Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Kind of Problem Transportation Is

It is ironic, in discussions of transportation, that liberals have seized upon fuel as the primary issue: from public transportation to energy policy to Detroit bailouts, they calculate everything in terms of how to limit the use of gas, and how to limit emissions.

But fuel and emissions are fungible: they can be moved from place to place, so that I can get from place to place using dozens of different fuel sources from thousands of different sources; and someone else can use the same fuel that I might use. Ditto with emissions: we do indeed need to worry about how many pollutants we put into our atmosphere (for the health of the air we breathe, if not more stratospheric concerns), but we don't need to worry who pollutes. We just need to limit the overall amount. Emissions are fungible.

And fungible resources are precisely what the market is designed to deal with. If we're worried about a limited amount of petroleum, the answer is very simple: supply and demand. As petroleum runs out, it will become more expensive, and people will limit their use of it, either by limiting their fuel consumption overall, or by shifting to other fuels. The cost mechanism is designed for precisely this problem; there is nothing it does better than allocate limited resources, and nothing handles this problem better than simple supply and demand.

There are, of course, a couple side issues here. There's the very silly idea of peak oil, which, in case you're worried, I will simply dismiss thus: there are various sources of oil (the ocean bottom, shale, etc.) each increasingly expensive, so it's not as if we'll "run out" all of a sudden; there are other kinds of fuel (nuclear, solar, wind, water, biofuels, etc.), which are more expensive, but which can incrementally replace petroleum (for example, natural-gas heat, nuclear electricity, electric cars, without wholesale replacing petroleum all at once); and in any case, this is what the price mechanism is all about. The Arabs (and Canadians, and Mexicans, and all the others who control oil) want as much money as they can get out of those wells, and will incrementally raise prices as oil supplies diminish. Peak oil is not the problem.

Nor is economic inequality the problem. If you're concerned about people being priced out of the gas market, give them money, either through largesse or through job creation. Economic inequality is a problem, but it isn't solved by rationing fuel.

Finally, emissions are more complicated than fuel, since they are not something people purchase. But because they are nonetheless fungible, the solution is not to dictate individual decisions (through mandated forms of transportation, or whatever), but to put a surcharge on emissions. This is not rocket science: do an emissions check, and tax the vehicle accordingly (perhaps with a multiplier for mileage). Emissions are a problem, but they are not solved by rationing fuel. Liberals have it all wrong when they focus on fuel as the problem in transportation.

But it is similarly ironic that conservatives focus only on freedom. They say people should be able to go where they please, so we should build roads wherever people want to go. What this answer misses, however, is a bedrock of conservative thought: property rights.

Transportation is a property issue, because it fundamentally involves passing through someone else's yard -- if you don't need to traverse a third-party territory to get where you're going, you are not involved in transportation. To go from St. Paul to Chicago means going through Wisconsin. To go from my house to the mall means getting past what is in between; if I didn't have to pass through anything, it wouldn't be transportation.

Conservatives notice this problem when it's used as a criticism of public transportation. The city is building a light-rail line here in St. Paul. Supposedly it's going to be great for business along the Midway. But it will take five years to build, during which time traffic on University Ave. will be blocked. What happens to the businesses there in the meantime -- the Target and the Walmart, the used bookstore and the little Vietnamese bakery? For five long years it will be easier for customers to go somewhere else.

The government recognizes this, and is planning to subsidize these businesses for the duration of the project, as part of the cost of building. Of course, the question remains open whether the light rail itself will help or hurt traffic. We all hope it will just add more customer flow. But if it blocks car traffic and doesn't attract train traffic, these five years are the beginning of many years of much worse. Conservatives notice this.

They notice, too, when the President of Minnesota Public Radio comes on the air and says, "we support the light rail, but as planned it will pass too close to our studies, making our business impossible." I support the light rail -- in someone else's front yard. Because trains are very noisy, and transportation effects the neighbors.

