Thursday, April 30, 2009

In Character

That is the name for the John Templeton Foundation's magazine on ethics and virtue. Per the Philadelphia Inquirer:

Presumably, Sir John (1912-2008) would have liked that first issue. A Tennessean, Yale graduate, and Rhodes scholar who rocked the world of investing by thinking globally and buying stock at "points of maximum pessimism" (when shares hit rock-bottom), he reportedly flew coach despite becoming a billionaire.

That debut "Thrift" issue mixed first-rate articles by scholars such as economist Deirdre McCloskey with a New York Times journalist's report on thrift shops, an interview with Steve Forbes, and a survey of Americans' saving habits.

It set the tone for a unique publication, nationally distributed three times a year, that combines a magazine's pizzazz and bold graphics with a scholarly journal's intellectual heft and authority.

Subsequent issues over the years have zeroed in on such concepts as "Loyalty," "Generosity," "Honesty," "Compassion," and, most recently, "Courage." On deck is "Grit." Some pieces appear in prestigious anthologies such as Best Spiritual Writing.

"These virtues are perennial," notes Schwartz, who was a researcher in moral development at Harvard before coming to Templeton in the mid-'90s. "They're universal. . . . We thought it would be nice to shed light on them."

"What I want to do with this magazine," explains Charlotte Hays, In Character's new editor, "is to make virtue as interesting as vice. Not to preach virtue, but to examine it."

There is a print edition available through subscription, and if the magazine is as good as I hope it to be, it would be great to have a hard copy collection, but I will start by exploring current and past issues at the In Character website. It's free (I think), and I am trying to be a bit more thrifty.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Swine Flu and Subsidiarity

David Brooks makes a connection in his NYT editorial:

The correct response to these dynamic, decentralized, emergent problems is to create dynamic, decentralized, emergent authorities: chains of local officials, state agencies, national governments and international bodies that are as flexible as the problem itself.

Swine flu isn’t only a health emergency. It’s a test for how we’re going to organize the 21st century. Subsidiarity works best.

The major problem I have with the above is the word "create." We already have an array of local organizations, businesses, and hospitals, they just need to be empowered and freed from heavy-handed government and fears of lawsuits. Katrina is a good case study on a top-down versus bottom-up approach. Who were the heroes in responding to Katrina? Certainly not FEMA, but Wal-Mart and the Coast Guard. From an article on a Steve Horowitz research paper:

Another element of Wal-Mart's successful response was the great degree of discretion that the company gave to district and store managers. Store managers have sufficient authority to make decisions based on local information and immediate needs. As the storm approached, CEO Lee Scott provided a guiding edict to his senior staff and told them to pass it down to regional, district, and store managers: "A lot of you are going to have to make decisions above your level. Make the best decision that you can with the information that's available to you at the time, and, above all, do the right thing."

In several cases, store managers allowed either emergency personnel or local residents to take store supplies as needed. They did not feel the need to get pre-approval from supervisors to do so. A Kenner, Louisiana employee used a forklift to knock open a warehouse door to get water for a local retirement home. In Marrero, Louisiana employees allowed local police officers to use the store as a headquarters and a sleeping place as many had lost their homes.

In Waveland, Mississippi assistant manager Jessica Lewis, who was unable to reach her superiors to get permission, decided to run a bulldozer through her store to collect basics that were not water-damaged, which she then piled in the parking lot and gave away to residents. She also broke into the store's locked pharmacy to supply critical drugs to a local hospital.

And the Coast Guard:

The one government agency generally acknowledged to have performed well during Katrina was the U. S. Coast Guard. One explanation for its success is that it has had both independence from the political process and a decentralized organizational structure, much like Wal-Mart. It also had a fairly clear and visible “output” (i.e., saving lives through rescues). Despite the Coast Guard not having the ability to rely on profit and loss for knowledge and incentives, it at least could take advantage of local knowledge through its decentralized organizational structure as well as its long-standing powerful organizational culture of agility and independence.

Now, don't get me wrong, I am not saying Wal-Mart is a corporate angel by any means, but I don't see them as the ultimate evil, either. The truth lies somewhere in the middle. But there is no denying that they are good at what they do, and much of their competitive success is a result of combining centralized technology systems with very decentralized decision making. Charles Platt found this out when he left Wired magazine and went undercover as a Wal-Mart employee:

My standard equipment included a handheld bar-code scanner which revealed the in-store stock and nearest warehouse stock of every item on the shelves, and its profit margin. At the branch where I worked, all the lowest-level employees were allowed this information and were encouraged to make individual decisions about inventory. One of the secrets to Wal-Mart’s success is that it delegates many judgment calls to the sales-floor level, where employees know first-hand what sells, what doesn’t, and (most important) what customers are asking for.

Bottom-up works, but it requires those at the top to give up control, not exactly a strength for career politicians.

The four Cardinal Virtues

Peter Kreeft in an older column on the four cardinal virtues:

The four cardinal virtues — justice, wisdom (prudence), courage (fortitude), and moderation (self-control, temperance) — come not just from Plato or Greek philosophy. You will find them in Scripture. They are knowable by human nature, which God designed, not Plato. Plato first formulated them, but he did for virtue only what Newton did for motion: he discovered and tabulated its own inherent foundational laws.

These four are called “cardinal” virtues from the Latin word for “hinge”. All other virtues hinge on these four. That includes lesser Virtues, which are corollaries of these, and also greater virtues (the three “theological virtues”), which are the flower of these.

These four cardinal virtues are not the only virtues, or even the highest ones. As Einstein surpassed Newton, Jesus most certainly surpassed Plato. But just as Einstein did not contradict Newton but included him, presupposed him, and built on him, so Jesus’ supernatural virtues do not contradict Plato’s natural virtues but presuppose them. Plato gives us virtue’s grammar; Jesus gives us virtue’s poetry.

Kreeft goes on to tell a great story about him as professor in a ethics/philosophy class where the students wanted to create a new ethic from a tabula rasa position, unencumbered by the outdated philosophies of the past. The result?

