Monday, June 29, 2009

Incentives vs. Virtue

Jason sent me this article on the financial incentivizing of today's youth:

Across the country, school systems are paying children to do better in school. In New York, fourth and seventh graders can get up to $500 for improving their scores on the city’s math and English tests. Schools in Georgia pay eighth and 11th graders $8 an hour to attend an after-school learning program.

...“Incentives” include iPods for attending Saturday study sessions and a flat-screen television for making the all “A” honor roll.

... Greensboro, North Carolina, is paying teenage mothers $1 for every day they are not pregnant.

I wholeheartedly agree with the author's conclusion:

It doesn’t surprise me that these “nudges” can have a short-term positive effect. But it’s difficult to imagine these programs making a long-term difference.

On the contrary, the “long term damage” mentioned earlier may very well include creating a generation of people for whom incentives will become a necessity, not a nudge.

To put it in Christian terms, incentives will replace virtue. Instead of doing the right or prudent thing because it’s what a moral person does, people will do what they do because they get something out of it. This doesn’t build character—it builds calculators.

What’s more, in the real world, people don’t always reward you for doing the right thing. But there are still consequences for behaving foolishly. How will people raised on a steady diet of nudges avoid these pitfalls?

The answer is that many won’t avoid them because they never learned that, for the virtuous person, doing the right thing is incentive enough.

Financial incentives are analogous to firearms in the sense that just because they work, and can often be means to a desired end, doesn't mean they should be used as a universal policy tool. Unfortunately, behavioral economics is seen by politicians as a powerful new AA-12, and they want to "solve" every problem they see by riddling it to death with financial incentives. The problem with an "incentives make right" approach, much as with "might makes right," is that the benefit is often short lasting and the long-term consequences unwelcomed.

Financial incentives, as well as moral and physical incentives, are tools of coercion. They exist naturally to influence behavior, and are a, if not the, key component to a properly functioning marketplace of both goods and ideas. That said, I don't like the like the idea of government beating a person into submission or morally castigating someone into submission, and so I don't much fancy the idea of government bribing or taxing an individual into submission.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Objectivism vs. Christian Virtue Ethics, aka "Well if its going to be that kind of party"

I have mostly refrained from purely philosophical posts on this blog, but with the welcome addition of a particular commenting professor, I thought now is as good a time as ever to test my self-learned (unless a music performance degree counts) philosophical positions, that of Christian virtue ethics, against a well-educated critic. Professor, please be gentle.

Overall, my position would be that Objectivism is not so much wrong as incomplete.

There are certainly similarities between virtue ethics and Ayn Rand's Objectivism. On the primary matter of ethics, they share important common ground. My understanding of Rand's philosophy is that it is clearly opposed to separating morality from reality, and that acting on moral principle is desired over the alternative utilitarian "ends justify the means" approach. I think the teleology of Aristotle and Christianity agree with this.

Also, I view Aristotle’s position that eudaimonia (happiness or human flourishing) is achieved through applying reason is essentially the same as Objectivism’s. And beyond simply using reason for its own sake, both stress the end goal is fulfillment of purpose (telos), with reason being a critical method of creating value towards this purpose. Just as the ultimate value of an acorn is to fulfill its purpose to become an oak tree, both philosophies see purpose as critically intertwined with value.

Objectivism even uses the vocabulary of "virtue" to describe those acts increase or preserve value, most famously as the title of Rand's book "The Virtue of Selfishness" and in the philosophy's official virtues of rationality, honesty, independence, justice, integrity, productiveness, and pride.

Where Christian Virtue Ethics begins to part ways with Objectivism is on Epistemology. To Ayn Rand (and perhaps Aristotle also), reason was the only path to truth. Thomas Aquinas, in synthesizing Virtue Ethics with Christianity, put forth that reason and divine revelation are not only in harmony, but both essential to epistemological truth. Eternal truth is found only where reason and revelation agree.

I think this is a fundamental point, as in my worldview, humans are not perfect beings. Even with the entirety of scientific, philosophical, and historical knowledge at man's disposal, it is prone to reason itself to conclusions which are imperfect or false. Likewise, depending only on subjective interpretation of divine revelation, man has failed time and again, often committing horrendous atrocities in the process.

Objectivists will wholly disagree any notion of the divine and divine revelation, much less its Epistemological importance, but it is from this departure from the are of common ground that magnifies the other differences, and I believe a point that undermines Objectivism itself.