Conservatives see this. But do they see the parallel with roads? St. Paul's University Ave.-Midway has long been blighted. From storefront to storefront, it is about 170 feet across the street; at a normal walking pace, that's almost a minute. At best -- when there's no traffic -- that means pedestrians (that is, people) have a pretty long walk, across empty concrete, to get between adjacent businesses. At worst -- when there is traffic -- it means that there are only businesses on one side of the street: half as many places for people to go, after they've parked their automobile, and thus half as many reasons for people to visit University Ave. businesses. (Light rail is not going to help this.) That used bookstore is a lot less attractive when you can't get a cup of coffee next door.

But even worse, because things are so spread apart, people must drive to get places, and that means parking lots. To get from the sidewalk in front of Target to the door is 375 feet: a minute and a half. (I'm using Google maps.) To get to the store on the other side of the street is two and a half minutes. The effect on business is perfectly obvious: no one walks from business to business on University Ave. That may be aesthetically displeasing, and aesthetics do matter, but even more important, it impacts the choices people make: the likelihood that they will visit other businesses on the street, the likelihood that they will visit that area at all, the safety of people walking in the neighborhood, who are vulnerable not only to cars, but to criminals, who prefer to do what they do where there are fewer bystanders. Target's 375- x 465-foot parking lot is not just a matter of personal liberty, but also of neighborhood effects. It changes the world around it. It effects business at the Vietnamese bakery, and it changes who wants to live in the apartment building around the block.

Four blocks away is I-94, the lifeline of the Twin Cities. To get from a storefront or home on one side of the freeway to one on the other side is about 500 feet: two minutes on foot. If you're lucky, there's a bridge every quarter mile (five minutes). Does this effect the neighborhoods on either side? Of course.

A home in a neighborhood without freeways is surrounded by other homes and businesses -- places to go; people to watch, and to watch out for you; room to wander, and to be outside, and to be in your neighborhood. A home abutting a freeway has effectively nothing in 50% of its environs. And then there's the noise. There's a reason that the neighborhoods abutting freeways are almost always slums. It isn't a nice place to live, or even to do business.

All of this is simply to say: transportation is a property-rights issue. If I want to get from a house in the suburbs to a business downtown, the question is not only where I want to go, how I want to get there, and who will pay. (Though those are important issues, and must also be considered.) But in every act of transportation there is also the property being traversed: transportation always goes past something.

There are good reasons for people to demand a freeway through my neighborhood. It is important for people and things to be able to get from a to b, and they have to go somewhere. But the noise and the interference with pedestrian travel -- that is, travel by human beings, since we can't drive our cars into stores, or into houses, and we can't talk to people in other cars: we always end up on foot -- these things also affect the neighborhood.

In the classic libertarian formulations of Milton Friedman, the primary reason for government intervention is what he calls "neighborhood effects": when people outside a transaction benefit or pay from the result. If I burn tires in my backyard, my neighbors pay. If I build a public park across the street, my neighbors benefit. There is a fundamental injustice -- indeed, a violation of individual freedom, and of contract -- if the neighbors aren't involved in these decisions.

But transportation always has a neighborhood effect, because transportation always, necessarily, goes past someone else's property. (Even airplanes: they make noise, especially on takeoff; they release pollution; they go through the airspace we all look at.) That's not to say the neighborhood effect is always bad, or significant: I really don't mind seeing airplanes in the sky, at least when they are high up. It is to say that we can never have an honest discussion about transportation without considering the people we're driving past.

It is reasonable for conservatives to demand liberty in transportation. The economy, and human relations, depend on the ability of people to get from a to b based on their own intelligence, not based on the "plan" of a bureaucrat (or special interest). Conservatives are therefore right to be wary of public-transportation schemes that involve a bureaucrat's intelligence being substituted for the intelligence of the people he claims to serve. They are right to insist on the market.

But conservatives must recognize that there is no free lunch on transportation. They must consider the neighborhoods effected by cars: the noise, the physical separation, the parking. These are not matters of individual choice, but of neighborhoods, and this is the kind of problem that transcends the market. They are matters that essentially depend on governmental involvement.

I am not proposing a simple solution. I am, rather, denying the overly simple solution of pretending cars and roads are simply issues of individual choice. Transportation is always a neighborhood issue.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Renaissance, Part II

In the previous post I treated of renaissance, of moving forward through rediscovering the past, and through the example of Biblical revelation, I introduced the problem of privilege: the Bible is more important than any other historical text, because it comes from God. In this post, however, we will explore how privileged texts are at the heart of the issue of renaissance.

