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

Monday, October 31, 2016

The Ultimatum Game Election

I attended a conference with my team from work last week, going to talks and workshops dealing with pricing techniques and theory. One of these workshops was on behavioral economics as it relates to pricing, and the ice breaker at the beginning of the session was based on the Ultimatum Game.

The Ultimatum Game works as follows: The facilitator breaks the participants into groups of two. He then explains to each group, "I am giving one of you $100. You can have this money on the condition that the other person in your groups agrees to your proposal on how to split the money. No negotiation is allowed. You make one proposal on how to split the money such as, 'I will give you $50' and your partner responds yes or no. If he agrees, you get the money and split it. If he refuses, none of you get any money."

I proposed giving $40 while keeping $60 and got a yes. One person proposed a $65/$35 split. The rest of the group went $50/$50, except for one group which had a refusal when a man offered the woman he was paired with a $70/$30 split and she turned him down. One guy who was left without a partner announced that he had conducted an imaginary transaction at $99/$1.

The imaginary transaction is actually the solution to the problem at a logical level. It's free money, and you get nothing if you don't reach an agreement, so if you're at the person who receives the proposal you should say 'yes' to anything. If you could count on everyone being logical this way, the person who was in charge of making the offer should offer a $99/$1 split every time in the confidence it would be accepted.

But people aren't simply rational profit maximizers, and in experiments people routinely refuse offers of $30 or less. This means that as the person making the proposal, you need to take into account the sense of fairness of the person to whom you are making the proposal.

This tendency of Person A to offer a more generous split for fear of offending expectations of fairness shows that while an individual Person B may get nothing due to refusing a low-ball offer, the tendency of people to refuse such offers actually means that in general people in the Person B role will do much better than if people didn't enforce this societal expectation. Someone who refuses a low offer gets nothing, but in reinforcing the expectation that low offers will be refused, he benefits others who are in the same position. Refusing may be 'irrational' in the sense of not getting a sure immediate gain, however it results in overall long term gains for the group.

Sitting where we are, a week from the election, it struck me that some of the intra-conservative arguments about whether to support Trump boil down to the two approaches to analyzing the Ultimatum Game. One side argues that if Trump is any short term gain at all to be had in electing Trump president over Clinton (judicial appointments, etc.) then we should vote for him. Doing otherwise is 'irrational'. The other side (to which I adhere) holds that in accepting a candidate as bad as Trump, conservatives would signal to their party that such a low offer will nonetheless by accepted. By rejecting him, we form the expectation that only better candidates will get our support.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Haunted Elevator

For the three people in America who haven't seen this Halloween insta-classic from SNL, all I can say is, "Any questions?"

"The scariest thing to the mind is the unknown."

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Maria Chapdelaine

I finished Maria Chapdelaine weeks ago, the book is drastically overdue at the library (and it's an interlibrary loan, too), and I enjoyed it greatly. Why then have I not written about it, especially when I made a point of asking people to read along with me? Perhaps Maria would understand better than anyone about the restlessness that keeps me looking for new things and amusements the moment I sit down and try to write or read something that requires good concentrated thought.

Maria Chapdelaine, written in 1913 by Louis Hemon, is a lovely little story of the hardworking, heartbreaking existence of upcountry Quebeçois, trying to eke out a living on farms (the French renders farm simply as "terre", earth) scratched out of the all-encompassing woods. The woods are almost a character in their own right, looming around Maria and reminding her of the dangers and loneliness of this life her parents have chosen. The frame of the story is a year on the farm, as each season brings fresh challenges, fresh joys, and fresh sorrows.

When I first started reading, in my concentration on translating from the French, I mistook Maria's character. I thought that she was flighty and a bit shallow. Maria, the oldest daughter of a large settler family, yearns for a life of more security and more society than the farm can offer, and she has good reason: the Canadian woods are a isolated, dangerous place to make a living. Far from friends, far from help, Maria has no romantic notions about "the north", especially as the deadly winters bring repeated tragedy to her family. But she does understand what it means to endure. The loveliest example of this endurance is the chapter in which Maria, a serious intention in her heart, makes a Christmas Eve offering of a thousand Aves to the Virgin, working her prayers in through all the preparations for the coming feast.

Three different men seek Maria's hand, and they hold the promise of three different kinds of Canadian life: the life of the woods, the life of the farm, and the life of the emigré working in an American city. There is not one clear choice: each man is good, each loves her truly, and each life holds a different good. Maria's decision hinges on how best to honor the close-knit family she loves while not dismissing the very real negative aspects of the life they live.

The writing is simple but reaches lyricism in the descriptions of the countryside and Maria's interior life. For such a short book, it takes no shortcuts with its characters, balancing faults and virtues in each. A friend said she'd been surprised, after reading Maria Chapdelaine, that someone had compared it to Anne of Green Gables. Except that they're both Canadian literature of roughly the same period, there's not much similarity. A better comparison would be to the literature of the American prairies, perhaps the later books of Laura Ingalls Wilder, or maybe Willa Cather. But really, Hemon, a transplanted Parisian who based Maria Chapdelaine on his experiences working as a farm hand in the region around Lac Saint-Jean, is his own author. Maria Chapdelaine can be read as iconic Canadian literature, or as a psychological study, or as a narrative of the pioneer experience, but really, it should just be read because it is worth reading in itself.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Taking Counsel

I've been seeing a counselor.

There, I said it. That wasn't so bad, was it?

And yet it was terribly hard to do, to send the email asking for an appointment. I had to email, because I couldn't talk on the phone, because I couldn't stop crying. In September, a friend had asked me, "Do you think you might be suffering from depression?" and the idea made so desperately angry that I sat, locked in my bathroom, sobbing uncontrollably, and all the time thinking, "Something is wrong. This is not like me, ever." And I made a bargain with God, that if he would calm me down and make this crying stop and allow me to take my daughter shopping for pointe shoes that afternoon as I'd promised I'd do, that I would make an appointment with a counselor that very hour.

I googled "Catholic counselor Columbus", and the first link was a lady who saw clients at the next parish over. And I cried more as I sent the email, because I didn't want to be crazy, and I didn't want to have depression. God was faithful to his end of the bargain. My cloud lifted that morning (and, incidentally, has not returned since).

I grew up in a household in which psychological problems, not limited to depression, were allowed to fester to the extent of destroying a marriage, and I had always resolved that if I ever showed any signs of depression, I would seek help immediately and never put my family and my marriage through the chaos I grew up in. But it was humbling to have to make the choice, because I'd always prided myself on being the sanest person I knew, and here I was, weak and bleak and unable, through my own efforts, to reason myself out of my shakiness, either during my mental influenza in June or here in September.