So while Christian Virtue Ethics and Objectivism both emphasize asking “Who should I be?" or "What is my purpose?” or "What will bring purpose to my life?" before considering “Which action should I take?”, then resulting answers between the two philosophies will differ dramatically. Painting with a broad brush:

Christian Virtue Ethics (my humble interpretation):

Who should I be? / What is my purpose? / What will bring me happiness?

Man's purpose is to worship God, not only through faith, but by the way they live their lives.

How do I achieve my purpose and become happy/fulfilled?

Imitating Christ and following the commandments to love the lord our God with heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves.

To break this down a little:
Mind = rational self = reason and wisdom
Heart = non-rational self = emotion, appetite, desires
Soul = divine nature = To foster and grow the divine, and commune with the divine.
Strength = Our physical bodies, our labor, service
Loving neighbor as self = Acting with respect towards the dignity and interests of others.

Objectivism (using Ayn Rand Quotes)

Who should I be? / What is my purpose? / What will bring me happiness?

"Man is a being of self-made soul."

"My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute."

"Man—every man—is an end in himself, not the means to the ends of others. He must exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself. The pursuit of his own rational self-interest and of his own happiness is the highest moral purpose of his life."

How do I achieve my purpose and become happy/fulfilled?

"To live, man must hold three things as the supreme and ruling values of his life: Reason, Purpose, Self-esteem."

"Productive work is the central purpose of a rational man’s life, the central value that integrates and determines the hierarchy of all his other values. Reason is the source, the precondition of his productive work—pride is the result."


Having mentioned above that the rejection of the divine undermines Objectevism, I feel I should at least provide a few details on that matter. In order for any philosophy to be true, it has to account for observable realities. Throughout history, man has "flashed" their divine nature, whether that means unconditional love, altruism, sacrifice, or any other term one would prefer to use. Objectevism seems to fall apart in trying to rationally explain the willingness of people to act in this way. By relying on reason alone, how can an Objectivist empirically prove the objective universal truth of their most basic premises, that "that which promotes self" = good? Atheist Objectivism, at least in the manner I understand it, is therefore self-defeating because it depends on a subjective vision of a "heroic self."

So while I agree with a good bit of Ayn Rand's writings, I leave her philosophy on the shelf. Again, I would not so much call it wrong as incomplete. While it extols the use of mind and the body, it falls short in matters of the heart and soul, and reduces all interaction with neighbors to mutually beneficial trade.

Christianity and virtue ethics provide not only a philosophical framework to understand the universe, find truth, and know the purpose of man, but it also provides in Jesus Christ an ideal template for how to live a more abundant, soul-nourishing life. And above all, it approaches the human condition with grace, as through faith we have a hope beyond our failures to live up to that ideal.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Big Government Capitalism

Goldman Sachs is perhaps the most visible and shameless example of how big corporations need big government. Per the UK Gaurdian (bold emphasis added):

Staff at Goldman Sachs staff [sic] can look forward to the biggest bonus payouts in the firm's 140-year history after a spectacular first half of the year, sparking concern that the big investment banks which survived the credit crunch will derail financial regulation reforms.

A lack of competition and a surge in revenues from trading foreign currency, bonds and fixed-income products has sent profits at Goldman Sachs soaring, according to insiders at the firm.

Until the release of its first quarter profits in April, it seemed inconceivable that a firm owing the US government $10bn would be looking to break all-time records in 2009.

David Williams, an investment banking analyst at Fox Pitt Kelton, said: "This year is shaping up to be the best year ever for investment banks, or at least those that have emerged relatively unscathed from the credit crisis.

"These banks are intermediaries in the bond markets where governments and companies are raising billions of pounds of new money. There is also a lack of competition that means they can charge huge sums for doing business."

Last week, the firm predicted that President Barack Obama's government could issue $3.25tn of debt before September, almost four times last year's sum. Goldman, a prime broker of US government bonds, is expected to make hundreds of millions of dollars in profits from selling and dealing in the bonds.

Well, first congratulations are in order. This couldn't have happened without the help of Henry Paulson, Stephen Friedman, Robert Zoellick, and Neel Kashkar, former Goldman Sachs employers who in their roles as Treasury Secretary, NY Fed Chairman, World Bank President, and Head of the Treasury's TARP created Office of Financial Stability respectively have done such a wonderful job of protecting and advancing the interests of Goldman Sachs. I am sure some generous "consulting" fees are in their future.

Eliminate competition, socialize losses, raise prices, secure government favor, create demand, collect record bonuses. Check, check, check, check, check, and check.

I have previously expressed my disgust with the banking industry and specifically Goldman Sachs. The question posed by the New York Times is "If It’s Too Big to Fail, Is It Too Big to Exist?", and my answer is yes.

