Monday, January 26, 2015

Free Community College!

This essay appeared in newspapers across Indiana...

Since it appeared, another observation shows us that Obama is flailing about with this proposal: He's taxing 529 account for college in order to pay for free community college. Nice!

President Obama has proposed free community college for everybody in the United States.

At present, according to the American Association of Community Colleges, there are 6.5 million students in public community colleges. Most of their $31 billion in revenues comes from various levels of government. Although their average cost per student is about $5,000, the average student only pays $950 per year in tuition and fees.

The proposal is supposed to cost about $60 billion over the next decade. This estimate is probably based on a static analysis—that only these 6.5 million students would attend community college, imposing an additional burden of $950 per student on taxpayers. A more sophisticated prediction would take into account the likely increases in both the number of students and the average cost per student.

Average costs would be expected to increase with additional subsidies and the greater bureaucracy that typically accompanies more government involvement. We’ve seen how massive government subsidies have impacted the overall cost of health insurance and health care in the United States over the last 70 years. Or in the field of education: How about the cost of K-12 education, wholly financed by taxpayers, where we currently spend about $300,000 per classroom of 25 students?

There are many other reasons to question the community college proposal. Continuing with the cost side: Why should the average family of four pay $780 in higher taxes to support another $60 billion program? In a time of immense federal debt and tight state budgets, why should this be a strong budget priority?

As for the recipients, how will students treat community college if it’s completely free? Will they value the education appropriately and become more responsible individuals? More broadly, is it smart for society to create another “entitlement” program?

From the market’s perspective: How will the perception of a community college degree be changed within the labor market? With concerns about a “bubble” in higher education, is it wise to increase government subsidies into that sector? Only 20% of community college students complete a two-year program within three years. Are we imagining that the benefits are greater than they would be?

Needs-based subsidies for higher education are already in place through Pell Grants. Why is it wise to subsidize community college tuition for all students, even those from upper-income families? As with the minimum wage, the policy is poorly-targeted—in this case, subsidizing all students, rather than just those with fewer means.

Given all of these concerns, the policy proposal seems more political theater and cynical political games, than good (or even serious) public policy.

Interestingly, Governor Pence has proposed increased funding for vouchers and charter schools. Other school reformers are calling for “backpack funding”, which follows each student to the school of their choice (and varies with student needs). With these policy choices, the approach is to finance the decisions of parents and children, rather than sending money to a school and then forcing students to attend that school.

President Obama takes a similar approach. He could have proposed free community college, but only at the community college closest to each person’s house. Instead, he said that we should empower students to obtain educational services at the community college of their choice.

Given that we’ve decided, as a society, to finance K-12 education, why not give those parents backpack funding as well—so that those with any level of income have the freedom to choose the school that’s best for their families? 

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

America's most recent two dominant civil religions

Our nation's civil religions have been the religion of the plurality or even the majority for a long time. Of that pantheon, the dominant deity post-WWII was the "God" of anti-communism, patriotism, and nationalism-- the god instilled in our pledge and on our money. (Of course, followers of the Triune God would say that they see their own God represented on those mediums.) 

In recent days, our culture's newly-dominant civil religion has become what Christian Smith termed "Moral Therapeutic Deism"-- here defined by Dreher as "a vague, vapid approach to religion, one that can be summed up as: God exists, and he wants us to be nice to each other, and to be happy and successful."

Heliocentric health insurance!

Heliocentric health insurance! Why didn't I think of this phrase from John Graham?! It's another great, easy way to notice that the "market" for health insurance-- and thus, health care-- has been jacked up by the government. 

Why is health insurance an annual thing on January 1? Because it's connected to employment. The chief reason it's connected to employment? Because it's subsidized through employers-- a massive ($100B+ annually), regressive (helps those with more money a lot more) subsidy-- that does what subsidies do: encourage us to get too much of something. 

Too much insurance means far too many things covered by insurance-- and all the problems that come along with that. Imagine what car insurance would look like if it strayed from rare, catastrophic events-- to cover door dings, upholstery rips and oil changes. 

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Washed and Waiting

This is my review of Wesley Hill's amazing little book. It is terrific on its direct topic: how to best live as a Christian with a strong homosexual orientation. (See also: books by Gregory Coles and Daniel Mattson.) And as he makes his case, he is very helpful on a range of other topics-- the Church and singles, the importance of friendship (his second book), the limits of marriage, and so on.

