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

Friday, May 30, 2008

Outrage or Understanding

Kyle of Postmodern Papist has a post up about the dialog (or invective, as the case may be) which is often found in the debate over abortion. His jumping off point is a post by Mark Shea, in which Mark refers to "Obama's zeal, not only for sticking scissors in a baby's brain, but even for leaving newborn infants to gasp out their last death rattle on a table cut off from all ties of human love and elementary compassion".

Kyle says:
I have heard members of the abortion rights movement described as assassins, death-peddlers, predators, and abortion enthusiasts who fight for the right to kill babies in death camps. Oy.

Much of the rhetoric used by pro-lifers to define those who defend abortion demonizes and alienates. Yet a staple of the pro-life cause—legal protections for the unborn—requires that the majority of Americans be persuaded to embrace an anti-abortion position and ultimately a pro-life philosophy. As long as there is a pro-choice movement in America, any and all political victories by the pro-life movement will be fleeting. It's high time to abandon the "culture war" metaphor, which leads us to think that ending abortion will result from defeating our opponents on the political battlefield. Defeating the pro-choice movement will maintain the war; persuading (and being persuaded by) its members will bring about the desired peace and respect for the unborn.

Pro-lifers have no choice but to engage pro-choice people in honest, open, and hospitable discussion. Hospitable language and open ears are absolute prerequisites for ending abortion. We may even discover that we have something to learn from those we are inclined to label enemies.
Now, there are a couple of topics I think are worth discussing here, but the first one that strikes me is that Mark Shea's comments on anything even vaguely political are probably not a good place to begin any discussion of temperate and reasoned discourse. The difficulty with Mark Shea's commentary on political matters was, I think, best summed up once upon a time by Jay Anderson:
"You mean to tell me that Mark's political writing is full of hyperbolic asshattery, buffoonish oversimplification, and excessive demonization? Not to mention a basic assumption that anyone who disagrees with him is engaging in dissembling excuse making and political hackery?

"No. Say it ain't so."
So yes, I'm prepared to agree with Kyle that Mark's comments in this instance, as in many others, are written with the intent to stir up either outrage or cheers from the choir, and very little in between. However, I'm a little unclear on what, other than avoiding obviously distancing rudeness or hyperbole, Kyle's ethic of hospitality would involve.

Let's think for a moment about the nature of the pro-choice/pro-life debate.

At the root, there are two moral positions -- on of which holds that it is morally wrong to intentionally kill a human embryo or fetus, and one of which holds that it is an act of no particular (or no great) moral gravity -- though one which may still be emotionally wrenching because it involves the loss of hopes, dreams or potential. Following upon that divide, there are those who hold that abortion may indeed be morally wrong (the first position of the above two) and yet argue that it is not proper for us to tell other people whether they should share our views in the matter.

Thus, the root of the political and cultural conflict is a disagreement as to whether a particular act is wicked and despicable -- and, if it is, whether we should seek to prevent people from performing it.

Now, as Kyle says, the goal of those who are pro-life should be to convince those who are not both that the human embryo or fetus is a human life, and also that such a human life ought to be protected by our laws. To the extent that persuasion is generally achieved through means which do not seek to insult or assault the object of conversion, a polite and empathetic approach is certainly the best. In this sense, being abrasive is generally not helpful. The shock value of demonstrators shouting "Baby killer!" or signs showing dismembered babies will generally not achieve any progress towards this goal. Depending on the context, Mark's comments about bloodlust and jamming scissors into skulls fall in the same category.

However, while it's important not to be needlessly abrasive, it's also important to remember what this dispute is about -- whether abortion is the killing and dismemberment of an innocent human person. The whole point of the pro-life position is that abortion is something which is morally abhorrent. And so while it's important, when talking one-on-one with someone who is pro-choice or undecided to speak in a rational, fair and empathetic manner, it's also important not to skip over that fact that our position is based on the understanding that abortion is just that: morally abhorrent.

One of the major problems that we have in modern political discourse is that people far too often take any criticism of their positions to be an attack upon their persons. Senator Obama is something of an expert at this, since although he claims to respect the beliefs of those who disagree with him, he labels any actually statement of disagreeing beliefs (especially if it involves a suggestion of not voting for him) as being "divisive" and "negative".

According to this usage of the terms, our discussion of abortion cannot help being divisive, for the simple reason that we are divided over abortion. Yes, Mark Shea has a penchant for putting things in an abrasive fashion, but at root, he's right. Senator Obama, whom he is criticizing in that post, holds that it should be legal to leave the victim of a botched abortion to die, and that it should be legal to kill an unborn child by jamming scissors into his skull and sucking out his brains. Those certainly aren't nice things to say, but they do need to be said on occasion, because that's our whole reason for objecting to Obama's positions on these issues.

It's true that our national discourse is in great need of improvement, but one of the ways that we need to be able to do that is to reach a point when we can honestly discuss why it is that we hold radically diverging beliefs on moral issues, whether it's abortion, cloning, euthanasia, gay marriage, capital punishment, torture or war. People need to be able to discuss these issues politely while not hiding in the least that these are major moral issues which involve major disagreements.

What we can not do is achieve any improvement or change on these issues without acknowledging and discussing the fact that we believe each other to be wrong, and why. The problem is not that pro-lifers need to stop saying that pro-choicers want to make it legal to kill unborn children in grisly ways, but rather that such a statement is seen as a conversation ender.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

On not beating the kids

A few weeks ago, I didn't beat my children, and it ranked as the major accomplishment of my day.

We were having one of those days (and if that doesn't mean anything to you, just stop reading now). Energy levels were at polar ends of the spectrum -- I was exhausted and achy in a five-months-pregnant-with-varicose-veins sort of way, and the kids were bouncing off the walls and any other surface that happened to present itself. It was extremely hot outside and the air conditioner hadn't yet been repaired. A video was playing, and no one was watching. There was fighting, tearing around, screaming, climbing, and debris. The noise level, the feist level, the mess level, and my irritation level were all rising at roughly the same rate. And then there was a crash in the kitchen, and I was faced with a shattered plate (not the first broken dish of the day) and a flooded floor (not the first spill of the day). I snapped in three pieces. And I screamed. At that moment I fully understood and sympathized with women who beat their children. It was all I could do not to seize the nearest child and lay into her.

I did not beat my children. I kicked them all outside (not literally, though my foot itched) and told them that mommy needed ten minutes by herself inside, and that they could play outdoors but they were not to come in. While fetching towels and sweeping up wreckage, I prayed for strength. I was just beginning to feel calmer and slightly at peace when the four-year-old burst in and scattered the extensive dust pile I'd just swept up. And for the second time in less than ten minutes, I screamed. She fled outside and collapsed in sobs, and I really didn't care.

The hardest thing I did that day was to force myself to open the door and pick her up and comfort her even though I felt like she deserved to cry. I stroked her head and cuddled her and apologized for yelling and eventually, as we sat out under the hot sun, I meant what I was saying. Things settled down, though I can't recall what we did the rest of the day -- maybe we got out of the house, or maybe we read a book, or maybe people finally took naps. We readjusted, and life moved on.

Mothers often talk about how frustrated they are with their children. What we don't discuss much are those times when the frustration veers into dangerous territory. To say, "I felt like beating my children the other day" -- and to mean it seriously -- is a terrible thing to acknowledge, especially for homeschoolers who feel like the CPS lurks under every rock. But some days it's the simple truth, no matter how ugly it sounds. And some days "I didn't beat my children" is a statement of accomplishment, even though it's an accomplishment that will never be praised or held up as an example.

You can't expect any gratitude from your kids: they'll remember your one negative action with ten times more clarity than the thousands of times you were patient. You can't expect any sympathy from the culture, because why on earth do you keep having kids when you can't control the ones you have? Your husband understands, but he can't really publish the fact that his wife is so excellent that she doesn't hit the kids even when sorely provoked. But to those mothers who've scraped up the last shards of grace with their fingernails and ground them with gritted teeth: today, I salute you. God grant you always pass the test, even if it's only by the skin of your teeth.

Good Marketing or Pure Evil?

Yesterday NY Times columnist Thomas Friedman had a column in which he claimed that a truly responsible presidential candidate would promise to institute Federal gas taxes which would set a per gallon price floor, and guarantee that gas prices would never go below $4/gal again. This, he argued, would give people the incentive to pull their heads out of the sand and adopt more fuel efficient lifestyles.

I don't think that's a particularly good idea, because if gas prices are up to stay, then $4/gal is not high enough to make any kind of a difference, and if they're not, then why hurt people for no terribly good reason? Generally speaking, price is a pretty good reflection of supply and demand (until you start mucking around with it artificially) and so why not let the price itself tell people that they need to conserve, if they do?