This is not about right or left, but is a fundamental issue of national security. When collectivists groups, be it terrorist militias, corporations, or lobbyists groups can threaten the stability of our society or economic systems, they have grown too large, and must be either eliminated or brought under control. As Francis Cianfrocca summarizes in an excellent essay:

I worry that those on the Right, with their emphasis on low regulation and fragmented government power, are enabling the Goldmans of the world to keep gaming the system in their favor. The proper alternative would not be a system of government control over the economy, but rather a system of strict financial regulation that makes it largely impossible for people to take risks with other people’s money.

How to do that without suffering the evil of government corruption, a risk that is underestimated on the Left? That’s another story.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Obama on Iran

I am apparently one of the few people in America, on the right or left, that sees Obama's positioning on Iran as a net positive.

I am not without criticism, so I will begin there. That Obama is using such timid and muddled language is surprising given his reputation for rhetorical wizadry. I agree with many of Obama's critics that he should be carefully yet more deliberately voicing support for the Iranian people's challenge to Ahmadinejad’s election fraud and subsequent thuggish crackdown. In this respect Obama is lagging behind the leaders of many other countries, especially those in the European Union, and it is painful to watch. So, in his role as the leader of the free world (and as a sort of god, if you buy that), he has been disappointing.

I would prefer Obama to have a much stronger stance against the violence that is occurring, and speak in general yet emphatic language that America is committed to allowing people to choose their own government, and that the will of the people must be honored by way of a legitimate election process, and the voice of the people should be respected. Regardless of his "realistic" assessment of the negligible differences between Ahmadinejad and Mousavi, it is wholly irrelevant at this point, and Obama should be supporting the principles of democracy and self-determination, in whatever country it may arise.

That said, as President of the United States, I welcome his restraint. If there is anything that I truly hope that Obama changes, it is that the President of the United States can be a leader of the free world while refraining from being the world's bully. Specificallu in the Middle East, in a region embroiled in religious, political, and cultural struggle against Israel and the West, the US has for far too long bumbled in overly interventionist policies, including imposing embargoes, issuing threats, supporting overthrows and coups, and use of military force. In large part as a result of these interventions, America has become the main enemy of the extremist Muslim world, and standing behind a specific candidate, or even movement, can become yet another in a long line of US policy failures. I see Obama as carefully weighing the long-term potential consequences against the short term political rewards, and I much prefer that to any "maverick" that would be shooting from the hip.

My praise and criticism go hand in hand. If America is to be the shining example that it can be for liberty and democracy, it must both support others who seek to emulate it in forming a government of the people, while allowing them to do it without our interference. I believe it possible, indeed preferable, to balance Reagan-esque speech in support of the democratic spirit everywhere while "avoiding foreign entanglements", seeking "peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations" and abstaining from going "abroad in search of monsters to destroy." (The quoted phrases are from George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and John Quincy Adams, respectively.) And if I can't have both, I prefer perceived weakness to arrogance any day, or as another President was fond of saying, let us "speak softly and carry a big stick."

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Hayek Was Not a Conservative

Reading Hayek's essay Why I Am Not a Conservative is fascinating for both its insight and enduring timeliness:

Let me now state what seems to me the decisive objection to any conservatism which deserves to be called such. It is that by its very nature it cannot offer an alternative to the direction in which we are moving. It may succeed by its resistance to current tendencies in slowing down undesirable developments, but, since it does not indicate another direction, it cannot prevent their continuance. It has, for this reason, invariably been the fate of conservatism to be dragged along a path not of its own choosing. The tug of war between conservatives and progressives can only affect the speed, not the direction, of contemporary developments. But, though there is a need for a "brake on the vehicle of progress,"[3] I personally cannot be content with simply helping to apply the brake. What the liberal must ask, first of all, is not how fast or how far we should move, but where we should move.

And writing on conservative values:

When I say that the conservative lacks principles, I do not mean to suggest that he lacks moral conviction. The typical conservative is indeed usually a man of very strong moral convictions. What I mean is that he has no political principles which enable him to work with people whose moral values differ from his own for a political order in which both can obey their convictions. It is the recognition of such principles that permits the coexistence of different sets of values that makes it possible to build a peaceful society with a minimum of force. The acceptance of such principles means that we agree to tolerate much that we dislike. There are many values of the conservative which appeal to me more than those of the socialists; yet for a liberal the importance he personally attaches to specific goals is no sufficient justification for forcing others to serve them. I have little doubt that some of my conservative friends will be shocked by what they will regard as "concessions" to modern views that I have made in Part III of this book. But, though I may dislike some of the measures concerned as much as they do and might vote against them, I know of no general principles to which I could appeal to persuade those of a different view that those measures are not permissible in the general kind of society which we both desire. To live and work successfully with others requires more than faithfulness to one's concrete aims. It requires an intellectual commitment to a type of order in which, even on issues which to one are fundamental, others are allowed to pursue different ends.

