Sunday, July 28, 2019

David Mamet's "The Secret Knowledge"

Bernie Sanders has been fun to watch the last few weeks, as he struggles to run a campaign under the principles he claims to believe. Either you're a hypocrite (as Sanders has often been on socialism) or you try to live out its principles and it costs you a ton (as Sanders is running into now). Hilarious!
Will the reality check make a difference to him and his followers-- or to similar candidates in the Democrat primary field? Sadly, probably not: they're more likely to stick to their magical thinking, greed, and other forms of idolatry.
About a decade ago, David Mamet reached a similar fork in the road—and took the road less traveled. The resulting book created a firestorm when it was published in 2011. I noticed the hubbub (and was intrigued), but didn't read it. But by its nature, The Secret Knowledge (SM) is the sort of book that gets mentioned now and again. And as with many books, I read on the basis of reviews and other mentions. That's how it got on my list and eventually reached the top of my pile.

Mamet is a playwright and the Pulitzer-Prize winning author of Glengarry Glen Ross. (The movie is famous for perhaps the most powerful [albeit VERY colorful/crass] movie diatribe on sales in business.) He also wrote screenplays for other notable movies including The Postman Always Rings TwiceThe Untouchables, and Wag the Dog. (The latter is supposed to be excellent movie and an early, pre-SM example of Mamet's cynicism toward politics. Of local interest, Mamet had nine plays at Actors Theater in Louisville from 1976-2008.) 

What makes Mamet's book particularly interesting is that he's a political convert in Hollywood. As an adult convert, he's a true believer. As a convert from a largely alien culture, he's a fervent believer. You're not going to tiptoe away from the Left, especially if you're writing a book about it. Since he's inundated in that culture, he knows "them" well. So, his thoughts are helpful in understanding the Left in general and the Hollywood Left in particular. And as a "creative sort", his approach to describing these things is an unusual and interesting mix of analytical and creative. (If you're looking for a careful treatise, this is not the book for you.) In a word, the book doesn't read like the usual sort of thing you see in politics, political philosophy, and public policy. (One might compare Mamet to a Hollywood version of David Horowitz.)

Three years before the book, Mamet published a coming-out essay in The Village Voice. (It's worth a read in its own right-- and as an intro to the book.) In SM, he provides more testimony on his political journey, starting from the cognitive dissonance between how he acted and what he claimed to believe. "I never questioned my tribal assumptions that Capitalism was bad, although I, simultaneously, never acted upon these feelings. I supported myself, as do all those not on the government dole, through the operation of the free market." (2) 

From there, he began to read, starting with Hayek's Road to Serfdom (learning that "there are no solutions; only trade-offs" [3]) before consuming mass quantities of Sowell, Steele, Friedman-- while benefiting from a mentorship with Jon Voight.

Mamet is particularly in tune with the views of actors, writers and directors-- and connects their work and politics. Directors need to make projects work, dealing with a range of obvious constraints (99, 219-220). So, they tend toward a realistic view of life and politics. In contrast, "Actors, thriving on publicity, have historically [looked to] champion 'causes'." Moreover, the actor will typically "see himself as the Hero...his professional indulgence in fantasy is a boon to the community; its elaboration into do-gooderism is, perhaps, inevitable." 

Writers are likewise prone to fantasy-- in particular, frequently envisioning things as Good vs. Evil. In sum, "writers have traditionally been the dupes of totalitarian propaganda" and actors "are easily manipulated". The result: "No wonder, then, that these two subgroups of my particular racket, show business, have been trotting the globe for 100 years, petted by and championing the causes of Tyrants." (98-99)

On "Conservatives" and "Liberals"

Mamet talks at great length about "conservatives" and "liberals". His use of both terms is more social and cultural than political-- although his use of the terms certainly has political implications. As I've grown fond of noting, there aren't that many liberals or conservatives in politics-- at least in office. If we had many such creatures, we'd see different policies under serious discussion, if not actually enshrined into law. Most notably, we'd see fiscal conservatism from the GOP. And from Democrats, we'd hear advocacy on civil liberties and non-interventionism in military affairs, eschewing crony capitalism, and refraining from pounding the working poor with taxes.

Conservatives are interested in "strict rule of law"; Liberals want an "increase in the granting of Rights." (2) The conservative says we're often wrong and wonders whether the Market or the Government can correct itself more effectively. Hint: it's usually the former (59-60, 120, 143). The liberal imagines that "we" are usually right-- well, at least the elites (59). 

Conservatives hold to a "Tragic View" (as per Hayek) or the "Constrained View" (as per Sowell)
, focused on budget constraints and the limits of human nature. In contrast, the Liberal holds fantastic, utopian views with little attention to constraints-- other than the "evil" conservatives, deficient people, insufficient time, and underfunding that supposedly (and always) prevent their plans from being successful (48, 91-94). As a recent example, think of how the Left treated Obama's abysmal record on the economy and his lack of policy accomplishments. 

The Liberal rejects science and history in public policy. Policy failures can be illustrated by "the impartial verdicts of history" (107). But since his tenets are not falsifiable, blame-shifting is the preferred and obvious approach to the inevitable problems. Unfortunately, the results are immune to review, so they conclude that failed programs should be expanded or tweaked rather than ended (93).

