Monday, April 17, 2017


If you're into fiction-- or even if you're not so much, but would pick up a non-fiction-like work of fiction-- I can commend Marilynne Robinson's Pulitzer-Prize-winning book, Gilead to you. (This is the third book I've read by Robinson. Here are some great quotes from When I Was a Child, I Read Books and from Absence of Mind.)

I like James Wood's summary of it in the NY Times: "Gilead is set in 1956 in the small town of Gilead, Iowa, and is narrated by a 76-year-old pastor named John Ames, who has recently been told he has angina pectoris and believes he is facing imminent death. In this terminal spirit, he decides to write a long letter to his 7-year-old son, the fruit of a recent marriage to a much younger woman. This novel is that letter, set down in the easy, discontinuous form of a diary, mixing long and short entries, reminiscences, moral advice and so on."

In a word, the story is of an elderly pastor who is preparing to die and works to write/communicate something of lasting value to his young son. It is a beautiful, well-crafted, thoughtful and provocative work. In its style, the author encourages us to slow down and read-- and to slow down and enjoy life.

In broad terms, the main character wrestles with the impact of the generations before him (with some vivid and memorable depictions of his father and grandfather); his tentative sense of the meaning and value of his own legacy; what it means to forgive himself and others; how to handle difficult people (esp. his best friend's son) and challenging moments-- deciding when to act and when to leave things alone (125, 148); and the simple enjoyment of life (which is mundane and extraordinary at the same time), particularly marriage, fatherhood, career, and vocation.  

In addressing the immense difficulty in making the book seem nearly as interesting as it is, I like what this blogger Heidi wrote: "It is a testament to Robinson’s considerable talent that the novel (which, admittedly, might sound boring from the description above) is so compelling. The plot, such as it is, arises entirely out of Ames’ characterization, but he is so fully realized that the novel never feels tedious."

Little Things I Enjoyed 

Robinson uses the main character to speculate on cause/effect with the Spanish Influenza at the onset of World War I-- as if God might have sent the plague as a warning and a sign. The pastor loses courage to make the claim in his sermon, since "the only people at church would be a few old women who were already about as sad and apprehensive as they could stand to be." (41-42) Later, he notes the big celebrations all over Europe and America when each got involved (86)-- something similar to what we still see today, with people's seeming eagerness to bomb foreigners. But the pastor believes that the plague was a sign that "we refused to see" and observes that "since then we have had war continuously" (43).

On Gen 22, "Abraham is in effect called upon to sacrifice both his sons, and...the Lord in both instances sends angels to intervene at the critical moment." (129) 

On Gen 4 and a theme that continues throughout Genesis and the OT: "It is not Adam but the Lord who rebukes Cain. Eli never rebukes his sons, or Samuel his. David never rebukes Absolom. At the very end, Jacob rebukes his sons as he blesses them." (136)

Robinson uses the pastor to share terrific stories on: a.) how the 6th C. can lead to the 8th C. by ripping the social fabric (82); and b.) how the 7th C. can be a version of the 8th C. (156-157).

And there's this, on the 5th C (139): "Every day is holy but the Sabbath is set apart so that the holiness of time can be experienced. Every human being is worthy of honor, but the conscious discipline of honor is learned from this setting apart of the mother and father, who usually labor and are heavy-laden, and may be cranky or stingy or ignorant or overbearing. Believe me, I know this can be a difficult commandment to keep. But I believe also that the rewards of obedience are great, because at the root of real honor is always the sense of the sacredness of the person who is its object."

A recurring theological theme in the book is the extent to which there is free will vs. predestination (see: Eph 1:4-5). At times, it comes up explicitly-- and Robinson gives the pastor some nice lines on pre-destination as a tough topic (149-150). And I like this related turn-of-a-phrase as she closes the book: "Theologians talk about a prevenient grace that precedes grace itself and allows us to accept it. I think there must also be a prevenient courage that allows us to be brave-- that is, to acknowledge that there is more beauty than our eyes can bear..." (246)

I'll add that quote to DC, along with this one-- on the breadth and richness of the Greek word sozo, often translated "saved" and reduced to a very narrow understanding of that term: "The conventional translation narrows the meaning of the word in a way that can create false expectations...grace is not so poor a thing that it cannot present itself in any number of ways." (239-240)  