The book's title comes from two passages: 1.) "Washed" from the crucial past/present tense in the beautiful, identity-changing I Cor 6:9-11's "You were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our Lord." And 2.) "Waiting" from Rom 8:23-25's "groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies...we wait for it with patience."

Hill reports that he "had been drawn, even as a child, to other males in some vaguely confusing way, and after puberty, I had come to realize that I had a steady, strong, unremitting, exclusive sexual attraction to persons of the same sex." (13) Hill says that he does not present any of the frequent correlated (causal?) family variables. Moreover, "No amount of spiritual growth seemed to have any effect on my sexual preference." (29)

His formal intellectual exploration of the topic began in his freshman year of college, when he wrote a paper on it, giving him "the excuse I had been looking for to read" widely (32). And along his journey, he seems to have had many counselors who were wise, patient, and exhorting, encouraging transparency, wrestling, and ultimately, growth. "Be spiritually adventuresome...step out in faith...[don't be] fearful of joining in the adventure the Holy Spirit prepares for you." (38).

Why write the book? Hill: "I have never found a book I could resonate with that tries to put into words some of the confusion and sorrow and triumph and grief and joy of the struggle to live faithfully before God, in Christ, with others, as a gay person." (14) He describes going into a Christian bookstore and finding books on a "cure" and into Barnes and Noble to look through the Self-Help section. "In neither case did I find anyone writing as if they knew about the paradoxical, pain-filled journey I was on." (123-124)

Sure, there are plenty of books that deny any legitimate homosexual inclinations or see getting people "healed" as the only option. (Hill is open to being "healed", but doesn't think it will happen for him.) Many other books assume that living out a homosexual identity is fine. But Hill believes that living out the identity would be sinful AND that he is called to live with the inclinations but without indulging them (14-15). Or in his words, "how, practically, a non-practicing but still desiring homosexual Christian can 'prove, live out, and celebrate' the grace of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit in homosexual terms." (16; his italics) This will require "the demanding, costly obedience of choosing not to nurture their homosexual desires." (16)

Related to the "why" is the "for whom" (the book is written). Certainly Hill intends to reach those in the same ballpark. But he also writes for people who are close to those struggling in this arena-- as well as those who might "overhear", from within similar struggles and find grace in the similarities. "The Christian's struggle with homosexuality is unique in many ways, but not completely so." (19) It's not something he emphasizes, but I think the book has a ton of value in this-- over and above its direct goals.

He also addresses terminology and semantics in his introduction. I like what he says at the end of that discussion: Back to identity and self-identifying, "I've taken care to make 'gay' or 'homosexual' the adjective, and never the noun...being gay isn't the most important thing about my or any other person's identity. I am a Christian before I am anything else. My homosexuality is part of my make-up, a facet of my personality." (22; his italics) 

Terminology and semantics are an important consideration-- an over-arching focus of Brian Patrick Mitchell in his Touchstone review of Eve Tushnet's recent book (which seems to be a first cousin on Hill's effort). Mitchell notes the problems of the term "gay Christian" since it elevates another aspect of one's identity to equal footing with one's most important identity, as a Christian. Or perhaps it's easier just to try some other adjectives for self-identification purposes-- straight Christian, African-American Christian, young Christian, etc.-- to see why any adjective is troubling. 

Hill's book is an easy read: three chapters with a mini-biography as an introduction to each. (The bios are his own and those of two Catholic priests, Henri Nouwen and Gerard Manley Hopkins. Nouwen was a renowned writer; Hopkins, a poet. Hill seems to be following in their literary footsteps.)

Chapter 1: What is demanded? 
His biblical approach to this question is far more complex and nuanced than the usual. (For example, Christians sometimes start with Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19, which turns out to shed little if any light on the topic; and many apologists for same-sex sexual activity seem content to make read passages in Leviticus like a fundamentalist.) 