Strangely enough, things started to sort themselves out after I made the appointment. Rather majorly, Darwin and I had a good honest conversation about -- oh God, let's just say it -- sex. Being married for fifteen years, you'd think we'd learned everything to we needed to know about what we needed to know and discussed everything that we needed to discuss (and sometimes it seemed that way), but the birth of the young fellow these 2 1/2 years ago set me back a good ways, and there never seemed to be a good time to talk about it. If there's one thing I've realized about myself, it's that any time I feel like I can't talk to Darwin is a bad time for me. I compounded that by being a martyr. Friends, don't be a martyr. God will send you martyrdom enough in his own good time.

My dears, I have the best and happiest marriage that I know. And yet, in the past years, the old saw "Marriage is hard work" has taken on a whole new meaning. I used to think it only applied to people who fought, or who were difficult or demanding, or who were dissimilar enough that they had to try to be interested in their spouse's interests. Maybe for people who were unable to treat each other with the common courtesy they'd show strangers or co-workers, marriage was hard work, but not for us. Perhaps we associated "hard" with "bad". Perhaps because we've always been able to talk about everything, and because we've never had a fight, nothing about our marriage had ever seemed hard. The instructive thing is that, in this case, "hard" never equated to "sinful". I needed to have a hard conversation with my husband, one which ate away at me because at every instance there was the possibility of giving great pain, and yet the more I tried to die to self, the more painful dying became. There was no sin on my part or on his part -- we'd done nothing wrong -- but there seemed to be no way to avoid hurting each other.

"As he passed by, he saw a man blind from his birth. And his disciples asked him, 'Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?' Jesus answered, 'It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be made manifest in him.'" John 9:1-3

In my attempts to do everything through my own power, I'd forgotten the graces of marriage. I'd created several little fictions in which I examined every way I could avoid being hurtful, and yet in every story I failed. But, as I ought to know, real life is always more complex and interesting than fiction, because I don't control it. Once again, I had a conversation I feared would tear my husband down, and it only went right in every way. It opened the doors for healing and progress, without creating any bitterness or bad feeling where none existed.

All this, before my first appointment.

The counselor and I got on splendidly. God honored my prayers and directed me to a lady who was very compatible with me personally. As she asked me questions, I began to realize that whatever my problems were or had been, they didn't relate to the clinical symptoms of depression or anxiety. I took a depression inventory in which the severest possible answer was 63; my answers totaled up to 6. I took an anxiety inventory and scored even lower. And I came to understand how it looks from the outside to be a Catholic homeschooling mother of six living in a house with virtually no air conditioning. It was valuable to hear someone say that there were legitimate stresses affiliated with many children of many ages, that it is not abnormal to be ground down at times by these stresses. That is is genuinely wearing to do the unacknowledged work of running a household, work which nobody notices and yet everyone notices when it's not done. That wishing for gratitude and appreciation was not a selfish desire.

The counselor recommended that I keep a mood journal, to try to chart what might be causing emotional distress. As it happened, I didn't have any moods to report. But I did look back and make notes on why I had been so agitated in September when I made my first appointment:

  • I had gotten three (unconsecutive) hours of sleep the night before (ALWAYS look to the sleep)
  • I was starting a nasty sinus attack (always look to the sinuses too)
  • I had gone to bed unhappy
  • I had just found out, the week before at my checkup, that I was in fine physical health, and so 
  • I was already fearful that I might have something like depression
  • And then a friend told me that I should consider the possibility of depression, the condition I abhored for its consequences on a family.
Doubtless there were other factors at play too. But these seemed to provide an explanation for an uncharacteristic emotional state.

Through journaling, I put into words some things I'd always known about myself but had never thought about clearly. For example, I hate emotional manipulation with a burning disdain. I hate feel-good memes and sappy photos. I can't stand coy or cutesy pregnancy or engagement announcements. I detest romantic and horror movies that want to mold audience reaction. I reject fake awesome! But also, I'm wary if Darwin as much as brings me flowers, because that feels to me like trying to buy me off for something (which he's never actually done). If you have been obviously crying, and I ask you, "How are you doing?" and you sigh and say, "Fiiiine, I guess", I will go on with my life, because if you wanted to tell me your problem you would. (True example from college days.) I do not follow up on hints and insinuations, because if really wanted to tell me your drama, you would. My best friendships are with people who are honest and communicative and do not allow emotion cloud their better judgment. My earliest memories are of coping with emotional instability around me, for myself and for the younger siblings I protected, and since those days I've been been blocking out emotional manipulation, as a survival mechanism and as a personal preference.

In discussing why I often feel so willfully reluctant to do what I know I need to be doing around the house, the counselor suggested that I schedule some time in which I could feel secure in the knowledge that no one would make any demands of me. "Go to an hour of Adoration a week," she recommended. I have been doing that, and when I'm there I sit in silence. I don't demand of myself that I pray the rosary, something I never do well. I don't demand of myself that I state all my petitions, or consciously bring to mind everyone who's asked for my prayers. I just do what Jesus is doing, which is to be. I close my eyes, or I don't. I kneel or I don't. I read the Bible or I don't. And it is enough.

Also, I read The Noonday Devil: Acedia, the Unnamed Evil of our Times, by Dom Jean-Charles Nault. This was another recommendation, and it was revelatory. I know the signs and effects of acedia -- it's a subject I've written about a slew of times since 2007 -- but this was a more in-depth analysis than I'd read before. And it was good to be reminded of the five principal manifestations of acedia:
  • a certain interior instability
  • an exaggerated concern for one's health
  • aversion to manual work
  • neglect in observing the rule
  • general discouragement
and the five principal remedies:
  • tears
  • prayer and work
  • the antirrhêtic method, or contradicting temptation as Christ did in the desert
  • meditation on death, and 
  • perseverance
I may have checked off very few boxes on the depression and anxiety inventories, but my funk in June is almost exactly described by the five indications above. There was a serious spiritual component, attack-level, if you will, to my weakness, such that I felt that I couldn't even ask for people's prayers because I didn't feel free to do so. And oddly enough, although The Noonday Devil has a chapter on acedia in the different states of life, few bits of the marriage section resonated at all with me, but the section on acedia in the monastic life was relevant in almost every particular. Perhaps as is fitting for a Benedictine abbot, Dom Nault writes about issues in marriage in a general vocational way (fidelity, sexual integrity, openness to life), but he writes about the challenges of the monastic life from a very day-to-day`operational perspective. My home is my cloister, and my temptations are those of the monk confined to his monastery, committed to a stable existence, and yet weary of the demands that stability puts on him. 

