Tag Archives: communitarianism

Conflicting Goals & Common Fate

In the 1958 movie, The Defiant Ones, Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis are prisoners on a southern chain gang. They escape, but can’t break the chain that holds them together. Two men who hate each other and have conflicting goals suddenly learn they share a common fate.

 

 

The two men learn to cooperate, and even to respect each other. And even for those of us who never expect to be running from bloodhounds through a Georgia swamp, there may be a lesson here.

I’m reading Plunder and Deceit, by Mark R. Levin. The book argues that the “ruling generation,” meaning the Boomers, is mismanaging America’s resources in a way that diminishes the future to the detriment of the rising generation, meaning the millennials. He says:

The rising generation must question, confront, and civilly resist the real authoritarianism that endangers its future and the quality of life of those not yet born, whether preached in the classroom, popularized through entertainment, or idealized by demagogic politicians.

 

I completely agree with Levin’s premise.

But like the two escaping prisoners in the movie, I find it hard to move in step with Levin. He’s a hardline conservative and he uses the rhetoric that appeals to today’s wingnuts. Every page — almost every paragraph — pokes, pokes, pokes at government as the cause of every problem.

In a few places, he plays fast and loose with his data and his explanations. In the chapter on education, Levin harps on the rising cost of college, noting correctly that tuition has risen faster than inflation for many years. But he fails to acknowledge that the main reason for this is state governments failing for many of those years to support public universities as well as they did in the past.

(Yes, its true that many universities have lavish residence halls. They are there for the students who want that and can afford it. But those universities — at least Purdue University where I work — also offer cheaper  residences with smaller rooms and no air conditioning. Yes it is true that many universities have built climbing wall in their recreation centers. So what? Climbing walls are cheap and durable. Find something else to fuss about, critics! And yes, it is true that university employment has grown, and that faculty account for a smaller share of all campus jobs than they did decades ago. some of those jobs are genuine fluff and ought to be eliminated. But most of the added higher education workers are serious people working hard a meaningful jobs.)

Levin has a lot of footnotes in his book. But the source that he cites the most is Mark R. Levin and his own earlier books and articles. He cites two other kinds of courses. On one hand, he cites government sources such as the Census Bureau and Congressional Budget Office for detailed facts. On the other, he cites the libertarian Cato Institute and conservative Heritage Foundation for interpretation. From the CBO he gets a dollar amount being spent on something. From  Cato and Heritage, he gets the opinion that the amount spent is too much. This creates an illusion that credible, neutral sources are supporting his claims of out of control government spending.

This is a problem because most Americans have no idea how much we should be spending on anything. Quick: what is the population of the US? what is the Gross Domestic Product? What is our current trade balance with Canada? What share of total private wealth is held by the richest 50 people, and by the poorest 50 percent of the population? What is the poverty rate? Do the people in the state where you live pay more in federal taxes than they receive in federal benefits, or the reverse?

How can you even begin to form an opinion on spending when you don’t know these answers? (Yes, I know the answer. Numbers in the billion, or tens of billions, or hundreds of billions always sound scary big, regardless of context.) But many of those scary big numbers are just the right size when you think about the number of people affected. To me, “big” is never going to be a persuasive argument against the federal government. I think the government ought to do big things. There are a lot of things the federal government oughtn’t to meddle with at all. But the things it does, it ought to do well.

I’ve got a few bones to pick with Levin. But my point is that I think he’s an ally. He’s right about his major premise and he’s right about many of his details. I like that he begins his book with a quote from Edmund Burke, the original and true conservative thinker, before going on to quote many lesser, latter-day, erzatz, so-called, soi-disant, bogus conservatives.

I want to learn to be better at finding common ground with everyone who thinks even partly what I think. I want to learn to be better about learning from people who know thinks I don’t know — without giving up my ability to recognize stupid when I hear it.

So carry on, Mr. Levin. I’m with you.

 

 

 

 

 

Cows in the Corn

Suppose you’ve got corn and I’ve got cows.

Even if we’re the best and friendliest of neighbors, we need a fence between us. And suppose that, despite the fence, my cows get across and eat your corn. I say, “Just put the cows back. There’s no problem.” The cows get across again, and I say, “Cows used to stay where you put them. I don’t know what’s wrong with cows these days. Anyway, put them back. There’s no problem.”  And then the cows get across again, and I say, “Well they wouldn’t get across so often if you didn’t plant your corn so close to the edge of the field. You can’t really blame the cows when you tempt them so. But just put them back. There’s no problem.”

How many times can this be repeated before we admit we have a problem? We can blame the cows for a while.  We can blame the victim for a while. Heaven forfend, we could even blame me because the cows are mine. Sooner or later, we need to admit to each other that the fence isn’t good enough to do the necessary job it was intended for.

 

Constitution Day (Sept 15th) is set aside each year to remember America’s foundational law. On that day in 1787, delegates from the 14 states (the original 13 plus Vermont) approved the new Constitution after a year-long debate. It has been amended 27 times, but hasn’t changed fundamentally in 228 years.