The students were truly amazed to find that all eight of the ideas they had just discovered were precisely the main points of this bewhiskered old classic (Plato's Republic): no double standard; justice as harmony; wisdom as understanding; courage as nonphysical; moderation versus materialism; the fit between the three virtues and the three parts of the soul; the fact that justice leads to happiness for individuals and societies, that “justice is more profitable than injustice”; and overall the use of rational discovery and persuasion rather than force.

Kreeft explains:

Why are these old philosophers so up-to-date? Because they took their bearings not from the date — nothing is so surely and quickly dated as the up-to-date — but from the unchanging essence of man, the inherent structure of the soul. Plato was the first to discover and map this, the first to give us a psychograph. The four cardinal virtues — justice, wisdom, courage, and moderation — are relevant to man in every age because they are relevant to man himself, not to the age. They fit our nature and our nature’s needs.

The human body has a structure that is inherent, not socially changeable, and the laws of its health are equally inherent and unchangeable, objective. The same is true of the soul. Virtue is simply health of soul. Justice, the overall virtue, is the harmony of the soul, as health is the harmony of the body. Justice is not just paying your debts, not just an external relationship between two or more people, but also and first of all the internal relationship within each individual among the parts of the soul.

The harmony is hierarchical, not egalitarian. When World follows Man, when within Man Body follows Soul, when within Soul Appetites follow Will and Will follows Reason (Wisdom), we have justice. When the hierarchy is inverted, we have injustice. Will leading Reason is rationalization and propaganda; Appetites leading Will is greed; Body leading Soul is animalism; World leading Man is unfreedom.

And he also addresses the most common Christian misunderstanding:

The answer to the faith-and-works issue is essentially a simple one, in fact, startingly simple. It is that faith works. The whole complex question of reconciling Paul’s words on faith and James’ words on works, and of resolving the dispute that sparked the Reformation, the dispute about justification by faith, is answered at its core at a single stroke: the very same “living water” of God’s own Spirit, God’s own life in our soul, is received by faith and lived out by virtuous works.

The water of the Sea of Galilee comes from the same source as the water of the Dead Sea: the Jordan River. But the Sea of Galilee stays fresh because it has an outlet for the water it receives. The Dead Sea lives up to its name because it does not.

The same thing happens to the “living waters” from God as to the fresh waters of the Jordan. When we bottle them up inside ourselves, they become stagnant. Stagnant faith stinks, like stagnant water. And the world has sensitive nostrils.

Kreeft concludes by saying, and I agree, that any plan to improve individuals or larger groups, up to the whole of society, must be based on this understanding of human nature and its counterintuitive "secret" to purpose and happiness.

Monday, April 27, 2009

TARPing Over a Shotgun Wedding

The tangled web of deceit and government intervention known as the merger of Bank of America and Merrill Lynch is cause for continued concern as new details emerge. New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo began an investigation into the merger specifically to review the propriety of Merrill's Q4 bonus payments, but as seen in his letter to Congressional leaders, much larger concerns have been unearthed:

Immediately after learning on December 14, 2008 of what Lewis described as the "staggering amount of deterioration" at Merrill Lynch, Lewis conferred with counsel to determine if Bank of America had grounds to rescind the merger agreement by using a clause that allowed Bank of America to exit the deal if a material adverse event ("MAC") occurred. After a series of internal consultations and consultations with counsel, on December 17, 2008, Lewis informed then-Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson that Bank of America was seriously considering invoking the MAC clause. Paulson asked Lewis to come to Washington that evening to discuss the matter.

Bank of America's attempt to exit the merger came to a halt on December 21, 2008. That day, Lewis informed Secretary Paulson that Bank of America still wanted to exit the merger agreement. According to Lewis, Secretary Paulson then advised Lewis that, if Bank of America invoked the MAC, its management and Board would be replaced:

Secretary Paulson's threat swayed Lewis. According to Secretary Paulson, after he stated that the management and the Board could be removed, Lewis replied, "that makes it simple. Let's deescalate." Lewis admits that Secretary Paulson's threat changed his mind about invoking that MAC clause and terminating the deal.

Secretary Paulson has informed us that he made the threat at the request of Chairman Bernanke.

The questions becomes, are we looking at government fueled securities fraud? Mish thinks so:

It's crystal clear from the letter that a strong case can be made that Paulson and Bernanke coerced Lewis to carry out a merger agreement that was not in Bank of America's shareholders best interest. Lewis arguably did so only to save his own job and the board.

Karl Denninger spells it out for those not up to date on securities law:

Your first obligation isn't to your regulator, it is your fiduciary responsibility to your share and bondholders.

If your regulator decides to remove you from office as a consequence, they do. That doesn't change a thing; your personal interests cannot override your responsibilities.

As the CEO of a public firm you don't work for the govermment, whether you think you're some "left arm adjunct" or not. You work for the holders of your stock and debt - period. On this matter the law is clear, and the government, even post-TARP, had a minority stake.

As such they lack standing to tell you to shut up when your obligation to disclose is a matter of black-letter law.

The WSJ does their best to focus the blame squarely on the Paulson and Bernanke, perhaps appropriately, but at the end of the day, it appears Lewis put his own interests ahead of his legal and professional responsibilities to Bank of America. I would join Mish and Denninger and hope that all three receive indictments.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Reclaiming Virtue

The Houston Chronicle looks at John Bradshaw's new book:

In a strict sense, John Bradshaw has spent the past 10 years working on his latest book, Reclaiming Virtue. But really, he says, it has been percolating for 45 years, since he was a young man studying for the priesthood.

Virtue, it turns out, is not about easy answers.

But this new book, subtitled "How we can develop the moral intelligence to do the right thing at the right time for the right reason," goes beyond his earlier work, blending his background in theology and philosophy with his work as a teacher and a counselor.

He describes it as "a whole new approach to moral education."

"What I'm presenting is much more difficult than following a list of rules," he said.

It is much less a "whole new approach" than it is a return to a very old approach, but it would be fresh in these times for sure.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

The IPhone and Virtue

News on a new application for the IPhone:

Equilibrium Enterprises, Inc. has unveiled its latest iPhone application, Virtues for the iPhone, which is designed to help users, step by step, follow in the footsteps of Benjamin Franklin's time-honored self-improvement system, updated for a digital age.

