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

Friday, July 23, 2021

Methods and Reasons in the Pillar Cell Phone Data Story

The Pillar Podcast just put up their latest episode, which provides answers to some of the questions that people have asked about the story which led to the resignation of the USCCB general secretary. Here are my notes from listening to it for those who don’t have the time.

They spend a bit of time explaining for listeners what the nature of the USCCB is and what the role of the General Secretary is in it.  The USCCB is mostly not responsible for setting policy and certainly not doctrine, but it does often issue guidelines and best practices. Recently many of those guidelines have related to how dioceses, parishes, schools, etc. should adopt practices to avoid sexual abuse. The General Secretary is described as being the day-to-day head of the organization, directed by the President, who is a bishop but spends most of his days running his diocese while the General Secretary is in the actual USCCB offices running things.  They compared the office of General Secretary to the CEO of a company, while the President is more like the chairman of the board.

They state that their data analysis was based on a broad dataset provided by a source which had legally purchased the data. The data did not provide names or phone numbers, it just gave locations, apps, and a unique id of sorts. The data included the use of a lot of different apps of different sorts, and whatever the motives of the person who gave them the data, they approached it looking for general trends not hunting for a specific person. 

As an aside (although I have published pieces at The Pillar, I had not involvement in this story and do not have any inside knowledge about its analysis) this is pretty much what I suspected.  Having worked with data vendors and marketing departments at large consumer product companies for much of the last ten years, I'm very familiar with this kind of data.  Most apps sell it (it's what in the terms of service you click to agree to without reading them) and it's used by marketers to do things like target ads towards people who live in Houston and have entered a Home Depot within the last three months. So marketers use it in the aggregate to identify groups of individuals they want to send ads to.  But there's no real reason the same data can't be used to identify a person based on where they've been as the NY Times did after Jan 6 in the story linked below.

After acquiring the data set, they say that their first move was to verify that it was legally acquired by the source and also to determine that the data was complete and what it purported to be. 

Ed pointed out that whenever a source provides information or data or a quote, there is always some reason for doing so. This is normal, and to a great extent not of interest unless it affects the veracity of the information. 

They pointed out this is not the first time journalists have analyzed data like this, a key example being the NYTimes story in which they traced some of the people who were at the storming of the Capitol to their homes.

JD stated that they had started very broadly looking to see what they could determine about the use of apps in the Catholic Church in relation to the Church’s efforts at reform 

As they were analyzing data in relation to Church related events, they noticed that a Grindr user seemed to keep showing up at events and places, the combination of which suggested this was some high USCCB official. 

They indicated that they had not come into this with a tip about the general secretary which they went to verify, but rather that they were looking to assess things in a wider way and saw this pattern jump out at them.

There was also significant discussion of why they believed this was news -- and why the particular nature of the general secretary’s role made this news in a way that the personal immoral behavior of some random priest or Church official would not. 

One thing they noted was that in addition to the fact that this was a very highly ranking cleric, with responsibility for (among many other things) helping to guide the formation of the Church's guidelines on questions such as how app usage by priests should be monitored or curtailed in a parish setting. Another is that Grindr itself has been a locus of a number of recent cases in the US and other countries of priests becoming sexually involved with minors.  In one recent case, the priest was not civilly charged, because the civil authorities determined that he had not known the person he made contact with via Grindr was in fact a minor. Thus, they said it was very much Grindr that was the key concern to them in terms of risk in relation to minors, not homosexuality in general.

There’s a lot of other material, dealing with questions and accusations made against them, but since I was primarily interested in the data questions I’ll direct you to the podcast to find out more about those. 

One other resource I'd direct you to is a very good piece which Brandon wrote over at Siris on the nature of detraction and its relevance to this particular news story.  A number of people have voiced concerns about whether running this story constituted detraction, and I think Brandon, as always, does a good job of looking at what precisely detraction is and how it would and would not apply.

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

We Must Not Be A Church of Lies

 Yesterday, The Pillar published an investigative story about how the general secretary of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops had been actively using the hookup app Grindr for years even while holding positions with responsibility for forming and enforcing regulations for clergy relating to sexual abuse. The priest in question proceeded to resign, which was announced by the USCCB prior to the publication of The Pillar's report.

I would have thought that this would be a fairly straight-forward event. Goodness knows, as Catholics we have become accustomed in recent years to learning about the betrayals committed by our Catholic leaders. It seemed to me like another in a long line of sad cases in which we've learned that some prominent cleric was leading a double life -- advancing in the Church on the one hand, while frequently betraying his vows on the other.

What surprised me was that a number of people were angry not that the highest ranking non-bishop in the USCCB had been betraying his vows, but rather that a Catholic news venue had published it.

It's perhaps not totally surprising that Father James Martin, SJ immediately attacked the story as a "witch hunt" aimed at "vulnerable people working for the church".

It's rather more surprising that the integralist writers Adrian Vermeule and Sohrab Ahmari were in full agreement with him.

And then a Commonweal editor at large was playing the "you won't like where this goes" game:

I'm really kind of shocked by some of these takes.  I would have thought that after the McCarrick report, in which it was utterly clear that many, many people knew that McCarrick was constantly breaking his vows, but they all remained quiet about it because they didn't want the negative publicity and didn't know with certainty yet that he had done something which was technically illegal according to civil law -- I would have thought we as a Church were done with this conspiracy of silence. 

It would sadden but not at all shock me if it turned out that some prominent Catholic priest or bishop who's speaking or writing I like was living a double life.  I am under no illusion that sin and deception are an issue only with "progressive" clergy. And indeed, I have no idea what the politics or liturgical preferences of the former general secretary are. 

I do not understand the attitude of someone who would argue that Catholics should knowingly keep this kind of thing under wraps.  If (as some progressive Catholics seem to imply) it is impossible to populate the Church's leadership positions with people who do not flagrantly violate their vows by leading double lives, then frankly it is time that we all learned this is true.  Throw the windows open.  Let the air flow in.  For too many years the Church has tried to live on a foundation of comfortable lies.  

The problem is not that "everyone is a sinner".  Of course everyone is a sinner.  The problem is that when we have a Church that makes a habit of covering up for people who have a deeply ingrained habit of leading double lives, no one tells what they know.  Everyone believes everything is just a little bit fake.  No one knows who to trust.  And because everyone is covering up for everyone else's secrets, no one puts all the pieces together.  So the secrets of the priest with a wife and children on the side get kept.  The secrets of the priest cruising gay bars get kept.  And the secrets of the priest abusing children get kept.  No one wants their secrets revealed, and so all the secrets become a web of deception and it festers and destroys more lives.

The coverups have to stop.  The old boys network needs to stop deciding what gets shared and what gets swept quietly under the rug with a resignation or reassignment.  If the institutional church was going to police itself, it had the chance in 2018 and 2002 and so many times in the decades before.  