What particularly struck me, however, was a section where he laid into Daimler-Chrysler for their current promotion, where if you buy or lease a new Chrysler, Dodge or Jeep, they will subsidize your gas (for your first 12,000 miles per year) to a price of 2.99/gal for three years.
Cynical ideas, like the McCain-Clinton summertime gas-tax holiday, would only make the problem worse, and reckless initiatives like the Chrysler-Dodge-Jeep offer to subsidize gasoline for three years for people who buy its gas guzzlers are the moral equivalent of tobacco companies offering discounted cigarettes to teenagers.

I can’t say it better than my friend Tim Shriver, the chairman of Special Olympics, did in a Memorial Day essay in The Washington Post: “So Dodge wants to sell you a car you don’t really want to buy, that is not fuel-efficient, will further damage our environment, and will further subsidize oil states, some of which are on the other side of the wars we’re currently fighting. ... The planet be damned, the troops be forgotten, the economy be ignored: buy a Dodge.”
Now I'd seen this promotion a couple weeks ago, and it struck me as a pretty smart idea. Let's say that gas prices are likely to remain around 4.50 for the next three years (which maybe some consider optimistic, but I've got to pick a number). No the promotion actually only covers a specific number of gallons of gas per year, based on the published MPG of the model bought, and 12,000 miles per year. Let's pick an MPG of 20/MPG.

At that rate, Daimler-Chrysler would spend $900/yr on paying for the gas subsidy, or $2,700 over three years. That's actually pretty typical for the price of a new car promotion. You often see promotions with $3000 to $5000 in "cash back" or with "0% APR", which ends up being a value of $3000 to $5000 on a five year note which is not paid off early.

So the $2.99 gas promotion involves giving away about the same amount of money that Daimler-Chrysler normally gives away on a new car purchase, but it does so via a means which serves to illustrate the value of that give-away clearly. One of the difficulties in promoting high ticket items like cars is that people often turn off their price sensitivity when they sit down to pay more than a certain amount. When someone is spending $20,000 on a new care, getting $3000 off (or paying $3000 for a special "package" of features) doesn't actually seem like that much to them.

However, because we buy gas all the time we tend to be oversensitive to the cost of gas. Often I'll find myself driving an extra couple miles to go to the gas station which I know usually has prices $0.05 lower per gallon than other stations -- despite the fact that the five cent savings will amount to no more than one dollar even if I fully tank up.

So what Daimler-Chrysler is doing is finding a way to explain their usual $3000-$5000 promotion in a way that applies directly to a customer sore-spot.

More to the point, it's actually in Daimler-Chrysler's interest to sell more fuel efficient cars under this promotion, since they're only covering 12,000 miles worth of gas, regardless of fuel efficiency. And it's in the customer's interest to drive no more than 12,000 miles per year, which is a pretty modest amount for many Americans.

Frankly, I don't see what the fuss is about, though I suppose one gets to feel very righteous if one can figure out how "the man" is trying to get us all down while destroying the earth at the same time.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Diagnosis: Blogging

Scientific American offers an article on the health aspects of blogging. It seems that blogging is often good for you (tell that to the next person who tells you to cut down), though you wouldn't know it from this amusing snippet:
Flaherty, who studies conditions such as hypergraphia (an uncontrollable urge to write) and writer’s block, also looks to disease models to explain the drive behind this mode of communication. For example, people with mania often talk too much. “We believe something in the brain’s limbic system is boosting their desire to communicate,” Flaherty explains. Located mainly in the midbrain, the limbic system controls our drives, whether they are related to food, sex, appetite, or problem solving. “You know that drives are involved [in blogging] because a lot of people do it compulsively,” Flaherty notes. Also, blogging might trigger dopamine release, similar to stimulants like music, running and looking at art.

The frontal and temporal lobes, which govern speech—no dedicated writing center is hardwired in the brain—may also figure in. For example, lesions in Wernicke’s area, located in the left temporal lobe, result in excessive speech and loss of language comprehension. People with Wernicke’s aphasia speak in gibberish and often write constantly. In light of these traits, Flaherty speculates that some activity in this area could foster the urge to blog.

An excess of gluttony

I've been reading Secret Ingredients, a compendium of New Yorker columns on food and drink. As well as containing some delightfully written gems, it's also, in places, a weird catalog of gluttonous overindulgence. The oddest piece was a detailed account of a 38-course meal the author consumed:
We headed into the "second service" without an appropriate break -- say, a five-mile march through the mountains and an eight-hour nap. The courses, naturally, became more substantial. First came an oven-glazed brill served with fennel cream, anchovies, and roasted currants, then a stew of suckling pig that had been slow-cooked in a red-wine sauce thickened with its own blood, onions, and bacon. I leaped forward from this into a warm terrine of hare with preserved plums, and a poached eel with chicken wing tips and testicles in a pool of tarragon butter. But I only picked at my glazed partridge breasts, which were followed by a savory of eggs poached in Chimay ale, and then a mille-feuille of puff pastry sandwiched with sardines and leeks.

... (After a break,) The "third service" loaded even bigger guns, or so it seemed, with its concentration on denser, heavier specialties that tried the patience of my long-fled appetite. From Massialot, we were offered a "light" stew of veal breast in a puree of ham and oysters in a pastry-covered casserole, and a not-so-light gratin of beef cheeks. La Varenne's gray squab was boned, stuffed with sweetbreads, squab livers, and scallions, and was spit-roasted. ...(W)e had wild duck with black olives and orange zest, a buisson (bush) of crayfish with little slabs of grilled goose liver, a terrine of the tips of calves' ears, hare cook in port wine inside a calf's bladder, crispy readed asparagus, a sponge cake with fruit preserves, and cucumbers stewed in wine.
This quasi-pornographic account of palate over-stimulation left me with absolutely no urge to run to the kitchen and grab a snack. Gluttony had always seemed a slightly charming vice -- eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow you may diet! -- but this resolute slog up a mountain of rich fare just because it's there left a grim and depressing aftertaste. This was compounded by the author's clinical justification for the feast:
At midnight, while sipping a paltry brandy from the 1920s and smoking a Havana Churchill, I reflected that this was not the time to ponder eternal values. I was sitting next to Gerard, who was cherubically discussing the historical subtleties of certain courses. In a way, we were forensic anthropologists, doing arduous historical fieldwork. How could we possibly understand the present without knowing what certain of our ancestors had consumed? (The chef and staff) had led us on a sombre and all-consuming journey into the past.
Sombre indeed. Fortunately, the rest of the book has proved to be quite charming, but it's been hard to rinse the taste of the 37 courses from my mouth.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Why Capitalism and Free Markets?

Last week I ran across an interesting post on The American Scene, which was in turn a response to a Wall Street Journal opinion piece by Thomas Frank (of What's The Matter With Kansas fame) whose purpose was to shed a few crocodile tears for the plight of beltway libertarians whose success in promoting cut throat free market ideology was making their lives as non-profit employees untenable.
Selling out is not a threat to the market order; selling out is how the market gets its way. Just look at the city in which all these remarks were made. Private-sector Washington is one of the wealthiest places in America. Public-service Washington lags considerably behind. The chance of ditching the one for the other is what accounts for everything from the power of K Street to the infamous "revolving door," by which a public servant takes a cushy corporate job after engineering some extravagant government favor for the corporation in question – or its clients.

The libertarian nonprofits that line the city's streets often serve merely to rationalize this operation after the fact, giving a pious shine to the policies that are made in this unholy manner.

To their credit, the nonprofit libertarians I watched the other night did not ask for sympathy. Their own doctrine won't permit it. Having spent years urging lawmakers to wreck the social order that once made occupations like theirs tenable, they will cling stubbornly to their free-market idol all the way down.
Frank's piece is, to be honest, not the most coherent you will ever read. There are two arguments I think one might take from it, and it's unclear whether he means to make one or both of them:

1) The triumph of a libertarian agenda (promoted by non-profit libertarian think tanks) in Washington is creating an environment in which non-profit entities will cease to exist.

2) Said triumph of libertarian agenda results in people making more money in the private sector than they do working for non-profits.

However, leaving aside which of these Frank is actually arguing, there are some interesting windows on the standard critiques of capitalism to be found in this piece. Indeed, this underlines for me that one of the biggest problems in the debate between those who think capitalism is bad for society, and those who don't, is that supporters of capitalism generally do not believe what their critiques believe them to.