We were taught in school that the “separation of powers” is a great concept. The Constitution divides power between the legislative, judicial and executive branches, and consequently America has never had a king. But the Constitution doesn’t distribute power much. It keeps it in Washington DC, far from the people. If you read the Constitution you’ll see that the document is almost entirely about federal powers. The states and the people are mentioned once.

The Constitution defines federal powers, but doesn’t do much to limit federal power. The authors weren’t concerned with limiting federal power, but with fixing the very weak central government that existed at the time. They gave the new Constitutional federal government some blank checks, such as the “necessary and proper” clause in Article 1:

The Congress shall have Power – To make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers, and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in any Department or Officer thereof.

 

James Madison

By 1791 (just four years after the Constitution was adopted) James Madison was convinced that the necessary and proper clause was too vague and gave the federal government too much power. Subsequent history has proven him right. The necessary and proper clause has been used many times to justify expansion of the federal government.

We were taught in school to admire the extraordinary wisdom of the founding fathers. If the founders were wise we ought to heed what they said. And like Madison, many of the other founding fathers doubted the Constitution would endure. Benjamin Franklin was asked as he emerged from the final session of the Constitutional Convention what sort of country the US would become. Franklin answered, “A republic, if you can keep it.”

Thomas Jefferson said the country would need a new constitution every generation or so: “Every constitution, then, and every law, naturally expires at the end of nineteen years. If it be enforced longer, it is an act of force, and not of right.”

According to Jefferson’s figuring, America ought to be on its 12th constitution, but we’re muddling along with the same old one long after its expiration date. As president, Jefferson had a “take it or leave it” attitude toward the Constitution. He waged war against Barbary pirates in 1801 without a congressional declaration of war. He exceeded his authority to make the Louisiana Purchase. He never let the Constitution get in the way what he thought was right.

[Source: CBS St. Louis]
The founding fathers despised political parties. John Adams spoke for many when he wrote, “There is nothing which I dread so much as a division of the republic into two great parties. . . This, in my humble apprehension, is to be dreaded as the greatest political evil under our Constitution.”

Who can deny that America today is run by two great parties? Thus, the thing the founders dreaded most has happened!

The Constitution purposes to make “a more perfect union” and to “provide for the general welfare.” But income inequity in American is wider than at any other time in living memory. There has been no improvement in purchasing power for the median American family over the past 30 years, and only slight gain in the past 50 years. (See chart below) One out of seven Americans lives in poverty. Two out of three Americans think the country is moving in the wrong direction. Only one American in 10 trusts the Congress. The Constitution didn’t cause these problems, but it hasn’t “provided for the general welfare” either.

 

[Source: US Census Bureau via Huffington Post, 9/16/15]

We like to think of the Constitution as the rock-solid foundation of our culture and society. A more apt metaphor would be a tree. The small seed that was planted in 1787 has been harried by winds from the left and the right, and frazzled by pests of various kinds. It still stands, but it has grown gnarly.

Some branches of the tree are strong. The first amendment freedom of speech keeps pornographers and the Westboro Baptist Church in business. Upholding extreme opinions is really the only thing the first amendment does, since ordinary opinions don’t need such protections. I’ve lived much of my life in parts of the world where no explicit freedom of speech exists, and I found that ordinary people there have their opinions just like we American do.

Another strong branch of the tree is the second amendment, keeping the bullets flying. This is perhaps the most clear-cut case where the Constitution stands in the way of what the American people reasonably would do if they were free to govern themselves.

Much of the Constitutional tree has weakened over the years. The Fourth Amendment guarantees “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.” That’s what it says on the document, but the NSA reads your emails. And even if government snooping were stopped, there are private companies that also read your email and monitor your spending in order to target advertising at you. The fourth amendment guarantee is empty.

The 5th amendment situation is even worse. It is supposed to ensure due process in order to defend freedom and property, but it has been stood on its head to justify driving people out of their homes to benefit commercial developers.

The 10th Amendment guarantees that, “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” This sounds like a useful tool to balance local interests against the federal power. And there is a movement of people calling themselves “Tenthers” who say strong enforcement of this clause can fix what’s wrong in Washington. But how can the tenth amendment constrain federal power when every question about the limit of federal power gets decided by an agent of federal power?

Setting the country on the right path must begin with changes to the Constitution. That hasn’t happened yet, but it is becoming a more common notion. State legislators vote their support for a new constitutional convention in most years.

Many people fear tampering with a “good thing.” Writing a new foundational document needn’t jeopardize all that we value. We can keep majority rule. (Or perhaps I should say “reinstate” majority rule, since we don’t really have that now.) We can strengthen individual rights. We can limit the federal government to doing a few important things well instead of muddling everything. We can put most decisions back in the hands of states and communities.

Of course, there’s a huge and fascinating question of how this tremendous change could take place. For starters, I would recommend “Anywhere but Washington; anyone but congress.”

Some people say we just need to get back to the Constitution as it was written. But everything that happens in America happens under that Constitution. Amateur interpretations of what the law “says” don’t have much influence while big money pours into Washington and while the inmates run the asylum.

Georgetown Law Professor Louis Michael Seidman wrote in a New York Times editorial in 2012: “Our obsession with the Constitution has saddled us with a dysfunctional political system, kept us from debating the merits of divisive issues and inflamed our public discourse.”