Those on the Left are often too "smart" for their own good (and ours), as they succumb to "magical thinking": "How can a country grow rich through 'redistributing' the wealth, by driving production overseas through taxation, by a refusal to exploit natural resources? This could be imagined only by those willing to suspend their understanding of the laws of cause and effect—the audience at a magic show. Curiously, as magicians know, the more intelligent the viewer, the more easily he may be fooled..." (102) 

Mamet has fun with Lefties laughing at religious fundamentalists who believe in a Young Earth: "this supposed far less detrimental to the health of the body politic than the Left's love affair with Marxism, Socialism, Radicalism, and the Command Economy, which...leads only to shortages, despotism, and murder." In contrast, "the honest man might observe...that no one gets something for nothing; that politicians go in poor and come out rich; that the Government screws up everything it touches; and that the Will to Believe is best confined to the Religious Venue, as, to practice it elsewhere is just too damned expensive." (195)

Applications to society and politics

Questioning any of the above will likely lead to "excommunication" (107-108). One implication of this irony is that the "liberal" is afraid to talk with anyone outside his group. Instead of their reputation for tolerance and open-mindedness, the result is blinkered and judgmental thinking. (See: some great remarks about the insidiousness of Progressive doublespeak from George Packer.) 

Mamet pokes at the sheltered elites and worries about their children who often major in liberal arts in college. This mostly reduces to "indoctrination in aggressive Identity Politics" (124) with little "true diversity...of thought" (8). (See: this terrific piece by Lionel Shriver on obsessions with 50:50 gender diversity.) They often refrain from work and so, they're unlikely to "encounter a Conservative Idea, let alone a Conservative." (31) 

This reminds me of Murray's work on "bubbles", where isolation and insularity can emerge from liberal elitism as easily as rural conservatism. The funny thing is that the former imagines itself to be more sophisticated in ways that the latter would never pridefully embrace for themselves.

Mamet describes "distressed clothing" as "trying to purchase a charade of victimization" and status (63). And his thoughts on victimhood and movies were provocative. He notes that "the woman's victory over the ax murderer is not a portent of her change from victim to nonvictim, but merely a chance, momentary suspension of that state...though the woman prevails, we know that she is exploitable in the next film." (84)

Mamet also makes some interesting observations about Sarah Palin and Marilyn Monroe (137-141)-- identifying why the Left despised Palin and relaying their scathing critiques of Monroe that I hadn't heard before. He also rips the strange views on race and justice enunciated by Justice Sotomayor and applauded on the Left-- when she claimed that Hispanic women are more compassionate than White men (191-192).

Mamet also speaks to a range of miscellaneous policy issues, skewering foreign aid (34-35), criticizing congressional abdication of responsibility on declaring war (72), and noting allergies to nuclear power (41). He has considerable venom for folks who are pro-Palestinian / anti-Israel. Not that Israel is perfect-- far from it (51). But the vehement opposition to Israel and the lowering of standards for Palestinians can only be described as a muddle-headed embrace of "victims" or simple racism (68-69, 80-82). A particularly rich example is France accusing Israel of "colonialism" (200). 

As an insider to the Jewish community, he also explains the evolution of opposition to Israel by some American Jews (146-150). And following the exemplar of Joseph to Pharaoh, Mamet notes the contemporary prevalence of Jews in powerful positions (157). 

Mamet does not discuss Reagan at all-- a strange and notable omission. I don't know if he has personal baggage with aspects of his presidency or maybe he's worried about allergies among those who might be converted by his book. 

In any case, I couldn't help but think of Reagan-- as well as Trump and especially Obama-- when Mamet wrote about politics in Chicago (chapter 9). For all of the things that Mamet fingers about politics in Chicago-- all of which would have been predictably problematic for an Obama presidency-- Reagan did not have any of those. This may explain how Reagan understood American life and politics so well, why he was so successful, and why he was perceived so well. Reagan was from a lower-middle class family in the Midwest. His training was in economics not law. He had a remarkable life before politics. And he had executive experience in both life and governance. 

Other great quotes on Economics and Political Economy

-Money is "just an efficient way of keeping track of the production of individuals." (4)
-" we cannot live without government, how must we deal with those who will be inclined to abuse it-- the politicians and their manipulators?" (9)
-on Hayek's "fatal conceit", he notes the "misconception that the human mind can a.) conceive, and b.) implement a better way..." (13)
-He provides a wonderful example of trade-offs, opportunity costs, and the bane of good intentions-- the story of a Tibetan monk who walks 1000 miles and realizes that he's carried an ant within him in his robe. He walks all the way back home to replace the ant, "to avoid doing it violence. But how many ants did he step on on the way?" (24)
-"Capitalism is bad? Not the capitalism that founded and supported Stanford or Harvard or Penn..." (25)
-"Government, to eradicate 'hate speech', will become the arbiter on all speech-- that same Government whose very return address on the envelope awakens fear." (26)
-About those on the Left, "you will note that when they write, they copyright their books, and buy goods with the proceeds." (27)
-"The serious gambler learns young, and painfully, that he must control his impulses...Our politicians, left and right...are free to spend, to chase fantasies, and to squander resources, for the resources are not theirs, and there is no penalty for their misuse or loss." (52)
-He cites the experiment between the market and government in developing a zeppelin (75).
-"What institution is more greedy than Government? What individual more ravenous than the Perpetual Candidate who is every politician?" (118)
-Prophetically, he notes that bad politics combines with worrisome entertainment: "The ascription to leaders of supernatural powers is a recurring aberration which entertains is perhaps no accident that the election cycle (formerly "elections") is growing and will continue to grow to be continuous." (162-163)
-"To fix the game for money is called corruption; to fix the game from sentiment is called Liberalism." (168)
-"Giving the money to the Government, even that Government which proclaims an agenda with which the Liberal agrees, is folly. For a simple perusal of history will reveal that the money...will most likely arrive somewhere else altogether." (182)
-"Successful politicians look forward to their retirement plan...the most flagrant Socialist then becoming, magically, a fan of capital." (189)
-"The human mind may be worshipped, but it cannot be trusted. This is why we have laws." (192)

Mamet's "coming out" essay

David Mamet's coming-out essay in The Village Voice in 2008 was a precursor to his 2011 book, The Secret Knowledge (which I'll review shortly). The article is also worth some attention. 

