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

Monday, October 31, 2011

In the Toilet

"Mom!" shrieked my oldest, age nine. "Your iPhone is in the toilet!"

And sure enough. Even as I stood staring down at the sleek rectangle nestled at the bottom of the pot, the finger pointing began. No one -- but no one! -- had touched it! No one had moved it off the counter to a height where baby could reach it. No one had noticed it was missing. The oldest had, apparently, flushed the toilet before she realized the phone was in there. Sure enough.

I am not overly attached to my material possessions. I am aware that many people in the world do not have a cell phone, let alone a spiffy technological wonder with a touch screen, and I have lived without a phone before. It's not the loss of the phone I mind. But some young person took my phone into the bathroom, and lied about it. Someone moved it to where baby could reach it, perhaps, and won't be honest. Someone left the bathroom door open so baby could get in. Someone was trying to sneak in a game of solitaire or watch videos, even when people have been busted and punished for such behavior in the past. It's the carelessness and the dishonesty that rankle and make me doubt my own parenting abilities, that these kinds of actions should persist even after numerous corrections.

Somehow the idea that we should tiptoe around Mother when she is angry has taken no root in my children, which I suppose I should take as a positive indicator that my children are not afraid of me. Even as I sat speechless, not so much with fury but in an attempt to quell my rising irritation, I was peppered with questions about trick-or-treating, costumes, and brilliant ideas from the amateur Sherlocks on how the phone could possibly have ended up in the toilet. The effort it took not to crush the noisy little souls around me makes my molars ache, even now. No one doubts my love for them, it seems, and it's good to have the reminder when I'm ready to give them some reason to doubt it.

And now, what? I can't punish all four older children on the theory that since I don't know who the culprit is, everyone will share the consequences. I could rant in general and hope that the intended target is impressed, but it's my experience that children only tune out scolding. I could sullenly refuse to get a new phone since there's no point in having anything around these kids, but even in my current state of dudgeon that sounds sulky and peevish. I have no carrot or stick to prevent this from happening again, only the dubious assurance that as kids get older, certain types of stupid behaviors become less common. Unfortunately, a bit of Googling informs me that dropping phones in toilets is not one of those behaviors.

"Mom!" shrieks my oldest. "Isabel just dropped a bunch of glasses all over the counter and they all broke!"  Time to clench my jaw and go love my kids again.

Catholics Can Do Halloween

In my early days of elementary school, we lived in neighborhoods where my parents weren't sure about the wisdom of going trick-or-treating, so my early Halloween memories are of going to the Haunted House and Halloween Party put on in the parish hall, as a trick-or-treating alternative for similarly worried parents. This gave me the chance to charge around in costume with my friends from the parish school, bring home a massive haul of candy, and get scared silly by the Haunted House designed and staffed by the eighth graders and teachers. It was, as the phrase goes, good clean fun.

As such, I've found it odd, of late, to see Catholic parishes, schools and homeschooling groups start putting on "All Saints Day" parties on Halloween or on the nearest weekend as a sort of holy second best to the more goulish folk holiday. Children are encouraged to dress up as their favorite saint and religiously-themed games are played. (Toss the halo over the angel, go fishing with Noah, join St. George in attacking the dragon pinata, etc.)

These are all harmless enough, though as a kid I think I would have found them too goody-two-shoes-y to be fun (candy haul aside), and we've taken our kids to such parties most years because their friends are going and no kid wants to be left out of a get-candy-and-play-with-friends opportunity.

Nonetheless, I can't help a little annoyance at the idea of turning All Saints Day into low rent counter-programming to Halloween, when Halloween (All Hallows Eve) has its origins in the working of the Catholic folk imagination on All Saints Day and All Souls Day. Father Augustine Thompson provides a good summary:
So now the Church had feasts for all those in heaven and all those in purgatory? What about those in the other place? It seems Irish Catholic peasants wondered about the unfortunate souls in hell. After all, if the souls in hell are left out when we celebrate those in heaven and purgatory, they might be unhappy enough to cause trouble. So it became customary to bang pots and pans on All Hallows Even to let the damned know they were not forgotten. Thus, in Ireland, at least, all the dead came to be remembered — even if the clergy were not terribly sympathetic to Halloween and never allowed All Damned Day into the Church calendar.
The article goes on to describe how the fusion in America of various Catholic immigrant customs centering around All Hallows Eve and All Souls Day with the trick-or-treating-like customs from England which had evolved around Guy Fawkes Day, gave birth in the peculiar way that folk customs have the way of doing to modern, the modern American holiday of Halloween.

While it's perhaps in keeping with a Puritan ethic to be suspicious of goings on, there's really no reason why Catholics should be afraid to don a fun or scary costume, carve a jack-o-lantern, consume far too much candy, and then leave out a bowl of creme for the household hob or brownie in hopes that he'll take care of the clean up during the night.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Reading Fees and the Plight of Literary Magazines

Speaking of fiction writing, John Farrell has an interesting post up over on his blog at about how increasing numbers of high profile literary magazines are looking at charging reading fees in order to review unsolicited manuscripts. I can certainly see why this would drive writers up the wall -- and goodness knows unpublished fiction authors are not the most flush-with-capital group of people in the world. But John outlines a real problem that magazines face as fewer people subscribe to print magazines and yet authors find it easier than ever to flood their manuscripts into the surviving literary mags via online submission.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

And Now For Something Completely Different...

Once upon a time I wrote fiction (mostly science fiction and fantasy) and I had a younger sister who was flattering enough to think that was cool. Now I write a blog, and my little sister is actually the cool one, the real writer. She writes mostly fantasy, some of it tinged with Catholic elements, and unlike I ever did, she actually gets paid for it.

Some of her stories are available online, via links on her website.

Readers might find the following particularly interesting:

[Note: For some reason the Coyote Wild site is very slow to load on some browsers, due to what appears to be a problematic stat counter link. Sorry for the Google cache link.]

"City of Angels" published in Coyote Wild, March 2008
I knew something was wrong as soon as I walked into the kitchen and saw Mamá making rice pudding. A crumpled plastic bag lay on the counter; I picked it up, smoothed it. Real California Raisins! Taste The Zing Of Sunshine!

"What's happening?" I asked, nervousness prickling my arms.

"Braid your hair and wash up," said Mamá. "It's almost done."

As I went to the bathroom to get some hair elastics, the prickle slid down from my arms to my stomach. The few times that I had eaten Mamá's pudding, my hair had been unbound.

When I got back to the kitchen, Mamá was spooning the rice pudding into a bowl. Her dark hair was already pulled back in a long braid; only a few wisps escaped around her face.

"Here." She set the bowl in front of me. "Eat."

"But I can't do magic with my hair --"

"It's not for magic. The pudding . . . dampens you. Covers you. Makes you less noticeable." Mamá gripped the back of her chair, knuckles white. "We're leaving. Los Ojos killed Peter, and I think he wants you."

Terror sheared through my stomach. Los Ojos was the most powerful lord in Los Angeles; cruelest too, if half the stories were true. [read the rest]

"I Have Heard the Angels Singing, Each to Each" published in Coyote Wild, August 2008
I found the angel at the ninety-nine cent store.

I'd grabbed canned corn, dried chiles, hand lotion, and Mexican hot chocolate, and I was examining the dish towels when I felt something like a faint whisper. I glanced across the aisle--and there it was, sitting among the figurines next to the poorly scented candles: a little plastic statuette of an angel, her face tilted upwards and her hands clasped over her chest.

She was painted in delicate pastels, except for the sickly smiling mouth, which was a garish lipstick red. Her wings were naked white plastic, her long, curling hair was pale yellow, and her swirling skirts were pink. She was like a hundred other tacky statues I'd seen over the years.

I couldn't look away.

The sensation of whispering got louder without ever becoming audible. As I studied the statue, I realized that the space around it was curved, beginning to fold in on itself, as it did around the Moebius strips outside our door. I frowned, trying to see farther, deeper--

"Hey." Thuy snapped her fingers in front of my face. "Earth to Maria. You ready to go?" [read the rest]

"More Full of Weeping Than You Can Understand" published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, 10/07/2010
During the later part of the war, the government issued a pamphlet on how to recognize changelings. Violet read it (a green tinge of the features; propensity to cruelty) and laughed. The real signs had been far more pervasive, far less clear. Sometimes she thought she had only realized she wasn’t human when she was fourteen. Sometimes she thought she had always known.