Some other cool quotes: 

On critics against the church, scribes vs. pharisees: "He seems to be a bit of a scribe himself, scorning and rebuking the way he does. How do you tell a scribe from a prophet...? The prophets love the people they chastise, a thing this writer does not appear to me to do." (142)

"There was no question of need, there was only habit." (154)

"I would advise you against defensiveness on principle. It precludes the best eventualities along with the worst." (154)

On the limited usefulness of apologetics, especially when many people just want to play games and play defense: "I have had a certain amount of experience with skepticism and the conversation it generates, and there is an inevitable futility to it...I have always found that defenses have the same irrelevance about them as the criticisms they are meant to answer. I think the attempt to defend belief can unsettle it, in fact, because there is always an inadequacy in argument about ultimate things." (177-178) The "good news" is that both sides in an argument face this conundrum!

"His family was so well respected that he got away with it all. That is to say, he was allowed to go right on disgracing his family." (183)

A version of this one cracks me up-- especially how people come to you for counsel, receive it, and then still walk away...since it doesn't line up with what they already wanted: "I really didn't understand what it was that made people who came to me so indifferent to good judgment, to common sense, or why they would say 'I know, I know' when I urged a little reasonableness on them, and why it meant 'It doesn't matter, I just don't care'." (204)

Of his wife: "How soft her voice is. That there should be such a voice in the whole world, and that I should be the one to hear it, seemed to me then and seems to me now an unfathomable grace." (209)

"There is no justice in love, no proportion in it, and there need not be, because in any specific instance, it is only a glimpse or parable of an embracing, incomprehensible reality. It makes no sense at all because it is the eternal breaking in on the temporal. . So how could it subordinate itself to cause or consequence?" (238)

Monday, April 10, 2017

the crucifix, the cross, and the dove

If I ever pastor a church, I'll want a crucifix, a cross, and a dove as emblems in the sanctuary. If you get those three out of balance, you get yourself in trouble and/or you miss key aspects of the goodness of God's Kingdom.

Many embrace the crucifix without the cross. Many Christians get the cross without the crucifix and/or the dove.

Here's an IFWE essay on the implications of the resurrection (and the dove) for work, career and vocation.

#GoodFriday #Easter #Pentecost

on Sia's "chandelier" and its commentary on a party lifestyle

Another great essay by Jeffrey Tucker on Christianity and contemporary culture: drunkenness and Sia's "Chandelier". (Here's the official video and then this amazing performance on Ellen.)

If you haven't read/seen this already, check out Tucker's post on the Will Smith movie "I Am Legend"-- as they greatest Christian movie ever.

Actuarial society on SS reform options (pros and cons)

A really nice piece on Social Security-- some of its basic problems, and especially, the trade-offs in various reform proposals.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

mental health and politics

Terrific essay from Brooks on politics, idolatry, mental health, external vs. internal factors, focusing on crap, making a (real) difference in the world, etc.

--two deeply troubling presidential candidates in 2016
--the switch in party with the last election
--with govt doing so much and thus much is at stake
--with govt doing so poorly, given all they try to do
--with the prevalent preference for politics and partisanship over policy

...we've seen a big uptick in people having "political problems". How do you know if you have a problem? What's disciplines do you need to embrace to reduce those problems?

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Tracy K'Meyer's "Civil Rights in the Gateway to the South: Louisville, KY, 1945-1980"

I gave a quick read to Tracy K'Meyer's Civil Rights in the Gateway to the South: Louisville, KY, 1945-1980. (Full disclosure: I've met Tracy a few times, back in the day, through her husband Glenn
Crothers, who used to be a colleague of mine at IU Southeast.) There are tons of detail that I didn't immerse myself into, but I got the gist of the book and want to write a review.

Back and Forth
If I had to pick the most prominent theme of the book, it'd be the "back and forth" that characterized much of the Civil Rights Movement in general, particularly in Louisville. Two steps forward; one step back. Yes and no. Trade-offs. Clear gains at times, but other times, not so much. It's sobering to read about gains that "should have been" so much easier-- but were instead, contingent, fleeting, or not-so-simple.

