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

Friday, September 30, 2011

Do Not Fear The Greeks, Or The Books They Bring

Alright, as titles go, that was a bit of a stretch, but since Laocoön was strangled by giant sea serpents just after delivering his famous line, he's in no position to object to its bowdlerization.

A reader writes:
I was hoping you could recommend a good read about the Greeks. I'm not picky, it could be a biography, an overall history, about a particular event, what have you. I've been pushing myself to read more, but finished up the last book on my (short) list, and feel I better get another one quick, or I'll lose what little progress I've made in my new habit.

I find myself curiously coming up short here, since although I've read a lot of things by ancient Greeks, I haven't actually read many books about them. Thus, I'll make a few suggestions and then ask readers with better ideas to chime in.

First, I have to at least make the case for a couple of primary sources.

If you have the patience to read a book-length work in verse, the Iliad and Odyssey really do remain some of the greatest works in Western culture. My personal preference is very much for the Iliad over the Odyssey -- I like the more novelistic structure and characterization. Many people prefer the Odyssey, which is more episodic and isn't as tightly focused on all the different ways that heroes with bronze age weapons can kill each other. A while back I wrote a piece with some notes on reading Homer the first time and on the different translations available, which might be helpful.

Perhaps a bit more readable, and also a more direct window into Classical Greek culture is Xenophon's Anabasis which is available from Penguin as The Persian Expedition (Penguin Classics) in a readable translation by Rex Warner. Xenophon was a noble Athenian and a student of Socrates, but this book is about an expedition he was on in which 10,000 Greeks were hired as mercenaries by a pretender to the Persian throne. They march deep into Persia and defeat the Persian emperor's army, but in the process the claimant to the throne they are working for is killed. The Greeks thus find themselves very far from home and in unfriendly country, and most of the book is about their efforts to make it back home.

Moving into modern works, I'd definitely recommend Edith Hamilton's Mythology, which covers all the major Greek myths and many minor ones as well. Her The Greek Way is in some ways a good cultural study of Ancient Greece via its greatest writers, but I think it's arguably showing it's age (and a little mid-century primness) at this point. For all of the ways in which the Greeks contributed to our culture they are also very alien in certain respects, and I'm not sure that a book in which Arisophanes' comedy is compared to Gilbert and Sullivan's light operas (even though Hamilton notes that Aristophanes was "more exuberantly Rabelaisian") quite captures the full flavor. That said, Hamilton is a good writer and classicist, and the book is good. I'm just not sure it's the best.

I've enjoyed some of Victor Davis Hanson's work on the Greeks, but his books are all somewhat specialized. My personal favorite is The Western Way of War, but it's a somewhat specialized work dealing with Classical Greek infantry warfare and how it both sprang from and contributed to the political structure of the Greek city states -- as well as the way these ideas have shaped Western concepts of war ever since. His The Other Greeks is also good, dealing with the agrarian side of Greek culture -- as opposed to the doings in the Agora that we normally read about. His A War Like No Other is probably his most readable book on Ancient Greece, but I think that in his effort to draw parallels between the Peloponnesian War and modern conflicts, he perhaps stretches the narrative a bit. It's a good, detailed discussion of the war which was one of the key influences on Classical Greek life and history, I just felt like some of the emphases and parallels were a bit off.

Finally, if you're willing to put up with "a pleasant evening's ultra violence" and are interested in a historical novel, you could try Gates of Fire, a novel about the Battle of Thermopylae.  Compared with the comic book 300, and the movie of the same name, (both of which drove me absolutely batty) this is actually a moderately good fictionalized depiction of the battle itself and of Spartan society.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Moviegoer, Part II

Binx is interesting, and I probably would have thought him real deep if I'd read The Moviegoer as a teenager, but now what stands out is that he isn't nearly as perceptive as he thinks he is.

It seems like Binx can't get a handle on who he his until he has a handle on the kind of person his father was. Problem is, he seems incapable of twisting the jewel to see how the facets interact with one another. He thinks his mother and his aunt don't know who his father was because they emphasize different aspects of his character, but instead of trying to meld the "student prince" and the "ironic young dude" and the "overwrought" man into a single personality, he'd prefer to think that everyone has made "an emblem" of the man. Binx listens, but he does not hear -- though that's fitting, since he feels like that's the problem with everyone else.

He's a fairly astute observer of externals, but he lacks that spark of caritas that allows a man to fully engage with his fellow humans. He hasn't grown out of an adolescent snark; he just expresses himself more literately. He can ascribe motives and objectives, but he can't find the essential humanity behind the actions of those he observes. If he were an writer, he'd be a second-rate Robinson Davies: all slice 'n dice, but without Davies' sympathy for his characters.

Do I sound harsh on Binx? I think he's directionless to the point of stupor (how can he choose a direction until he knows what he's searching for?), but I tell you what, Lickona was right: He's not passive when it comes to the ladies. I like him a lot when he's trying to seduce his secretary. He's planning, scheming, strategizing -- he's ACTING, in the technical sense of the word. He determines his objective, he stages his scenario, he varies his tactics. He responds to the other in the scene and makes her respond to him.  Of course he's playing a scene, like William Holden in the movies, and yet the thrill of having a scene to play animates him. Maybe it's because then he knows what he's searching for, even if it's a secondary objective.

And note that when he's in an open-ended scene, or a conversation where there's no clear goal, he withdraws into analyzing.

Look: I can't really engage with Kate. Percy seems to prefer these emotionally fragile heroines, but I like his more robust ladies. Example: Margot from Lancelot. (My favorite line from Lancelot is a description of Margot: "Her face was if anything more soft-eyed and voluptuous, as only a thirty-two-year-old woman can be voluptuous.") Margot is vibrant and loveable, even if she's also a sleazy adulterer. And come to that, Lancelot's problem is that he can't reconcile these two facets of his wife... but now we're discussing a different novel. So: Kate. She's bristly and unknowable and suffering from a serious depression, and I can be remotely sympathetic, but she's triggering my Binx-like remote observation tendencies.

Now you want the real heroine, the woman at the heart of the book (I say, being only halfway through)? It's Binx's mother, Anna. Hoo, I love dat woman, cher! She's buried a husband and two beloved older sons, and she still retains a strength and charm and vitality that Binx either lacks or chooses not to engage.  I want to know this lady. I want to talk to her and live next door to her and watch her fish from the dock in the early sunlight and see how she handles her six remaining younger children from her second marriage. Binx may feel like she's put up a veneer of ordinariness, but I think she's just strong and funny and what his father needed to snap him out of himself. Binx need a girl just like the girl who married dear old Dad.

Duval, Lonnie, Donice, Clairain, Mathilde, Therese, Jean-Paul: if I had read this book as a teenager, I think one of my children would bear one of these names now. Maybe I need to work a Clairain or Mathilde into the rotation here.

Book Meme

I took this book meme from the literate Brandon. Now not all of these answers are necessarily my "favorite", but just what first sprang to mind.
 1. Favorite childhood book?
I tended to read books over and over if I loved them, and the favorites changed over time. Grimm's Fairy Tales, Carol Ryrie Brink's Caddie Woodlawn (which we just finished reading with the girls now), Cheaper by the Dozen by Frank and Ernestine Gilbreath, the Narnia books, and the Little House books were all favorites.