Here's the problem: many people say, who cares about Thomas Aquinas, or Aristotle? They were so long ago! In fact, estimates claim that at least 6% of all the people who have ever lived are alive right now. Certainly an even larger proportion of all people have lived in the last couple centuries. And we have the advantage of all the ages that have gone before, and of so much new technology. Doesn't it seem (many people say) that there ought to be better guides in modernity? Why on earth would we look for guidance to Thomas Aquinas, in the 13th century -- or even worse, to some Greek from 2300 years ago?! In fact, those of us who still read these ancient characters are often accused of denying human reason. Haven't we come a long way since 1274?

Well, yes and no. But the point is, there are privileged periods in history. Why was it that, in the Quatrocento, the place to look for great sculpture was thirteen hundred years back, instead of just the last generation? The answer is that ancient Rome was a great time for sculpture, for a variety of reasons, including the advanced state of their culture (lots was lost with the collapse of Rome in the fifth century), the prolonged peace in which they lived, and even the philosophical climate, which was frankly more open to the exaltation of human beauty than was, say, eighth century Byzantium. When Michaelangelo, around the year 1500, was looking for guides in the way of sculpture, there was more to learn from in the second century -- and even fourth-century B.C. Greece -- than in the thirteenth century (great though it was). Those were privileged times. The greatest examples were not from the time immediately before him.

Aristotle was not just some smart guy, to be matched by another smart guy in twentieth-century Seattle. Aristotle lived in a privileged time. I am no historian of ancient Greece, but it's clear there was a ferment there that is very rare in human history. Aristotle did not appear out of nowhere, but was himself the student of Plato, who was himself the student of Socrates, who was himself born into a fruitful time without parallel for philosophy, in a republic that allowed him to last a lot longer before getting killed off than has happened almost any other time in history. Aristotle was very smart himself. But his real significance is not as an individual, but as the culmination of a privileged time.

The same is true of Thomas Aquinas. He can seem to stand out as just a brilliant individual. But Thomas stood at the culmination of a couple centuries of unparalleled peace, in a culture permeated by Christian faith as has never happened before or since, at an ideal point in relation to the rediscovery of Aristotle, long enough after to give Thomas great teachers (such as Albert the Great and Alexander of Hales, both of whom Thomas knew personally, as well as many others), but not long enough that the study of Aristotle had grown stale. Meanwhile, Thomas was a member of the Dominican order at the height of its first blossoming, still drawing from the brilliant sanctity of St. Dominic, just at the point when the Dominicans were fully discovering the unity of Scriptural and philosophic knowledge. Much more could be said -- indeed, books have been and should be written on the perfect historical circumstances of St. Thomas. Thomas is important not only because of his own personal brilliance -- though he was uncommonly sharp -- but also because he is the fruit of a privileged time.

Men like Hobbes and Kant, meanwhile, were born at the wrong time. They are tainted by polemics that are quite destructive. To some extent that is the fault of their own lack of virtue, and intellectual failure to see beyond the petty debates of their own times. But it is also a product of their circumstances. They did not have the intellectual space, so to speak, in which to do great philosophy -- any more than a brilliant mind could achieve much philosophically during the barbarian invasions of the tenth century, or a sculptor could do what Michaelangelo did without ever having seen the products of ancient Rome, or a stained-glass artist could create Chartres in a cathedral with solid walls.

In fact, the importance of privileged times is part and parcel of the nature of renaissance in the first place. Renaissance means the human mind works not in pure individuality, but makes greatest progress in good environments. We can think more clearly ourselves when we have good guides -- we can see further, as they used to say, sitting on the shoulders of giants. That means, for one thing, that the true way to progress includes study of the past. But it also means that not all periods in the past are the same. There are privileged times, and some authors who are more helpful than others.

Renaissance does not, of course, mean that we simply parrot what previous authors have said, or previous artists have made. It does not mean that Aristotle, Thomas, or Roman art is the last word. It does mean that if we wish to make real progress, we do well to seek out the greatest minds of the past.