The Virtues app is based upon Benjamin Franklin's own system of tracking how well he displayed virtues in his character daily for a period of one week. He focused exclusively on tracking one virtue per week.

With 13 virtues -- temperance, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, chastity, silence, order, resolution and humility -- he surmised he could cycle through the process four times over the course of one year.

He wrote about this daily practice in his autobiography at the age of 79, and attributed much of his success to it, saying, "I was, by the endeavor, a better and a happier man than I otherwise should have been if I had not attempted it." He also wrote, "I hope, therefore, that my descendants will follow this example and reap the benefits."

The Virtues app will soon be available for the Android and BlackBerry also.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Morality and Principles

As the comments in recent posts have exposed, my ideas on public vs. private virtue are incomplete. It is, after all, why I started this blog. I do want to attempt some clarification.

My view is that by and large our society's morality is stuck in a consequentialist philosophical worldview where, put simply, "the ends justify the means."

In government, this shows up in policies that allow the infringement of civil liberties and individual rights in the name of a greater good, justifying invasion of privacy, theft of property, brutish law enforcement, and even torture. See President 43. And it also shows up in corrupt politicians whose fervent desire to advance their beliefs open them to bribery and all sorts of shenanigans. See Huey Long.

In business, the end game is profit, so consequentialism drifts all too easily into either Machiavellian cunning, or outright fraud. Competition is perhaps the chief defining human characteristic (see Cain & Abel), so, unfortunate as it might be, any society that attempts to limit or eliminate competition will fail. Yet everyone hates being on the losing end of competition, so cheating is a universal temptation. When a society embraces "if you ain't cheating, you ain't trying" and "greed is good," it is little wonder we find ourselves with Enron, Bernie Madoff, Blackwater, too big to fail financial institutions, and all their assorted lobbying groups.

I am not advocating pushing society towards my, or any one else's, vision of a "Christian" nation, hence the recent posts. Still, humans both individually and collectively require and seek structure and a legal/moral framework. I am advocating moving from the present cultural acceptance of pragmatism and turning to a cultural embrace of principle and yes, virtue.

People should be asking if our politician are acting with virtue, and if their policies are grounding in just principles. There is a vocal group that certainly speaks loudly about "religious" values, but it is used all too often as a wedge in a culture war and rarely for the right principles. The fact is, truth is truth, and whether you use the language of Jesus and scriptures or the language of Greek or more recent secular philosophers, if they are in agreement, then everyone wins.

The purpose of life, according to Aristotle, and echoed by Jesus and the the New Testament writers (see James and Paul in his letter to the Ephesians) is to know, be, and do good. While Christians would certainly be quick to add the roles of faith and grace, Christ's call to match intent and action remain.

Maybe I would like Christian politicians to quote more Aristotle than Jesus, but what I really want is for people of all religions and no religion to embrace public and private discussion of morality, truth, and virtue. I see virtue ethics as a "politically correct" way in which to begin talking about character, morality, and actions as a society, at dinner parties, in media, in schools and universities, and yes, in politics. I am not looking for government leaders to make people more virtuous, but looking for people to be more concerned about making themselves, their children, and their leaders more disciplined in matters of principle and virtue.

Earth Day

From the ever optimistic economist Mark J. Perry:

Data Source for graphs: EPA

MP: Consider that since the first Earth Day in 1970, U.S. population has increased by 50.25%, miles driven has increased by 159% and real GDP has increased 203%; and yet air quality is better than ever.
In another post, Mark links to Use Energy, Get Rich, and Save the Planet, an editorial by the lonely libertarian on the New York Time's staff entitled :

As their wealth grows, people consume more energy, but they move to more efficient and cleaner sources — from wood to coal and oil, and then to natural gas and nuclear power, progressively emitting less carbon per unit of energy. This global decarbonization trend has been proceeding at a remarkably steady rate since 1850, according to Jesse Ausubel of Rockefeller University and Paul Waggoner of the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station.


Of course, even if rich countries’ greenhouse impact declines, there will still be an increase in carbon emissions from China, India and other countries ascending the Kuznets curve. While that prospect has environmentalists lobbying for global restrictions on greenhouse gases, some economists fear that a global treaty could ultimately hurt the atmosphere by slowing economic growth, thereby lengthening the time it takes for poor countries to reach the turning point on the curve.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Never a Christian Nation, BUT...

From World Nut Net Daily:

According to Evangelical Christianity, the New Testament Scriptures define what is "Christian." Individuals are Christians (Acts 11:26) – not cars, not pets, not nations.


America was founded by Christians, deists and others who embraced virtue and biblical morality, and who understood the importance of humility before the Creator. Hence, early documents such as the Declaration of Independence made so many references to God and His Providence. That is why so many of our laws and governmental practices were originally adapted from biblical precepts and standards.

Without a doubt America was founded on biblical principles, but lacking a New Testament mandate, and given its manmade origin, the nation our founders created can never be called "Christian."

It is important to note that although our nation was not originally a "Christian" nation, our Founding Fathers understood the wisdom of Christian morality and the necessity of acknowledging God's supreme authority. They communicated in their writings that if our nation, with its unique vision for self-government and personal liberty, were to persevere in greatness, its individual citizens would need to embrace the morality and Christian worldview upon which it was founded.

Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters. – Benjamin Franklin

The only foundation for a useful education in a republic is to be laid in religion. Without this there can be no virtue, and without virtue there can be no liberty, and liberty is the object and life of all republican governments. – Benjamin Rush

Our liberty depends on our education, our laws, and habits … it is founded on morals and religion, whose authority reigns in the heart, and on the influence all these produce on public opinion before that opinion governs rulers. – Fisher Ames

Without morals a republic cannot subsist any length of time; they therefore who are decrying the Christian religion, whose morality is so sublime & pure, [and] which denounces against the wicked eternal misery, and [which] insured to the good eternal happiness, are undermining the solid foundation of morals, the best security for the duration of free governments. – Charles Carroll

[W]e have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. … Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other. – John Adams

Our Founding Fathers warned that the forsaking of virtue, biblical morality and humility before God would cause our nation to lose the very liberty for which the founders risked their lives. Yet, that is precisely what has happened in the last 200 years – America now suffers from moral decline on almost every level, because its citizens no longer promote biblical virtue and submission to God.