University of Texas Law Professor Sanford Levinson has written, “Our Undemocratic Constitution” showing how the document undermines democracy. Levinson refutes those who say anything wrong with the Constitution can be fixed by amending it, and he shows how small number of people (such as congressional committee chairmen) can thwart the will of the majority, and how certain institutions and processes make amending the constitution ever again unlikely. He points especially to the US Senate, where each state has two members regardless of its population. Since 34 votes are enough to block any legislation, the members from the 17 smallest states (representing only about 20% of the nation) can stop anything the majority wants. That isn’t democracy!

I agree with Seidman and Levinson. I agree with Madison, Franklin, Adams and Jefferson. Who’s side are you on?

 

“A mockery of our scientific pretensions”

Here’s a deft bit of hypocrisy. I’ll let you decide who is the hypocrite. The Huffington Post today has a story about Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson, who opposes using fetal tissue in medical research. HuffPost informs us that Carson himself once did medical research using fetal tissue.

 

[Ben Carson, screen grab from Huffington Post, 8/13/2015.]
[Ben Carson, screen grab from Huffington Post, 8/13/2015.]

HuffPost continues:

[T]he Republican presidential candidate published a study with three other colleagues in 1992 that described using “human choroid plexus ependyma and nasal mucosa from two fetuses aborted in the ninth and 17th week of gestation.”

 

And now Carson says research using fetal tissue isn’t necessary and isn’t needed. HuffPost, being gung-ho for abortion, finds Carson’s duplicity troubling. But it seems to me that there is another possibility. I think it likely that fetal tissue research about “human choroid plexus ependyma and nasal mucosa” turns out to be not worth it. Back in 1992, Carson did the research because he was a famous doctor being paid to do brainy stuff. But this is 2015 and, last time I checked, babies still have runny noses.

There is a common conviction that what can be done must be done. We have to explore space. We have to invade Iraq. We have to use social media. We have to build money-pit sports venues for millionaires to play games in. We have to conduct medical research on the tissue of aborted babies. But there has always been another way of thinking, that says progress sometimes isn’t progress at all. Henry David Thoreau in 1854:

Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end,… We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.

 

And here are two comments from Wendell Berry’s 2001 book,  Life is a Miracle:

Our daily lives are a mockery of our scientific pretensions. We are learning to know precisely the location of our genes, but significant numbers of us don’t know the whereabouts of our children. Science does not seem to be lighting the way; we seem rather to be leapfrogging into the dark along a series of scientific solutions, which become problems, which call for further solutions, which science is always eager to supply, and which it sometimes cannot supply.

and

We should abandon the idea that this world and our human life in it can be brought by science to some sort of mechanical perfection or predictability. The radii of knowledge have only pushed back – and enlarged – the circumference of mystery. We live in a world famous for its ability both to surprise and to deceive us.

 

What we need is 100% enthusiastic support for scientific progress, combined with a clear understanding of what progress would be and a firm grip on what is done. Do we want to lose our jobs, and to have a large part of our population unable to earn a living? If not, then robotics might not be progress.  Do we want to increase the rate of cancer and obesity? If not, then a diet based overwhelmingly on processed food might not be progress.

There is no possibility of making good ethical choices today, because there is no shared ethic. Communitarianism presupposes such an ethic, and we are far from having one.

Meanwhile, a co-worker today handed me a small tract called, “Dare the School Build a New Social Order?” Stay tuned!

An Old Solution to a Modern Problem

Two articles this week in news magazines explain problems in our American, global-market economy and society. Neither suggests a solution to those problems. So I’ll do that here.

 

 

The first article was in Slate and was titled, This is the Perfect Tomato. It describes the efforts of researchers to develop a variety of tomato that is both shelf-stable and tasty. In general, tomatoes that taste good are too soft to be handled from the grower to the grocery, while tomatoes firm enough for shipping are tasteless. But a scientist named Harry Klee managed to develop a tomato with all the desirable qualities.

He was aiming for a compromise—a tomato that grew well and tasted good. What he got shocked him. Like its commercial parent, Klee’s new tomato boasted excellent shelf life, disease resistance, and productivity. But by some miracle, it tasted so good that its flavor scores were statistically identical to its heirloom parent. Klee dubbed his miracle fruit the Garden Gem.

 

But the next chapter of the story is that no major grocery chain will buy the delicious Garden Gem tomato because it is smaller than other varieties. Here’s a second write-up about the Garden Gem, from Genetic Literacy  Project.  It says, “Big Tomato doesn’t care about flavor. Tomato farmers don’t care. Tomato packers don’t care. And supermarkets don’t care. When it comes to flavor, the tomato industry is broken.”

Smaller means having to handle more fruits to make a given quantity, and that adds to cost. And the grocery chains are not willing to bear more costs. They know Americans who get their food from grocery stores will eat what they are given. So they simply insist on providing only those varieties that ensure their profit. There is no real market where supply meets demand. People willing to pay extra for better quality can not do so. There is only profit maximization by the company. It is very much the same situation as was described by Upton Sinclair in The Jungle in 1906.