Mamet was a long-time Hollywood Leftist, who converted to conservatism after considering the incoherence in his views and the facts on the ground. As such, he opens this essay with a Keynes quote: "When the facts change, I change my opinion. What do you do, sir?" The quote is appropos in that Mamet's sense of the facts had changed-- and thus, he needed to change his opinion. 

Mamet's political journey began with two catalysts: he wrote a play on politics ("November") and in an election season, his rabbi challenged his congregants to consider the "quality of [their] political discourse" and thought. In the play, Mamet was running with the tension between a bad "conservative" who was practical and an intolerant "liberal" who was a dreamer. And he began to realize that the prevalence of such conservatives was exaggerated and that the dreamer had unavoidable problems. 

Beyond that, he realized that his actions throughout his life were not consistent with what he professed. And it bothered him that Bush II (villain) and JFK (hero) had so much in common. But in particular, he couldn't reconcile how he had believed that many things were so messed up while believing that people were basically good. 

Of corporations and the military, he asked himself: 
Are these groups infallible, free from the possibility of mismanagement, corruption, or crime? No, and neither are you or I. So, taking the tragic view, the question was not “Is everything perfect?” but “How could it be better, at what cost, and according to whose definition?”
Note the conservative/constrained view of trying to optimize outcomes subject to the relevant constraints. (It's worth remembering here that there are few conservatives in politics!) The Leftist usually looks at benefits only and ignores (or downplays) costs or constraints. (Of course, many others make the same mistake, although not out of ideology-- "moderates" and other folks who pay little attention to politics-- through a failure to think things through carefully.) 
And then...
What about the role of government? Well, in the abstract, coming from my time and background, I thought it was a rather good thing, but tallying up the ledger in those things which affect me and in those things I observe, I am hard-pressed to see an instance where the intervention of the government led to much beyond sorrow.
But if the government is not to intervene, how will we, mere human beings, work it all out? I wondered and read, and it occurred to me that I knew the answer, and here it is: We just seem to. How do I know? From experience. I referred to my own—take away the director from the staged play and what do you get? Usually a diminution of strife, a shorter rehearsal period, and a better production...
Mamet was struck by frequent failures in politics and then wondered whether freedom and the market could handle things. His answer was yes-- again, by the evidence of his own life and his evident beliefs about the nature of things. 

One more thing: In this essay (more in the book to follow), Mamet has some terrific thoughts and delivers them eloquently. I'll give you this one on the genius of the Constitution: 
The Constitution, written by men with some experience of actual government, assumes that the chief executive will work to be king, the Parliament will scheme to sell off the silverware, and the judiciary will consider itself Olympian and do everything it can to much improve (destroy) the work of the other two branches. So the Constitution pits them against each other, in the attempt not to achieve stasis, but rather to allow for the constant corrections necessary to prevent one branch from getting too much power for too long.

double-think from Trump and Progressives

From George Packer's review of a book about Orwell's 1984 in The Atlantic...

It's a noteworthy piece as a general review on a vital topic. And Packer applies some of his discussion to obvious problems with Trump's rhetoric. But then at the end, he drops bombs on a more "insidious" problem: the rhetoric of Progressives, particularly in response to Trump. Packer warns objective folks to keep a watchful eye for both types of trouble. And ultimately, with the last line of his essay, he warns us that "the central drama of politics is the one inside your skull." Take care, when you're playing with the fire of politics and power. 

We stagger under the daily load of doublethink pouring from Trump, his enablers in the Inner Party, his mouthpieces in the Ministry of Truth, and his fanatical supporters among the proles. Spotting doublethink in ourselves is much harder...Progressive doublethink—which has grown worse in reaction to the right-wing kind—creates a more insidious unreality because it operates in the name of all that is good. Its key word is justice—a word no one should want to live without. But today the demand for justice forces you to accept contradictions that are the essence of doublethink.

Orthodoxy is also enforced by social pressure...can be more powerful than a party or state, because it speaks in the name of the people and in the language of moral outrage...
This willing constriction of intellectual freedom will do 

lasting damage. It corrupts the ability to think clearly, and 
it undermines both culture and progress. Good art doesn’t 
come from wokeness, and social problems starved of 
debate can’t find real solutions. “Nothing is gained by 
teaching a parrot a new word,” Orwell wrote in 1946. 
“What is needed is the right to print what one believes 
to be true, without having to fear bullying or blackmail 
from any side.” Not much has changed since the 1940s. 
The will to power still passes through hatred on the right 
and virtue on the left.