By the end of my first visit with the counselor we'd established that I didn't have clinical signs of depression. At my third visit, this past Wednesday, we agreed that there didn't seem any need for me to schedule again unless I found myself recognizing the kind of signs that led me into a downward spiral over the summer. Contrary to my expectation, I thoroughly enjoyed my time talking to the counselor. Perhaps I was anxious about the process because the one who needed clinical help in my family fought that help at every turn. But I love analysis and introspection, and therapy is a good place for those things. And I'm glad I went, because I won't be ashamed to go again if I need to. 

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Morals Are Not Just Religious Practices

"That's fine for you, but don't impose your personal religious views on me."

In our highly freedom-centered culture, you've probably heard this line, or variations on it, used when telling others to keep their moral beliefs to themselves. This formulation might make some basic sense if morals were strictly a ritual practice complied with in order to show obedience to divine command. Examples of such a ritual practice might be the Catholic tradition of abstaining from meat on penitential days, or the Jewish dietary laws. I abstain from eating meat on Fridays in order to make a sacrifice in union with Christ's suffering on Good Friday. To the extent that I believe it would be good for everyone to be Christian and to offer up sacrifices in union with Christ, I think it would be great if everyone did the same. However the extent to which I think that others would be better off following my practice is simply the extent to which I think they too should be Catholic. I don't hold that there is, in and of itself, a life-enriching aspect to abstaining from meat on Fridays. Indeed, to the extent that I think eating meat is a good and enjoyable thing in and of itself, I think that eating meat on Fridays would be good -- it's simply that offering up a sacrifice (in this case of not doing a good thing) is a greater good which I embrace.

However, most Christian moral beliefs about what it is to live rightly are not like this. When Catholics say that it is wrong to have sex outside of marriage or to use artificial birth control to divorce sex from its reproductive aspects, we're making a claim about human nature and the nature of sexuality within it. This means that Catholics would necessarily believe that people would be better off, that they would live more completely and richly, if they complied with Catholic moral teachings on these topics regardless of whether those people are Catholic or not.

We're pretty comfortable with this kind of thinking coming from others so long as its not wrapped in the mantle of religion. We all have those couple friends who are very athletic, who eat well, and who eagerly share at every opportunity their beliefs about how exercise and healthy eating will help you feel more alert, be smarter, live longer, and develop will power. Those people have a set of beliefs about the human person which suggest that aspects of their lifestyle (exercise, healthy eating, etc.) would be beneficial to anyone who adopted them. We might well disagree with them, but it would be odd to describe their advocacy of the way of living which they believe to be best for all as "imposing their views on me".

When people advocate living a certain way based on some set of secular motivations, we are usually not surprised by their belief that these choices have universal applicability. Feminists think everyone should share their beliefs about how to treat women. Environmentalists think everyone should share their beliefs about how to use resources. Health advocates think everyone should follow their dietary and exercise advice. What secular people need to understand in return is that Christian's moral beliefs are no less universal. It is thus no more reasonable to tell a Catholic, "I understand you don't want to use birth control, but you should help me advocate that non-Christians use birth control because that will have effects that you like," than it would be to tell a feminist, "I know that you want to treat women equally, but I want to you to tell non-feminists to treat women unfairly because I think that unfairness will have some side effects that you will like."

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Not This Time

Ah, I've heard back from the agent. She read Stillwater all the way through, she gave it to the head of her agency and discussed it with her colleagues; she likes the main character and the setting; she thinks the moral questions work.

But ultimately what [agency head] and I both felt after reading was that this doesn't quite transform the book in a new way enough. I really enjoyed reading it -- but it felt like a beat-for-beat retelling of Mansfield Park to me. I never quite felt like the characters took on their own life or surprised me. They felt real, and I cared about them, but I didn't feel like I had learned something new about Mansfield Park by the end of this book. I wanted a little bit more from Melly, somehow -- not anything different about her moral sensibility, but because she's such a great character and you're obviously so passionate about her, I wanted some deeper realization from her. I also have to admit that Malcolm doesn't quite make the transition to modern life well -- I was really angry at him for his dumb infatuation with Alys, as I think I was supposed to be, but it was a little hard to understand how we switched to loving Melly so quickly. I think their relationship needs a little more development, somehow. (This may be part of figuring out whatever it is that's missing from Melly's arc too.) 
I'm sorry not to have better news for you! Possibly another agent will feel differently, but I wanted to share our feedback in case it struck a chord with you, because I do wonder if some further revising/rethinking would make this book something really spectacular. There's so much that's working that I suspect it could be a real hit, but it feels like it's only 90% of the way there. 
...I would just look for agents open to upmarket women's fiction or literary fiction and query widely. You might also consider Catholic presses if there are some reasonable ones, given the strong Catholic angle of the book.  
She thinks I'm a beautiful writer and offers to read my next book, if I don't find an agent for Stillwater.

I'm taking it as a favorable sign that she read it all the way through and shared it, and that she offers a quantity of feedback. All in all, it's not a surprise that the first agent I sent the book to won't take it. But how convenient it would have been to have it all fall into my lap like that, without having to put in the hard work of querying...

Monday, October 24, 2016

Seven Quick Takes

Because my life lately is like this:

1. Uptown Monk:

2. This guy:

3. The PBS documentary on Hamilton, both the show and the founding father.

4. This post on The Sentimentality Trap:
Sentimentality is really a form of that deadly heresy of Gnosticism, which prefers airy spiritualization to God’s actual creation. Christian sentimentality wants to transcend the material reality of the world, gesturing toward it only with stock abstractions—Grandma’s hands, baby feet, home sweet home—that have no correspondence with the actual physical world, in order to get to a prearranged rendezvous of feeling. Like the Gnostic, the sentimentalist denies the incarnation. This denial comes most often in the form of a blindness to the particularity of creation, the same kind of blindness that has burdened so many of our Sunday-school classroom walls with a generalized, handsome, and Teutonic Jesus when in fact our Lord was and is no doubt far more Semitic in his actual appearance. In other words, the problem with poems about “Grandma’s hands” is not the subject matter per se but rather that the creator of such a poem has little regard for the actual hands of the lady in question. The woman’s body parts are turned into cheap vehicles for cheap spiritual gratification, a kind of pornography. 
...In my introductory poetry workshop, I find I need to discourage half the class from writing about puppies, rainbows, and Grandmother’s praying hands, but another kind of sentimentality also threatens. It turns away from Hallmark naivete, yes, but then cultivates the gritty irony of the urban dweller. These students, raised on The Hunger Games and postmodern hip, fill their poems with broken glass and the smell of urine in alleyways. Surprisingly, there is really very little difference between the two tones; both are shortcuts and generalizations. Neither version, one a stock sentimentality and the other its snit-sentimental mirror image, is truly incarnational; both are comprised of commonplace images only seemingly aimed at the actual world. Given the choice, I suppose I would rather read a student’s version of Baudelaire rather than one of Swinburne, but both are failures of art, failures at creation. The writer, especially the Christian, is today as obligated to avoid the sentimental anti-sentimentality of the edgy as he is to avoid puppies and Pollyanna. Both reflect shoddy workmanship. It is cheap goods made cheaply.
5. Switching out programs for my 6th-7th grade class to Matthew Kelly's Decision Point, free online.