Reb Bradley then goes all 3rd President:

Thomas Jefferson put it most poignantly:
No government can continue good but under the control of the people; and people so demoralized [lacking good morals] and depraved as to be incapable of exercising a wholesome control, their reformation must be taken up ab incunabulis. Their minds [must] be informed by education what is right and what wrong, be encouraged in habits of virtue and deterred from those of vice by the dread of punishments, proportioned indeed, but irremissible. In all cases, follow truth as the only safe guide and eschew error which bewilders us in one false consequence after another in endless succession. These are the inculcations necessary to render the people a sure basis for the structure of order and good government. – Thomas Jefferson to John Adams (1819. ME 15:234)

Religion, as well as reason, confirms the soundness of those principles on which our government has been founded and its rights asserted. – Thomas Jefferson to P. H. Wendover, (1815. ME 14:283)

To put it in today's language, it was Jefferson's conviction that by nature, people are depraved, immoral and lacking self-control. He therefore believed that the only way that the American style of government could be maintained was to instruct everyone in right and wrong from birth, and train them toward good habits and virtue through disciplinary consequences. Political self-government, he said, requires that citizens be raised to despise dishonesty and embrace personal integrity through instruction and repeated admonitions. Religion and reason, he said, form the basis for our nation's foundations.

Thomas Jefferson and the other founders built our nation upon Christian principles and ethics, and warned that America would morally disintegrate if it forsook its "religious" roots. Although such a foundation could not make our nation "Christian," we would be wise to listen to our predecessors and embrace our Creator and the Bible that communicates how to walk in morality and virtue.

I agree with more than I disagree in this article, but the thing I find REALLY interesting is Bradley's short bio after the article:

Best-selling author Reb Bradley is not a political expert; he is a parenting expert. As a counselor, Bradley has diagnosed and helped thousands of parents transform their lives and those of their children. In 1998, he took note of the disintegrating moral fiber of our nation and decided to apply his diagnostic skills to find a cure for what ails our society. In his book, Born Liberal Raised Right: How to Rescue America from Moral Decline – One Family at a Time," Bradley reveals how American society has grown out of control, because its members were not taught self-control as children. In fact, in his research he discovered that a liberal worldview is a direct outgrowth of various parenting styles.

I cringe at the author's use of the term "liberal" as the ultimate negative, and would bet that the book is unnecessarily politicized, but he does make a great point that self-control and discipline are taught skills that fewer and fewer parents seem to make an effort to instill into their children.

And with that last statement, I am pretty sure I just jinxed Mrs. Hommes and I into spawning a monster of unprecendeted measure if/when we get to that point.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Tea Parties

I have not posted on the tea parties because I am conflicted. I am among the many who are upset and feel that the elected officials in Congress are acting against the will and interest of its constituents. What I resent is that while these tea-parties started out as a true grass roots effort (mostly by the Ron Paul Crowd through their websites and e-mail lists), and begun in response to the Bush bailouts, they were co-opted, or astroturfed, by the GOP and Fox News hoping to harness the parties for their own agendas and ratings. It is an error to see these tea parties as anti-Obama or anti-Democrat, because until the GOP fully acknowledge their recklessness in through the Bush years, true fiscal conservatives will be as upset or more upset with Republicans than with Democrats.

Getting mad at Democrats for expanding government is like getting mad at a puppy for peeing on the carpet. It may be frustrating, but its what comes naturally to them. Republicans, however, have no such excuse. They were elected to not pee on the carpet, and through arrogant and willful disregard of their constituents, they have done it for years and attempted to rub our noses in it.

Is Federalism Dead?

Point and counterpoint from the Volokh Conspiracy:

In their important new book criticizing federalism, Malcolm Feeley and Edward Rubin argue that federalism (defined as constitutional guarantees for state autonomy) is unnecessary in the modern US in part because modern Americans no longer feel any major sense of identification with state governments.

Ilya Somin responds:

As John McGinnis and I explained in this 2004 article, declining public identification with state governments actually increases the benefits of foot voting. A citizen who strongly identifies with Virginia might hesitate to leave even if another state is otherwise vastly more attractive due to its superior public policies. But a person who feels little or no loyalty to her state won't suffer from any such inhibitions. To the extent that modern Virginians are more willing to leave than those of 100 or 200 years ago, state governments elsewhere have stronger incentives to woo them, and Virginia's state government has stronger incentives to adopt good policies that will convince them to stay. Once we recognize the importance of voting with your feet as a major benefit of federalism, it turns out that declining loyalty to state governments actually strengthens the case for limiting the scope of federal power.

It seems a bit of a chicken/egg issue. I try to watch the Georgia Gang on Fox 5, but in addition to it being really crappy television, the issues discussed seem like the leftover scraps from D.C. If federalism (and subsidiarity in general) was a greater governing philosophy, then not only would people take more interest in local politics, but both their ballot and feet voting would mean more.

Morality and Law

This from Scotland:

Iain Ramsay (Letters, 15 April) is mistaken in claiming: "The law, as it stands, is the 'moral spokesperson'." Morality and the law are not the same thing.
The law does not say particular actions are right or wrong, only that they are permitted or prohibited. The question of what we ought to do in any situation is not the same as the question of what is legally permitted or obligatory. Obedience is not the same as moral virtue. Even if it is a virtue, it is not the only one. That we were only obeying orders will not always be a sound excuse for our actions, no matter to whom or to what we were being obedient – even to God almighty.


School of Law and Social Sciences

Glasgow Caledonian University

Mr. Ramsey's opening line:

Since we are ignorant of the purpose of life, morality must be a matter for consensus


Tuesday, April 14, 2009

No Power, No Cable, No Internet...

No blog post.

Our yard was littered with branches, the largest (~4" diameter x ~8' long) of which had pierced our yard like a giant javelin, perched at a near 45 degree angle until the Mrs. and I removed it. Still, we are among the fortunate, as we had 4 or 5 houses on our block that took a direct hit from fallen trees, and at least 2 of them are currently uninhabitable.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Not a Christian Nation

Continuing the theme from Meacham's article discussed in the previous post, there is certainly a tension between the Christian religion of America's citizens and the secular government that our founding fathers established. They are two intertwined yet distinct strands, the individuals who choose to hold religious convictions, and a government (that should be) bound to the secular framework of the Constitution. John Adams and the Senate of 1797 certainly had no problem with the following statement (it was approved unanimously as part of the Treaty of Tripoli) so why should we?