In part, this was driven by dissatisfaction with simpler approaches. "At times, though, for me and many others, the weight of the biblical witness and the church's traditional teaching on homosexual practice can seem rather unpersuasive." (54) "In the end, what keeps me on the path I've chosen is not so much individual proof texts from Scripture or the sheer weight of the church's traditional teaching against homosexual practice. Instead, it is, I think, those texts and traditions and teachings as I see them from within the true story of what God has done in Jesus Christ..." (61)

What does Hill have in mind-- in addition to the more direct evidences? (He does not include the angle of many other, more-sophisticated cases-- to discuss the arc of Scripture with respect to marriage.) First, "the Christian story promises the forgiveness of sins-- including homosexual acts...right on the heels of the passages that condemn homosexual activity, there are, without exception, resounding affirmations of God's extravagant mercy..." (62)

Second, "the God of the Gospel is known by his threat to our going on with business as usual...God most often seems dangerous, demanding, and ruthless as he makes clear that he is taking our homoerotic feelings and actions with the utmost seriousness." (67) Or quoting another writer: "Are homosexuals to be excluded from the community of faith? Certainly not. But anyone who joins such a community should know that it is a place of transformation, of discipline, of learning, and not merely a place to be comforted or indulged." (67-68) Hill concludes that God's demand for purity-- "far from being a sign of our failure to live the life God wants, may actually be the mark of our faithfulness." (68)

Third, the Gospel is "opposed to our popular notions of personal autonomy and democratic independence...there is no absolute right or unconditional guarantee of sexual great shock that God might actually make demands of those Christians and their bodies." As a result, the prohibitions "have seemed less and less surprising or arbitrary or unfair the more I've thought about them." (70) This is a common critique of the standard position. Hill ultimately finds it subjective, incoherent, and unpersuasive. 

Tushnet puts it this way (h/t: Francesca Aran Murphy's review in First Things): "The sacrifice God wants isn't always the sacrifice you wanted to make." Of course, this approach begs the question-- but the question must be asked, rather than its answer assumed facilely by either "side" of the debate. 

Fourth, "the Christian story commends long-suffering endurance as a participation in the sufferings of Christ". As a result, thinking it's "too difficult doesn't seem as strong or compelling as it once did," (70) Again, imagine the analogies: if long-suffering endurance is never fair, then all sorts of inappropriate behaviors find their way to the rationalization table. 

From there, how then shall he live? Toward the top of Hill's list: take responsibility. "Whatever the complex origins of my own homosexuality are, there have been conscious choices I've made to indulge-- and therefore to intensify, probably-- my homoerotic inclinations." (49) Following in discipleship with Jesus must mean to limit those choices.

Here, Hill borrows one of my favorite ideas from Lewis on temptation: that "bad people, in one sense, know very little about badness. They have a sheltered life by always giving in." In contrast, Christ never yielded to temptation and thus is "the only man who knows to the full what temptation means." (76) Likewise, some argue that "sex is necessary to be truly, fully alive." But Jesus abstained and is "the measure of what counts as true humanity" (77).

A conversation with a wise friend wraps up Chapter 1. Starting with the premise that our souls precede our lives-- and that God would talk with us about our forthcoming lives-- the friend imagines a conversation (paraphrased): "Wes, I'm going to send you to earth for a few years. You'll have this thorn in the flesh and it will be difficult. But I'll be with you, supplying you with grace for your daily needs, and celebrating the victories when we see each other again." His friend asks whether he would do that. And Wes says yes. The friend's point: You have had that conversation, since you know that God is the author of your life. Hill's conclusion: "Your struggle isn't a mindless, unobserved string of random disappointments...faithfulness is never a gamble. It will be worth it." (78-79)

All of this broadens nicely to other areas of sexual morality-- or more generally, other categories of morality. (Far too often, conservative Christians reduce morality to a small subset of sins.) "All Christians, whatever their sexual orientation, to one degree or another, experience the same frustration I do as God challenges, threatens, endangers, and transforms all of our natural desires and affections." (64-65; his italics) Then he quotes Robert Jensen: "Every mandate of the law is harder on some, with their predilections, than on others with theirs. In this fallen world, that is always true of law, divine or human...Given the Fall, each of us, with his or her predilections, will be blocked by God's law in some painful-- perhaps deeply painful-- way." (65)

At times, Hill seems to glorify marriage too much, thinking like a single who has idealized marriage. In a sense, this is an easy and reasonable mistake for a never-married person to make. (Hey, married folk can do it too!) But Hill also notes the likelihood of suffering within marriage, including the idea of "feeling trapped" (72). Hill also uses Wendell Berry's literary example of Jayber Crow with Mattie Keith and her husband (73-74). 

In a word, it's not wise-- on this issue or any other-- to miss what should be obvious points: we all sin; we all have our sinful proclivities and tendencies; and we're called to avoid those-- for our own good and the good of others, through the power of the Spirit, the Word, Christian community, and so on. Homosexuality in particular and sexual morality in general are only a small part of Christian morality. Sadly, those in more conservative parts of the Church often have a disproportionate response to homosexuality vs. sex outside of marriage, divorce and remarriage, etc. 

