Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Shazam! on the importance of family, the practice of politics, and the nature of evil

My family and I saw “Shazam” in the theater a few weeks ago. It’s a fun little movie from the DC Comic universe—a combination of action, magic, some drama, and a few larger themes. Maybe it’s because I’m a nerd and a labor economist, but beyond the entertainment, three things struck me as particularly interesting.

First, the movie was really nice on “family”. Most obviously, as Shazam, Billy Batson is yet another superhero to emerge from the world of adoption and foster care. (Consider Superman, Batman, Spiderman, etc.) There are practical reasons for using this as a literary device. But as someone who is passionate about family and taking care of orphans, the positive attention toward both is welcome.

Related to this, the foster parents (for Billy and the host of other children) are not flawless, but they’re still heroes. They are neither over-bearing nor hands-off in their parenting style. In the face of difficult circumstances and challenging family dynamics, the couple is loving and courageous, realistic but amazing. (For another recent movie on foster care and adoption, make sure to check out “Instant Family”.)

Second, I’m not sure whether the writers and the director were aiming for political commentary, but I saw an angle there too. The villain, Dr. Sivana, seems to pursue power mostly for its own sake. In contrast, think of Thanos from the Marvel universe. He wants power to do something drastic—given his ideas about environmentalism and population. He’s wrong ethically and practically, but at least he has a goal.

Maybe the movie simply suffers from lazy writing. But Sivana’s pursuit of power paralleled contemporary politics, where the primary agenda seems to be to win elections and gain power. What do the major political parties and their politicians have to offer? Not much. What do they do with power once they get it? Not much.

Instead of viable ideas, we mostly get talk and personal attacks. Take popular positions. Make vague promises. Utter attractive tag lines to entice voters. Spend a ton of money and push the costs to future generations. Speak loudly but swing a small stick. Partisans and politicians are passionate about winning the war, but they don’t know how to win the peace. They’re far more focused on victory and power than on truth, logic, economics, or science.

Third, I was intrigued by the movie’s depiction of good and evil. Dr. Sivana is a caricature of evil. He’s two-dimensional—boring, really. Again, he doesn’t seem to have a goal—aside from gaining power and exacting some “I told you so” revenge. He’s the same static character throughout the movie. In contrast, Shazam is the life of the party. He wrestles with his personal flaws. He changes and grows as a human being throughout the movie.

This reminds me of C.S. Lewis in The Great Divorce. Lewis depicts Hell as gray drudgery where nobody wants to be near anyone else. Meanwhile, visitors from earth can’t walk on Heaven’s grass because it’s so sharp to them.

Sin often has its pleasures. (Why else would it tempt us?) But sin faces diminishing marginal returns; it requires more and more to satisfy. It reduces its practitioners to drones; it fixates on activity rather than intimacy. (See also: social media.) It often lives in a bubble and fails to cultivate real and lasting relationships. It imagines political solutions rather than building relationships and community.

At the end of the day, evil is two-dimensional and boring—to those who have seen and experienced something greater. As Lewis writes in The Weight of Glory about our desires: they are “not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.” 

In its own way, Shazam encourages us to avoid the temporary but ultimately-boring temptations that come our way. Instead, we should focus on living life—and living it to the full.

DC28:20 graduation at KCIW

On July 8th, Kurt Sauder, my wife Tonia, and I were honored to attend the graduation for a “DC28:20” group at the Kentucky Correctional Institution for Women (KCIW) in Pewee Valley. Renee Patterson and Rachael Buschman did a terrific job in leading a group of ten ladies through DC28:20—Getting Equipped for its 36 weeks, their first experience with prison ministry.

The ten ladies studied about two hours per week and met weekly to have a facilitated discussion of the week’s material. Along the way, they studied a variety of topics that are crucial to developing a Christian worldview—everything from the humanity and deity of Christ to applications such as managing conflict, work, and evangelism.

DC28:20 includes Bible reading and then a discussion of what the Spirit has shown each person. (Over the 36 weeks, they read the entire New Testament, Proverbs, and a sampling of Psalms.) During the testimony part of the graduation, many of the ladies talked about reading the Bible more regularly and learning how to apply it to their lives. In the Church, we often encourage people to read their Bibles. But too often, we don’t help them enough with accountability or applicability.

DC28:20 also includes Bible memory. Many ladies mentioned particular verses that had impacted them. “Grow in the grace and knowledge” (II Peter 3:18) was mentioned a few times—along with Hebrews 4:12 and II Timothy 2:15. Jeannie quoted Ephesians 4:2 which was probably helpful to her on a daily basis: “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.”