Friendship, in Perfectly Unpolished Harmony

 First, C.S. Lewis on Friendship: 

Lamb says somewhere that if, of three friends (A, B, and C), A should die, then B loses not only A but "A's part in C", while C loses not only A but "A's part in B". In each of my friends there is something that only some other friend can fully bring out. By myself I am not large enough to call the whole man into activity; I want other lights than my own to show all his facets. Now that Charles is dead, I shall never again see Ronald's reaction to a specifically Caroline joke. Far from having more of Ronald, having him "to myself" now that Charles is away, I have less of Ronald. Hence true Friendship is the least jealous of loves. Two friends delight to be joined by a third, and three by a fourth, if only the newcomer is qualified to become a real friend. They can they say, as the blessed souls say in Dante, "Here comes one who will augment our loves." For in this love "to divide is not to take away." Of course the scarcity of kindred souls -- not to mention practical considerations about the size of rooms and the audibility of voices -- set limits to the enlargement of the circle, but within those limits we possess each friend not less but more as the number of those with whom we share him increases. In this, Friendship exhibits a glorious "nearness by resemblance" to Heaven itself where the very multitude of the blessed (which no man can number) increases the fruition which each has of God. For every soul, seeing Him in her own way, doubtless communicates that unique vision to all the rest. That, says an old author, is why the Seraphim in Isaiah's vision are crying, "Holy, Holy, Holy" to one another (Isaiah VI, 3). The more we thus share the Heavenly Bread between us, the more we shall all have.

...We think we have chosen our peers. In reality, a few years' difference in the dates of our births, a few more miles between certain houses, the choice of one university instead of another, posting to different regiments, the accident of a topic being raised or not raised at a first meeting -- any of these chances might have kept us apart. But, for a Christian, there are, strictly speaking, no chances. A secret Master of the Ceremonies has been at work. Christ, who said to the disciples "Ye have not chose me, but I have chose you," can truly say to every group of Christian friends "You have not chosen one another but I have chosen you for one another." The friendship is not a reward for our discrimination and good taste in finding one another out. It is the instrument by which God reveals to each the beauties of all the others. They are no greater than the beauties of a thousand other men; by Friendship God opens our eyes to them. They are, like all beauties, derived from Him, and then, in a good Friendship, increased by Him through the Friendship itself, so that is is His instrument for creating as well as for revealing. At this feast it is He who has spread the board and it is He who has chosen the guests. It is He, we may dare to hope, who sometimes does, and always should, preside. Let us not reckon without our Host.

Not that we must always partake of it solemnly. "God who made good laughter" forbid. It is one of the difficult and delightful subtleties of life that we must deeply acknowledge certain things to be serious and yet retain the power and will to treat them often as lightly as a game. ...For the moment I will only quote Dunbar's beautifully balanced advice: 

Man, please thy maker and be merry,/ And give not for this world a cherry. 

--The Four Loves 

This Saturday we had a group over to sing. Only one of us was professional; everyone else just liked making music. Most, but not all, could read music. Everyone had had some experience singing chorally, in various capacities. And we wanted to tackle the Biebl Ave Maria with our limited time. 

Someone pulled out a phone and recorded our last run-through, after an hour's practice. It's not perfect, listening to it objectively, but in the moment it was glorious. If I listen carefully, I can pick out almost every individual voice. There in the soprano of the quartet is Amy, with the teenage girls (Isabel, Clare, Lilliana, Annie). Alto is Mary, Eleanor, and Loriann, each voice unique enough that I can tell them apart. Tenor is Stephen booming away, Ryan holding the phone, and Brandon quietly supporting them. Bass is Will, solid but blending so well that I have to focus to hear his line alone. The trio is Anna, Liz, and Cat -- my sisters and me. Anna is the professional and soars ethereally, but Liz and I blend so well that I have to listen particularly for each line to know whose voice I'm hearing. The antiphons are Will, cut off on his first note; me, looking up from the music in the middle and losing the thread for a second, and Anna, who started on the second antiphon before remembering that we were at the third. Every little mistake and trip and lost harmony is precious, because it was part of the joy of the experience. And we nailed the last chord, which is all that matters. 

Saturday, July 17, 2021

History's Eddying Currents

 At the end of Umberto Eco's novel The Name of the Rose, the main character returns to the monastery which was destroyed by fire, and searching among the ruins he collects a number of scraps of parchment from the books of the library, fragments of writing from the works that were lost.  

Along the return journey and afterward at Melk, I spent many, many hours trying to decipher these remains.  Often from a word or a surviving image I could recognize what the work had been.  When I found, in time, other copies of those books, I studied them with love, as if destiny had left me this bequest, as if having identified the destroyed copy were a sign from heaven that said to me: Tolle et lege.  At the end of my reconstruction, I had before me a kind of lesser library, a symbol of the greater, vanished one: a library made up of fragments, quotations, unfinished sentences, amputated stumps of books.

* * *

The more I reread this list the more I am convinced it is the result of chance and contains no message.  But these incomplete pages have accompanied me through all the life that has been left me to live since then; I have often consulted them like an oracle, and I have almost had the impression that what I have written on these pages, which you will now read, unknown reader, is only a cento, a figured hymn, an immense acrostic that says and repeats nothing, but what those fragments have suggested to me, nor do I know whether thus far I have been speaking of them or they have spoken through my mouth.  But whichever of the two possibilities may be correct, the more I repeat to myself the story that has emerged from them, the less I manage to understand whether in it there is a design that goes beyond the natural sequence of the events and the times that connect them.  And it is a hard thing for this old monk, on the threshold of death, not to know whether the letter he has written contains some hidden meaning, or more than one, or many, or none at all.

But this inability of mine to see is perhaps the effect of the shadow that the great darkness, as it approaches, is casting on the aged world.

Est ubi gloria nune Babyloniae? Where are the snows of yesteryear? The earth is dancing the dance of Macabre; at times it seems to me that the Danube is crowded with ships loaded with fools going toward a dark place.

This passage has been in my mind lately, as on several fronts I have thought about developments in our present world.

I used to have what is perhaps a young man's conviction that there were clear currents and directions to history.  The advent of modernity had released a good deal of error and chaos, but it seemed like institutions and movements I respected, from the Catholic Church to the conservative movement, had come up with answers to these errors and were making steady progress towards bringing goodness and order back to our culture. Sometimes, from a very short trend, it is possible to extrapolate a line in a way that is no longer possible as one sees more data points.  When you're young, you have fewer points, and it is far easier to extrapolate confident lines.

Within the political world, it seemed to me fifteen years ago like the paroxysm of war and dictatorships and communism from 1914 to 1991 (the short 20th century, if you will) had resulted in a wider understanding across the world of how nations should govern themselves.  

Within the Catholic Church, it seemed like the uncertainly and chaos resulting from the cultural and sexual revolutions of the 1960s coinciding with the attempt to prepare the Church to address the modern world via Vatican II, has being brought under control and from the ruins was rising a new and richer understanding and practice from the long papacy of John Paul II and then Benedict XVI.

Neither of these proved to be a trend of any long continuance.  

On the world stage, many old oppressive regimes such as communist China never fell, but transmuted into new forms, while in countries like Russia the initial promise of freedom collapsed into a strongman regime where rampant corruption had kept anything like a real democratic society or market economy from ever coming forth.  Within thirty years of the collapse of communism under its own contradictions, we see the younger generations longing for state socialism. Meanwhile our elites insist sex is only a construct but race is utterly essential to everyone's being and must be worked out through struggle sessions. The conservative movement in which I once placed so much hope has sunk into little more than a self destructive "own the libs" exercise.

Within the Church, the collapse in the broader practice of the faith continues, with fewer people getting married in the church or having their children baptized, while the struggle between aging progressive Catholics and younger orthodox ones has only splintered into more factions and more bitterness rather than fading into the building of a stronger, more missionary, and more beautiful Church.

And as years pass, I am more than ever convinced that this is as it has always been.  It is easy at any moment to imagine that it is clear what direction history is heading, but again and again come the reversals, the unexpected obstacles.