Chapter 2: Loneliness / Friendship
Hill describes "how crucial non-erotic friendships with peers of the same sex are in my pilgrimage toward wholeness." (45)

In contrast, he relates a question asked by a friend: "Do you find yourself holding other males at arm's length for fear that if you come to know them deeply and intimately, it will somehow be inappropriate or dangerous or uncomfortable?" (46) Of course, this holds for heterosexual friendships between men and women. (I remember moving from a singles' Sunday School class at church where things were generally comfortable-- to a newly-married class where things were really awkward.) 

What does Hill need/want in terms of individual relationships? "The love of God is better than any human love...[but] I am wired for human love. I want to be married. And the longing isn't mainly for is mainly for the day-to-day, small kind of intimacy...share each other's small joys and heartaches..." (105)

More broadly, the challenge to deeper friendship (vs. mere acquaintances and small talk) holds in the Church and otherwise. Hill addresses this to some extent-- and I think his next writing project is on friendship. How can the Church foster friendship? In large part, this is a function of healthy disciple-making. If we follow the Great Commission and make disciples who can make disciples, then (true) friendship inevitably follows.

Hill makes an important theological point along the way: "The NT views the church-- rather than marriage-- as the primary place where human love is best expressed and experienced. In the OT, marriage was viewed as the solution to loneliness." (111) Then he quotes a friend who writes: "We must call into question any notion that the supreme expression of human love is found in marriage." (112) He cites II Sam 1:26's love between men, sacrificial love for each other (Jn 15:13), I Cor 13 in the context of spiritual gifts in the church, not marriage; Eph 5's sacrificial love as the model for marital love vs. vice versa; and that marriage will be done away with in Heaven.

Likewise, people often miss that the first Biblical institution is "work" not marriage (in Gen 2). For many people, marriage (and family) will be an important piece of the work to which we are called. But the larger issue is the work, not marriage per se (Eph 2:8-10). 

Along with true friendships, "intentional Christian community" would seem to be a vital part of the equation, especially for the many who are called to be celibate in their contexts. "Throughout much of Christian history, whenever Christians took on vocations of celibacy, they did so most often in community-- in monastic orders, for example...sustained by the rhythms of corporate worship and the mundane tasks of providing for one another's daily needs" (103b). Monasteries are an extreme form of what needs to be fostered in more moderate forms. 

Unfortunately, the Church's positive view of singlehood is usually withered or undeveloped. C.S. Lewis referred to this as the destruction of friendship by "coupledom" (h/t: FAM in FT). The challenge: how do we celebrate and support both marriage and singlehood?

Chapter 3: Shame vs. Pleasing God
Hill opens with an epigraph from Lewis: "To please be a real ingredient in the divine be loved by God, not merely pitied, but delighted in as an artist delights in his work or a father in a son-- it seems impossible, a weight or burden of glory which our thoughts can hardly sustain. But so it is." (131)

Both Nouwen and Hill ask: "Can we who remain homosexually inclined actually please God?" (135) The easy answer should be: "Sure, why not?!" Whether from internal guilt or external social pressures, the answer seems harder to grasp than it should-- and so, the wrestling continues. 

On the implications of this for life here and now: God's "being pleased with us, means that we may be pleased with ourselves in the here and now as we live our daily lives; or, more precisely, we may be pleased that we are pleasing to God." (141) Thus, "what many of us need is a new conception of our perseverance in faith...what it means to live by faith in a world that is fallen and scarred by sin and death..." (144-145) 

Hill quotes Hopko (145) who encourages those with same-sex attractions to "accept their homosexual desires as their cross-- as a providential part of their struggle to glorify God...[as] a crucial part of their God-given path to sanctity...both for themselves and potential sexual partners. And they will see their refusal to act out their feelings sexually as an extraordinary opportunity for imitating Christ and participating in his saving Passion." (145) 

And then Hill, again: "My homosexuality, my exclusive attraction to other men, my grief over it and my repentance, my halting efforts to live fittingly in the grace of Christ and the power of the Spirit-- gradually I am learning not to view all of these things as confirmations of my rank corruption...[instead] as what it looks like for the Holy Spirit to be transforming me on the basis of Christ's cross and his Easter morning triumph over death," (145)

Part of this is for Hill to lead the way on how to live out this journey within the Church. As such, Hill quotes Martin Hallett, someone on a very similar path: "our homosexuality is part of our value and giftedness to the church, but homosexual sex is a sin." (17)

Hill concludes the book by comparing his journey to that of the Hobbits in Lord of the Rings (146-148)-- adventurous, something he didn't and couldn't want, but still an amazing opportunity, something of a "grand tale" that's potentially epic. Or maybe it's more mundane than that: "Unlike Sam and Frodo's, my story and the depths of my struggle may never be observed or known by any human watcher. But I can still long as I have the assurance that my life matters to God".