It is for this reason that to the liberal neither moral nor religious ideals are proper objects of coercion, while both conservatives and socialists recognize no such limits. I sometimes feel that the most conspicuous attribute of liberalism that distinguishes it as much from conservatism as from socialism is the view that moral beliefs concerning matters of conduct which do not directly interfere with the protected sphere of other persons do not justify coercion.
Hayek also bristled at the "liberal" and "libertarian" labels:

If liberalism still meant what it meant to an English historian who in 1827 could speak of the revolution of 1688 as "the triumph of those principles which in the language of the present day are denominated liberal or constitutional" [13] or if one could still, with Lord Acton, speak of Burke, Macaulay, and Gladstone as the three greatest liberals, or if one could still, with Harold Laske, regard Tocqueville and Lord Acton as "the essential liberals of the nineteenth century,"[14] I should indeed be only too proud to describe myself by that name. But, much as I am tempted to call their liberalism true liberalism, I must recognize that the majority of Continental liberals stood for ideas to which these men were strongly opposed...

It is thus necessary to recognize that what I have called "liberalism" has little to do with any political movement that goes under that name today...

In the United States, where it has become almost impossible to use "liberal" in the sense in which I have used it, the term "libertarian" has been used instead. It may be the answer; but for my part I find it singularly unattractive.

Yes, the essay is a gross exercise in generalization, but I love it and highly recommend a full reading. I considered ending (in poor taste) with a comical name for people today who identify with the ideals of the OLD Whig parties, but will refrain.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Urgency and Action: Stimulus Edition

Per CNN:

Biden tells "Meet the Press" that "everyone guessed wrong" on the impact of the stimulus, economy was worse off than anyone thought.

Backs away from the estimate that the funds could create or save 3.5 million jobs, instead promises 600,000 by the end of the summer.

Maybe by 'everyone', he meant everyone in the Obama administration, and all the neo-Keynesian economists advising them. I do like that he admitted all the figures being being hurled upon Congress and the public were a 'guess.' A chart below from Innocent Bystanders shows exactly how wrong the administration guessed:

Fortunately for economists and politicians alike, the worthlessness of most economic models will make it easy for them to cover their tracks. Krugman and others will claim this as proof that we should have spent even more money, and faster, while the Obama administration can always hide behind "saving" jobs (150k so far and 600k in the next 3 months!) even as the unemployment rate and hours worked statistics continue to worsen. After all, imagine how much worse we would have been without government intervention?

Should there be any reason to second-guess the urgency, statistics, and promises currently being stressed by the administration on health care? Hmm...

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Offseason Reflection: College Football

Orson Swindle over at EDSBS has a great post about what makes college football special, albeit from a Florida fan's perspective:

No injury time, no second chances: just a minute and change left on the clock bleeding because the rules dictated it and demanded you respond. Every football game dies one second at a time, bounded by a thousand rules, and played out by teams of fragile people working under pressure to be as good as they can possibly be under the circumstances.

Its stricture gives it its drama, its limits force creativity, and its scarcities give it is masochistic cost/benefit payoff. More relevantly, football’s economy gives it emotional resonance. If you’re watching it, you watch it because you see a neatly packaged simulation of life itself–ruled, defined by a beginning and an end, and often chaotic in spite of all the rules–with two satisfying twists.

First, an actual victor is declared, something very rare in life. Second, you know roughly when it’s going to end. Because of this football, for all its violence and terror, will never be as deeply terrifying as life itself. (Even when Terry Dean throws four interceptions in a single game.) Without the clock, without triple zeros set between the bounds of a field precisely 160 feet by 360 feet awaiting you, meaning is debased, and we’re not left staring at the death sentence spelled out in incandescent bulbs on the Florida Field scoreboard 15 years ago wondering what the hell just hit us.

I have also come through the emotional overdose and rehab described by commenter #13:

94 Auburn loss changed me profoundly. I was so sickened by the game that I immediately went to bed and stayed in a darkened room for 2 days. Introspection led to an epiphany that investing my whole emotional self into how the Gators did was a slow train to mental illness. It was because of this epiphany that I was able to weather The Choke at Doak, Tommy Frazier, 96 FSU (the game that didn’t matter), and 97 Tennessee. The tradeoff is that the high’s of the MNC’s are not as sky high as they would have been. But then those great feelings come crashing down eventually anyway. We can’t keep that church camp bible thumping fervor forever.