What they wanted from a hog was all the profit that could be got out of him; and that was what they wanted from the working man, and also that was what they wanted from the public. What the hog thought of it, and what he suffered, were not considered; and no more was it with labor, and no more with the purchaser of meat.

 

The second issue comes from Huffington Post, which usually just clips reports from other publications but occasionally does its own reporting. The article is titled, The Myth of the Ethical Shopper. And it argues that the global garment industry is so utterly dominated by unregulated sweatshop labor than no amount of conscientious comparison shopping can make a difference for the workers. It doesn’t matter which company is rated as a fair trade source or what the CEO says. The industry is segmented and too flexible to be regulated. Target can have as benevolent a policy as you’d wish, and Target can ask the clothing labels is sells to abide by those policies. But the clothing will still be made by contractors in distant places where the rules don’t apply:

In Delhi’s garment cluster, “children start learning the job at the age of 8,” writes the University of London’s Alessandra Mezzadri. “They master it by the age of 12.” She calls the area a “composite sweatshop”: For every tailor working in a factory, there are several employed in homes, workshops or backyards. Around 80 percent of the workers are informal — mostly migrants, some of them trafficked, hired and fired as orders are commissioned and completed, divvied out by brokers, paid a few cents for each piece of clothing they deliver. The children get paid half as much as the adults. During her fieldwork, she found kids sitting on apartment floors, sewing and cutting, often under the supervision of their parents.

 

At this point I hear people say that most people just want cheap goods and don’t really care who suffered to make it. But that may not be true: at least not for younger adults shown in this recent social experiment filmed in Germany:

 

Just as the Slate article suggest there’s no hope for a tasty tomato, the HuffPost article says consumers have no power to prefer ethically made clothing.

I promised a solution at the top of this article, and that solution is a shift to products made by local guilds. Guilds dominated manufacturing during the Middle Ages, and were replaced by industrialized mass manufacturing. Big industry was a step forward in the 18th century. It ended the problem of the scarcity.  But today in the US few are troubled by not enough clothing to wear or not enough food to eat. Our problems are too few well-paying jobs, inferioir quality products and the depletion of fossil fuels.

 

The case for guilds is made here in The Distributist Review.

The overall result of monopolistic capitalism has been less competition, less variety, lower quality, the loss of local jobs and less power for the people to do anything about it. When big business leaders lead an economy to the brink of economic disaster, the government deems them “too big to fail” and bails them out at the expense of the general public. Monopolistic capitalism has resulted in the shift of economic power and influence away from the average citizen and big businesses use that power to gain advantages not available to citizens or smaller businesses. How exactly has this protected the consumer? . . . The guilds envisioned by distributists consist of small local businesses. Distributist guilds would provide more competition, more variety, better quality, and more true economic power for the people.

 

I asked my family how many merchants and vendors we have a real human relationship with. And we came up with a handful. We buy eggs from a neighbor. We get hardware from Charlie Riggle at Roachdale Hardware. We buy an occasional cup of coffee from Jack at the Parthenon in Crawfordsville. Moody Meats in Ladoga. My wife listed several other regular contacts she has for soap, yarn, honey – people she sees once or twice a year at festivals. All of these people know what we like, and see us as return customers. And, we see them as people who need to make a buck doing what they do. Do they charge more that the chain stores? The egg neighbor doesn’t, but most of the others do. But we don’t mind because we are close enough to these merchants that we see how they work. We’ve had conversations about ingredients and processes – we know what we are buying.

You might be saying, “But none of those small local sellers are guilds!” And that’s right. They have some of the characteristics of a guild — probably the most important ones. Forming real guilds would retain those advantages and add more.

Now you are saying, “Sure, I’ll just trot down down to my local smithy and have him hammer me out a new car on his anvil.”  And it is true that machinery would have to stay capital intensive. Perishable goods (food, clothing, and furniture) would be better candidates for local guilds.

Guilds need not be Luddite. A local tailor would use the best available sewing machines. A local community-supported vegetable producer would plan the best cultivars. They just wouldn’t be motivated by greed.

 

The right to be wrong

President Obama was visiting Oklahoma this week and several ‘Muricans took the opportunity to wave the Confederate flag outside his hotel and along his caravan route.

[Source: Politico]

Philip Kennicott of the Washington Post published an essay a few years ago about the lingering effects of the Civil War. It was called, The Civil War taught us to fight for the right to be wrong. The essay is online and you can read it at the link. But the essence is here in this excerpt:

[T]he Civil War legitimized something essential, and dark, that remains with us. Ultimately, the South was fighting for the right to be wrong, for the right to retain (and expand) something ugly and indefensible. It lost the war, and slavery was abolished. But the right to be wrong, the right to resist the progress of freedom, the right to say “no, thank you” to modernity, to leave the fences in disrepair and retreat into a world of private conviction, remains as much a part of the American character as the blood spilled to preserve the Union. Nothing great has been accomplished in America since the Civil War — not footsteps on the moon, or women’s suffrage, or the right (if not the reality) of equal, unsegregated education — without people also passionately fighting for that dark right, too.

 

That “world of private conviction” he mentions exists wherever anyone says (or thinks), “Nobody can tell me what to do!” And when that thought is combined with, “I don’t know what to do,” the results is an insistence on the right to be wrong.