Describing pro-capitalist think-tank employees he writes: "He is subsidized, in other words, to hymn the unsubsidized way of life. Rugged individualism may be his creed, but a rugged individual he ain't."

Now perhaps I'm very much mistaken, but my impression is that entities such as the Cato Institute, Heritage Foundation, American Enterprise Institute, etc. are supported by donations, not by government subsidies. Either way, however, what exactly is the different between a "non-profit" and a private company? In both cases, the entity seeks to provide some sort of service (whether a product, a publication or research) which is of sufficient value to others that it receives enough money to keep doing what it's doing. The only different with a non-profit is that it does not, at the end of the year, expect to have a surplus net income to distribute to its owners.

So how is it that free market advocates are wrecking the social order that once made occupations like theirs tenable? If Frank's argument is 1) that I listed, it's very hard to see how this is the case. There's nothing about a capitalist free market economy that prevents people from donating money to support research/advocacy organizations that they like. And so it's not clear to me how the agenda of free market advocacy groups serves to destroy the social order that made them possible.

If, on the other hand, his argument is primarily 2), then perhaps one could argue that increasingly free markets would make professionals of equal skills in the private sector able to make more money than those at non-profits might reasonably expect to make. In other words: free market advocacy might benefit those in the private sector much more than the amount of "trickle down" to the non-profits themselves benefits the advocates.

What I think we're seeing at the root of all this, however, is the worldview of a certain critique of capitalism, in which it is held that capitalism is essentially the deification of "profit" and that profit is simply another word for greed. This explains the comment that supporting capitalism will destroy the social order that makes non-profits possible: In a completely capitalistic order everyone would be so greedy that no one would donate any money to anything -- and they would make themselves feel good about it by insisting that those freeloaders who don't make a profit don't deserve any money anyway.

This characterization is certainly well designed to create feelings of righteousness in the hearts of those who believe that the only way anything good will ever be done is if smart and virtuous central planners do it for us, but it doesn't necessarily correlate well with what most free market advocates actually think and do.

The real people who advocate capitalism do not generally do so out of a belief that profit and the accumulation of wealth are the highest metaphysical and moral values in the universe, but rather out of the much more innocent conviction that generally the best person to decide what to do with resources is the person who created them.

Capitalism, like democracy, is a compromise resulting from our confused and fallen state. We advocate democracy not because there is some inherent value in a decision simply by virtue of a majority of voters approving it -- rather, history is full of wrongs which were lauded by the majority -- but rather because we lack the confidence that most people know what is really the best thing to do in any given situation. Democracy thus has the virtue of providing people with the government they deserve.

If the right thing to do in every situation was obvious and well known, then surely we would do well to support some more efficient form of government, perhaps an oligarchy or benevolent dictatorship.

As with power, so with money. I, for one, have a great skepticism that oligarchs or central planners really know where it would be best for all of society's resources to be allocated, and so it seems to me best that each person in society control the fruits of his labor, and allocate them as he sees best. At least that way we may hope that many people manage to do what is right, and if they fail to, they shall be getting the economy and society they deserve.

Meditations on the Fallen

Though unplugged on Memorial Day, I was struck by this passage which I came across in William M. Thackeray's Vanity Fair, Chapter 35:
Anybody who will take the trouble of looking back to a file of the newspapers of the time [1815, just after Waterloo], must, even now, feel at second-hand this breathless pause of expectation. The lists of casualties are carried on from day to day: you stop in the midst as in a story which is to be continued in our next. Think what the feelings must have been as those papers followed each other fresh from the press; and if such an interest could be felt in our country, and about a battle where but twenty thousand of our people were engaged, think of the condition of Europe for twenty years before, where people were fighting, not by thousands, but by millions; each one of whom as he struck his enemy wounded horribly some other innocent heart far away.
Thackeray here follows in the tradition of many others in recalling that the suffering of those who have lost loved ones in war does not know sides. I'll have to dig through my photos from my semester in Europe, but somewhere I have a picture of the Balliol College memorial to its students who died in the Great War. Given the close cultural ties that England and Germany had in the Victorian and Edwardian eras, Balliol lost former students in both the English and German armies, and all are listed.

Friday, May 23, 2008

What Would a Collapse Look Like?

During more routine times at work, I've been listening to the audio book of Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond My selections for work listening tend to be a bit random, in that I find I can only split my attention correctly when listening to non-fiction, and our public library's selection is a bit spotty.

Collapse looks at how civilizations succeed or fail (mostly dealing with the failures) to survive in marginal environments. What makes it interesting is reading a fairly detailed account of some of the classic civilization collapse examples: Easter Island, Pitcairn Island (and surrounding), the Maya cities, the Norse settlements in Vineland and Greenland, etc. In this regard, I've been finding it quite fascinating. What I'm more dubious of so far, though I haven't reached the later chapters where Diamond lays out his full case, is his apparent contention that the modern world with its massive population, industrialized farming, reliance on oil and complex trade networks is perched on a precipice as precarious as that which faced many of these classic examples of civilizational collapse. There are certainly precarious or non-sustainable (in the sense of centuries) things about our modern economy -- but then, there were precarious and non-sustainable things about the Western economy of two hundred years ago, and the result was that it changed, not that it collapsed.

In this regard, I found this article which I ran across yesterday in Harpers very interesting, detailing the "greener revolution" in Cuba since the collapse of its Soviet Bloc trading partners in the early 90s. According to the article, while the Soviet Union and it's satellite states were still around, Cuba pursued a classic massive socialized agriculture program, with much discussion of how large its collective farms were, and how many gigantic Soviet-made tractors it could flood the farmland with. Cuba produced primarily cane sugar for export, which the USSR bought at 2-3x market price. In return, Cuba imported massive amounts of grain (and oil and tractors) from the European communist countries. All of this worked fine until communist Europe fell apart, and there was no one to trade with. This hit hard:

The New York Times ran a story in its Sunday magazine titled “The Last Days of Castro's Cuba”; in its editorial column, the paper opined that “the Cuban dictator has painted himself into his own corner. Fidel Castro's reign deserves to end in home-grown failure.” Without oil, even public transportation shut down—for many, going to work meant a two-hour bike trip. Television shut off early in the evening to save electricity; movie theaters went dark. People tried to improvise their ways around shortages. “For drinking glasses we'd get beer bottles and cut the necks off with wire,” one professor told me. “We didn't have razor blades, till someone in the city came up with a way to resharpen old ones.”

But it's hard to improvise food. So much of what Cubans had eaten had come straight from Eastern Europe, and most of the rest was grown industrial-style on big state farms. All those combines needed fuel and spare parts, and all those big rows of grain and vegetables needed pesticides and fertilizer—none of which were available. In 1989, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the average Cuban was eating 3,000 calories per day. Four years later that figure had fallen to 1,900. It was as if they suddenly had to skip one meal a day, every day, week after month after year. The host of one cooking show on the shortened TV schedule urged Cubans to fry up “steaks” made from grapefruit peels covered in bread crumbs. “I lost twenty pounds myself,” said Fernando Funes, a government agronomist.
However, the Cuban government responded with a move back to crop diversification, and a degree of free market incentive: thousands of small collective farms were chartered such as the Vivero Organopónico Alamar, which is profiled in the article, in which farmers can sell all their produce over a certain minimum (which is turned over to the government) on the free market, and divide the resulting money among themselves.

As in China, a little capitalism went a long way in providing people with the incentive to innovate and work hard. And working hard was required, because as supplies of modern fertilizers, pesticides, machinery parts and oil dried up, people had to go back to doing things the old-fashioned way: plows pulled by oxen (the population of which has gone up ten fold over the last fifteen years), hand cultivated vegetable gardens, using natural remedies and "friendly" insects to keep pests away, rotating crops in order to keep the soil healthy, etc.

The result is that the food supply is back up to what it used to be, though it now mixes much more heavily to vegetables and fruits, while meat, dairy and grains are scarcer.

Now, some of the article's sermonizing is, I think, misplaced. This new Cuban agriculture is clearly taking a lot more work by more people in order to produce the same amount of food (though using less oil, chemicals and machinery) and that is pretty much the economic definition of becoming poorer. Also, the article is very negative on the "green revolution" of large scale world farming. Many environmentalists are, but when talking to my co-workers from countries like India and Sri Lanka, the green revolution (in all its chemical-using and oil-burning glory) marked the point where their families began to be able to get as much food as they needed, and their parents no longer had to stand in line for a few hours to get the weekly ration of rice.