This theme and the book's details also reminded me of Charles Murray's excellent policy book, In Pursuit of Happiness and Good Government. Murray describes frequent trade-offs between policy goals-- in particular, between obvious social goods like material progress (e.g., enough to eat; safety) and less obvious goals (e.g., self-esteem and self-actualization). In K'Meyer's account of Louisville during this period, some gains were quick and obvious, while others were far more complex.

K'Meyer opens with the idea of Louisville as a border city between the North and the South. From this lens, the reader wonders whether Louisville would be "North" or "South" in its approach to Civil Rights? (More accurately, would Louisville be more North or more South in its approach. Of course, North/South can be a gross simplification-- as if things were really good for Blacks in the North!) 

K'Meyer's first provocative claim is that being a border city probably led to a relatively good record (in Southern terms). But being a border city also gave Louisville a greater opportunity to rationalize lesser gains and cover for whatever civil rights sins it had. For example, K'Meyer notes that a border city's residents are more likely to be capricious in their approach-- a mixture of glory and nasty. At some level, it's easier to know that everyone dislikes you-- than to be surprised by its less-frequent occasion (78).

Another trade-off common to the Civil Rights Era and the desire/demand for reform: whether to go slow or to go fast. This is a perennial problem whenever one strives for change. For example, the pro-life movement debated whether to aim for a constitutional amendment or incremental gains. The school choice justice movement has had to wrestle with whether the pursuit of charters and vouchers are an undesirable compromise. Those who aim for larger reforms are always tempted to see a more moderate approach as inappropriate (and even highly-unethical) compromise. The same happened in the context of Civil Rights: when progressives want a radically different outcome, should they go slow and make progress or just (try to) get "it" done?

Another concern: when people advocate for a position-- whether moderation or something more aggressive-- is this a function of true concern or merely an angle that helps one strive for power. One sees this sprinkled throughout K'Meyer's book, as personal and social agendas overlap in interesting ways. Ironically, the same thing holds, in reverse, today. When people complain about rampant (vs. anecdotal) racism, is this a true concern, a lens colored by history and worldview, or a convenient opportunity to accumulate power and influence? When people point to some aspects of institutional racism-- but not others that are larger-- is this a flawed worldview or an agenda that just happens to line up with crony capitalism and self-aggrandizement? 

Or consider another example discussed at length in K'Meyer's book: the supposed connections between communism and many black orgs. Were the connections real-- and significant? And even if so, where the concerns about the connections real-- or just a convenient argument for opponents of civil rights? Sure, communism and the Ruskies were a profound problem that is difficult for contemporary minds to imagine. But in our times of ignorant and cheap partisanship for the sake of power, it's also difficult not to be cynical about those making such accusations. 
Other examples
---K'Meyer describes the imminent role of a local newspaper, The Defender, in the struggle. Meanwhile, the Courier-Journal was riven by ambivalence-- before converting to the cause relatively late. (To what extent does this explain the C-J's approach to race for the last four decades?)
---Politically, K'Meyer notes that Blacks were split between the two major political parties, before leading the GOP to victory in 1956 (99). 
---Religiously, churches failed miserably at times (65), but stepped up beautifully at other times (120-123). 
---Economically, K'Meyer details the early disgust with social welfare programs-- from recipients (164-167)-- arguments that would resurrect over the coming decades as the War on Poverty proved to be somewhere between ineffective and a very mixed bag. 
---In terms of patronage, Louisville offer abundant jobs in city govt, but then, didn't extend promotions to black workers (148-149), leading to a form of "Affirmative Action" (149ff). 
---Even local communities got into the "back and forth"-- with back-to-back stories from K'Meyer in Fairdale-- one where white football players protected black students, but then the next day, 150 protestors got violent (262)

Other stuff
K'Meyer also describes a number of familiar names, people, laws, and concepts. 

People: I'd heard of Meyzeek Middle School, but was unfamiliar with its namesake (48, 51). (Meyzeek was the lone African-American board member of the KY Board of Education-- and interestingly, advocated a slower approach to gaining civil rights.) Louisville Civil Rights heroes Anne and Carl Braden get a lot of ink in the earlier part of K'Meyer's time frame. Louis Coleman gets a lot of ink in the later part of her time frame. She mentions MLK Jr a number of times, but ironically, he's missing from the index, so I can't give you any page numbers!