Will Lloyd takes a similar angle here-- in talking about how govt force is not required to achieve/push conformity. 

folly and injustice from "gender equality" (of certain sorts)

Excerpts from Lionel Shriver's terrific essay in Harpers on the folly and injustices of striving for equal outcomes between men and women...
Apparently, there's a thing called the “50:50 challenge”-- where organizations strive to reach parity in outcomes between males and females. (Of course, it's interesting that they exclude all of the other genders that people claim these days.) Shriver discusses the NY Times' embrace of this goal for the "letters to the editor" section of the paper, since their letters skew heavily male. (She's especially interested in the Times given its social importance and her relationship with it as a long-time subscriber.) 
"Goals" and “challenges” are airy, aspirational synonyms for “quotas”—and maybe it’s a small sign of progress that the quota has achieved a sufficiently negative connotation to require a euphemism. Moreover, the Times’ “goal” is an unusually pure illustration of the contrast between equality of opportunity and equality of results. For there is certainly no barrier to an infinite number of women [writing such letters]...
She says that she rarely checks gender in letter writers, unless it's relevant to the topic addressed or the view expressed. She's not bothered by all-male panels on TV either. Her chief concern is whether the perspectives are entertaining, smart, etc. (People are "sexist" when they were concerned with gender along with productivity.) She thought she was as likely to disagree with women as much as men. But after reading feedback on the NYT's effort, she suspects that she's more likely to disagree with women! 
The experience was excruciating. Hoping to sample the full range of popular opinion...I instead encountered a staggering uniformity in comments from women (and most of the comments appeared to be from women), in both content and tone....a maelstrom of resentment, fury, self-pity, grievance, paranoia, and old-hat, jargon-­strewn feminist cant...crushed by the “patriarchy” (one of those helpful bywords for “I am unbearable”)...I failed to locate a single woman who objected to the prospect of the Times discriminating against male-authored letters... 
To her shock, the women were not "crusading millennial activists fresh from campus indoctrination camps but women in their sixties from my own generation. You’d think after all these years those chips on our shoulders would have eroded a bit from exposure to the elements, and instead they’ve grown roots deep into the deltoids and sprouted oak trees."
She muses about why females might write fewer letters-- from fewer readers to fewer writers. On the former, she suggests that we might need to force women to read Paul Krugman. And then to a point echoed by David Mamet in his critiques of the Left: "this isn’t about fairness. It’s about the appearance of fairness...Plugging in unequal input and churning out equal output is merely a formula for ­reversed unfairness." 
This would like result in a "lower intellectual and stylistic bar" and "as in so many cases of diversity-­mongering, it’s the consumer who ultimately pays the price." And of course, the Times is missing the most important aspect of diversity: viewpoint variance on politics and society. 
All of this reminds me of the 50:50 insisted upon by JCPS in the matter of racial diversity. Its most absurd application was telling blacks that they could not attend their preference (Central High School) because there would be "too many" blacks there. So, they were discriminated against because they were black! It was funny/sad to see (faux) liberals like the C-J editorialists avidly promoting discrimination of this sort. Thankfully, SCOTUS over-turned this and forced JCPS to at least pretend that they weren't doing these things. 

Friday, July 26, 2019

Charging $700 per hour for routine physical therapy

In the C-J...

My first thought was to switch professions. I love my job. But for the standard 2,000 hours of work per year, $700/hour equates to $1.4 million for services that are professional but relatively modest and routine. I could live with that!

But then you quickly realize that the physical therapists (PT’s) are only making a small fraction of that money. Most of it is going to insurance companies and the providers who hire the therapists.

My youngest son had minor injuries—from an impressive growth spurt and over-exertion from playing soccer and running track. Kentucky One Health and Frazier Rehab charged Anthem about $500 for the first appointment, where the therapist’s expertise was easily the most impressive. After that, the routine exercises and follow-up appointments were billed at about $700/hour to Anthem.

Anthem “negotiated” these down to about $300/hour for me. Wow, thanks! We didn’t meet our deductible until late in the game and we were surprised by the $1,253 bill. Boo on us for not checking prices. That won’t happen again—and I hope you won’t make the same mistake! Then again, the most prominent financial part of the one-page form my wife signed to get services said, “Copay per visit—$0.00”.

How can the market possibly sustain $700 or $300 (or the $180 we ended up paying out-of-pocket) per hour for these services? Because health care and health insurance are not well-functioning markets.

Instead, we have tons of government intervention that reduce competition, increase costs, eliminate coherent pricing, and grossly distort incentives and behaviors. People often point to capitalism as the problem in health care, but that’s a strange claim given the amount of government involvement.

The most important distortion: the subsidy for health insurance provided to employees and employers—as a tax-free form of compensation. The subsidy inflates the role of insurance, well beyond its usual job of protecting us against rare, catastrophic events. (The subsidy is also remarkably expensive, costing the average family of four almost $3,000/year. And it’s regressive, providing much greater benefits to those with higher incomes.)

Car insurance mostly covers accidents. Life insurance covers death. Fire insurance mostly covers fires. But health “insurance” covers everything from cancer to allergy shots, from heart attacks to PT.

Of course, “true” health insurance wouldn’t deal with allergy shots or routine PT services, since those are neither rare nor catastrophic. They are included because the subsidy encourages employees and employers to arrange for “insurance” that covers all health care services. Imagine the costs and problems we’d have with car insurance if it covered door dings and oil changes!

Some might protest that they couldn’t afford PT without insurance. First, you don’t know for sure, since the costs would decline or even plummet without coverage—and your insurance would be less expensive. Second, for those who really can’t afford it, the government could provide services to the indigent through Medicare or another welfare program.

Of course, it’s easy to understand why Frazier wants to charge $700/hour and is willing to accept $300/hour. Suppliers always want higher prices for what they sell. The far larger mystery is why Anthem accepts this price. (Or beyond that, why are Indiana University and its employees happy enough with diverting more compensation into the higher premiums they’re paying for such outcomes?)