6. This cartoon, at which I may never stop laughing:


7. The Noonday Devil, on which I shall be writing in depth when I can:

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

The Catholic Left's Internalized Anti-Catholicism

In Catholic circles, one of the many Clinton camp emails released by wikileaks has got a lot of play because it features Clinton's campaign chairman John Podesta fielding questions from a fellow Democrat who wonders whether the US bishops' opposition to ObamaCare's contraception mandate could be used as an opportunity to start a 'Catholic Spring' uprising akin to the Arab Spring uprisings which brought down various regimes in the Middle East.

"There needs to be a Catholic Spring, in which Catholics themselves demand the end of a Middle Ages dictatorship and the beginning of a little democracy and respect for gender equality in the Catholic church." [source]

(That these regimes were replaced with more religiously fundamentalist ones rather breaks the analogy I suppose.)

As Ross Douthat observed on Twitter, however, it's a bit simplistic to simply label these slurs ('Middle Ages dictatorship', etc.) as simple anti-Catholicism, as many conservative Catholics have been quick to do, given that Podesta himself is Catholic as are many of the progressive Catholics who have supported and expanded upon the attacks on the Church and the bishops included in the emails. What we're seeing instead is that the progressive faction in the modern intra-Catholic civil war over theology and ecclesiology has taken on and internalized a lot of the anti-Catholic rhetoric of a hundred years ago.

This shouldn't necessarily be surprising. These days, we think of Protestant anti-Catholicism as being a product of the fundamentalist 'conservative' sects within Protestantism, but back in the day many of these lines of attack were formed by Protestants who were very much in the enlightenment/liberal tradition. For instance, when Newman wrote his Apologia Pro Vita Sua, in response to accusations from Charles Kingsley that the Romish Church encouraged dishonesty in its members, encouraging them to deny the truth and their own conscience at the insistence of the hierarchy, Newman was not squaring off against some right winger. Kingsley was a friend of Charles Darwin and a pioneer of Christian Socialism. Kingsley and those like him in the progressive Christianity of the day in great part disliked the Catholic Church because they saw it as backwards and reactionary -- which is precisely the view which many of the Church's internal critics take today.

Similarly, while people may associate the anti-immigrant Know Nothings and other anti-Catholic groups of the 19th and early 20th centuries with primarily right-wing anti-immigrant rhetoric today, the Know Nothings were in great part motivated by a desire to preserve American liberty and democracy from the reactionary ideologies they associated with the Catholic Church and its political opposition to the secularist and progressive movements involved in the various European revolutionary movements of 1848 and beyond. Thomas Nast, who in the famous anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant cartoon above depicted Catholic priests as alligators about to feast on America's children, was actually a radical Republican in the aftermath of the Civil War, supporting racial equality and universal public schooling, which he saw as threatened by Catholic attempts to have their own school receive government funds just like the (effectively Protestant) public schools.

If progressive Catholics today have adopted many of the anti-Catholic stereotypes of the past about their own church, it's probably because many of those stereotypes were in fact developed by the kind of progressive Christianity which they would like the Church to resemble.

Journeys End in Lovers' Meetings

We clean up nicely.

Throughout the weekend, there was general disbelief when we told people that we were attending the wedding of someone we'd never met in person. But it isn't strange when you consider that we've been reading and interacting with Leah Libresco since July 2011, and that every discussion with Leah is personally revealing in some way because she loves diving right into the big issues. It was a delight and a surprise that we were invited to Leah's wedding to Alexi Sargeant, but it wasn't strange, because Leah isn't a stranger to us.

So we traveled to Philadelphia, just ourselves. It was a lovely wedding, full of laughter. I recall, when I was getting married, how self-conscious I was about being the center of attention. That anxiety permeated the whole day, making it far less joyful than it could have been. That's one reason why I love going to other people's weddings -- all the happiness, none of the stress. Leah and Alexi radiated happiness. I've never seen a smoochier couple up on the altar.

At the reception, each table had books on it, mostly culled from the duplicates in Leah and Alexi's now-mutual library and tailored to the people assigned to sit there. Our table, which featured three young families as well, had The Mind of the Maker by Dorothy Sayers and We Found A Hat by Jon Klassen. The Mind of the Maker I know and love, but We Found A Hat is brand new, the third in the Hat trilogy after I Want My Hat Back and This Is Not My Hat (both favorites at our house). In keeping with the literary theme of the evening, We Found A Hat reveals the Divine Comedy underlying the seemingly lightweight children's set. I Want My Hat Back is a trip through an animal Inferno, in which a bear's search for his beloved hat is bound up with deception and, ultimately, violent revenge. This Is Not My Hat takes a Purgatorial turn, with the small fishy thief confessing to the reader his misdeed. Will penitence be his? We don't know his final fate, but justice seems to prevail as the big fish recovers his hat and falls asleep with what we must presume is a clear conscience. We Found A Hat takes the chapeau to a celestial level, as the two turtles who covet the single hat discover that even more precious than sharing is the love that moves the stars.

We ceded We Found A Hat to one of the young families, and ended up trading Mind of the Maker with Clare Coffey for one of the books at her table, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West.

And so, at the wedding reception, we finally got to meet the bride and groom. It felt like we'd known each other for ages, and indeed we have. It might be that we didn't know exactly how Alexi scratches his nose in person (though we quickly learned, since that was the subject of one of the toasts), but through years of blogging and other online interactions with Leah, we'd established the kind of personal, intellectual, and religious overlap that makes the perfect soil for friendship to flourish. Our initial comraderie was probably facilitated that there were two of us writing -- the comments section of Leah's blog has always been a place where debate has flourished, and since Darwin enjoys debate far more than I do, he's the one who struck up the initial acquaintance. That's how it's been throughout our relationship. Individually one of us will meet someone that the other person might not have encountered, and since friendship with one of us usually becomes friendship with both of us, everyone's circle expands and is enriched.

And Leah's hair is really that awesome.

The happy couple weren't the only longtime friends we met for the first time. We had much good chat with Elliot Milco and numerous other people whose names we recognized from comment sections or Facebook. It seemed a foretaste, through a glass darkly, of heaven, when we will finally see clearly all those we thought we already knew on earth. Journeys end in lovers' meetings, sings Feste. Apparently, Philadelphia is a way station on that journey.