For me as a UGA fan, the overdose moment was Florida 2008. Even worse than South Carolina 2000 (QC just threw another INT) or the Georgia Tech 1999 (It wasn't a fumble!), or even the first half of Alabama 2009, the 2008 Florida game was an utter failure on a big stage that shattered my beliefs about the Mark Richt coached UGA football program. It could not be pinned on any single player, coach, or referee - it was simply a complete team humiliation. In many ways, I have become thankful for that game. I still enjoy UGA football, and even though the ultimate highs (if an MNC is to happen in my adult life) may not be as sweet, the lows will never again be so low. As great a game it is and will always be, I will never again forget that college football is a game, played by 17-22 year old kids, and anyone over 30 that cries, breaks something, starts a fight, or gets arrested because of a game, should reassess their life priorities.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Channeling Marx

In the Christian Science Monitor:

Interviewer: "Mr. Marx, not that long ago, lovers of capitalism pronounced your ideas dead. Now, according to at least one source, we are all socialists. What changed?"

Marx: "It is enough to mention the commercial crises that by their periodical return put on its trial, each time more threateningly, the existence of the entire bourgeois society."

Interviewer: "Nowadays we call these 'crises' recessions. You predicted that over time, capitalism would become dominated by larger and larger firms."

Marx: "[T]he concentration of capital and land in a few hands."

Interviewer: "And how does this concentration bring on socialism?"

Marx: "By paving the way for more extensive and more destructive crises, and by diminishing the means whereby crises are prevented."

Interviewer: "So the bigger firms become, the harder they fall. In the US economy, some firms have become 'too big too fail,' and the government has moved in. As this plays out, what will happen to capitalism?"

Marx: "Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable."

The author, Paul McDonnold, then goes on to note that capitalist "hero" Adam Smith's writings on the economy of his day favored competition between decentralized businesses. The economy of Smith's day, it is worth noting, included both regulations and protectionist measures, many of which Smith supported. McDonnold's plea to conservatives to revise their stance on deregulation ends with the following:

Marx and Smith each saw a piece of the truth – two different sides of the coin of capitalism. Capitalism itself is not fatally flawed. But a hyperconservative approach to it is. Regulations that promote decentralized competition on a human scale are regulations that conserve Smith's side of capitalism. These regulations should not be the enemy of conservatives; they should be our aim.

Many conservatives will want to stick to the dogmatic ideological line of deregulation. But the capitalism produced by blind support of deregulation is one of bureaucratic corporations, greed-fueled booms, and fear-riddled busts. If conservatives do not embrace regulations that preserve Smith's capitalism, we might just wake up one day to see it gone and socialism in its place, just as Marx predicted.

This is why I like to joke and call myself a regu-libertarian. I have no fundamental problems with laws and regulations that protect the people from the corporation. I also favor regulation (and even tolls) that hold corporations liable for externalities. The modern corporation, while at best neutral, is all too often a profiteering and psycopathic scourge on society. I am all for maximum freedom and liberties to individuals, not to fictional, government-privelaged entities.

Economics, Politics, and the revenge of B.A. Baracus and Run DMC

Fresh off Peter Schiff's appearance on the Daily Show and WSJ reporting his potential Senate run, it seems that other politicians are slowly coming around to warning about our country's economic woes in similar fashon. Consider Mark Kirk of Illinois in a Fox News interview, fresh off a trip with leaders in China:

KIRK: There was an honesty moment when Secretary Geithner was in Beijing University giving a speech. He said, Your investments in a trillion dollars worth of U.S. debt are secure, and the audience laughed at him. It's very un-Chinese to do, to embarrass a speaker in public, but I think it reflected a growing concern in Beijing.

VAN SUSTEREN: And I guess we should point out the reason why they're concerned, the Chinese, why they care so much, is because they hold all -- a significant portion of our debt.

KIRK: Right. China has leant about $300 billion to the U.S. for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac -- they're very worried about that -- another $700 billion in Treasury bills. And they're particularly worried about the Fed's new policy of buying Treasury debt because they're worried that one part of the federal government is buying another part of the federal government's debt. Sounds like printing money, and that means that if you hold dollar-denominated debt, all those investments will be worth less because you'll be repaid in printed dollars.

The most revealing statement by Kirk, however, is this:

Well, they already are beginning to hedge. I think they expect quite a bit of inflation in the United States next year. So they made a major investment. They funded a second strategic petroleum reserve, and they plan to buy $80 billion worth of gold. That's two Fort Knoxes. Both of those investments only make sense if you expect significant dollar inflation.