I don’t have a great answer, but my educated guess would include something about complex negotiations between three immense bureaucracies and little concern about costs because they’re relatively invisible.

Most prices in health care are strange—if they can even be called prices. Only non-insured markets in health care—e.g., Lasik and cosmetic surgery—behave like normal markets. In other words, they have technological advances that are welcomed by all, declining prices, increasing quality, and very few complaints.

If you want those outcomes in the rest of health care, then you’ll need to greatly reduce the role of government in health care and health insurance.

Here’s another funny thing: the bill from Frazier only had one line—with the range of dates for services rendered, a four-word description of the services (“physical medicine and rehab”) and a charge of $4,453. Maybe they were trying to save money on ink?

After some time on the phone, Frazier sent me a detailed, understandable, one-page description of the two charges for each of the seven visits. Beyond that, it was difficult to get more information, given the layers of customer service from employees who aren’t trained to handle such questions.

Again, this is not the sort of thing you typically see in well-functioning markets. But one should expect opaque pricing, murky and limited information, and extremely high prices unrelated to the marginal cost of provision—when government and insurance are so heavily involved. 

Frazier did send my son a nice “thank you” card afterwards. So, that was nice.

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

DC / ministry trip to Malawi in July 2019

Through Further Still MinistriesSoutheast Christian Church, and Hope Alive Initiatives, Kurt and I had a great DC ministry trip to Malawi in mid-July 2019. This was our fourth trip to Africa—after Ghana in 2015 and 2016, and Burkina Faso in 2018, (If you send me a message and I input your email address, you'll be able to access the photos I chose to put together in an album here.) 

As always, our team is leading one module among many in the last half of a three-year HAI process to train church leaders. Broadly, the goal is to develop a vision and strategies for "ministry multiplication": don't just start something; prepare others to start in the future as well. More specifically, we're training on discipleship and developing lay-leaders—while other experts provide training to start schools and other businesses, learn skills such as mechanics and video, operate medical and dental clinics, etc.

DC and HAI both emphasize empowerment and multiplication. We often describe it in light of a popular metaphor: don’t give a man a fish; teach him how to fish. But our goals are grander: we want to teach the man how to teach others to fish. In discipleship terms, we would point to the four generations of II Tim 2:2 (Paul, Timothy, faithful people, who can teach others). Addition is ok, but we’re aiming for multiplication which is far more powerful.

In broad terms, how did this trip compare to our others? First, it was a much larger group than we had in Ghana or BF—about 90 regulars and 110-120 overall (compared to 40-60 in previous years).

Second, we were in Lilongwe—as Ouagadougou in BF, a capital city of about one million people. We were southeast of the downtown area, in a "suburban" environment—more akin to our first trip to Ghana. But Malawi is a much poorer country, so these people had much less in terms of material resources and literacy/education. 

(More on the economics: When paved, the roads were fine. But when not paved, they were really rough. Stores in-town were relatively modern, but then it degenerated as you moved from the city center. As a more vivid example, we bought skewered mice in the country that had been roasted and would be eaten by our hosts: 6-7 mice for 64 cents.)

Third, as with BF, English was not the dominant language. We used translators in BF for French (and other local languages), but we had a fluent French speaker (Marie) and a rusty French speaker (me) on our team. In Malawi, we only had access to the dominant language (Chichewa) through a handful of translators. 

These three differences led to a substantially different (and more challenging) experience for our team. With so many people, the large group sessions were equivalent, but our small groups were larger than ideal. 

With fewer resources, less education/literacy was limiting; many (leaders) did not own a Bible; and there is a stronger sense of a "subsistence" or "scarcity" mindset to be overcome. And I was left wondering if our usual approach was "enough". Maybe follow-up efforts would be more valuable in this context—where the resources are fewer and the confidence that one can succeed is less. 

With no knowledge of the local language, we were totally at the mercy of the translators (Ronald, Nelson, Akeem, Mtema, and Rex), who (fortunately) were excellent. We were given the impression that their English was far stronger, so we had not made efforts to translate our materials into Chichewa. Knowing what we know now, we would have tried to get that done beforehand. (And now, we'll have much more work to do, after the fact). It was also far more difficult to form relationships with the people we were training. They were extremely friendly and enthusiastic. But until we got to the small group components on the 3rd day, we really weren't getting to know anyone, except the translators.  

Kurt and I want to take different people on each trip—particularly those who haven't taken an international ministry trip in the past. We want them to see God move in radically different ways and empower them to go “further still”—to do a range of other things, from everyday life to international missions. And we want the locals to be inspired by laypeople doing ministry. This year, it was Keith and Matt. (Keith is in IT; Matt is in upper management.) 

They were outstanding—working hard before and during the trip, adapting on the ground, and teaching really well. And we only brought two others with us this time. (We had teams of 6 and 5 in Ghana—and then 4 in BF.) Keith and Matt team-taught everything, which lowered the burden in some ways but increased it in other ways. (They even team-preached on Sunday!)

I knew Matt and Keith from our years together in the Sunday night Bible study as singles and then when they were in the Abundant Life Sunday School class. They have been friends since college. They were together on Matt's 30th b-day in Paris, during their MBA program. Now, 20 years later, they were together in Malawi for his 50th!