We heard the usual array of blessings from their time in a DC group. Stevie found confidence to share her faith. Jeannie and Lily learned how to persevere through the 36 weeks. Jenny said she understood God much better—not just as Savior but as Friend. Many of them enjoyed the group as a family. In terms of the need for discipleship with Jesus, it turns out that there’s amazingly little difference between those inside and outside the walls of a prison.

The most staggering thread in the testimonies (and learning more details from Renee and Rachael): all of them had troubled family lives and many had fathers or other prominent men in their lives who were absent or abusers. This is where the group’s “shepherd” was so helpful. Dale Clover was there every week as someone with experience in prison ministry. (He had co-led a DC group at Luther Luckett.)

We thought that a male presence would be helpful for a few reasons. But we did not anticipate that God would use Dale’s graciousness as a father figure in such a transformative way. There were many tears of joy at the celebration, but the most powerful moments were centered around the ladies experiencing a godly man and gaining a new and greatly improved view of their good, good Father.

Southeast and Further Still Ministries picked up the tab for the books. And Southeast paid for the graduation meal. (Thanks to both!) Renee and Rachael had asked what the ladies wanted to eat. The only request was fresh fruits and vegetables. I watched a lady eat (and enjoy) a blueberry for the first time. Another lady said that she hadn’t eaten a radish in 34 years. (I joked, “me neither”!) It was wonderful but sobering to watch them enjoy the basics that we take for granted.

Aside from blueberries and radishes, the six of us were able to leave the prison and enjoy our freedom after the event—while the ladies continue to “pay their debt to society”. Kara mentioned Galatians 5:1,13 as a favorite memory passage and talked about finding freedom in prison. How often are inmates freer than those on the outside? Let us make sure to use our freedom to pursue spiritual freedom and spread that freedom to others.

Names have been changed to protect anonymity.