Art. 11. As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion

Don't get me wrong. I desire for people to follow Christ, but the Christian faith is one of personal choice, not of persuasion or force. This is directly at odds with the role of government, whose sole distinguishing characteristic is coercion.

Certainly, moral tension between our spiritual and political spheres continues today. We have long been a nation of people who identify themselves mostly as Christian, and that is certainly changing in our time with the growth of those who do not identify with Christianity or commit to any faith system. The question, then, is where are people to look for morality?

The worst possible answer, although the seeming reality, would be that our society is receives its moral cues from government. To many it seems that government funding determines right and wrong (embryonic stem cell research, abortion) and jails are crowded with government’s judgment on private personal activities of a morally dubious nature. This happens while America's citizens are increasingly not only educated, but raised and supported by the government dole, graduating or flunking out to work at some level or other of multinational corporation XYZ, which exists in large part through government influence and protection. Thomas Jefferson's words ring prophetic:

Dependence begets subservience and venality, suffocates the germ of virtue, and prepares fit tools for the designs of ambition.

Seeing the government as the barometer for morality is a trap that both the religious and irreligious fall prey to. It is at least a part of the reason social conservatives, who have little problems with heterosexuals that destroy the sanctity of marriage, are now decrying homosexuals seeking equal government recognition. It is also a big reason why the social engineers on the left look to government to redistribute wealth and solve every problem instead of defending liberty and the rights of its citizens.

I see virtue ethics as the best way forward. In How to Argue like Jesus (which Mrs. Hommes gave me as a Valentine's gift!), the authors offer an observation, one that I like very much. In the introduction, they bring attention to the fact that throughout history scholars have drawn parallels between the philosophies of Greece and the teaching of Christianity. They go on to state an intention of their book is to "to solidify the link between those conclusions reached through reason (by means of philosophy) and those reached through revelation (in the person of Jesus)."

Virtue ethics, as set forth by Aristotle (and Christianized by Aquinas), then, can offer a way for people of every religion, and of no religion, to reasonably agree on a set of virtues that should guide our public and private lives, and the education of our youth. Lists of virtues already exists that aggregate the virtues common to the world's faith traditions, and sites exist that can put virtue and moral decision making into language acceptable for atheists. But first, we as a society must decide to recognize the vital role and social importance of virtues, the need for more virtuous citizens, and the inability for big government to provide either. We are not there, but I would like to be optimistic and add a word - yet.

Good Friday in America

Mrs. Hommes and I met today for Good Friday, and after a to-go order at Chick-fil-A we tried to hurry in a visit to a tile showroom before returning to work. Well, the store had a note on the door giving notice that they closed at noon in observance of Good Friday. I was a perturbed. Sure, on one level I am glad that commerce stops to recognize that which is more important, but I am cynical enough to suspect most of the people that closed up shop are paying very little respect to Good Friday, if at all. Well, I let the frustration pass, but it reminded me of a tension that is ever present in our country, and has flaired in to the news in the last week. How Christian is America?

I enjoyed Robert Meacham's American Gospel and thought it was a good exploration of the role religion has (or hasn't) played in American politics. His article in this week's Newsweek, The End of Christian America is a great extension of his book, and while the entire article is too good to summarize with a quote, I submit a section particularly relevant this Good Friday:

The columnist Cal Thomas was an early figure in the Moral Majority who came to see the Christian American movement as fatally flawed in theological terms. "No country can be truly 'Christian'," Thomas says. "Only people can. God is above all nations, and, in fact, Isaiah says that 'All nations are to him a drop in the bucket and less than nothing'." Thinking back across the decades, Thomas recalls the hope—and the failure. "We were going through organizing like-minded people to 'return' America to a time of greater morality. Of course, this was to be done through politicians who had a difficult time imposing morality on themselves!"

Their view tracks with that of the Psalmist, who said, "Put not thy trust in princes," and there is much New Testament evidence to support a vision of faith and politics in which the church is truest to its core mission when it is the farthest from the entanglements of power. The Jesus of the Gospels resolutely refuses to use the means of this world—either the clash of arms or the passions of politics—to further his ends. After the miracle of the loaves and fishes, the dazzled throng thought they had found their earthly messiah. "When Jesus therefore perceived that they would come and take him by force, to make him a king, he departed again into a mountain himself alone." When one of his followers slices off the ear of one of the arresting party in Gethsemane, Jesus says, "Put up thy sword." Later, before Pilate, he says, "My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight."

And so it was that Christ submitted himself, even to the cross.

PS - The Newsweek article has spawned reaction across the cultural/religious/political spectrum, and led to a follow-up response by Meacham, found here.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

No Real Post Today

I am going to watch a little hockey. If anyone out there thinks I'm an idiot or has a topic they want to grill me on, let me know.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Corporate Protectionism: Food

Much like the CPSIA I have previously posted on, sweeping new regulation is in the pipeline for anyone that sells food. Per

Without going into a detailed textual analysis, the FSMA requires all “food establishments,” which means anyone selling or storing food of any type for transmission to third parties via the act of commerce, to register with a new Food Safety Administration, to keep copious records of sales and shipment by lot and label, to subject themselves to at least annual inspections by FSA inspectors, and to provide detailed handling instructions for safe processing of food. That may work for Nabisco and the people who supply McDonald’s, but it’s probably not going to work at, for instance, the farmer’s market I visit without fail every weekend beginning in late March. The place is infested with hippies and rustic sorts who couldn’t fill out a spreadsheet and can’t afford legal advice on how to farm, but know a thing or two about growing good peppers.

Nor will the more detailed recordkeeping and lab testing requirements, and the monthly inspections, to be required of farmers’ markets which offer delicacies such as bacon or cheese, both of which I purchase at my own farmers’ market because I trust the farmers involved, and because I won’t give up absolutely fresh tomatoes even if I’m not assured they were audited by the government.

