Sunday, February 28, 2016

David Brooks: The Road to Character

This is not a book I would have read, but it related well to a journal article I was writing-- and the editor of the journal recommended it. To me, the title is needlessly vague and even off-putting. That said, the book is an easy read and worth your time, particularly for conservatives and communitarians who enjoy biography. 

Brooks provides a diverse set of brief biographic sketches and series of anecdotes. Aside from George Eliot, Samuel Johnson, and Augustine, Brooks’ stories are from the 20th century, ranging from Johnny Unitas and Joe Namath to Dorothy Day and General George C. Marshall. The vignettes are interesting in and of themselves. But Brooks' goal is to call us back to the pursuit of character. So, the stories are chosen to illustrate various moral principles and social trends

is primarily motivated by a theme developed by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik. Man is made in God’s image (Genesis 1:26-28). But God is portrayed in strikingly different terms in Genesis 1 and 2, leading Soloveitchik to posit two different natures inherent in man: Adam I and Adam II (xi-xvii).
Following the majestic God of Creation in Genesis 1, Adam I is “the external, resume Adam [who] wants to build, create, produce and discover things. He wants to have high status and win victories.” (xii) Following the personal God who walks in the Garden with man in Genesis 2, Adam II is “the internal Adam” who wants to “love intimately, to sacrifice self in the service of others, to live in obedience to some transcendent truth, to have a cohesive inner soul that honors creation and one’s own possibilities” (xii).
Brooks reduces these to “resume values” vs. “eulogy values”. Resume values have a focus on success and accomplishment. Eulogy values are the high-character traits that one wants to leave as a legacy. God exhibits both perfectly; man lives in the tension of both—quite imperfectly. How do we “succeed” while avoiding pride? How do we fulfill the mandate given to Adam I, while staying grounded in the self-sacrificing, redemptive goals of Adam II? “The central fallacy of modern life is the belief that accomplishments of the Adam I realm can produce deep satisfaction. That’s false. Adam I’s desires are infinite and always leap out ahead of whatever has just been achieved. Only Adam II can experience deep satisfaction.” (15)
Despite its limitations, Adam I usually gets the lion’s share of attention. The World avidly pursues it; the Flesh finds it alluring; and the Devil is happy to work with both to tempt us. In Genesis 3, Satan appeals to the Flesh and the values of the World to tempt Adam and Eve to sin against God. God doesn’t know or want what’s best for them—and so, going their own way and achieving success in their own terms becomes a temptation they will not forsake. Jesus is tempted in a similar manner in Matthew 4—the Devil trying to sell the values of the World to the Flesh—but Jesus avoids the temptation by appealing to three passages from Deuteronomy on the character and promises of God.
Brooks argues that we had a far-greater emphasis on Adam II until the 1950s, but lost much of it through “the greatest generation” (245). Tom Brokaw (1997) popularized this term and argued that this was “the greatest generation” because of its amazing accomplishments, motivated by “doing the right thing” rather than fame or other trappings.
Brooks does not argue directly against Brokaw’s narrative, but claims that things changed dramatically once the pressures of economics and war were removed. Brooks sees the Great Depression and World War II as catalysts for people (reasonably) wanting an easier life. After 16 years of brutal economic conditions, a devastating war, and an unimaginable Holocaust, people were “ready to let loose, to relax, to enjoy” (245). Brooks observes that consumption and advertising expanded rapidly. And the most popular books of the day (245-246) emphasized “peace of mind” (Joshua Liebman), positive thinking (Norman Vincent Peale), an optimistic humanist psychology (Harry Overstreet and Carl Rogers), and lax child-raising (Benjamin Spock).
Brooks also points to the growth of “authenticity” grounded in subjective forms of self-expression (249-250). Authenticity can be under-valued, especially in a world that emphasizes “objective realities”. But a fully-subjective authenticity can lead to a range of problems. Brooks points to a mindset that diminished the concept of sin and relegated it to “the external structures of society”. (250) Instead, “sin is a necessary piece of our mental furniture because it reminds us that life is a moral affair…[and] because sin is a communal.” (54) When “the Devil made me do it” dominates repentance and  when the sins of others (individuals or institutions) trump the sins within, narcissism and blame-shifting are the likely fruits.
Overarching historical narratives (whether Brokaw or Brooks) tend to over-reach and simplify. But we do know that the popularly acclaimed parents of the 1950s produced the children of the 1960s—and the myriad of social, cultural, and political problems that followed. Whatever the cause and effect of the problems we see today, what are the approaches that promise the most help?
Brooks advocates a return to 15 tenets of what he calls “the humility code”. (261-267) His list is too long to replicate here, but it can be reduced to “the fruit of the Spirit”—or related inferences—from Galatians 5:22-23a: “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control”.  Paul wraps up that section of his letter with a funny little quip: “Against such things there is no law.” Nobody is bothered when these fruits are practiced and exhibited. But those fruits cannot be achieved through laws.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

health care prices vs. normal markets (thanks govt!)