I benefited from K'Meyer's discussion of "Buy Where You Can Work" (148). The idea is that African-Americans would boycott certain companies-- not buying from places that would not hire them (for reasons other than their direct productivity). From an economist's way of modeling things, this is one type of discrimination (not buying goods one would otherwise buy, except for a characteristic other than the trade itself) in retaliation for discrimination against oneself or members of a group to which I belong. The initial discrimination imposed costs on the discriminatees and discriminators. The reasonable retaliation imposed more costs on both. (And of course, all of this is reminiscent of the discrimination within "Buy Local" and "Buy American" campaigns.)

K'Meyer discusses the 1917 SCOTUS decision, Buchanan v. Worley (6, 34, 61). Later this year, I'll probably write an op-ed about this, celebrating its centennial. For now, it suffices to note that laws often prohibited people from living on property as a minority within a majority neighborhood. Until Buchanan, racial segregation in housing was permissible.

K'Meyer also discusses the "Day Law"-- and its impact on the markets for labor and services in health care (5, 26, 33-36, 46-48, 54). The Day Law stood in Kentucky from 1904 until Brown in 1954, prohibiting racial mixing in educational institutions. This had a dramatic impact on the training of African-American doctors and nurses-- and then, indirectly, given the prevalence of racial discrimination, on the health care services received by African-Americans.

Both of these examples reminded me of Walter Williams' terrific point about apartheid in South Africa. If you have modest/anecdotal discrimination, it's annoying, but you'll end up with modest/anecdotal segregation, as each side largely avoids the other. When you have moderate/severe discrimination, matters are more complicated. But it's common for separate (and often thriving) markets to arise-- here, for blacks to work with blacks and white with whites. But unless discrimination is complete, you'll find some mixing, from people who don't care about race all that much (or at all). And that's the role of the law here-- to enforce the majority (racist) view on people who don't hold racist views-- to prevent them from engaging in trade and other activities with those of other races. For example, Berea College was the only integrated college at the time of the Day Law. If you had complete racism, no colleges would have been integrated. If you have people who don't share those values, how do you get them to comply? The force of law. Thanks government!

As one would imagine, K'Meyer writes at length about efforts to desegregate K-12 schools in Louisville. The earliest post-Brown efforts were based on residential geography. Of course, in many cases, given housing segregation, this plan resulted in educational segregation as well. In cases, where white and black neighborhoods might naturally combine into one school, the map was broadened to allow for two schools and then people could "choose"-- often, by race. In all cases, parents would not be forced to have their kid in a majority-X school and could petition to choose a majority-Z school. Of course, in practice, this resulted in little change (49-50). 

As an aside, it's interesting to note that the limited educational choice allowed by JCPS today has a racial angle within its origins. Perhaps that's reason for concern today. But many popular policies have been motivated by race in the past-- e.g., the minimum wage, prevailing wages, abortion. So, it's probably better to not worry so much about origins-- and simply debate the merits of the particular policy proposals.

(A tangent for some auto-biographical info that relates to the topic at hand: Yesterday, I talked with Mom about their schooling decisions for me in Louisville. I started kindergarten in Fall 1970, but Mom remembers it being at a Christian school and connected to pre-K. Mom and Dad were trying to figure out "what to do with me" for first grade, given my advanced skills. Sometime in that time "frame", I got my first glasses. My pediatrician (Richard Greathouse-- later, the long-time coroner in Jefferson County) and my optometrist (David McClure-- who had children in the Suzuki program at U of L) persuaded my parents to put me into private school and the Suzuki Violin School. [Those decisions were utterly life-changing for me, both in terms of academics, music, and what all those have impacted in my life!] My parents chose to put me into Kentucky Country Day and then we left early in my 2nd grade year for Sacred Heart. [My memory was that there was a fire on-campus and that was the catalyst for the switch. Mom said yesterday that it was trouble with a second-grade teacher. I've posted on FB looking for some help with the fire details.] In any case, Mom didn't remember any of the racial (or anti-Catholic) stuff of that time-- and said these had nothing to do with their decisions. From K'Meyer's account, a lot of racial stuff was happening. But living in St. Matthews, it probably didn't impact daily life until busing got rolling in 1975. By then, we had moved to Pittsburgh and Malone.)

