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

Friday, November 30, 2012

When Losers Write History

Ta-Nehisi Coates has been joining in on the critiques of Spielberg's Lincoln, concerned that the movie, by it's narrow scope, shows the abolition of slavery as being too much a white man's thing. The critiques themselves don't much interest me, as it strikes me they mostly amount to saying that people wish Spielberg had made a different movie. However, the history being discussed does. Coates is responding to a quote from screenwriter Tony Kushner who said:
"I think that what Lincoln was doing at the end of war was a very, very smart thing. And it is maybe one of the great tragedies of American history that people didn't take him literally after he was murdered. The inability to forgive and to reconcile with the South in a really decent and humane way, without any question, was one of the causes of the kind of resentment and perpetuation of alienation and bitterness that led to the quote-unquote 'noble cause,' and the rise of the Klan and Southern self-protection societies.
Coates says:
This is quite wrong. Lincoln was the first president killed in American history. He was not killed by some wide-eyed crazy, but a man advocating exactly the same cause as the white Southerners whom Kushner believes were so inhumanely brutalized.... There is no daylight between John Wilkes Booth and Jefferson Davis, save that Booth, in the name of white supremacy, was willingness to countenance the killing of one man, and Davis the killing of 600,000. What followed the murder of Abraham Lincoln was not repression and inhumanity. Andrew Johnson offered terms more generous, not less.... When Kushner says the Ku Klux Klan came out of an unwillingness to forgive the South, I don't know what he means. The Klan was founded in 1865. Johnson was still president. There was nothing "unforgiving" about his posture to the South.
Coates links to Corey Robin who reacts to the same quote saying:
I have to confess, I was truly shocked by this comment. Though it points to events after the Civil War, it reveals a point of view that I had thought we abandoned long ago: the Dunning School of American historiography, which essentially holds that Reconstruction was a “tragic era”—and error—in which a cruel and unforgiving North decided to wreak havoc on a victimized (white) South, thereby producing Jim Crow and a century of southern backwardness. When I was in high school—in 1985!—we were taught the Dunning School as an example of how not to do history, a way of thinking about the past that was so benighted no one could possibly believe it anymore.

Yet here we have one of our most esteemed playwrights—a Marxist no less (and whose effort to reclaim an honorary degree from CUNY, which he had been denied, I steadfastly organized for)—essentially peddling the same tropes.
If one steps back from the question of Reconstruction in particular, however, one sees that this approach to history (these people were treated badly and so they were forced to go do something we don't approve by their outrage at their mistreatment) is fairly common. One of my own particular bugbears is the list of three things which everyone thinks they know about World War One:

1) It happened by accident. No one wanted war.
2) It was utterly pointless
3) The cruel peace terms imposed on Germany were the cause of Nazism and the second world war.

None of these are true, but particularly frustrating to me is the third. The peace terms imposed on Germany were not all that draconian, and the allies quickly lost the will to enforce them. The large sum of reparations which Germany was ordered to pay was reduced repeatedly by the Allies, and even at the reduced rate Germany never paid much of it. In 1932 the Allies voted to cancel the reparations entirely, but the implementation of this resolution was contingent on American agreement and before the US could make up its mind Hitler rose to power and announced that he refused to pay any more reparations regardless.

However, the claim that German bad behavior was all the fault of the harsh peace had become a commonplace of anti-war sentiment in France, Britain and the US during the 20s (spurred in part by John Maynard Keynes' 1919 book The Economic Consequences of the Peace) and it has remained one of the trite pieties of pop history to this day.

The more realistic, though less comforting truth which perhaps the Reconstruction and WW1 tropes both mask is that it is often easier to win a war than to win a peace. The greater military power can generally be successful in reducing its foe to the point where organized military resistance is no longer possible. However, almost no degree of military force can make an entire population behave in ways they don't want to. This is what the Northern states ran into after the Civil War. It was well within their power keep the South from splitting off and setting up an independent country. However, the amount of energy necessary to keep Southerners on the ground from behaving mostly the way they wanted to after the war was over was something the North was not willing (perhaps was not able) to expend for long.

Traditional With Benefits

Having been feeding on a steady diet of Victorian novels of late, and running into the occasional set of thoughts about how we need to get back to a more traditional approach to dating and courtship, it has been striking me to what extent I had the benefit of having things both ways. Going to a small, orthodox Catholic college, I had the benefit of living among a congenial group of people in which living according to the Church's teachings on marriage and sexuality was generally taken as a matter of course. Not to say that people never violated these rules, but the rules were, at least, seen as the rules. In this sense, it had something of the feel of the image people have of the "good old days" in regards to dating and courtship.

On the other hand, it was still very much the modern world of the turn of the millennium that I was living in, and with this, in the broader culture, came many freedoms. Even in Stuebenville culture, most of these carried through -- one could avail oneself of flexible modern cultural standards so long as one clearly adhered to Catholic moral standards as well.

Thus, for instance, MrsDarwin and I, in our quiet way, had a lot more leeway during our years of dating and engagement than would have been the case in 1950s, much less the 1850s. During the semester that we both spent studying in Europe, we traveled together every weekend -- sometimes with other students, but usually alone -- and suffered nary a raised eyebrow. Our senior year, seeking both to save money and escape the at times over-close paternal embrace of Steubenville dorm administration, I rented a three bedroom house off campus. A guy I knew shared the one large bedroom with me while MrsD (then my fiance) and a female grad student took the other two rooms. It was by far the most congenial living situation I had during college, and although I'm sure someone or other in Student Life would have had a case of the vapors had they known about it, it was actually an easier environment to maintain virtue in than the more highly supervised dorm life on campus. Because privacy on campus was at such a premium, when a couple did manage to find a little time together it seemed like they had better get some serious kissing and cuddling in before the moment of privacy passed. In the house, we had plenty of time together and so it was usually spent in comfortingly domestic activities like making dinner or talking over morning coffee.

Indeed, thinking back over my relationship with the college, what I liked about Steubenville most was as a social clime was that it provided a culture which clearly shared my moral standards. What I often found most frustrating was the rules it put in place in order to try to enforce those standards. Having and living by those standards, I still very much valued the more modern freedom to organize my life as I saw fit without people seeing the necessity of policing it.

While many look to a return to the more rigidly enforced social standards of the past (or imagined past) as a way to guard traditional morality, the freedom that comes from the mores of the mainstream culture in some ways served, in our case, to make it easier to live according to our own moral strictures. The freedom to be so close made it easier to wait out three and a half years between when we started dating and when we were able to get married.


...Aaand, this is the end of staying up until 3 am. I'm not nearly done with the story, and I shall post the next installment soon, but tonight I'm going to bed. The End.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Are These Folks Really Concerned About Walmart Workers?

Perhaps because it's the Christmas shopping season, everyone is suddenly in a tizzy about Walmart's wages. Mark Shea, known as one of those shy recluses who always tries to state things in the calmest method possible compares Walmart's pay practices to sodomy.

I'd like to dig into the various business and economic issues at play when I've got more time, but one of the things that's particularly struck me about this conversation is the following interchange which seems to invariably result when Walmart comes up:

A: Walmart pays poverty level wages. The company makes huge profits and should pay more.

B: Walmart pays low wages because they employ low skilled workers to do low productivity work. The work isn't worth much more than they're paying for it.

A: But if Walmart paid higher wages, they'd get a higher quality of worker and those higher quality workers would be more productive and they'd make even more money. Look at Costco and Trader Joe's!