History is a long string of events.  Each has effects that change the course of events after.  But this does not mean that it is some long path leading in one direction.  The arc of history does not bend towards justice.  It just zigzags around.  

I'm sure that in Justinian's Constantinople it looked like, over massive obstacles, the Empire was coming together again.  The code of Roman law newly recodified by the emperor was setting things on a good foundation for the next five hundred years of Roman glory.  But five years after Justinian's death, Muhammad was born, and soon enough the wave of jihad would reduce the empire to a mere regional power.

And such reverses are not the exception but the rule.  

It is not history which is marching towards a clear end but each of us.  Each of our lives has a path, however wandering.  We are born, we grow up, we age, we die, we face our Maker.  There is a clear end to that path and a clear direction.  But history is the sum or countless lives, seething and interacting, helping and hurting, attracting and repelling.  No sooner do people latch on to some truth then they repel others with their enthusiasm.  No sooner is some evil corrected than its opposite evil is embraced.  

The human pendulum swings wildly around the golden mean, managing to miss it on every pass and careen off in some new direction.

The stories are worth knowing.  The way that people and movements and cultures interact and affect each other is worth knowing.  But it is no long march toward anything.

Friday, July 09, 2021

No, COVID Vaccines Are Not Causing First Trimester Babies to Miscarry

There's a meme going around claiming to summarize results from a New England Journal of Medicine study, and warning that receiving the COVID vaccines during the first trimester is causing 90% of pregnant mothers to miscarry.  However, this meme is based on a serious misunderstanding of the data.  I read the study (which you can find here), and here's what it really says.

The study, entitled "Preliminary Findings of mRNA Covid-19 Vaccine Safety in Pregnant Persons" examines data collected about women who both were enrolled in a pregnancy data program called the v-safe pregnancy registry and who also received the Moderna or Pfizer COVID vaccine during the study period of December 14, 2020 to February 28, 2021.  (Seeing as this was very early in the vaccination push, 94% of these were healthcare personnel.  Based on these criteria, the study identified 3958 subjects and then tracked their experiences to see if they had unusual side effects during the study period.

To understand how the meme appears to quote the study and yet is totally deceptive, we turn to Table 4 which records pregnancy loss and other neonatal outcomes.  Here's an image:

In the first line of the table, it notes that 104 out of 827 "completed pregnancies" ended in a miscarriage.  Then in a footnote, it says that 96 of the 104 miscarriages occurred during the first thirteen weeks of pregnancy.  This is where the meme gets the claim "827 women get the jab".  827 is not, however, the number of women who "get the jab" in the study.  827 is the number of women in the study who reached a "completed pregnancy" during the 2.5 month time period of the study.  Recall, a pregnancy lasts nine months, so it's not surprising that in a study lasting 2.5 month, only 827 out of 3958 women completed their pregnancy.  The other 3131 women were still pregnant at the end of the study.

This is also where the meme gets the numbers 104 and 96, but as we shall see, it misattributes what those numbers are.  104 is the total number of women who lost their baby to miscarriage.  It is not the number of women in the study who were in their first trimester when they received their vaccination.  Table 3 shows how many women were in each trimester at the time of vaccination.  The number of women who were in their first trimester when vaccinated was 1132.

The 96 number quoted in the meme is the number of miscarriages which occurred during the first trimester.  So to restate the meme with correctly identified data:

3958 women received a COVID vaccine (I refuse to use the odious phrase "get the jab".)  Of those 1132 were in the first trimester at the time of vaccination.  104 out of 3958 women (2.6%) suffered a miscarriage.  Of those 104, 96 were among the 1132 women vaccinated during their first trimester.  This means that the miscarriage rate for women vaccinated during their first trimester was 8.5%.  According to the Mayo Clinic, 10%-20% of pregnancies end in miscarriage prior to 20 weeks, most of those during the first trimester, so that 8.5% rate is below average.  However, these women were mostly health care professionals, and so it's likely that they were getting better than average care.  I don't thin there's a reason to conclude that the COVID vaccine was associated with lower than average miscarriage, but there's certainly no reason to conclude it was associated with higher than average miscarriage.

And indeed, the study itself states it's conclusion as: 
Preliminary findings did not show obvious safety signals among pregnant persons who received mRNA Covid-19 vaccines. However, more longitudinal follow-up, including follow-up of large numbers of women vaccinated earlier in pregnancy, is necessary to inform maternal, pregnancy, and infant outcomes.

And this points us to the very mischievous thing which has been done by this meme.  It has taken real numbers from a real study that it cites, but it has presented them in a clearly misleading and false way.  I personally find it hard to see how the creator of this meme was not purposefully lying in order to deceive those who would be mislead by the citation of a real NEJM study into believing the alarming  claim that 90%+ of mothers receiving the COVID vaccine while in their first trimester of pregnancy were suffering miscarriages.

This is, to be blunt, a lie.  And if I am right that it was crafted intentionally to deceive others who would share it with only brief checks to see that there was indeed such an article, it is a very wicked lie crafted with the intention of misleading people to fear that the vaccine which is in fact likely to keep mothers and their babies safe would instead kill the baby in 90% of cases.

Please do not be deceived by this lie, and do feel free to share this when people share this deceptive meme.

Thursday, July 01, 2021

Twenty Years and a Day

 Yesterday was our twentieth wedding anniversary.

Twenty years is a huge milestone -- two decades! -- and yet our day was so busy (as has been the week and the month and the year) that it was a real choice to celebrate the occasion. We've talked for years about taking a second honeymoon or even an overnight trip to mark twenty whole years, but now our two oldest girls are working opposite shifts, and the third is at camp this week, and the three middle kids had testing yesterday, and Darwin went in to the office (in the past that would be nothing noteworthy, but in these degenerate days it's an event)... 

The days are sometimes interminable, but the weeks and months and years fly by. The baby is turning four next week. Four! I've never had a four-year-old youngest before. The oldest is nineteen. Nineteen! I've never had a nineteen-year-old before. They are full of activity, and everyone in-between is full of activity. I myself am full of activity, more activity than I've been filled with in a long time. For so many years I was bone-weary with bearing children and caring for lovely little babies. I did not know until now how very tired I was. 

The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. With all the good things the Lord has given to me of late (the chiefest being the grace of saying Morning Prayer every morning, something I'd wanted to do for years but never managed to accomplish), the thing that has been taken is my desire and need to write. My inspiration has... not dried up, but turned inward. I am in a stage of germination. Roots grow downward, but as yet no leaf has emerged. I am content to store these energies against the day of their flowering. But it does make for a boring blog. A cleared, plowed, sown field is a sign of work and potential, but it's not very exciting to look at. 

So here's something to look at: Darwins at 20. If our marriage has been a blessing to you in any way, give God glory and offer a prayer for his will always to be accomplished in us. And we pray the same for all of you.

Saturday, June 26, 2021

Reading While Parental

MrsDarwin and I were talking about Brideshead Revisited this morning.  It's one of our favorite novels.  Indeed, a copy of Brideshead was one of the first gifts that I gave MrsD back when were were college freshman.  

Now our eldest child is a college freshman, and we find ourselves in the position of trying guide adult and near-adult children on issues ranging from time management and study skills to romantic relationships and life plans.

I remember my Dad telling me that Brideshead as a deeply middle-aged book, and that perhaps I should not read it till I was older.  Nothing, of course, could make me more eager to read it, and so I read it and loved it in late high school.  I re-read it several times during college (I remember, in those early, slightly lonely days of freshman year when I didn't yet have enough friends or homework to take up all my time, sitting around the air-conditioned student center and reading Donna Tartt's Secret History, then Brideshead Revisited, and then Secret History again.