I was well raised, and was given a lot of good advice and reasonable rules to live by growing up. The only case of exercising the right to be wrong that I can recall is when my mother told me not to wear my dad’s old high school athletic jacket to a basketball game. The jacket was very tattered, having been worn around the farm from 1952, when my dad earned it, to 1977, when I wanted to wear it.  And I had a perfectly nice jacket of my own to wear.

My mother said no and I said, “OK.” So I took the coat back upstairs and put on my own, nicer coat and threw dad’s letter jacket out the window into the yard. Then I paraded my nice, presentable self before my mother as I left for the game. On the way to my car I picked up the old coat, put it on instead of the one I’d left the house wearing, and arrived at the game looking ratty. Victory!

But unlike my harmless escapade, people are hurt everyday because they, or someone else, exercises their right to be wrong. Some of them are ripped apart by alligators.

I think it is right and good that the stupid Confederate flag is being pushed away. But what I’d really like is an ethic of rectitude, where people wish for guidance, and other people know how to give it.

Thomas Carlyle (1846):

You do not allow a palpable madman to leap over precipices; you
violate his liberty, you that are wise; and keep him, were it in
strait-waistcoats, away from the precipices! Every stupid, every
cowardly and foolish man is but a less palpable madman: his true
liberty were that a wiser man, that any and every wiser man,
could, by brass collars, or in whatever milder or sharper way,
lay hold of him when he was going wrong, and order and compel him to go a little righter.

 

Oxi again!

The Greek people have voted No! to the European ultimatum. This means they won’t accept the EU’s punitive terms for a bail-out. Whether it means Greece leaves the European shared currency remains to be seen. Lots more trouble remains for Greece. But they can face the difficulties better now that they have chosen their own fate.

[Source: Reuters]

One aspect of the story that I haven’t read in any of the press coverage is that “Oxi!” has a historic resonance with the Greeks. My wife spent part of her childhood in Athens and tells me that each year on October 28th the Greeks celebrate Oxi Day, a remembrance of their defiance of German and Italian forces threatening  Greece in 1940.

Myy wife remembers Oxi Day from the perspective of a little kid in the late 60s. The Wikipedia page linked above tells only a little.  From Wikipedia we learn that in late 1940, by which time Poland, Belgium, Holland and France had fallen to the Nazi Germans, the Greeks received an ultimatum from Italy and Germany: Greece must permit them to march across their land and to occupy certain strategic places (sea ports, airports, etc.) If they refused, the Germans would not simply march through a subjected Greece, but would attack and defeat it as an enemy.

The Greeks said, “Oxi!” 

You can read some good additional detail at this site run by an American organization to remember the event. And there is more at the aceofgreece website.

If you didn’t click, you  missed Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill praising Greek courage for standing against the German threat. What’s more, Hitler says the Greeks fought with the most courage of any enemy the Germans faced in the war, and he says that the delay caused by Greek resistance meant a late start and consequent failure of Germany’s attack on Russia. Stalin is quoted saying Greek resistance decided WWII.

So history repeats itself. An underdog Greece, motivated by its desire for self-government, stands up to a ruthless Germany and says, “Oxi!” 

 

Depending on where you get your news, you may be saying, “But didn’t the Greeks run up a big credit card bill? Aren’t they now refusing to pay their just debts?” Good question, and the answer is, again, Oxi!

Paul Krugman and other economic experts have written extensively about how the single shared currency, the Euro, has doomed Greece (and probably will doom other countries.) If you want an economic explanation, you can’t do better than any of the posts on Krugman’s blog. Here’s Krugman’s Monday morning editorial in the New York Times.

If you prefer a non-technical explanation, then think of the single European currency as a thermostat. You usually don’t think about them, but your house has several temperature controls. There is a thermostat to control the temperature in the rooms. There is another thermostat in your water heater. The oven in the kitchen has a thermostat, too.

Now imagine that your house has only one temperature control and it is connected to everything. This is analogous to Europe having only one currency. Europe’s leaders can adjust the money supply and the exchange rate to benefit the economy. But since there are many countries in Europe and only one currency, they can only set the currency to benefit one country. And that country has been Germany since the EU began.

If you set your single thermostat at 72 degrees, the rooms will be pretty comfortable. But the bath water will feel chilly. And you can forget about baking anything. You can raise the single thermostat to 400 degrees and cook your Thanksgiving turkey, but you’ll die. A single thermostat controlling everything in a house just isn’t feasible. And this absurd scenario is exactly analogous to how Europe’s shared currency works  doesn’t work.

One other aspect. You may have heard that the Greeks spent lavishly after joining the EU, trying to live up to the European standards. Have you heard that much of that spending was mandatory? Joining the EU meant embracing EU standards for things like automotive emissions. And guess which country makes and sells the cars that satisfy the EU standards. Did you guess Germany? Good for you. So even to the extent that the Greek people (as opposed to the Greek government) was extravagant, they were forced to spend by the fist of Germany.

