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.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

on style/substance, Trump/Clinton and gender...crazy/cool!

One of the coolest ideas I've ever seen, with a dozen implications for gender, politics, contemporary events, empathy in politics, etc., etc.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

facts are important but over-rated

I'm not a fan of "alternative facts", but "facts" are over-rated in two key ways: 
1.) They're not as objective as many folks imagine, at least as they make their way into the public arena. (McGowan focuses on #1 in this useful essay, with good examples.)
2.) They're not nearly as powerful as many folks imagine. Instead, worldview and theories are much more important. Apply more facts to bad theory or a distorted worldview and you get equally-crappy inferences with more dogmatism or even, fundamentalism. Ouch.


Monday, March 6, 2017

modernism and post-modernism: a reason for some pessimism on the pro-life front

The strengths and weaknesses of modernism and post-modernism have long been an issue of interest to me. 

Modernism is strong on logic and facts. Ideally, modernism takes you to reasonable conclusions, but reasoning can be subjective and blind-- and worse yet, it can fool us pridefully into incorrect but confident (and even dogmatic) inferences. Dickens' Gradgrind character is a terrific satire on this and Chesterton's "madman" is an excellent description of the potential for trouble. The irony in all of this is that "smart" people can really be "too smart" for their own good (and others)-- in a narrow, blinkered sense-- and really, thus, stuck ironically in a form of fundamentalism.

Post-modernism is strong on story and emotion. Post-modernism can be strong on empathy, if it avoids narcissism. It can be more personal and more "real", but it can devolve into relativism. It has more room for metaphysics, but those metaphysics can be subjective and even incoherent. 

Generalizing, Modernism is the approach of Baby-Boomers, while Post-modernism is the approach of Millennials. What are some implications? Let me give you two-- an old favorite of mine and a new insight from today.

1.) For a while, I've noted that an excellent C.S. Lewis apologetic for modernism is Mere Christianity, while an excellent C.S. Lewis apologetic for post-modernism is The Great Divorce. (Reasonably-educated Christians should be familiar with both.) All things equal, if you're sharing the Gospel and the goodness of God's Kingdom with older folks, go with MC; if younger folks, go with GD. Or better yet, figure out how they think-- and go with what fits.

2.) Today, I was thinking about how this pairing relates to the abortion debate. In particular, why are people pro-abortion/pro-choice? (Pro-abortion folks are often not "pro-choice" on any other major policy view, so we should distinguish between these two groups.) I now see two camps in that crowd. 

First, some are "modernists" in their approach. But ironically, they're stuck with archaic science (e.g., on biological life) and/or economics (e.g, on concerns about over-population). I keep thinking that people will update their views on at least science. But it's tough to teach an old dog new tricks, especially intellectually. And it's a lot of hard work: people are busy, not willing to put in the work, relying on intellectual and political inertia in maintaining their blinkered views. 

Second, some are "post-modernists" in their approach. If they're younger, they're certainly in a stronger position to understand the science/logic. But that's not as important to them. So, they rely on feelings and metaphysics, both of which are often fuzzy. While some may be drawn to the metaphysics of the pro-life position (e.g., the beauty of defending the vulnerable), others go with freedom for the mother, not willing to "judge", and so son.

I had been more optimistic that the public would (relatively rapidly) "grow" or mature out of pro-abortion/"choice" views. But maybe it's going to be a lot tougher than I thought. The logic, facts and science are there, but post-moderns aren't going to be converted by reason and many moderns aren't as reasonable as they imagine.

brouhaha by the intolerant at Middlebury

Another sad, fascist episode on a college campus-- shouting down Charles Murray at Middlebury College and then engaging in thuggery. Brutal, especially for self-styled liberals at a university.

(You can see the video of it here-- and you can tell by the substance and repetitiveness of the comments of those preceding Murray-- laying out sticks and carrots-- that they're really worried about the crowd. She talks about the "hard work" of good discussion and says, incorrectly, that Middlebury is moving that forward with the event.)

It's a shame since Murray has offered so much vital work to contemporary debates on public policy. I'm hard-pressed to think of anyone who rivals the quality, quantity and variety of his output. Losing Ground was pivotal to the early part of the debate on welfare policy. Check out my review of In Pursuit of Happiness and Good Government (maybe the most important book on policy I've read) and my review of Coming Apart (can't think of a more important book on contemporary policy).

For what got these students going-- his book, The Bell Curve-- I haven't read that tome, but here are a few of my thoughts about Murray on race vs. class and more important, his comments 20 years after Bell Curve was published.