The reason I was sitting around binging on these novels as a college freshman was the tantalizing sense of a whole world unfolding through college learning and friendships both offered -- never mind the fact that both also focused on dark consequences unfolding from the overindulgence of those college temptations.  Tragic consequences and grand gestures definitely drew me in as themes when I was in my late teens and early twenties.

That element of Brideshead still appeals to me, thought I think it's come home to me much more over the years the extent to which Charles and Sebastian's idyllic college days are an illusion covering pain and emptiness.  But what we were discussing this morning was Lady Marchmain, Sebastian's mother, and a character who as a young reader seemed so obviously and totally misguided as to seem almost unbelievable.  

I have to say, as a parent with children who are now the age of Charles and Sebastian when we first meet them, Lady Marchmain's actions now seem a lot more explicable.  Not that she's right.  Indeed, in addition to her efforts to rein in Sebastian making his disfunctions worse, Waugh rightly sets her up for some savage satire of overly comfortable Christianity.  Her “it’s very unexpected for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, but the gospel is simply a catalogue of unexpected things. It’s not to be expected that an ox and an ass should worship at the crib. Animals are always doing the oddest things in the lives of the saints. It’s all party of the poetry, the Alice-in-Wonderland side, of religion,” monologue is perhaps one of the best send-ups of an attempt to use Chestertonian-style contradiction to justify doing whatever you like that I've ever read.  

But she seems a lot more true to life now.  I can readily understand feeling like you have all the answers to your children's problems if they would just listen.  When Sebastian is clearly in with a bad set at college (how else can one describe a social set that spans from Anthony Blance to Boy Malcaster?) she tries to get him to hang out with the Catholic student group.  When he's constantly cutting class and not doing school work, she tries to get him to become friends with the eagerly friendly don Mr. Samgrass.  When she sees that Charles is close to Sebastian, she tries to draw him into the family and get him to lead Sebastian towards better habits.  

None of these things work, and in many cases they make things worse, but they're the sort of things you can definitely imagine some nice mom in the parish doing.

Why is she so repeatedly unsuccessful in raising her children in the faith that means so much to her?

The bad example of her marriage is definitely a key aspect.  The children have been raised among the long distance tug of war between their separated parents, and that definitely undercuts Lady Marchmain's attempts to pass on her Catholic faith and the comfortable Edwardian lifestyle she sees as fitting so well with it.

That comfort with the union of faith and culture from her own youth is another of the problems.  She and her fondly remembered brother seem to have fit their faith and the template for worldly success together pretty well.  But Lady Marchmain seems to have little idea of how antithetical the world of high society debutantes she launches Julia into is to the life she hopes Julia will live, until the point where Julia is already far estranged from her faith and seeing Rex as the solution to her social status problems.  

Of course, all this involves doing a great deal of reading between the lines.  When we first meet Charles and Sebastian, Lady Marchmain is part of the inexplicable older generation.  And when we see Charles again in his 30s, Lady Marchmain is seen more through the lens of her effect on her children than as a fully rounded character.  

Waugh himself, when writing Brideshead, was 41, married, and had several children.  But he's inhabiting a younger set of characters and as the novel opens, "my theme is memory."  But this interplay between generations seems fascinating to me as I think about stories from my current vantage point.  I'm trying to think if there are any novels which do a particularly good job of  that mixture of insight and helplessness that afflicts the parent of a new adult.

Divisive Visions of Unity in the Catholic Church

 While there's another big data-driven set project that I'm working on for The Pillar, I got a chance this week to do some straight forward news analysis for them on the debate at the recent USCCB meeting over writing a document on the Eucharist.  

As many as a quarter of U.S. bishops, including several cardinals who have positioned themselves as interpreters of Pope Francis, voted against the document, possibly agreeing with Gregory’s assertion that the document will cause division. 


Clear to most observers is politics. Even as institutional religion wanes, Americans with increasing frequency treat politics with the zeal previously reserved for faith. Any appearance that the bishops’ conference could be taking sides against the Democrats just feeds passions already burning hot.

But the bishops seem split over what Christian unity really is, and divided by conflicting visions of how to evangelize an increasingly post-Christian culture.

Among the bishops speaking last week against drafting a document, there was often a suggested - and sometimes made explicit - vision of maintaining ecclesial unity by remaining aloof about the aspects of the Church’s sexual and medical morality which are most often expected to present stumbling blocks to non-practicing Catholics.


The approach has been a successful means of maintaining visible communion with Catholics who remain attached to some aspects of Catholic devotional and social practice — Grandma’s rosary or her statue of Our Lady, the annual parish golf fundraiser, going to church as a family on Christmas — but who get angry when the Church speaks about contraception or says that Junior’s second marriage isn’t valid.

Indeed, the unity-through-silence tactic appeared to serve bishops well in the waning days of America’s cultural Catholicism. Many Catholics of Joe Biden’s generation wanted to consider themselves members in good standing of the Church well after they had distanced themselves from its doctrine — especially after the 1968 promulgation of Humanae Vitae. They easily found clerics, and even bishops, willing to soft-pedal controversial issues as a kind of compromise with a changing social ethos. 


But the compromise has become less viable with the passing decades. Catholic moral doctrine will not reverse itself in order to keep up with the times. And secular morality has come to demand not just silence but ever-more active ally-ship on what it considers matters of justice: easy access to contraception and abortion, recognition and celebration of same-sex marriage and of sexual diversity, etc. The number and breadth of such demands is likely to increase.

During the pontificate of Pope Francis, the advocates of this approach to unity have enthusiastically adopted the terminology of “accompaniment.” But if their approach lacks the missionary element of Pope Francis’ agenda, it might better be described as “accommodation.” 

Accompaniment lacking a missionary orientation toward conversion can devolve easily into what papal nuncio Archbishop Christophe Pierre warned the USCCB against in his introductory remarks last week: “religion a la carte”. 

Quoting Pope Francis, Pierre said, “This is what I believe creates in the end the ‘religion a la carte.’ I believe that one has to recover the religious act as a movement towards an encounter with Jesus Christ.”

Read the rest...

It's been interesting after all these years of blogging to shift over to writing for an actual news outlet.  On the data-driven pieces, I have the clear advantage of having working-world experience with building and analyzing data sets in order to draw conclusions about what's going on.  In a news analysis piece like this, there are a lot of superficial similarities to the blogging that I've done for 15+  years.  However, there's for a style guide to writing for a news site, and also more of an expectation that pieces not only contain an interesting idea but also that they follow certain basic structures: hook out front, clear explanation of thesis with supporting examples, conclusion which sums up.  

Although all writing is good experience, I've been realizing that my habits can be a bit stream of consciousness when it comes to the sort of writing that I would otherwise do in a blog post.  (When it comes to fiction, MrsD and I have long gone over to a highly structure-based approach.)  It's been a good experience and I've very much enjoyed working with the editors (and their tolerance of my learning curve.)

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Immediate Book Meme

photo by Evan Laurence Bench

There are plenty of memes that want to know all about your book history and your all-time greats and your grand ambitions, but let's focus on something more revealing: the books you're actually reading now, or just read, or are about to read. Let's call it The Immediate Book Meme.