Now, I like Costco and Trader Joe's, both as business models and as places to shop, and I'm not fond of shopping at Walmart (indeed, we basically never do these days, though back when we were financially really hard up, we did.) But the thing that strikes me about this line of reasoning is that it purports to be really worried about workers at Walmart, yet then immediately jumps to the idea that if only Walmart paid more, it could not hire the kind of people it currently hires.

Now, maybe it would be nice if Walmart paid higher wages, but if instead of 2.1 million low paid low skilled workers it had 1.4 million better paid more skilled workers, that kind of leaves all the low skilled workers who currently work there out in the cold, doesn't it? Making $8.80/hr to stand by the door and greet people doesn't sound to me like a fun and rewarding way to make a living. (Indeed, back when I went to Walmart fairly often the greeters always kind of bugged me because it seemed like a job I'd hate having.) But if Walmart went to a business model in which they paid twice as much as they currently do and hired more productive workers, a lot of the folks who are currently doing that kind of work at Walmart would simply be out of a job, or else doing something worse. That seems an odd way of doing them a favor.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Went With The Wind

Perhaps some of you are tired of Gone With The Wind parodies, but for those who aren't, I present Went With The Wind from the Carol Burnett show:

Virtue Happens Moment by Moment

Sometimes taking the long view gives perspective, but other times it becomes a way to build for ourselves a seemingly impossible obstacle. We all know how this goes: "Things are bad at the moment. I can get through this moment somehow, yet when I think of the next moment, and the next, and the next it becomes impossible. If things are hard now, how am I going to deal with this for years and years and years?"

This sort of long view is not only unhelpful, but inaccurate. Virtue is not some big project that we can sit down and accomplish (or fail at) in one herculean effort. Virtue is the habit of doing the good, and so, necessarily, virtue is accomplished (or failed at) one moment at a time. We do not need, at once, to deal with the impossible mountain of right choices stretching from here out. We just need to get it right this moment. And the next moment. And the moment after that.

Monday, November 26, 2012

When A Middling Amount of Knowledge is a Dangerous Thing

In a long post which is mostly a review of Jim Manzi's Uncontrolled and Nate Silver's Signal and the Noise (of the two, he recommends Uncontrolled, and being three quarters of the way through it I'd certainly recommend it) Razib makes an interesting side point about the much discussed questions on polling and forecasting the recent election:
But after soft-pedaling my confidence in polling averages, why did I think the pro-Romney people were delusional? The simple answer is 2004 and 2008. When the polling runs against you consistently and persistently motivated reasoning comes out of the wood-work. There’s a particularly desperate stink to it, and I smelled it with the “polls-are-skewed” promoters of 2012. In 2004 there were many plausible arguments for why the polls underestimated John F. Kerry’s final tally. And in 2008 there were even weirder arguments for why McCain might win. In 2012 it went up to a whole new level, with a lot of the politically conservative pundit class signing on board because of desperation.
After the election was over I actually started reading some of the arguments about why the polls were skewed, and I find that they are extremely plausible to me. And not just me, John Hawks owes me a drink because he simply didn’t believe the turnout models which suggested a demographic more like 2008. The reality is that my instinct was to go with John. I too was very skeptical of the proposition that Obama could turnout the same voters as he did in 2008. And yet he did turnout those voters!
What struck me as interesting here is that Razib essentially made a choice to stick with one basic but fairly well established thing that he knew (averages of large numbers of polls are pretty good at predicting elections) and knowing that he wasn't going to be a true expert in all the mitigating factors which might cause one to question that rule, chose simply not to look at all the argumentation and to stick with his one basic piece of knowledge. Looking at the situation after the fact, he found that indeed the arguments put forward against the basic rule were in fact fairly convincing, but this just served to reinforce his judgement that he had not been in a position to correctly weigh the merits of counterarguments to the basic rule.

This is really interesting from a more general point of view, and I think it underscores some of the pitfalls of having a middling amount of knowledge about a subject. If our knowledge of a topic is basic, and we know it's basic, and so all we do is apply and well agreed upon rules, it's likely that at the very least we won't embarrass ourselves by coming up with something way outside the mainstream. The point when we often get into trouble is when we study a topic a bit more and start to think we know enough to get creative and know when things won't behave in the way that the most basic rules would suggest. It's at this middling stage of knowledge that we're likely to make big mistakes and make them with excessive confidence.

The Minimum Wage and Race

Over at Cafe Hayek, Don Booudreaux posts an extended quote from David Henderson's book The Joy of Freedom dealing with the ulterior motives that were involved in raising the national minimum wage in the 50s and 60s:
“Forty years ago, the politicians who pushed for the increased minimum wage did not hide their motives. Nor, in an era of state-sanctioned segregation, did they feel the need to hide their knowledge of who the intended victims of minimum-wage legislation would be. In a 1957 Senate hearing, minimum-wage advocate Senator John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts, who just four years later would be President of the United States, stated,
Of course, having on the market a rather large source of cheap labor depresses wages outside of that group, too – the wages of the white worker who has to compete. And when an employer can substitute a colored worker at a lower wage – and there are, as you pointed out, these hundreds of thousands looking for decent work – it affects the whole wage structure of an area, doesn’t it?
“The witness he was addressing, Mr. Clarence Mitchell, then director of the Washington Bureau of the NAACP replied,
I certainly think that is why the Southern picture is as it is today on the wage matters, that there is a constant threat that if the white people don’t accept the low wages that are being paid to them, some Negroes will come in [to] work for a lower wage. Of course, you feel it then up in Connecticut and Massachusetts, because various enterprising people decide to take their plants out of your states and take them down to the areas of cheap labor.
(The quotations from Kennedy, Mitchell, and Javits are from U.S. Senate, Labor and Public Welfare Committee Proposals to Extend Coverage of Minimum Wage Protection, Hearings before the Subcommittee on Labor, 85th Congress, 1st session, March 20, 1957, p. 856)
One of the things which people often forget in discussing setting minimum wage levels is that when people are forbidden from using cost as a means of determining who to hire, they necessarily fall back on other reasons for choosing which in many cases may actually prove to be less savory: influence, preferment, race, etc.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Should We Expect Catholics to Agree?

The Feast of Christ the King which we celebrated today is of fairly recent origin. It was established in 1925 by Pope Pius XI and moved to its current place on the last Sunday of the church calendar in 1969 by Paul VI. The feast was instituted as a counterbalance to the rising secularism of the 20th century. In the encyclical Quas Primas, in which he declared the feast, Pius XI begins by summing up the challenge of secularism and his promise to counter it:
We remember saying that these manifold evils in the world were due to the fact that the majority of men had thrust Jesus Christ and his holy law out of their lives; that these had no place either in private affairs or in politics: and we said further, that as long as individuals and states refused to submit to the rule of our Savior, there would be no really hopeful prospect of a lasting peace among nations. Men must look for the peace of Christ in the Kingdom of Christ; and that We promised to do as far as lay in Our power.

This emphasis on Christ as ruler, intentionally set in contrast to civil secularism, reminded me of something that had me thinking in the wake of the election. A number of posts that I read lamented the extent to which Catholics had been divided by the election. This post over at Catholic Moral Theology was one which I had saved on a link to on that theme:
The most significant question for me today has nothing to do with who won the election or what will happen on the American scene now. The most significant question for me is, what will we do as a church? We are fortunate to live in the US, but American politics is not our final goal toward which we are working. What can be said about a vitriolic election in which Catholics fought against Catholics – in which Catholics came down very keenly split across political parties?