 2. What are you reading right now?
The Moviegoer by Walker Percy, Forever Amber by Kathleen Winsor (found in our library), and Mansfield Park and Mummies. Just finished Tales from the White Hart by Arthur C. Clarke, H.M.S Surprise by Patrick O'Brian, and The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton.

3. What books do you have on request at the library?
Rules of Civility by Amor Towles.

4. Bad book habit?
Leaving books all around where the kids can get at them, or piling them perilously high on my nightstand.

5. What do you currently have checked out at the library?
Nothing for myself, and I think we just returned most of the childrens' books. I think I still have out The Longhouse and the Wigwam for the girls.

6. Do you have an e-reader?

7. Do you prefer to read one book at a time, or several at once?
I often read more than one book, and I tend to leave them in different places. So I might have a book in the kitchen and one in the library and one in my bedroom.

8. Have your reading habits changed since starting a blog?
I don't know -- my life has changed much in the six years we've been blogging, so how can I say if my reading habits have changed because of blogging or because I have five children? I have less time to read, though I don't think I read less often.

9. Least favorite book you read this year (so far?)
Johnny Appleseed: The Man, the Myth, The American Legend by Howard Means. Means is a rather pompous writer and also got some rather basic facts about religion wrong, which made me doubt just about everything else in the book. It was a slog to finish it.

10. Favorite book you’ve read this year?
The Moviegoer is my top contender (though I haven't finished it yet). I also liked The Tragedy of Arthur by Arthur Phillips, the last quarter of which was a manuscript of a play purported to be by Shakespeare (and it was pretty good too -- better than the rest of the book, I thought), Room by Emma Donoghue, and Possession by A.S.Byatt. But The Moviegoer is better than either of those. The Warden by Anthony Trollope was also quite enjoyable.

11. How often do you read out of your comfort zone?
I dunno. I often pick up new books on the recommendations of those I trust, so maybe not often.

12. What is your reading comfort zone?
Classic novels and children's literature.

13. Can you read on the bus?
I haven't been on a bus in these fifteen years, almost.

14. Favorite place to read?
The loveseat in my library or in bed.

15. What is your policy on book lending?
I'm pretty generous with handing out my books, though I do like to get them back eventually.

16. Do you ever dog-ear books?

17. Do you ever write in the margins of your books?
Oh, never.

18. Not even with text books?
No, I hated marking up my textbooks, even. I did highlight a few books, and it pains me now to see those marks.

19. What is your favorite language to read in?
English, naturally. I can slog along in French with a dictionary, but I haven't really read in French since I translated No Exit in college.

20. What makes you love a book?

21. What will inspire you to recommend a book?
I'll recommend a book if I think someone will like it.

22. Favorite genre?
I'm not much of a genre reader anymore, though I will seek out books that friends recommend. If a book is good, it's good regardless of genre.

23. Genre you rarely read (but wish you did?)
I like mysteries but don't often seek them out.

24. Favorite biography?
I don't know. Now that I'm on the spot I can't bring up a single biography I've read, though I've read plenty.

25. Have you ever read a self-help book?
Cover to cover? I don't know. When I was a teenager I often turned to a manual of etiquette by Emily Post or some such as a panacea against all social ills, though I think that self-help and good advice are not mutually inclusive genres.

26. Favorite cookbook?
Joy of Cooking, which is in my kitchen in about 1066 distinct pages, and I have to ruffle through them to find my standby recipes. Time to buy a new copy, maybe. Hey publishers: how about making your reference cookbooks signature-sewn?

27. Most inspirational book you’ve read this year (fiction or non-fiction)?
Gamesmanship, by Steven Potter. I've read it before, and I'll read it again.

28. Favorite reading snack?
I'll eat almost anything mindlessly while I read, so it's not generally a good idea for me to snack with a book. But I do like to read with a cup of tea -- in the evenings, usually Lady Grey.

29. Name a case in which hype ruined your reading experience.
I agree with Brandon: I tried to read Catcher in the Rye this year (found in our library, of course), and it was just too dull for words. What was the big deal?

30. How often do you agree with critics about a book?
Depends on the critic, of course. Often, though, I pay more attention to my friends' critiques, which I generally find trustworthy.

31. How do you feel about giving bad/negative reviews?
Well, if the book deserves it...

32. If you could read in a foreign language, which language would you chose?
I wish I could read Latin.

33. Most intimidating book you’ve ever read?
The Acting Person, by Karol Wojtyla.

34. Most intimidating book you’re too nervous to begin?
I'm too lazy to start some books, but too nervous?

35. Favorite Poet?
I like John Donne and Gerard Manley Hopkins, but I don't read lots of poetry.

36. How many books do you usually have checked out of the library at any given time?
About fifteen, but that's because I check out books for the small ones.

37. How often have you returned book to the library unread?
Several times, because sometimes in a fit of gluttony I'll check out more than I can feasibly read.

38. Favorite fictional character?
Right now I love Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin, from Patrick O'Brian's Master and Commander series.

39. Favorite fictional villain?
I have a sneaking fondness for Kim Philby in Declare by Tim Powers.

40. Books I’m most likely to bring on vacation?
It doesn't matter what I bring. I almost never get to read while I'm on vacation, if the kids are along.

41. The longest I’ve gone without reading.
As with all loves, my reading habits are cyclical. Sometimes I go a week or so between books, and sometimes I'm bouncing from one to the next.

42. Name a book that you could/would not finish.
I tend to finish a book once I've started it, but not always. I read the beginning of The Lovely Bones, but that was at a bookstore and it was more a case of not pursuing the book rather than actively not finishing it. I just didn't have the patience to slog through Winter's Tale by Mark Helprin, even when I made the half-way mark.

I find that recently, I'm more willing to abandon a book in midstream. It used to be that I would always grind through to the end to see if a book redeemed itself, but a few unpleasant experiences have changed my practice.

43. What distracts you easily when you’re reading?
Almost nothing, and I don't know if that's a positive when it means I tune out the kids.

44. Favorite film adaptation of a novel?
Definitely the BBC version of Brideshead Revisited.

45. Most disappointing film adaptation?
I didn't like Possession, which undersold the book and its characters in a rather grander way than one usually finds from adaptations.

46. The most money I’ve ever spent in the bookstore at one time?
I don't know, though I bet I'd be ashamed to say if I did.

47. How often do you skim a book before reading it?
Almost never, if by skimming you mean reading bits all the way through. I do sometimes opt not to continue a book after reading the first chapter or so.

48. What would cause you to stop reading a book half-way through?
I'm going to borrow Brandon's answer wholesale: Not much. Barring external factors and interruptions, it's usually the rare case of my coming to the conclusion that reading the book is itself morally culpable. My reading tastes being very diverse and quite generous, this is a very rare thing; frivolousness about rape or something similar could very well put a book in this position, though.

49. Do you like to keep your books organized?
We organize alphabetically in fiction, and by subject in non-fiction. Otherwise stuff just gets piled on shelves until we can figure out where to put it, and there's just chaos.

50. Do you prefer to keep books or give them away once you’ve read them?
Keeping them.

51. Are there any books you’ve been avoiding?
Bloodlands, by Timothy Snyder.

52. Name a book that made you angry.
Outlander, because it was recommended by people I trusted, and it was so completely appalling.

53. A book you didn’t expect to like but did?
Silence, by Shusako Endo.

54. A book that you expected to like but didn’t?
I'm starting to feel that way about A History of Us, by Joy Hakim (Hi, Sharon!).