You can tell when markets are functioning well/normally. To name two indicators/characteristics:
1.) Both sides willingly engage in mutually beneficial trades-- and are generally quite happy with the results.
2.) Prices are readily available and the transaction is easy to understand.

In health insurance and esp. health care, these two are not the case.
1.) *All* parties (consumers, all sorts of suppliers, middlemen) bitterly complain.
2.) As per this article, prices are a mess (high variance and hard to get info).

Those are marks of a distorted market-- par for the course with the massive govt intervention (almost universal subsidies, taxes, regulations, and crony capitalism) we see in HC/HI.


Friday, February 26, 2016

the popularity of 3rd grade rhetoric in politics

On the grade levels of the speech patterns from the major party's leading candidates...

a.) Identity is more important than policy stances in this cycle. 
b.) Well-deserved cynicism toward politicians is pounding "the establishment" candidates and establishment approaches-- even as it reaches for candidates who will also disappoint.
c.) The government's education and welfare policies work feverishly to encourage the popularity of 3rd-grade rhetoric.
d.) To the extent that the political game is entertainment, people like "action movies" with bombast and simple plots.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

a useful video on proportional vs. progressive taxes-- and wage/income/wealth inequality

A really nice video on proportional vs. progressive taxes-- and the often-unethical powers exerted within democracy. But it ignores the far larger burden of FICA taxes on income. One other notable omission: a "flat" tax with exempted income is also progressive-- in that those with higher incomes pay higher average tax rates.

The video is also nice/helpful in providing examples on wage inequality vs. income inequality vs. wealth inequality. It makes the point that any of those measures are merely proxies for well-being. And it rightfully implies that one should not be treated favorably by the tax code if they decide to engage in more leisure or more pleasant job characteristics than others.

One big omission in this arena: there's nothing on variance in household types. A big chunk of measured inequality at the household level (a big deal these days) is a function of whether people get married, stay together, etc.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Trump vs. the Pope and the definition and measurement of "Christian"

A lot of silliness in this episode-- from the Pope and the Donald to the analysis done and the analogies used.

Most interesting to me: Trump insists that he's a "Christian". As is well known, the problems with the label are that:

A.) the term has various meanings:
1.) a cultural designation;
2.) a religious definition (e.g., believing that one is saved by being a good person); or
3.) a biblical definition (e.g., one is saved by embracing the grace of God to bozos like us).

B.) the label is self-styled-- with definition #1 as largely irrelevant to behavior and definitions #2 and #3 difficult to assess through behavior.

On #2, what's good enough?) On #3, the Bible says that we can't judge another's salvation, but we are supposed to engage in "fruit inspection"-- especially in ourselves, (prospective and existing) church leaders, and close friends.

In any case, this reminds me of my understanding of James 2: that we are justified before God by our faith and we are "justified" before men by our works. 

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

"Hard Times" is some good times

I read about Hard Times somewhere and it sounded good, so I borrowed it from the library. I don't think I've ever read an entire Charles Dickens' novel-- or if so, it's been a long time! 

Wikipedia provides a nice summary. But in a word, it's Dickens' attempt to mess with utilitarians, materialists, adherents to scientism, and literalists-- all fundamentalists of one stripe or another. I enjoyed it well enough. But I cannot recommend the book, unless you've enjoyed Dickens in the past or you're looking for a short intro to Dickens (it's much smaller than his usual works). 

There are a number of lines worth sharing: 

As an aside, I learned about the origins of "pleased as punch" in a footnote on p. 22. Punch and Judy were puppets in a show and the former was always smiling in a manner that indicated he was overly pleased with himself. 

I enjoyed this little nugget on both idolatry and silliness about facts-- and a bogus concept of teaching (p. 1): “In this life, we want nothing but Facts, sir; nothing but Facts!” The speaker, and the schoolmaster, and the third grown person present, all backed a little, and swept with their eyes the inclined plane of little vessels then and there arranged in order, ready to have imperial gallons of facts poured into them until they were full to the brim.