I have been so sad (perhaps even distraught) about the ways in which I have seen the church divided against itself this election season. That only harms us – because when we are divided, we cannot very well witness Christ to other people.
In this election, we lined up and chose sides, based on American ideologies and not Catholic doctrine. In public discourse, it seemed we were either FOR the “Nuns on the Bus” or FOR the “bishops”. We began election arguments by deciding that “those” people are not the truly pure Catholics, and therefore we don’t have to listen to their arguments.
Now, maybe I'm just a very cynical person, but it generally does not surprise me when Catholics end up on both sides of a partisan divide. There are a few issues on which one could at least hope that Catholics would speak with one voice: abortion, persecution of the Church, etc. But on most political issues it strikes me as unsurprising that Catholics would be as divided as other people because the issues at stake are not ones which the faith can answer for us in some definitive fashion.

When it comes to helping the poor, do work requirement help people rise out of poverty or are they yet another indignity heaped upon those requiring public assistance?

What is the right balance between reforming entitlements and increasing taxes?

Is Wagner Act-style unionism a solution to the low wages of service sector workers, or would it simply drive up prices and unemployment?

Is raising the minimum wage or using negative income tax-like tools such as the Earned Income Tax Credit a better way to help low wage workers?

Does the pay given to executives constitute "stealing" from those who make less, or it is a legitimate profit for the services rendered?

How much of a person's health care expenses is it reasonable to expect a person to pay himself, assuming that he able to afford the cost?

Would a given set of environmental regulations actually improve the environment enough to be worth the cost?

These are questions on which people in full agreement on the moral teachings of the Church could strongly disagree. How one rules on these questions relies not on teachings on faith and morals but rather on how one believes the nation and the economy to work, and where one believes the balance should be struck between the duties of the individual and the duties of society. Why, then, should we expect that Catholics should not be as divided on these kind of issues as any other group of people? As Catholics, we may share moral principles, but we certainly cannot expect to all share the same views as to how the economy works. Thus, I can hardly see it as a scandal that Catholics are divided on many of the same issues that divide the rest of the country.

Thinking on all this, I was curious as to what issues in particular, if any, Pius XI spoke about in relation to the proclamation of the Feast of Christ the King. It turns out, they are mostly what we today would call "religious issues", particularly the anti-clericalism which was so often a feature of the secular regimes that were on the rise at that time in had been traditionally Catholic countries:
24. If We ordain that the whole Catholic world shall revere Christ as King, We shall minister to the need of the present day, and at the same time provide an excellent remedy for the plague which now infects society. We refer to the plague of anti-clericalism, its errors and impious activities. This evil spirit, as you are well aware, Venerable Brethren, has not come into being in one day; it has long lurked beneath the surface. The empire of Christ over all nations was rejected. The right which the Church has from Christ himself, to teach mankind, to make laws, to govern peoples in all that pertains to their eternal salvation, that right was denied. Then gradually the religion of Christ came to be likened to false religions and to be placed ignominiously on the same level with them. It was then put under the power of the state and tolerated more or less at the whim of princes and rulers. Some men went even further, and wished to set up in the place of God's religion a natural religion consisting in some instinctive affection of the heart. There were even some nations who thought they could dispense with God, and that their religion should consist in impiety and the neglect of God. The rebellion of individuals and states against the authority of Christ has produced deplorable consequences. We lamented these in the Encyclical Ubi arcano; we lament them today: the seeds of discord sown far and wide; those bitter enmities and rivalries between nations, which still hinder so much the cause of peace; that insatiable greed which is so often hidden under a pretense of public spirit and patriotism, and gives rise to so many private quarrels; a blind and immoderate selfishness, making men seek nothing but their own comfort and advantage, and measure everything by these; no peace in the home, because men have forgotten or neglect their duty; the unity and stability of the family undermined; society in a word, shaken to its foundations and on the way to ruin. We firmly hope, however, that the feast of the Kingship of Christ, which in future will be yearly observed, may hasten the return of society to our loving Savior. It would be the duty of Catholics to do all they can to bring about this happy result. Many of these, however, have neither the station in society nor the authority which should belong to those who bear the torch of truth. This state of things may perhaps be attributed to a certain slowness and timidity in good people, who are reluctant to engage in conflict or oppose but a weak resistance; thus the enemies of the Church become bolder in their attacks. But if the faithful were generally to understand that it behooves them ever to fight courageously under the banner of Christ their King, then, fired with apostolic zeal, they would strive to win over to their Lord those hearts that are bitter and estranged from him, and would valiantly defend his rights.

25. Moreover, the annual and universal celebration of the feast of the Kingship of Christ will draw attention to the evils which anticlericalism has brought upon society in drawing men away from Christ, and will also do much to remedy them. While nations insult the beloved name of our Redeemer by suppressing all mention of it in their conferences and parliaments, we must all the more loudly proclaim his kingly dignity and power, all the more universally affirm his rights.
Opposing the repression of the Church is, at least, something which one would imagine all Catholics could agree upon. Viva Cristo Rey!

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Comment Moderation

For the last week we've been having a problem with a troll who shows up in the small hours of the morning every night and leaves incoherent but highly offensive comments which for some reason the spam filter doesn't catch. I imagine that a week or two of comment moderation should cause this troubled soul to get tired of his game, so while I've never been a fan of comment moderation I'm going to turn it on for a while until we shake our troll. Be assured that all comments that aren't obvious trolling will be approved as soon as we see them.

Sorry for the inconvenience.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

More marriage, or more virtuous marriage?

Making the rounds lately has been Anthony Esolen's article on how to mend declining marriage rates, which asks, "Where are we nudging [the youth] gently along toward marriage and the sweetness of that life?":
It’s been more than ten years since I first noticed something odd about the generally pleasant—and generally Catholic—students at the college where I teach.  The boys and girls don’t hold hands. 
Let that serve as shorthand for the absence of all those rites of attraction and conversation, flirting and courting, that used to be passed along from one youthful generation to the next, just as childhood games were once passed along, but are so no longer.  The boys and girls don’t hold hands.

I am aware of the many attempts by responsible Catholic priests and laymen to win the souls of young people, to keep them in the Church, and indeed to make some of them into attractive ambassadors for the Church. I approve of them heartily. Yes, we need those frank discussions about contraception. We need theological lectures to counter the regnant nihilism of the schools and the mass media. But we need something else too, something more human and more fundamental. We need desperately to reintroduce young men and young women to the delightfulness of the opposite sex. Just as boys after fifteen years of being hustled from institutional pillar to institutional post no longer know how to make up their own games outdoors, just as girls after fifteen years of the same no longer know how to organize a dance or a social, so now our young people not only refrain from dating and courting—they do not know how to do it. It isn’t happening. Look at the hands.
I don't accept the lack of handholding as shorthand for the rise of these dire trends, actually, but let that pass. The question posed by the essay is how we can reestablish these social conventions and rites of courtship and flirting that were prevalent in days of yore in which marriage rates were higher and average age of marriage was lower, "when Wally Cleaver was wearing a jacket and tie to join other boys and girls at a party, for playing records and eating ice cream and dancing".

Just as many overlook that underlying the edifice of the vibrant culture of family life in the 1950s was a deeply unstable moral foundation which was a direct contributor to the widespread acceptance of changing sexual and social mores in the 1960s, so many Catholics sigh for the romanticism of earlier eras in which relations between the sexes were more defined and regulated without considering that the climbing divorce rates of later years and decades were fueled at least in part by the dissolution of some of these marriages. The question should be, though: do these external features actually function to produce not just higher rates of marriage but better marriages?