55. Favorite guilt-free, pleasure reading?
Nero Wolfe mysteries, by Rex Stout

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Reading The Moviegoer

Darwin and I are heading down to New Orleans in a few weeks to attend the Inaugural Conference of the Walker Percy Center for Writing and Publishing.  The theme of the conference is "The Moviegoer at Fifty", and the panelists include such familiar names as Matthew Lickona and other members of the Korrectiv crew, Dorian Speed, Betty Duffy, and Amy Welborn.  An example of a panel:

11) Moviegoers Reading The Moviegoer
Rebecca Baker / What One Has to Do with the Other: A Semiotic Reading of The Moviegoer
Elizabeth Duffy, Dorian Speed, & Amy Welborn / Following William Holden on Twitter
Matthew Luter /The (Fictional) Character Projected Upon the Page: The Moviegoer and the Semiotics of the Celebrity Self

I'm looking forward to the presentation without the word "semiotic" in the title.

This is going to be a doozy of trip, starting with riding 13 hours to New Orleans with Betty Duffy. Everyone's staying in the same charming hotel, and with Darwin and Lickona leading the pack, the carousing will be epic.

The only thing left to do is to actually read The Moviegoer.

But I'm on it, friends.  My copy arrived today, and so I'm going to live blog The Moviegoer (or at least transcribe my reactions as I go -- I'm taking notes).

So we meet Binx -- I know that's his name because the back of the book told me so, although he's first addressed as Jack. He seems essentially passive. None of his actions, at the beginning, are positive. Everything's a response: his civic duty, his work, his movie watching. He's so lacking in drive that he can't be bothered to take his car places. At least at the movies, passivity is the proper response.

Drama: choices and change
One can read The Moviegoer in terms of cinema, but I'm remembering taking Acting class in college. Drama, we learned, springs from change, and Binx isn't there yet. Even staring at his pile of stuff, he's still analyzing, and the drama is still waiting for the inciting incident.

When there's drama between two people who know each other well, the confrontation usually takes two forms: either "You always do that" or "You've never done that before." Binx is definitely in a "you always do that" phase at the beginning.

His reaction to watching movies reminded me of a phenomenon I've pondered lately: the decline of creativity in the age of YouTube. Time was, when my siblings and I would get together, we would go into creative overdrive: singing, playing games, throwing together skits, being involved. Now it seems like we huddle over the computer and watch YouTube videos. There's creativity there, but it's not ours. We're passive.

Watching a movie takes a certain pre-determined investment of time, but YouTube videos are pernicious because they're short. It feels like there's no time commitment because look, this one's only two minutes long! Then you stretch out your cramped legs and compressed spine and realize that everyone's been crouched in front of the screen for two hours.

Holden as peculiarly real
The thing is, it's not enough just to be near William Holden, because everyone on the street is near him. It's not enough to be spoken to by him. He has to approve you. And the approval is key not just because you yourself think he's great, but because everyone else acknowledges his greatness. Which is why the boy can't be perked up simply by the affection of his new wife. She's fine, of course, but no one else cares. But everyone cares about William Holden,

I think Binx is being disingenuous. I bet he wouldn't mind if William Holden spoke to him as well.

Pro Market vs Pro Business

This video has been making the rounds, and I've got to say the trader being interviewed does seem to be trying hard for a "first against the wall when the revolution comes" award.

I think one of the natural reactions many people have when seeing something like this is: How can you be pro-market when you see this is what markets are all about? This guy is gleeful at the idea of making money off a market crash that wipes out millions of people's retirement savings!

The answer, I think, is in keeping in mind the difference between being pro-business and pro-market. Businesses are not necessarily pro-market, since markets only reward businesses so long as they are doing a better job at meeting customers' needs than other businesses. Markets can, thus, both reward businesses and also chew them up and spit them out.

Watching some cocky trader bragging about how he'll make money while everyone else is going broke tends to make people feel like what they need is a champion sitting behind a regulatory agency desk to rein his excesses. The problem is that we don't really have any guarantee that the people in our legislative and regulatory bodies will be any nicer than this guy, or any less prone to think that they know more than they really do.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Texas Friendly

This made me feel proud of my adopted home state. I was never quite a Texan, and I'm glad to be up near family in Ohio, but there was an awful lot to like about the Lone Star Republic.

Friday, September 23, 2011

In Which I Become Very Rich

I was standing around with "the guys" after a dinner here tonight, and a friend was talking about how Apple stock is now trading over $400 a share.

"Did you know they nearly went out of business back in the mid '90s?" someone asked. "Can you imagine if you'd bought stock back then?"

Ah, but you see, I did. Have I mentioned that I'm rich?

Well, that's because I'm not. But here's my "brush with riches" story.

Back in the summer of 1996 I was the right mixture of arty and nerdy to be an Apple fan back when Macs were beige boxes and Steve Jobs was still in exile. I bought an Apple PowerBook (one of the early color ones) and an Apple printer to take to college the next year. I was in the throes of writing a novel, and I'd worn out the keyboard of my dad's old laptop. Somehow, I'd taken to reading the financial section of the newspaper (okay, so I was an odd kid) and I was shocked to discover that Apple stock was selling in the $4 range, so I raided my college savings and invested $2,000 in Apple stock for $4.85 a share.

Apple did well over the next few years. By the fall of 1999 that $2000 has become $9000, which to my eyes was a lot of money. I'd read that it was important to diversify your investments, so I sold two thirds of the Apple stock for $22 per share. I invested a third in other stocks and took a third out in cash to buy a 1989 Honda Accord so I could work off campus and make more than minimum wage.

In 2002 we were a young married couple, short on money, and Apple wasn't doing so well, despite the fact that trendy teenagers were now going around with white earbuds. The stock was selling for around $10 per share. So I sold all the stock that was left (Apple and otherwise), paid off our credit card bill, and put a bit under 2000 into a Roth IRA. I bought a couple different stocks in the IRA, including 60 shares of Apple stock. Being hard up (and having access to a 401k at work where I could put money away without paying taxes on it first) I never put any more money in the IRA, and so never bought any more.

At the time, that was about $600. Now it's $24,000. (Which I hadn't realized till my friend told me Apple was trading so high. Since I haven't touched the account in eight years and I can't access it till I'm in my 60s, I make a point of never looking at it in order to avoid worry.)

Still. I couldn't help thinking that if I'd never taken any money out of that original account, I would have, if I'm doing the math right $166,497. (And the cost of that 1989 Accord, in opportunity cost, was $56,000.) Which maybe isn't rich, but it's a heck of a lot of money from where I sit.

Which I guess just does to underscore that you have to have money to make money. Through the brand loyalty of a 18-year-old -- certainly not any true financial perspicacity -- I stumbled on a 83x return over 15 years. But you still don't make millions unless you have a fair amount of money to invest.

The Future is Now

In our library, of course, I found a delightful book called Women are Wonderful, "A History in Cartoons of a Hundred Years with America's Most Controversial Figure" -- the hundred years ranging from 1856 to 1956. The above cartoon is one of my favorites. Although the internet in its current inception was beyond the imagination of the cartoonist, he's nailed the effect of a roomful of people sitting around buried in their iPhones and laptops and iPads.

(I have an idea for a New Yorker cartoon, if it hasn't already been drawn: The Beatles crossing Abbey Road, heads bowed over their phones.)