The external, everyday things were always easy. She liked French, hated mathematics, and complained about her governess. She sailed toy boats with Thomas, bridled when he was patronizing, and once threw her oatmeal at him. She cried when a picnic was rained out, when she fell and scraped her knee, and when her governess disciplined her.

Other things were harder. None were inexplicable.

She did well at her piano lessons, but all music was only a string of notes to her. She supposed this was what Papa meant when he talked about his old tutor who was tone-deaf.

There were nights she climbed out her window into the garden because she could not bear to be inside another moment, and she could never go back in till she had danced herself breathless. Mama shook her head and said that Aunt Maisie, too, had been a tomboy.

She didn’t cry when her kitten or Grandmama died. She poked the kitten and she stood respectfully at the funeral, but both times she was curious, then bored. Thomas had once read her a poem that said hopeless grief was passionless. [read the rest]

"And Her Eyes Sewn Shut With Unicorn Hair" published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, 7/14/2011
“Look, Zéphine!” Marie called. “A unicorn!”

Even though Zéphine knew what would happen, her heart still thumped with hope. She set down her spoon, then jerked her head up to see the breakfast room window where her little sister stood. But when she looked where Marie pointed, Zéphine saw only a gazebo whose white latticework was clogged with crimson roses.

“Isn’t it beautiful?” Marie whispered.

“Yes,” lied Zéphine. “Beautiful.”

Why should she hope to see a unicorn now, when she never had in all her life?

Marie untangled herself from the lace curtains. She was only twelve; baby fat still clung to the corners of her beaming face. “And on your nineteenth birthday, too! It’s a lucky sign—the unicorns will love your maiden dance tonight, I know they will.”

Zéphine sat back in her chair and looked at her little silver bowl. She didn’t want any more custard; the few mouthfuls she had already eaten hung heavy in her stomach.

Marie kept on chattering. “...and the suitors can start watching you dance for the unicorns next month. Philippe is first in line to try, right? He would make a good king.”

“Mother danced for nine men before Father.” Zéphine mashed the custard with her spoon.

“I wouldn’t like that.” Marie’s dark eyebrows drew together. “Nine men, all dead....” [read the rest]

Notes on the Vatican Statement on Global Financial Reform

Thinking this post (written last night) over again in the light of morning, it strikes me that while getting a lot of the real text out there is doubtless is a real service, many people simply won't read the whole thing, so I'm adding the following summary bullets at the top. The document:

- Blames easy money and easy credit for the origins of the global financial crisis (classic Austrian business cycle explanation)
- Criticizes a "liberalist approach" to avoiding intervention and the failure to bail out Lehman Brothers (notes later that financial institutions should be bailed out on condition of contributing to the real economy through "virtuous behavior")
- Notes that globalization has been a huge benefit to many, but has left others behind
- Calls for people to remember spiritual and ethical considerations rather than putting their hope in technocracy
- Expresses concern that speculation has hurt global markets and the developing world in particular
- Praises the G7 and G20
- Suggests the need for a global "authority" stronger than the UN of IMF
- Says that such a world authority would have to be voluntary in nature, not use force or compulsion, and would probably start as an association of a smaller number of nations (like the G20 or EU)
- Expresses concern that financial markets have grown faster than "real markets"
- Endorses the idea of a world central bank
- Lists as purposes of a world authority and central bank that it would: 1) encourage free trade and efficient markets, 2) prevent excessive government deficits, 3) pursue sound money, 4) prevent speculation and excessive credit, 5) fund itself via a financial transaction tax

Now on to the detailed post.

If my circle of Catholic acquaintance on Facebook is any guide, there's been a fair amount of buzz going around about the "note" released Monday by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace: TOWARDS REFORMING THE INTERNATIONAL FINANCIAL AND MONETARY SYSTEMS IN THE CONTEXT OF GLOBAL PUBLIC AUTHORITY. Those of a more left-leaning description did some preemptive crowing that this would "put the pope to the left of Nancy Pelosi", but having downloaded a copy of the full document yesterday I figured I'd avoid any commentary, read the document cold, and post thoughts on the text itself.

First, a little context: This document was written by the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, an office responsible for providing thought on social justice issues. This is, thus, not something written by the pope, but it does come from people that Benedict XVI has put in charge of thinking on political and economic issues. The document itself is fairly short and less densely written than most encyclicals. Given what it covers, it seems to me that there's not really any teaching presented here, per se, but rather an attempt to summarize the understandings of certain experts about the current global economic situation, and then to apply well established Catholic moral teachings to the current world situation.

Without getting further into editorializing, I'm going to work through a number of quotes from the text while providing some notes with my own thoughts on it. I've preserved the numbered headings of the original document. (The document is in the block-quote indents, my notes are in the out-dents.)

1. Economic Development and Inequalities
In material goods markets, natural factors and productive capacity as well as labour in all of its many forms set quantitative limits by determining relationships of costs and prices which, under certain conditions, permit an efficient allocation of available resources.
This is a fairly standard observation, but as a pricing guy I found it interesting that one of the first things in the document was a note to the efficiency of price as a means of achieving efficient markets.
In monetary and financial markets, however, the dynamics are quite different. In recent decades, it was the banks that extended credit, which generated money, which in turn sought a further expansion of credit. In this way, the economic system was driven towards an inflationary spiral that inevitably encountered a limit in the risk that credit institutions could accept. They faced the ultimate danger of bankruptcy, with negative consequences for the entire economic and financial system.
The speculative bubble in real estate and the recent financial crisis have the very same origin in the excessive amount of money and the plethora of financial instruments globally.
This is interesting in that it is an essentially Austrian account of the sources of the financial crisis: blaming it on easy money and easy credit. As Blackadder observed a while back, this wouldn't be the first time that a Vatican official has taken an explicitly Austrian (and anti-Keynsian) stance on economic issues.)

If nothing else, this should serve as a reminder that thinking on economic issues coming out of the Vatican tends not to fit well in American political alignments. As if to emphasize this, the next interesting point comes from what to American eyes would seem very much the other side of the political spectrum:
A liberalist approach, unsympathetic towards public intervention in the markets, chose to allow an important international financial institution to fall into bankruptcy, on the assumption that this would contain the crisis and its effects. Unfortunately, this spawned a widespread lack of confidence and a sudden change in attitudes.
Here the author blames the actual start of the 2008-present global financial crisis on the failure to bail out Lehman Brothers. (There's something to this, though arguably part of the reason this was catastrophic is that Lehman appears to have expected to be saved after the way Bear Stearns kind-of was, and thus avoided some painful but possible solutions to their problems before they absolutely hit critical.)

This endorsement of bailing out Lehman is probably unlikely to be palatable to either the populist right or the populist left, but it's certainly an arguable claim from an establishment perspective.

Turning to the more general world scene:
Global economic well-being, traditionally measured by national income and also by levels of capacities, grew during the second half of the twentieth century, to an extent and with a speed never experienced in the history of humankind.

But the inequalities within and between various countries have also grown significantly. While some of the more industrialized and developed countries and economic zones – the ones that are most industrialized and developed – have seen their income grow considerably, other countries have in fact been excluded from the overall improvement of the economy and their situation has even worsened.
Nonetheless, it should be reiterated that the process of globalisation with its positive aspects is at the root of the world economy's great development in the twentieth century. It is worth recalling that between 1900 and 2000 the world population increased almost fourfold and the wealth produced worldwide grew much more rapidly, resulting in a significant rise of average per capita income. At the same time, however, the distribution of wealth did not become fairer but in many cases worsened.
This is one of those passages you can probably expect left leaning Catholics to attempt to throw at right-leaning Catholics for some time. There's a strong belief in some sectors that if developed countries are more wealthy than undeveloped ones, that's because they somehow "stole" their money from the undeveloped ones. I'm not at all clear that this is the only way that the above passage can be interpreted -- especially given that this is still obviously a rough translation that hasn't even been fully spell-checked. But I imagine that, regardless of the intent of the authors, we can expect to see phrases like "other countries have in fact been excluded from the overall improvement of the economy" again.

What has driven the world in such a problematic direction for its economy and also for peace?