It’s also unlikely to work for importers of certain delicacy foods which aren’t made in America (the bill requires food makers overseas to adhere to bacterial testing standards equal to those mandated by the FSA) such as mortadella ham and certain cheeses. Those may no longer be imported.

As the CPSIA illustrates, the problem with “one size fits all” regulation of business activity at the federal level is that one size, in fact, doesn’t fit all. Lead paint testing requirements, which are just a cost to be passed on to millions of customers by a Mattel or GAPKids who see little increase in price per unit because they test in bulk, simply kill small, artisan toymakers or small-lot clothing producers. The mandates of the FSMA likewise will cause little trouble to Hormel, but may be onerous indeed to the smallscale family farmer in Louisburg North Carolina from whom I buy sausage on saturday mornings.

And from the left-side of the political spectrum:

All of these bills, ostensibly, are efforts to make factory-farmed food safer so we can avoid E.coli in spinach, downer cattle in school lunches, feathers in chicken patties, and other food-borne horror stories we've grown all-too used to hearing about. But if these regulations are extended to the small, family farms where the problems aren't coming from, it's more than just a legislative overextension. It's a tilting of the playing field grossly in favor of corporate agriculture. And on this point, we all should be paranoid.

"What people don't realize is that if any of these bills pass, we lose. All we will have left is industrial food," says Deborah Stockton, executive director of the National Independent Consumers and Farmers Association, which is dedicated to promoting and preserving unregulated direct farmer-to-consumer trade, and fostering the availability of locally grown or home-produced food products.

As a big fan of local food markets, family sausage stores, and imported artisanal foods, my stomach has a personal interest in this, but my political fire gets stoked since it is entirely possible for the politicians to add language that excludes small operations, yet they have failed to do so.

If a corporation is going to accept the privileges bestowed upon them, such as limited liability protection and government funding/grants/breaks, then I have no problem, in fact I think justice demands, that burdens and tolls are legislated and enforced to counteract corporations propensity to externalize costs.

As a good friend likes to remind me, drawing on Lincoln's words, our government should be "of the people, by the people, for the people" not "of the corporation, by the corporation, for the corporation."

Now, if a company is organized with unlimited liability (such as sole proprietor or general partnership), then I personally feel that organization should be free from as much government burden as possible.

Someone shouldn't need to file licenses, pay fees, build a separate commercial kitchen, and document the process for each ingredient just to sell cookies at a farmer's market.

Libertarian Basics on Charity

Per Arnold Kling:

From a libertarian perspective, your generosity is reflected in what you do with your own money, not in what you do with other people's money. If I give a lot of money to charity, then I am generous. If you give a smaller fraction of your money to charity, then you are less generous. But if you want to tax me in order to give my money to charity, that does not make you generous.

But being libertarian does not mean you have to have a cold heart. You can be a bleeding heart, but you show it by what you do, not what you advocate forcing other people to do.

The comments to Kling's post are also entertaining.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Tax Law vs. Tax Consultants

Score one for the tax consultants and unintended consequences. From The Nation:

Thanks to an obscure tax provision, the United States government stands to pay out as much as $8 billion this year to the ten largest paper companies. And get this: even though the money comes from a transportation bill whose manifest intent was to reduce dependence on fossil fuel, paper mills are adding diesel fuel to a process that requires none in order to qualify for the tax credit. In other words, we are paying the industry--handsomely--to use more fossil fuel. "Which is," as a Goldman Sachs report archly noted, the "opposite of what lawmakers likely had in mind when the tax credit was established."

The origins of the credit are innocent enough. In 2005 Congress passed, and George W. Bush signed, the $244 billion transportation bill. It included a variety of tax credits for alternative fuels such as ethanol and biomass. But it also included a fifty-cent-a-gallon credit for the use of fuel mixtures that combined "alternative fuel" with a "taxable fuel" such as diesel or gasoline.
Enter the paper industry. Since the 1930s the overwhelming majority of paper mills have employed what's called the kraft process to produce paper. Here's how it works. Wood chips are cooked in a chemical solution to separate the cellulose fibers, which are used to make paper, from the other organic material in wood. The remaining liquid, a sludge containing lignin (the structural glue that binds plant cells together), is called black liquor. Because it's so rich in carbon, black liquor is a good fuel; the kraft process uses the black liquor to produce the heat and energy necessary to transform pulp into paper. It's a neat, efficient process that's cost-effective without any government subsidy.

By adding diesel fuel to the black liquor, paper companies produce a mixture that qualifies for the mixed-fuel tax credit, allowing them to burn "black liquor into gold," as a JPMorgan report put it. It's unclear who first came up with the idea--Wrobleski told me it was "outside consultants"--but at some point last fall IP and Verso, another paper company, formerly a part of IP, began adding diesel to its black liquor and applied to the IRS for the credit. (Verso nabbed $29.7 million at just one of its mills in the final quarter of 2008 for its use of mixed fuel.)

There's nothing like using taxpayer money to pay multinational corporations to be less environmentally efficient.

Monday, April 6, 2009

The Great Repression

So says Mr. Lawrence Cunningham of Concurring Opinions about our current financial predicament:

All candidates for culprits ultimately involve false stories that people—citizens, business people, regulators and politicians alike—told themselves. Exemplars: the American dream of home ownership can be made available to all; housing prices tend inexorably upward; massive current borrowing can be repaid from future assumed prosperity; financial risk can be diversified, hedged, securitized away by carving up underlying financial instruments; regulators can let market participants self-monitor and self-correct; and politicians can safely respond to citizen appetites by sustaining all these false beliefs.

Yet these conscious beliefs unconsciously excluded painful truths—the essence of psychological repression. Not everyone can afford or handle burdens of home ownership; housing prices fluctuate according to supply and demand; excessive borrowing is dangerous; financial risk is real and pervasive and cannot be eliminated; markets, like people, including regulators, are imperfect; and politicians act in their short-term self interest in ways that can hurt constituents, not help them.

Equally repressed—excluded from the conscious mind—were recurring examples of similar asset bubbles that eventually burst, including as recently as early 2000’s tech bubble and dating to famous bubbles across the past five centuries.