1. What book are you reading now?

Hollow and Home: A History of Self and Place, by E. Fred Carlisle

I picked this up in the architecture section of the library, which has been my current kick, and it turns out that the author spent his boyhood in my own town and lived on the next block over. The local history is interesting, but overall the author seems to have come to some basic insights rather late in life.

1 Corinthians

I've been reading two chapters of the New Testament each evening before bed. The first chapter is the previous evening's second chapter. It's a rich way to meditate on scripture and make new connections.

1a. Readaloud

Fellowship of the Ring, by J.R.R. Tolkien

On a whim, I started The Hobbit as a bedtime readaloud, and it migrated to our main daytime reading session. Now we're working through Lord of the Rings, which I've never read aloud, believe it or not.

2. What book did you just finish?

all by Witold Rybcynski
A friend shared a quote from Witold Rybcynski's Home, and the next thing I knew I had a stack of books on architecture and household, a pairing of ideas that always interests me.

3. What do you plan to read next?

Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville

I recently read a striking quote from Moby-Dick, and thought that maybe I'd give it another go-round after my one college slog.

Dare We Hope that All Men Be Saved?, by Hans Urs von Balthasar

Balthasar's name has come up to me lately from a variety of sources, and this particular topic is one that I've been pondering for a while. I thought it was time to encounter him in his own words and not just through other people's articles.

This was on the same library shelf as Hollow and Home, and it looked interesting. I read The Weeping Time, about the largest slave auction in American history, held at the Butler plantation. British actress Fanny Kemble married into the family before visiting the plantation (and later divorced out of it). Her horrified diary and letters and memoir give a window into the appalling culture of the plantation. 

4. What book do you keep meaning to finish?

Queen Lucia, by E.F. Benson

I'm amused while I'm reading it, but it's been sitting on my nightstand forever.

The Broken Road, by Patrick Leigh Fermor

Why is this taking me so long? I love it while I'm reading it, but once I put it down...

See above. I will never finish this book.

5. What book do you keep meaning to start?

I'm sure there's something out there I'm supposed to start, but nothing's leaping to mind right now.

6. What is your current reading trend?

Home architecture.

Monday, June 14, 2021

A Wedding Toast to Mr. Dan-Man

My baby brother got married this weekend. 

It's been our family tradition to adapt some song with lots of harmony into a personalized toast at weddings, so my brother Will tossed out a short parody of "Mister Sandman", and I cleaned it up and wrote the finished lyrics. We all worked on our parts individually, which didn't go so well the first time we got together to sing. But after a few intense pre-wedding rehearsal sessions, we found our groove.

I present to you the sweet stylings of the Egan siblings in our last wedding toast.

Mr. Dan-man, that is our phrase
It's been his nickname since his toddler days.
But let us offer one clarification:
Grown up, he likes to go by Nate or Nathan.
Mr. Dan-man, or should we say Than?
Meri, John, Will, Liz, and Anna command:
Hear the last toast that we'll sing
Now that Dan-man's wearing a ring.

Mr. Dude-man, Jack of all trades,
He goes to Europe for his escapades.
Working with wood, giving drumming instructions,
Directing youth group musical productions.
Mr. Dan-man, don't think it's weird
That we're singing an ode to your beard.
Smooth or whiskered, you look swell,
Now that Cupid's ringing those bells.

Mr. Dan-man, God heard your prayer:
(He sent a) brainy beauty with charm and red hair
(He sent a) fellow chastity educator
Now she's your lifelong collaborator.
(Bum bum) Miss Savannah, you're good as gold. 
You handle Dan now 'cause we're getting old.
You two make a perfect team
Mrs. Dan-man, take him
Wedding cake him,
Mrs. Egan, manage his schemes.

Tuesday, June 08, 2021

Data Journalism on Bishops' Annual Appeals

I've got a new data analysis piece up at The Pillar, looking to see if there is a "McCarrick Effect" on the annual appeals which dioceses conduct.

After the the 2018 scandals of Theodore McCarrick and the Pennsylvania grand jury report on clerical sexual abuse, some Catholics began to say publicly they would no longer support diocesan appeals. Those voices grew louder amid discontent over the Church’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic. But are frustrated Catholics actually scaling back their financial support for their dioceses? We went to the numbers to find out.

The Pillar examined records of annual appeal collections in 25 geographically and demographically diverse dioceses from 2016 to 2020. We found that on average, the collections of diocesan annual appeals have gone down 4% during the last 4-5 years....

 In related news, The Pillar has made me a "contributing editor".  I certainly won't be quitting my day job, but as Pillar editor-in-chief JD Flynn says, while "it comes with no material benefits, no great prestige, and not even a cool watch. It does mean [Brendan] will continue to develop data-driven journalism for The Pillar, and offer a unique perspective on the life of the Church."

I'm honored by their faith in my work, and if you haven't already subscribed, I'd definitely encourage giving them a look.  They have by far the best coverage of the Church that I've seen in recent years.

Thursday, June 03, 2021

Less Strident and Less Tolerant

 Every so often I ask myself why (aside from chronic lack of time to do much of anything other than work, parenting, and mindlessly wasting time) I don't write more.  Then I look back at the numerous posts I wrote in the past and realize that these days I would not write many of them.

Some of this is due to the "I used to have a seven theories and no children, now I have seven children and no theories" phenomenon. Some is due to the cynicism and exhaustion that gradually teaches one that trying to correct everyone who is wrong on the internet is like trying to hold back the tide.  But a lot of it is also that over the years I've come to know and like more people who find various subjects or views upsetting, and so rather than write something which I know will upset people I like, I keep a lot of thoughts that I nonetheless hold to myself.  

In this sense, I probably sound a somewhat less strident than I used to.

However, there's a downside to this constant voluntary self censorship.  It's an unspoken, one-sided bargain, and as such it's one of which others are unaware.  While I may have undertaken these strictures for reasons that seem like they would apply equally to people on the other side of various issues, it is hardly surprising if other people do not feel the same need to keep their opinions under wraps in order to get along.  I know this.  And yet, when one is going to the effort to bottle up a lot of opinion, and others are quite obviously not doing so, it's easy to get angry that others are not following one's own silent code.

The result is that as a direct result of becoming less strident, I think I've become a good deal less tolerant as well. 

I don't know if this is an inevitable result of our current tense cultural conditions, combined with the disorientation and feeling of betrayal that naturally come from the recent scrambling of sides as the right has become more populist and the left has become more illiberal, or if it's an inevitable result of age and weariness, but it definitely one of the key ways that I have changed in the way I think about online opinion over the years.

Saturday, May 29, 2021

One to Many Relationship

 There's a particularly frantic stage to parenthood, when you're outnumbered by people who can't use a toilet reliably and are liable to consider legos a food group.  For couples at this time of life, it can be months between getting a babysitter and having the chance to go out to dinner and experience adult conversation with pauses and no spilled cups of milk or juice.  I've often told friends going through this stage: it gets better.  Being a parent does not mean 18 years of diapers and spills and poorly enunciated knock-knock jokes.  When your oldest kids are old enough to babysit, a lot changes.  You can get away for a dinner or even a night away from home.

All that is true.

Now I want to spend a moment on the opposite side of that coin.

There's a certain privacy to the stage of parenthood where you can talk with your spouse in front of the kids and they will completely ignore what you're saying.  There's a peace to the time of night when you've put all the kids to bed, and you can sit down and be just adults together.  Despite all the tears, and diapers, and eating odd things, there's a simplicity to the problems of kids under eight or ten.  Parenting young kids can be a big like long term babysitting, and it preserves some of the freedom that was familiar as an older sibling: make sure no one gets hurt and otherwise you're free to do as you want.