Two Fort Knoxes worth of gold. Either China is crazy, or crazy smart. By my calculation, $80 billion dollars of gold (at today's spot price) equals 83.6 million troy ounces of gold. That equals over 2,600 tonnes, which is more than a full year's worth of global gold production. If they follow through with such a purchase, it will have an incredible impact on global supply and demand. I wish I could time travel back to middle school and make the investment argument to my parents when pleading(with no success) for a spectacular gold rope chain back in the day. Any bets on how long before Chinese President Hu Jintao is rocking a dookie rope?

Power to the Parents

Marybeth Hicks, columnist for several papers and sites and author of the book Bringing Up Geeks (reviewed here), uses her most recent column in the Washington Times to make a few points on virtues:

Since the government spending train to multigenerational public debt left the station, we began to realize that the future direction of our nation is something we simply can't control. At the rate our federal government is spending and growing, the Republic that Ben Franklin dared us to maintain could be a distant memory by the time our 11-year-old is eligible to vote. Already, Franklin and the other Founders probably wouldn't recognize their grand experiment anyway.

Unfortunately, unlike my husband, muttering and fuming don't make me feel better. So Im focusing on something I can control: the caliber of the citizens being raised in our household.

If you think about it, much of the power among "we the people" rests with "we the parents."

Politics aside, Hicks is making a common sense point that has been lost in our society. There is nothing inherently wrong with most nannies, day care, and even schools, they each serve valid purposes, but the outsourcing of parental duties is not one of them. Proverbs 22:6 famously instructs parents to "Train children in the right way, and when old, they will not stray." Only parents can guide children to resist the urges of peer pressure, the media's "culture of cool," and educational group think by equipping their children with the knowledge of right and wrong, the understanding of virtues, and a disciplined self-determination that will serve them well throughout life.
As a parent, I'm convinced that my best, most vital contribution to this nation will be the four people who learn in my home that their American citizenship is both a blessing and a responsibility; its not meant to be a free ride, but rather the freedom to make the most of themselves.

There may not be much I can do about the ill-conceived government programs that will most assuredly burden our children with an incomprehensible pile of debt, so instead I'm focusing on infusing our nation with civic virtue, delivered in measured doses around the kitchen table. If we don't like the direction our nation is taking, its not enough to just shake our heads and express frustration; we have to train up the folks who one day will lead it.

"We the parents" are a powerful presence, indeed. By teaching our children to have self-discipline, forbearance, humility and honor, to live with moderation and civility and magnanimity, and to value their independence and liberty, we can offer the one and only long-term solution that will reinvigorate the vision of America as it once was: virtuous American citizens.

If our country is to survive and in any way reflect the principles it was founded upon, the coming generations will truly have to do the heavy lifting, both financially and in terms of leadership. And no one can prepare our youth to do so except their parents.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Environmentalism, Nature, and Virtue

A post on the ABC show Earth 2100 by Front Porch Republic:

This is the conceit of “environmentalism,” its fundamental flaw - and why it is today so popular. What it offers the world is a techno-perfected future in which we have overcome natural limits - including, it seems, the second law of thermodynamics and attendant entropy - by retaining a world of permanent increase and consumption (the “developing” world, it is assumed, will develop to first world standards using the magic of technology, somehow avoiding the predictable result of a world stripped bare), supporting “lifestyles” of autonomy and cosmopolitanism, all the while ceasing in any significant way the consumption of the planet’s bounty and the damage to ecosystems. We have gone from a totalitarian relationship with nature - in which our demand is met by force - to a fantastical science-fiction relationship, in which we can have everything for nothing.

What is studiously avoided is consideration of what kind of civilization we would have to build if exercise of self-control, restraint of appetite, and commitment to the health of places was to replace our current ethic of consumption, indolency, itinerancy, autonomy and mobility. While the former was in many ways the logical conclusion of the “warnings” that the program was promoting, the idea that we should actually alter our basic set of operating assumptions was clearly off the table. Ironically, the commercial “interruptions” underscored that ABC’s more fundamental commitment was to continue things as they are.

Further, what is striking in these sorts of programs - and the general ethic of “environmentalism” - is studied avoidance of the word nature itself.