Murray's account of and reflections on the events at Middlebury (where he spoke just a few years ago, with no incident) and Allison Stanger's who was injured by the mob (his host for the event, sponsor of the program, and a critic of his work). Here's some great commentary from Jonathan Haidt and Frank Bruni on the Charlie Rose Show. (I like Bruni's comment that this should be the century of social science, but maybe not...!)

Here's an insider's view-- Dr. Matt Dickinson, a faculty member at Middlebury who runs a popular blog. And here's a broader faculty response.  

The WaPo, including a note about Murray's non-white wife/kids and the SPLC glossing him as a eugenicist and a white supremacist-- completely undermining their credibility. (Again, the SPLC is far more eugenicist than Murray could dream of being.)
The Boston Globe (note the dude with the "eugenics" poster, even though he is far more likely to embrace eugenics policies than Murray, who would far those deeply offensive). Here it is in the NYT. Here's the PBS coverage

Van Jones on some of the larger issues, with some excellent metaphors, esp. on "safe spaces"-- well-defined and poorly-defined. Universities are supposed to be places where you build muscle in these regards, not be protected. George Will's angle on the Middlebury fisaco...
-The Left has been far more interested in eugenics, historically and contemporary (basic history; note his references to the Leonard book on which I wrote a review for Journal of Markets and Morality)
-freedom of speech, thought, etc. vs. demeaning language (what happened to non-judgment and liberal thought?)
-civility/decency vs. thug-life (basic decency)
-actually reading what you're criticizing, and more broadly, other views (avoiding fundamentalism)
-accurately characterizing the views of another (empathy; see: Haidt for the Left's particular struggles here; see also: growth in Heterodox Academy membership has ballooned since this event!)

Here is Jerry Coyne's blog post; here's Myron Magnet with an op-ed length discussion of the moment; George Leef with concerns about civilization; Bernard Goldberg with an op-ed length and style discussion of the event; and the WSJ weighs in too (but probably behind a paywall; try to Google the title)...

Friday, March 3, 2017

government grocery stores (and K-12)

Appeared in Business First and then in newspapers across IN and probably KY...

Government Groceries:
Experiments in the Absurd

by Eric Schansberg, Ph.D.

The downtown of Louisville across the river is now a food “desert” in that it has few significant grocery stores. Last year, four prominent groceries closed there and a proposed WalMart was sacked by legal hurdles and social hassles. Grocery stores in urban centers throughout the nation face difficult economic challenges. Ironically, these include efforts to help the poor — e.g., free breakfast and lunch at school, and charitable efforts to provide food and meals. Often, they face political barriers as well.

Let me propose an approach similar to one in another public-policy area. Let’s divide downtown into districts and put a full-service grocery store in the middle of each. Everyone would be less than a mile away from a large grocery store and could get there by walking, driving, taxi, Uber, Lyft or riding a bus.

Problem solved? Not yet, such grocery stores would be unprofitable. So, we could use taxpayer dollars to make up the difference, subsidizing the stores or subsidizing their customers (allowing them to spend enough to make the stores profitable).

The federal government provides food stamps but that’s not enough to sustain such a downtown grocery system. Perhaps we could pursue a waiver to get that money sent directly to city government. Then, we could get local taxpayers to kick in some more money. The greater government spending on groceries would reduce government services elsewhere or increase tax rates and hurt the local economy. But providing food to the poor is really important, so let’s assume that we’re willing to pay that price.

From there, we could give city residents a certain amount of food for free, depending on family size. We could provide an amount of store credit to spend. Or even easier, we could determine what would be required for a nutritionally adequate diet and simply allocate that food to each family.

Who would run these grocery stores? We could depend on the private sector. But many people would be concerned about a profit motive. And we’d be subsidizing companies, engaging in crony capitalism. So, let’s have the government run them.

Who would make the food? Again, we could rely on the private sector. But if a government is competent to toll bridges and regulate health insurance it can probably be trusted with making food. The  grocery stores  would be able to achieve economies of scale in purchasing and producing the food needed by its customers.

One might reasonably worry about who would monitor the government grocery stores — on spending, quality, red tape, meeting consumer preferences, etc. But we could elect City Grocery Boards (CGBs) and Manager/Customer Associations (MCA’s) to serve that function.

We could make customers go to the government grocery store nearest their house. But we could probably allow them to go to whichever grocery they want — at least with the CGB’s permission. We could allow each grocery store manager to make a number of decisions. But it’d be easier to have the CGB make the big decisions for the six groceries.