In 1975, matters were brought to a head in Louisville by "busing" (257-258). People could still choose schools to some extent, but students would be bused from one area to another, so that all schools had 12-35% African-American representation. (Later, the target was amended to 15-50%.) With racism, turmoil, a relatively large focus on integration over education (in budget and non-budget terms), and later, decreasing quality of schools (for a variety of reasons), public schools experienced a significant exodus. In recent years, the trend has continued for a variety of non-racial reasons, particularly with the increasingly popularity of homeschooling. But at the time, 77 families moved to Southern Indiana and private schools increased by 700 (a 22% increase), even with the Catholics refusing to accept transfers in many cases (268).

Whatever its costs and benefits at the time, busing was eventually sacked by the SCOTUS-- as society changed (improving on racial matters) and as the costs of busing became increasingly painful, obvious, and ironic. At Central HS-- a high-quality, magnet, neighborhood school that was historically important-- black students were being turned away because they were black (to keep the proportion of black students under 50%)! It took a lot of work by whites and African-Americans, but something so absurd had to be sacked eventually. (This is reminiscent of California's Affirmative Action quotas in higher ed, where Asian-Americans were required to have higher standardized test scores than whites-- an obvious but obviously-absurd implication of a racial quota approach!)

At the end, K'Meyer closes with an interesting thought. In a semi-lament at the end of her study, she notes the somewhat arbitrary nature of her study's end date in 1980. It is common to study (or build efforts to write history about) key moments (e.g., Brown)-- describing the before/after of those moments. But pre-1980 is not one period and post-1980, another. When to cut off the "after" analysis? When does history "end"? 

Well, of course, it doesn't end. It only moves along. Aside from the tremendous gains within civil rights, public policy (often well-intentioned) has done a ton of damage to African-Americans-- from the cradle to the classroom, from the workplace to the grave. Hopefully, in the future, we can do better for African-Americans and all people-- not settling for good intentions or good stories, but finding good policy.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

trade analogies and parables

My op-ed in the C-J on international trade and trade restrictions...

Our new president often expresses hostility toward international trade. On this topic, he will find many allies in Congress. There are winners and losers with trade—and trade restrictions. How can we make sense of the relevant economics and politics?

It’s easy to underestimate the value of international trade. Its benefits are relatively subtle, while its costs are relatively obvious. Consumers benefit from greater choice, higher quality and lower prices. But it’s easy to take this for granted. Producers are well aware of their competition—domestic and foreign. Workers worry about losing their jobs. The flip side of the good news for consumers is tough news for producers and workers—somewhere between keeping them on their toes and driving them out of business.

In contrast, trade restrictions are often politically attractive. Its benefits are relatively obvious, while its costs are relatively subtle. When we limit foreign competition, all of the above is reversed. Again, consumers are less likely to see the cause and effect. But producers are keenly aware that business is easier and jobs are more secure with fewer competitors.

Econ teachers use various principles to explain these ideas. For example, you don’t need a Ph.D. in economics to understand the value of competition and the trouble with monopoly power—for consumers and markets.

The most important of these principles is the practical and philosophical value of voluntary, mutually beneficial trade. When we engage in trade, both parties perceive that they benefit, enhancing their well-being and increasing social wealth. Extending this principle across national boundaries may be interesting, politically. But it does not change the underlying economics.

Teachers also use three analogies to make these points.

First, blockades are an attempt to prevent a country from importing goods during a war. Likewise, trade sanctions are used to hurt countries by limiting trade with them. When should we impose blockades or trade sanctions on ourselves?

Second, boycotts are a refusal to engage in what would otherwise be a mutually beneficial trade. We want to impose a cost on a producer—for something they’ve done that is unrelated to what they sell. To do this, we’re willing to impose a cost on ourselves, moving from our top choice to a lesser choice. Trade restrictions are like a self-imposed boycott. When should we force American consumers to boycott international goods?

Third, discrimination is a refusal to engage in otherwise-beneficial trade, because I have a problem with someone—for example, their race or religion. Discrimination harms the discriminator in material terms, but they enjoy messing with the other party. Why would we want to mandate discrimination against those in other countries and do harm to ourselves and to them?