Saturday, July 6, 2019

Chicago / family vaca 2019

Our family trip this year was less than a week—from June 28 through July 4. We were without (old man) Zach for the 2nd year in a row—a bummer, but that’s what happens when the kids get older, right?
In a nutshell, the trip was 1.5 days each of going to and returning from Chicago—with 72 hours in Chicago. It was another shorter vaca—unlike our monster trips to NY State in 2011, SD / COin 2012, and SF to Glacier in 2016. With Daniel as a freshman (not wanting to miss any soccer practices), we had to travel during “Dead Week”.
It was a relatively easy trip in terms of drive time and logistics, rivaling St. Louis / Memphis in 2018. It was quite expensive in Chicago and inexpensive otherwise. In terms of expense and ease, it was similar to our two Michigan trips-- southern in 2014 and northern in 2015. (Our trips to NC in 2010 and SC/NC in 2013 were considerably longer, but less expensive per day.)
Once we got past Indy, I found a bunch of fun little things to do, along with some hikes in surprisingly wonderful state parks. We did five things on the first day: 1.) The periodic table at DePauw U. in Greencastle—a little treat, esp. for Brennan (who plans to be a chem teacher). 2.) The “rotary” jail in Crawfordsville. In addition to its interesting design, one of its two hangings (John Coffey) was part of the inspiration for The Green Mile. 3.) A hike on Trail 3 at Turkey Run State Park—a phenomenal canyon along a stream bed. (We skipped the “ladders”, thinking it was a cul de sac and ended up finishing on Trail 5.) I’d recommend doing it counter-clockwise and be prepared to get your shoes wet/muddy. 4.) The Ernie Pyle museum and house in Dana—a wonderful tribute to the great WWII writer. 5.) A brief but interesting little stop at the Twin Groves windfarm overlook outside Ellsworth, IL.
On the second day, we hiked a terrific trail at Matthiessen State Park and then a good trail (St. Louis) at Starved Rock State Park. The latter came more highly recommended and is a far-more-popular destination. But we liked the former much more—after almost skipping it—much better sights with a lot less work. From there, we visited Reagan’s most prominent childhood home in Dixon—worth a stop. The combo of the Pyle and Reagan homes—just a few years apart—were both a reinforcement and a compare/contrast in how things were for folks, back in the day.
We drove into Chicago that evening, with dinner at the SuperDawg drive-in (ok) and a brief walk through a lovely neighborhood that included “Shit Fountain”. I joked with the boys that it might be the highlight of their trip. It didn’t rise to that level, but it was memorable and one more opportunity to walk through a nice part of Chicago.
I decided that we would stay in a hotel downtown vs. staying in the burbs near the subway—worth it, despite the taxes and parking. We stayed at the Fairfield Inn/Suites Downtown/River—excellent and a bit pricey, but well worth the added convenience. (Per night, we paid $151 for the hotel, $49 for parking, and $27 for taxes.)
On Sunday, we were on the North side of the river, starting with worship at Harvest Cathedral—with inspiring worship and a good sermon in a wonderful theatre/cathedral setting. It is a satellite campus of the church where Dave Stone is preaching a lot these days! It was exciting to see their hearty celebration with a video baptism at another campus. And afterwards, I ran into an old student of mine, Ericia, who is on an internship with CRU this summer!
Afterwards, we walked further north, aiming to see some fancy car dealerships for Daniel—even though they were closed on Sunday. (The area was very wealthy with higher-end shopping and really nice cars everywhere we looked.) We returned on Monday for Daniel to go inside the dealerships and take a ton of pictures. In particular, we really enjoyed our time at Gold Coast Exotic.
For lunch, we had Portillo’s Italian Beef—probably my favorite meal of the trip. After a break in our hotel room to wait out an impending rainstorm, we headed back out to see the John Hancock “360Chicago” view from 1000 feet up. Daniel and Brennan did “The Tilt” and thought it was ok. Afterwards, we walked to Navy Pier. We intended to have Giordano’s pizza, but the wait was an hour, even for take-out. So, we settled for sandwiches and milkshakes at Potbelly’s (solid/good). We finished up with perhaps the family highlight of the trip—playing bocce at Pinstripes ($5 per hour per player). 
After revisiting the cars on Monday AM, we hit Stan's Donuts (nice) and then headed south of the river into the Financial District. Mostly walking through another interesting part of the city (the part I had seen before, when attending conferences), we stopped by the lovely Chagall mosaic at Chase Tower Plaza and had lunch at Berghoff’s (good and a bit pricey but the lunch menu is in our range). We took an Architecture River Tour ($25 through Groupon)—the thing that received the most enthusiasm from my input providers—and it did not disappoint.
Afterwards, we took a Lyft (we had walked 22 miles up to then) to Grant Park. We walked through it, as well as Millennium Park (including pictures at “The Bean”, which was vandalized a few hours later!). On the way back to the hotel , we ran into Gus’ Fried Chicken (one of our favs from Memphis the year before). Tonia and the kids hit one of the crazy downtown McD’s for ice cream and we called it a night.
For Tuesday, we went to the Museum of Science & Industry—what got the second-most votes, and again, appropriately so. I purposed to go there for our last day in town, since a family membership includes free parking. The membership also includes a free exhibit (we chose the German sub—excellent) and 10 movie tickets (we saw Apollo 11—very good). Beyond that, Groupon had a deal it was only $125—a great bargain. The museum itself was large, varied, and terrific. On the way out of town, we grabbed dinner at a Mexican restaurant that only serves goat, BirreriaZaragoza—and everyone enjoyed that immensely.
We spent the night in Merrillville, IN—not ideal for drive-time, given the next day’s itinerary, but the closer options were much more expensive for some reason. Like Friday pre-Chicago, Wednesday post-Chicago was a set of smaller opportunities close to each other: 1.) The Albanese gummy bear factory. The “tour” was a bit disappointing—windows to view a bit of the process and three videos (with insufficient volume) explaining some of it. But the candy was really good! 2.) The Passion of Christ in St. John was tremendous: the stations of the cross—in bronze, with accompanying music and commentary. 3.) The Mt. Carmel monastery inMunster featured a solid stations of the cross and then two tremendous/unique grottoes. 4.) We drove by the birthplace of Michael Jackson in Gary—not much to see from the outside and a secular shrine of sorts. 5.) We wrapped up at the Indiana Dunes State Park, revisiting the first stop on our 2012 trip. I had conflated the Michigan dunes in the UP with those at Chesterton, so it was not as big as I remembered. But the dunes are still worth a stop, along with the op to be on a beach at Lake Michigan.
After the beach, we were going to grab pizza and head back to the hotel room. The van seemed to be fine, but suddenly we had two warning lights (brakes and battery). We got to Little Caesars and left the car running. When I tried to drive away, the car had more warning lights on and wouldn’t go into gear. I started it up again and it went into gear, but only went a half-mile before petering out…at 8:40 PM on July 3rd. Long story short: Just before closing at 9:00, O’Reilly Auto Parts connected us with a “really good guy” named Andy who towed the van and fixed the alternator the next morning for $40 in labor! Amazing! We still haven’t figured out how we’re going to try to bless Andy, who didn’t want anything else from us.
Next time…
Good times in Chicago; more convenient to stay downtown; and cheaper by using Groupon or other discounts where possible. (Look into the Chicago City or Go Chicago passes. And if you’re parking in Chicago, get the app for SpotHero.com.) Beyond that, there was so much more we could have done—and especially, places we wanted to eat. I’ll list both for you and for me—for the next time we get to Chicago.
Other things to do:
-Shedd Aquarium, Field Museum, Lincoln Park Zoo (free), Willis Tower Skydeck (although John Hancock is supposed to be better), Art Institute of Chicago, Architecture Center (esp. if you use their river tour)
-Music Box Theatre, Neo-Futurarium / Infinite Wrench theater
-Greektown, Little Italy, Chinatown
Other places to eat in Chicago:
-north of the river: Maggiano, SafeHouse, Malnati or Giordano’s for Pizza, Public House’s $15 milkshake with cake (400 N State St); Ed Debevic’s (if re-opened)
-Little Italy: Italian Beef and Ice on Taylor St. @ Al’s
-NW of downtown: Hot G Dog, Margie's Candies for world's largest sundae
-S and SW: Carnitas Uruapan; Johnny O's mother-in-law sandwich / hot dogs; Tacqueria Atotonilco’s tortas; Tamale Guy (4399 W 27th, but mobile)
Non-Chicago places to consider:
-UI’s Pollinatorium (Urbana, IL)
-Rialto Square Theatre and Route 66 Raceway (Joliet, IL)
-Mascot Hall of Fame (Whiting, IN)
-Railroad Restaurant and Museum (Monon, IN)