There were some LOL moments for me to open chapter 4, as we're thoroughly introduced to Mr. Bounderby (p. 9-10a): Why, Mr Bounderby was as near being Mr Gradgrind’s bosom friend, as a man perfectly devoid of sentiment can approach that spiritual relationship towards another man perfectly devoid of sentiment. So near was Mr Bounderby — or, if the reader should prefer it, so far off. He was a rich man: banker, merchant, manufacturer, and what not...A man who could never sufficiently vaunt himself a self-made man...A man who was the Bully of humility.

That last sentence is probably my favorite. Among other painfully funny things, Bounderby often brags about the deprivations of his childhood. He goes on and on and on about it, but here's a tiny nugget to give you an idea: 
‘I hadn’t a shoe to my foot. As to a stocking, I didn’t know such a thing by name. I passed the day in a ditch, and the night in a pigsty. That’s the way I spent my tenth birthday. Not that a ditch was new to me, for I was born in a ditch.’

As a child, Louisa had been chastised never to "wonder" (31), including some wonderful instruction by her teacher, Mr. M'Choakumchild!
Herein lay the spring of the mechanical art and mystery of educating the reason without stooping to the cultivation of the sentiments and affections. Never wonder. By means of addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division, settle everything somehow, and never wonder. Bring to me, says M‘Choakumchild, yonder baby just able to walk, and I will engage that it shall never wonder.

Chapter 15 is wonderful stuff, spoofing his targets' views, with an application to love and marriage. In the middle of the dialogue between Louisa and her father, she's asking whether she should marry her much older suitor. And all the father can do is offer statistics about the likelihood of successful marriages with a large age differential. 

why not elect a smooth-talking entertainer?

A lot of entertaining stuff in Obama's recent comments about Trump

People voted for Obama, largely because he was a talker-- easily his most impressive attribute. Why shouldn't people vote for an entertainer...again? "It's not promotion; it's not marketing."?! Sure it is-- and those are Obama's most impressive traits/skills!

In the current cycle, almost half of the Dems are voting for someone on the basis of gender. In 2008, many Dems voted for or against Clinton and Obama because of race and gender. Surely, they're not going to point fingers at those who vote for a straight-talking, entertainer/businessman.

Of course, this helps Trump. (But he also lumps all of the GOP together. Smart politics!) I suspect that Obama knows this and is happy to "help" the GOP in this way.

on Rousey, identity, and meaning in life

Ronda Rousey's stunning MMA loss-- and her post-fight struggles-- are interesting on many levels. But in particular, I'm struck (again) by the (very) mixed blessing of "gifts" and success...

Gifts and success can be connected improperly to identity. When gifts or success fade/disappear, "we don't know who we are".

Gifts and success often confuse on why people like/love us. "Do people want to be with me because I'm beautiful, smart, wealthy-- or because they want to be with me?"

Gifts can be idolized over the Giver, leading down paths of narcissism and independence.

Prayers for Rousey that she finds Jesus and grace.

Monday, February 8, 2016

degrees of privatization in K-12 and success in Math and Science

Apparently, many of the countries with higher scores on science and math have degrees of privatization. Relying on the 2012 PISA data (from a 2015 Pew Foundation report—the most recent available?), many countries beat us in Science and esp. in Math. Of those, the Friedman Foundation lists 11 countries that have vouchers or tax credits—and beat us in both subjects. Wikipedia does not provide a full list on vouchers, but a comparison there would seem to yield at least that many. (Sometimes, you have to dig deep to get an answer-- e.g., in Singapore.) 

Many or perhaps all countries have “charter schools” of some sort (whether they label them as such). In any case, I’m not at all sure how it could rankle a supporter of public schools—to give more autonomy to public school teachers and administrators and more choice to parents and students in public schools. 

I should also note that this blog post is not that helpful. 
--It's predicated on the usefulness of international comparisons-- and even, prioritizing them over domestic comparisons. 
--It's predicated on univariate analysis of a complicated (sociological and economic) phenomenon. 
--It ignores basic economic theory on the value of competition over monopoly power-- for consumers and society (although not producers!). 
--It ignores a small, well-done empirical literature which indicates modest gains from injecting even small amounts of competition into the market for K-12 education.
--It doesn't mention the public's love for the GI Bill-- educational vouchers for college students-- while noting the mixed bag of support for educational vouchers in K-12. (The most likely explanation for this is the crony capitalistic support for the K-12 status quo.)