Nature, of course, is the “normative” term of Aristotelianism and Thomism: it is a standard and represents a limitation. Humans are creatures of and in nature. We are subject to its laws and to its strictures. Nature is not separate from us; we are natural creatures (special ones - political animals - but animals nonetheless). To employ the word “nature” would mean a fundamental reconceptualization of the relationship of humans to the world with which we live. Rather than either extending human mastery over our “environment” or attempting to stamp out the contagion of humanity, to re-claim the language of nature would require us to change our fundamental conception of a proper way of living well. Living as conscious natural creatures in nature requires the careful negotiation between use and respect, alteration and recognition of limits to manipulation, and thus calls for the virtues of prudence and self-governance. Neither of these virtues are particularly valued in the “environmental” movement, whether that advanced by corporate America in the effort to continue our growth economy of itinerant vandals or the fantasy-based, “have it all” wishful thinking of our techno-environmentalists. Until we reacquaint ourselves with the language, and more importantly, the reality of nature, we will continue in our current condition of human-environmental dualism, or delusion.

In my observation, self-labeled "environmentalists" tend to be people with enough money to assuage the guilt of their high-consumption lifestyle by buying even more stuff, albeit marginally more efficient, and usually much more expensive, versions of the stuff they already want or have. And in addition to patting themselves on the back for their good deeds, they get the benefit of status that comes with visibly "green" alternatives. What is too often missing is how people across all incomes and cultures can, with a little discipline, live a more simple life, with less stuff, less driving, and less waste all around.

Now We're Talking

On the heels of Rand Paul's announcement that he will be running in 2010 for US Senator of Kentucky, it appears that Peter Schiff may also be running in 2010. From the Humble Libertarian:

I have heard from some very well-connected and credible sources that Peter Schiff, Congressman Ron Paul's economic advisor during his 2007-08 Presidential bid, is going to make a very big announcement *wink* next week on June 9th during his appearance on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart.

This would be awesome, if only for the comedic value. I would love to hear him debate the establishment candidates. If you don't know about Peter Schiff, please do yourself a favor and watch a few videos.

The infamous Peter Schiff was Right Montage:

Some of his best analogies:

And finally, if you really have some time, his speech at the recent Austrian Economics Conference:

Nature's Harmony

As someone who has been following the Nature's Harmony blog for several months, I was surprised to see the nearby farm featured in a New York Times article:

Nature’s Harmony will never make the Youngs wealthy again, but they seem past caring. “A lot of what I’ve done in my business life, I don’t think it really means anything,” Tim said. “There’s this whole — you’re seeing a lot of it now with all the politics and bailouts — way to make money in the world but not really do anything to contribute. I feel like what we do is important. But it’s not financially rewarding. Who cares? As long as you can make it on your own.” He tugged on his weathered hat and added, “Let me tell you something: we’re going to eat well.”

I love beef. What I don't love, however, is the idea of a shortened life due to heart disease, which is the leading cause of death in the US for both men and women. For this reason, the Hommes household has been experimenting with grass-fed beef in our kitchen (we already made the switch to healthier eggs). It is a little leaner, and a little chewier, but if the research is correct, it would be well worth adapting to eating meat and eggs that come from animals that are fed (gasp!) their natural diet.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Litigation and ROI

I probably should not be, but am nevertheless impressed that the ingenuity of people looking to make money knows no limits, even the courtroom. From the New York Times:

“It’s always a good time to invest in litigation,” Mr. Fields said, though he added that the weak economy helped. “When the recession started to bite, the phones started ringing off the hook. Last year, we looked at 122 cases and we made 17 investments.” A small but growing number of investors are exploring this idea, helping companies avoid some of the risks and costs of litigation in exchange for part of any money paid out when the case is settled or resolved by a court.

And in true free-market fashion, there seems to be some unintended positive benefits to investor self-interest, at least for those on the winning side:

The larger question, though, is whether the mere existence of outside investors makes possible lawsuits that might not be pursued otherwise.

If the claims are valid, then they may benefit from being litigated more effectively because the lawyers have more resources. “Having funding available for cases that are good cases, cases that from a God’s-eye point of view, so to speak, should’ve been brought, is a good thing,” Mr. Sebok said.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Religous Tolerance and Baptist History

Or perhaps a better title would be religious history and and Baptist tolerance.

Anyways, Robert Parham, Executive Director of the Baptist Center for Ethics, recently editorialized on a historic confrontation between founding Baptist Thomas Helwys and King James I:

"For men's religion to God is between God and themselves," wrote Helwys. "The king shall not answer for it."

Having metaphorically poked the king in the chest, Helwys poked the king a second time with his next sentence: "Neither may the king be judge between God and man. Let them be heretics, Turks, Jews, or whatsoever, it appertains not to the earthly power to punish them in the least measure."