 

[Source: hellenicinsider]

 

 

 

A Lesson About Fruits & Words

When my wife and I were Peace Corps volunteers in West Africa there was a tree growing near our house that produced a fruit with thin skin, a sweet, pulpy orange flesh and a large seed in the center. The Liberian people called it “plum.” Their indigenous languages don’t adjoin two consonants, and they would often say “prem” instead of “plum” because P-R elides easier than P-L. And because they don’t like consonants at the ends of words, they would say “preh” instead of “prem” instead of “plum.”

You may recognize the fruit in the picture as a mango.

My experience was different. I had never seen the tropical fruit before going to West Africa. But I had seen plums and I knew that plums are purple and shiny on the outside and firm and juicy and sweet on the inside. So I learned that the Liberians mis-named the fruit. It wasn’t the only thing they gave peculiar names to. They also called papaya “paw-paw”, limes “lemong” and aluminum corrugated roofing panels “zinc,” which they pronounced “zee’.”

But I had more to learn than the Liberians’ idiosyncrasies.  I thought I knew about mangoes from growing up in Indiana. The mangoes we grow in our gardens are hard and green outside, hollow inside with many small seeds. Imagine my surprise when my wife explained that the green fruit is a “bell pepper” rather than a mango. It turns out that Hoosiers and other mid-westerners are just as wrong as the Liberians.

 

Lesson: People are apt to call things by different words. And when they do, other people won’t know what they are talking about.

The word “marriage” has been used of late by various people to mean various things. But what? Marriage is a civil contract between people.  Civil contracts are flexible and negotiable, and they draw their legitimacy from the government.

Marriage is also a holy sacrament. As such, it is specifically and only what God Almighty declares it to be.

These are two very different ideas, yet the public debate went on for years without clarification. There is no way people with these different ideas about the words could ever understand each other. And they never did. But I don’t think the debate was split two ways. I think it was split four ways, with the following types involved:

  1. Reasonable, secular people who support same-sex marriage as a matter of equal rights, just as they support fair housing and non-discriminatory hiring policies.
  2. Reasonable, religious people who defend traditional marriage as a holy sacrament. Their own personal feeling about gays and relationships doesn’t enter into the discussion, but only the clear and unaltered Will of God. (This is the group I personally fit into.)
  3. Hateful iconoclasts who support same-sex marriage as a way of undermining American culture and tradition.
  4. Hateful bigots who defend traditional marriage as a way of denying civil rights to people who offend their personal prejudices.

I would not venture to guess how many of each there are. But I’m certain that all four groups exist. Numbers don’t really matter in America anymore, because our government responds to vocal and proximate minorities rather than to the majority.

As an example of #1, I offer Jonathan Chait. He recently made a post on New York Magazine under the heading, Same-Sex Marriage Won Because Its Opponents Never Had an Argument. Chait’s column is based on his critique of political or social arguments made by proponents of tradition:

If you scan across the range of anti-same-sex-marriage arguments more typically on offer, the quality of thought drops off precipitously. In Time, Rand Paul writes another of his trademark college-libertarian-style op-eds that manages to avoid taking any formal stance on banning same-sex marriage while insisting that Big Government is really to blame for the existence of a debate that places him in an uncomfortable position. The Federalist’s Stella Morabito lists 15 reasons why same-sex marriage will lead to horrible consequences, most of which consist of right-wing fever dreams.

 

Chait is a liberal social writer and is concerned with equal justice under law. He’s heterosexual and married to a woman he admires greatly. As far as he is concerned, if the law affords a privilege to some, it ought to afford that same privilege to others.  I don’t think he’s very thorough in his critique. The mentioned 15 reasons given by Morabito substantive and imminent concerns as well as right-wing fever dreams. But I recognize the validity of his position as a political commentator in a secular society. Chait never mentions the holy sacrament because that’s not his purview.

Examples of the second group are surprisingly hard to come by, which explains why they lost the argument. But I’ll offer this excerpt from the Catholic Catechism is an example of the thinking of the defense of traditional marriage as a holy sacrament.

Holy Scripture affirms that man and woman were created for one another: “It is not good that the man should be alone.” The woman, “flesh of his flesh,” his equal, his nearest in all things, is given to him by God as a “helpmate”; she thus represents God from whom comes our help. “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh.” The Lord himself shows that this signifies an unbreakable union of their two lives by recalling what the plan of the Creator had been “in the beginning”: “So they are no longer two, but one flesh.”

 

There is nothing there about civil law. The argument rests on unchanged scripture and God’s unchanged Will. It is easy to understand why this would fail to persuade Chait while being absolutely compelling to believers. God either doesn’t exist at all and is therefore unimportant, or He does exist and is the most important thing there is.

Now, one of the arguments against traditional marriage is that it is sexist and oppressive to woman. The passage I quote above, on the other hand, says explicitly that woman is man’s equal and that she represents the position of God in the partnership. Marriage is needed because of man’s loneliness, not woman’s weakness. Clearly the holy sacrament is not what opponents are opposed to.