A wedding toast is probably the closest most of us will ever come to hearing our eulogies in advance, and perhaps that's appropriate since a wedding marks a passing to a new state of existence. I recall that the toasting at our wedding was quite brief and mostly generic, as most of the guests were rarely-seen relatives or friends of Darwin's parents. (This was in the days before my siblings performed elaborate musical toasts at weddings, and also, not a single one of our college friends, who'd known us the best over the recent years, was able to attend.) Fortunately, Leah and Alexi are loved and admired by many eloquent people, who told wonderful anecdote after anecdote about their intelligence, their warmth, and their virtue. Fittingly enough, it all ended with a Hamilton parody (Leah is probably the only 538 columnist to crunch the numbers on Hamilton lyrics.)

The wedding was at noon, and the reception wrapped at 6:00, which meant that people were not nearly ready to cease partying. And so a good portion of guests moved over to Clare's house, which was in a lovely section of Philadelphia that reminded me of Cincinnati (my highest compliment to any city). And there was plenty more lovely discussion, some of it with Eve Tushnet, and Daniel Silver of Doxacon. At the reception, we'd been in the middle of the demographic, perhaps trending toward the older side; at the afterparty we were definitely among the dinosaurs. At one point someone came out on the porch and sighed, "I was talking to someone in there I thought was 25, and she turned out to be 21. I need to get out here with people my own age." We, Class of Aught One, nodded sagely. I did find my venerable status being challenged at one point when a slim young thing expressed astonishment at my fecundity.

"Six kids?"
"Yes, six."
"You're shitting me, right? I mean, that's just a joke?"
"Do you want to see my stretch marks?"

This being a marriage of Ivy Leaguers, many bright young things turned out in full bowtie regalia. At any moment I expected to see Whit Stillman moving about, filming the sequel to Metropolitan. I myself didn't go to one of the Ivies, but I tell you what: even in my college days I knew better than to drink from a bucket being passed around a party. At a certain point in the evening I started to feel very maternal, whether it was because I gently redirected a wobbly young woman trying to find the bathroom behind the locked glass porch door, or because I ended up watching Animaniacs with the hostess's youngest siblings, or because I was weighing the practicalities of staying up any later when I knew we had to get up at 4:00 am to get to the airport, and I still wanted to have a chance to talk quietly with my own favorite husband.

Early Sunday morning we flew out. The sun had not yet risen, and the full golden moon hung in the sky, alone except for bright Venus. Below the plane, the clouds were a mysterious carpet. I stared and stared up at the moon as the plane started to descend. Wisps of cloud passed by my window and finally engulfed us, veiling the lesser light. But still it shone, looking down on me and Darwin and all that we love, near and far.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Be Careful Where Your Loyalties Lead You

I will not be voting for Donald Trump. Nor will I be voting for Hillary Clinton. In all likelihood, I will simply leave the top of my ballot blank, and vote only in the state and local races.

While there are people I respect who are likely voting for one or the other of the major candidates (mostly Trump, given my the profile of my acquaintance) and I do not think that it is morally impossible to come to a reason for supporting either, I think that withholding my support from either candidate has been or moral benefit to me. Some people are capable of being entirely practical in their voting, "I'm voting for Trump because I think that policies I support are more likely to pass under him than Clinton." However, many people are not able to be so impersonal. Having decided to support a candidate, however reluctantly, becomes necessary for them to defend him.

I see this among Hillary supporters on a group of Social Justice oriented Catholics that I lurk in. People who seemed to start out supporting a Democrat in a rather conflicted fashion, troubled by her absolutist position on abortion, are soon repeating anti-clerical lines about how priests and bishops should just shut up about politics and making broad claims that legalizing abortion is good for women.

I see it too among Trump supporters, and because these people are more like me ideologically and in temperament, I find it all the more troubling. People who were annoyed when feminists hash-tagged that #YesAllWomen were sexually harassed by men in too many cases are now willing to argue that "look, all men talk like that" when Trump talks about walking up to a woman and grabbing her genitals.

Most of us do not simply vote in detachment, we join the team and then feel the need to defend everything "our" guy does. This isn't a bad instinct. Loyalty is a good thing. But it is important to think twice about who we give our loyalty to. What has saddened me in this election in particular is to see Trump's awful candidacy drawing people to defend things they never would have excused a year ago.

At the end of the day, I care a lot less about who people vote for than I do about the ways in which their support of a candidate leads them to excuse actions and attitudes they never would have defended before. Those changes in moral standards may last long past the election and will effect their own lives far more.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Different Times, Different Disqualifications

As the latest revelations of Donald Trump's crass boasting about groping women have caused outrage and even encouraged some Republicans to urge him to step down from the ticket, defenders have fallen back on the defense that many other leaders have been crude sexual alley cats. While Sean Hannity was perhaps most amusing by making the defense "King David had five hundred concubines, for crying out loud!" most people have pointed to more modern figures, particularly JFK.

It's true that Kennedy's sexual exploits were just that, exploitive, and it was only in a time when reporters were used to covering for the powerful that someone could have so successfully covered up such irresponsible and repulsive behavior. However, the comparison misses two things.

Firstly, JFK's bad behavior was indeed bad behavior, and it pointed to a shallowness and recklessness which marked his problems in other areas: his repeated and unsuccessful attempts at invasions and assassinations in Cuba, his weakness with the Soviet Union which led to their testing of American resolve in the Cuban Missile Crisis, his haphazard handling of Vietnam, etc. The fact that JFK was bad, and at the time got away with it, does not excuse knowingly electing a bad leader now -- and one lacking even Kennedy's mitigating virtues of war record and 'smart set' backing.

Secondly, however, the early Sixties were another time, a time in which the abuse of women by powerful men was all too accepted by the elite and too little talked about by the rest. They were a time in which there were different live wires in politics, the touching of which could end a politician's chances quickly. In 1960, Russia was one of those live wires. If JFK -- who ran on the claim that General Eisenhower had been soft on Russia and allowed a 'missile gap' to develop, leaving the US less prepared for war than the communists -- had displayed the kind of affection for Khrushchev that Trump has for Putin, he would have gone absolutely nowhere in the world of 1960. Communism and Russian imperialism were a live issue in that time, and the voting public would not have tolerated a politician who was seen as soft on the issue. Democratic insiders of Kennedy's day who knew of his sexual proclivities -- if they even considered them wrong, which many didn't -- could rest assured that his failings would not hurt his ability to get done what they wanted in a leader.

In this day and age, a politician can survive flirting with Russia, but issues of marriage and sexuality are not some circus side issue. For religious conservatives in particular, some of the most key issues of our time involve what it means to treat others with human dignity under the conditions wrought by the sexual revolution: Is marriage constrained by certain biological realities, or is it simply the social acknowledgement of whatever sort of sexual relationships people desire to have? Does equality between the sexes demand that women have the unlimited right to end a pregnancy even if the unborn child is living human person?