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

review of "The Year of Our Lord 1943: Christian Humanism in an Age of Crisis"

I was eager to read Alan Jacobs' book, The Year of Our Lord 1943: Christian Humanism in an Age of Crisis, on Christian thinkers during World War II. I've enjoyed Jacobs as a writer and speaker (e.g., on Mars Hill Audio). And this is a topic of interest for me from many angles—in particular, the facets of the dominant culture of the post-war era—after the "Progressive Era", the Great Depression, and World War II.

The book turned out to be worth my time, but was not as riveting as I expected. This was not a function of Jacobs' prose or the broad topic. But I didn't get into the details he shared on all of the writers—Jacques Maritain, Simone Weil, T.S. Eliot,
C.S. Lewis, and W.H. Auden—and I'm not sure that I found the overall narrative compelling. Still, for those interested in the broader topics or the particular writers, Jacobs' book is definitely worth a read.

The context is 1943, when America has entered the war in full force and Germany is on the defensive. In Jacobs' telling, the war was all but won. (Churchill saw the Allies winning just after Pearl Harbor happened [x]!) This is more optimistic than I have read elsewhere—at least prior to the success of D-Day. (For my other reviews of books in this era, here's 
Ambrose's Band of Brothers and here's the first two books in Rick Atkinson's great trilogy.) But even if one questions Jacobs' view on this, the larger point stands: key people were already thinking about why they were fighting and what they would aim to do afterwards.

Why Were We Fighting?

The question of "why we were fighting" might seem simple enough. But usually the focus was what we were fighting against—opposing the Germans and the Japanese. This presupposes an objective critique of the opponent (really easy with those villains!) and also a replacement by something better (easy, but often assumed and undefined). 

So, what were we fighting for? What way of life were we trying to preserve, improve, or inaugurate? This angle leads to less comfortable inferences. Protecting consumerism, American Civil Religion, libertine immorality, virulent racism, and so on—all prominent features of American culture. Are these worth the sacrifice? At least in the minds of these (and some secular) thinkers, the Western democracies would win the war, but were also "some considerable way along the path to losing the peace." (199)

Another troubling angle: Jacobs opens his first chapter with American sympathy for Germany, if not Nazism (5). This may surprise us, but it should not, given universal and contemporary considerations. First, people generally have little understanding of economics and current events—and perhaps moreso then, with less education and limited media options. So, an easy but sobering embrace of poor policies or bad actors is quite common.