Brandon takes exception to the sentimentality of Esolen's article:

People look upstream to Austenesque visions of earlier stages, where negotiating for good bargains was still more sharply bound by concerns of familial and sexual honor, and dating, while freer, looks like cheap imitation; they look downstream to the consensual market open for all, and dating, while safer, looks stifling and arbitrary. Unless conditions are just right, dating culture will always start looking like a bad compromise. The primary problem with the state in which we are increasingly finding ourselves, the anything-harmless-goes stage, is not that it's not dating, but that anything-harmless-goes inevitably breaks down as people find they cannot agree on what's really harmless. And then people start trying to keep order by intimidation and manipulation, because that's all that's really left. We know this is how it all goes down, and we've always known that this is how it works, because these tendencies are already found in every society, just in different proportions and under different conditions.

Dating, in short, is a low standard. For that matter, Austenesque Regency marriages are a low standard, for reasons Austen herself depicts quite clearly. The only relations between the sexes that matter are relations based on pursuit of virtue, which are both more free and more honorable than all the other options on the table. And the only possible thing that you can do to bring those about is to strive for virtue yourself and show proper respect for the particular cases you happen to come across in others. Everything else is arbitrary convention and the Goddess Fortune. [emphasis mine]
There's something charmingly retro about calling for the return of dances and social structures that throw men and women together, but Church-sanctioned socials or what-have-you, while (as Brandon points out) a lovely way to build community, can be an excuse for pushing out onto others the responsibility for virtuous marriages, whereas personal virtue is a change that starts right now, instantly, in the choices one makes every moment, in how one relates to every person one meets, man or woman. Unless relations between the sexes, and between individual men and women, are truly regulated by the pursuit of virtue and the full recognition of the dignity of all people (and this person with whom one is interacting, in particular), even Catholic social clubs and shindigs and family dances become a kind of marriage market-lite, with all the flirting, rating, and labeling that goes on in more secular venues.

I've pounded this drum before, but I do take great exception to Esolen's insistence that people need to be getting married younger. This is not because I'm opposed to early marriage, but because it is something that is generally not within the control of anyone to procure. It's sheer folly to declare, "I'm going to get married young!", without reference to a particular other person one wants to marry (and who wants to marry one). Doubtless he's referring to the cultural phenomenon of upwardly mobile young men and women who think that they must achieve certain educational and career and personal goals before even considering marriage, but it so, the answer would seem to lie in more evangelical methods of promoting the beauty of marriage than Church-based socials, as those are probably going to draw their attendance from a different demographic.

There has to be a mean for modern Catholics between Esolen's sugar-glazed nostalgia for "boys climbing the mountains to pick edelweiss for their sweethearts" and the oddly ahistorical assertion that "a whole mode of being has been lost, a mode of being that in every culture but our own produces a wealth of beauty, and sweeps young people along with its strong tide, into marriage and a world of families," on the one hand; and on the other, Brandon's rather cynical observation that "one of the more baffling elements of American Catholic culture is gripey passivity, an intense insistence that something must be done, beyond which nothing actually ever happens, except that sometimes various people are blamed." Contra Esolen, I don't think the problem is simply that "We need desperately to reintroduce young men and young women to the delightfulness of the opposite sex." We need desperately to reintroduce young and old men and women to the delightfulness of every human person, to the very real and intensely practical implications of every single person being made in the image and likeness of God. One of the best preparations for and witnesses toward marriage is not the mere participation in customs that may have produced superficial results in previous times, but in living a real charity toward each unique person who makes up God's family, regardless of venue, in anticipation of the day when He might give you one of your own.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

"Compactly built"

One of the delights of having a blog is being able to link to whatever snippets of damn fine writing one pleases. Here, as a total non sequitur to the previous discussion, Angelico Nyugen pens the ideal Catholic Match profile in the mind of God:

Please note, to avoid frustration upon first meeting: She has to be okay with the fact that the good Lord exercised a severe (and, to my mind, elegant) economy when He proportioned my frame. What I’m trying to say is that, by turn-of-the-millennium U.S. standards, I’m a tiny, Hobbitty little man. Not that my lack of height bothers me; I’m perfectly happy to be, like Jerusalem, compactly built. But I get the sense that it might be a deal-breaker for some.

The whole comment has been making me laugh for two days.

A Heroine Problem

For those who don't spend most of their days sitting in front of a computer crunching data, it may be hard to find an hour and twenty-two minutes to listen to a podcast, but the five-way discussion of Heroines, Past and Present over at JulieD's A Good Story is Hard to Find is worth listening to. Julie and Scott bring on guest contributors Rose, Joseph and Heather to discuss what makes a strong female character in books and movies ranging from Hunger Games and Twilight to Jane Eyre and Bleak House. Much of the discussion centers around whether too many (particularly YA and TV/Movie) heroines these days are shown as "strong" only by taking on traditionally masculine roles (such as running around with weapons killing people) rather than displaying actual strength of character.

Why the Age of the Earth Matters

Senator Marco Rubio got some publicity of a kind he probably didn't want this week with the publication of an interview in GQ in which he was asked about the age of the Earth:
GQ: How old do you think the Earth is?
Marco Rubio: I'm not a scientist, man. I can tell you what recorded history says, I can tell you what the Bible says, but I think that's a dispute amongst theologians and I think it has nothing to do with the gross domestic product or economic growth of the United States. I think the age of the universe has zero to do with how our economy is going to grow. I'm not a scientist. I don't think I'm qualified to answer a question like that. At the end of the day, I think there are multiple theories out there on how the universe was created and I think this is a country where people should have the opportunity to teach them all. I think parents should be able to teach their kids what their faith says, what science says. Whether the Earth was created in 7 days, or 7 actual eras, I'm not sure we'll ever be able to answer that. It's one of the great mysteries.
Since it is one of the most essential functions of the news media to catch Republican politicians saying dumb things and then discuss the sheer dumbness of what was said for as long as possible, we'll be hearing about this for a while. I'm not clear from Rubio's answer whether he thinks is something of a Young Earth creationist, and he's trying to sound less scary about it, or whether he just wants to avoid offending the sensibilities of those who are Young Earth creationists by not flatly disagreeing with them. Either way it's a bit dispiriting.

Rubio makes the argument that the age of the universe doesn't actually have anything to do with the sort of everyday concerns that a Senator deals with. Over at Forbes, Alex Knapp points out that the age of the universe actually does have huge implications for the kind of science we deal with in our everyday lives.
The emphasis in Rubio’s statement is mine. I say that because the age of the universe has a lot to do with how our economy is going to grow. That’s because large parts of the economy absolutely depend on scientists being right about either the age of the Universe or the laws of the Universe that allow scientists to determine its age. For example, astronomers recently discovered a galaxy that is over 13 billion light years away from Earth. That is, at its distance, it took the light from the Galaxy over 13 billion years to reach us.

Now, Marco Rubio’s Republican colleague Representative Paul Broun, who sits on the House Committee on Science and Technology, recently stated that it was his belief that the Universe is only 9,000 years old. Well, if Broun is right and physicists are wrong, then we have a real problem. Virtually all modern technology relies on optics in some way, shape or form. And in the science of optics, the fact that the speed of light is constant in a vacuum is taken for granted. But the speed of light must not be constant if the universe is only 9,000 years old. It must be capable of being much, much faster. That means that the fundamental physics underlying the Internet, DVDs, laser surgery, and many many more critical parts of the economy are based on bad science. The consequences of that could be drastic, given our dependence on optics for our economic growth.