Renaissance, Part I

There's a standard line of argument in our culture that opposes tradition to progress. There's obvious truth to that opposition. Surely those who are unwilling to try new things can't make things better. But the opposition is generally clumsily made, and cuts off far more than it should.

Consider the Italian Renaissance of the fifteenth century. The very term "renaissance" (though only popularized centuries later) describes very well what happened. Renaissance, of course, means "re-birth." And the Renaissance -- any renaissance -- was in part a new birth, a new beginning, a great step forward. But it was also a return, a "re"-awakening of things that had long laid dormant.

The Quattrocento itself was in part a restoration of Roman art. It really is striking, in the study of art, to see the beautiful human images, especially in sculpture, of ancient Rome -- and the sudden reappearance of these images in the 1400s. The Italian Renaissance rediscovered both Roman techniques (an especially fun one is the technique required to sculpt a horse, with its massive weight supported by four, or usually three, spindly legs) as well as Roman subjects: for over a millenium, the human figure itself was not taken as an object of art. Suddenly it reappears! And it reappears, not through a coincidence, but precisely through the Italians taking notice of the ruins that lay around them.

The Quattrocento is not the only Renaissance. There's a classic book of pre-Conciliar Catholicism entitled "13th, Greatest of Centuries," and any Catholic who knows his history knows that the 12th and 13th centuries saw their own fantastic renaissance. Gothic architecture, that fabulous new creation of the high middle ages -- dubbed "gothic" by a later age that wanted to cast off that supposedly barbaric period -- is in fact rooted in Roman technique.

The heart of Gothic archtiecture is the ogive (OH-jive). As medieval architects worked to build bigger churches, they moved from flat ceilings to archs -- rediscovering, through study of the past, the structural strength of the arch. Romanesque architecture (roughly 11th-12th centuries) created the barrel vault: essentialy a long, drawn-out arch. But Gothic begins when arches are made to intersect, forming x's on the ceiling. These intersecting arches -- ogives, or groins -- carry thin webbing in between. Thus, whereas in the Romanesque barrel vault every part of the ceiling is held up by the walls directly outside of it, in the Gothic groin vault, an entire section of ceiling is held up by only four pillars. The result is the structural characteristics of Gothic architecture: enormous height and breadth, since the ceiling can now weigh far less; and lots of light: since the weight is carried by just a few pillars, the space between them can now be filled with glass. (The flying buttress only extends this dynamic to the outside: on the one hand, the buttresses are holding up only the pillars, not the rest of the wall; and on the other hand, the flying buttresses are themselves arches, holding the walls up with a minimum of material.) The rest of Gothic art develops from the ability to now decorate pillars and glass, and to paint, as it were, on a far greater canvas. But the ogive itself was a gift from Roman antiquity.

Meanwhile, the 12th and 13th centuries saw a parallel renaissance on the intellectual level, progressing through the greatness of Anselm, through Bernard, and up to the high scholasticism of Bonaventure and Thomas (both died 1274), with parallels in philosophy, law, and medicine. Partly, this was the result of greater leisure, allowed by a sounder economy. But it also arose from study of the past. The signal intellectual stimulus was the rediscovery of Aristotle. His works had been lost to the West (for reasons that need not detain us now) for over a thousand years, but were rediscovered through the military reconquest of part of Muslim Spain. Thomas advanced, not through casting off the past, but by digging into it. Aristotle was a master both of logic and of observation. Learning from this master gave Thomas the leisure, in a sense, to take a step further. He didn't have to rediscover all that Aristotle had discovered, but could build on previous genius.

The gothic ogive gives us a good metaphor for the nature of renaissance. The structural achievement of the intersecting archs creates a space in which to play. Only when the roof is safely held up can you begin to experiment with light and sculpture. Aristotle does for Thomas something parallel to those arches. Thomas can think through new topics, and think better through old topics, because Aristotle gives him a solid foundation, holds the roof high above his head so he can fill in the little details. (This goes, incidentally, both for the economic achievements, which gave Thomas time to work, and the rediscovery of the past, which gave Thomas the intellectual tools.)