Second, socially and politically, "progressivism" including eugenics was popular and perceived (proudly) as "scientific". In fact, Germany patterned its eugenics laws after American efforts, starting in Indiana in 1907. And discrimination against all sorts of people (including Jews, women, and the disabled) was quite acceptable in America at the time.

Third, in terms of politics and economics, there was a growing penchant for statism, increased faith in the efficacy of government, and less faith in markets and market outcomes. This is a time marked by the Great Depression and the supposed success of Keynesian economics and the New Deal. We were optimistic about the use of our military, the American Way, but ironically, also more open to world governance structures.

In that time, at least until things were obviously ugly, why wouldn't one at least sympathize with Germany (if not applaud them), after the nastiness of World War I and its aftermath?

What Role for Religion?

Given the moral failings in America and his own personal relativism, Auden went through a crisis of faith where he asked how we had the right to demand or even expect a more humanistic response. "Even granted the evil of Hitler, can we be sure that our ways are necessarily superior?...How righteous is our cause? And if it is righteous, what makes it so?" (10-12) Not "positivism or pragmatism." (16) Auden noted soberly, "We come much closer to Hitler than we may care to admit. If everything is a matter of opinion...force becomes the only way of settling differences." (17)

Auden couldn't answer the question well, without a reference to Christian faith (6). His conclusion: "Only an appeal to something eternal, absolute, and good—like the God of St. Thomas or the 'nature of human beings' described by Aristotle—would permit one to answer the Nazis." (7)

But what role had religion played in getting Europe to this point? In particular, should one blame particularly-nasty forms of nationalism on its sins of omission or commission? Churches had often been complicit—by compromising with secularism and patriotism. Christian thinkers were convinced that Europe’s troubles stemmed from a gradual erosion of focus and unity in religion. As such, they saw the primary solution as reversing these causes (28-30).

This led to "a pressing set of questions about the relationship between Christianity and the Western democratic social order...whether Christianity was uniquely suited to the moral underpinning of that order." (xvi) An emphasis on "liberal instrumentalism" had put such questions on the back burner. But is that where they belonged? "That willingness to defer ultimate questions as the price to paid for getting along with one another, had left the democratic West unable to generate the energetic commitment necessary to resist the military and moral drive of societies that had clear answers" to questions of purpose, until it was late in the game at best (33-34).

Stunde Null and the Response of the Church

In his afterword, Jacobs uses Jacques Ellul's work and two key German phrases: Nachkriegzeit (the night after the war) and Stunde Null (zero hour) to revisit the relevant questions. "What does faithful presence look like at the moment the clocks are all reset?" (197)

Some Christians would choose an insular approach to building up the church. Some turned to politics—reaching for powerful mechanisms of social gospel and political change. For Ellul, neither pietistic aloofness nor political assimilation was valid (198). "There is certainly nothing wrong with the United Nations, and prefabricated housing can be very useful indeed. But the world does not need Christians to say so...the first and most vital task of Christians in time of war was prayer." (199)

In contrast to Jacobs' five thinkers, a more-political approach was then enunciated most forcefully by Reinhold Niebuhr as "Christian realism". I'll leave this discussion to interested readers (52-56). But in a word, his view emphasized the value of political pragmatism. Neibuhr was worried about the temptations and other costs of this approach—in light of original sin, etc. And he didn't imagine politics in utopian terms, along the lines of post-millennial statists at the turn of the 20th century. But ultimately, he saw a low priority on politics as unrealistic and impractical. 

Again, this debate occurred in a time of high faith in government activism. So Neibuhr's optimism is more understandable in the post-war era. Now, such a position is far more difficult to hold on pragmatic grounds. Jacobs addresses the concerns from an historical angle: the evidence from Augustine and Constantine (79-81) and even a sympathetic reading of Herod at the time of Jesus (83-85). And for Christians in particular, Jacobs observes that we "often fail to keep technique under such judgment and submission". (200)

Of course, these are not simply questions for the West after World War II. In our time, with the explicit impact of Christianity fading, changing social norms, and less access to power in political realms, what is the best way for the Church to move forward-- from doubling down on old strategies to a renewed emphasis on discipleship with Jesus and various expressions of "the Benedict Option"? 
In his review of Jacobs' book in Harpers, Christopher Beha asks today’s Democrats—or really, those who define themselves largely as opponents of Trump or the GOP—what they will do if they “win the peace”? The answer for them—and for most in the GOP in opposition to Democrats—is not particularly clear.