Sometimes, thought experiments can be helpful to make the subtle more obvious. For example, if we imagine that a trade restriction is good for our economy, then it should be good for a state as well. 

And if it’s good for a state, it should be good for a county. And if it’s good for a county, it should be good for towns and neighborhoods. Once we extend the policy far enough, its costs become quite obvious.

My friend, David Norton takes this a step further with this parable: A virtuous man would only eat food within ten feet of living room recliner—cockroaches and the occasional mouse. He could sew the mouse pelts into clothing and use their guts for thread. Why stop at “Brexit”—the exit of Britain from Europe? Perhaps we should strive for “LRexit”—where we each remove our Living Rooms from the global economy. Conveniently, our Living Rooms already have walls to keep out the Mexicans, Canadians, Chinese and other neighbors who want to take our rodent-catching, pelt-sewing and mouse-cooking jobs. And surely, if we allowed trade, outsiders would undercut our living room “markets” for mouse—with chicken, fish, and vegetables.

One more parable from Dr. Steven Landsburg: Imagine that an entrepreneur figures out how to turn grain into inexpensive, high-quality cars. Grain goes into the factory. Through a mysterious and efficient process, the entrepreneur is able to pay good wages and produce a great product. Consumers cheer and the country applauds the technological advance. But then, a journalist discovers that the “technological advance” is international trade. The entrepreneur has been selling the grain overseas, receiving cars in return. When people hear this news, they are furious and ask legislators to pass all sorts of restrictions on the entrepreneur.

The extension of mutually beneficial trade—whether domestic or international—is equivalent to the winners and losers that occur with technological advance. The president seems to misunderstand this basic point. Will Congress go along with him, protecting certain jobs and helping interest groups through bi-partisan crony capitalism—while harming consumers, markets and the economy as a whole? Or will freedom and wealth-creating international trade be allowed to grow?

D. Eric Schansberg is a professor of economics at Indiana University Southeast and an adjunct scholar for the Indiana Policy Review.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

just don't do it-- to just do it...

In Ephesians 4:22-32, Paul talks about the old man and the new man. In applying the concept, he keeps saying don't do X, but do Y. (Or think about the parable/story Jesus tells about the dude that has a demon swept out of his house, but then seven later take its place.)

The point seems to be the same: put something good in its place-- to prevent the bad from returning, and more important, to make something valuable from your life.

To put it succinctly: You're not built to *not* do stuff; you're built to do stuff. We're not known for what we don't do, but for what we do.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

biblical literacy: wish vs. vision and plan

Here's an IFWE essay by Hugh Whelchel on "biblical literacy".

We might "encourage" biblical literacy, but is it (really) a high priority?

Sermons can be Bible-based. (An expository approach will promote more literacy). But they address a broad audience and are often aimed at seekers. Beyond that, even excellent sermons, speaking to a passive audience, can only do so much here (and that ain't much)!

Small groups can do a lot. But are they Bible-focused with strong applications or application-centered with some Bible sprinkled in? Are they weekly (or nearly so)? Do they require people to read the Bible outside the group meeting or are they largely passive?

Individuals can do a lot on their own. But do they know how to read the Bible well? Do they know how to persevere in their reading? Do they know how to make the Bible applicable? Do they have a process / discipline that holds them accountable to the practice?

Along these lines, I'd love to see small groups that commit to reading, journaling, and then getting together to discuss what God's said to you, on a weekly basis. For example, one might read Matthew over four weeks, one chapter per day.

Without these things, literacy is only a wish. Paraphrasing the famous basketball philosopher, Bobby Knight: Everybody has a will to be Bible-literate and to encourage it in their flock, but how many have the vision and plan to make it happen? If you're not taking reasonable steps to make it happen, quit pretending that you "want" it.

intellect vs. will; information vs. knowledge vs. wisdom/truth

The Wise Men "had only a rumor to go by. But it moved them to make that long journey. The scribes were much better informed, much better versed. They sat and studied the Scriptures like so many scholars, but it did not make them move. Who had the more truth? The three kings who followed a rumor, or the scribes who remained sitting with all their knowledge?" -- Kierkegaard

Intellect can be great, but the will is far more important. 
Information is fine; knowledge is better; wisdom & truth are best.