It is religious conservatives who have to fear not only that many will hurt themselves and hurt society by following wrong beliefs about these issues, but that our very social institutions, our churches and schools, will be crushed by the strong arm of the law if we refuse to change our beliefs to fit the prevailing norms of sexually libertarian elite culture. We need a leader in this time who can credibly make the case for marriage, for life, for the idea that these foundational values do not mean the oppression and marginalization of the half of our country who are women. Someone with Trump's morals (or lack thereof) cannot make that case for us. He is not a strong leader with a failing, he is a weak leader who is unable to lead us in the battles at hand.

The glorification of sexual assault which we heard in Trump's remarks would be wrong in any age. It marks him as a vicious, gross, and faithless man. But people are right that in various times people have ignored ignored one failing in a leader because of the importance of other strengths. When people came to Lincoln accusing General Grant of being a drunkard, Lincoln shrugged it off on the basis that Grant won battles. But he did this only because Grant's alleged failings were a side issue compared to his obvious successes as a general.

In this case, Trump's evils are not tangential to his job as presidential candidate for the Republican Party. It would be one thing to ignore a general's personal sins because he won battles, it would be utterly foolish to shrug off a general's inability to win battles because one liked his style in other respects. In terms of the actual battles we face -- to credibly present our views, to increase support for them, and to turn them into enacted policy -- Trump's actions, past and present, make him a leader with no ability to win.

Friday, October 07, 2016

Millennials: Weakness in Numbers?

I was recently at a conference where a demographer gave a talk dealing with how demographic trends could affect business. I'm still deciding what I think about the overall approach (other than that it looks fun to be a pop demographer) but one element which struck me as interesting was his discussion of how population dynamics have made things harder for the Millennial generation. In this post I'll take you briefly through his argument, and I'd be curious as to your reactions.

If you graph out the number of births in the United States every year, one of the things which jumps out is that the 1970s (when many Gen X people were born) had the lowest numbers of births in the last sixty years.

United States Births by Year

Throughout this entire period, the total US population was growing, but this was a period when the birth rate (the number of babies born divided by the number of thousands of population) had just fallen significantly from ~25 in the 1950s to ~15 in the 1970s. The rate has been moderately stable since then, but it took a while after the initial drop in birth rate for the growth in the population to catch up and start producing numbers of births per year equal to what was normal before.

The number of births per year translates pretty directly into the number of 18-30 year olds you that you have entering the workplace, because everyone who is 18-30 has to have been born. This means that in the 1990s and early 2000s there was a significant dip in the number of 18-30 year olds.

From 1989 to 2001 the number of 18-30 year olds dropped 14% while the total US population increased by 15%. Then, the number stared climbing again, so that from 2001 to 2016 the number of 18-30 year olds increased 17% while the US population increased only 14%.

The demographer's argument was that the smaller Gen X generation benefited from being a scarce resource. With fewer young people coming into the workforce they had higher employment rates and higher pay -- the 1990s boom -- but that by 2005-2010 you had more young people coming into the workforce each year with an economy going into recession that had already adjusted to get by with fewer entry level workers and less affordable entry level housing. The Millennials were a more plentiful resource than the Gen X-ers and so the economy payed less for them.

There are interesting elements to this, and others that I want to think through more. I hadn't realized that the number of 18-30 year old was growing faster than population at the same time the recession was hitting, and I can certainly see how that would tie in with youth unemployment, skyrocketing higher education costs, etc. We'd now hit the end of that rise and will see a basically flat number of 18-30 year olds for the next ten years while the overall US population continues to increase. That may ease some strain for the next cohort of young adults coming along.

Of course, the trick is that an economy does not have just a set number of jobs for people at a given stage of life. People create innovation, growth, etc. and so in general a healthy economy is one with a growing population. It would be a mistake to see a growing number of young people as a necessarily bad thing for an economy or a culture. And yet, change is messy and systems are slow to adjust. I could certainly see how after twenty years during which the absolute number of young adults shrank or was flat, to have it start growing (and doing so faster than the population as a whole) would throw off a lot of things until people adjusted.

Thursday, October 06, 2016

Stillwater Bubbling Up

My dears,  I have been sitting on this for a week, trying to be a responsible person and not say anything until I knew anything, but I am weak and giddy and must call you all to rejoice with me.

An agent is reading Stillwater.

An agent requested to read Stillwater, through recommendation, not because I queried.

It's really the worst piece of nepotism ever, because it's my sister-in-law's agent. I was thinking that it was time to get moving on Stillwater again, so I wrote to Rose to see if her agent might have suggestions for someone who'd be interested in the kind of thing that Stillwater is (because agents often only represent specific genres), and Rose obligingly sent off a note with a kind word about my modern adaptation of Mansfield Park. The agent responded that she could certainly make some recommendations, but that if the book was brilliant she'd love to read it herself.

And this note showed up in my inbox right before we had to go sit through an hour and a half of German lessons, so I couldn't start taking immediate action. Ach.

I compiled the latest version of the manuscript and worked all night to scan it over and make formatting changes such as putting all my italics back in and making sure the scene breaks were just so and the typos were not, and the next morning I sent it right to the agent, stepping daintily over the slush pile. And later in the day I discovered that my document was not saving any of the changes I'd made, so the manuscript went over pretty much as it compiled. Fortunately, it's nothing that would sink the story, but it is a good tablespoonful of humility for me.

That was last week, and I can't possibly hear anything for a month, so if you see me obsessively checking my email, gently pry my phone out of my grabby little hands.

1. Buy my sister-in-law's new novel, Bright Smoke, Cold Fire. Romeo and Juliet, but after the story we know is over, in a world where the dead don't stay dead and there's only one safe city left in the whole world.

2. To celebrate, here's the revised beginning of Stillwater.

In the aftermath of the War Between the States, John Spencer of Stillwater Plantation, Iberville Parish, Louisiana, established the Stillwater Fellowship to provide an education for deserving young men who lived within the boundaries of his estate. Such philanthropy was an uncharacteristic turn for a man so ambitious that he built the largest, most elaborate house on the river simply to spite an upstream rival, but John’s charity had tightly circumscribed limits: the only eligible recipients were Stillwater’s own ex-slaves. He didn’t intend to go to expense educating his neighbor’s freedmen or white trash from Plaquemine.

