week expressing his annoyance with Charles Murray's new book Coming Apart and its emphasis on the social breakdown which underlies inequality in America. Broadly speaking, Krugman seems to think that Murray is obscuring the "real problem" that that top 1% of Americans make so much money by talking instead about the problems that the bottom 40% are suffering in relation to family breakup, illegitimacy and plummeting marriage rates.

In a post yesterday he says:
Lately inequality has re-entered the national conversation. Occupy Wall Street gave the issue visibility, while the Congressional Budget Office supplied hard data on the widening income gap. And the myth of a classless society has been exposed: Among rich countries, America stands out as the place where economic and social status is most likely to be inherited.

So you knew what was going to happen next. Suddenly, conservatives are telling us that it’s not really about money; it’s about morals. Never mind wage stagnation and all that, the real problem is the collapse of working-class family values, which is somehow the fault of liberals.

But is it really all about morals? No, it’s mainly about money.

To be fair, the new book at the heart of the conservative pushback, Charles Murray’s “Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010,” does highlight some striking trends. Among white Americans with a high school education or less, marriage rates and male labor force participation are down, while births out of wedlock are up. Clearly, white working-class society has changed in ways that don’t sound good.

But the first question one should ask is: Are things really that bad on the values front?
[T]he truth is that some indicators of social dysfunction have improved dramatically even as traditional families continue to lose ground. As far as I can tell, Mr. Murray never mentions either the plunge in teenage pregnancies among all racial groups since 1990 or the 60 percent decline in violent crime since the mid-90s. Could it be that traditional families aren’t as crucial to social cohesion as advertised?
The thinking here seems particularly tone-deaf: Confronted with the fact that among the least educated and lowest earning Americans, illegitimacy has skyrocketed, marriage has become far less common, attendance of religious services has dropped, etc. Krugman concludes that since crime and teen pregnancy are down, it must be that people aren't much bothered by those social trends. Rather, the big thing that's worrying them is that their wages in inflation adjusted terms have been flat for the last few decades.

If anything, he's sure that the causality must run the other way: since men with only a high school education are finding it increasingly hard to get good jobs, this must account for the collapse in marriage, rise in illegitimacy, etc. If we could just give those people more money, they'd be happy. That marriage stuff -- maybe it's just not so important to them.

Of course, causal systems among people are inherently complex. Doubtless, the economic difficulties of those at the lower end of the education spectrum lead to family breakdown. However, more importantly, family breakdown leads to economic and educational problems. Krugman's blithe "nothing to see here" waves away the far more human topic into order to get back more quickly to discussing the fiscal policy issues he'd rather discuss when it comes to inequality.

Seven Quick Takes

1. Welcome, Spirit Daily readers! Thanks for dropping by to read my review of How Far Can We Go? A Catholic Guide to Sex and Dating. Feel free to browse around.

2. There's a tattoo parlor here in town. 

Now tell me, would you choose this emporium if you desired to have something permanently inked on your body?

3.  Business Daily has a interesting piece analyzing the negative social consequences of cheap and easy access to birth control.
Is this all due to the Pill? Of course not. But the idea that widely-available contraception hasn't led to dramatic societal change, or that this change has been exclusively to the good, is a much sillier notion than anything the Catholic Church teaches.
4. My oldest, 9 1/2, was wandering around the other day, singing "Gonna find my baby, gonna hold on tight..." Fortunately, that's the only words to the song Afternoon Delight she knows, because that's what I start singing before I remember that Afternoon Delight really isn't appropriate for little ears.

We have the same problem with more obscure songs, too. Everyone in the family knows the chorus to "Sherry Monocle" by Mr. B the Gentleman Rhymer, because the chorus is merely a repetition of "A rah-pah-pah-pah! A rah-pah-pah-pah!", set to a catchy tune. It's the words before it that are completely inappropriate.

Chorus at around 1:00.

That's why we find ourselves singing to the baby:

I thought you were a tease!
But you had... some snoogly snoogly knees!

Not quite what the original says, and bad verse to boot, but it's clean. Anyone else have to make up lyrics on the fly for the non-corruption of the young?

(And yes, I also sing "Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence"while washing dishes, so it's not all depravity here.)

5. Betty Duffy writes over at Patheos about the Manosphere, that segment of the internet devoted to solving the eternal problem of antagonism between the sexes by utilizing "Game Theory" to manipulate women into doing what the man wants.
I cannot offer an apology for feminism. I have not been able to align myself with the women's movement because my sexual ethics, which are informed by my Catholic faith, are incompatible with the feminist stance on birth control, extra-marital sex, and abortion. 
Neither can I get behind the manosphere. For feminism to have gained a foothold, men had to collude with it, and without doubt, it's been in the interest of men to do so. So the message of the manosphere rings disingenuous. They would like for women to remain sexually available but to kindly shut up. 
The anger toward the opposite sex that embitters both parties can only create a swiftly moving pendulum of rancor that never allows men and women to do what they were meant to do from the beginning of time, which is to complement one another.
Betty has received some very angry and crude comments from very angry and crude men, bitter about the legacy of feminism and blaming her for it.