The book isn't all laughs, though.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Recommendations in Early Christian Writing

A reader writes and says:
I am not a Catholic, but a Presbyterian. For some reason I'm very drawn to Catholic blogs, though I have no desire to become a Catholic (sorry). At any rate, I've been shoring up on my theological reading. I started with some CS Lewis, but then I felt I really needed a BACKGROUND. So I bought St Augustine's Confessions. It has been wonderful!

I know there is a wealth of early Christian literature, but I feel somewhat overwhelmed and unsure of what order to go in. I'd like to build upon what Augustine taught me. I'm also open to reading lit crit of these same authors. Of course Aquinas and Merton are on my "to read" list, but I don't want to skip around and become confused or overwhelmed.

In short: what do you recommend I read next?
While I can perhaps claim to have read a little more early Christian writing than the average bear (sadly, much of the bear population is still illiterate) I don't feel that I'm by any means an expert, and I suspect that some of our readers would be able to answer this question rather better than I could, so I asked her permission to answer the question partially in a post, and then open things up for readers.

My first thought is that Augustine's Confessions are are incredibly good place to start such a task. For my money, it's nearly unmatched in combining readability with some fairly deep theological and philosophical thinking. This makes suggesting follow-ons particularly difficult. Additionally, I'd warn that a lot of early Christian writing is not, at least to my experience, super-readable. I think I'd originally had the idea that early Christian writing would be fairly basic, and that you'd see a gradual increase in complexity up until the high middle ages when (according to stereotype) the Scholastics were calculating the number of angels that could dance on the head of a pin. This is now, however, how it works out. Christianity spread as Roman and Hellenistic civilizations were fusing in a cosmopolitan Mediterranean world, and the early Christians very quickly (well before Augustine) started looking at theological questions through the most advanced philosophical and scientific understandings of their day. Given that some of these are not only complex, but fairly alien to our modern way of thinking, this can make for some tough going, at least for a non-specialist like me.

A good place to start might be right at the beginning. There's a slim Penguin Classics book entitled Early Christian Writings which collects the Epistle of Clement of Rome to the Corinthians, the Epistles of Ignatius of Antioch, the Epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians and the Didache. These works are very, very early -- basically contemporary with the books on the New Testament -- but unlike some of the "other gospel" things that float around they were widely read and respected by orthodox Christians.

Only slightly later is St. Irenaeus (who lived from around 130 to 202 AD). His famous work is a defense of the doctrine of the Incarnation of Christ against the Gnostic heresy titled Against the Heresies. There's a fairly readable, edited version of this put out by Ignatius in which Irenaeus' work is cut down a bit and organized thematically, published under the title Scandal of the Incarnation. (I found this fairly readable as a college sophomore. I haven't read the full version, so I don't know how it is by comparison.)

About 50 years later than Irenaeus is Origen -- who is an interesting guy but not terribly readable. Most of the Origen that I read utterly mystified me, but I did have a strong affection for his Commentary on the Song of Songs (a book length work) which is fascinating both as a window on the incredibly detailed way in which the ancients approach the scriptures -- very different from modern literary analysis, but not for lack of complexity -- and simply because you can see a great mind doing backflips for the sheer intellectual joy of it.

Only slightly before Augustine would be St. Athanasius, one of the great Fathers of the Church, and a leader of the Council of Nicea. One of his great works, which is fairly readable, is his On the Incarnation (this edition is fairly readable and features an introduction by C. S. Lewis.)

Rome was sacked during Augustine's lifetime, and you start to see some big changes in the tenor of Christian intellectual life, molded in part by the increasing changes in society. Working through Late Antiquity and into the Medieval period, I'd suggest the following as fairly readable and emblematic:

The Desert Fathers by Helen Waddell provides a lot of stories about the early monastics in one easily accessible package.

The Rule of St. Benedict by St. Benedict is probably something of a must read both as a work of spirituality and because it is so influential on later Christian monastic history.

The Life of St. Benedict written by St. Gregory the Great gives a good feel for the practice and spirituality of the period.

Moving forward a good long ways (from the sixth century to the twelfth) you would probably want to read The Little Flowers of St. Francis (a collection of incidents and sayings of St. Francis written down by one of his friars) and St. Bonaventure's Life of St. Francis. These are both quite short and readable, and while not by any means deeply theological in the way that an Augustine or a Athanasius is, they give an intense feel for a type of spirituality which St. Francis embodied and which has remained with Christianity in various forms ever since.

You say Aquinas is already on your list, and working chronologically this is where he'd fit in. Maybe one of our readers could suggest a particularly good framing text. If you are reading parts of the Summa, I would particularly recommend questions 2 and 44 as dealing with "big questions" in an interesting way that gives you a good feel for how Aquinas works.

This is something I know I am into far more than most people, but I can't help putting in a good word for reading Dante's Divine Comedy, perhaps the greatest work of theological poetry ever written. Shake off any English-class idea that it's just a dour poem about how people Dante didn't like were being tortured, and as you read it try to focus on Dante's personal journey as he first recognizes the nature of sin in Inferno, then learns to replace it with virtue in Purgatorio, and finally comes to appreciate the types of perfection in Paradiso. It can help to read this together with C. S. Lewis' Discarded Image, which is about the medieval cosmological and philosophical world view. The notes written by Dorothy Sayers for her translation of Dante are also great in this regard, but unfortunately his poetry doesn't really hold up all that well. Bulky though it can be, reading her commentary along with some more successfully poetic translation can work well.

I get spottier as I get more modern, and it probably starts to depend a lot whether you're looking more for Christian practice and spirituality or more academically oriented theology.

Some possible choices I would recommend (without much explanation, as I'm running out of time) would be:

The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis
Introduction to the Devout Life by Francis de Sales
Apologia pro Vita Sua by John Henry Newman
Orthodoxy by G. K. Chesterton

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Markets In Everything

It seems that Swiss regulations designed to keep guinea pigs from becoming lonely have created a market in leased guinea pigs.
Swiss animal lover Priska Küng runs a kind of matchmaking agency — for lonely guinea pigs that have lost their partners. She lives with around 80 of the furry, squeaky little creatures, in addition to six cats, a number of rabbits, hamsters and mice in the village of Hadlikon, some 30 kilometers from Zürich.

Küng, 41, rents out her guinea pigs, a service that has been in high demand in the Alpine nation ever since animal welfare rules were tightened up a few years ago. Switzerland has forbidden people from keeping lone guinea pigs because the animals are sociable and need each other’s company.

As a result, the sudden death of a guinea pig, shocking enough in itself, can also place the hapless owners outside the law if they only had two of the pets.
Here’s the efficiency point, concerning liquidity premia and carrying costs and inventory cycles:
Without her rent-a-guinea pig service, the owner would have to purchase a new, probably younger guinea pig as a companion to the ageing survivor, whose eventual death would force the purchase of yet another guinea pig, locking the owner into an endless cycle of guinea pig purchases in order to adhere to Swiss law — even though he or she may only ever have wanted one guinea pig in the first place.
Thus leading to a closing line which is hilarious if you're enough of an econ geek:
Attention all you hedge fund readers: if these people can arbitrage and convexify their guinea pig market, you’d better not bet against their currency peg.

Monday, September 19, 2011


It was one of those evenings that was going slowly, mainly because MrsDarwin and I were trying to have conversation as if the children were already in bed before they were and this distraction was preventing us from giving the bedtime routine sufficient attention to achieve our objective.