Here’s an even more disturbing thought – scientists currently believe that the Earth is about 4.54 billion years old because radioactive substances decay at generally stable rates. Accordingly, by observing how much of a radioactive substance has decayed, scientists are able to determine how old that substance is. However, if the Earth is only 9,000 years old, then radioactive decay rates are unstable and subject to rapid acceleration under completely unknown circumstances. This poses an enormous danger to the country’s nuclear power plants, which could undergo an unanticipated meltdown at any time due to currently unpredictable circumstances. Likewise, accelerated decay could lead to the detonation of our nuclear weapons, and cause injuries and death to people undergoing radioactive treatments in hospitals. Any of these circumstances would obviously have a large economic impact.
Knapp does a good job of pointing out that issues like the age of the universe are not simple trivia from a scientific point of view. If someone were really serious about believing that the universe was only 9,000 years old, it would imply that a lot of the physical laws we take for granted at the moment (a lot of our paradigms) are wrong. I think it's important that people have an understanding of how seemingly separate areas of scientific knowledge are in fact intimately tied together, so this is a very useful reminder.

That said, I think this misses something about the way in which most people who say that they think the Earth is only a few thousand years old actually use that belief. I've read explanations by Creationists that attempt to put together some story as to how we see light from objects more than 10,000 light years away, how radioactive decay could have been faster in the past, etc. in order to explain how the world looks the way it is while being less than 10,000 years old. However, these explanations invariably seem to be focused on coming up with an explanation as to how things used to be different for a while in the past -- they never attempt to make any predictions about the world behaving in strange and unexpected ways in the future. This is, of course, one of the several reasons that "creation science" can't really be considered a science, it's not predictive. Creation science is the attempt to use scientific language to explain how two seemingly incompatible things could be true: the world could look and act the way it does now (far away objects, radio isotope dating, fossils, etc.) and yet be very young. However, now and in the future, "creation science" is comfortable assuming that the world will continue to work exactly the way it does now -- not in the crazy ways it allegedly did for a couple days 9,000 years ago.

One can simply see that as being very bad science, and I think that's certainly appropriate. But as I think about Rubio's comments in particular, it strikes me that part of what's going on in many cases when people express doubts as to the age of the universe is that they're effectively walling off the question of the age of the universe and choosing to think of that in a context other than a scientific one. Sen. Rubio's expressed doubts as the the Earth's age and Rep. Broun's expressed belief that it's only 9,000 years old don't actually have any implications for science and technology applications in the present because they don't think about the age of the universe as a scientific question. I doubt very much that they expect the laws of physics to suddenly start acting differently any more than any other person does. Like anyone else making the leap from inductive knowledge to general laws, they are quite happy to act as if the speed of light and the breakdown of radioactive elements is constant. They just don't want to apply those practical beliefs to the question of the age of the universe.

In one sense, this isn't that odd. There are lots of areas of life where we don't attempt to apply science as a way of answering questions because science is incompetent to answer them. Examples of such questions would include: What is the meaning of life? Does my wife love me? Is Brahms better than Shostakovich? Should I become an academic or go into business?

What is odd is that those who believe in or hold open the possibility of a young earth are choosing to take a topic which science would appear to be well suited to "How old is the Earth?" and choosing to hold that out as an area where they do not apply science.

UPDATE: Of course, it's not just the Right that has its science problems. As a friend quipped on Facebook: "Rubio says he doesn't know the earth's age. Obama says he doesn't know when life begins." One of those is more likely than the other to result in making bad decisions.

Monday, November 19, 2012

The Romance of the Pencil

The folks at the Competitive Enterprise Institute have produced a brief web movie which "dramatizes", if one may use the term, the classic economics essay I, Pencil. It's quite well done.

And for the less high-concept version, here's the How It's Made (a wildly popular series in the Darwin household) episode on pencils:

Secession Silliness

One of the things that people spend a lot of time doing in politics is coming up with reasons to think one's opponents crazy or wicked. About four years ago, we had people making a point of exercising their right to open carry in those states that allow it, while holding quiet protests against creeping "socialism" and such. A surprising number of my more left leaning friends assured me with utter seriousness that there was a rising tide of right wing violence and that they were sure that Obama would be assassinated well before the 2012 election.

This time around the flavor of the moment is secession. The enabling factor for this is that the Obama White House has created a feature on the White House website which allows people to create online petitions. If the petition receives 25,000 "signatures" (basically, online "likes") then the petition receives an official response from the president. Occasionally this is used to express feelings about real issues, and when petitions objecting to the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA) gained large numbers of signatures from online activists. However, the feature also lends itself to silliness and grandstanding, which is pretty much what the current craze for secession petitions is. Brandon of Siris discusses this much more amusingly than I could:
Secession petitions filed at the White House's "We the People" site have somehow become major news, thus leaving completely unremarked other important petitions like the recently expired petition asking the President to dance the hokey-pokey, or the current one asking him to attend a party or else drink a beer with Drew Curtis, or the one demanding that he outlaw offensive comments about prophets of major religions. A few points of note:

(1) It is quite obvious that the point of the petitions (from all fifty states by now) is simply to force the White House into the embarrassing position of having to give a public response explaining why states should not secede. This is not a 'secession movement'; it's a prank.

(2) Texas leads the pack, by far, on signatures for a secession petition, so it's perhaps worth pointing out for any Yankees in the audience that the obvious reason why it's so far ahead of other secession petitions is that Texans are signing it in order to make sure that Texas comes in first when it comes to secession petitions. This is what Texans do. If, for instance, you were to go to any random place in Texas and start asking people whether they thought Texas should secede, you would have a significant number of people who would say 'Yes' for no other reason than to guarantee that there would be lots of 'Yes' answers to your question. (You would also have a significant number of people who would say 'Yes' because they thought it was a stupid question deserving a stupid answer. That's another thing Texans do: answer questions they regard as stupid with answers they regard as stupid, and then laugh at you when you go away taking them seriously.)

There is, of course, no major secession movement in Texas, and hasn't been in ages. Secession in Texas is a vocabulary and game, not a movement, and is a (deliberately) bombastic way of talking about the distinctiveness of the state. Likewise, when you are in Texas and overhear someone saying that someone should be shot, or that they will be beating someone to death shortly, you can generally assume that they are engaging in Texas hyperbole for 'So-and-so is completely wrong and starting to annoy me.' Deliberately bombastic hyperbole is also something Texans do. And, what is more, one reason Texans like talking about secession is that it elicits hilariously funny reactions from non-Texans who aren't in on the game.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Exploiting a Tragedy

Hard cases may make bad law, but they make great headlines. Thus, certain sectors of the news and opinion world are abuzz with a tragedy that occurred in Ireland:
Two investigations are under way into the death of a woman who was 17 weeks pregnant, at University Hospital Galway last month.

Savita Halappanavar (31), a dentist, presented with back pain at the hospital on October 21st, was found to be miscarrying, and died of septicaemia a week later.
Speaking from Belgaum in the Karnataka region of southwest India, Mr Halappanavar said an internal examination was performed when she first presented.

“The doctor told us the cervix was fully dilated, amniotic fluid was leaking and unfortunately the baby wouldn’t survive.” The doctor, he says, said it should be over in a few hours. There followed three days, he says, of the foetal heartbeat being checked several times a day.

“Savita was really in agony. She was very upset, but she accepted she was losing the baby. When the consultant came on the ward rounds on Monday morning Savita asked if they could not save the baby could they induce to end the pregnancy. The consultant said, ‘As long as there is a foetal heartbeat we can’t do anything’.

“Again on Tuesday morning, the ward rounds and the same discussion. The consultant said it was the law, that this is a Catholic country. Savita [a Hindu] said: ‘I am neither Irish nor Catholic’ but they said there was nothing they could do.