The "DC" training was our usual. On Tuesday AM, Keith and Matt led off with “Identity in Christ”. And then, Kurt taught on Spiritual Warfare. On Wednesday, Keith and Matt led the group through Neil Anderson’s “Steps to Freedom in Christ” booklet. (On this, we covered less of the material and defined terms much more than usual. And for the first time, we finished with a ceremony to burn lists of sins that had been confessed.) On Thursday AM, Kurt and I taught on discipleship (mostly, 4 chairs and the funnels). On Friday AM, Keith and Matt taught on how to read the Bible effectively and I taught through Genesis 3. Kurt and I did some more on leadership and discipleship on Saturday AM. 

The rest of the time (Thursday/Friday afternoons; most of Saturday) was four small group discussions. In terms of material, we use DC material/questions on leadership,  unity/conflict/fellowship, marriage, and stewardship. The plan is always to model an effective small group with avid participation, facilitating more than teaching, striving to empower rather than teach at folks. As the week continued, we let the translators control more—to model empowerment and to make things more efficient (without as much translation). 

The small groups seemed revolutionary for them. It didn't seem as if they had ever done anything like it. And it showed in their inability to observe, interpret, and apply the Scriptures. I'd guess that most of the communication was simply in sermons, with all of the attendant limits of that approach. 

The cultural aspects of the discussions were not as "interesting/unique" as previous years. They didn't have big trouble with leave/cleave or significant issues church discipline, compared to some wild stories we had heard before. Inside the church (although apparently not in the World), there was modest trouble with fathers sacrificially loving their wives and being involved with children. Inside the church, there was little trouble with laziness and the usual problems with temptations for financial debt.

The most interesting "cultural" problem/discussion was in Genesis 3 where many had heard teaching (probably from Branhamites!) that the "fruit" eaten by Eve was sex with the serpent. Although there's certainly an application to sexual temptation from that narrative, it's incoherent as an interpretation for many reasons. Again, this takes us back to troubles with interpretation vs. application. 

More broadly, the tribal-cultural influences seemed to be much less of a factor. (Maybe this is a side benefit of a more-heavily "Christian country".) And the Muslim influence was far more limited in Malawi. There was a prominent mosque downtown and it used loudspeakers to do regular prayers. (One morning was incredibly loud, from miles away. I'm guessing the neighbors complained!)

As before (and often in the American church), we saw trouble with providing definitions to common "spiritual" terms. Sometimes, this works well enough: we "know" what unity and stewardship mean and can operate without formal definitions. Other times, the lack of definition leads to a lack of specificity—and sloppy thinking which leads to various errors. So, we worked on that as well—working to define particular terms and the importance of understanding the terms one is using. 

The biggest problem we encountered was the limited skill in reading, using, and applying the Bible. When we would read a passage, the norm was to provide generic answers—sometimes related; sometimes not—to the passage itself. Drawing specific observations or inferences from the text was akin to pulling teeth, especially early-on. But it got much better as the week continued. All we could figure was that this skill had not been developed because of lower literacy, fewer Bibles, and an emphasis on preaching. 

Aside from the training

Before the training, we "recovered" on Sunday afternoon/evening (sleep going there was very difficult on the plane, given the time changes—and our time in airports and daylight when we would have normally slept). On Monday, we 1.) visited two schools Ronald was overseeing: a rural, three-room school with 250 kids, where the government could not build (near Dowa) and a grades 1-5 school he's building in the city (near the church which is near Ngwenya Hill); 2.) had pizza (salami that was advertised as pepperoni and another that included corn); 3.) went to the market we bargained and picked up souvenirs for the fam. For example, I got a nativity set and a trivet made from fabric and bottle caps for Tonia. 

The rural school was about an hour away from the city—and a moving, memorable and impressive experience/story. It began through Ronald's connection with the relative of a church member. They talked to five local tribal leaders who agreed to provide land for a church and a school. He built the church and then the school. It's operating for free now, but getting ready to transition to modest payments that will support the two teachers. In a word, it's a rough start that will grow, but the private sector is providing something valuable that the government cannot do, with its limited resources. 

For the school he's building in town, we got to see Ronald's entrepreneurial skills in finding the capital (buying and selling land) and organizing the construction and operations of the school to make money and provide a valuable service. Ronald is adept theologically and a very effective preacher. But it was interesting that he had gotten better-trained pastors to work with/under him—a testament to their humility and his skills, vision, work ethic, passion, and enthusiasm. 

At the rural school, the kids poured out to greet us excitedly. When we left, they sang Kum-ba-ya and "we will never forget you". On the latter, I think they had it backwards: we will never forget them!

After the training on Saturday, we went to Ronald's house for dinner. We had met his wife Zion at lunch. And we had worked with oldest son Paul a bunch (as our primary driver) and got to talk with second-oldest Evans quite a bit. But we got to meet most of the rest of his family (two daughters were out of the country to do training) and enjoyed a lovely meal (with Fanta and fruit for dessert). 

We were able to attend worship on Sunday. It was a big crowd, given the conference. Worship featured singing, dancing, and a youth / young adult choir. Matt and Keith co-preached-- using a teaching style and a number of Biblical examples-- on how God could use anyone, even if they thought they were too young, too old, uneducated, or had sinned too much. (It was cool that today's sermon at SE had some of the same elements: don't believe denigrating thoughts/words about your life and "flip the script" through Jesus.) And they talked about how God could use Malawi, even though it seems small in worldly terms. Then, Ronald stood up and preached-- using a demonstrative preaching style-- to reiterate the same message!