But what does strike me as very interesting about this is that it suggests what is perhaps a much more accurate picture of what a modern "collapse" of the sort that Diamond is worried about would look like.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

A Witness to Change

TS of Video Meliora has a dream about Obama and change. You must read it. (Why? Because your five minutes will be infinitely poorer if you do not.)

Gone Goth

"There," said Montoni, speaking for the first time in several hours, "is Udolpho."

Emily gazed with melancholy awe upon the castle, which she understood to be Montoni's; for, though it was now lighted up by the setting sun, the gothic greatness of its features, and its mouldering walls of dark grey stone, rendered it a gloomy and sublime object. As she gazed, the light died away on its walls, leaving a melancholy purple tint, which spread deeper and deeper, as the thin vapor crept up the mountain, while the battlements above were still tipped with splendor. From those, too, the rays soon faded, and the whole edifice was invested with the solemn duskiness of evening. Silent, lonely, and sublime, it seemed to stand the sovereign of the scene, and to frown defiance on all, who dared to invade its solitary reign. As the twilight deepened, its features became more awful in obscurity, and Emily continued to gaze, till its clustering towers were alone seen, rising over the tops of the woods, beneath whose thick shade the carriages soon after began to ascend.
Darwin has been savoring the satirical pleasures of Vanity Fair, but I've taken the more sensationalistic route and have been reading The Mysteries of Udolpho. Udolpho is the ur-Gothic novel: innocent heroine, vile dark villain, a castle with a secret prisoner and horrors behind black veils, dramatic scenery, and the suspense is exaggerated by the pall of murky twilight. (Nothing happens during the day except the appreciation of vast vistas of countryside.) Having been inspired by watching Masterpiece Theater's recent (and very enjoyable) Northanger Abbey, in which Austen effectively demolished the gothic genre with her ridicule, I wondered if the original could really be that terrible.
They determined on walking round Beechen Cliff, that noble hill whose beautiful verdure and hanging coppice render it so striking an object from almost every opening in Bath.

"I never look at it," said Catherine, as they walked along the side of the river, "without thinking of the south of France."

"You have been abroad then?" said Henry, a little surprised.

"Oh! No, I only mean what I have read about. It always puts me in mind of the country that Emily and her father travelled through, in The Mysteries of Udolpho. But you never read novels, I dare say?"

"Why not?"

"Because they are not clever enough for you - gentlemen read better books."

"The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid. I have read all Mrs. Radcliffe's works, and most of them with great pleasure. The Mysteries of Udolpho, when I had once begun it, I could not lay down again; I remember finishing it in two days - my hair standing on end the whole time."

--Northanger Abbey

In my experience, the modern reader will find her ends splitting instead. It's hard to sympathize with the utter passivity of the young beautiful unstained afflicted Emily, with her ceaseless tears and fainting spells and delicacy so extreme that she would rather prolong the book another two hundred pages than have a candid conversation with her betrothed to clear up a misunderstanding. I couldn't help feeling a kinship with her callous aunt who is obviously driven crazy by Emily's extreme sensibility; or with the villainous Montoni, a suave force of evil who must be delighted to have such a milksop for a victim.

On the other hand, a knowledge of Udolpho makes Northanger Abbey that much more amusing; as for myself, I'll never read the word "verdure" again without a snort of derision.

In the interests of furthering my gothic education, I'm leaving Mrs. Radcliffe behind for a more Victorian tome: The Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Some Things Change

I've been reading W. M. Thackeray's Vanity Fair of late, and with some enjoyment. Being in some respects a spottily educated person, I'd never read Vanity Fair before, and I'd somehow had in my head the general impression that it was one of these darkly satirical and slightly tiresome works of gravity from the late Victorian era (think Portrait of a Lady). To my enjoyment, however, I find that Vanity Fair hales from the 1840s and is of roughly the same delightful tone as the more satirical novels of Anthony Trollope.

The novel is set (or at least begins -- as the 175 pages I've covered thus far are but a fraction of the length of a good Victorian novel) in the early 1800s, at the time of Hundred Days after Napoleon's escape from Elba and return to power. Given that most of the young male characters are in the army, I suspect we're about to see them all called up and sent away to who knows what fate.

As the news comes in that several hundred thousand Frenchmen have immediately risen to follow Napoleon's call to arms, it struck me how much the culture and national image of France have changed over the last 150 years. When Napoleon returned to Paris in 1815, the French had been through twenty years of nearly constant internal and external conflict, with nearly a million French casualties over that time period. And yet on Napoleon's return he raised in a matter of a couple months an army of 200,000 with another 100,000 in training -- to fight a huge coalition of powers that had defeated them only a year before.

You lose a bit of this sense reading mainly English-language history and literature, since the Brits at the time were at pains to look down on the French, who were, after all, their enemies. But by nearly any view France of 1850 had been a powerhouse of literature, politics, philosophy and science -- and a military and nationalistic power which loomed over the continent and the world with the same terrifying resiliancy that Germany showed from 1900 to 1950.

It's interesting to think how much the character and reputation of France have changed since that time, and try to wrap your mind around how exactly it happened.

24 Weeks

A child at 24 weeks in utero.

The Boy is 24 weeks. He has fingernails and can wave his arms and kick at things I set on my stomach, and he's already got stuff all over his face. (Probably a preview of the next five or six years.) He is alive, and if he happened to be born today, advances in medical technology would mean that he would probably survive and eventually thrive. (I'm not ready for that, though, so you'd better stay put, Little Boy.)

I was struck by this photo over at Fr. Longenecker's blog, where he reports that the British have just refused to reduce the 24-week window for abortions. (I was also puzzled by the commenter who insisted that the best way to instill respect for life was universal child care right now.)

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Steady State Taxation

Today's WSJ has an article discussing a study dating back to 1993 by economist Kurt Hauser. Hauser compared the top income tax rate to total tax revenues as a percentage of the US GDP. The result: despite the fact that the top tax rate (which at least as of now accounts for the lion's share of tax revenues collected, since we have a highly progressive income tax system) has varied from 91% to 35% over the last sixty years, total tax revenues are always at about 19.5% of GDP. Looking at the graph, the lack of correlation is truly startling.

The article's conclusion is that raising the taxes on "the rich" is not nearly as effective in raising total tax receipt dollars as pursuing policies that result in increased GDP. For reference, the GDP (in 2000 inflation adjusted dollars) for the same period is this:

Monday, May 19, 2008

No Visible Means of Support

We made a rare venture out to the movie theater to see Prince Caspian when it opened in theaters this weekend. I won't write a full review now, but overall I thought it was better than the first Narnia movie -- and that the plot threads they made up out of whole cloth actually were more tightly written than the ones they were trying to adapt. A good solid attempt at adapting a book which is structured in a very difficult fashion when it comes to putting it on the screen.

However,a couple of the scenes therein reminded me of an ongoing beef that I've had with the recent spate of epic fantasy movies.

How is everyone getting fed?

Yes, this labels me as officially being a history and economics geek, but this invariably bothers me when you see the sweeping shot of an isolated citadel set on rolling plains with a mountain crag in the background.

Take the Lord of the Rings trilogy of movies. You see lots of farm land and grazing animals in the Shire because that's a comforting and pastoral place, but throughout the rest of the movie cities and citadels are set in complete isolating in New Zealand wilderness.

In Tolkien's original Two Towers, Edoras is set amidst rich pasture land. In the movie, it was built on top of this hill.Similarly, in Tolkien's account of the battle of Helm's Deep, the fortress is nestled against hills above some of Rohan's more fertile farmland, and as the defenders watch from the walls they can see the orcs' approach because they're burning the fields, farmhouses and haystacks as they come. In the movie, Helm's Deep was built in this valley:In the lead-up to the battle of Pelennor Fields at Minis Tirith, Tolkien describes all the farmers and villages from the surrounding farmland being brought into the citadel, and the invading army burning crops and farmhouses. In the movie, the citadel is again in a barren, windswept plain of low grasses:And finally, the reason last night's movie reminded me of this, in Prince CaspianMiraz's castle is set amid an empty landscape, with the only Telmarines that ever appear being soldiers until the very, very end when suddenly 10,000 commoners appear out of no where for the closing crowd scenes. No fields, no flocks, no herds.

Now, don't get me wrong. The visuals on these movies are brilliant, and the starkness of the landscape is one of the things that gives them their beauty. However, it strikes me that this underlines in part a fundamental disconnect we have as modern people from the way that people have traditionally lived. When we imagine ancient civilizations, we imagine the big buildings, and perhaps the surrounding buildings in a city. We're picturing the ruins that we see when we visit historical sites. And we don't think about where the food comes from, because we know that food comes fromrestaurants and supermarkets. Fields? When's the last time you had to have a field near your house in order to eat well?