Let me wrap this up with a blog post from awhile back. Prompted by this set of thoughts as I went through Hill's book, I posted this on FB and got a few responses.

With respect to X (something of significant/profound value), is it more challenging to:
a.) not have had X; to know something of X and its value-- but knows they will not have X.
b.) not have had X; to know something of X and its value-- and have hope for X but be routinely disappointed about X.
c.) have had X and to have lost it.
d.) have had X and now to have a (far) weaker version of it.

Does it depend on what X is-- e.g., power, freedom, money, sex/marriage, quality of life, etc.?

In my mind, A is the easiest. B is more difficult than A and speaks to a state of mind in how we handle our circumstances. C receives sympathy at least for awhile. Those in D deserve a lot more sympathy.

Perhaps my testimony is of some use: As a celibate single until my marriage at age 30, the challenges in the realm of sexuality have been far greater now than when I was single. And I'd guess that they have become far greater than they would have been had I remained single. But then again, who knows? The mystery of all of this calls for humility, empathy, deep friendship, transparency, a desire for obedience, a dependence on the Spirit, and a belief in a benevolent God who will meet us where we are, even in our sacrifices and suffering. 

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Boyhood (the Movie) with a small nod to C.S. Lewis

Tonia and I enjoyed Boyhood last weekend. In a word, it's an interesting film-making idea that is well-executed, with content that will be especially interesting to parents of teens and pre-teens. The focus is Mason moving from age 6 to 18-- thus, "Boyhood"-- but his Mom, the various fathers, and older sister Samantha get a lot of on-screen time too. 

The movie is rated R for language and adult content. (The teens are shown using alcohol and drugs, but not shown having sex.) It is very much an adult movie-- or perhaps it'd be good for parents with older teen children as an opportunity for discussion.

The movie seems quite real/accurate on how "good" but "worldly" parents would raise children. First, the movie underlines the importance of sacrificially loving one's children-- far beyond the hollow idea of love as largely sentiment. In particular, the love of Olivia (the mother, played by Patricia Arquette) often requires courage and sacrifice. Sure, she struggles here and there, but she has a tough life! In contrast, the three fathers have a difficult time balancing love of children with their own selfish pursuits and personal demons.

Second, there is little in the film (explicitly) on religion. The exception: the step-grandparents are devout and kind. Their daughter (Mason's step-mom) seems like a jewel. And they give the boy his first Bible-- something with which he seems to be unfamiliar. Christianity is treated respectfully, but as something alien to him. The alternative? The children are raised, to the best of Olivia's ability, through her love, to be loving to others. They engage in a variety of "worldly" activities-- and the mom is not too upset with any of that. 

This is akin to what Christian Smith describes as the predominant religion among younger people today, Moral Therapeutic Deism: a feeling/love-oriented, broad sense of morality (especially opposed to overtly harming others) where God is absent or not particularly active. 

Third, the film illustrates the inherent limits of single-family households, especially those with limited resources. (The biological father, played by Ethan Hawke, is a secondary parent for much of the movie. The mom gets little help from extended family and has little/no apparent community/church support). Some of the mom's tolerance for her kids' activity may well be her inability to police them effectively-- and thus, a need for her to pick her battles. In any case, these kids tend to "grow up" quickly-- for better and for worse-- getting more freedom and responsibility. 

In this, the movie is a glimpse into one of the more positive subsets of the lower-income and lower-middle-class world depicted by Charles Murray in Coming Apart. There is a lot of family instability-- and all the problems that can attend. But by the end of the movie, the Mom is educated and has a good job; the kids are going to college; and better things seem in store for them too. 

Some other themes in the movie: 

1.) I was struck by the central role of food/meals in the movie. Perhaps it was simply a movie-making construct for conversation-- a useful context for convenient dialogue. Or perhaps Richard Linklater, the director, was making a statement about the importance of fellowship and the relationships that develop around shared meals (see: Acts 2, 4)-- in order that truer forms of love can be embodied. 