One thing that's been hitting me lately about being the parent of three-going-on-four teenagers is that it doesn't really stop.  The kids often don't go to bed until we do or even later.  And unlike in the early days of parenting, you must not talk about things in front of the kids that you don't want them to hear and interpret according to their own context.  On a lot of days, it seems like the only time MrsDarwin and I have to talk privately is the 30 min each night after dinner when we take a walk -- a COVID habit I think we'll keep because it's become so essential to us.

Dealing with the kids problems becomes different to.  There's a simplicity to dealing with the problems of kids under ten.  Stop fighting.  Have some food.  You need a nap.  Let's do some reading time.  Okay, you can watch Phineas & Ferb.  At times young kids become emotionally overwrought, but at least in our experience it's always in ways that are fairly easy to deal with (if occasionally loud.)

With older teens, it's not just that some of the stakes become higher, it's also that you'd now dealing with someone who has a emotions that are in many ways adult, but who do not have adult level experience in regulating those emotions.  A three year old who shouts, "I'm not tired!  Stupid Daddy!" and flails at you with his fists is mostly just funny to the seasoned parent.  A teenager who directs sullen rage at you for a couple days is on the emotionally draining spectrum somewhere between a toxic co-worker and a spouse you're fighting with.  

Similarly, a young kid who isn't doing their homework is a simple discipline problem: You must sit at the table until you get this done.  With an older teen, you could do that, but not only do those kind of tactics not work well with a person that old, but a key point with older kids and schooling is that they are supposed to have learned how to manage their own time.  If you manage their time for them, you may get the work done, but you aren't getting the long term goal done.  You're stuck trying to deal with the more difficult task of encouraging them to take their deadlines seriously and manage their own time.

In dealing with all this, one can feel rather like the aging Bilbo: like butter spread over too much bread.  Even as it seems sometimes like the kids individually feel like we're slow in dealing with the specific things that each of them cares about, by the time that you deal with the needs of each of the four older ones and the more collective needs of the three smaller ones, you have spent a great deal of time.  Add that to the fact that we're not as young and energetic as we used to be, and it's a recipe for feeling tired much of the time.  It's definitely not the same kind of tired which parents dealing with nursing and diapers stage of life experience, but it's constant nonetheless.

Monday, May 24, 2021

Cooking Without Gas

 In the 84th hour of the gas shutoff, I bit the bullet and took a cold shower. 

What was supposed to be a routine inspection of our gas meter in the basement has become a comedy of cold-water errors, with our meter suddenly shut off for leaks on both our side and the gas company's. You need to have your side fixed since it leaks right here by the meter, said the workman. But we're also going to rip our those lines and install a new meter outside since that's the updated procedure. 

Plumbing work -- at least, this plumbing work -- was not on our horizon for this month. The handle of the main shower upstairs is stiff to the point where young children cannot take a shower by themselves because they can't turn it. All the drains are slow and have to be Drano-ed regularly. There's probably something down the trap of my bathroom sink. We have a single-basin sink in the kitchen, for Pete's sake. 

Also in the kitchen is a line for a gas stove, which we had installed when we first moved in. It was aspirational; we couldn't afford the kind of gas stove we wanted, at the time. After the insulation of the antique stove that came with the house caught fire, we bought the cheapest electric model from the scratch and dent place to remind us that one day we wanted to upgrade. Lo, these ten years later we still have that stove.

We live in a house that Builds Character.

But it wouldn't matter if we had a gas stove now, because we haven't had gas since Thursday. Our hot water is supplied by a gas heater, and gas fuels our dryer. The hot water we can live without, mostly, but things are getting dire without laundry. Yesterday we started running cold-water loads and tumbling them dry in cold air. It's time-consuming, but it works.

Everyone in the family has been through the icy shower at least once, except the little boys. For them, we brought up the electric kettles -- one of ours and one belonging to the college student, now enjoying the comforts of home -- and mixed kettle after boiling kettle with the frigid tap water. The 7yo shivered rapidly through his tepid wash, but the 4yo crouched like a froggy and only came out, yelling, after all the water had drained. He's committed.

I too finally broke down and submitted to the icy waters. My hair I could live with -- the recent humidity has been kind to me -- but one feels sticky in this muggy weather. I stood well out of the icy stream and scrubbed with a washcloth to get the feeling of soap off, something cold water doesn't facilitate. Then I held my head sideways to get as much hair and as little scalp under the downpour. Even without lingering, my feet were numb afterwards. 

The course of true love and of plumbing never did run smooth. The young plumbers who came the day of the shutoff did good and thorough work and and walked us through through their plan -- capping unused lines up to the old gas heater hookups in the fireplace (future owners may curse us, but we're never going to find and run gas heaters); ending our line up near the ceiling instead of repairing the leaking pipe by the meter that would be torn out anyway. They spent two days working, and filmed their tests. The gas company assured us that someone would be out to check late Friday night or Saturday morning.

Sunday afternoon, while Darwin was away at a Boy Scout campout, a gas company employee solemnly attested to me that the system held no pressure whatsoever. When Darwin returned, we went down to the basement to walk through everything, again, and try to figure out what went wrong. 

"I think he tested the wrong line," said Darwin. "I think he tested the pipes by the meter, the ones we didn't repair, which run to the shut-off line at the street."

I had not even considered the possibility that the gas company's own employee would not have understood, when I showed him where our line ended, and told him that everything hooked up to the meter was shut off, which the gas company themselves shut off, would still have tested the wrong line, but it made since of some of the fellow's inexplicable remarks, like asking what we planned to do now with our gas boiler. And I committed the cardinal sin of not standing over his shoulder and watching him test, alas, because I was the only adult in a house full of children, my own and others.

By Monday morning, after my cold shower, the gas company sent out a more competent employee, who understood plumbing, knew what previous work had been done, and retested. And there was still a leak -- a very slow leak, using a different metric than the plumbers had been using, but still enough to keep him from putting in the work order to install the new meter. Once the plumbers come back and find and fix that leak, we can schedule with the gas company to retest again, and if we pass, they'll schedule the meter installation outside, and then we'll have the plumbers hook up our pipes to the gas company's pipes, and then the gas company will come and turn back on our gas. 

Until then we're handwashing dishes in cold water (rinse them well right away, and then apply elbow grease), wearing wrinkled clothes (so, not much different than normal), and taking brisk, brief showers. 

Often I wonder why it is I'm not doing more with my time. Why don't I write anymore? Why can't I add this one project to my life? And yet, dealing with the minor family emergencies that constantly arise with many children of various ages in an old house takes not only all my practical energies right now, but all my mental and spiritual energies. A youngster struggling with the truth. A teen who spent a week in a troubling funk and then snapped out of it. Always, teen falling out and potty-training. Shoes that don't fit. Friends who get too busy to call at the end of the school year. ACT and Stanford Achievement Test and Woodcock-Johnson tests. FAFSA looming on the horizon in a year when our taxes show we made too much to qualify for the Great Stimulus, which means that we're too rich to get financial aid despite having seven children, and too rich to deduct college tuition, and too rich to afford anything except the mortgage and endless repairs of this beautiful, high-maintenance house. In which we still do not have a gas stove, or a double-basin sink, or a working dryer, or hot water.

And all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.