The days of Reconstruction were a strange, hard time to found a scholarship for former slaves based on the revenues of a sugar plantation, but John Spencer was a strange, hard man. Even as his sons now worked the fields and his daughters turned their dresses to eke one more season of wear out of them, he sent the first Stillwater Fellow up to Baton Rouge to St. Mary’s Institute — the Sisters would give him as good an education as any white man might get, at half the cost! — and feasted him economically at annual Stillwater Fellowship Balls. The motivation for this piece of charity remained a matter that John chose not to divulge even to many journals. Perhaps the harsh realities of the new postwar economy pressed in on him, as both weather and politics conspired to make producing sugar an increasingly dicey proposition. Perhaps the scholarship was an enlightened decision to buy the loyalty of the best and brightest of his freedmen now that he could no longer compel their servitude. Perhaps he stood on the back gallery of his war-worn house and looked over his cabins and his sugar house and his commissary and his cane fields, stretching as far as the eye could see, and considered that his entire empire was built on the scarred backs of his slaves and that one day soon he too would face his Master and be called to give an account of his stewardship.

Whatever its reason, the Stillwater Fellowship was effective. The share of revenue allotted to the Trust was only large enough for one Fellow at a time, but  workers flocked to Stillwater, desperate for a chance for their sons to get a leg up out of poverty. The Stillwater Fellows, treated as partners in the running of the plantation, devised new business practices and implemented agricultural innovations to keep the business afloat even in days of hurricanes, drought, and debt. As other plantations fell into ruin, as the river gnawed away year by year at the half-mile of oak groves that stood before the house, the Spencers held onto Stillwater, battered but intact.

When American Cane leased the Stillwater sugarlands from Harold Spencer after the disastrous harvest of 1915, and financed the equipment to modernize production, the fortunes of the estate were at such a low that the suits at the sugar conglomerate thought nothing of guaranteeing a certain percentage of income from the land to the Stillwater Trust. The pool of available candidates was reduced, anyway: the new machinery meant that fewer laborers were needed, and many of those who still worked the fields moved into town. Most of the old slave cabins on the plantation were demolished so that more cane could be planted. The few remaining cottages were updated for the convenience of those employees who still lived on the estate. Of those employees, few likely lads still qualified for the Fellowship.

The Balls, of course, were held whether the Fellowship was bestowed or not. The Trust could not be diverted to purposes other than the Stillwater Fellowship, not even to the upkeep of Stillwater itself. Fellowship Balls took on a gothic grandeur, dancers in their grandmeres’ hoop skirts sweeping past decaying pilasters under the flicker of chandeliers still not wired for electricity. In those lean days, the family inhabited only a few of Stillwater’s 75 rooms, and great dramas were enacted over whether it was time to sell the house, or to have it demolished before it collapsed on itself. Yet Stillwater remained, and the Spencers remained with it.

Old John Spencer, having witnessed the devastation of a Civil War, could not have imagined the bounty bestowed by a World War. In 1942, American Cane wrangled a valuable contract from the government to supply wrapped sugar cubes for military rations. The boys returned from the front hungry, and with sweet memories of American Cane products, if nothing else, urged their wives and sweethearts to look for the signature pink and green package. When domestic sugar rationing ended, sales of sweetener soared, and with them the fortunes of Stillwater. The patched shell of the house was restored by Thomas Spencer to its antebellum splendor, and the grand front rooms were opened for tours.  The Misses Spencer again took their places as the belles of the Stillwater Fellowship Balls.
World War II, though it strengthened the Fellowship financially, caused it to atrophy practically. The war drained the plantation’s supply of young men, and when the boys came back, they didn’t return to Stillwater. The G.I. Bill provided them with mortgages for their own homes and sent them to college independent of Spencer largesse. And so the Trust continued to grow. The scholarship, owing to its restrictive clauses, had gone unawarded since who knew when, but there were no such restraints on the annual dinner, so that what had begun as a sober evening of scholastic reflection had mutated into the premiere social event of Iberville Parish. Without any Fellows to spend down the money, the purpose of the Stillwater Fellowship Ball seemed to be nothing more than that the good times should roll, as extravagantly as possible.

As a result, when Richard Spencer named René Arceneaux the first Stillwater Fellow in more than six decades, there was general surprise -- not because anyone doubted René's obvious genius, or his residency on the property (who could miss the passel of noisy young Arceneauxs bursting out of the small cottage behind the big house?) -- but because hardly anyone remembered that the Fellowship existed to be given instead of merely celebrated.

Wednesday, October 05, 2016

The Immediate Book Meme

This is October, the two-conference month. I always think that I'm going to get a lot of writing done while Darwin is gone, but I don't. At the end of the day I'm exhausted and find myself falling asleep over my computer, the kitchen a wreck and the rest of the house not much better. God bless all single mothers, and please never let Darwin die so that I have to do this by myself, forever.

In lieu of real writing, I offer you the Immediate Book Meme.

photo by Evan Laurence Bench

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

1. What book are you reading now?


The Intelligent Person's Guide to Philosophy, by Roger Scruton.
Scruton is so close -- he's reaching in the right direction, but perhaps he lacks the gift of faith. He senses the transcendent everywhere, but can't seem to pull them together into one Being. His analysis of sex is as good as I've seen from a secular source, but his description of Christian charity is sorely lacking. He turns it into a form of utilitarianism: "Charity hopes to maximize joy and minimize suffering in general, just as each person spontaneously acts to maximize joy and minimize suffering in himself." That's a description of charity I've never seen, though perhaps that's because I've always heard charity analyzed from Christian sources as agape.  Also, he discusses Kant's personalist principle without going beyond to Wojtyla's positive formulation: A person is not simply an end, not a means, but one to whom the only appropriate response is love.

The Best of Myles, by Flann O'Brien
This collection of newspaper writings by Myles na gCopaleen (Flann O'Brien) [Brian O'Nolan] is laugh-out-loud funny. I'm only a bit in, but so far his account of the anarchic ventriloquists terrorizing the theaters of Ireland, and the fee structure for distressing a rich person's unread library of newly purchased books, have been the purest comic gold.

Hallowe'en Party, by Agatha Christie
The big girls are on a Poirot kick, so I'm just picking up what's laying around.

2. What book did you just finish?


Maria Chapdelaine by Louis Hémon
I finished this several weeks ago, but for the purposes of writing a post about it, I only just finished it. A beautiful little book which ought to be widely considered a classic, set in remote Canada in the early 20th century. Maria is offered the chance to escape the harsh life of a Canadian pioneer and start an easier life in America, but the decision isn't as easy or as clear-cut as it sounds.

The Clocks, Agatha Christie

The Third Policeman, Flann O'Brien
This is a fascinating book which I was simply not in the right mood to read, and I had to return it to the library partially read. I feel the fault lies with me, but there it is.