First and foremost, an economic liberalism that spurns rules and controls. Economic liberalism is a theoretical system of thought, a form of “economic apriorism” that purports to derive laws for how markets function from theory, these being laws of capitalistic development, while exaggerating certain aspects of markets. An economic system of thought that sets down a priori the laws of market functioning and economic development, without measuring them against reality, runs the risk of becoming an instrument subordinated to the interests of the countries that effectively enjoy a position of economic and financial advantage.
On the one hand, this section seems to endorse the idea that classical liberalism (free markets, free societies, etc.) don't necessarily work all that well -- however I think the second half is perhaps of greatest importance, where it's stated that no system can be taken as self-validating, as not requiring any kind of verification from the real world. When people accept ideological conclusions without caring whether they actually pertain to how things work, there's invariably trouble. This is the case whether one is talking about the planned economies of the left (that somehow never work as advertised) or the theoretical libertarian utopias of Ayn Rand and her acolytes. (The difference is that I would tend to see planned economies as having been tried more times than Rand's ideas.)

In his social encyclical, Benedict XVI precisely identified the roots of a crisis that is not only economic and financial but above all moral in nature. In fact, as the Pontiff notes, to function correctly the economy needs ethics; and not just of any kind but one that is people-centred. He goes on to denounce the role played by utilitarianism and individualism and the responsibilities of those who have adopted and promoted them as the parameters for the optimal behaviour of all economic and political agents who operate and interact in the social context. But Benedict XVI also identifies and denounces a new ideology, that of “technocracy”.
Again, there's probably material here to make just about everyone at least a bit uncomfortable. I'm willing to bet that the author considers at least some of what I would consider sensible market-drive ideas to be "utilitarian" or examples of "individualism" -- though I would disagree. At the same time, a "technocracy" (and a somewhat utilitarian one) is precisely what many in the current progressive establishment have been pushing for. Obama was, after all, supposed to be the technocrat who would save everyone, the man who would be competence to the White House. (How's that working for ya'll...?)

2. The Role of Technology and the Ethical Challenge

However, to interpret the current new social question lucidly, we must avoid the error – itself a product of neo-liberal thinking – that would consider all the problems that need tackling to be exclusively of a technical nature. In such a guise, they evade the needed discernment and ethical evaluation. In this context Benedict XVI's encyclical warns about the dangers of the technocracy ideology: that is, of making technology absolute, which “tends to prevent people from recognizing anything that cannot be explained in terms of matter alone” and minimizing the value of the choices made by the concrete human individual who works in the economic-financial system by reducing them to mere technical variables. Being closed to a “beyond” in the sense of something more than technology, not only makes it impossible to find adequate solutions to the problems, but it impoverishes the principal victims of the crisis more and more from the material standpoint.
This is precisely the kind of double-edged insight which I think it's useful to find in this kind of document. Properly understood, it underscore the hollow core both of consumerism and of the "where's my bail out?" supporters of a cradle to grave welfare state. For all that collectivist societies are supposed to be more "caring", it is hardly a coincidence that it is in the most comprehensive welfare states, in northern Europe, that we see the most total breakdown of the family and of traditional belief. A view of human society which looks only to the filling of material wants, whether through consumerist markets or the nanny state, is a tragically self centered and incomplete view.

3. An Authority over Globalization

On the way to building a more fraternal and just human family and, even before that, a new humanism open to transcendence, Blessed John XXIII’s teaching seems especially timely. In the prophetic Encyclical Pacem in Terris of 1963, he observed that the world was heading towards ever greater unification. He then acknowledged the fact that a correspondence was lacking in the human community between the political organization “on a world level and the objective needs of the universal common good”. He also expressed the hope that one day “a true world political authority” would be created.
This is true. It seems to me that the record of history is that this is not very practical, but just as it was important in the 19th century for faithful Catholics who believed the benefits of a free and democratic society to recognize that the Church authorities generally favored (rightly or wrongly) the old world of throne and altar, it is important now for Catholics (like myself) skeptical of the idea of a world political authority to recognize that the last several popes have expressed great hopes for the UN and for an eventual authority of similar scope with "more teeth". We'll shortly get to what I think are some of the inherent contradictions of this desire given those same pope's views on political domination and war.

The purpose of the public authority, as John XXIII recalled in Pacem in Terris, is first and foremost to serve the common good. Therefore, it should be endowed with structures and adequate, effective mechanisms equal to its mission and the expectations placed in it. This is especially true in a globalized world which makes individuals and peoples increasingly interconnected and interdependent, but which also reveals the existence of monetary and financial markets of a predominantly speculative sort that are harmful for the real economy, especially of the weaker countries. [emphasis added]
This certainly represents a certain conventional wisdom, but as a matter of actual fact I'm not clear on the extent to which "speculation" actually drives up the costs of real products needed by developing countries. After all, speculators are speculating on what the future balance of supply and demand will be. If they're wrong, they lose money. If they're right, they simply cause prices to adjust slightly sooner than they otherwise would.

In the short term there could be a very real problem here. If a speculative bubble on a commodity causes prices to rise in the short term, and a buyer is short enough on supply he has to buy during the bubble rather than waiting for it to pop, it doesn't do him any good that the bubble pops later.

However, speculation (and sheer volume of trading) can also help to smooth out prices by passing around more information. And much of the worst poverty is caused either by political forces (using hunger as a weapon) or in those areas of the world where people are still living in subsistence economies rather than buying food and other essentials that pass through the global commodity markets.

This is all rather abstruse wonkery, perhaps mostly of interest only to people (like me) with an excessive interest in pricing, but it seems to me that there are two sides to this question.

This is a complex and delicate process. A supranational Authority of this kind should have a realistic structure and be set up gradually. It should be favourable to the existence of efficient and effective monetary and financial systems; that is, free and stable markets overseen by a suitable legal framework, well-functioning in support of sustainable development and social progress of all, and inspired by the values of charity and truth.
Once again, this is the sort of thing that both sides will find things to dislike. Many on the left have hopes for an overturning of "the nation state" as a means of power. However, many of those same people hope to move "beyond capitalism". For instance, earlier this year we had the specter of Terry Eagleton writing in Commonweal under the title "Was Marx Right" about how, among other things, we should abandon markets for a more "democratic" way of distributing resources. And yet, here we have the authors of this document endorsing a "supranational Authority" with the express purpose of providing "free and stable markets overseen by a suitable legal framework". Clearly, that's not something which those who consider Cuba to be a leading example to the world are going to endorse. At the same time, those who have (as recent events would perhaps suggest, rightly) questioned the efficacy of organizations such as the European Union and its central bank are going to be deeply skeptical of an even larger bureaucratic organization, even if it is supposed to foster free markets.

There are also the practical questions:
It is a matter of an Authority with a global reach that cannot be imposed by force, coercion or violence, but should be the outcome of a free and shared agreement and a reflection of the permanent and historic needs of the world common good . It ought to arise from a process of progressive maturation of consciences and freedoms as well as the awareness of growing responsibilities.
This all sounds very good, but it doesn't seem to tie very well with human experience. Authorities which aren't imposed with "force, coercion or violence" don't tend to be able to impose restrictions on the people who are most bent on misbehaving. And it's not clear that there has been much "progressive maturation of consciences" since the days when they were throwing jaw bones at each other.

Perhaps the author sees this as rather speculative as he goes on:
Consequently, reciprocal trust, autonomy and participation cannot be overlooked as if they were superfluous elements. The consent should involve an ever greater number of countries that adhere with conviction, through a sincere dialogue that values the minority opinions rather than marginalizing them.
So it seems to be assumed that this would start out as some sort of smaller group of countries with a common economic and political authority, and that others would join as (and if) they saw it to be working.

Though again, color me skeptical as to the likelihood that any organization can operate that "values the minority opinions rather than marginalizing them". I mean, for goodness sake, we have Occupy Wall Street (that supposed ultimate example of bottom up governance) apparently at the breaking point over whether playing the drums all day is a good idea.

A supranational Institution, the expression of a “community of nations”, will not last long, however, if the countries’ diversities from the standpoint of cultures, material and immaterial resources and historic and geographic conditions, are not recognized and fully respected. The lack of a convinced consensus, nourished by an unceasing moral communion on the part of the world community, would also reduce the effectiveness of such an Authority.
This seems to very nearly admit the impracticality of the idea. Come to that, would one need an Authority if there was "an unceasing moral communion on the part of the world community"?