In a real ancient or medieval level culture, you'd virtually never have a city or major fortress that wasn't within a few miles of food sources. But to our eyes, unconcerned with food production, the huge windswept vistas seem more ancient and primal.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Cold Beer or Bust

I'm a homebrewer -- not just because I'm cheap (though that might be part of it) but because I enjoy the process of crafting a really good beer. So most of my beer drinking is done safely within the bosom the of the family home. Still, every so often, one wants to go out and get a beer at a local haunt -- whether under the guise of "lunch break" on a hard day, or because you want to hang out with the guys, or simply because.

Sadly, we don't live near the great beer shrines of the region, such as The Flying Saucer down in north Austin, whose reason for being is to have over a hundred beers on top. No, we live up in the suburbs, in retail plaza land. You don't get the very best beers at suburban "sports bars" and "family bar and grills", but one hopes to find something that is drinkable.

However, there has been turnover among the beer serving establishments in our immediate neighborhood lately. And the new arrivals do not seem to think that malt, hops, yeast and water are enough to bring the boys in anymore.

So now we have The Tilted Kilt, which informs us that "A cold beer never looked so good."I suppose it's a matter of judgment, but I'm going to say it's an apples to melons comparison. I can see what they're getting at (indeed, it is packaged so as to be rather hard to miss) but when a fellow wants a cold one, staring at a hot one is not necessarily the solution to his need.

Being the rather naive fellow that I am, I didn't realize quite what the scenery was like when our the Tilted Kilt opened -- foolishly imagining it was simply a Scottish-themed bar. So I went there with a group after work not long after it opened and can attest that in addition to the warmer delights on display there it offers a fairly pleasing variety of beers, imports and domestic craft brews.

Just recently another establishment with a similar approach opened, Twin Peaks, which this time I was clever enough to realize was not simply an eatery themed around the early 90s David Lynch television series. Their slogan is "Twice as fun as other restaurants", and the reason is apparently this:What exactly is it about minimalist clothing themed around areas with cold climates?

A couple of other places having closed, the only other beer serving establishment in our immediate vicinity is that well-known haunt of ornithologists:Now perhaps you'll think I'm being a bit of a prude about all this. After all, the association of beer and cleavage is not exactly a new invention.(Is it just me, or do the mugs of beer seem to be rather out on the periphery, away from the central point of interest on a bottle of St. Pauli's?

Still, the best things in life deserve to be savored with a certain degree of concentration. And how exactly is one to pay full attention to this:When this keeps leaning forward and asking if you want a refill?

Just the beer, please, ma'am.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Random Biological Thought of the Day

One of the things that sets us apart from our close genetic relatives among the large primates is that human females do not have obvious visual queues as to when they are fertile. Sure, as every NFP using couple knows, with enough study we can figure these things out with a fair degree of accuracy. But it's certainly not something where you can simply look at your wife from across the room and see, "Ah, fertile at the moment, are we."

By comparison, when researchers are watching bands of chimps, the physical signs of a female chimp becoming fertile are so obvious that the researches can spot them from a distance. And the male chimps certainly are not in any doubt. (Of course, it helps in this regard that chimps don't wear clothes, but you get the idea.)

It strikes me that as humans became, well... human, and our social structures began to develop, that the fact that it's not readily obvious when women are and are not able to conceive probably helped to re-enforce the need for marriage (or stable mating arrangements, if you want to sound all analytical about it) and for family social structures. This lack of certainty created a need for social structures that emphasized long term fidelity.

Thinking about it this way: our lack of certainty as to whether any given act of intercourse will lead to children is one of the aspects of the human creature which had a fundamental influence on how societies developed. Or put it in moral terms: this physical reality reflects the intention that families be based on permanent fidelity.

All of which suggests that the advent of generally effective birth control would be very socially disruptive. (Which I think one could certainly argue it has.) And that if 100% effective artificial birth control were developed (which could be turned off and on at will yet allowed no user error or failure) it would be even more socially destructive.

In a strictly cultural sense: the social structures we're used to surrounding marriage and the family are based on the assumption of not knowing when sex will result in offspring. In a moral sense: that physical reality reflects that we are creatures who are made to work a certain way -- and our morals surrounding marriage are the "operating manual" for how to live successfully within that reality.

When we change these things, we in some real sense change who we are.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

McCain on Global Warming

When I got the chance to read it last night, I was disappointed by McCain's speech on global warming, though perhaps not for the same reason that most of the NRO set was.

While I am something of a global warming skeptic (I'm not skeptical as to whether there's been a warming trend, but I am skeptical as to how much of it is the result of human actions, but most of all I'm skeptical about our ability to reduce our emissions enough to help any) I think that many in conservative circles have been too shrill and absolute in their approach to the issue -- fuelled in part by a general suspicion of science in conservative quarters which I do not think is a particularly good thing.

So I had hoped that McCain would bring some needed moderation to the Republican approach to dealing with global warming. He didn't. Instead he fell hook, line, and sinker for the impossible and therefore meaningless posturing which has been indulged in too often by environmental activists.

Before even opening his mouth, he set himself up with some pretty bad symbolism -- choosing to make his address from a wind farm. As if to illustrate the foolishness of this, the wind was apparently not blowing, and so he gave his address standing in front of a bunch of wind turbines busy not generating power. Wind power is one of the classic examples of good intentions and poor thinking. It works well for small scale power generation in remote areas with lots of wind, but it is no way to power a city. Wind farms take up vast amounts of land, they produce inconstant supplies of electricity, and when you fact in the cost of building and maintaining the wind turbines (not to mention the opportunity cost of not using the land for anything else) they're almost universally net losses rather than gains of energy.

The speech itself seemed to take it's relationship with practicality from the setting. McCain's proposal is for a cap-and-trade limit on carbon emissions. In some sense, this is not necessarily a bad idea, but the devil is invariably in the details. I'm skeptical of the whole idea of getting the government into measuring everyone's carbon emissions -- not to mention that the "carbon offsets" that are part of the plan are often simply a way of paying someone to do what they would do anyway.

Further, most of the goals McCain set (return to 1990 emission levels by 2020, get down to 60% of 1990 emissions by 2050) are starkly unrealistic, given that our population is continuing to rise at a pretty decent clip. Taking our total national emissions in 2050 to 60% of the 1990 level would actually be a 75% or greater reduction in per capita carbon emissions.

Some good things were mentioned, such as increasing our use of nuclear power, which we desperately need to do. But this was amidst a swarm of less well thought-out policies. I had wanted to see someone take a responsible yet conservative approach to addressing the global warming issue -- but this does not appear to be it.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Whoever Bought an iMac with our Amazon Search Box

Thank you!!!

You just gave us one or two hard cover books (or several more used) without costing yourself a cent extra, and having had an iMac for the last 18 months, I can say you picked a great machine too.

We blog for the love of it, of course, but it's always appreciated when people's usage of our Amazon link helps fund Darwin book-buying habit.

Unread Books Meme

From Melanie, a book meme. And like her, I have a hard time resisting checking books I've read off a list.

Below is a list of the 100 or so books most often marked as "unread" on Library Thing. How many of them have you read?

BLUE: Books I've read
GOLD: Books I've read as school assignments
GREEN: Books I will likely read in the future
RED: Books I started to read, but never finished

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell
Anna Karenina
Crime and Punishment
One Hundred Years of Solitude
Wuthering Heights
The Silmarillion
Life of Pi: a novel
The Name of the Rose
Don Quixote
Moby Dick
Madame Bovary
The Odyssey
Pride and Prejudice
Jane Eyre
A Tale of Two Cities
The Brothers Karamazov
Guns, Germs, and Steel: the fates of human societies
War and Peace
Vanity Fair
The Time Traveler's Wife
The Iliad
The Blind Assassin
The Kite Runner
Mrs. Dalloway
Great Expectations
American Gods
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius
Atlas Shrugged
Reading Lolita in Tehran: a memoir in books
Memoirs of a Geisha
Wicked: the life and times of the wicked witch of the West
The Canterbury Tales
The Historian: a novel
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
Love in the Time of Cholera
Brave New World
The Fountainhead
Foucault's Pendulum
The Count of Monte Cristo
A Clockwork Orange
Anansi Boys
The Once and Future King
The Grapes of Wrath
The Poisonwood Bible: a novel
Angels and Demons
The Inferno
The Satanic Verses
Sense and Sensibility
The Picture of Dorian Gray
Mansfield Park
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
To the Lighthouse
Tess of the D'Urbervilles
Oliver Twist
Gulliver's Travels
Les Misérables (When I was young, we had a vintage copy of the second volume. I've since read the beginning, but not the middle)
The Corrections
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
The Prince
The Sound and the Fury
Angela's Ashes: a memoir
The God of Small Things
A People’s History of the United States: 1492-present
A Confederacy of Dunces
A Short History of Nearly Everything
The Unbearable Lightness of Being
Slaughterhouse Five
The Scarlet Letter
Eats, Shoots and Leaves
The Mists of Avalon
Oryx and Crake: a novel
Collapse: how societies choose to fail or succeed
Cloud Atlas
The Confusion
Northanger Abbey
The Catcher in the Rye
On the Road
The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Freakonomics: a rogue economist explores the hidden side of everything
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: an inquiry into values
The Aeneid
Watership Down
Gravity’s Rainbow
The Hobbit
In Cold Blood
White Teeth
Treasure Island
David Copperfield
The Three Musketeers

Monday, May 12, 2008

A Pro-Choice Politician I Could Support

There's been some spirited conversation of late centering around Catholic law professor Douglas Kmiec's endorsement of and arguments for Barack Obama. Kyle of Postmodern Papist has had some interesting things to say. Jay Anderson of Pro Ecclesia has some very good thoughts up jumping off of Kyle's post.