3. What do you plan to read next?

more Deuteronomy

La Force Du Silence by Robert Cardinal Sarah, when it is available on Kindle on Nov. 9th. Good thing I brushed up on my French with Maria Chapdelaine. Here is an excellent interview with Cardinal Sarah on the book, and on the essential importance of silence.
“God’s first language is silence.” In commenting on this beautiful, rich insight of Saint John of the Cross, Thomas Keating, in his work Invitation to Love, writes: “Everything else is a poor translation. In order to understand this language, we must learn to be silent and to rest in God.”  
It is time to rediscover the true order of priorities. It is time to put God back at the center of our concerns, at the center of our actions and of our life: the only place that He should occupy. Thus, our Christian journey will be able to gravitate around this Rock, take shape in the light of the faith and be nourished in prayer, which is a moment of silent, intimate encounter in which a human being stands face to face with God to adore Him and to express his filial love for Him.  
Let us not fool ourselves. This is the truly urgent thing: to rediscover the sense of God. Now the Father allows Himself to be approached only in silence. What the Church needs most today is not an administrative reform, another pastoral program, a structural change. The program already exists: it is the one we have always had, drawn from the Gospel and from living Tradition. It is centered on Christ Himself, whom we must know, love and imitate in order to live in Him and through Him, to transform our world which is being degraded because human beings live as though God did not exist. As a priest, as a pastor, as a Prefect, as a Cardinal, my priority is to say that God alone can satisfy the human heart.  
I think that we are the victims of the superficiality, selfishness and worldly spirit that are spread by our media-driven society. We get lost in struggles for influence, in conflicts between persons, in a narcissistic, vain activism. We swell with pride and pretention, prisoners of a will to power. For the sake of titles, professional or ecclesiastical duties, we accept vile compromises. But all that passes away like smoke. In my new book I wanted to invite Christians and people of good will to enter into silence; without it, we are in illusion. The only reality that deserves our attention is God Himself, and God is silent. He waits for our silence to reveal Himself.  
Regaining the sense of silence is therefore a priority, an urgent necessity.  
Silence is more important than any other human work. Because it expresses God. The true revolution comes from silence; it leads us toward God and toward others so that we can place ourselves humbly at their service. 
Perhaps more Roger Scruton.

4. What book do you keep meaning to finish?

War and Remembrance, by Herman Wouk. I have a deadline on this -- a November book club that my sister-in-law's family hosts. And I like it a lot. It reads quickly and has a lot of fascinating detail. The book simply got put down in the shuffle and ended up on the wrong dresser, and so I haven't picked it up when I'm looking for reading.

John Adams, David McCollough.
I'm about to bring the troops home on this one and return it to the Little Free Library in the neighborhood. I just can't get around to finishing it. Sorry, John Adams.

5. What book do you keep meaning to start?

Wing to Wing, Oar to Oar by Amy A. Kass and Leon R. Kass
A friend lent me this collection of essays on courtship and marriage (actually, I saw it on her shelf and said, "Hey, can I borrow this?") and it's been sitting on top of a bookshelf where I don't see it for months. I need to put in on my recently cleared bedside table to it's right to hand.

6. What is your current reading trend?

I don't know that there is one right now.

Monday, October 03, 2016

Does Making A Feature Standard Justify A Price Increase?

When you manage pricing strategy, one of the thornier problems that can land upon your desk is how to adjust expectations when what was previously a premium feature becomes standard. There are numerous examples of this in various industries, but I'll go ahead and stick with the one I'm dealing with, though I'll speak in generalities for confidentiality reasons.

For a long time now, "organic" and "natural" have been claims which command a price premium. This applies whether you're at the grocery store, buying plants or seeds at your local nursery, or buying clothing made from non-GMO cotton. Products that go to the trouble of avoiding biotech usually sell for more.

Let's think for a moment, however, about why that is the case.

One explanation is that organic products sell for more because they cost more to produce. Chemicals may be expensive, but they pay for themselves several times over in reduced labor and and increased productivity. However, can that really be the explanation? Imagine that no one cares whether a product is organic or not, in other words, that the label "organic" has no influence on their decision of which product to buy. If that's the case, all other things being equal, if there are two products on the shelf -- Product A which is $5 and is not organic, and Product B which is priced at $6 and is organic -- people will buy Product A because it is cheaper. Even if we assure the customer that the seller of Product A had a cost of $4 while the seller of Product B had a cost of $5 such that either way the buyer is only providing the seller with $1 of profit, buyers who do not place any monetary value on the label "organic" will simply buy the cheaper product. The difference in cost does not matter unless people think that there is also a difference in quality.

The better explanation is that there is one group of customers who care about buying products that are organic, and another group of customers who are indifferent to the claim. (There might also be some who actively do not want an organic product, but let's ignore that possibility for the moment.) These people either think that organic products are better (taste better, are healthier, etc.) than non-organic products, or they think that there is some ethical imperative to consume organic products instead of others.  Either way, these people place a value on "organic" which makes them willing to pay more for a product which has that label.

When Product A and Product B are both on the shelf, those who care about buying organic products buy Product B and pay the one dollar premium, while those who do not care buy Product A and save a dollar.  In pricing circles, this is what we call "price discrimination".  In this case, 'discrimination' doesn't mean something nefarious or unfair, but rather that by offering two products with different characteristics at two different price points, you're able to capture higher revenue from those who care about the point of difference while still getting a sale (even though at a lower dollar amount) from those who would have been unwilling or unable to pay the higher price.

The difficulty with consolidating the product line and making what was previously a differentiation feature standard is that you lose this price discrimination.  When executives start to think about making a move such as going to an "all products are organic" strategy there are two concerns.  One is a desire to show that the company is 'green' and respects the concerns of young and trendy customers.  However, another is that organic products sell for higher prices (and often higher profits) than non-organic ones.  What this thinking misses is that when a feature such as 'organic' becomes standard, you are now trying to sell that product not only to the people who are willing to pay a price premium for the feature, but also to those who do not place any extra value on it.

This means that for the customers who did not previously buy the organic product, because they did not consider it worth the extra money, the consolidation into an all-organic product line is simply a price increase.  Those customers will respond to the change just like any other price increase, meaning that some of them will no longer buy the product or will buy it less frequently.  Companies are often hesitant to take a price increase on a product unless it has some sort of new 'added value' to justify the higher price (or unless there is an increase in the cost of its components such that they feel confident that competitors will be taking a similar price increase.)  Thus, making what was previously an added value feature standard seems like a more attractive move than simply increasing the price with no changes to the product.  And yet, if the feature is one that one segment of customers does not place any value on, they will respond to it just like any other price increase.

The solution is either to with until a solid majority of customers are already selecting the product with the added value feature -- in this case, until the majority of customers are buying organic.  Or else, hedge against losing customers by continuing to provide a 'value' product which does not include the new standard feature.