Beha’s observation is a wonderful example of Jacobs' thesis. What do you do when you gain power and win the peace? Beha and Jacobs come to similar conclusions about the most effective engagement with the culture—not through politics, media, and the battles at the intersection, but in daily lives and community that have purpose and actually move the needle one life at a time.

A few miscellaneous things:
-As for post-war society, "There would be much remaking and reshaping to do: who would do it, and what principles would govern them?" (x) And how did we get there? Answers varied, but at least in part, "the world had gone astray because its people had been poorly educated". (xiv) Easily duped, they were "in the helpless thrall to the propagandistic machinations of unscrupulous nationalist movements". (xv)
-Of particular interest to these academics, in a time of apocalyptic war: why should we bother with academics and learning? One of Lewis' answers to this is famous: "war creates no absolutely new situation; it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it." (57-58) If a time of war is different in severity but not type, we should continue to pursue education and learning. 
-Jacobs recounts an old socialist joke-- that the best thing about being a socialist was that it required you to "attend cocktail parties with the rich and powerful" (31). This reminded me of Tom Wolfe's short little howler of a classic, Radical Chic and the Mau-mauing of the Flak Catchers.
-Jacob quotes Bonhoeffer-- something I'll use for a future book on Noah and Abraham: "The ultimate question for a responsible man to ask is not how to extricate himself heroically from the affair, but how the coming generation is to live. It is only this question, with its responsibility towards history, that fruitful solutions can come..." (35)
-Of course, Jacobs wrestles with vague term "humanism" and seeks to reclaim and redeem the concept (41). (Other important words face similar struggles-- e.g., liberal, Christian). He notes that it has been used to praise and to damn (37)-- and that it has been used in many ways. I'll leave his discussion to interested parties (42-50), but will note that his sense of "Christian humanism" is grounded in the imago dei of Genesis 1:26.
-Jacobs notes how earlier wars had shaped these thinkers and their work-- with a particular but far from exclusive focus on Lewis and his many references to spiritual warfare (59-62, 75-76, 103). Such thought experiments and efforts at empathy are important and revelatory. Consider in our own time, the impact of events such as the Great Depression, the Vietnam War, the Cold War, 9/11, and so on.
-Jacobs shares some good thoughts on history, humility, and valuing but not idolizing the past (95-96). He starts with Lewis: "We cannot be better except by the influence upon us of what is better than we are...the future is empty and is filled by our imagination...it is just as imperfect as we are." And then Jacobs' summary: "Therefore we must turn to the past, not because it is necessarily better than our own world, but because it is different." Again, Lewis: there is no "magic about the past". They were no smarter and made as many mistakes (maybe more), but they were different mistakes. "The books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them."
-Jacobs mentions a number of books, but I saw two that I've ordered and would like to check out: Cochrane's Christianity and Classic Culture (looks useful on LM in 50's and 80's) and Gilbert's Redeeming Culture

Friday, June 21, 2019

Frazier Rehab, Anthem BC/BS, and govt's distortions of the market for health care

Frazier Rehab charged Anthem BC/BS $700/hour for Daniel to receive modest PT services. Anthem "negotiated" that down to $300/hour. (Those aggregate to $1.4M and $600K per year for the typical 2,000-hour work year. PT'er make about $40/hour.) I've made phone calls but haven't gotten anywhere useful.
a.) Always ask for prices.
b.) Avoid Frazier Rehab.
c.) Does anybody know who else I should call? 
d.) Thanks again to govt for jacking up these mkts so nicely.
e.) At least I get to write a fun op-ed.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

on trade deficits...

The trade deficit is in one category, goods and services. The other major category in this realm-- the "balance of payments"-- is investment. So, our trade deficit is mostly (or more than) offset by an investment surplus. So, if one complains about the TD, they're also complaining about the IS for some reason.

The trade deficit is an aggregate measure of voluntary mutually beneficial trades that happen to be across national/political boundaries. If the trade deficit is really a problem, we should punish individuals who chiefly contribute to it-- people who work for companies that don't export anything.

The trade deficit is a useful angle for those who seek national solutions-- e.g., restricting competition by reducing intl trade-- but it's not at all clear how the aggregate measure is useful in understanding (or denigrating) a bunch of mutually beneficial activities.

Now all this said, there can be reasons to be worried about intl trade or to invoke sanctions. But not trade deficits.

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Left/Right assumptions about statics vs. dynamics in human behavior in response to incentives

This article on abortion got me thinking about a broader point: I'm not sure they're consistent with it, but one big difference between the Left and the Right seems to be in their assumptions about responses to incentives. The Right often imagines a larger impact on behavior than those on the Left. Or putting it in more philosophical terms, the Left is more deterministic.