Private-sector groceries would still be allowed to operate, but practically, they would only be able to compete with government groceries by getting their own subsidies or by serving niches. Jewish people might subsidize a kosher store. And a small store could be successful selling popular Hispanic food.

At this point, you may be wondering if this is all crazy. You may have guessed that it is the system we use to get K-12 education to the poor and most of the middle class. The comparison invites the question of whether our approach to public education is equally crazy.

With the election of Republican legislatures in many states, “school choice” initiatives are on the table. In all of this, the question is not whether government will be involved with K-12 but rather what this involvement should look like. Should government be in the business of running schools — and if so, should it encourage flexibility through charter schools?

Or should the government even be the dominant player in providing K-12? Instead, it could subsidize lower-income and middle-class parents to obtain K-12 services in a competitive educational marketplace. This would be through vouchers (equivalent to food stamps) or backpack funding (where funding follows the child, an extension of the G.I. Bill to K-12).

Those who struggle with analogies will say, “But groceries are not the same as education.”

Right, and pizzas are not the same as haircuts or cars. But the question is whether the analogy holds. Or to be more direct: If this arrangement is absurd in the realm of groceries, why would one expect it to be glory in K-12?

Thursday, March 2, 2017

introspective pieces from the Left

Walter Kirn in Harpers

Jon Stewart: "Hey media, so I heard Donald Trump broke up with you. It stings a little doesn't it? You finally thought you'd met your match, a blabbermouth who's as thin-skinned and narcissistic as you are. It is time for you to get your groove back media 'cause let's face facts, you kind of let yourself go a little bit... obsessing 24-hours a day, seven days a week about this one guy..." During this period of "self-reflection and improvement, take up a hobby. I recommend journalism."

From Steven Malanga in City Journal 

Thomas Frank: here; and a review of Listen, Liberal, including an op-ed

review of Esolen's "Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching"

I read this book on my way to a speaking engagement on TNRNL at East Texas Baptist University. My host happened to be listening to a podcast from Esolen on this topic, just as I was finishing the book. Small world!

I've enjoyed Esolen for a long time-- through essays in First Things and Touchstone-- but this is the first book of his that I've read. (In this, he's similar to Peter Leithart for me.) Esolen is a smooth writer who is really "good with a phrase" and can pack a punch. So, it was a good, pleasant read. And his insights into Scripture, Catholic Social Teaching (CST), and public policy were illuminating and helpful. (Click here for a not-yet-on-line review of this book in Touchstone.)

My own interactions with CST are worth a brief mention. (CST is the body of work where authorities in the Catholic Church [most notably, popes] have spoken to issues of social relevance-- from economic, moral, and cultural angles. This includes but is not restricted to public policy matters.) For years, I had heard/read people-- from *very* different perspectives (including Catholics-- e.g, the American bishops vs. the Acton Institute)-- who referred to CST to help them make their own case for X, Y, or Z. It was frustrating to me that folks were able to use the popes' writing for their own side-- and I couldn't tell what the popes really meant.

Eventually, I decided to read them, rather than to read what others were writing about them. (And I needed to do so-- for chapter 16 of Poor Policy!) With that, I was able to figure out the mystery in two components. First, the approach is "negative"-- in that it is more often critical than laudatory. Broadly, it's easier to critique than to praise, to find fault than to suggest (effective) remedies. And that's fine-- as far as it goes. So, for example, when the popes repeatedly denounce aspects of capitalism and socialism, selective readers can find support for their own (negative) views.

Second, the writing is often vague, moderate, and non-committal-- at least with respect to specific policies. I'm not sure about the motivation for this-- whether a reluctance to pin things down, a humility in drawing specific applications out-of-school, etc. For example, the popes often call for a "just wage", without either defining it or committing to legislation as a means to the desired/godly ends. And so, people can find what they want-- reading legislation or particulars into statements that are neither legislative nor specific. Or people are also freer to ignore the broad recommendations. Again, each side can find what they want.

Esolen opens the book by noting that "smart" and well-intentioned folks can get everything wrong if their worldview, principles, theories, filters, etc.-- are wildly imperfect. Like Dickens' character Gradgrind and his insistence on "facts" (22)-- or Chesterton's "Madman" who "has lost everything but his reason" (5)-- the ironic thing is that less reason and fewer facts would actually help: "If he were less logical, or more easily distracted from his ideas by the stubborn realities around him, he might blunder back into the truth once in a while." In such cases, reason and false principles become "a ruling deity" (5). Esolen compares this to "a carpenter whose tools are out of kilter...he will not have built a bad house; he will not have built a house at all. He will have built a wreck, a monstrosity." (5)

And not only building principles must be observed, but the nature of the building materials must be respected. "We must begin from correct principles and we must be steeped in humanity" (6) as it (really) is.