I had seen four children safely into beds, but miss five-year-old was elusive and so in keeping with the desultory mood of the evening I headed downstairs with thoughts of an evening cup of coffee. As I reached the landing I saw a form lying on the bottom step, a form exactly as long as the step itself and clad in a brown fleece footed sleeper that would have blended into the wood of the stair had it (the sleeper) not been covered in pink hearts.

We regarded each other for a moment.

"Are you waiting for a piggy-back ride?" I asked.

She nodded quietly.

I sat down on the bottom step and she climbed onto my back to be carried upstairs. In her bedroom, I drew back the covers, laid her down, and tucked the blanked up to her chin.

She stretched and I heard a strange rustling sound.

"What's that?" I asked.

"Oh." She smiled and reached inside her sleeper. "I forgot and left my deck of cards in there."

Always something up her sleeve.

An Office Faux Paw

I suppose it's charming to know that like Anne of Green Gables I am not one to outgrow getting into scrapes -- though frankly I could desire that Miss Shirley keep them to herself.

Late last week one of the admins came around with a sympathy card to sign for someone on another team on my department. "He's in having minor surgery on his foot," she explained.

I'd noticed him going around in a foot brace for the last month or two, so I assumed that this was follow-through on a compound fracture or torn ligament or something. Looking at all the scrawls of "Get better soon!" and "Hope you feel better!" an irrational urge to write something that no one had yet written came over me, and I lamely punned, "Hope that better things are soon a-foot!" and signed my name.

Later that day I asked a team-mate of the guy, "When's he going to be back on his feet, so to speak?"

There was a pause and he replied, "I wouldn't use that phrase around him, if I were you. He's diabetic and they ended up having to amputate the foot. He's feeling pretty down about it."


Thursday, September 15, 2011

Feds and Cherokees Fall Out Over Whether Descendants of Indians' Slaves Have Tribal Status

I found this modern fall-out of 150-year-old problems interesting -- in part because it touches on the effect of the Civil War on Indian tribes, something which also comes into a book (Empire of the Summer Moon) which I just finished reading about the Comanche wars.
The nation's second-largest Indian tribe said on Tuesday that it would not be dictated to by the U.S. government over its move to banish 2,800 African Americans from its citizenship rolls.

"The Cherokee Nation will not be governed by the BIA," Joe Crittenden, the tribe's acting principal chief, said in a statement responding to the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Crittenden, who leads the tribe until a new principal chief is elected, went on to complain about unnamed congressmen meddling in the tribe's self-governance.

The reaction follows a letter the tribe received on Monday from BIA Assistant Secretary Larry Echo Hawk, who warned that the results of the September 24 Cherokee election for principal chief will not be recognized by the U.S. government if the ousted members, known to some as "Cherokee Freedmen," are not allowed to vote.

The dispute stems from the fact that some wealthy Cherokee owned black slaves who worked on their plantations in the South. By the 1830s, most of the tribe was forced to relocate to present-day Oklahoma, and many took their slaves with them. The so-called Freedmen are descendants of those slaves.

After the Civil War, in which the Cherokee fought for the South, a treaty was signed in 1866 guaranteeing tribal citizenship for the freed slaves. [Darwin: My understanding is that the Cherokee actually split and fought a civil war among themselves, with a minority supporting the Union and a majority supporting the Confederacy -- they didn't all support the Confederacy.]

The U.S. government said that the 1866 treaty between the Cherokee tribe and the U.S. government guaranteed that the slaves were tribal citizens, whether or not they had a Cherokee blood relation.

The African Americans lost their citizenship last month when the Cherokee Supreme Court voted to support the right of tribal members to change the tribe's constitution on citizenship matters.

The change meant that Cherokee Freedmen who could not prove they have a Cherokee blood relation were no longer citizens, making them ineligible to vote in tribal elections or receive benefits.

Besides pressure from the BIA to accept the 1866 Treaty as the law of the land, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is withholding a $33 million disbursement to the tribe over the Freedmen controversy.

Attorneys in a federal lawsuit in Washington are asking a judge to restore voting rights for the ousted Cherokee Freedmen in time for the September 24 tribal election for Principal Chief.

Wish I'd Written It

I enjoy Wharton's prose the more for being sure that the impending weekend full of house guests at Darwin Manor will not be dull, though it may be loud:
That very afternoon they had seemed full of brilliant qualities; now she saw that they were merely dull in a loud way. Under the glitter of their opportunities she saw the poverty of their achievement.
(House of Mirth, Edith Wharton)
But then, we don't represent the toast of the gilded age.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Security Theatre Gets Badly Out Of Hand

With the administration having announced that there were "credible" threats of anniversary attacks on the US by Al Qaeda on 9/11, everyone was admittedly a bit jumpy. The AP carried mentions of two airline incidents which caused fighter jets and security personnel to be scrambled, including this description of one relating to a Frontier Airlines flight:
Police temporarily detained and questioned three passengers at Detroit's Metropolitan Airport on Sunday after the crew of the Frontier Airlines flight from Denver reported suspicious activity on board, and NORAD sent two F-16 jets to shadow the flight until it landed safely, airline and federal officials said.

The three passengers who were taken off the plane in handcuffs were released Sunday night, and no charges were filed against them, airport spokesman Scott Wintner said.

Frontier Flight 623, with 116 passengers on board, landed without incident in Detroit at 3:30 p.m. EDT after the crew reported that two people were spending "an extraordinarily long time" in a bathroom, Frontier spokesman Peter Kowalchuck said.

FBI Detroit spokeswoman Sandra Berchtold said ultimately authorities determined there was no real threat.

"Due to the anniversary of Sept. 11, all precautions were taken, and any slight inconsistency was taken seriously," Berchtold said. "The public would rather us err on the side of caution than not."
In such dry terms, it sounds reasonable that people would be "on the side of caution". Try reading instead the account of one of the three passengers cuffed and questioned -- for being so suspicious as to look slightly like two guys she didn't know who were in her aisle, both of whom committed the suspicious activity of going to the bathroom:
We had been waiting on the plane for a half hour. I had to pee. I wanted to get home and see my family. And I wanted someone to tell us what was going on. In the distance, a van with stairs came closer. I sighed with relief, thinking we were going to get off the plane and get shuttled back to the terminal. I would still be able to make it home for dinner. Others on the plane also seemed happy to see those stairs coming our way.

I see stairs coming our way…yay!

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Why We Write

I feel like we keep it pretty real around here. Neither Darwin nor I has an internet persona; we write as we are. We've been around for six years, and long-time readers have a pretty good grasp of our personalities, enough so that any time we've met internet friends in person we've hit it off instantly. On a lark, I pulled up Darwin's first post on the blog, and reads much like something we would write now, albeit we're no longer under thirty and have more than two children now.

So I was surprised by a recent commenter's suggestion that posting something was "out of character". If I've posted it, it's in my character to do so, n'est pas? We've always treated the blog as a self-published magazine, and fill it with articles about what interests us at the moment. We have no overarching agenda, whether political, evangelical, or cultural, and we write to please ourselves. As a result, almost no topic is off-limits, and very few filters apply. We are as we post.

However, because we blog candidly doesn't mean that the topics don't shift over time. Darwin, to give an example, used to write extensively on evolution, but that subject has been covered here; the discussions have been had several times, the same objections answered over and over again. Time to move on. As I scanned the past several months' worth of posts to see what impression we might make on a new reader, I realized that a) Darwin does most of the heavy lifting, anymore, because I'm too lazy to sit down and pound out a post most of the time (ask him how many times recently I've said, "I should write about that," and then didn't get around to it), and b) all the fun personal stuff has migrated off to Facebook, where people know us well enough that they ought to expect quotes from Tropic Thunder, and incessant kid anecdotes, and dumb homeschooling failure complaints, and articles about beer for breakfast and Youtube videos of hip-hop economists and rapping tea aficionados, and pleas for someone to buy my dad's house (again).