I think it essentially goes without saying (though not quite, which is why I'm saying it) that there are situations in which a Catholic would in good conscience vote for a pro-choice politician despite that politicians pro-choice stance. The USCCB in its document "Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship" repeats a traditional understanding of how one may vote for a politician who supports certain evils if one disagrees with those positions, and if one holds that there are sufficiently grave considerations which cause one to believe that it is most to the common good to elect that politician despite his holding some objectively evil beliefs.

However, it seems to me that in discussing the upcoming election, several Catholics in public and intellectual life (Kmiec very much among them) have attempted to make the case that one should support Obama not despite his stand on abortion, but rather because an Obama administration will be able to make progress towards a more truly pro-life society in a way that recent Republican administrations have not been able to. I disagree with people who take the former position, though I can certainly respect them, but I take serious objection to those who take the latter, and this post is intended to address them.

First of all, I'm a little sketchy as to how the Obama-crease-pro-life-society argument is supposed to work. As best as I can make it out, it is essentially:

Obama is a really nice person who wants to help people. Nice people don't like abortion. People who get help don't need abortions. Therefore, Obama is against abortion and will help people so that they don't need any.

There are a lot of problems with that kind of thinking, but the one I'd like to address is the "Obama is a nice person -- nice people don't like abortion" like or argument.

Sometime recently, the Democratic party woke up and realized that the abortion issue was hurting them. The occasional photos of women at rallies wearing "Keep your rosaries off our ovaries" and "I'm proud of my abortion" t-shirts just weren't winning over the remainder of the country. So abortion was recast from being "just a medical procedure" and "a right" and a tool for "liberation" and "equality" to being "a tragedy" that should be "safe, legal and rare".

This has the advantage of not offending the majority of Americans, who do at least have a firm sense of unease about abortion, while at the same time offering a nice out so that no one needs to feel too much guilt or too much of a need to change the culture: A tragedy, in modern parlance, is often something that simply happens to one. This is in stark contract to a classical or Shakespearean tragedy, in which fate or one's own flaws result in one's downfall. But now we talk about tornadoes and hurricanes and earthquakes and fires as "tragedies". It's very bad, and we're all sad about it, but it's really nobody's fault. Donate a few dollars and old clothes to the Red Cross and move on.

The difficulty, however, is that it's an essentially incoherent moral view. Why should we consider abortion "a tragedy"? Is it because it is the taking of a human life? If not, why exactly is it a tragedy?

As best as I can make out, this view boils down to holding that while abortion may not actually be wrong, it's no fun and people don't (all other things being equal) want to have one. Thus, when Howard Dean announced, "I don't know anyone who is pro-abortion" he means it in the same sense one might say, "I don't know anyone who is pro-wisdom-tooth-extraction." No one wants to have his wisdom teeth out. It's not fun. It's not something you'd do unnecessarily. But in a situation where your other options are clearly painful or expensive, you have them out.

At a minimum, abortion is unpleasant. So of course, no one is going to seek one when she doesn't "need" one. In that sense, no one is "pro-abortion".

But since my teeth do not in and of themselves have any rights, dignity or moral worth, I didn't have a whole lot of qualms having my wisdom teeth cut out when they threatened to cause problems for the rest of my body. On the other hand, if my aunt is causing a lot of trouble and pain in the extended family, I cannot legally take her out somewhere and have her surgically divided into several pieces in order to remove the strife. That's because she's a human being with her own rights and inherent dignity.

So contra Howard Dean, the question is not whether there are people sitting around thinking, "Wow, I wish I could get an abortion. That would be so much fun." but rather whether it is wrong to procure an abortion in order to avoid undesirable consequences. And it is, so far as I can tell, on this point that there is considerable division in our politics and our culture. (What Mr. Dean has attempted to do is redefine "pro-abortion" in a ludicrously null set, while remaining blind to the moral issue at play.)

Another thing I should make clear (it is quickly becoming clear to me that laying out the assumptions involved in this debate takes far longer than arguing one's conclusions) is that it seems to me that the presidency is totemic as well as policy centered. Thus, when we elect a "pro-choice" president, we are conveying to ourselves we are a pro-choice society and/or that being pro-choice is something that is okay. A president is not merely a hired policy maker, he is a "representative" in the full meaning of the term.

Taking all these into consideration, my objection to the argument that electing a "safe, legal and rare" politician will help the pro-life cause is that even if the expansive social policies (as yet un-proposed) which such a president might support had the effect of reducing the demand for abortions, there is no way that electing as our representative someone who does not believe that abortion is wrong in an absolute moral sense is going to actively move us toward the belief that abortion is morally wrong. At most, it would result in a decline in abortion simply because fewer people would feel themselves in need of them. That is a good thing -- most especially for the people who would be alive as a result -- but it's not a long term solution, since that would mean that as soon as the economy hit the skids we'd go back to killing our children. If the phrase "building a culture of life" is to mean anything, it means moving towards a culture in which one welcomes children into the world even if they come at the cost of considerable pain, difficulty and inconvenience.

Thinking all this through, I do not think it is possible for one to argue, from a pro-life perspective, that the election of any politician who is only anti-abortion in the abortion-is-like-having-your-wisdom-death-out sense will move us closer to a culture of life. However, there is a kind of pro-choice candidate who I think could. Imagine that a pro-choice candidate emerged who said, "I believe that abortion consists of the intentional killing of an innocent human person. As such, it is a great moral evil. A just country would ban such a practice. Unfortunately, we are not a just country and too many of us rely on evil to maintain our standard of living. I don't believe that during the next four years it is possible for us to make any progress towards outlawing this act of killing. So while I will support policies that will give women in crisis pregnancies other options, I will not advance any new legislation to end the slaughter. Some day, I hope, we will reach the point when we're ready to stop, and then we will change our laws to protect every human life."

Now, I disagree with that approach, but I can respect it a lot more than the "safe, legal and rare" rhetoric. I could see how electing that kind of pro-choice politician would help move us forward.

Unfortunately, it wouldn't happen, because by definitions other than Howard Dean's there are a lot of people who are "pro-abortion" and would not like the sound of this one little bit. Even though this hypothetical politician would not be advocating any change in current laws in regard to abortion, I think the pro-choice side of the spectrum pretty clearly wants acknowledgement that their "choice" is okay. That's why it's acceptable to call it a "tragedy" or say "no one is pro-abortion", but a politician who said the above wouldn't get to first base.

Still, I'm open to being convinced. If Doug Kmiec can get Obama to use my suggested verbiage above, I'll give him credit for truly opening a new "national conversation" on the issue.

Can you put a value on a mother's work?


That's how much financial compensation the work that average stay-at-home mothers would bring in the marketplace, according to Mom's Salary Wizard. But according to my custom salary wizard (adjusted for number of children, zip code, and specific hours spent on various tasks like, say, plumbing) my salary ought to be $130,135.

Take that, Darwin! I don't make more than you bring home!

(h/t to my morning copy of the Wall Street Journal)

Veggie Rights

Blackadder provides a new record in the "you can't make these things up" department.

Friday, May 09, 2008

A House Divided

The Log-eyed Roman looks at the pro-life/pro-choice debate and sees echos of another period of increasing division on moral issues in American society.