This includes theology-- or its purported lack thereof: "The most fundamental truth about man is that he has been made by God, who is Himself Love...any society built upon other premises will be radically deficient." (15) This extends to individuals as well: "he longs for joy that can never be taken away, but sinks instead into the tedium and disappointment of pleasures, or the hectic excitement of wickedness." (16)

Esolen also points to views on "authority"-- and what should be our passion for true authority vs. false authority or the fiction of no authority. In contrast to "question authority", he offers "Distinguish the true authority from the false. For authorities there much be." (123) Moreover, we must make "a just claim against tyranny, whether the tyrant is one or 300 million." (124)

With all of this in mind, Esolen draws out a number of counter-analogies: appealing to the Boy Scouts to justify gangs; to Michelangelo for pornography; Florence Nightingale for doctor-assisted suicide; and so on. "Imagine anything most absurd, and you have not yet approached the absurdity of those who claim that CST implies the existence of a vast welfare state..." (6-8)

Esolen is especially (and deservedly) harsh toward the "welfare state"-- and in particular, the appropriation of CST to pursue those ends. He describes the Welfare State as "utterly secular, materialist in all its assumptions about a good life, bureaucratically organized, unanswerable to the people, undermining families, rewarding lust and sloth and envy, acknowledging no virtue, providing no personal care, punishing women who take care of their children at home, whisking the same children into vice-ridden schools designed to separate them from their parents' views of the world, and, for all that, keeping whole segments of the population mired in generations of dysfunction, moral squalor, and poverty, while purchasing their votes with money extorted from their neighbors." (8-9) Wow; ouch! Other than that, the Welfare State is great and otherwise consistent with CST.

Later, Esolen revisits similar themes: even granted that capitalism sometimes uses unethical means and yields unethical outcomes, "one cannot cure sin by sin...one does not hire Belial to fight Beelzebub." (139) Beyond that, "Socialism is not evil because it fails; it fails because it is evil...an evil system that tricks some well-intended people, seducing them with promises and causing them to overlook false principles..." (139) Again, there are easy and common mistakes on both sides: "It's a symptom of our secular disease that we idolize the untrammeled individual, motivated by one hedonism or another...and the State established to adjudicate among the hedonists." (141)

Esolen notes that Christian witness is powerful with respect to ministry to the needy. "Outside of the ambit of the Christian faith and those nations nourished by it, where are the hospitals for the poor?" (32) Beyond that is the question of unity by race and class-- and although there is still much work to be done, "Outside of that chapel, where do rich and poor meet as brothers." (33)

Esolen notes the seemingly strange opposition to "organizations of Christians united to teach children, assist the poor, give homes to orphans, heal the sick, and comfort the dying" (105). He points to the irony of a feminist-- that she would be crushed to "hear that men of old may have loved their wives and been not nearly so domineering as she..." (106)

Going to the extreme of this spectrum, the atheist claims an objective morality, but where is the fruit? "I know there are atheists who believe we can build a morality up from odds and ends of old sentiments, political expedience, self-interest, and more or less popularly-acknowledged 'goods'. In vain. Those things alone are no stronger than straw. What obliges me to accept another man's calculation of utility?" (19) Generally, atheists have neither a coherent philosophy nor a positive approach to X, Y or Z; only/mostly an opposition. (Here's my blog post on an earnest effort to be a counter-example.)

Esolen defines the modern view of freedom as "the extent that the State cannot tell me that I cannot do as I please." (39). In this Esolen's definition only rings half-true. While people may want such freedom in the abstract, they routinely vote for politicians and prefer policies that are adamantly opposed to such freedom. True, they often want government to restrict others, rather than themselves. But even these pursuits tell us that freedom (of any coherent sort) is not highly valued in modern society.