Claiming religious liberty for heretics and Jews was surely an insulting statement to King James and his court. Yet what did the king have to fear from Jews and heretics. What power did they yield?

Advocating religious freedom for the Turks was another matter completely. Islam was the faith of a feared empire. Assigning the right of religious liberty to such foes was too much.

Helwys wasn't through, however. He set the pattern for all future Baptists. He claimed the Bible was on his side: "This [his argument for religious freedom] is made evident to our lord the king by the scriptures."

If the king claimed the Bible was on his side in the defense of the divine right of kings, then the Baptist layman would thump his Bible, proclaiming that the word of God was on the side of religious liberty.

The situation was anything but a stand off. Helwys went to prison, where he is thought to have died. James I remained the king.

King James I still holds sway over many Baptists through the King James Bible and his attitude of intolerance toward other religions.

Remembered mostly by historians, Helwys does challenge today's Baptists to recover their heritage as courageous advocates for religious liberty for all people of faith, including Muslims.

Principles over fear, from both enemy and authority. I like this Helwys guy.

Only With a 10 Foot Pole

And then, just barely. All I will say is that I like how this post approaches the abortion issue.

Monday, June 1, 2009

You Know You're Crazy When... Part 1: Norman Mailer

I am coming to the conclusion, perhaps obvious to others for quite some time, that if I agree with crazy people, that perhaps I am crazy also. At least a little. I have been called worse things, and maybe crazy is not the best word, but the term certainly comes to mind as I put together a list of those I have find myself agreeing with lately. So I plan to do a little series, and first up (in no particular order) is Norman Mailer.

Yes, he's dead, but many of his ideas are just as timely now as ever. From a 2003 speech:

Real democracy comes out of many subtle individual human battles that are fought over decades and finally over centuries, battles that succeed in building traditions. The only defenses of democracy, finally, are the traditions of democracy. When you start ignoring those values, you are playing with a noble and delicate structure. There's nothing more beautiful than democracy. But you can't play with it. You can't assume we're going to go over to show them what a great system we have. This is monstrous arrogance.


Because democracy is noble, it is always endangered. Nobility, indeed, is always in danger. Democracy is perishable. I think the natural government for most people, given the uglier depths of human nature, is fascism. Fascism is more of a natural state than democracy. To assume blithely that we can export democracy into any country we choose can serve paradoxically to encourage more fascism at home and abroad. Democracy is a state of grace that is attained only by those countries who have a host of individuals not only ready to enjoy freedom but to undergo the heavy labor of maintaining it.


Democracy, I would repeat, is the noblest form of government we have yet evolved, and we may as well begin to ask ourselves whether we are ready to suffer, even perish for it, rather than readying ourselves to live in the lower regions of a monumental banana republic with a government gung-ho to cater to mega-corporations as they do their best to appropriate our thwarted dreams with their elephantiastical conceits.

From a Time piece:

The world's not what I want it to be. But then no one ever said I had the right to design the world. Besides, that's fascism.

Quotes attributed to him in a recent post at FPR:

“The style of New York life has shifted since the Second World War (along with the rest of American cities) from a scene of local neighborhoods and personalities to a large dull impersonal style of life which deadens us with its architecture, its highways, its abstract welfare, and its bureaucratic reflex to look for government solutions which come into the city from without (and do not work)…Our authority has been handed over to the federal power. We expect our economic solutions, our habitats, yes, even our entertainments, to derive from that remote abstract power, remote as the other end of a television tube. We are like wards in an orphan asylum. The shaping of the style of our lives is removed from us—we pay for huge military adventures and social experiments so separated from our direct control that we do not even know where to begin to look to criticize the lack of our power to criticize….[O]ur condition is spiritless. We wait for abstract impersonal powers to save us, we despise the abstractness of those powers, we loathe ourselves for our own apathy.”


“People are healthier if they live out their prejudices rather than suppressing them in uniformity.”

And in an article with his son in American Conservative Magazine:

He foresaw the city, its independence secured, splintering into townships and neighborhoods, with their own school systems, police departments, housing programs, and governing philosophies. In some areas, church attendance might be obligatory, in others free love mandatory. “People in New York would begin to discover neighborhoods of the left, the right, and the spectrum of the center which reflected some of their own passions and desires and programs for local government,” he wrote.

But in his view, Left and Right do not necessarily need to exist in solitary states. Rather, they could dwell together in a radically alternative system to the one we know today—one in which governance belongs to local inhabitants bound by as little federal interference as possible. His claim to be running to the left and right of every man in the race was no gimmick.

More quotes to come. I'm not sure whose next, but I got a decent size list of weirdos to choose from.