Likewise, governments should not serve the world Authority unconditionally. Instead, it is the world Authority that should put itself at the service of the various member countries, according to the principle of subsidiarity. Among the ways it should do this is by creating the socio-economic, political and legal conditions essential for the existence of markets that are efficient and efficacious because they are not over-protected by paternalistic national policies and not weakened by systematic deficits in public finances and of the gross national products – indeed, such policies and deficits actually hamper the markets themselves in operating in a world context as open and competitive institutions.
Having just shown a fair amount of cynicism over the chances of the kind of Authority described coming together, there's now a surprise for our left-leaning friends: One of the primary ways that the World Authority will serve governments is by encouraging them to avoid deficit spending and remove barriers to free trade.

Again, this is why a "this is a far left document" meme is way off. There's much in here that American conservatives and libertarians are not going to like, but there's just as much that leftist Catholics (particularly populist ones) aren't going to like either (if they read it.)

As we read in Caritas in Veritate, “The governance of globalization must be marked by subsidiarity, articulated into several layers and involving different levels that can work together.” Only in this way can the danger of a central Authority’s bureaucratic isolation be avoided, which would otherwise risk being delegitimized by an excessive distance from the realities on which it is based and easily fall prey to paternalistic, technocratic or hegemonic temptations.
The elephant in the living room in all this is that what's being described here sounds a lot like the EU and ECB, which seems to be in the process of tearing the European currency zone to pieces (and causing an awful lot of fear and rioting in the meantime.) I can't help wondering if the above is an attempt to distance what is being described from what people have seen of the operation out of Brussels.

4. Towards Reforming the International Financial and Monetary Systems in a way that Responds to the Needs of all Peoples

The second factor is the need for a minimum, shared body of rules to manage the global financial market which has grown much more rapidly than the real economy. This situation of rapid, uneven growth has come about, on the one hand, because of the overall abrogation of controls on capital movements and the tendency to deregulate banking and financial activities; and on the other, because of advances in financial technology, due largely to information technology.
This is one of those pieces of conventional wisdom that I've always been a little curious at to the truth of. Is it accurate to say that financial markets actually grow faster than the real market? Or is it just that some products are overvalued relative to others? How would you measure the value or "real" markets in terms of something other than the financial markets the denominate them?

I've noticed one or two gold bug-type Austrians or traditionalists saying some positive things about this document, and I can't help wondering if this (along with the condemnation of easy money) is part of the motivation there. I don't really have a critique, I'm just not exactly sure how one can assert what's being asserted here with surety.

Specific attention should be paid to the reform of the international monetary system and, in particular, the commitment to create some form of global monetary management....

In fact, one can see an emerging requirement for a body that will carry out the functions of a kind of “central world bank” that regulates the flow and system of monetary exchanges similar to the national central banks.
Without having read the pieces, I gather from the links being thrown around on Facebook that there's been a certain amount of controversy as to whether the document endorses a central world bank. It seems to me that the above sections make fairly clear that it does.

The endorsement is fairly vague. It's not stated what exactly the bank would be doing to manage the global monetary system. One assumes something other than the way that the relatively affluent members of the Eurozone are currently putting the thumbscrews on the relatively poor members via their shared bank.

Given the news at the moment, I would have to think that it's relatively hard to make a good case for a global equivalent to the European Central Bank -- from virtually any political point of view -- but there are those who have a lot invested in the idea that a group of well meaning people could achieve a lot with such an institution, and I can only assume that the authors fall into that camp.


On the regional level, this process could begin by strengthening the existing institutions, such as the European Central Bank. However, this would require not only a reflection on the economic and financial level, but also and first of all on the political level, so as to create the set of public institutions that will guarantee the unity and consistency of the common decisions.
In this process, the primacy of the spiritual and of ethics needs to be restored and, with them, the primacy of politics – which is responsible for the common good – over the economy and finance. These latter need to be brought back within the boundaries of their real vocation and function, including their social function, in consideration of their obvious responsibilities to society, in order to nourish markets and financial institutions which are really at the service of the person, which are capable of responding to the needs of the common good and universal brotherhood, and which transcend all forms of economist stagnation and performative mercantilism.
I honestly hope that I'm wrong or over-simplifying here, but this strikes me as an example of how Catholic thought (both in it's modern social-democratic form and in its old throne and altar form) has historically not dealt much with the idea that there may be lack of consensus (honest lack of consensus) among well meaning individuals as to what "the good" is, in relation to some particular situation.

I am absolutely in agreement that the primacy of the spiritual and of ethics needs to be restored in the interest of the common good. However, I'm not necessarily optimistic about the ability of politics to achieve this. (Not that I'm any more optimistic about the financial sphere achieving this either.) Given that even faithful Catholics have trouble agreeing on how to practically run even very small institutions in such a way as to foster the common good, I don't see how large states full of moneyed interests and disparate belief systems can be expected to achieve such an agreement.

On the basis of this sort of ethical approach, it seems advisable to reflect, for example, on:a) taxation measures on financial transactions through fair but modulated rates with charges proportionate to the complexity of the operations, especially those made on the “secondary” market.
b) forms of recapitalization of banks with public funds making the support conditional on “virtuous” behaviours aimed at developing the “real economy” ;
Again, this is an area where the authors seem to align clearly with some of the same proposals often put forward by American leftists. The idea of having some sort of financial transaction tax is fairly popular right now, on the theory that this would hit high-frequency traders hard. Personally, I'm not sure this would necessarily do much other than have people pursue other trading tactics -- I don't think it would reduce speculation or keep prices more stable.

On recapitalizing banks with public funds but with the condition of virtuous behaviors that develop the real economy: This seems to assume that there are lots of virtuous behaviors that banks could be engaging in right now to grow the real economy but some reason aren't. I'm not necessarily convinced that's the case. (Or that, if it is, there's much agreement of what those behaviors are that they need to go do.) Generally speaking, it seems like the track record is that in most of these situations either the bankers end up running the show and increasing their power, or rabble-rousing populists end up running the show and increasing their power. Unless one is sure that one of these two is conducive to the common good -- which I'm not.


In a world on its way to rapid globalization, the reference to a world Authority becomes the only horizon compatible with the new realities of our time and the needs of humankind. However, it should not be forgotten that this development, given wounded human nature, will not come about without anguish and suffering.
Well, the document ends on a note of caution, and so I do, I guess.

I understand the motivation of the Vatican to try to provide guidance into issues like "what the G20 should do", but I can't help thinking that for most Catholics it would be far more helpful to get guidance as to what the other 99.9 percent of us should do -- though in a sense that hasn't changed at all since Christ's words in the gospels so there's no need. Also, I think that when Church officials try to provide very concrete advice on issues of public policies such as these, it tends to underscore the doubts and divisions that exist within well-meaning and faithful Catholics. And perhaps also the limitations of the knowledge and experience of those trying to provide the advice.

By bringing so many quotes to the fore, I hope I've at least provided a fairly clear picture of what is in this document.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Beat it like a drum

Darwin and I are dissolved in hysterics... I mean, shaking our heads in serious reflection... over the latest travails to rock the Occupy Wall Street crew: the rogue drum circle. Via Megan McArdle, the cri de la rate of the frustrated OWS "organizers" who are discovering that in a world with no authority, no one respects authority.
Friends, mediation with the drummers has been called off. It has gone on for more than 2 weeks and it has reached a dead end. The drummers formed a working group called Pulse and agreed to 2 hrs/day at times during the mediation, and more recently that changed to 4 hrs/day. It's my feeling that we may have a fighting chance with the community board if we could indeed limit drumming and loud instrumentation to 12-2 PM and 4-6 PM, however that isn't what's happening.
Last night the drumming was near continuous until 10:30 PM at night. Today it began again at 11 AM. The drummers are fighting among themselves, there is no cohesive group. There is one assemblage called Pulse that organized most of the
drummers into a group and went to GA for formal recognition and with a proposal. Unfortunately there is one individual who is NOT a drummer but who claims to speak for the drummers who has been a deeply disruptive force, attacking the drumming rep during the GA and derailing his proposal, and disrupting the community board meeting, as well as the OWS community relations meeting. She has also created strife and divisions within the POC caucus, calling many members who are not 'on her side' "Uncle Tom", "the 1%", "Barbie" "not Palestinian enough" "Wall Street politicians" "not black enough" "sell-outs", etc. People have been documenting her disruptions, and her campaign of misinformation, and instigations. She also has a documented history online of defamatory, divisive and disruptive behavior within the LGBT (esp. transgender) communities. Her disruptions have made it hard to have constructive conversations and productive resolutions to conflicts in a variety of forums in the past several days.
At this point we have lost the support of allies in the Community Board and the state senator and city electeds who have been fighting the city to stave off our eviction, get us toilets, etc. On Tuesday there is a Community Board vote, which will be packed with media cameras and community members with real grievances. We have sadly demonstrated to them that we are unable to collectively 1) keep our space and surrounding areas clean and sanitary, 2) keep the park safe, 3) deal with internal conflict and enforce the Good Neighbor Policy that was passed by the General Assembly.