And that's a loss. Because although we do discuss everything we write about (that's why I don't have to read Darwin's stuff about money theory, RL: I hear about it enough in person), that's not all we talk about, not by a long shot. We also sit around at nights yakking about why The Horse And His Boy should be made with Bollywood stars playing the Calormenes, and the boy down the street who was trying to hit our power lines with a garden hoe, and how even in my dreams Darwin manifests a mastery of markets and pricing strategies, and whether men who follow game theory are pimping mac daddies or just lame, and occasionally laughing ourselves stupid over Samuel L. Jackson declaring, "That's it! I have HAD it with these motherf---ing snakes on a motherf---ing plane!" We don't always have to share it, but don't be surprised if we do.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Employment for All: Response to the Response

Alex has a response up at Christian Economics to my post.

Ten Years After

Earlier this year I was looking at a plan for teaching American History to elementary school kids (something we're doing with our oldest two this year) and I was thrown off to see the September 11th attacks and the War on Terror as topics. Why put that into a history course? That's current events.

Then it struck me that none of my children were born at the time of the September 11th attacks. Indeed, it is as distant from them as the end of the Vietnam War was from me -- something I'd never found it odd to see covered as history. Somehow a lot of time has passed.

I walked in to work at 8:00 AM Pacific Time on September 11th, 2001. Normally I listened to news on the way in, but that morning I hadn't felt like news and so I'd been listening to a CD on the way in.

"I'll bet you'll always remember where you were this morning," my boss said, as I entered.

"Why?" I asked.

"Haven't you heard?"

I shook my head.

"We're at war," he said. "They've blown up the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and who knows what's next. We're at war, but we don't know who with."

I wandered over to my desk, logged onto my computer, and pulled up Both towers were already down by 8AM Pacific, but in the chaos of the morning news wasn't always posted on the internet in order or as it happened, and we didn't have access to TV in the office.

Between being three hours off from the events, and not seeing any TV coverage until much later, I found myself feeling a strange distance from all that was going on -- as if it were in some other world. My co-workers wandered around and talked in small clumps. People talked about how their worlds had been turned upside down and life would never be the same -- the customer service pool debated whether the country should bomb Mecca or Baghdad first.

The news that had changed my world forever was when my wife had called me up the previous afternoon (September 10th) and told me that we were expecting our first child. The 11th was my parent's 25th anniversary, and we were scheduled to go out to dinner with them. We'd decided we'd tell them the news over dinner.

When evening came Los Angeles remained jumpy -- that we should somehow not be attacked as well seemed out of keeping with the West Coast mind. Lots of things were closed, and in keeping with the day we decided to have a quiet dinner at my parents house rather than trying to find a restaurant that was open.

Seven years later, our forth child and only boy was born on September 11th, 2008.

Looking back ten years after, I find myself with mixed memories and emotions -- national and familial. Ten years ago, the impact of the horrendous events of the day upon us were blunted by the worries and excitements of a newly married couple who had just learned they were pregnant. Today we attended a ceremony of payer and recollection at our parish after mass, and the parade in town. We celebrated Jack's third birthday. And I found myself thinking a great deal about how my parents would have been celebrating their 35th anniversary today, if my father were still alive.

The conjunction of all these, and my newfound realization that 9-11 is not just "current events" but "history" had me thinking about how much it affected the course of my life that I had found out I was a father the day before the attacks. Five years earlier I'd vacillated for months over whether to join the military (either service academy or ROTC) or simply head off to college, and my decision to stay civilian had been (perhaps childishly) much affected by the appearance half-way through the Clinton administration that the military had been relegated to social engineering experiments and incompetent "nation building". If 9-11 had caught me as a college senior worrying about how what to do when I graduated (and how to support the to-be MrsDarwin), nothing would have seemed more natural or in character than to sign up. As it is, it didn't even occur to me.

Friday, September 09, 2011

The Eternal Ruption of the Spotless Hind

I've realized that we don't post much family or personal stuff on the blog anymore; most of that has been relegated to Facebook. But my awesome artsy friend Bernadette has typed up most of our recent Facebook statuses for all to read, so if you want to know what goes on behind the scenes in the Darwin family, here you are. For example:

Daddy: “Boy, you need to go potty.”
Boy: “Won’t go potty.”
Daddy: “Why not?”
Boy: “The cats been peeing in my potty.”
Daddy: “What? The cats don’t pee in your potty.”
Boy: “Hate those stupid cats peeing in my frog potty.”

Yeah, that's how we rock the potty training around here.

Speaking of the potty, over dinner we had a lively family discussion of diarrhea as a result of Darwin recounting the Italian folktale about Jesus and St. Peter wandering the countryside looking for hospitality. You can read it below -- scroll down to section III, Hospitality.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Language Alert

Look, I didn't want to have to do this. But when I don't even read my own blog any more -- money theory, blah blah -- it's time to shake things up. Consider yourself warned and cover the kids' ears: it's time for a m*f*ing Samuel L. Jackson quotefest.

Catholic Parenting Fail

Yes, folks, I think it's probably time that we just close up shop and go home. We've failed.

Tonight, at the homeschool blessing mass here in Columbus it was our daughter who raised her hand after mass when the bishop offered to answer children's questions and asked, "When are you going to retire and get a wife?"

Yep. That was us.

I asked her afterwards, "Why did you ask that? Did you really not know the answer or was it a joke?"

"I wanted to know," she asserted.

"But you know that priests don't get married."

"But if they retire," she suggested, "They're not priests anymore. Can't they get married then?"

MrsDarwin interjected, "Even when priests retire from everyday duties, they're still priests. They take a vow of life-long celibacy when they're ordained."

Oldest daughter was sure she had facts on her side. "Oh yeah?" she asked. "What did St. Francis do when retired?"

"He got the stigmata and then died," replied Daddy the spoil-sport.

"Oh. Well, I didn't know that part."


Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Employment for All: A Response

Last week, Alex of Christian Economics wrote a piece arguing, on the basis of both catholic social teaching and modern monetary theory, for the government to act as an employer of last resort. In this post, I'd like to respond to several aspects of his argument. This kind of exchange is always challenging as on the one hand I want to give the fullest possible justice to Alex's argument, but on the other in an internet debate it seems impossible to respond to every point without both sides getting totally bogged down in novel-length posts. As such, this post will be comprised of several titled sections dealing with different aspects of Alex's post which I thought most interesting to present counter-arguments to.

The Purpose of Unemployment: Why Looking For Work Is Work
Just a couple months into my first full time job, I was laid off. It was 2000 and the tech bubble was in the middle of bursting, and I was a college senior trying to work full time while finishing off my last few classes. The web hosting company that I was working for had built itself on an unsustainable business model so one day my whole office showed up to work and found out that every single one of us was laid off. Even though I was young enough and my expenses were low enough that I could weather joblessness fairly easily (despite not qualifying for unemployment since I hadn't been working the job long enough) if was definitely one of the uncomfortable experiences of my working life. Looking at the job listings was infuriating -- it seemed like there were dozens of jobs that I could do (and, of course many, many more which required experience or qualifications I didn't have) but they remained steadfastly silent as I sent out applications and resumes. It only took me a few weeks to find a part-time job at similar wages, and only a month longer to find a full time job that actually paid slightly more than the job I'd been laid off from, but it seemed like a very long time.