Anyone who is interested in engaging with the Manosphere through a more Catholic framework should check out Blogging Bellita, a single Catholic girl who's trying to take on the insights of the Manosphere without being poisoned by its bitterness. Bellita and I don't see eye-to-eye on the value of the Manosphere, but she always has an open mind and is trying valiantly to engage charitably with this sector of humanity.

6. Here's the recipe for cracker bread pizza crust, requested by several readers. This is adapted from the recipe for Lavash crackers from The Bread Baker's Apprentice: Mastering the Art of Extraordinary Bread.

3 cups flour (preferably bread flour)
1 tsp. salt
2 tsp. instant yeast (or 1 packet of yeast in a packet, whatever that is)
2 tbsp. ground flax seed (optional, but essential for making a quick dough taste like it's risen for hours. Flax seed is a great staple for quick bread bakers.)
2 tbsp. honey (optional, oil the tablespoon first)
2 tbsp. vegetable oil
1 cup water

1. Mix dry ingredients, then add wet ingredients and stir until dough forms a ball.
2. Sprinkle flour on counter and transfer dough to counter. Knead dough for about ten minutes, or until ingredients are evenly distributed. Lightly oil bowl (I use the same bowl I mixed in) and transfer dough to bowl, rolling it around to to coat it with oil. Cover with plastic wrap.
3. Ferment at room temperature for 90 minutes, or until dough doubles in size. (I fudge this regularly, if I'm short on time. You can also put the oven on warm and stick the bowl in there.)
4. Preheat oven to 475 degrees. Transfer dough to floured counter. Cut in half. Let one half rest and roll or press out other half of dough to fit a sheet pan. Top with sauce, cheese, and whatever you desire, but don't overdo it.
5. Bake for about 10-12 minutes, until cheese is bubbly and crust is getting golden and crispy. Make other half of dough into pizza as described in step 4 and bake in the same manner.

7.  This.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

"Material Cooperation" and the HHS Contraception Mandate

There's nothing like a public policy debate on a sex-related issue to get a lot of people doing amateur moral reasoning, and I can't help getting into the action a bit. One of the questions I've heard a lot about Catholic institutions' reluctance to cover contraception as part of their health care plans is: "They're already paying their employees, and a lot of their employees are probably going out and buying birth control with that money. How is it any different to make them pay for health coverage that covers all birth control 'free' than it is to simply give them a money and let them buy birth control if they want to?"

The moral concept at play here is one of degree of moral cooperation. The old Catholic Encyclopedia provides a nice summary under it's entry for "Accomplice":
A term generally employed to designate a partner in some form of evildoing. An accomplice is one who cooperates in some way in the wrongful activity of another who is accounted the principal. From the viewpoint of the moral theologian not every such species of association is straightway to be adjudged unlawful. It is necessary to distinguish first of all between formal and material cooperation. To formally cooperate in the sin of another is to be associated with him in the performance of a bad deed in so far forth as it is bad, that is, to share in the perverse frame of mind of that other. On the contrary, to materially cooperate in another's crime is to participate in the action so far as its physical entity is concerned, but not in so far as it is motived by the malice of the principal in the case. For example, to persuade another to absent himself without reason from Mass on Sunday would be an instance of formal cooperation. To sell a person in an ordinary business transaction a revolver which he presently uses to kill himself is a case of material cooperation. Then it must be borne in mind that the cooperation may be described as proximate or remote in proportion to the closeness of relation between the action of the principal and that of his helper. The teaching with regard to this subject-matter is very plain, and may be stated in this wise: Formal cooperation is never lawful, since it presupposes a manifestly sinful attitude on the part of the will of the accomplice. Material complicity is held to be justified when it is brought about by an action which is in itself either morally good or at any rate indifferent, and when there is a sufficient reason for permitting on the part of another the sin which is a consequence of the action.
With this in mind, I think it should be clear there is a big difference for an organization which considers contraception to be immoral between providing employees with health care coverage specifically for buying contraception and providing them with money which they can choose to use for anything they want. The former clearly restricts their actions only to getting something which, according to a Catholic view, is immoral anyway. The latter is simply the just act of paying a worker for his labor, and leaves the worker in charge of deciding how to spend that money. Even if in both cases the worker ends up getting birth control, the proximity of the employer to the buying of birth control is clearly much greater with the contraception mandate than with simply providing his workers with money.