The passive-aggressive outrage here is precious. "Of course we'd all like to play nicely, but somebody just won't shut up. This place would be clean if some people weren't always leaving their junk around. Everything was under control until someone showed up with her bongos and her history of instability."

How is that later in life? Do these guys get blackballed at Democratic rallies and conventions for being the punks who had Occupy Wall Street shut down?  "Oh, we can't caucus with him, he brings his damn drums to everything." The arm of the internet is long, drumming friends. Believe it or not, many people use Google as a background checking mechanism: potential friends, potential dates, potential employers. And it's strange, I know, but not everyone views a stint as the Heartbeat of Occupy Wall Street as totally awesome.

True fact: 99% of women describe protest drum circles as "a turn-off". And by "true fact" I mean "something I just made up because it's funny, but you know I'm right".

New Orleans -- First Draft

One of the things I said to Betty Duffy, during one of our thirteen-hour car rides, was that I didn't post often because it takes me so damn long to write anything. "I have to write a finished post, and it takes forever," I said eloquently. And Betty talked about drafts and polishing, but I say, never mind the polishing. What you see is what I'm pouring out -- the first draft.

I am in love with New Orleans. I love the architecture, the huge mansions on St. Charles Ave. which still manage to maintain a dainty Southern charm despite being built on massive foundations of money. I love the cobblestones peeking out from under a threadbare blanket of asphalt. I love the American vernacular of the city: not quite mediterranean, not quite French. Given its age and history, it's one of the few American cities that has never tried to imitate New York City.

We were there, of course, for the Walker Percy Conference at Loyola University, which was just perfect. I have been to but one academic conference, and this was it. I am told that academic conferences can be quite insular, but this one, being in its the first year, in fact), was open to all comers, both attending and speaking. Academics and amateurs spoke on the same panels and hobnobbed most collegially. Darwin and I probably had the most fun of anyone attending: we came with a built-in social set, and we didn't have the stress of presenting a paper. I asked questions and started discussions at panels, and no one told me that I didn't have the standing to comment, or that I didn't know what I was talking about. It was like having all the fun of college with none of the bother.  I discussed some of my areas of interest with the director of the conference, and she urged us to present our own paper at the next conference. Mark your calendars in two years' time, for MrsDarwin's academic debut, entitled (what else?) An Actor Prepares: Binx Bolling channels Stanislavski, complete with staged scenes.

But the fun started with car trip. 5:45 am is a bad time to discover a flat tire, but the drama was minimal. If Betty was agitated, she didn't show it, and the spare was applied with no casualties and little mess. We made it down to Tennessee driving well over the car manual's cautionary estimate of no more than 50 mph while Driving With Spare. In Nashville, while the car sat at the tire shop, we were hosted by Jordana, who has the most gracious bungalow and the bluest eyes, and whose children showed to absolutely best advantage in their mix of erudition and goofing off, and all this on a few short hours' notice.

One of the best elements of the weekend was rediscovering how well online friendship translates into real life. This was a theme repeated all weekend. Betty and Darwin and Jordana and I sat in the living room and talked like people who'd known each other for years. In New Orleans, I embraced Dorian like a lost sister -- we'd met before, which made the reunion even more delightful, but our friendship began online.  Our group was kicked out of the hotel courtyard one night (and given a warning the second night) for being too raucous, a by-product of being too vinous. I'm not sure that any virtual conversation could top navigating down Bourbon Street with Matthew Lickona and his wife on our way to dinner, or toasting each other in the ancient brick-paved courtyard of the prestigious restaurant in the French Quarter, the ambiance of which was only slightly marred by the boldness of the rats who anticipated closing time by making brazen forays out of the foliage. And what could be more memorable, and less comfortable, than jouncing across Lake Pontchartrain in the back of a schoolbus with Potter and Jobe and the other cool kids after a foray to Walker Percy's grave? We didn't drink in the back of the bus (the spirit was willing, but the liquor laws weren't) but that was the exception. In front of the computer you drink alone; in New Orleans you drink with Lickona.

And then it was time to go. Betty noted that we drove thirteen hours with nary a fart between us, but even more notable was that we went thirteen hours without a silence. The talk was varied and ranging, from rearing savvy but innocent children to inside blog baseball. It was like conversational heaven, only in heaven you don't have to bounce for ten miles driving through deepest Mississippi looking for a bathroom. Then we were staggering back into our house at 2am, having delivered Grandma from five days' custody of her energetic grandchildren (who were more than ready to transfer that combined energy force back against their parents). Party was over, and the warmth of New Orleans was only a pleasant memory which fluttered weakly against the Ohio chill.

And I'm not going to sit here with a first draft and shake my brain until some clever bit of summation falls out. I could sit and polish this thing, or I could go to bed and dream of New Orleans. Nighty-night, ya'll.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Drone Killings and the Slippery Slope

There have been worries expressed on both sides of the political spectrum about the use of drone killings against Al Qaeda, and more especially so as it's come out that the Obama Administration has a secret "kill list" which even includes American citizens who are working with Al Qaeda overseas (as was the recently killed Anwar al-Awlaki).

It seems to be that there is a legitimate worry here. In a sense, drones are the modern American equivalent of pillars of the Victorian British Empire such as Charles "Chinese" Gordon -- gallivanting about the world to put down disturbances wherever they occur. However, they're also relative unobtrusive and cheap. Thus, I would imagine that there is more danger of them being used to embroil us in conflicts that we really don't want to be in. (Which, come to that, is more or less what Gordon managed to do for the British Empire on an occasion or two.) While I think that US hegemonic power, like that of others such as the British and Romans in the past, is generally a positive force in the world, power is often a temptation to over reaching. Putting international intervention only a joystick away, without any need for congressional approval or oversight, seems to put just a bit too much power in the hands of an already imperial presidency.

At the same time, I don't find myself all that persuaded by that slippery slope claims which many have made in regards to drone attacks. The argument often goes: If the president (or some secret committee not even overseen clearly by the president) can order the killing of US citizens by drone strike without trial, are we still a republic of laws? Are we suddenly just one step away from a semi-dictatorship in which political opponents and other undesirables are assassinated at will? Do we need to worry about when drones come for us?

It seems to me that this glosses over the fact that drones are essentially a battlefield tool, albeit one that allows us to enter battlefields without deploying soldiers. When American citizens get mixed up with forces that the US military has been deployed to fight, there's never been any hesitancy to treat them the same on the battlefield as any other enemy soldier. As such, I don't think that the use of drones against Al Qaeda puts us on a slippery slope to some future president using drones against his political enemies any more than the long held ability of the president to order air or missal strikes against specific targets puts us on a slippery slope to the present bombing his opponent's party convention.

The worries that we should have over drone strikes have to do with their making it too easy to go to involve ourselves thoughtlessly in regional conflicts, not that it puts us on a road to some sort of military reign of terror.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Emptiness of Modern US Street Protests

I've long thought that street protests in the modern US are essentially an empty gesture. Walter Russell Mead does a pretty good job of summarizing why in this essay.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Was the Declaration of Independence Legal?

American and British lawyers squared off recently in a discussion over whether the Declaration of Independence was legal. The BBC reports as follows:
On Tuesday night, while Republican candidates in Nevada were debating such American issues as nuclear waste disposal and the immigration status of Mitt Romney's gardener, American and British lawyers in Philadelphia were taking on a far more fundamental topic.

Namely, just what did Thomas Jefferson think he was doing?