In using the word holy sacrament, I make a distinction between Christian denominations. Because the meaning of marriage varies a lot from one church to the next. According to the Wikipedia page on Christian marriage, “Protestants consider it to be sacred, holy, and even central to the community of faith, while Catholics and Orthodox Christians consider it a Sacrament. “

Note that almost anything can be sacred if it is offered up to a holy purpose. An ugly church building can be just as sacred as a beautiful one. Plenty of oldsters would say the American flag is sacred. What makes a thing sacred is that it has been offered up. A sacrament, on the other hand, is inflexible. And only a couple of Christian denominations say marriage is a sacrament. For the rest, as you’ll see if you read the link above, the church has become just an extension of the state in awarding a state license. I remember my cousin’s ceremony, which took place inside a church but was the farthest thing from a holy sacrament. It amounted to little more than:

  • Preacher (to groom): You wanna hit that?
  • Groom: I do!
  • Preacher (to bride):  Do you plan to get some, too?
  • Bride: I do!
  • Preacher: Sssssshhwwiinnggggg!

The ceremony lasted about nine minutes, and was followed in short order by infidelity, acrimony and divorce. Shame on my cousin, same on the preacher who conducted the farce, and shame on the denomination that allowed such an abuse of a thing it claims to hold sacred.

My third set of actors are those I’ve described as motivated by the desire to undermine or destroy tradition. I give you Sara Burrows, writing in The Federalist, and her recent column arguing why monogamy should be “next”:

Brad and I are not legally married, nor do we ever plan to be, but there aren’t a lot of practical differences between us and a married couple. We’ve owned a home together, have a child together, and have every intention—although no promises—of staying together ‘til death do us part. We are hoping polyamory can help make that happen.

Note that she sees “not a lot of practical differences” between her and a married couple. To make the comparison easier, she lists her accomplishments: own a home, have a child, stay together. She argues that society needs to embrace “polyamory” because she thinks sleeping around would make it easier for her to stay with Brad.

Burrows’ argument for polyamory is either sensibly pragmatic or a heinous blasphemy, depending on whether one applies her argument to a civil contract or to holy matrimony. If the former, then there’s little grounds for objection on moral grounds. Civil contracts can say anything the signers agree to. But if one thinks of the sacrament of holy marriage, Burrows is appalling. She is either very ignorant or very wicked.

I am not going to make the effort to search for links, but there is no doubt in my mind that, competing with Burrows’ case for polyamory as the “next” thing, there are others making the case for bestiality, for pederasty, and for who knows what else.

Finally, there is group #4, who is exemplified by the hardware store operator-slash-Baptist preacher who put is a “No Gays” sign on his store front in Tennessee

Jeff Amyx, who owns Amyx Hardware & Roofing Supplies in Grainger County, Tennessee, about an hour outside of Knoxville, added the “No Gays Allowed” sign on Monday, because gay and lesbian couples are against his religion. Amyx, who is also a baptist minister, said he realized Monday morning that LGBT people are not afraid to stand for what they believe in. He said it showed him that Christian people should be brave enough to stand for what they believe in.

 

Notice here that the basis of Amyx’s stance is “what he believes in.” People believe all sorts of things, and those who are wrong can be just as fervent in their belief as those who are right. Amyx believes in “his religion,” which is nominally Baptist but more explicitly “his.” I have no idea what Amyx’s religion says. I do know the Bible. It says marriage is between a man and a woman; it says nothing about selling a hammer to a lesbian.

Want another example just for fun? Here’s a man in Arkansas who write to his local NBA television station to complain that they’d adopted a logo with gay colors. The station replied that the peacock has been NBC’s logo since 1956.

 

 

To conclude, the issue has resolved in confusion because the word “marry” means different things to different people and too little effort was made to to achieve a common understanding. The discourse was won by the first group I described, though they’ll have to deal soon with their allies in group #3. The issue was lost by group #2 because they let people from #4 do most of the talking.

 

 

 

Thoughts on the pool party

We read this morning that police officer Eric Casebolt from McKinney, Texas has resigned. Casebolt was involved over the weekend in an ugly scene at a pool party that was filmed by bystanders and posted on YouTube. Casebolt is seen frantically racing through the crowd, commanding some people to sit down, others to get away, and others to lie on their face. No one was killed, but the incident fits a pattern of earlier, deadlier cases of police overreach.

 

[Source: screen grab from YouTube video]
[Source: screen grab from YouTube video]

I have two observations:

Everything might have been better if the police had stayed away. Casebolt’s resignation makes it easy to focus only on him, as the camera mostly did. But there were other officers on the scene and I’m not sure they were needed either. (The local police chief says only Casebolt misbehaved. I don’t know.)

What would have happened if the police had just stayed away? It is not hard to imagine an escalation to knives and guns, given that Texas has the most liberal open-carry gun law in the country. (Yes! The right to possess a gun is a liberal policy!) But injecting guns into the pool party would be an act of pure imagination.

The video evidence shows two fat, catty women slapping and pulling each other’s hair. Those women could have gone at it ‘til they were out of breath (probably less than a minute) and then walked away with abrasions and contusions. The rest of the people gathered on the scene behaved well. It was the police officers who were running, pushing people and raising the anxiety level. So I suggest that the incident might have come off better without police. Certainly better with one fewer.

I hasten to add that had only fit police officers arrived, they might have done some good. Proper-minded public servants could have separated the brawling women, determined that no crime had occurred and that the people on the scene had a right to assemble. And then they could have warned off the racist white people and driven away. But the McKinney Police Department didn’t have only proper-minded public servants, so they sent what they had, including Casebolt.