About one-fourth of those present were women (as we had in BF and Salaga). Not all of them were literate, but many were very impressive with their interactions. 

Two fascinating things from an exercise where they paired up and then talked about their identities. First, they selflessly shared about each other instead of their own. Second, all of them mentioned something food. I guess that's a lot more important in a setting where food is not plentiful!

The church building was certainly sufficient but rudimentary by our standards (and those we had seen in Ghana and BF): packed dirt for floor and stairs (people who traveled to the conference slept on tarps); incomplete or missing windows and doors; green lawn chairs and benches for seats. (We had to borrow two chairs from a neighbor to do "4 chairs" with four different chairs!) 

In contrast, the airport in Lilongwe was probably the best we've encountered in Africa—small but clean, modern, and well-run. 

It seemed like there was less spiritual warfare in BF and Malawi (compared to Ghana), but there was still plenty. For example, Matt's son has struggled with anxiety and it was under control until 9 AM local time on Sunday (3 AM in Louisville), just before he was going to preach!

The Malawians danced a bit more than the BF'ers but not nearly as much as the Ghanaians. (The friendliest little girl, Gloria, was a notable and memorable exception!) Worship was inspiring—each morning and then on Sunday. As in BF, they used a young adult choir. But Malawi was the first place where we've heard the frequent use of harmony. Even the kids at the rural school used it to serenade us!

The Malawi women dressed as we had seen in other countries. But the Malawi men dressed well and conservatively—very little color. (Tonia had warned me that my colorful Ghanaian garb would be out of place.) The Malawians were less distracted and more attentive—likely a benefit of fewer technological and earthly distractions. 

There hasn't been any terrorist activity in Malawi, so we had no worries there, aside from the modest concerns of traveling outside the U.S. On Friday, there were protests, but those were expected to be little or no concern. We took precautions in our travel and it turned out to be nothing. 

Keith and Matt didn't need much if any encouragement to go on the trip, but Matt got some anyway: visiting someone with a fish tank, they had fish from Lake Malawi!

Travel was easy this time: no delays/hassles with airplanes. The weather was beautiful: sunny or partly cloudy with highs near 80 and lows in the upper 50s. But it was very dry. (They have a wet season and it does get 100-degree hot in their summer.) No significant trouble with illness, thankfully. With such a small team, that could have been a big problem!

In a setting with so little English, it was strange to see most of the advertising in English. I don't understand that but my best explanations are 1.) using English might attract wealthier people; 2.) using English might be taken as a signal of quality; and 3.) perhaps the locals understood what was sold, so English had more value-added in terms of providing info. 

"Cakes Lodge" was terrific—the best lodging we've had in Africa, by a nose over Bob and Bonnie's compound in Ghana. It was lovely and practical—quite comfy with fans (not needed), hot water, good beds, and even a one-channel TV (mostly BBC with their focus on Trump's "racist" tweets). We got to meet the owner who is a Purdue grad! (His wife went to Valpo.) He bought us a cake for Friday evening—a nice touch. 

Cakes' food was really good. Breakfast and dinner at Cakes was excellent. In the AM, we had our choices among eggs or veggie omelette, a sausage, potatoes, toast, "Jungle Oats", bananas, and oranges. Dinner was chicken or beef most evenings, but we got a decent T-bone one night and fish ("chambo": tilapia, we were told) another night—along with greens and a starch. 

Chrispin and sometimes Petey were our cooks. It occurred to me that a place like that needs to provide physical security and confidence in the food. This place had both in spades—a walled compound in a seemingly safe city and Chrispin's professionalism and friendliness were especially impressive. 

Lunch was at the house neighboring the church—again, a variety of meats, veggies, and starches. Their favorite starch is tsima—a thick corn porridge that they use to pick up the other food. (We were warned that we might not have forks, but that wasn't the case!) Lunch is, by far, their largest meal. It's not clear that they eat (much?) for breakfast and dinner sounded like leftovers at most. Our hosts were chowing down at lunch, since it was their primary meal. It was funny that their hospitality was so inefficient: we ate first but they ate far more, resulting in a long break between the start and end of lunch!

The mosquitoes were only a minor issue again—in general and in particular, with the preventative measures we take. (This is the first time that our lodging has had mosquito nets. We used them, but I'm not sure they were necessary.) 

After most of the evening debrief sessions, we played games when we weren't having to do a lot of prep—mostly Splendor, but also some Star Realms and Quixx. 

One of the funniest little things was that Ronald gave us all titles. We were the "international delegates" in the "international delegation". Francis was "the missionary"; Kurt was "the senior minister"; I was "the professor"; and Keith and Matt were the "ministers". 

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Shazam! on the importance of family, the practice of politics, and the nature of evil

My family and I saw “Shazam” in the theater a few weeks ago. It’s a fun little movie from the DC Comic universe—a combination of action, magic, some drama, and a few larger themes. Maybe it’s because I’m a nerd and a labor economist, but beyond the entertainment, three things struck me as particularly interesting.

First, the movie was really nice on “family”. Most obviously, as Shazam, Billy Batson is yet another superhero to emerge from the world of adoption and foster care. (Consider Superman, Batman, Spiderman, etc.) There are practical reasons for using this as a literary device. But as someone who is passionate about family and taking care of orphans, the positive attention toward both is welcome.

Related to this, the foster parents (for Billy and the host of other children) are not flawless, but they’re still heroes. They are neither over-bearing nor hands-off in their parenting style. In the face of difficult circumstances and challenging family dynamics, the couple is loving and courageous, realistic but amazing. (For another recent movie on foster care and adoption, make sure to check out “Instant Family”.)