Similarly, Esolen gets off a good line about our self-delusions in the political realm: "the charade of self-government that Americans enjoy every four years, with its heaves of moronic marketing, evasion, and dishonesty." (62)

In Rerum Novarum, Pope Leo "has in mind a society wherein the rich man and the poor man are friends...they are for one another...[This] cannot be produced by the mechanics of legislation..it is not enough that one pay high taxes, some smallish portion of which will filter to some unknown "poor" far away..." (153) Instead, government causes trouble with laws that "discourage the formation and preservation of families, and facilitate their dissolution, and rule out the Church, the only institution on earth that can assist the poor against those long odds." (154)

Esolen is a big proponent of the view that tradition does (and should) get a vote in democracy-- what Chesterton called "the democracy of the dead". This is "not traditionalism but a humble willingness to continue to hear what our forebears have to say to us." (121) This holds for our forebears, both living and dead. (If not, when would we quit listening to those who come before us?) Why so? "there must always be a strong presumption in favor of what our forefathers have handed down to us...We do not live only in the times when we are breathing. The past is present to us still, and we will be present to our descendants yet to come." (45) 

Practically, this must be so; else, "If yesterday's law is tomorrow's jest, what must that imply for today's law." (46) Again, post-modernism's penchant for relativity and an over-arching emphasis on progress can easily devolve into silliness and incoherence. Or from another angle: "A dog may have a pedigree, but it means nothing to the dog. The child without relations...feels deprived of something central to his humanity." (89) 

On Marriage Esolen also has good stuff on marriage. Biblically, the creation of man and woman as separate from the animals and the command to "increase and multiply" indicate that "the society of man and woman together is different from the casual mating of the beasts." (53) Moreover, "the family and the household come first. The State comes later both in time and in order of being. And just as the family is for its members, but individually and together, so the State is for families, individually and together.: (54) What about the contemporary debates about civil marriage? "Are Christians free to give their tacit blessing" to same-sex marriage? "Not unless they wish to cast their lot with idolaters...To believe that marriage can be subject to the definition of the State is to elevate the State to the throne of an idol." (54-55) 

Later, Esolen notes that "Marriage is of divine origins. Its fruition is not in the satisfaction of individual desires...Because it is divine, marriage is by necessity oriented toward the being of God Himself. Its fruitfulness participates in His creative bounty. Its unity reflects the inner life of love that is the Trinity. Its exclusivity and perpetuity reflect His faithfulness and His eternity. A State that pretends it can alter not the conditions of marriage but its very nature presumes upon the prerogatives of God." (64)

Without this respect for the institution of marrage, "what might we expect from an anti-society of self-will and divorce?...Are we to believe that men who are shameless and shiftless in the most intimate and most socially productive of human relations will be animated by civic responsibility and love of neighbor in their other public actions, where their duties are less clear and the opportunities for self-serving almost limitless? Every sin against marriage is a sin against the very possibility of any kind of society at all." (66-67)

Esolen also notes the limits of "contract" language-- particularly within marriage-- as opposed to the term "covenant" and our bonding to each other in covenant: "No one loves a contract...A contract is a binding guarantee that we enter into because we cannot trust our fellow man to do the right thing. It is based upon suspicion...I enter a contract...but I forge a bond." (102, 117)

On Economics: "Just Wages" and Guilds vs. Unions
Clarifying CST, Esolen is careful to distinguish between guilds and unions. Such associations-- as companies-- are a "natural right" (168). But often, unions (and other producers) go (much) further than this right, exercising unjust political might. Unions are best seen as a labor market cartel-- and often a crony-capitalistic special interest group, looking to enrich itself at the expense of others through product and labor market restrictions. In contrast, guilds are focused on training, apprenticeships-- as well as social, economic and religious relationships. (99-100, 137). Esolen asks: "How far is such a guild from the" NEA or government unions? "As far as the heavens are above the earth, or the mountains above the sea." (169)

Esolen extends this point by describing professors as a guild-- at least back in the day. They pursued "a holy aim-- truth...regalia...a kind of priesthood" (115). In fact, the word used by Pope Leo to describe guilds is "collegus" or colleges-- "bands of men in league together; not simply a union, but a genuinely human society of men with a common interest, living and working with one another." (138)

Esolen is equally careful and helpful on another popular CST term, the "just wage". It "implies an intricate set of human interchanges. The worker and the employer must treat one another fairly; if the employer does not bow in homage to the labor market, the employee does not do as little as he can to preserve his job. The employer must find worthwhile and feasible work for the workman to do-- for he too must stay in business. The employee must use those wages wisely." (163-164) While the contemporary debate centers (exclusively?) on an employer's responsibility to employees-- and not any other relationship (e.g., customers looking for low prices), reciprocity (e.g., workers must work hard), or related expectations (how one spends income)-- Esolen is careful to note all of the relevant angles. 

One other nugget: Esolen describes "work" from Gen 2 and the 9th C: work precedes the Fall; the reward of yours work is your own-- but as God's steward: "The right of private property is grounded, not in practical economics, but in the theomorphic nature of man. Neither a brute nor a robot can properly be said to own anything. Only persons can own." (140)