Some background: during the hot and sweltering summer of 1776, members of the second Continental Congress travelled to Philadelphia to discuss their frustration with royal rule.

By 4 July, America's founding fathers approved a simple document penned by Jefferson that enumerated their grievances and announced themselves a sovereign nation.

Called the Declaration of Independence, it was a blow for freedom, a call to war, and the founding of a new empire. This also, of course, answers the question of the why the South was not allowed to secede: Because they lost the Civil War.

It was also totally illegitimate and illegal.

At least, that was what lawyers from the UK argued during a debate at Philadelphia's Ben Franklin Hall.
(The rest of the article can be read here.)

It strikes me that this misses a crucial distinction: The Declaration was essentially an announcement that if certain demands were not met, the colonists would fight a war for their independence. Such things are not intended to be legal. No sane country is going to provide legal basis for its sub-regions to secede at will -- and as the British lawyers point out further on in the article, the US certainly didn't give it's Southern half that right under Lincoln. Instead, the colonists were making a last ditch appeal and (more realistically) an appeal for public and international sympathy as they prepared to fight a war of independence. If the British had won, the signers would probably have been hung as traitors. Given that they won, they are considered to be founders of the republic.

Rather than trying to put forward some theory under which the document was legal within the context of the British Empire, it seems to me that the correct answer is that the Declaration was legal by right of conquest -- an aged yet still apt concept.

The North American Martyrs

Today is the feast of St. Isaac Jogues and the North American Martyrs. These brave gentleman have been an inspiration to me for years, so today I'm reaching back into the archives to pull out some posts in which they featured, however peripherally.
Oct. 20, 2010: I keep reminding myself that statistically, I'm one of the most fortunate people in the world, in history. Most of my daily inconveniences are of the petty variety. I prayed that I could realize that there were worse fates than having one's son spill lemonade all over himself and the floor right before a road trip, and lo and behold, it turned out to be the feast day of St. Isaac Jogues.
 Sept. 22, 2008I knew labor was coming the night before, and I was scared. I prepared for birth by reading the lives (or more accurately, the deaths) of the North American martyrs. Contractions, I reasoned, could hardly be as bad as having your thumb bitten off. And given that a week and a half later, I'm not in pain and still have my thumb, I think that assessment was correct.
The baby boy in the latter post is now a bouncing three-year-old who sleeps in a dino suit -- definitely worth the pains.

Take and Eat

The moment of taking communion, though, since that’s when grace meets nature, that I can speak about, at tedious length. Father gave me the Host and then watched with something like questioning as I consumed it. I realized where I knew that expression from, that mixture of absorbed love and concern – will you eat? Do you know how good this is for you? 
I recognized it because I’ve had that look on my own face half-a-dozen times, when I’ve approached a baby with a spoonful of carefully confected solid food, his or her first, knowing that when and if the food goes down, life will be forever different.
Otepoti, our Kiwi blogger at Reading for Believers, just entered the Church this weekend. Go read her reflection on becoming Catholic, and offer a prayer of thanksgiving for her.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Make Them Share The Wealth With Me

Yesterday's gospel reading struck me in relation to the protests which have been continuing to occupy their at once earnest and farcical place on our front pages.
Someone in the crowd said to Jesus, "Teacher, tell my brother to share the inheritance with me."

He replied to him, "Friend, who appointed me as your judge and arbitrator?"

Then he said to the crowd, "Take care to guard against all greed,
for though one may be rich, one's life does not consist of possessions."

Then he told them a parable. "There was a rich man whose land produced a bountiful harvest. He asked himself, "What shall I do, for I do not have space to store my harvest?" And he said, "This is what I shall do: I shall tear down my barns and build larger ones. There I shall store all my grain and other goods and I shall say to myself, "Now as for you, you have so many good things stored up for many years, rest, eat, drink, be merry!"" But God said to him, "You fool, this night your life will be demanded of you; and the things you have prepared, to whom will they belong?" Thus will it be for the one who stores up treasure for himself but is not rich in what matters to God." (Luke 12:13-21)

What Jesus is doing here is exactly what Christians who put utopian hopes in "social justice" causes in there here and now often accuse more traditional Christians of: When he is asked to step in and enforce a more just distribution of wealth, Christ instead points out that wealth is, itself, a passing thing. That building up wealth in this world will gain us nothing (perhaps worse the nothing) in the next.

It bears emphasizing, this in no way represents an endorsement of injustice or an assertion that those with wealth "deserve" their possessions. Christ's parable with which he follows up his reply to the wronged brother offers the most harsh fate possible to "the one who stores up treasure for himself but is not rich in what matters to God." But it is a response rooted not in attempting to right every wrong though some sort of Christian re-ordering of the economy or polity but in a call for conversion, in a reminder that wealth, whether a barn full to bursting or a bank account that runs to billions, will be nothing but a list of missed opportunities in that eternity to which we may be called at any moment.

Back From New Orleans

Sorry for the radio silence over the last week. We just got back from spending a long weekend in New Orleans at the Walker Percy Writing Center conference on The Moviegoer. I had never been to New Orleans before, and MrsDarwin had not been in many years, so in addition to a very enjoyable conference we took the chance to look around the French Quarter and the Garden District. And, best of all, we spent long, balmy, Southern evenings in the courtyard talking with Betty Duffy, Dorian Speed, the Lickonas and all the gentlemen of the Korrectiv Press over bourbon.

I'd never been to an academic conference before, but this was a very enjoyable experience. Walker Percy specialists seemed a very congenial and welcoming crowd. We left with plans to read more Percy and perhaps see if we can get in on the presenting the next time around.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Online Purity vs. Brick and Mortar Messiness

For a majority of my professional life, I worked at a large company that sold consumer electronics online. I did various types of marketing analytics: analyzing sales to determine how to incent salespeople, building models to pick which customers to pitch which products to, then several different jobs setting prices for different types of products. Then, just over a year ago, I left the company to take a job managing pricing for a moderately large chain of quick service restaurants.

There's been a lot to learn moving from electronics to food service -- but the biggest change, given that I deal with data and prices, has been going from working with a company that sold virtually all its products via the web or phone to a company in which sales depend on what's going on at several thousand individual locations scattered all over the country.

For someone who spends his time trying to figure out how to set prices based on sales data, this takes a lot of getting used to. At my previous company, I could put an item on sale and within hours see the sales pick up. The vast internet, and the ease with which people using shopping portals search out the lowest price on expensive purchases like electronics, made it incredibly easy to measure and predict the effect that setting the price of a given product at different levels would have.

Here things are very different. Not only is making a change harder (changing the price of a product involves getting the crews at hundreds or thousands of locations to all make the right change to their menus on the same day, getting them many materials they need to make that change, making sure they have the supply of the featured items to meet increased demand, etc.), but the results are much harder to read. If the results at a couple dozen locations are terrible in response to a promotion, is that because something was "the wrong price", or because there was construction in the neighborhood making that location hard to get to, or because the assistant manager left and things were run badly for a couple weeks while people scrambled to re-organize the team, etc. Not only can it take a lot of extra work to figure out some of these extraneous factors -- because of scale and the ability of the people at each location to explain what they're running into, you never actually know all of them.

It struck me recently that one of the appeals of the online world is that it presents a sort of streamlined mental universe, in which rivers of data flow smoothly and are little interrupted by local particularities. Having been designed by people who think in numbers, the internet is particularly congenial to those who like the world to be quantifiable. I think at times there's a tendency among those of us who try to understand the world via data to make the rest of the world work "more like the internet" simply because the internet is made to work in ways more easily comprehended by out methods -- a bit like preferring fiction to real life because fiction tends to have a comprehensible plot.

Percy bleg

No, not that Percy.

A friend asked me if I knew anything about the appropriateness of The Lightning Thief, the first book in the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series, for her nine-year-old. I haven't read any of the Percy Jackson books, so I appeal to all you gentle readers for advice and reviews. I went searching for a review from my most reliable review source for children's books, Meghan Cox Gurdon of the Wall Street Journal, but I couldn't find anything relating to the first book in the series. Amazon reviewers mention that the book is derivative and sometimes poorly written, though they're split on whether that's a plus or a minus. But why go to Amazon when I have you all? Lay it down for me. My friend will thank you.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Poverty and Family Type

The old saw is that there are lies, damned lies, and statistics, as if statistics were in some way a variety of lie. Of course, the issue is not so much that statistics are lies, as that statistics represent an attempt to simply quantify a terribly complex reality, and with simplification comes the opportunity for error -- often error confirming the biases of the person doing the analysis.