2.) Spoiler alert for this point: The three fathers are interesting. First, the biological father is a mess early-on, loving the kids in a somewhat well-intentioned, but shallow and ultimately selfish manner. The Mom has to play defense against the poor example that he sets and the poor sort of love (e.g., gifts/bribes) that he offers. As the movie progresses, he increasingly "gets it". He eventually marries a wonderful woman (raised by the Christian parents noted above) and becomes more "productive" as a parent. 

Second, she marries one of her former professors. He seems a little too slick early on-- and then devolves into a drunken and abusive jerk, from whom she flees. Third, she marries one of her own college students-- a former soldier who seems to have things together. He seems like a pretty good guy, but then struggles a lot with the dynamics/difficulties of a mixed family and the doldrums of everyday life at a mundane job.

The two later men/marriages seem quite different, but are ultimately quite similar. The former man is much older; the latter is younger. The former is a professor; the latter is a prison guard. The former is an easy-going lech; the latter has a military background. But at the end of the day, they're quite similar. The professor forces the boy to get a crew cut; the prison guard thinks he knows it all. The professor likes his wine; the prison guard likes his beer. 

There at least two lessons here: a.) age and profession don't matter much to character; and b.) humbly and fully engaging life is preferable. Even though life is messy and challenging, arrogance is a joke-- and escapism through substance abuse is no answer. (The teens use alcohol and drugs, but it's portrayed as recreational rather than escapist.) 

3.) Small spoiler alert: When Mason is heading off to college, it causes an existential crisis for his mom. She's worked hard to raise her kids. She got an education and has a good career. But what's it all worth? What's the point? (Just prior to this scene, she's approached by someone in a restaurant whom she had successfully encouraged to move from menial labor to college. This should have been an inspiring moment for her, but it doesn't last long if it registers at all.) In this moment of crisis, we don't get an answer from her-- or especially, any hope that she will find an answer. The moviegoer knows what should be obvious to her, but isn't: pouring her life into students and her children is a beautiful thing and a valuable legacy. 

A few things on how the movie is filmed: 

1.) The premise is simple but amazing: Linklater follows a few actors over 12 years-- when Mason (played by Ellar Coltrane) ranges from 6 to 18 years old. So, Mason is acting in a role, but he's playing the part of a 6-year old at age 6, 7 at 7, and so on. We see the actors age. We see the times and the culture changing, in "real time" of a sort. It's also interesting to imagine how much film they shot-- and then edited, given the change in story lines, current events, etc. 

2.) Tonia noticed that the filming is largely as if the cameras are not there. The filming is not intrusive; the actors are not playing to the camera. In this, the style of the filming is also more real-life. 

3.) Linklater uses hair and cars as tools in his cinematographic bag. Changes in haircuts are his preferred method to signal to the audience that we've entered a new year/vignette. But beyond that, hair is metaphor: Samantha's hair changes as little as her character. Mason's hair changes quite a bit and tends toward the longer side, except for the time when his step-father mandated a buzz cut. The car as metaphor is a bit more obvious: the father starts with a GTO and ends up in a mini-van!

4.) Another spoiler alert: There's not much to spoil! There are no big events. This link provides a synopsis of the storyline, but there's not much to it. I think that's the point-- that much of life is mundane and predictable in a broad sense. Sure, things change-- but all in all, life is largely run-of-the-mill stuff. 

Even so, we (esp. Tonia) kept waiting for "something (bad) to happen". This reminds me of C.S. Lewis on bad readers and bad literature-- here, that bad movie-goers and bad movies insist on something big happening. The most extreme version of this is "big dumb fun"-- movies with a lot of action, especially with mayhem and things blowing up. But even milder forms of this are cousins of the same approach: we often need/want something big to happen, for a movie to hold our interest. 

Lewis on bad readers and bad writing

I picked up Lewis' Experiment in Criticism after reading about it somewhere. It's an interesting little book-- largely, an exercise in trying to describe "bad" readers to determine "bad literature", rather than the more-common and somewhat-more-subjective effort to judge "bad literature" directly. 

"Bad taste is, as it were by definition, a taste for bad books. I want to find out what sort of picture we shall get by reversing the process. Let us make our distinction between readers or types of reading the basis, and our distinction between books the corollary." (1)

In defining bad readers or readers with bad taste, Lewis notes common (but not universal) traits of "bad readers" (2-3). They...
a.) don't read anything twice;
b.) read as a last resort and quickly abandon it when any alternative arises;
c.) show no sign that reading changes their consciousness or thinking in any significant way; and 
d.) have the same approach to other forms of art (4). For a recent film that does not focus on "events", see my review of Boyhood.