I'd argue that this distinction is actually really clear to us even on subjects which don't involve any clearly immoral action if we start applying it to things that we think of as strictly option. Suppose, for example, an employer provided bicycle coverage to all his employees. Any employee could get a free bicycle. Of course, if you don't want a bicycle, you don't have to get one. People strongly in favor of bicycles might think this was just awesome, but a lot of employees might see this as interfering and overly benefiting the people who are bicycle fanatics. However, a lot of people might see this as a inconsequential "perk" that the company offers and not worry about it too much, though they would certainly see the company as encouraging cycling.

Now let's apply the same model to something that is legal but a little more controversial. An employer announces that they will provide "2nd Amendment Coverage" to all their employees. Any employee who wants can get a "free" Glock 9mm pistol as part of this coverage. He or she can also get unlimited ammunition. Of course, no one is required to get a gun, and the company is not encouraging anyone to do anything illegal or dangerous with these guns. Guns are perfectly legal, and any employee who wanted to could obviously go out and buy a Glock and ammunition for it with his salary if he wanted. However, I think basically everyone would agree that this "2nd Amendment Coverage" would represent the company far more directly being involved in gun ownership and gun promotion than a company which simply payed its workers and didn't prevent them from buying guns with their salaries. This employer would be engaged in "material cooperation" with gun ownership and gun culture in a way that other employers were not.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Suppertime, resolved

So here's the last-minute dinner: cracker-bread pizzas. The cracker-bread recipe is quick, and the addition of flax seed, which we keep as a staple, gives the crust a nicely nutty taste even though it doesn't have time to develop lots of flavor over several hours of rising. We always have mozzarella and pasta sauce on hand. The rectangular pizza is pepperoni, which was left over from last week's pizza making (and zealously guarded against young snackers) and the round pizza is bell pepper (frozen, from Trader Joe's) and kalamata olives (another staple; we buy them in gallon jars from GFS). Darwin bought salad and croutons on his grocery run on the way home from work, and we drank water.

Suppertime, I guess

Darwin and I think alike, so it turns out we were about to cross-post about food. However, he's writing interesting analysis, and I was just going to complain about how there was nothing to eat and what was in the pantry was boring, anyway. We're being frugal, and it's kind of dull, to tell the truth. Plus, what's inexpensive is not necessarily what's quick, and contra Darwin, I don't always get dinner started before he gets home, especially when I'm feeling under the weather.

Anyway, I'm completely uninspired by our bare pantry. Guys, what are you eating for dinner tonight? I don't care how lame it is -- we're all supportive here! And if there's a cookbook you recommend, lay it on me.

The "Food Stamp Diet" and How It's Different From Being Poor

Every so often one hears about people doing the "food stamp diet" in order to see what it's like to be poor in America. The idea is to subsist for some period of time (often a week) on the amount typically given to members of the "food stamp" program. Here's one example, prepared by the Food Research and Action Center back in 2007. That one challenges you to live on $21/week. Here's an annual challenge run by the San Francisco Food Bank. There the amount is $33.04 per person per week.

These amounts vary not only due to region and inflation over time (food inflation has actually been pretty high over the last five years, grocery store prices are up 6% from last year) but also because these are different attempts to model how the food stamp program works. Food stamp benefits are based on the idea of supplementing a family's income so that the family can (according to the program's rationale) afford to consume the amount of food budgeted according to the "thrifty plan" from the USDA "cost of food at home" guidelines. Of course, since food stamps can't be used for anything other than approved food items, and they're given to people who are already very short of money, the effective result is that people are often trying to get all their food off just the food stamp amount, even if the program is assuming it's only a supplement.

What got me thinking about the topic is that I saw one of these "hunger challenges" linked to some time ago, via some Catholic organization which was encouraging people to take part "in solidarity with the poor". I saw the amount mentioned in the San Francisco challenge of $33 per person per week and thought, "Wait a minute, for our family of seven that would be $231. That's more than we spend per week on food, and we're around the top 20% line in family income." In normal times, we were spending around $200/wk on food. Since we've been on a tight budget paying off the boiler, we've managed to get that down to $100-$150 depending on the week (including household cleaners, diapers, toilet paper, paper towels, etc.)

So, is being on food stamps really cushy? Are these challenges just designed wrong? Being a chronic number cruncher, I had to get into it a bit.