Yes, they get better with age

This morning I saw a full-page ad in the Wall Street Journal which featured a mammoth pair of diamond earrings over the caption:


I don't know if you'd call it love, but I have found that the older my rose bushes get, the better they look. Really, though, what I love the most as they grow older are my children. This Mothers' Day, give her the gift that really keeps on giving: a child!*

*However, since I've already got one of those on the way, I'd settle for a pair of mammoth diamond earrings.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

No Top Down Solution

Last night was our parish's Pastoral Council meeting -- a body which has the dubious honor of having me as a part of it. And at the meeting, someone brought up an announcement which had been made for the last several weeks before mass along with the usual "Please turn off all cell phones and pagers". This additional announcement was to the effect of: "For the parents of young children, there is a cry room available if your children become noisy. Please respect the worship of those around you."

Given that some of the other local parishes have a very aggressive "please leave your kids at the parish babysitting center -- if they make noise we will give you the evil eye" policy, and that our parish has generally been pretty family friendly, this announcement was not making any friends. And indeed, at the meeting, nearly everyone (most especially parents) agreed that it gave a negative impression. (It was decided to change or get rid of the announcement.)

However, a minority demanded, "If we can't have an announcement, what can we do about the occasional family where the parents shows no inclination at all to make their kids be quiet or take them out?"

This, I think, underscores a fundamental sort of problem that many communities face in regards to enforcing behaviors, especially positive behaviors or virtues. There is simply no effective way of quickly and effectively enforcing virtue.

Let's look at this issue of quiet in church as an example. Now when you get down to it, it's not just quiet that's at issue. The church would be quiet if no one was in it, but that's not the goal. Rather, the goal is that everyone have sufficient respect for the mass to remain quiet and pay attention, and teach their children to do the same (while taking small children out temporarily on those occasions when they are not persuadable.) So the goal is best summarized as: Everyone in the church should have a strong sense of the sacredness of the liturgy, and convey that sense to their children.

Now, there are lots of increasingly draconian things one could do to enforce silence. One could tell the ushers to escort out the family of any child making so much as a peep. The priest could stop saying mass and glare at offending children during mass. One could simply ban children from the church. However, none of these would foster that sense of the sacred -- indeed, quite the opposite. Such practices would deeply offend families, turn the mass into a battleground, and (through banish children from the church) completely fail to teach children anything about the mass.

Trying to force the desired results of virtue not only fails to cultivate the virtue, it actively frustrated the development of the virtue.

So what is one to do?

It seems to me that is exactly the issue. There simply is no way to quickly force through, without exception, the development of a virtue. And if you try to force the effects, you will often end up assaulting the very virtue you seek to cultivate.

And yet we very often find it emotionally impossible, in our rush to "do something", to recognize that the best thing we can do is not take drastic action, and work through the long process of educating and moving the community culture to where it needs to be in order to achieve our desires.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Gas Is Still a Bargain

While unpacking groceries the other day, I found myself looking at a large bakery loaf bearing the exhorbitant price tag of 3.49 and thinking: That's the same price of a gallon of gas.

For a moment rival sense of indignation at the cost of bread and the cost of gas struggled for dominance in my mind, and then a quircky economic thought replaced both: To walk the 22 miles that my Camry could drive using one gallon of gas would require rather more energy than I would likely derive from eating this loaf of bread. For the entire family to walk the 19 miles that the same gallon would take the van would most definately require more energy than would be provided by the loaf of bread. (This especially because young ladies start demanding piggy-back rides after a half mile walk or so.)

And so in a certain sense, the gas remains a good deal, in that it allows us to do more things than we could currently do without the power of internal combustian engines.

I recalled seeing a news note somewhere a few weeks back about a fellow who had taken to riding his horse about town bearing signs saying that he had abandoned his car in protest over the cost of gas. It's a charming gesture (if you're not the person stuck scooping the streets afterwards) but now I recalled that my friend at work who has two horses had remarked that feed generally costs him $100/week even in the parts of the year when there's fresh grass for grazing as well. (During the winter he has to buy hay as well.)

So I guess at the moment cars are generally a deal compared to horses as well.

The which does not really give me any glowing sense of well being, but somehow the world makes a tiny bit more sense to me now.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Vice is Like a Monkey

I had a long talk the other night with old family friend the Logeyed Roman, during the course of which he told me an anecdote that very much struck me.

His father spent a number of years stationed over in the Pacific after World War II, and during that time was shown the local technique for hunting monkeys.

You took a coconut and drilled two holes in it just large enough to put a rope through. This allowed you to tie the coconut tightly to a tree. Then you drilled a larger hole, just barely large enough for an adult monkey to reach its hand into. Through this hole you poured a few handfulls of peanuts into the coconut, and then you sat back to wait.

A monkey would approach the coconut, put its hand in, grab a handful of peanuts, and then find that it could not withdraw its hand while holding the peanuts in its fist. While the monkey was struggling with this, the locals would approach and club it. As the humans approached, the monkey would scream hysterically and struggle to get free, but the one thing the monkey would not think to do, as death bore down on it, was to simply let go of the coveted peanuts so that it could pull its hand out and scamper up the tree.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Catholic Rights Talk

Blackadder has an interesting post up on "Catholic rights talk", and how what the Church means by a "right" is different from what Americans mean by it most of the time.

I must admit, I really wish the Church had not got into useing "rights" terminology at all -- in part because the different way that it is used from the common American usage causes confusion, and in part because it seems to me that it reverses the direction of obligation in human actions.

What is a right to health care or a right to a just wage? When we get down to it, it is not a personal right to have any particular thing. (After all, how could we have an innate right to medical procedures that didn't even exist until the last fifty years of human history; or a right to wages at a certain level when for most of human history most people have lived pretty much by subsistence.)

Rather, this "rights talk" seems to me a sort of backward discussion of our mutual obligations to one another.

When we say in a Catholic context that people have a right to basic health care, what we mean (unless I am much mistaken) is that as human beings we have the duty to provide whatever medical assistance is within our power to our neighbors. "Care for the sick." Five hundred years ago, that might mostly have meant simply visiting the sick, providing them with food and drink, and seeing to their basic personal needs as much as possible. Today, with the greater means of caring for health that are available to us in the modern world, it means making sure that people who need them receive modern medicines and other forms of appropriate care. But they key is not that each person has an innate right to specific medical procedures or a specific level of care, but rather that as human persons we have an innate obligation to care for our fellow creatures via whatever means possible.

Similarly, when we talk about a "right" to a just wage, it seems to me that this cannot be taken to mean that people have some sort of innate right to a specific monetary wage level (say, a right to make at least $20/hr) nor more generally a right to make enough to have a certain lifestyle relative to the rest of society (a right to make at least 1/5th as much as the richest person in one's region.) Rather, it seems to me that the right to a just wage is essentially an obligation of one who controls labor (whether that be a modern employer or a medieval lord of the manor) to see that those who work for him receive a fair portion of the value that their work produces.

In this sense, the terminology of "rights" (at least to American ears) strikes me as being counter-productive in discussing Catholic moral teaching. Saying that someone has a "right" to something seems to connote an idea of: "All right, you owe this to me. Where is it? I've got a right to it!" Whereas, I think that what the Church has come to refer to with "rights" terminology is an obligation that each one of us bears to our neighbors.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Is the Corporate Ladder Dehumanizing?

One of the blogs I get a great deal of pleasure from reading is Video Meliora, written by TS, this because he is a creature of wide ranging interesting and enjoyable prose style.

A couple days ago, he linked to a post by ZippyCatholic about how life in the corporate world demands constant increases in productivity: up or out. Or to use Zippy's metaphor: Work is a treadmill, and the speed doubles every ten years.

Zippy is in turn writing about a post on What's Wrong With The World by Lydia McGrew.

McGrew is a homeschooling mother and (I surmise from her introduction) the wife of an academic, and so while she holds to capitalistic ideals, she says she has not been recently familiar with corporate experience. She was, thus, must distressed to have a recent conversation with a friend about "development" as it is demanded in the corporate world:
He explained that in his area there is intense pressure constantly to be changing one's role in the company. This is billed as "developing," "advancing." "Move up or move out," is the basic message. Even if, as does sometimes happen, you do well at your job and would prefer to keep doing it, and even if your immediate superior likes you and would like to keep you in your present position, the superior himself comes under pressure for not "developing his people." Ambition is treated as worthwhile in itself, and its absence as a sign that there is something wrong with you as an employee. Not even a sign, really--as definitionally something wrong with you as an employee. Finding something you like and trying to keep doing it well, perhaps even learning to do it better and better? How passe! How quaint! How regressive!....