The bad reader really likes events: "They never, uncompelled, read anything that is not narrative, I do not mean that they all read fiction. The most un-literary reader of all sticks to 'the news'." (28) Beyond that "they demand swift-moving narrative...As the unmusical listener wants only the Tune, so the un-literary reader wants only the Event...he wants to know what happened next." (30) They enjoy events that are exciting; they want "inquisitiveness aroused, prolonged, exasperated, and finally satisfied"; and they want use literature "to participate in pleasure or happiness" vicariously (36-37). 

All that said, Lewis makes clear that there's nothing wrong with fiction, narrative, or literature that covers exciting events. These readers are "unliterary not because they enjoy stories in these ways but because they enjoy them in no other." (38)

Lewis notes that bad readers are NOT highly correlated with "the rabble"; it's not necessarily a function of education or income class (5). This state can change over time; people can move between bad and good readers (6). Lewis is also not talking about "solemn" readers-- those who read, but not in a way that changes them (12). Fundamentalists of various stripes would fit here-- they are quite "solemn", but not "serious".

Bad reading can stem from treating the work as raw material for other purposes (7). "The first demand any work of any art makes upon us is surrender...the many use art and the few receive it...I do not mean by this that the right spectator is passive. His also is an imaginary activity; but an obedient one." (19; italics in original)

Worse still are some "literary critics"-- "who attends to [words] far too much and in the wrong way....treat language as something that 'is' but does not 'mean'; criticize the lens after looking at it instead of through it...If the mass of people are un-literary, he is anti-literary." (35-36; italics in original)

These are dangers in my line of work (and vocation), where much reading is for professional (or other derivative) reasons. For example, in preparing a book on ministry and discipleship, my recent survey of the literature could easily have devolved into the sort of reading that Lewis is critiquing. Along these lines, I always try to read a range of books-- from what I must read (in various arenas) to what I would like to read (ranging from light to profound/moving).

Finally, I like what Lewis says about escapism (68-71): "There is a clear sense in which all reading whatever is an escape. It involves a temporary transference of the mind from our actual surroundings to things merely imagined or conceived...The important question is what we escape to...Escape then is common to many good and bad kinds of reading. By adding -ism to it, we suggest, I suppose, a confirmed habit of escaping too often, or for too long, or into the wrong things, or using escape as a substitute for action where action is appropriate." 

Goodman's survey on ObamaCare's impact on fast-food employees

From Goodman's WSJ article on his December survey of 136 fast-food restaurants/franchisees with about 3,500 workers...

About half of the employees had been “full time” (as defined by ObamaCare: 30+ hours per week). The potential cost to the employers: about $7 million per year. 

"But by the time the employers took advantage of all their legal options they were able to reduce their cost to less than 1% of that amount. The first step was to make all hourly workers part time...By the end of 2014, 58 employees had crossed the line to full-time status and were eligible for mandated health insurance in 2015...The companies in the survey offered to pay the full premium for the mini-med plans, in order to make that alternative more attractive. If employees choose the bronze plan it costs the employers about six times as much. The result: Only one of the 58 remaining full-time employees enrolled in a bronze plan; the rest will likely be in MEC plans."

And then there are the families of these workers, which are not covered by employers! Goodman found premia that were 70% of monthly wages for a bronze plan and 25% of wages for a mini-med plan. If not bought, the family ineligible for premium subsidies on an insurance exchange and faces a fine on April 15th. 

"To recap: Almost half the workforce of these restaurants was involuntarily reduced to part time and has less income as a result. These employees have also lost the opportunity to have the coverage they most prefer: mini-med plans that pay for medical care they are most likely to need. Out of 3,500 employees, only the kind of insurance that the architects of the Affordable Care Act wanted everyone to have."

This is impressively bad, even for the government. Congrats!

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

on incidental parenting and the maturity of children...

1.) Until this year, I carried Joseph upstairs to start his school days. I incidentally quit doing that and am now wondering whether that's a key contributor to his much greater maturity (esp. with school) this year. 

2.) We're now making Zach set his own alarm on weekdays. He's always liked being tucked in and waken up. We've (largely) enjoyed it too. But again, I think we may have hurt his maturity by "babying" him to start each day. 