The other day I ran into a very interesting exploration of one of those statistics which is often discussed -- that "more families are in poverty" after the last three decades than was the case in the past. In 2006 Hoynes, Page and Stevens authored a paper entitled "Poverty in America: Trends and Explanations" which was published in the Journal of Economic Perspectives. One of the interesting things they do is look at the trends in poverty by family type. The findings are fascinating:
As you can see from the two columns on the right, the percentage of families of each type in poverty (according to the governments definitions of poverty) have decreased by significant amounts in every type of family. However, as the two columns of data on the right show, at the same time the types of families more prone to poverty have drastically increased.

For instance, in 1967 10.7% of married couples with children were in poverty and 51.2% of single mothers with children were in poverty. By 2003 those numbers had dropped to 8.1% and 37.3% respectively. The problem is that the percentage of households consisting of a married couple with children dropped from 67.3% to 44.2%, while the number of households consisting of a single mother with children increased from 6.2% to 11.9%.

Due to more people belonging to family types more prone to poverty, the percentage of households in poverty went up (although since those households are also smaller, the actual percentage of people living in poverty went down.)

The Moviegoer: Finishing up

I finished reading The Moviegoer last week, but you know how it is with me and posting in a timely fashion.

As I noted in my last Moviegoer post, what struck me at the end were how the most real moments for Binx, the times when he's most engaged with real life and interacting in the present, are the least cinematic. The epilogue has no big wedding, no dramatic death-bed scene, no big moments of victory or defeat or theatricality. In the end, there's a touching mundanity to seeing a day in the life of Binx, and there's a humanity at the end that's lacking in the grand analysis and detachment of the first chapter. At the end, I actually liked him. He was just a clever conceit in search of a situation at the beginning of the book, but by the end I recognized him. Someone who has to take charge in the midst of family crisis, to reassure the younger siblings, to support a needy loved one while remaining cheerful and calm? Yeah, I've known guys like that. Heck, I've been that person. That rang true to me, in a way that some of Binx's earlier attitudes didn't. That's Binx living life, as opposed to observing it from Gentilly.

And I gave more credence to Binx's habit of analysis once he proved he was capable of human interaction. Binx's grieving twin sisters are described as sobbing at an impending death, and yet being secretly proud that they're old enough to understand the tragedy. A famous French actor of a few hundred years ago was reported to have remarked, even in the midst of his immediate grief over his father's death, that he needed to remember this emotion so that he could use it on stage.  I think that's fair. Unlike the characters in the movies Binx watches, who are swept along with one grand passion at a time, a person in the midst of grief can joke, laugh, stir a pot, discuss the news, and cry, all in the same moment. Life doesn't stop to let people die in a tranquil void. There are still bills to pay, children to tend, and streetcars to be conquered.


I'll tell you how I knew that Binx's mother was a character that Percy found sympathetic: he is elegant in his account of her hay fever. As someone who suffers from sinus afflictions myself (during this changing weather my face blocks up almost solid around 8pm each evening), it's clear to me that Percy could have been very satirical in describing Anna's constant snuffing and nose blowing, and yet he describes it musically, making it an almost endearing trait. That did more than anything else to endear Percy to me.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

On Reading History

Sometimes the posts I want to write most take the longest to get around to writing -- in part because writing is often a mode of problem solving, and the most interesting problems are often difficult to solve.

Case in point, a while back there was some discussion here about how to find good history books when I was ranting about Lied My Teacher Told Me and my issues with its take on US history, and a reader asked:
And so, where does that leave the rest of us who have only learned about history what we were taught in school...which it seems clearly can't be relied on.

If we don't already know what happened, how are we to know who (what texts?) to trust?

It's this kind of thing that makes me (and others) so frustrated as to maybe just not care. Find a book so you can learn more only to learn that you're (again) being taught the wrong things.
As I said at the time, this seemed like it deserved not just a comment in response, but a more lengthy consideration in a post. It's been rather longer in brewing than the result is likely to justify, but here it goes...

There is not, unfortunately, a magic formula or vitamin pill that can be taken in order to detect whether you should trust a given author or book. However, I think there are some general principles that will stand people in good stead.

Know How Much To Expect From Different Types of Books
History is a seriously huge topic. Considering the number of people, nations, tribes, etc. that have existed since people began recording their history in writing, and the amount of time and space covered by most popular history books, it's not surprising that the more general the history, the more cursory the presentation of events and trends. There's an idea out there that there is a pattern to history, and if only one can get a good account of the pattern and some of the major events, after that one will simply be filling in details. I would tend to say that this is mostly wrong. To the extent that there is a pattern to history, that pattern is simply the effect of a number of details which, together, seem to form a pattern. Patterns themselves do not drive history. As such, I think it's wise to expect that the more general the history book, the more the author will attempt to fill in gaps with narrative. And that narrative will often be, to the extent it is a simplification (and subject to the author's interpretations and biases) the less reliable part of the package. When you read a survey text that cover a large stretch of land or time (as "The History of the Americas" or "Medieval History" or "The Modern World") what you can probably rely on quite well is the timeline elements of the book: Who lived when, what they did, etc. What you should regard more tentatively is judgements which the author provides. So, for instance, if you're reading medieval history, you can believe the author as to when the First Crusade took place, who went on it, when various battles were fought, etc. Things you may not be able to rely on as well are general statements about tone or cause which the author makes: "The Crusaders were much less civilized than the Muslims they were fighting." "While they had a religious pretext, most Crusaders did not go on crusade for religious motives." "The Muslims were more less violent than their European adversaries." Authors may or may not be right in these kind of judgements, and as you read more about a topic, you'll come to your own judgement on these questions. But it's interpretive statements like these that will often be most affected by omissions or biases on the part of the author.

Usually, the more general the history (the longer the period or wider the area it covers) the more you're going to be getting the author's narrative interpretation of events, and the less detail you'll be getting about actual events. These kind of books are still quite useful. If written by a good author (and you'll eventually develop an instinct for detecting these) you may get a useful interpretive framework for looking at a period. But even from a poor author you'll get a good idea of what happened when and who the major players were. It will thus give you an idea where to read further if the topic seems worth learning more about.

Treat general histories covering big topics as timelines and frames -- read books focusing on a smaller stage to understand people and events in detail. As you get in to reading multiple books on a given topic, you'll see what authors are living issues out or being one sided in their presentation. The more background you have, the more you'll have the ability to glean useful bits even from biased books which at least present new information about one side of a topic.

Primary Sources Are Your Friend
If generalized narratives are your enemy, primary sources are your friend. A primary source is, quite simply, what someone wrote about a place or event at the time. Now, of course, people at the time are as fallible as anyone, and they can lie or have strong points of view, and an author can be selective in picking his primary sources. However, at a minimum, primary sources give you an idea of what some people at the time thought. If you can then seek out people on different sides of a given conflict or issue, and read primary sources from both sides, you now have a moderately balanced view of the situation.

Watch Out for False Narratives
So having warned of generalizations, what are some of the false generalizations or narratives to watch out for? There are some common ones:

The Myth of Progress
It's undeniable that there have been certain kinds of technical progress over time. However, one school of thought holds that people themselves and society as a whole have become significantly better and more noble over time. This is, to my mind, always a warning sign. If an author seems to be telling you that people in the past were all dumber or more wicked than people today, then he's probably not giving you a very balanced view of the topic he's covering. And, of course, the injustices of the past (to the extent that they are past) are often far more obvious and egregious to us than the injustices of the present -- since everyone knows that even if those really are bad, they can't be helped.

The Golden Age Myth
Somewhat less common at the moment (though in various quarters you'll see it, say, talking about the American Founders, Classical Greece, the Greatest Generation or the '60s), is the opposite narrative, that of the lost Golden Age from which all subsequent time has been a devolution. Just as the author who tells you that the present is wonderful and the past was terrible is probably mischaracterizing both the present and the past, so in the inverse is the case with the author who is convinced that some specific period in the past represents the Golden Age.