Asset bubbles are akin to a massive social party of joyous and giddy dimensions. In those times of collective unconscious exclusion of painful memories and realties, party poopers are scarce. Few want to upset the gaiety of frothy markets that suggest flourishing abundance—for nearly all—and runaway riches for the super elite.

The result of the recent repression was a set of pro-cyclical proclivities. Virtually all systemic forces conspired to sustain and reinforce a multi-year boom in housing and financial prices, above what underlying economic attributes warrant.

Repression in economic matters may not always lead to doom. But the scale of unconscious denial of the past five years amounts to a Great Repression. That is the widespread and sustained, if unconscious, denial of economic reality on a scale sufficient so that eventual reckoning spells equally widespread and sustained financial devastation—of which we should now be collectively acutely conscious.

The bandwagon effect is nothing new, of course, and not limited to economics. Fashion, religion, entertainment and politics are other areas where people have tended to instinctively follow the herd for centuries, often into dangerous territory. What has changed in the last hundred years, however, is the technology, media, and globalization that enables herding on an unprecedented scale. We are living in viral times, and while that is great for YouTube videos, it can be quite a bit more unpleasant when wizards in DC and on Wall Street unleash their viruses.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Sunday Roundup

I was able to catch up on some news/blog reading, and found a few items that stuck out.

First, from Forbes, a great profile of one of the few bankers that did not spend the last 5 years with his head planted in his own rectum:

Andy Beal, a 56-year-old, poker-playing college dropout, is a one-man toxic-asset eater--without a shred of government assistance. Beal plays his cards patiently. For three long years, from 2004 to 2007, he virtually stopped making or buying loans. While the credit markets were roaring and lenders were raking in billions, Beal shrank his bank's assets because he thought the loans were going to blow up. He cut his staff in half and killed time playing backgammon or racing cars. He took long lunches with friends, carping to them about "stupid loans." His odd behavior puzzled regulators, credit agencies and even his own board. They wondered why he was seemingly shutting the bank down, resisting the huge profits the nation's big banks were making. One director asked him: "Are we a dinosaur?"

A self-described "libertarian kind of guy," Beal believes the government helped create the credit crisis. Now he finds it "crazy" that bankers who acted irresponsibly are getting money and he's not. But he wants to exploit their recklessness to amass his own fortune. "This is the opportunity of my lifetime," says Beal. "We are going to be a $30 billion bank without any help from the government." (A slight overstatement: He is quick to say he relies on federal deposit insurance.) Not much next to the trillion-dollar balance sheets of the nation's troubled banks, but the lesson here might be revealed in the fact that this billionaire is not playing with other people's money--he owns 100% of the bank and is acting accordingly.

"All these guys were stumbling over each other 18 months ago to pay over par," he says. "Now they can't sell fast enough at a discount. Why do people not do the great deals and do all the stupid ones? It's crazy."

Next, the Washington Post looks at the crumbling of the "Christian Coalition:"

Is the Christian right finished as a political entity? Or, more to the point, are principled Christians finished with politics?

These questions have been getting fresh air lately as frustrated conservative Christians question the pragmatism -- defined as the compromising of principles -- of the old guard. One might gently call the current debate a generational rift.


Compromise may be the grease of politics, but it has no place in Christian orthodoxy, according to Deace.

Put another way, Christians may have no place in the political fray of dealmaking. That doesn't mean one disengages from political life, but it might mean that the church shouldn't be a branch of the Republican Party. It might mean trading fame and fortune (green rooms and fundraisers) for humility and charity.

Finally, E.D. Kain writes thinks through the limits of a secular society:

Where secularization succeeds is in the promotion of liberty and the advancement of technology and science. These are good things, to be sure, but I would argue that a liberty devoid of morality is a shallow creature, flighty, easily dispersed. Technology without a moral tradition and the wisdom of that tradition is made too easily into a weapon. Without moral and religious inhibitions to the advancement of technology we risk dismantling much of what makes us human; through cloning or weapons of mass destruction or the acceptance of death as a cure to our age or our sadness. We also risk a reaction to secularization which embraces a resurgence of the revanchists who promise a more fiercely fought battle, and a more politically (and thus more tangible) return to “family values” and other culture war talking points. In other words, secularization is all well and good until people lose faith in it. Far better to wish for a better, smarter embracing of religion. There is no need to do away with Christianity in America; most Christians accept science and equality and justice. Indeed many of these things were born out of the Christian tradition, which has been inextricably bound to the larger Western tradition.

Oh, and did I mention, He-Man is back?

Friday, April 3, 2009

Lent and Humility

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

-Shakespeare, MacBeth, Act5, Scene 5

I use this blog as my personal soapbox and online diary, and I very much appreciate the friends that read and comment. While it is a creative, intellectual, and social outlet, I want to take this opportunity to affirm the reality that I, like most, am a mostly ignorant being, the subjects I understand a little about being greatly outweighed by those I don't. Furthermore, what information I have digested has been processed in a highly subjective, biased, and often irrational manner. Let this post serve as a disclaimer to the opinions otherwise freely and forcefully expressed on this blog.

I say this not with false humility hoping to appear gracious or receive affirmation. Trust me, my ego is in no danger of deflation. Still, working toward a more realistic assessment of self has its own rewards. Humility encourages an open mind that is more willing to learn, reason, work through adversity, and accept change. Also, lowering the importance of personal accomplishments, education, and affiliations makes valuing and accepting those with more or less visible accouterments of success much easier.

Lent is a great time to remember the blessing of humility, whether through introspection, humor, or discipline. I hope to do a better job throughout the year.

So be content with who you are, and don't put on airs. God's strong hand is on you; he'll promote you at the right time. Live carefree before God; he is most careful with you.

- 1 Peter 5:6-7, The Message


While I frequently stereotype Democrats and Republicans, as in yesterday's post, I am encouraged by those that break the mold. Per the Washington Examiner:

Four Republican senators failed to earn the Chamber’s “Spirit of Enterprise Award” (earned for scoring 70% or above): DeMint, James Inhofe of Oklahoma, Jon Kyl of Arizona, and Jeff Sessions of Alabama.
These are among the most fiscally conservative, pro-limited government members of the upper chamber—which is precisely their error, in the eyes of the Chamber. The heroes of the small government cause are the goats of the big business cause.