Punchline: As parents, despite the best of loving intentions, what are we doing that blesses or semi-blesses or harms our children? 

Other anecdotes/ideas/thoughts? 

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

“Rational” Ignorance Costly to Our Economic Health

This was published in newspapers across Indiana late last month. It will also appear in the next issue of the IPR Journal...

The use of government for economic “development” and economic “stimulus” is quite popular. Unfortunately, its popularity greatly exceeds what it deserves, given both theory and data.

The theoretical reasons are easy to understand. In terms of economics, it is difficult for government to create net economic activity by moving money from one use to another. But in terms of political economy, the benefits of government spending are usually concentrated and obvious, while the costs of government spending are spread through the population and nearly invisible. Given this combination, one can confidently predict that government will be too active in attempts to foster economic growth.

In any area of life, if you see the obvious — and miss larger but more subtle consequences — you’ll often end up with bad choices. Quite reasonably, most people spend little energy in thinking about public policy. When they combine this ignorance with naive views on political economy, they will tend to see the benefits of government activism and ignore its costs. Making it worse, members of the media often make the same mistakes. And of course, in the public arena, “interest groups” will tend to exaggerate benefits and downplay costs.

Let me offer four reasons why economic development and stimulus will look better on paper than in reality.

FIRST, the benefits are typically exaggerated. We’re often given a success story or two: Subsidy X led to “economic development” opportunity Z. Or we’re invited to imagine only the benefits: Giving taxpayer money to others will lead to more purchases which will stimulate the economy. From a few anecdotes, we imagine dozens of similar stories. But a few success stories do not necessarily imply many other success stories. And of course, the recipients of the money are likely to emphasize its benefits.

SECOND, Henry Hazlitt’s “Lesson” teaches us to focus more intently on the subtle costs. In particular, how are we paying for government activism? Let’s say the government devotes $10 million for local “economic development.” How do politicians pay for this? First, they can increase taxes by $10 million, moving economic activity from the private sector to the public sector. How is this a net gain? Second, they can lower spending elsewhere, moving economic activity within the public sector. That’s a shell game. Third, they can borrow the $10 million, resulting in higher taxes down the road. Even in a best-case scenario, this will take prosperity from the future to finance the present.

So, why do we imagine that government spending will routinely create net economic activity? Because it’s easier to see the economic activity of the $10 million in a few hands than to imagine that lower overall tax rates will do the same thing. It’s difficult to follow the government’s shell game when the benefits are obvious and the costs are nearly invisible.

THIRD, the “Austrian Economics” school of thought focuses on “the knowledge problem.” Do government actors know enough to implement effective policy? With the Affordable Care Act (ObamaCare), legislators famously bragged about not having read the bill. This sort of negligence is routine, especially with massive omnibus legislation. If a politicians haven’t read something, why should we trust their knowledge?

But there’s a larger knowledge problem. For example, ObamaCare purports to know how to intervene in the markets for healthcare and health insurance at the federal level in a way that will improve outcomes. What are the odds that federal legislators will have enough general knowledge — and enough specific knowledge about people in various states and communities — to impact these markets positively? Mailing out checks and blowing up stuff is one thing, government is pretty good at those things. But manipulating healthcare and health insurance is quite another thing. In the context of economic development, what is the likelihood that government knows how to “pick winners” better than those spending their own money in the market?

FINALLY, the “Public Choice Economics” school of thought focuses on incentives and motives within political markets. Will government actors be incentivized and motivated to do effective public policy? As we noted above, the media and especially the general public are not likely to be knowledgeable about the costs of public policy. What will interest groups and public policy do with their power and knowledge advantages?

Jonathan Gruber was recently grilled for saying that voters are “stupid.” In contrast, a Public Choice economist would say that voters are “rationally ignorant” and apathetic. It’s not that voters are stupid. Instead, it’s simply not worth their energy to figure much out in the political realm. In other words, it’s “rational” to pay little attention to politics. Of course, interest groups and politicians might not take advantage of our ignorance. But even a casual observer of today’s politics will have at least the general sense that there’s more to political markets than benevolence and self-sacrifice.

What can we do as voters? We can stop believing in the tooth fairy and Santa Claus in political markets. Don’t let politicians promise you something for nothing — or entice you to play a shell game when you get easily distracted from following the ball.

Eric Schansberg, Ph.D., an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, is a professor of economics at Indiana University Southeast.