Second, I’m not sure whether the writers and the director were aiming for political commentary, but I saw an angle there too. The villain, Dr. Sivana, seems to pursue power mostly for its own sake. In contrast, think of Thanos from the Marvel universe. He wants power to do something drastic—given his ideas about environmentalism and population. He’s wrong ethically and practically, but at least he has a goal.

Maybe the movie simply suffers from lazy writing. But Sivana’s pursuit of power paralleled contemporary politics, where the primary agenda seems to be to win elections and gain power. What do the major political parties and their politicians have to offer? Not much. What do they do with power once they get it? Not much.

Instead of viable ideas, we mostly get talk and personal attacks. Take popular positions. Make vague promises. Utter attractive tag lines to entice voters. Spend a ton of money and push the costs to future generations. Speak loudly but swing a small stick. Partisans and politicians are passionate about winning the war, but they don’t know how to win the peace. They’re far more focused on victory and power than on truth, logic, economics, or science.

Third, I was intrigued by the movie’s depiction of good and evil. Dr. Sivana is a caricature of evil. He’s two-dimensional—boring, really. Again, he doesn’t seem to have a goal—aside from gaining power and exacting some “I told you so” revenge. He’s the same static character throughout the movie. In contrast, Shazam is the life of the party. He wrestles with his personal flaws. He changes and grows as a human being throughout the movie.

This reminds me of C.S. Lewis in The Great Divorce. Lewis depicts Hell as gray drudgery where nobody wants to be near anyone else. Meanwhile, visitors from earth can’t walk on Heaven’s grass because it’s so sharp to them.

Sin often has its pleasures. (Why else would it tempt us?) But sin faces diminishing marginal returns; it requires more and more to satisfy. It reduces its practitioners to drones; it fixates on activity rather than intimacy. (See also: social media.) It often lives in a bubble and fails to cultivate real and lasting relationships. It imagines political solutions rather than building relationships and community.

At the end of the day, evil is two-dimensional and boring—to those who have seen and experienced something greater. As Lewis writes in The Weight of Glory about our desires: they are “not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.” 

In its own way, Shazam encourages us to avoid the temporary but ultimately-boring temptations that come our way. Instead, we should focus on living life—and living it to the full.

DC28:20 graduation at KCIW

On July 8th, Kurt Sauder, my wife Tonia, and I were honored to attend the graduation for a “DC28:20” group at the Kentucky Correctional Institution for Women (KCIW) in Pewee Valley. Renee Patterson and Rachael Buschman did a terrific job in leading a group of ten ladies through DC28:20—Getting Equipped for its 36 weeks, their first experience with prison ministry.

The ten ladies studied about two hours per week and met weekly to have a facilitated discussion of the week’s material. Along the way, they studied a variety of topics that are crucial to developing a Christian worldview—everything from the humanity and deity of Christ to applications such as managing conflict, work, and evangelism.

DC28:20 includes Bible reading and then a discussion of what the Spirit has shown each person. (Over the 36 weeks, they read the entire New Testament, Proverbs, and a sampling of Psalms.) During the testimony part of the graduation, many of the ladies talked about reading the Bible more regularly and learning how to apply it to their lives. In the Church, we often encourage people to read their Bibles. But too often, we don’t help them enough with accountability or applicability.

DC28:20 also includes Bible memory. Many ladies mentioned particular verses that had impacted them. “Grow in the grace and knowledge” (II Peter 3:18) was mentioned a few times—along with Hebrews 4:12 and II Timothy 2:15. Jeannie quoted Ephesians 4:2 which was probably helpful to her on a daily basis: “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.”

We heard the usual array of blessings from their time in a DC group. Stevie found confidence to share her faith. Jeannie and Lily learned how to persevere through the 36 weeks. Jenny said she understood God much better—not just as Savior but as Friend. Many of them enjoyed the group as a family. In terms of the need for discipleship with Jesus, it turns out that there’s amazingly little difference between those inside and outside the walls of a prison.

The most staggering thread in the testimonies (and learning more details from Renee and Rachael): all of them had troubled family lives and many had fathers or other prominent men in their lives who were absent or abusers. This is where the group’s “shepherd” was so helpful. Dale Clover was there every week as someone with experience in prison ministry. (He had co-led a DC group at Luther Luckett.)

We thought that a male presence would be helpful for a few reasons. But we did not anticipate that God would use Dale’s graciousness as a father figure in such a transformative way. There were many tears of joy at the celebration, but the most powerful moments were centered around the ladies experiencing a godly man and gaining a new and greatly improved view of their good, good Father.

Southeast and Further Still Ministries picked up the tab for the books. And Southeast paid for the graduation meal. (Thanks to both!) Renee and Rachael had asked what the ladies wanted to eat. The only request was fresh fruits and vegetables. I watched a lady eat (and enjoy) a blueberry for the first time. Another lady said that she hadn’t eaten a radish in 34 years. (I joked, “me neither”!) It was wonderful but sobering to watch them enjoy the basics that we take for granted.

Aside from blueberries and radishes, the six of us were able to leave the prison and enjoy our freedom after the event—while the ladies continue to “pay their debt to society”. Kara mentioned Galatians 5:1,13 as a favorite memory passage and talked about finding freedom in prison. How often are inmates freer than those on the outside? Let us make sure to use our freedom to pursue spiritual freedom and spread that freedom to others.

Names have been changed to protect anonymity.