I bring up the personal angle because it seems to me that job searching serves very different purposes for the individual job hunter and for society as a whole.

For the job hunter, the goal is simple: Find a job that he or she is able (hopefully even happy) to do which will pay enough to meet his financial responsibilities.

However, the interaction between that job seeker and potential employers actually provides society with a very, very useful function. The process of workers (whether unemployed or not happy with their employment) searching for jobs, and hiring managers searching for the right candidates, powers an allocation mechanism far more complex than any job allocation authority (at however local a level) could manage. It serves to signal workers what kind of work is needed -- drawing more people into some fields where more workers are needed, and signaling to others that their field is drying up and it's time to look in another industry, retrain, etc.

In this sense, short term unemployment (in which a worker takes anywhere from a few weeks to a few months to find a new job after being laid off or quitting) is not necessarily a loss for the economy. Job seekers are doing valuable work by looking for the industries and companies where their skills and experienced will be valued the most.

This runs against the way job seekers normally feel at the time -- at the moment the feeling is simply: "I'm willing to work! Why is no one hiring me?" It also runs against the armchair economist wisdom, which would suggest that anyone not working isn't being productive. But given the importance of organizational capital in a complex modern economy such as ours, where specialization plays such an important role, the job searching process actually produces economic value in the long run by getting people to the right place.

In this sense, a low unemployment rate made up of people who are short-term unemployed is not necessarily a bad thing. (This is, I would argue, one of the reasons why a certain amount of public unemployment insurance is a benefit for a free market economy.)

Obviously, the level of unemployment we have now is far, far above that "healthy" level (which would represent only people who are "between jobs") in that we not only have lots of people out of work right now who want to work, but many of them have been out of work for a long time. That is, however, a separate issue. Sectors of the economy which had massively overgrown during the last ten years have now bottomed out, leaving some workers struggling to find jobs in new industries, and others trapped in long term unemployment. Meanwhile, many companies that are hiring report that they are having difficulty finding qualified applicants for the jobs they do have open. (In my own field -- admittedly a small and somewhat specialized one -- I can confirm that recruiters have started calling people up out of the blue to ask if they'd be willing to apply for jobs.)

Make Work and Sticky Jobs: How a Job Guarantee Would Keep People Doing The Wrong Things
So let's grant that searching for who is willing to hire someone with your skills and experience actually provides economic value. Wouldn't it still be more productive to have people do some kind of assigned work in their local county via a job guarantee problem than it would to have them simply collect unemployment benefits?

At a strictly economic level, this seems like a no-brainer. The problem, I think, is one of human behavior. When you have a job, your tendency is to mainly focus on keeping it -- unless the job itself becomes unbearable (or insecure) or you have the strong sense that you could do better. Not just that, but your current job tends to drain enough energy that it's hard to maintain a protracted job search while holding down your current job.

My concern is that a job guarantee program would create a set of perverse incentives. Clearly, if you're holding a job guarantee job, the job security is complete -- you won't be laid off. However, if its essentially a flat organization in which everyone is paid the same "living wage" to do assigned public service work -- there's absolutely no future in it. So by offering people that salary and that security, you implicitly tell them "stay in this job", but you give them no future.

For your true go-getter, this won't be a problem. But for a lot of people, who really just want a job that pays the bills and provides some security, there will be a strong incentive to take one of these job guarantee jobs and just stay there. With no prospect for moving up and little incentive to look elsewhere, these people would be sucked into a job with no future, and would not necessarily even be gaining skills or contacts that would help them in finding a better job later. What seems like a help might actually decrease the lifetime earnings of many people by setting them up for the day they wake up and realize they've been doing pointless make-work for ten years, and have no skills or contacts that would allow them to get a better job. While it might initially seem like we're doing people a favor by giving them a job rather than making them search for one -- I think in the long run we would slow people down in finding "real" work, and we would cause them to make less and do less useful work as a result.

Value vs. Activity: How the Job Guarantee Would Create Inflation
[This section is going to get a bit tricky, as I think it's necessary to address the MMT understanding of money -- bear with me here.]

It seems to me that the MMT insight which kind of works is that to the extent that the government controls the printing of money, it can get away with "printing money" in order to pay for things in some situations with creating (much) inflation. However, it seems to me that this only works to the extent that the government does this at the rate of economic growth actually going on. Let me try an example here to get this across.

Imagine a closed economy in which there are only ten workers. There are 10,000 dollars in circulation. Three workers grow enough food for everyone, two make tools, two make carts and bicycles, one makes clothes, etc. One day, two new workers show up and start working. More work is getting done now -- there's more food, more clothes, more tools, more luxuries. These two new workers are smart guys and provide some new inventions, and as people specialize more they come up with better ways to do things themselves and things seem to get better and better. But a curious thing is also going on. Since there are only 10,000 dollars in circulation, everyone finds that they are making less money. Prices for all the goods being produced fall, but rather than seeming "cheaper" goods seem more expensive because everyone just has less money. This is particularly rough on a couple of workers who owe one of the others money. Now the amount that they owe is worth more, and it will take them longer to pay off. The problem is that there is more total value being created by all this work (with the two additional workers and the greater specialization of work) but the number of dollars in circulation is fixed.

Now, imagine that one of our 12 workers is not a very honest fellow. He sets up a printing press in his basement and starts printing dollars. He does it slowly, slipping a few extra dollars into circulation every so often. And somehow, this actually solves the problem. Prices are now stable, because our counterfeiter is creating money at the same rate that this little economy is growing. In the process, the counterfeiter becomes rich, because he's spending more money than me earns. But aside from the counterfeiter getting rich without deserving to, the slow inflation of the money supply is actually good for the economy.

However, eventually the word gets out. The twelve workers call a council and decide that this is actually a pretty good idea, they're going to make it work even better. They print an extra $2500 dollars in one big run, and they invite two more workers to come in and build a recreation hall for everyone to enjoy. Based on their past experience, they assume that they can have the rec hall built "for free" by printing new dollars to pay these two new workers.

Something is wrong, though. Prices seem to be going up, and there's not enough food and goods to go around. Inflation has set in.

Why didn't it work? Well, the 12 workers would like a rec hall, but they don't actually value it enough to save up their money and pay to have one built, or to take time out to build it themselves. When they print money to pay for building the hall, they've introduced more dollars faster than value is being created. The two additional workers are working as hard as the other workers, but they're not actually producing "value", as in: something that the other workers are willing to actually pay money for. If you print money in order to pay for something that doesn't have value (in other words, that you're not willing to pay for with your own money instead of "free" money) you're increasing the supply of money faster than you're increasing the supply of value. The result is that things that people do value will become more expensive. This is price inflation.

By circuitous route, this gets to what I see at the two big issues with the job guarantee idea:

1) The MMT idea that one can pay for this without inflation by simply creating money strikes me as false because the value created by the work being done will not equal the money created to pay for it. Why will the work done not be of value equal to the money paid for it? The short answer would be that if it was so valuable people would be paying for it. The problem, I think, is a variation of the Socialist Calculation Problem: planners, even at a fairly local level, are simply not going to be all that successful in knowing what is truly of value to people and making sure that this is the work accomplished via job guarantee work. This is in part because consumers themselves are often not all that clear what they value. What people tell you they would be willing to pay for is very often not the same as what they actually spend money on when they're actually managing their own money.