I was thus confronted with an image of some previously unknown circle in Dante's Inferno, a place of ceaseless, meaningless motion for the sake of motion. For this motion does not enable the hot dog company to make better hot dogs, nor to make them more efficiently, nor to serve their customers better. It doesn't enable the computer company to make a more user-friendly product or a product that makes its customers' lives better. Such motion from role to role in a company, even if labeled "upward," does not or certainly need not mean that the employee is really growing, is really becoming better at what he does, is really helping his company to do what it does better. It need not even mean that he is doing better at some intangible work such as helping the company to advertise or market its product. On the contrary, he has to keep learning to do something new every few years, just when he was getting wise and experienced in his old role....

In fact, this "move up or move out" imperative makes the old idea of being a cog in a machine look rather pleasant by comparison. Do you want the cogs in your car to keep randomly evolving into something different? Not at all. You might end up with a car that didn't run at all, or that ran much worse than before. If the employees were cogs in a machine, their employers would be grateful that they keep on playing their coggish roles efficiently and well and that they do so indefinitely, making the company like a machine that just keeps on forever running sweetly on well-oiled wheels. If the model of employees as cogs in a machine is modern, it seems to me that the corporate world of "move up or move out" is post-modern, a world where everything must morph for the sake of morphing and where this grotesque and pointless movement is called "growth."
Lydia considers this to be a sort of post-modern heresy in regards to capitalism, and a betrayal of its real ideals, which she describes as "means of people's doing things they want to do, doing them well, and profiting from the labor of doing them well".

Zippy looks at the same problem and sees it as built into capitalism, or at least to the structure of the stock-issuing company:
You can't think of a company as a 'fixed' entity like a car, or even like a cow (a "cash cow" company will get a low market value even if it has high profits, while a growth company will get high market value even with relatively low [current] profits). It is a false analogy. Every 'human resource' in the company is an asset, and assets that do not appreciate in value over time actually lose money for the company when measured against inflation; so they have to be gotten rid of. Just because they store some value 'in place' doesn't mean they are worth keeping around: storing value 'in place' is money in a mattress, worth far less than productive, growing capital....

An engineer who does the same job for forty years is a dead asset. We have to keep putting money into him, usually increasing amounts over time, and get some marginal benefit from his increased experience but no true upgrade in his productivity which translates to the bottom line. Rather he needs to be constantly thinking about how to obsolete himself, replace himself with machines and cheaper less skilled labor so he can move up to the next thing. Upward mobility pressure on employees is not pointless. Growth-oriented ambitious people will do well in an environment of continual upward pressure. People who enjoy what they do and want to do it for the rest of their careers and live like human beings may be made miserable by that situation, but they aren't the ones who will contribute large leaps of growth to the business anyway, so they don't matter. It is more profitable to get rid of them and staff with the other kind of people.

Step back for a second and think about the logic of earning profits from capital. If you invest your money and earn 10% simple non-compounding interest, your money doubles in ten years. At the end of that ten years you can invest it again and earn twice as much for the next ten years. The same asset now has to be twice as productive. This upward pressure applies to all investment assets, and employees are investment assets: it costs money to acquire them and keep them around just like anything else. It is true that many assets depreciate -- lose value over time. Obviously a company in the business of making money (which is reflected in share prices) wants all of its assets to depreciate in real terms as little as possible, and to appreciate in value if possible.

So an employee who produces X today had better produce 2X ten years from now, just to keep up. Why, you ask? Because they can. And if they can't, someone else will replace them. Every asset in a company has this upward bias against depreciation and in favor of appreciation.
Now, I do know about and understand the sort of at times foolish emphasis on "moving up" that is often found in corporate environments. A good friend my parents age who is a very, very good computer programmer ran into a problem some years back where she was essentially told she'd been promoted as far as she could be as a programmer and she would now need to stop programming and move into "management" if she wanted to advance any farther. She pointed out that her work had been key to a number of their very important projects, and said that she wanted to continue programming, though she was open to supervising other programmers as well. In the end, she won, and they created a "senior software engineer" track which allowed her and other programmers who wanted to remain programmers to do what they did best rather than moving into something they had not desire to do.

So yes, the emphasis on development can get a bit silly at times. It is absolutely not my desire to defend the constellation of all the foolish or dehumanizing corporate practices out there, because there are plenty of both, but at the same time I do want to defend the idea of continuing "career development" as not necessarily being dehumanizing -- indeed, as often being humanizing. I think Lydia and Zippy are perhaps missing the sense in which an expectation of increasing productivity is actually good for employees, both economically and as human beings.

Certainly, being made to jump through hoops which one sees no point in can be dehumanizing, but instead of looking at the bureaucratic failure of the "development plan" idea, let's at least look at the purpose behind it. Lydia seems to be assuming some sort of manufacturing/production oriented company, which produces a product, markets it, and ships it out to retailers to sell. It's an easily understood model, so let's run with it. Say a company makes rubber ducks. An earnest young man comes to work for them, and he starts in the factory, inspecting ducks as they come out of the molds and making sure that they are correctly formed. He does well, comes in on time, and is seen as a valuable employee. So after a year, his boss comes to our character and tells him, "You seem like a solid and promising employee. I'd like to see you learn more about the business and move up in the company. You should consider moving up to either running the molding and extruding machinery or overseeing the duck painting. Which interests you?"

The pain! The humanity! Is this poor young man being dehumanized? Is he being forced to do something else just as he was getting truly good at inspecting recently molded ducks? I'd say no. Indeed, if you want your employees to be involved in the company, to understand its workings, and to feel a sense of ownership in what they produce, you want your employees to understand and experience as much as possible of all the aspects of what the company does. Asking an employee to "develop", to move about the company, learn different roles, and move up is an invitation to become more involved in the company, more of an owner -- more of a person and less of a cog.

But say that our young man hates ducks. He cares little for the company other than his paycheck, and he really cares mainly about getting off work on time and going home to read his beloved 18th century Icelandic poets -- a small group, but a worthy one. He doesn't want to know more about the company. He'd prefer to just do the same thing and not exert extra mental effort in learning other roles. After all, he's good at expecting ducks, and since he can do it on auto-pilot he can mental recite Icelandic poetry while he does so. So he turns down the offer and sticks to duck inspection. A few more times over the ensuing months his manager invites him to move up, but always the young man refuses.

Now at this point the manager is getting frustrated. Our young man is sitting in what is generally considered an entry level job, a gateway into the company and a way of discovering new talent. The company believes strongly in hiring at the bottom and promoting from within, but this promising employee shows no signs of wanting to move up, and he's taking up space that could be taken up by someone who does want to learn more about the company and move up. So after another year, the manager delivers an ultimatum: up or out. Do you want to move up, or do you not want to have a future at the company? At this point, the young man becomes sullen and goes off to write long articles on the internet about how capitalism stamps out the love of poetry in man.

Certainly, one can see why the young man, who simply wants to pull in enough of a paycheck to pay for his books of Icelandic poetry without having to devote too much of his mental energy to the process, is dissatisfied. And yet, has the the company really wronged him so very much, or is his manager rightly frustrated at the young man's complete lack of interest in becoming a more integral part of the company? Is it perhaps a matter of the young man simply having selecting the wrong career? And honestly, wouldn't most of us rather have the boss who asks us to move up and learn more about the company (like the one in the example) than one who insists that we remain in one place and doesn't want us moving up?

Now on Zippy's post, I'd just like to point out an aspect of the economics which Zippy doubtless knows, but perhaps overlooked in this particular example: Companies do not have fixed numbers of employees. Yes, an employee can be seen as a resource, and a company does have an incentive to see that resource increase in value over time. (Though the net gain is not as much as he's suggesting, since when your employees increase in productivity 10% every year, you can bet that they're getting paid more every year as well, though probably not 10% more.) But generally, companies that are expanding hire more employees as well. And "increased productivity" is often a matter not so much of all the employees being required to work harder, but of coming up with processes (often via the employees themselves) which allow the same employee to do the same amount or less work, while producing more product. So yes, employees are expected to become massively more productive over time if the company is to grow radically, but that's not just a matter of forcing the employees to work harder. And it's generally good for the employees in that they end up making a good deal more.

Why object to all this? Well, I for one am very glad that I'm not still doing the same job I was when I left college seven years ago. I've enjoyed learning to be vastly more productive and gaining vastly more responsibility than I had seven years ago, and I'm also very glad that I'm able to make 3x what I made back then. That allows me to have a house and a family and to take pretty good care of both. So as for increasing productivity, I'm all for it. Indeed, I would say that increasing one's productivity generally results in less dehumanization in one's work rather than more.