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.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

white men, heterogeneity, and judging individuals as individuals (vs. stereotyped members of groups)

A few excerpts and thoughts on a really nice, provocative article by Elizabeth Corey in FT, "An Acceptable Prejudice"...

Early-on, Corey gets to this easy but powerful question/observations: "Do men, and white men in particular, really constitute a homogeneous bloc?"

The theory of intersectionality holds that oppression and privilege do not attach to a single characteristic (race or gender, for instance) but occur in combination depending on the intersecting traits one possesses...In this framework, group identity always takes precedence over individual identity, and white men are the most privileged group...Yet anyone must admit that white men are as intellectually and morally diverse as any other group. Stanley Fish, Donald Trump, Paul Krugman, and Sean Hannity are all part of this demographic. So are the millions of middle- and working-class men who have no voice in the public conversation and little political power—single fathers who support their families, rural small-business owners, men who work in urban convenience stores. These people are positioned across a broad spectrum of privilege and disadvantage, wealth and poverty, achievement and failure...
Great observation. But really, white men are probably more diverse than any other group, right? White women also have considerable diversity, but often (and ironically), they're often reduced to gender (for political purposes-- did you vote for Hillary or not) or pro-life/"pro-choice". 
The "progressive" use of stereotyping is odd and ironic, except when one considers the real goal: "When they talk about white male privilege, they commit the same stereotyping that they claim women and minorities suffered in the past and still suffer. Their goal, however, is not to end stereotyping, but to stereotype a different group..."
After a reference to Haidt and Lukianoff's The Coddling of the American Mind, Corey notes that:  
To say that women learn best from women, blacks from blacks, Hispanics from Hispanics, is to propose much the same educational segregation that Civil Rights integration was designed to overcome. Nor is there much, if any, empirical evidence to substantiate the 'mirroring effect'...
Corey describes this as "a religious conviction", before making a personal please: 
Even if (as we’re continually told on campus) women continue to suffer discrimination based on sex, it does not necessarily follow that women want to be given benefits and advantages. They might prefer to earn them. How many times have I heard the well-intentioned but ­patronizing phrase, “We need a woman for this job”?...Judge us, then, as men and women, not by our race or gender, but as individuals. Judge us by our work, our minds, our characters, our kindness (or lack of it), our generosity, our energy, and our talents. Do not prejudge us. 


Wednesday, May 22, 2019

on the "gender wage gap"

From a FB thread...

Agreed. We have to weigh the efficiency of a given market vs. the counter-hypothesis (pun intended?) of wildly inefficient markets despite self-interested behavior and a lot of money on the table.

In contemporary terms in developed countries, most labor markets will feature something closer to the former than the latter. (There are notable counter-examples, most of which have significant govt involvement to reach the non-competitive outcome-- e.g., the NCAA's cartel on revenue-generating sports today or slavery in the past.) If companies are generally profit-max; if workers like to get paid; and so on, then we wouldn't expect systematic and significant under-compensation-- certainly, to the tune of 25%, as is often imagined with the "gender wage gap". With such a fantastic set of assumptions required, we'd instead look for other answers-- and find them quickly-- in recognizing that the aggregate stat used here is garbage, since (to your point) it holds so little constant. In a word, we should make sure to avoid the ceteris paribus fallacy in both our analysis AND our statistics.

As to the 1950s in the Deep South, that's complicated. Whatever markets wanted to do, state/local govt were especially active in bolstering racism. (The Feds did a ton too!) Through law, state/local govts engaged in discrimination-- and certainly encouraged violence and discrimination through their selective enforcement of laws. So, whatever markets might have done on their own, govt certainly had a big hand-- if not, by far, the biggest hand-- in perpetuating discrimination.

I love Walter Williams' point about this in the context of South African "apartheid": If everyone was a racist, you wouldn't need any laws; the racism would be self-enforcing. You need laws when there is a significant number of folks who are **not** racist. (Or to be clearer, they're not racist *enough* to avoid profitable ops to sell, employ, rent, etc.) Bottom line: you need enough racists to empower a govt to engage in racism, but you also need a govt to enforce a racist cartel.



Wednesday, May 15, 2019

on comparisons between adoption and foster care (in trying to defend abortion)

As Alabama tries to take us toward a science-centered approach on abortion (oh, the ironies!), we're going to see an increase in turmoil/angst from those who are a.) anti-science; or b.) metaphysically value the rights of pregnant women over their babies.

Recently, I've seen complaints that Christians aren't doing enough with foster care. Two thoughts to help you engage those conversations...

First and probably too snarky to use often: the poster should add liberals to the complaint. If we had more than a handful of compassionate liberals in this country, they would help carry the weight on this issue.

Second, this is an apples/rocks comparison. Even if every baby was cared for at birth with a change in abortion policy (relatively easy to do), you'd still have problems with orphans/foster care for older children, given jacked-up family structure & stability and the much greater challenges of doing foster care compared to adopting a baby.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

thoughts on Trump and trade deficits

Our manufacturing production and productivity are higher than past decades. But as a share of the labor force, manufacturing has dropped quite a bunch. This has been caused *much* more by reduced transaction costs-- transportation and esp. communication costs that have plummeted-- than slightly freer trade policies.

If you want to drop globalization back a bunch, we can try to go back to 1981 when phone calls were $4 per minute from Louisville to Indy-- and before we had the internet and email.

The trade imbalance (in goods and services) is misunderstood and grossly over-rated. And if one is concerned, it should be noted that much of our "investment surplus" (the flip side of a trade deficit in goods and services) is driven by high budget deficits-- a policy that Trump is aggressively pursuing! Bottom line: if you don't like the trade deficit / investment surplus combo, we need to get DC to quit borrowing so much money to finance its profligate ways. So, Trump is not really tackling it; he's pretending to tackle it and actually extending the so-called problem.

Trump is probably better on net than the yahoos the Dems will run. But I'm no fan of his tax *increases*-- on trade and on future generations through more debt today. I just wish we had a lot more "conservatives" today-- who join me in wanting limited govt in economic matters.