2) While I appreciate the argument regarding the dignity of work, it seems to me that the ELR idea is actually a false solution to the problem. The dignity of work, it seems to me, stems from doing work which actually provides value either to you or to others. I don't think that doing make-work in return for a guaranteed income will provide a sense of dignity to the worker -- and indeed, it may serve to destroy his sense that working has dignity in the longer term, leading to a "they pretend to pay us and we pretend to work" attitude that will be carried through into "real" jobs later on, making it harder for him to provide for himself and find satisfaction in his work.

Without attempting to put a Panglossian shine on things, I think that something much like our current system (in which unemployment benefits which are paid for through payroll taxes are used to support people while they look for new work) is not a bad way to do things. It is certainly being strained in times like this when long term unemployment suggests that we may be seeing shifts in the structure of the economy which businesses and workers have not yet adjusted to, but it does lessen the catastrophe of job loss while placing the emphasis on finding work that people are willing to pay for.

In Closing
I want to thank Alex again for taking on the daunting task of getting this debate off the ground. I've found the exchange intellectually stimulating and hope that readers have too. I look forward to the next round.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Employment for All: A Debate

Alex of Christian Economics is a thoughtful guy who adheres to some economic theories (specifically the Modern Money Theory of economics) that I don't hold with. Thus marking out one of my rare areas of agreement with Paul Krugman.

Alex and I were looking for topics to have a sort of slow-motion blog debate over, and there seems no better place to start than one of the bigger policy proposals which many MMT adherents support: having the government become an Employer of Last Resort. Alex has a substantive post up to day making the case for an employer of last resort program from a Catholic and economic point of view. I'll be writing and posting reply-post in the next couple days.

Evidence, Belief and Will

[This post originally ran back in December of 2006. I've made several changes from the original due to typos and accuracy.]

I had the chance to catch up on John Farrell's blog yesterday, and from there came across an interesting post by Ed of Dispatches From The Culture Wars which dealt with whether a theist could be a positive influence on science:
I reject the notion that belief in God, in and of itself, takes anything away from science education. Ken Miller is a theistic evolutionist. His scientific work is impeccable, as are his efforts in science education. Can Moran point to anything at all in Miller's scientific work that is "sloppy"? I doubt it. Can he point to anything at all in his work on science education, the multiple textbooks that he has authored on evolutionary biology, that is affected in any way whatsoever by his Christian faith? Again, I doubt it.

So what he's really arguing here is that despite Miller's successful work in the laboratory explaining molecular evolution and his astonishingly tireless work on behalf of sound science education all over the country, the mere fact that he believes in God somehow undermines the principles of science. Further, that I should be ashamed for not declaring Miller my enemy as he has. And if your bullshit detector isn't in overdrive right now, it must be broken.

All of this just reinforces my suspicions that we simply are not on the same team and are not working the same goal. My goal is to protect science education. Moran's goal is to protect his atheism against any and all religious impulse, even if held by people who are excellent scientists and defenders of science education. And as his team pursues their goal they seek nothing less than a purge of the most valuable members of my team as we work to achieve ours.

This in and of itself is an important point to be made, but the comments quickly veered off in the more basic direction of an argument of whether religious belief is so irrational that all other views held by a believer were thus suspect. From one commenter:
The belief in a god doesn't necessarily mean that one can't do good science, but it does make all that person's ideas less credible. To believe in something for which not only is there no evidence (like leprechauns and gods) but for which every attempt to find evidence has turned up nothing is to raise doubts about how rational one can be about anything.
Now, anyone how reads much stuff written by skeptics will already be tired of this line of thinking, but this particular statement struck me as so bald in its assumptions that it's actually useful in unpacking some of what's going on in the materialist vs. religious debate.

One basic assumption that those on the "religion is totally irrational" side make is that there is no other form of evidence than physical evidence and that there is no other form of inquiry than scientific inquiry. Thus, when one commenter said it was not irrational to accept the existence of non-physical reality, one of the materialist partisans snapped back, "non-physical reality, is that where all the married bachelors live?"

What this person is clearly doing is unconsciously making an assumption about what 'reality' consists of. Many things that we think of as very real in our human experience do not exist in a pure physical form. Some of these are mathematical concepts. For instance, there is no such thing in physical reality as a perfect circle. Does this mean that circles do not exist? We can define a circle mathematically, but all of the circular things that we in fact find in the world are (however minutely) imperfectly circular.

Another set of non physical things which we often believe that we experience (though perhaps imperfectly) consists of qualities such as "goodness", "justice", "love", etc. We experience things that seem to contain these qualities to a greater or lesser degree, but we cannot actually find physical evidence of the qualities themselves. In a given circumstance, a husband giving his wife a dozen roses might be evidence of love. In another circumstance, he might do it so that she won't suspect that he's sleeping with his secretary. Even assuming an infinitely wide frame of reference such that all external circumstances (such as the secretary) were known, no degree of strictly physical evidence can prove the existence of the non-physical quality: love. One could, of course, dispense with the idea of love entirely, and insist that it is simply biologically advantageous in the long term for each mate to believe that the other one has "love" for the other since this creates greater family stability and thus more successful rearing of offspring. This explanation can be seen as responsible for all our experiences of "love" but it is not necessarily satisfying from a human point of view.

This brings us to the other thing that I think often goes un-acknowledged in these kind of conversations: In any given situation, there is often more than one conclusion which explains all of one's experiences with logical consistency, and at such a point, one must make a decision what to believe. This decision is not merely arbitrary. Usually you will make it because you are convinced by one of the experiences or observations which make up the "evidence" that you are weighing.

In a classic example, it is logically consistent with one's observations of the world to conclude either that there is an outside world populated by other thinking, acting entities or to conclude that one's entire experience of the world is the result of a demented imagination, and there is in fact one reality but one's self. Both explain all of one's experiences and are logically consistent. However, since solipsism if profoundly un-useful, few people choose to believe it.

Similarly, well before monotheism became dominant in the West, some pagan philosophers had worked around to the idea that since no thing exists without a cause, and since an infinite regression of causes doesn't make any sense, that there must be a single, eternal, uncreated thing which existed by its nature and was in turn the cause of all other things. The "unmoved mover" proof of God's existence thus goes back further than Christianity does. However, modern non-believers generally laugh it off with a "If you can believe God exists without a creator, why not believe the universe exists without a creator?"

The answer is, of course, that one can. The force in the "unmoved mover" argument is that our experience generally tells us that normal physical things always have causes, and thus the universe as a whole must have a cause while is wholly different from all those things which we normally experience. However, if one is ready to instead believe that just this one time the physical universe behaved in a way wholly different from how we've ever experienced it to behave, that belief is also fully self consistent. One must, in the end, make a decision which metaphysics to believe. The evidence cannot make that decision for you. There is no one conclusion which is so overwhelmingly clear as to be unavoidable. Rather, if one is willing to accept the implications of either, one may then adopt that belief with full logical rigor.

At the end of the day, belief in God, or belief in a spouse's love, or belief that all men are created equal, or any such belief, may be supported by an incredible amount of evidence, but the belief itself is a choice. The evidence will take you so far. Belief does not have to be some sort of "blind leap". But it is a crossroads, and one must decide which way to go.