“That evening she developed shakes and shivering and she was vomiting. She went to use the toilet and she collapsed. There were big alarms and a doctor took bloods and started her on antibiotics.
She spent a further 2½ days “in agony” until the foetal heartbeat stopped.

The dead foetus was removed and Savita was taken to the high dependency unit and then the intensive care unit, where she died of septicaemia on the 28th.
Ireland is one of the few developed nations which bans abortion, and those who oppose its anti-abortion laws have taken up this case as a rallying cry, despite the fact that it appears that Irish law would not in fact have prohibited treatment of Ms. Halappanavar even if the treatment would have resulted in speeding the (probably inevitable in this case) death of her child:
The question that needs to be asked is: was Ms Halappanavar treated in line with existing obstetrical practice in Ireland? In this kind of situation the baby can be induced early (though is very unlikely to survive). The decision to induce labour early would be fully in compliance with the law and the current guidelines set out for doctors by the Irish Medical Council

Those guidelines allow interventions to treat women where necessary, even if that treatment indirectly results in the death to the baby. If they aren't being followed, laws about abortion won't change that.

The issue then becomes about medical protocols being followed in hospitals and not about the absence of legal abortion in Ireland.

Professor John Bonnar, then chairman of the Institute of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, spoke about the matter to the All Party Oireachtas Committee's Fifth Report on Abortion, saying: "In current obstetrical practice, rare complications can arise where therapeutic intervention is required at a stage in pregnancy when there will be little or no prospect for the survival of the baby, due to extreme immaturity.

"In these exceptional situations failure to intervene may result in the death of both the mother and baby. We consider that there is a fundamental difference between abortion carried out with the intention of taking the life of the baby, for example for social reasons, and the unavoidable death of the baby resulting from essential treatment to protect the life of the mother."

With this medical practice Ireland, thankfully, has one of the lowest death rates of mothers in pregnancy anywhere in the world.
In this regard, Irish law and medical practice are in line with a Catholic understanding of the principle of double effect, which is to say: Not only did Irish law not mandate that the hospital decline to treat Ms. Halappanavar, but Catholic teaching does not either.  And, indeed, Ireland is right to be proud of its record of caring for the health of both mothers and children. The percentage of women who die of pregnancy related complications in Ireland (6 out of every 100,000 pregnancies) is half that of the pro-choice UK and less than a third of that of the United States. Most Catholic and pro-life writers that I am aware of have been quick to point out that this tragic case is not an example of the Irish law working as it was intended, but rather the reverse. The exception is a hysterically self indulgent rant written by Sam Rocha at the Patheos Catholic Portal. Having prefaced his piece with the warning that he intends to vent, Rocha writes:
These idiots — who denied Savita Halappanavar an early induction that would have saved her life — deserve court and confession, prison and penance.

These idiots also happen to be my religious kin. They used the word ‘Catholic’ and their Irish national identity carries a long, storied relationship to my Church. In this case I might as well be an Irishman. We cannot throw out the uncomfortable and inconvenient; we must face it and speak to it directly. When your brother or sister commits a heinous crime, you cannot disown them. You are responsible. There is nothing easy or tidy about it.

Guilty by association. That’s me. Guilty. It is not fair and it doesn’t follow rationally, but it does resonate because it should. I am my brother’s keeper. I will not try and be calm about this. I’m certainly not a fucking journalist. I write this as a Catholic, a furious, outraged Catholic. Nothing more and nothing less.
So, headline story is angry, in good old chest thumping style. He self-consciously drops a swear word to let us know he's really serious, and he loudly demands that people go to jail. I'm not normally one to run down my fellow countrymen, but I have to say: Is there anything more typically American than the conviction that whenever something bad happens it must because some wicked person needs to go to jail for a long time? No wonder we have a ridiculously overloaded prison system. Demanding the imprisonment of others becomes a form of moral preening for us.

What is it that makes Rocha so angry? Why does he consider that Catholics as a group are guilty by association in Ms. Halappanavar's death? Rocha admits that Catholic teaching and Irish law both agree that the way Ms. Halappanavar was wrong.
First, the physicians in question did not deny Savita an abortion. They effectively aborted her, the mother. In doing so, they violated the statutes of the Irish Medical Council and, therefore, the law. They were not following the law of the land and deserve to be tried in court (for at least involuntary manslaughter) and quarantined from the Irish medical community.
Catholic teaching and doctrine on this point derives from the principle of Double-Effect. It is well-established and very old doctrine, grounded in philosophy more than theology. It can be found in Augustine and Aquinas, and more. It can be rationally understood and practiced. These medical professionals failed to understand or practice it. Their failure, their total ignorance on what the Church actually teaches, puts them in grave offense against the Church. They need to confess and begin penance — hopefully while doing time in prison.
So if the medical staff who acted wrongly here acted contrary to Catholic teaching, why is the Church the target of Rocha's self accusing outrage?
Even though the Church teaches otherwise, the fact that these people were so poorly catechized is an evangelical, mystogogical failure that all the faithful must embrace and share. We should not reject the fact that this spectacular failure to understand the holistic reality of pregnancy is a particularly Catholic mistake.
So the Church teaches otherwise, and Irish law directs otherwise, but because the medical staff cited "this is a Catholic country" as their reason for not acting in this case, it's the Church's fault. To Rocha's mind, it is the Church's fault because the Church should have done a better job of teaching these people to understand Catholic morality. Admittedly, we don't actually know if the hospital staff in question were actually Catholic in name or practice, they may have just been engaged in the sort of passive aggressive rule enforcement for rule enforcement's sake which is occasionally found in large organizations in which people come to care more about covering their perceived liability under "the rules" than about actually achieving their mission. However, the Church's failure to teach successfully is not Rocha's final target here. That target turns out to be political.
LIFE IS NOT AN ISSUE. It is not a political trophy to be used to get votes or preserve things you like or get rid of things you don’t like. The simplistic binaries that pit women against their children and infants against their mothers has gone on long enough. ENOUGH!
I am sick over the fact that I suspect that one reason these perfect idiots thought they were following Church and State mandates had something to do with this: life has been violently re-cast and perverted into a talking point, a sanctimonious — and expensive — lobby effort that is rooted in oversimplification and vulgar imbalance. Even those on right side of the matter are on the wrong side.
My silence on the beautiful question of life has been because I don’t find an easy entry into the matter. There is no room to talk about this in a way that respects the reality in question. So I’ve mostly held my tongue.

Today my silence reveals a slothful and selfish cowardice. This is not the time for silence. I fled the conversation because of election politics and the bitter, infantile rivalries within the American Catholic Church. I said to myself “I am a man. I should let the women and the infants speak for themselves.” Excuses. “Through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault.”

The empty-headed, calloused opportunists — despite their truest and very best intentions — have had their say. We know what the pro-choicers and the pro-lifers think. They have NOTHING new to say or add and haven’t for years. What we don’t know, and surely do not begin to understand, is the event itself. Life. The bare reality.

Savita was not aborted through malice. She was aborted because of ignorance and silence. For this reason, her death is worst than malicious. It could have been prevented by the very national and ecclesial traditions it misinterpreted. What a failure.
So there we have it. Irish doctors refused to give Ms. Halappanavar the medical help she so desperately needed because American Catholics don't discuss the pro-life/pro-choice political divide in a way that Sam Rocha happens to like. Once again, I feel like I'm talking for "the other side" here, but: Can we get any more Ameri-centric than this? Why should we imagine that the problem here is American discourse on "social issues" is the cause of what happened in Ireland? Does Rocha know where the major Irish political parties stand on abortion and how the issue is discussed in Ireland? I'll be the first to admit: I don't. But then, I didn't decide to go write a rant on the topic.