First off, it seemed like the challenge was designed for one adult to take, so I wanted to make sure that I was translating it to family terms right. Here's my formula: The 2011 San Francisco Food Bank challenge (based on average food stamp benefits in CA for that year) was based on $33 per person per week. The USDA thrifty plan budgets $41.50 per week for an adult male between 19 and 50. Based on that, I'm assuming a payout of 80% of the estimated thrifty plan cost. Now I need to figure out how much our family would be budgeted according to the thrifty plan:
1 male 19-50 at $41.50
1 female 19-50 at $36.80
1 child age 1 at $21.10
1 child age 2-3 at $23.10
1 child age 4-5 at $24.00
1 child age 6-8 at $30.70
1 child age 9-11 at $35.00
Total: $212.20

Now you discount by 10% because we're a family with 7 or more members: $190.98

Now you assume we only get 80% of that budget as a food stamp allotment: $152.78

That now puts the amount pretty much in line with what is a doable but tight food budget for our family. Having established that, my further thoughts fall into three categories:

How Do We Keep Our Food Budget at Food Stamp Levels?
Even when we were feeling fairly flush, and not trying to keep our food budget super low, we never spent all that much more than $200 per week on groceries, and while averaging $120/wk for the last while has taken concentration, it doesn't really take that much deprivation. I think part of that probably comes from that fast that MrsDarwin and I both come from fairly frugal backgrounds, so our cooking instincts are low cost. Here are some of the keys to keep things cheap:

- It's winter, so we're having a lot of soups: a carton of broth and a pound of dry beans with various things thrown in for body or flavor can easily feed all seven of us for about $5 and leave enough to put away several servings of left overs.

- Using meat as a flavoring, not a dish. We're never into big hunks of meat eaten strait at the best of times, as a matter of cost and of culture. (Plus we're helped along at the moment by a large quantity of pig which resides in our freezer since MrsDarwin's mother gave it to us for Christmas. We're making it last and loving it.)

- Starch is your friend. When it comes to filling up lots of hungry young Darwins, pasta and rice are essential. For those of us decidedly not trying to grow, the recourse is portion control rather than subsisting on proteins and vegetables.

- No sodas or juices. Milk and water are the orders of the day for the young Darwins. (And I've cut back the beer budget to virtually nil so as to do my part.)

- Make it from scratch. We never bought much prepared food, but now we've taken that down to virtually nothing.

- Shop where it's cheap. You'd think that dealing with pricing, I'd always do this, but neither of us particularly likes looking for coupons or going to havens of extreme low price. (We tend to stick to our mainstream supermarkets and Trader Joe's.) However, since having to cut back we've started going to Aldi and it has allowed us to cut back a lot in certain areas. (Butter at $1.90/lb, milk at $1.99/gal, etc. Got to love German efficiency.)

Ways People Taking This Challenge Should Make It More "Real"
One of the things that makes the "Food Stamp Diet" promotional materials look deeply silly at times (especially to anyone who's actually lived on a lower middle class budget) is the ways in which people doing it seem to be out of touch with what most people on low budgets eat and where they shop. For instance, the 2007 set of promotional materials designed for congressmen warns participants, "A gallon of milk costs close to $5, a box of cereal is more than $4 and one apple can cost .60 to $1 each. These numbers add up quickly." I can't imagine where they're shopping, but I pay $1.99/gal for mild, $1.99 or less for a box of (non sugary, house brand) cereal, and $1/lb or less for apples.

So if you're going to take the food stamp diet challenge, at a minimum stop going on about organic and the fat content of your ground beef. Buying organic is, rightly or wrongly, a luxury and one way of consuming less fat is to eat less meat rather than spending a lot of money on extra lean meat.

Also, for those who really haven't experienced how "the other half" lives, try committing to doing all your shopping at places like Wal-Mart, Aldi, Family Dollar, etc. You'll get more food for your money, and you'll also find yourself standing in line with people who really do use food stamps. Whole Foods and the local farmers markets are not where the poor shop.

Why We Still Have It Way Better Than Most People On Foodstamps
All of this could easily make it sound like it's pretty easy to get by on food stamps, indeed that the poor have it pretty easy. That is not necessarily my point here, so let me run through a couple ways in which it's far easier for us to live on this food budget than it might be for many real families among the working poor:

- Economies of scale matter. Even the 10% discount that the USDA applies to the budget for families of 7 doesn't make up for the fact it's much cheaper on a per person basis to feed a large family than just 1, 2 or 3 people. Feeding two people on $44/week would be a lot harder than feeding seven people on $152/wk.

- An intact family with a stay at home parent helps a lot. One of our keys to living cheaply is that MrsDarwin is at home and able to get dinner started before I get home, make the kids lunches from scratch, etc. It would be much harder for a family with only one adult and a couple kids, or even with two working adults to stick to the same budget. Time is money, and as a single income family we have more time for certain things. (Of course, in some families, a parent, grandparent or other relative might fill this second adult slot.)

- We have the time and transportation to shop at three different stores during the course of the week and to bring in a week's worth of supplies from each store. If we had to shop day by day, or only at stores near public transportation, it would cost us more.

- We know that we do in fact have plenty of cash flow, even if we are trying to devote most of it to paying off a big expense rather than groceries. So we don't have any of the chronic anxiety of not being sure we'll be able to make ends meet.