The Enlightenment Myth
Somewhat related to both of these is the Enlightenment Myth (thanks commenter Joseph M for the email suggesting this one) which combines the two. In this one, you have twin Golden Ages of reason in the Classical era and in the Enlightenment (both of these being rather loosely defined) with an abyss of superstition ruled over by the medieval Church in between. This usually combines a blindness to many aspects of Classical culture and the early modern "Age of Reason", and also a dismissal of the many achievements and virtues of Medieval culture. (Depending on the book and when it was written, you'll find this myth in both secularist and Protestant flavors -- the common thread being a desire to see a thousand year abyss of superstition, popery and bad hygiene between either Classical Greece and Rome and the French Revolution or the Apostles and Martin Luther.)

The Everyone Fits A Pattern Myth
This is a bit like the world building mistake that science fiction writer Orson Scott Card called "it was raining on Mongo that morning": Just because one has applied some sort of "spirit of the age" to a period (usually itself a suspect construction) does not mean that everyone then thought a particular way. Some like to call the Middle Ages the "Age of Faith" (this is, I think, a simplification for other reasons) and the next step is to then assume that everyone in the Middle Ages was incredibly devout. Then we have the Renaissance, when suddenly everyone loved the ancients and wanted to be an artist. Then there was the Age Of Exploration -- when suddenly everyone was curious about the world. And the Age Of Reason, when suddenly everyone was living by pure reason. You get the idea...

Counter Narratives Are Almost Always Heavily Biased
This, I think, is where Lies My Teacher Told Me especially falls down -- as do other polemical approaches to history such as The People's History of the United States. When an author sets out specifically to write a counter to what he perceives as an established and wrong narrative -- and does so by writing "the other side" rather than writing a fully balanced narrative of his own, the resulting book will likely only be useful to read as an afterthought to the narrative it's critiquing. A counter narrative is necessarily only half a narrative. (This is not the same as a "revisionist" approach, in which someone attempts to lay out a comprehensive narrative of his own which is different from a prevailing one. This can, at times, be very successful. For instance, some of the "revisionist school" of Israeli historians have done the most balanced, overall accounts of the Zionist movement and the early history of Israel. Some of the recent revisionist approaches to the history of the Great War have also been very good.)

Beware the Prosecutor Historian
A history professor once told me that the best history is written when a historian can get the prosecutor sitting on his should to be quiet. It's when historians are out to explain just who is at fault in some situation that they often end up letting contrary information slip -- information which is often more interesting than the "they were bad" kind of judgements which often take their place. One example that springs quickly to mind is a highly opinionated history book which was in some other ways enjoyable to me. In Modern Times Paul Johnson's explanation of Communist Russia is that the communists were "gangsters". Indeed, he essentially dismisses any ideological content to their activities. The problem is, this is actually far less illuminating about the very evils of the regime than looking at how their ideology and their utter lack of moral scruple interacted. Simply saying that Stalin was a gangster does little to explain the appeal that communism had in many parts of the world in the 20th century. It also left me wondering how much Johnson was simplifying other matters I knew less about. A good book seeks to lay out as much as possible about the people and groups involved, what they did and what their apparent motivations were, and leaves the reader to draw his conclusions with as little generalizing and editorializing as possible.

Friday, October 07, 2011

The Explanacioun of The Chief Pardoner of Synneflix

Those who do not understand history are condemned to repeat it. Fresh from Medieval tymes, Geoffrey Chaucer digs up an auncient email in which the Chief Pardoner explains why his business has been forced to diversify into two companies in order to cater to both old and new technologies.

Mea maxima culpa. Ich moste maken explanacioun unto yow alle. Ich do wryte thys emayle aftir Ich have walked twelve tymes the roade from London to Canterbury and back wearinge no shoon and IV hayre-shirtes.
It appeareth from the feed-backe over the laste fewe fortnightes that many feythful soules did thinke we at Synneflix lakked in dignitee and humbleness by cause of the maner in which we did announcen the separacioun of tradiciounal penaunce and ower newe sale of indulgences, and eek the chaunges of donacioun required for ech different mode of achievinge spiritual helthe. Swich a thing was nat ower entente, and Ich do praye yow all may me pardon. Nowe Ich shall telle yow of how this cam to pass....
For many a yeere, my gretest feere for the Hospital of St. Mary Rouncesval and ower compaye of Synneflix hath been that we wolde nat maken the chaunge from success in regular penaunce to success in indulgences. Moost hooly orderes that have a knakke at sum thinge – lyk Cluny at beinge verye solemn or the Cistercianes at clearinge forestes – do nat become grete at noveltees that the folke desyre as the yeeres do passe (for us, this thinge is indulgences), by cause thei have greete feere of harminge their initiale actes of devocioun, or, as Odo of Cluny seyde, "ruininge the brand." In the ende, thes orderes com upon the realisacioun too late that thei have nat yiven enough labour to the development of newe practises, and thei lose all donaciouns and patronage and then sum newe order taketh ovir and getteth all the glorye, lyk the Franciscans 
...So we did come to the realisacioun that penaunce and indulgences are becominge two busynesses that have bitwene them a grete diversitee, wyth verye different cost structures, different benefits that need to be marketed in different wyse, and different theological, eschatological, and liturgical implicaciouns, and we need to let ech oon growe and function on its owene. Yt is a soore thynge for me to saye this unto yow aftir many yeeres of yiving esy tradiciounal penaunce wyth pryde, but we we thynk it is necessarye and beest: in yet a few weekes, we shal yiven a newe name unto ower tradiciounal penaunce servyse, and we shal clepen yt “Slothster.”  
We did choose the name “Slothster” for that it maketh reference to the sloth of which ye are guiltee if ye com nat to penaunce. We shall kepe the name Synneflix for indulgences aloon.
For me, the practys of traditional penaunce hath always been a thynge of joye, especiallye by cause our customers have putte their sylver into niftie red envelopes to signifien the payne of their sadnesse at their sinne. O, Ich do love thos red envelopes. How thei do tend to pyle up in the treasurie! Ower Slothster servys shal stille involve alle of thes steps, including the red envelopes.

Helas, at chez Darwin we mourn gretely the divicioun of Synneflix, and yet we finde that the variete of indulgences offered by Synneflix to be paltry and ful of le penaunces serial pour children, oor b-grade accioun movies . We go avec Slothster, though mayhap sloth shall overcoum us so that we sygn nat up and becoum consumers of Synneflix by default.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

He Made Great Stuff

For some reason, even in our highly consumeristic culture, it seems oddly inappropriate to laud someone's life because he designed great products that millions of people bought and enjoyed -- becoming incredibly rich in the process. People are supposed to be lauded for achievements in the areas of politics, charity and art, but they are seldom praised for what they've achieved in business.

Arguably, there was much art that went into the leadership Steve Jobs provided to Apple and Pixar over the years. On of his hallmarks was an insistence on perfection, and it shows in the two companies he's most famous for leading.

The first Apple product my family bought was a Mac Plus back in 1986, when I was in second grade. I spent countless hours on the computer -- writing, drawing, playing games, developing some of the technical skills that I now make my living by. And ever computer that I've bought new since that time has been an Apple (despite a seven year stint working at Dell.)

During all that time spent around Apple users, I've had plenty of chance to learn that there is, at times, something a bit cultish about some Apple fans. Yet in the odd spectacle of people literally around the world showing up and leaving flowers and cards and candles in memory of Steve Jobs at Apple stores, I think there's something else going on as well.

Jobs became successful (at death his wealth was around $8 billion) through an insistence on building products that delighted customers. "Insanely great" was his oft repeated product criteria. In our global, capitalist economy, he was able to delight millions of people while making billions of dollars. For all that Apple design is all about pleasing customers, it runs at far higher profit margins than any other computer maker, and has been rivaled in worth in the last year only by Exxon-Mobile. (As someone wryly observed: "Apple's market cap: 353 billion, and people are leaving flowers and notes for Steve Jobs at Apple stores. Bank of America's market cap: 62 billion, and people are marching on its offices in protest.") And yet the reason why people have this oddly strong emotional reaction to Jobs' death is not some side effect of his business success -- it's the thing that drove it. Over the last three and a half decades he made product after product that people loved, and which they think made their lives better.

Rest in peace.

UPDATE: Donald points out a little known point. Jobs was adopted, son of unmarried college students, and in the post-Roe world would probably never have been born. Like our president.