On the House side, it’s a similar picture. The Republican with the lowest Chamber score was Paul. Even Rep. Barney Frank, D-MA, who wants to regulate everything except Fannie Mae, scored 14 points higher than Paul on the Chamber’s scorecard.
Eleven House Republicans failed to win the Chamber’s award—a mixture of libertarian/conservative members like Paul and liberal members like then-Rep. Wayne Gilchrest, R-MD.
All but Gilchrest in this group of “business unfriendly” Republicans earned a black mark from the Chamber for voting against the Wall Street bailout twice. And conservative Republicans Paul, Ted Poe of Texas, Jeff Flake of Arizona, Jack Kingston of Georgia, Paul Broun of Georgia, and Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin voted against the college aid bill, while seven of the 11 voted against Bush’s stimulus.

While certainly not in agreement with the entirety of their politics, I am glad to see that at least these 15 legislators are not corporate pawns. Now for the other 520....

Thursday, April 2, 2009

There is a License for Interior Design?

Mark J. Perry blogs on a recent episode:

Do licensing laws protect consumers from death and destruction or, as the Interior Design Protection Council argues, do they protect licensed designers from competition?

Perhaps I was being too kind in an earlier post when I said that the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act would have "unintended" consequences.

A brief rabbit trail:

Republicans tend to be skeptical of big government (and regulation), and Democrats tend to be skeptical of big business (and greed). They each attack their chosen evil while defending the other's enemies. As someone who dislikes both big government and big business, I take a more libertarian viewpoint that you really can't have one without the other.

Innovation, service, strategy and skill are great ways to achieve success as an entrepreneur, but open competition leaves room for the next wave of entrepreneurs to usurp "established" business. So, as commenter Dr. RosenRosen has said in the past, there are only two options for businesses - they either fail, or merge other businesses until they fail.

Almost without exception, successful businesses shift from being lean and hungry hunters to bloated hoarders, and as the saying goes, the larger they are, the harder they fall. But to prevent the inevitable, "established" business try like mad to eliminate competitors and tilt the competitive rules in their favor, wherein the power of government becomes eminently valuable. A new marketplace naturally develops between government and the organizations most able to supply funds and influence. And so big government and big business grow, two parasite with society as its increasingly crippled host.

So, back to "unintended" consequences, it may be a tad cynical, but perhaps all too accurate to say that most politicians know exactly the consequences they seek, and are far to clever to be explicit in their intentions.

When it comes to interior designers it is hard for the average person to get ruffled about regulation. Because of the CPSIA, a college friend can no longer sell hair bows for little girls that she crafted for her daughter's friends. Who cares, right? Slowly but surely, however, barriers to entry are raised, and eventually everyone loses.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Great Article - Huge Error

I emphatically agree with 90% of Mark Vernon's article in the UK Guardian:

For the sociologist, it is a question of time. Sennett explained how contemporary capitalism has spread a brutal short-termism around the world. It manifests itself, first, in corporate behaviour and, say, the desperate need to improve results each and every quarter, or the loss of interest in owning companies in favour of trading them, to deliver quick returns. But soon, the short-termism negatively affects people. It means that we can no longer construct a narrative of our lives by the work we do, because we chop and change employment and don't have careers. Similarly, it erodes the humanly rewarding notion of offering service to a company, since the dominant model of employment is selling yourself to the highest bidder.

Susie Orbach felt that the ethical problem was different again. In short, economic metaphors have come to dominate the way we talk about ourselves. So, we think of ourselves as consumers. Or, an individual's worth is mostly assessed by their accomplishments. Or again, people seek to belong in the world by marketing themselves like brands on the internet. What capitalism has done is erode the rich variety of notions of what can count as good so that all we are left with is the "good" of unbridled growth.

The moral problems, then, are serious. But what of the moral solutions? The difficulty here is that words like "moral", or "virtue", have themselves been tarnished. We squirm when people use them – as the archbishop himself acknowledged when he listed the four cardinal virtues: prudence, fortitude, temperance and justice. Bar the last one, justice, which is in pretty good health, there is a need to unscramble them in an effort to make them more palatable. It needs to be explained that prudence means good judgment, fortitude implies courage, and that temperance is a kind of emotional intelligence; or emphasised that the aim of virtue ethics is not to enforce a moral code but is rather to enable our humanity to flourish.

These are great points. I really like that Vernon emphasizes that virtues are not a restraint to our individual humanity, but that they allow individuals to live more abundant and satisfied lives. However, Vernon goes on to faultily blame Adam Smith and his invisible hand:

Part of the problem here is capitalism, again. Its success stems in large part on appealing to our worst instincts. In one formulation at least, it is a system in which each person is supposed to look after their own self-interests, deliberately to the exclusion of others. That is the "ethical" thing to do, since by the power of the invisible hand, good is then bound to spread to all. No one believes that anymore.

I have begun to read Smith's Wealth of Nations, with the intent of making it through all 1,200+ pages. It is like the Bible in that it is often quoted and referenced, but usually out of context, and by people who have never read it. I am currently on page 20, so it will be a while before I claim to be a Smithian scholar, but having read several blogs, papers, and the forward to the Bantam edition by Alan Krueger, it is very clear that not only is Smith's thought more nuanced than most give him credit for, his words have been much distorted by those in the laissez-faire, capitalism triumphs all, and "greed is good" crowds.

Smith used the term "invisible hand" only once, and it was a common expression of the day, not a defining element, metaphor, theory, explanation, or summary of Smith's ideals. Smith also goes into detail in his works to differentiate self-interest from selfishness or greed. He was critical of entities that, through government-granted monopoly or limited liability, separated the interests of the owners from the interests of the managers and workers, which I personally view as a curse to our modern version of corporate capitalism. The term capitalism hadn't been invented while Smith was alive, and he despised the term laissez-faire. Overall, he saw order coming out of chaos in the action of individuals, but made plain that both governments and privileged businesses distorted the natural market between people.

The ethical thing to do is to act ethically. This is much easier for individuals with a moral or ethical framework to do. It is much more difficult for a non-human legal entity, such as a corporation, to do.