So, for example, those on the Left are less worried about profligate welfare policy, because they don't picture big changes in family structure and stability, kids born out of wedlock, individual and cultural changes. Likewise, they were apoplectic and apocalyptic about welfare cuts in the 1990s, since they thought that people would be largely static in their "response".

On abortion, I think many of them are concerned about a tremendous increase in coat hangers and back alleys. But this misses the dynamics of human behavior: people adjust. I don't know how to bridge this gap, but hopefully, we can understand them better.

Friday, May 24, 2019

Russell Moore's The Storm-Tossed Family

Russell Moore's The Storm-Tossed Family is a good book-- the sort that is either:
A.) nothing earth-shaking, but a nice/solid review and reminder-- if you're familiar with a Christian/biblical worldview on family; or
B.) really effective with good insights-- if you haven't already done/heard that.

For me, the book is in category A, so it's been difficult to get motivated to write a review. But the book is worth reading, especially for Category B'ers, so let's give it a go!

As Moore explains in his opening, the title comes from a phrase he likes within a song he dislikes. He cites the Biblical use of storm as metaphor, noting their blessings and curses in agriculture. Storms also allow us to "lose all of our illusions of control". (2) Of course, this can lead to despair and idolatry-- or faith and hope. "Storms should be no surprise. They need not panic us, nor need they destroy us." (3) How we respond to the inevitable storms of life-- since God sends the rain on the just and the unjust (Mt 5:45)-- will define and mark us, will reveal our character to ourselves and others. 

This is true of difficulties throughout the Christian life, but especially with family. Family is a "life-giving blessing but also of excruciating terror, often all at the same time...[it can be] filled with joy but will always make us vulnerable to pain...Nothing can show you that you are loved and that you belong like family-- and nothing can strips away your crafted pretensions and comforting illusions like family." (3) "Family is awesome. Family is terrible. As Christians, we already have a category for that. The cross shows us how we can find beauty and brokenness, justice and mercy, peace and wrath, all in the same place. The pattern of our life is crucified glory-- this is as true for our lives in our families as in everything else." (13)

His grounding in the Cross leads Moore to a punchline that carries water throughout: "The only safe harbor for a storm-tossed family is a nail-scarred home." (5) At times, his references to nail and cross seem formulaic and forced; other times, he nails it. (The same can be said about "spiritual warfare"-- with references that range from poignant to tired.) He is careful to make sure that readers don't mistake his Cross references for saccharine: "I don't mean shorthand for Christian principles or 'family values'...I mean the tangled mess of a murder scene outside the gates of Jerusalem." (12)

Two later references/applications to the cross caught my eye: "The cross makes it clear that evil is real, and calls for judgment of God. The cross also makes it clear that none of us need be undone ultimately by what has been done to us, or sometimes even worse, by what we have done to others." (242) 

And Moore recalls the John Stott story about the necessity of the Cross to Christian belief and making sense of suffering in this world: "in a world of such horrors...how could one believe in a God who was agnostic of all of that?" Stott considered Buddha-- "arms crossed, eyes closed, softly smiling". Then he looked at the cross and decided "That is the God for me!...At the cross, Jesus aligned himself with those who are abused and maligned and powerless and ashamed. He stood with us, or hanged with us, there...Jesus is not distant from your pain; he is crucified by it-- with it and with you." (256)

Life has a way of humbling us-- perhaps esp. in parenting. Moore: "Family discloses sooner or later that we are not the experts we think we are." (17) Tonia and I joke with people that if all of our kids were like X, we'd be writing parenting books; if all of our kids were like Z, we'd go crazy. "One of the reasons parents are sometimes frustrated with their children is that the children are not mere copies of their parents, with the same tendencies, hopes, aspirations, and interests." (205) But the fact is that all children present challenges-- some more obvious; some more subtle. And the fact is that even if one or the other is "easier", it's only in part connected to what we do as parents. 

Moore notes the two primary parenting mistakes-- giving little attention to boundaries or keeping "the boundaries restrictive, infantilizing the child-- before noting the irony that parental failure here is often "rooted in peer pressure" from other parents (234).