Does our political discourse in the US on this issue tend to get divisive and bitter very quickly? Of course. Political faction tends quickly to lead to simplification, dehumanization of the opposition and anger. This happens all the more so on abortion because the issue is so personal and the stakes perceived by both sides are so high. While I support the pro-life movement, I don't for a moment imagine it doesn't fall prey to these problems. In order for truth to be conveyed, these problems need to be fought aggressively. However, what Rocha does in this piece is not engaging in constructive criticism of how the pro-life movement behaves. Rather, he takes a horrible event, the unnecessary death of a young mother, and yanks it out of context in order to serve as an opportunity for moral preening.

Savita Halappanavar did not die because Rocha failed to sufficiently speak out against American political discourse that he finds distasteful. She died because the hospital staff she encountered failed to act as Irish law, Catholic morality, normal medical practice and basic human decency would demand. The hijacking of her death to make political or rhetorical points, however angrily self-righteous, is wrong.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Paradigms and Inductive Knowledge

Since I've been on business trips last week and now this, I've had a bit more time than usual for reading, so I've been working through Jim Manzi's Uncontrolled: The Surprising Payoff of Trial-and-Error for Business, Politics, and Society. The book is about the use of controlled tests in business and politics, but the first hundred pages or so is a very interesting discussion of the development of the scientific method and of the Randomized Field Trial.

One of the really interesting things he talks about in this section is the way in which science gets around the Problem of Induction: the fact that one cannot get from an observation that things have happened a certain way in a number of specific instances to an absolute rule.

So, for instance, the law of gravity, for all that we call it a law, has not been absolutely "proved" by extensive experimentation. It could be that if you drop a quarter right now, it will float in the air, or fly upwards, rather than falling to the ground. However, even though the extensive observation of falling objects doesn't prove the law of gravity, we act as if the law of gravity is proved because doing so allows us to make all sorts of useful predictions. Indeed, if a scientist observes something happening which appears to be contrary to gravity, his first reaction would probably be to assume that there is some other factor at play and that gravity is, in fact, still applicable. Assuming Newton's laws becomes a "paradigm".
[Thomas] Kuhn argued that to make practical progress, a group of scientists accepts an underlying set of assumptions about the physical world, along with accepted experimental procedures, supporting hypotheses, and so on. This paradigm helps to create a coherent discipline. The day-to-day work of scientists is to solve intellectual puzzles that fall within the relevant paradigm. Kuhn calls this normal science, or "worker-bee" science. Anomalies -- factual observations that contradict the tenets of the paradigm -- are rejected and either they are held aside as problems to be solved later or the paradigm is modified slightly to accommodate them. [Uncontrolled, page 24]
Of course, the example I used above related to Newton's laws is a perfect example of this as it is a paradigm that held sway for many years but was modified/replaced in the 20th century by Einstein's theory of relativity. Einstein's theory could explain phenomena which Newton's couldn't (no fault of Newton's, they were unobservable with the technology of his time), and so relativity became the new dominant paradigm.

Of course, there's not just one operative paradigm. Paradigms can be nested and there are different sets of paradigms which apply to different fields.

What's fascinating to me about this is how it uses a sort of factional competition to both get around the problem of induction (that we can't derive absolute laws from observations) while getting around the danger of getting locked into bad explanations that would seem to come with saying "let's just assume it's true".

I'd picked up the book because of my interest in test and control experiments in a business or civic setting which Manzi talks about later in the book. (He was one of the founders of Applied Predictive Technologies, a company which produces the Test & Learn software that I use at work.) However, thus far, I've actually found the first third of the book in which Manzi discusses the epistemology of the experimental method to be the most fascinating part of it.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Public Service Announcement: Fix It Now.

Friends, perhaps you, like me, are procrastinators. Perhaps you have some project you have been putting off, or waiting for the five or ten or thirty uninterrupted minutes during which you can finally tackle some crucial project and have any hope of doing competent work. It could be that your pantry door has been off its track for ages because every time you fix it it pops out again, and that the door has been folded and leaning on the frame for ages because you just haven't had a chance to reset it. But you'll get to it.

And then one day the door decides it wants to topple over, and it hits your own dear mother in the head and knocks her unconscious. And you are to blame because you didn't get around to fixing it and you wouldn't carry it down to the basement because then you'd never get around to fixing it. And your mother is fine after a while, which is a relief, but it could very well have been one of the babies who was in the path of two heavy, hinged, toppling panels. And you take that door right down to the basement, where it should have gone months ago.

Fix it, friends. Fix it today, or get it out of the way. You've been warned.

Friday, November 09, 2012

The Election in Two Images

I've been mostly offline the last couple days due to a business trip -- leaving early the morning after the election. I may write a bit about the election itself in a few days, but since I've spent the last couple days deeply immersed in ways of visualizing data, these two versions of the election map struck me as really interesting in showing what went on Tuesday.

This first image shows the size of the winning candidate's margin for each county. (click for a larger view) [source]

This second image shows the direction of change in the vote of each county as compared to 2008.

UPDATE: Okay, one more image because with all the discussion of re-alignment and emerging majorities I couldn't help putting one together:

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

The Moral Act of Voting

One of the topics that seems to generate a fair amount of discussion every election cycle among Catholic blogs is what sort of moral act voting is, and specifically to what extent, as a voter, one takes on responsibility for whatever ways in which the candidate one votes for might misbehave once in office.

If I may simplify a bit, there seem to be two basic schools of thought on this issue:

One school holds that in casting a ballot one takes on responsibility for the actions of the person you vote for (if elected) and thus you should be very, very careful about supporting anyone who doesn't show absolutely upright moral principles. Given that the leader of any country will often end up committing a range of sins -- either through falling to the temptations of power or through feeling it necessary to perform immoral actions as the only apparent means available of protecting the nation entrusted to his care -- this usually ends up resulting in members of this school of thought taking a "pox on both their houses" approach to politics.

The other school holds that the act of voting in a representative democracy is simply one of selecting between the options before one. Members of this school do still often hold that voting for someone with certain stated policy goals is very, very hard to morally justify, given an alternative who doesn't (example: members of this school would typically argue it's very hard to justify voting for a pro-abortion candidate over an anti-abortion one) but they hold that it's important to vote for what one believes to be the better of the candidates, warts and all. Members of this school even sometimes argue that it's hard to justify voting for a candidate with very little chance of winning (in US politics: any third party candidate) since this means not helping the odds of whichever is the better of the major party candidates against the other.

Both schools have some points, as is invariably the case. I think the first school does make a valid case that once we have picked "our candidate" we tend to defend the actions of that candidate more than we should, perhaps turning a blind eye to things we could criticize in a member of the other party. However, I tend much more towards the approach of the second school. My rationale is that we are going to be ruled by someone no matter what. Given that, one can choose either to have some influence on whether it is a better or worse candidate who fills that role (choosing among the options available) or one can sit back and refuse, but end up getting ruled by them nonetheless. All things considered, I think it guards the common good more to encourage serious Catholics to have a voice in that process than to fear the participatory element of democracy and leave the selection of our leaders to those who do not share those qualms.

O Canada!

The kids and I have said our rosary and we're heading out to vote. Our country will not automatically fall or rise based on who concedes tonight (though I'm not as sanguine about the stock market), but for those who take a more desperate view, The Bundle has a handy set of instructions on How To Move To Canada If Your Candidate Doesn't Win The Election.