Thursday, May 20, 2021

Desiring Heaven

 One of the best new blogs that has come along in some years is Larry Chapp's Gaudium et Spes 22, and his most recent post is one which particularly stuck me.  He's writing about the concern of some more traditional Catholics that the hope that all souls might be saved (expressed notably in current apologetic circles by Bishop Robert Barron, who is in turn echoing Balthasar) is incredibly dangerous because it takes away any reason to practice the faith.  As with most of Chapp's posts, the lead in is long, but I'd identify this as the core paragraph and I think it makes an incredibly important point:

The fact of the matter is that Martin and other like-minded traditionalists get something very wrong. Namely, that the indifferentism and lukewarm laxity that afflicts the modern Church has been primarily caused by a loss of belief in the reality of eternal damnation for most. In reality, the laxity in the modern Church has not arisen from a lack of faith in the eternal horrors of Hell. Rather, the laxity comes from a lack of faith in the existential reality of Heaven. In fact, it comes more specifically from a generalized lack of faith in the eschatological power of supernatural realities in the first place. Because if people really and truly believed in the reality of our liberation from bondage and the joys of Heaven, and truly understood what these realities mean, then the very real possibility of eternal loss would be powerful and palpable. Furthermore, if people had a deeper grasp in faith of what such liberation means then the question of why I should strive to be morally good even if all end up in Heaven someday answers itself. We seek moral goodness because it is liberative and integrative. It opens us to beauty and a holistic happiness. And the more we are on that path the more we begin to realize that Heaven isn’t a Disney World in the sky, or an undifferentiated “reward” for having been a “good person,” but is rather a nested hierarchy of souls that have differing capacities for love, and thus beatitude, depending on what one has done in this life. Jesus says that in his Father’s Kingdom there are “many mansions.” I think this is what he meant. Finally, none of this will come without purgation, in this life or the next. And that purgation will be painful and difficult. Even among those Catholics who feel confident of their ultimate salvation there is still a rigorous desire to do penances now, to lead a life of holiness now, precisely in order to avoid such purgations later. Therefore, I do not need to believe that anyone is in Hell in order to desire the highest and most luxuriant of Heavenly mansions and to avoid the fiery cauldron of purgatory.

I think this gets the problem with so much modernity, including wishy-washy modern Christianity, precisely right.  The problem with them is not that they do not take the idea of sin and hell seriously, it's that they do not take the idea of God and salvation seriously.   Oh sure, it's incredibly common for people to believe in "some kind of higher power" and that we "live on in some way after death".  Lots of people talk about meeting their loved ones again after death or about going to a "happier place".  I think it's only the dedicated few who are serious about materialism and atheism.  But a great many people, including many Catholics, do not really take seriously the idea that there truly is a God, that He is perfect, and that our eternal happiness depends on our willingness to become "perfect as your father in heaven is perfect".  

This, I think, is the truly radical idea which so many have lost.  God is truly and utterly Good.  To experience God totally in eternity is either to be united with Him or to burn in resentment against Him.  

If we really believe that, then the desire to give up much that we desire in this life in order to get used to forming ourselves to God is not a burden.  Rather, it should be our highest wish as Christians.

But for a lot of people, even if they in some sense believe in God, they believe in God as either the giver of prizes or the giver of punishments (or for those who are less "judgmental", God as a vaguely positive force who loves everybody without expecting anything of them.)  This is a God who is not really God in any sense worth talking about.  This is God as a pleasant sunset, a peaceful forest, a soothing musical riff.  These are people whose conception of God is not actually all that far from the ideas of the afterlife which appear in Pixar movies, where we are judged only in the sense of being rewarded to the extent we are remembered and eventually fading into a kindly bureaucratic nothingness.  

If that is the set of beliefs that people implicitly have, telling them that they need to believe in the eternal punishments of hell does not really break through their key misconception.  Sure, they don't really conceive of the punishment of eternal separation from God, but that's mostly because they don't really conceive of God at all, even though they don't actively disbelieve in Him.  

The news we need to bring is not that hell exists.  Lots of people are willing to believe that something vaguely called "hell" exists for "bad people" like Nazis and child molesters.  The problem is that such people think of hell as an eternal penalty box for cinematically bad people.  They don't really believe in the idea that being united with God is morally challenging.  That is the idea which is foreign to people: that God exists in such a way that it matters and demands change on our part in order to embrace the goodness which is God.

Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Repost: Beatrix Potter, Capitalist Swine

In honor of a recent Beatrix Potter kick here, have a repost of Darwin's analysis of Potter's famous economics case-study, The Tale of Ginger and Pickles.

As you can perhaps imagine, there is much reading in the Darwin family, as we consider it necessary to corrupt the dear little tabula rasas of our children with a mixture of facts and fairy stories from the very youngest possible age. And how better may one corrupt the youth then by wrapping up the harsh teachings of the dismal science in the charming trappings of a bevy of dear little fuzzy animals? Do not allow these subtle deceptions, gentle reader! As I shall demonstrate, under the cover of a whimsical, Edwardian children's authoress, lurks a deadly capitalist in sheep's clothing. Attend, to The Tale of Ginger and Pickles (ebook available here)