I've often talked about how Tonia and I are playing for the long-run with our kids and not aiming for conformity as a top goal. Moore echoes this: "The end goal is not that our children will behave better. In fact, a well-behaved person is sometimes the closest to hell. If a person learns to cower in front of whomever seems most powerful at the moment, well, the devil seems quite powerful in this time-between-the-times...The goal of our parenting is not compliance-- children who learn to yield to a stronger power...We want children who love the kingdom God is promising, and who kick back against the occupying force of this present darkness." (238-239). 

I'm interested by the sort of people who choose not to have kids (by pregnancy or adoption)-- and then beyond that, the sort of people they become (or don't become) because they don't have kids. "Children and family are one way (though not the only way) that God awakens people to the world outside themselves." (50) Well, to a bigger world, but also to a more profound sense of our sinfulness, God's love and grace, etc. "Children often remodel their parents' lives in fundamental ways, from their marriages and vocations to their habits and hobbies, and even their own sense of self." (204) 

Quoting Buechner, "What man and woman, if they ever gave serious thought to what having children inevitably involves, would ever have them? Yet what man and woman, once having had them and loved them, would ever want it otherwise?" (209) As Moore notes, "Indeed, love for one's children without pain would be as unrecognizable as a resurrected Christ without nail scars." (210)

Family is important, but it must be held in balance with other priorities, and ultimately, with the Cross. "We need practical wisdom on the family. The Bible gives it to us. We need to know how to honor our parents without being enmeshed with them. We need to know how to honor marriage without idolizing it. We need to know how to discipline the next generation in a way that is neither harsh nor negligent..." (19-20)

In contrast, many Christians (particularly of a more conservative bent) are tempted to pursue a "prosperity gospel" of sorts. "The kingdom is first; the family is not." (49) "Jesus did not make the family as important as his culture did. Ironically enough, this is how Jesus saved the family." (55)

In Ch. 5, Moore gets to the ideals, the limitations, and the failures of the church as family. This reminded me of Wesley Hill's book on singles and friendship

In Ch. 8, Moore turns to sexuality-- with our penchant to deify or trivialize it, to find it disgusting or to idolize it. Instead, we are to see it as "crucially important" (127) and a "goodness" to be "affirmed" in its place (128). "Monogamy and fidelity don't restrict sexual freedom; they fuel it." (130) "Neither can a sexual tryst ever substitute for the one-flesh union. A Christian vision of life is one of genuine living sacrifice, not a series of self-absorbed transactions." (133) 

"Sexuality is a perpetual reminder that there's something within us that is quite beyond our control. Yes, we can control the expression of our sexual desires...but the desire itself seems to come out of nowhere." (127) And sex is connected to pro-creation but far more than that. "But sexual union in Scripture is never a utilitarian chore one merely performs in order to reproduce." (129) 

And then this on the sexual ethics of Jesus: "Some would wave away too much talk of sexual immorality by dismissing it as the priorities of the OT or of Paul, not of Jesus...[but] Jesus affirmed the Word of God (Mt 5:17-18)...[and] was, if anything, stronger on sexual immorality than the OT or the NT epistles (Mt 5:27-30)." (134-135) 

Moore has a few good lines about "nominal, cultural Christianity", including equating it to "asking someone...if he or she is a patriot" (161). And he has a great line on the prevalent use of Jeremiah 29:11. The verse is often read out of its context as a type of prosperity gospel: “Anyone who could find this sort of message in the prophet Jeremiah has never read any verse of Jeremiah above or below this one. The book of Jeremiah is all about God disrupting his people’s plans and upending their dreams…” (200-201)

Moore discusses the importance of discipleship and empowering the laity, especially the next generation. Failure to do so can come from wanting to avoid work and trouble (from cultivating new leadership vs. just leading yourself). Too often, the church is "a vehicle of nostalgia rather than mission. But without new life, it will die with its members." (204) Another mistake, on the other end of the spectrum, is "to abandon our elderly long before they are incapacitated." (281)

All of this reminds me of Eugene Peterson's great quote on Biblical family which I'll excerpt here (h/t: Kyle): 

The search of Scripture turns up one rather surprising truth: There are no exemplary families. Not a single family is portrayed in Scripture in such a way so as to evoke admiration in us. There are many family stories, there is considerable ref­erence to family life, and there is sound counsel to guide the growth of families, but not a single model family for anyone to look up to in either awe or envy...The biblical material consistently portrays the family not as a Norman Rockwell group, beaming in gratitude around a Thanksgiving turkey, but as a series of broken relationships in need of redemptionafter the manner of William Faulkner’s plots in Yoknapatawpha County.