Everything I know about living in Canada comes from Anne of Green Gablesand Mrs. Mike, so my only advice to those who must go north is: don't forget to pack the snow boots and the ipecac syrup.

Final Pre-Election Thoughts

I've got an early morning meeting tomorrow, so I'll be standing outside my polling place when it opens at 6:30AM in order to be sure of getting my vote in before heading off to work. The way things have fallen out, it's rather gratifying to be an Ohio voter this year.

All indications suggest this will be one of the closer elections of recent history, though such indications can, of course, be wrong. In 2000 the election proved to be far closer than it was expected to be. This year it could be less close than expected. My bet, however, is that it will be close. I would be surprised if either candidate broke 300 electoral votes or 51% of the popular vote. Obama has a lousy economy and has run a relentlessly negative campaign with little forward looking vision. Romney has had a good closing month, but before that he ran an utterly hapless campaign throughout the summer and thus found himself having to dig out of a significant hole when he finally managed to introduce himself to the electorate at the debates.

Although the polling does not look as good for Romney as it did a week ago, I'll go out on a limb and make a prediction that he will squeak out the narrowest of wins. That may be wishful thinking on my part, but with a number of national polls still showing a toss up but higher enthusiasm in the GOP, and with early voting tallies suggesting that the Democrats may not have racked up enough pre-election day votes to beat the invariably higher Republican election day turnout in key battleground states, I think it remains possible.

I'm sure that a President Romney will frequently disappoint or upset me, but it seems quite clear to me that he would be a better choice than Obama on a host of issues. I hope he prevails.

Sunday, November 04, 2012

Roles and Conflict

I've been reading a lot of Anthony Trollope lately, and thus found myself thinking a fair amount about what the 19th century thought to make a good, or a bad, marriage.

One of the major sources of marital strife in Trollope novels is when the husband or wife is in the habit of interfering in the other's business. After watching this play out between several of his troubled couples, it began to strike me to what an extent Trollope's idea of a happy marriage is rooted in the assumption that the husband and wife have separate spheres. The wife manages the children and the household affairs. The husband manages his profession and the estate. So long as each is happy to leave the other in charge of their domain, there is harmony regardless of how affectionate the couple actually are. And when they do attempt to manage each other's domains, conflict results even among the more affectionate couples.

I don't advocate a strict separation of spheres in marriage. MrsDarwin and I are one of those couples that prefer doing most things together. But it does strike me that having the goal of "50/50 split" in various areas of duty is often problematic, since one so often ends up feeling like one is the one struck doing 55% while the other does only 45%.

To what extent does the modern ideal of men and woman having interchangeable roles in a marriage actually create more conflict by setting the husband and wife up in competition to one another?

Thursday, November 01, 2012

How Pricing Fairness Can Hurt You

Megan McArdle has a great piece up dealing with one of the things that often bothers people about price discrimination: finding out that other people are consistently paying less than you. Since we live one of the wealthiest and largest countries in the world, and since many of the companies we buy products from do business internationally, this often means that US consumers find out that the products they pay a lot for here in the US are being sold for much less overseas.

Case in point, the US Supreme Court is considering the case of Kirtsaeng v John Wiley and Sons which deals with whether companies can get into the business of buying US-made textbooks overseas and shipping them back to the US. Why would this be advantageous? Textbooks are fairly expensive to produce (as in, to get all the content put together and ready to print) but the cost of producing additional textbooks is low (the cost of printing and binding.) The result is that publishers sell textbooks for far, far more than the cost of printing a book -- that is, far above the marginal cost (the cost of producing one more product.) This isn't because it allows the publishing executives and their investors to lie on beds of gold coin like dragons, publishing companies are not actually massively profitable. It's because the revenue produced by selling the textbooks needs to cover the cost of producing the book content as well as the cost of producing the book itself. So they sell textbooks for what the market will bear, which with something as expensive as college is a heck of a lot.

However, since publishing companies are also constantly on the lookout for more revenue (again, to cover their production costs, as well as to produce profits for their dragons to lie on) after pricing college textbooks in the US at what the US market will bear, they'll go into other countries and sell the same textbooks there for what that country's local market can bear, so that as that price is still above the marginal cost of producing more books. The result: US textbooks can often be bought for much less in other countries. Thus creating the opportunity for some enterprising company to buy the books abroad and ship them back, if only they can get around the legal restrictions thereon. But will that save everyone money? McArdle describes why not:
It is possible for a firm to make money with some of its customers paying less than the average cost (but more than the marginal cost of producing an additional unit). It is not, however, possible for a firm to stay in business with all of its customers paying less than the average cost.

But we want to believe that it is possible. Indeed, no matter how often it is explained that we cannot all be the marginal cost consumer, someone will insist quite loudly that it is possible; that only greedy companies, incompetent bureaucrats, or bad laws stand between us and the joys of marginal cost pricing.
She draws out an example of how this situation would equalize out to the higher price with lower overall unit sales, taking as her example a situation in which ordinary US consumers are the beneficiaries of price discrimination: air travel.
If you're skeptical that this is true, consider an area where you're probably the beneficiary of price discrimination: business travel. The first class and business passengers provide the bulk of the profit on airline tickets; they pay for the extra amenities, and the ability to make last-minute arrangements for short stays during the week. Restricted economy travelers often generate very little revenue over and above the cost of transporting them--but since the seat is a wasting asset, you might as well sell it even if you'll only make a few bucks on it.

Let's say that businesses who travel a lot got a law passed to eliminate this sort of price discrimination, forcing airlines to set a single price for a given route, no matter what date or time the flight was. Such a law might well pass, since people hate confusing airline prices.

The result would not be that everyone got the tourist class price, however. Imagine that you've got 10 business class passengers paying $100 apiece, and 100 tourist class passengers paying $5 apiece. Assume that the marginal cost of taking on an extra business passenger is $2 and the marginal cost of a tourist passenger is $1. Assume your fixed cost of getting the plane off the ground is $1300, so you've got a total cost of $1420 and revenue of $1500.

Now say someone comes along and mandates that everyone has to be charged the same ticket price. What happens? Well, you charge all 110 passengers $13.50 and keep your margins about the same . . .

But wait! The tourist class passengers are very price sensitive. They're on average only willing to pay $5-$8 for a ticket. When you raise the price to $13.50, half drop out. Now you've got 60 passengers, which gives you revenue of $810. But your cost has only dropped by $50. Now you're losing a big hunk of money. You'll have to raise prices. $23 should cover it.

Gee, $23 is more than 4 times what the tourists were paying. They don't want to see Grandma that much. Another half of the tourists drop out. Now you've got 35 passengers. But your costs have only dropped by $25. You'll need to raise prices again. Maybe $40 would cover it?

You can see where this is going; pretty soon almost all you have left is business passengers, paying what they were paying before. In fact, depending on how many tourist class passengers drop out, the business class passengers might end up paying more.

someone has to pay for all those planes, and airline profit margins are far from reliably spectacular (which is why they keep ending up in bankruptcy). No, the tickets for your next vacation would probably cost three or four times as much. Obviously, this is a made-up example, with numbers chosen more for ease of calculation than versimilitude--in the real world, most people would snap up a $38 plane ticket. But empirical research bears this out; ending price discrimination doesn't necessarily mean consumers get a better deal. It can easily mean they get a worse deal.

But there's something deep within us that resists that insight. We hate the feeling that someone else is paying less than us, even if it's not costing us anything. So while a decision for the textbook importer might not make consumers any better off in the pocket, it may make them feel better about the high prices they're paying.