Most cities have a staffing table specifying how many police officers they will hire. That number is determined by the size of the city and its budget. The number of truly qualified applicants isn’t considered. Now, no law under heaven assures that a sufficient number of people with the right temperament and aptitude will exist for any task of work that needs to be done. The scarcity principle of economics argues that there will never be enough of any valuable resource, and that would include people. So police departments hire unfit people, train them, and then give them a uniform and a gun and send them out into the streets. (Casebolt had 10 years of experience and 2200 hours of training, according to a Dallas news source. But he still wasn’t fit to be a police officer.)

The same thing happens with schools and churches. Some people are born to be teachers, but there aren’t enough true, natural teachers to fill America’s classrooms. So schools hire people who just want a job and have obtained an education degree, and inflict them on America’s children. Ditto for church pulpits. There are more pulpits than people with a true pastoral vocation. And woe to the flock that is led by such wolves in sheep’s clothing.

My second thought is that civil disobedience was called for in McKinney, Texas, and the people on the scene were not up to the task.

In espousing civil disobedience, I am not suggesting disrespect for proper authority. I’m personally predisposed to do what I’m told. Shakespeare’s character Bates rings true to me when he says, “We know enough if we know we are the king’s subjects.”  A popular teacher at my high school was disciplined for flouting the dress code, and it sparked a student protest. One day, all the kids in the school gathered in the gym and refused to go to afternoon classes — all but about eight who protested the protest by going to class as instructed. I was one of the eight.

But when authority clearly steps outside the lines, people ought to step in.

When I was a missionary in Central Asia, a Christian friend was arrested in a small village on a nuisance charge and jailed “pending investigation.” There is no habeas corpus there, so “pending investigation” could mean anything. (The arresting officer questioned me briefly and told me to go, and I was too naïve to realize what was happening. I should have refused to leave my friend’s side, but I did leave and he was carted away.) Immediately after, I went to a superior police officer and offered myself for arrest, explaining that I had been with my friend the entire time and that anything he did, I did also. But I should have acted more promptly while the injustice was taking shape.

Since cell phone cameras have become ubiquitous, there has grown an ethic and expectation that responsible citizens should use their camera to film police abuses. The principle is boiled down to If You See Something, Film Something. And that was done at the Texas pool party. More than one person had their cell phone camera out and going. (The “film something” principle isn’t just a curb to police abuses. We ought to be just as ready to record any crime, and we ought to be just as ready to film and share police officers doing their job well.)

But more should have been done in McKinney. This isn’t a case like the Walter Scott shooting, where one person glanced up from his own business and saw the police officer shoot a man. In that case, the photographer was doing good just to capture the image on camera. In McKinney, there were dozens of people standing around. The incident went on for several minutes. People should had done more than just gawking and yelling.

I suggest large numbers should have sat down right beside the few teenagers who were being harassed. The film shows Casebolt before at least five kids sitting or lying on the ground. None of them had done anything and Casebolt had no grounds for suspicion against them. I say concerned people – especially some of the white people across the street – should have walked up with their hands behind their back or on their head and taken a seat right next to those young men. They should have flooded the scene with more and more humanity until the kids were shielded from further abuse.

This wild idea was proven effective  by Gandhi, King and the earlier English suffragette movement. There was violence in all three cases, but also many peaceful responses by masses of protagonists.

Let me elaborate on the idea with scenes from two movies. In Witness (1985), a crooked police captain stands ready to gun down Harrison Ford. But the captain backs down. He’s quite willing to kill Ford to keep his corruption scheme going, but he’s not willing to kill every one of the dozens of Amish people standing nearby watching.

The second case is the 2006 crime drama Inside Man. Bank robbers take hostages and then force them all to put on the same nondescript painters overalls the robbers are wearing. Then, in a climactic action scene, everyone bursts out the door at once. The police have no way of knowing who is a perpetrator and who is a hostage. (To learn how the robbers get away with the loot, you should watch the movie.)

 

 

[N.B.: I am using the two movie scenes to illustrate a tactic for resisting excessive police actions. I am not advocating robbing banks. I am not implying that all police action is excessive.]

This would be really terrible advice if not followed in the way I intend. It would have to be the right sort of incident, and it would have to be the right sort of people. The Amish in Witness were the right sort of people. The bad police captain knew they weren’t armed and weren’t a threat to him. The all-exonerating claim that “I feared for my life” didn’t apply. And every one of the Amish felt that their personal safety was less important that ensuring justice in their community.

 

How does a normally peaceable, trouble avoiding, self-interested person approach civil disobedience? I offer these initial steps:

  1. Read Civil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau with discernment.
  2. Read Matthew, Chapter 5-7 with wholehearted faith.
  3. Travel light and unencumbered so you’re never in a position to think, “I ought to take action to save that person from harm, but I’ve got this mocha latte in my hand. “
  4. Cultivate a universal benevolence. Have a kind wish for every person, without exception. Be ready to act for justice regardless of who the victim is. Wish the best for the cop, too.
  5. Stop yelling.