Once upon a time there was a village shop. The name over the window was "Ginger and Pickles." It was a little small shop just the right size for Dolls—Lucinda and Jane Doll-cook always bought their groceries at Ginger and Pickles. The counter inside was a convenient height for rabbits. Ginger and Pickles sold red spotty pocket-handkerchiefs at a penny three farthings. They also sold sugar, and snuff and galoshes. In fact, although it was such a small shop it sold nearly everything—except a few things that you want in a hurry—like bootlaces, hair-pins and mutton chops. Ginger and Pickles were the people who kept the shop. Ginger was a yellow tom-cat, and Pickles was a terrier. The rabbits were always a little bit afraid of Pickles.The shop was also patronized by mice—only the mice were rather afraid of Ginger. Ginger usually requested Pickles to serve them, because he said it made his mouth water. "I cannot bear," said he, "to see them going out at the door carrying their little parcels." "I have the same feeling about rats," replied Pickles, "but it would never do to eat our own customers; they would leave us and go to Tabitha Twitchit's." "On the contrary, they would go nowhere," replied Ginger gloomily. (Tabitha Twitchit kept the only other shop in the village. She did not give credit.)
See now? Just as you thought you were settling in for a charming story about two animals keeping a shop for assorted fuzzy creatures and toys, what do we find? Competition for sales and a credit market. Let us see what Ms. Potter is filling these tender young minds with. There is a competitive market in the village. If Ginger and Pickles behave in a predatory fashion by eating some of their customers, they shall gain a bad reputation and their customers will go elsewhere. Thus, although it would be natural for this dog and cat to eat the mice, rats, and rabbits who patronize their shop, they restrain themselves because to do otherwise would be to destroy their reputations, and thus their business. Where does Beatrix Potter get this idea? Why of course, from her neighbor to the north:
It is not from the benevolence of the butcher the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity, but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities, but of their advantages. Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations Book 1, Ch2
As if this were not enough, Ms. Potter also praises consumer credit! How do Pickles and Ginger assure success in competition against the shop of Mrs. Tabitha Twitchet? (another cat -- perhaps there's something to these businesses all being run by predators?) They offer credit, and consumers value that credit and so patronize the shop.
Ginger and Pickles gave unlimited credit. Now the meaning of "credit" is this—when a customer buys a bar of soap, instead of the customer pulling out a purse and paying for it—she says she will pay another time. And Pickles makes a low bow and says, "With pleasure, madam," and it is written down in a book. The customers come again and again, and buy quantities, in spite of being afraid of Ginger and Pickles. But there is no money in what is called the "till." The customers came in crowds every day and bought quantities, especially the toffee customers. But there was always no money; they never paid for as much as a pennyworth of peppermints. But the sales were enormous, ten times as large as Tabitha Twitchit's.
As, now we see it. Ginger and Pickles offer a valuable service (unlimited credit) but they have not correctly valued it. They charge no interest, require no minimum payments, and have no credit limits. This causes excessive consumption. And now poor Ginger and Pickles experience the opposite side of Smith's dictum: their customers have no care for the emptiness of the till because their self-interest is unaffected. Since they suffer no disadvantage from never paying, and experience significant benefits (unlimited goods at no cost) they never pay. Ginger and Pickles, like many a bad manager, are looking only at top line: their revenue far exceeds that of Tabitha Twitchet. Yet they have the looming feeling that something is wrong... Catastrophic market adjustment ahead!
As there was always no money, Ginger and Pickles were obliged to eat their own goods. Pickles ate biscuits and Ginger ate a dried haddock. They ate them by candle-light after the shop was closed. When it came to Jan. 1st there was still no money, and Pickles was unable to buy a dog licence. "It is very unpleasant, I am afraid of the police," said Pickles. "It is your own fault for being a terrier; I do not require a licence, and neither does Kep, the Collie dog." "It is very uncomfortable, I am afraid I shall be summoned. I have tried in vain to get a licence upon credit at the Post Office;" said Pickles. "The place is full of policemen. I met one as I was coming home." "Let us send in the bill again to Samuel Whiskers, Ginger, he owes 22/9 for bacon." "I do not believe that he intends to pay at all," replied Ginger. "And I feel sure that Anna Maria pockets things—Where are all the cream crackers?" "You have eaten them yourself," replied Ginger.
Now we see the trouble beginning to break. Ginger and Pickles have not accounted for fixed expenses, their cashflow is breaking down, and their problems are exacerbated by being so far out of step with the market in their terms: They offer unlimited credit at no cost while some of their key vendors and regulators offer no credit or limited credit. They're consuming their capital goods in order to make up for a lack of cashflow. And like many small businesses, they have not fully considered the impact of regulation to their business (they did not plan around the cost of the dog license.) Further, bad book keeping and a lack of separation between business and personal use has destroyed their ability to track their inventory.
Ginger and Pickles retired into the back parlour. They did accounts. They added up sums and sums, and sums. "Samuel Whiskers has run up a bill as long as his tail; he has had an ounce and three-quarters of snuff since October." "What is seven pounds of butter at 1/3, and a stick of sealing wax and four matches?" "Send in all the bills again to everybody 'with compts,'" replied Ginger.
Will re-presenting the bill "with compliments" achieve anything for our shopkeepers? One doubts it. They would be better off announcing a change in credit terms ("Beginning Monday next we shall begin charging interest on all outstanding balances, and we shall enforce a credit limit of 5s 6p for anyone wishing to make additional purchases.") However, they may well have spread so much easy credit around by this point that such a move would simply set off a round of bankruptcies.
After a time they heard a noise in the shop, as if something had been pushed in at the door. They came out of the back parlour. There was an envelope lying on the counter, and a policeman writing in a note-book! Pickles nearly had a fit, he barked and he barked and made little rushes. "Bite him, Pickles! bite him!" spluttered Ginger behind a sugar-barrel, "he's only a German doll!" The policeman went on writing in his notebook; twice he put his pencil in his mouth, and once he dipped it in the treacle. Pickles barked till he was hoarse. But still the policeman took no notice. He had bead eyes, and his helmet was sewed on with stitches. At length on his last little rush—Pickles found that the shop was empty. The policeman had disappeared. But the envelope remained."Do you think that he has gone to fetch a real live policeman? I am afraid it is a summons," said Pickles. "No," replied Ginger, who had opened the envelope, "it is the rates and taxes, £3 19 11-3/4." "This is the last straw," said Pickles, "let us close the shop." They put up the shutters, and left. But they have not removed from the neighbourhood. In fact some people wish they had gone further.
And there we have it. A troubled business is hit with excessive taxation and immediately shutters. Because the taxes were too onerous, no tax revenues are even collected.
Ginger is living in the warren. I do not know what occupation he pursues; he looks stout and comfortable. Pickles is at present a gamekeeper. The closing of the shop caused great inconvenience. Tabitha Twitchit immediately raised the price of everything a half-penny; and she continued to refuse to give credit. Of course there are the tradesmen's carts—the butcher, the fish-man and Timothy Baker. But a person cannot live on "seed wigs" and sponge-cake and butter-buns—not even when the sponge-cake is as good as Timothy's!
With competition eliminated, Tabitha Twitchet raises her prices -- perhaps partly due to selfishness and the knowledge of a captive market, but also in order that her shelves not immediately be picked bare by the sudden increase in the number of customers. Further, if she gets her goods from the same vendors and Ginger and Pickles did, those vendors have just suffered a major financial reverse as a result of having to write off all the goods they were never paid for by Ginger and Pickles. They may well have raised prices on Tabitha as they try to make up their losses and avoid following Ginger and Pickles into ruin. Still, consumption is down and there is unmet demand. Will market forces encourage new competitors to Tabitha Twitchet's de facto monopoly to come into play?
After a time Mr. John Dormouse and his daughter began to sell peppermints and candles. But they did not keep "self-fitting sixes"; and it takes five mice to carry one seven inch candle. Besides—the candles which they sell behave very strangely in warm weather.And Miss Dormouse refused to take back the ends when they were brought back to her with complaints. And when Mr. John Dormouse was complained to, he stayed in bed, and would say nothing but "very snug;" which is not the way to carry on a retail business.
I must say that I agree: that is indeed no way to carry on a retail business. The alternate vendors who have come into play because of the competitive vacuum and Tabitha Twitchet's high prices are selling inferior product and offering poor customer service. The market has still not righted itself. Will it? Is an equilibrium to be found, or will it be necessary to nationalize the shops in order to achieve a better outcome?
So everybody was pleased when Sally Henny Penny sent out a printed poster to say that she was going to re-open the shop—Henny's Opening Sale! Grand co-operative Jumble! Penny's penny prices! Come buy, come try, come buy!" The poster really was most 'ticing.There was a rush upon the opening day. The shop was crammed with customers, and there were crowds of mice upon the biscuit canisters. Sally Henny Penny gets rather flustered when she tries to count out change, and she insists on being paid cash; but she is quite harmless. And she has laid in a remarkable assortment of bargains. There is something to please everybody.
Awwww. Don't you love happy endings? The market has brought forth a new competitor for Tabitha (who probably never wanted Samuel Whiskers as a customer anyway, after the way he tried to make her son into a rolly-polly-pudding in a previous book) and Sally Henny Penny has learned from the mistakes of Pickles and Ginger. Consumers are doubtless sad not to have credit available to them, but perhaps eventually one of the two shops (or even a third new one!) will make credit available on reasonable terms, which will allow customers to buy in lean times without getting in over their heads. Then perhaps we can have an exciting little story about credit markets! In the mean time, we can rejoice that the local market has righted itself and that such a remarkable assortment of bargains is available at Ms. Henny Penny's shop. Wasn't that a good story, little capitalists? Do come again next Friday, and remember that you must ask your parents for a shilling to give to the storyteller, or else the storyteller will turn you out of the room just at the exciting part.