The same thing happens with the great St. Bernard of Clairvaux. On one side, Bernard was a great student of the classics of Roman rhetoric, especially (if memory serves me) Cicero. That might seem trifling. But Cicero taught Bernard to express himself. Bernard has the freedom to plumb the poetic depths of theology precisely because he has mastered his language. A dim parallel for us might be Strunk and White: rather than recreating language, I can move on to explore other topics better when I let Professor Strunk and his loyal disciple remind me how to keep things clear. I don't need to recreate the wheel -- or the arch. By using what the past provides me, I can move forward.

Even more important, on the other side, Bernard leans on Scripture. Now, here we step into a new realm, the realm of Revelation. Scripture is different, because whereas Aristotle just used a mind like mine to discover things that I (in theory) could discover myself, St. John receives wisdom from above that I can only receive through contact with the source -- and, in fact, through the mediation of John and his fellows.

But setting that aside for a minute, Bernard -- like Thomas, Anselm, and all the Christian greats -- can reach into the heights precisely because his feet are on the solid ground of Scripture. Learning what God has revealed does not constrain him, but gives him the leisure to press deeper into human wisdom. In fact, theology, rightly construed, is an achievement of human reason -- doing what human reason can do -- beginning with the revelation of things that reason could not attain on its own (and some things that it could attain on its own, but only rarely, after great study, and with considerable admixture of error). Theology, in a sense, is like the stained-glass artist, who does his job well, but can only do it when the architect has given him space in which to play.

I bring theology into this consideration of renaissance for two reasons. First, because we do indeed live within a dispensation of revelation. The Bible is there -- and the Church's mediation of its authentic interpretation -- and we would be foolish to try to understand the world without its aid. Renaissance means moving forward through a return to the sources. It means there is no opposition between learning from others and discovering new things ourselves. And for us, it means above all that we will be most truly men of the future by being deeply imbued with the infallible teaching of the past, in God's revelation.

But I bring the element of revelation into my consideration of renaissance even for the human level, because it highlights the problem of privilege. The next post will explain how the problem of privilege is not unique to revelation. In fact, privileged authors are at the heart of the issue of renaissance.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Why I Oppose Government Health Care

As the father of a special-needs child -- my four-year-old son was born with Spina Bifida, requiring not only wheelchairs and physical therapy, but also considerable urological support (the greatest danger of paraplegia is kidney failure), potential orthopedic surgery, and emergency neurosurgery -- you might expect me to support government health care, at least for those with chronic conditions like my son's. Indeed, all of his health care so far has been paid for by the federal government, both because we have been too poor (as a grad student and a full-time mother) to afford any health insurance at all and because his health care has been extraordinarily expensive.

Readers of this blog will be aware of my general reason for opposing government health insurance: government is wasteful, because it makes prudential decisions far from the facts on the ground, and crooked, because politicians are more interested in looking good in the short term than in doing what's best in the long-term. Government health care would shovel lots of money into the pockets of special interests, while making it harder for the rest of us to get normal care.

Health care, however, is different from other issues, because the body is a more, um, personal concern than say the cost of fuel or even housing. You can ditch a broken car, and even go without; you can change your driving habits or downsize your house. But without health care, you lose your life. When the Founders enumerated life before liberty and the pursuit of happiness among the most central inalienable rights, their point was that without your body, nothing else in politics matters. The right to live is the most precious right of all. And yes, this includes the right to safety -- safety from war and crime -- just as much as the right not to be torn from your mother's womb. (Though when "seamless garment" types claim that war is a life issue too, they should realize that their argument cuts both ways: we are at war to try to prevent ourselves from being slaughtered on our way to work Tuesday morning; we pointed nukes at the USSR, not so we could kill, but as part of a strategy to keep them from nuking us; it did work.)

So securing good health care really is a central concern of government. But how?

A central part of the argument against government health care concerns rationing. In a market system (and we don't exactly have a health care market now, because of massive government intrusion and perverse incentives), rationing happens through price. At some point you say we just can't afford to keep this person going -- or you say that we will have to make other sacrifices, losing the house or working a second job. It is a great myth that government health care would elminate the need for rationing. Government resources are not infinite, and someone needs to decide what care is reasonable. Are we going to pay for nose jobs? Sex changes? Hair implants? Liposuction? If we do, the money -- that is, the resources to pay the doctors and all the people who support them, including the people who build lipo-suckers -- will have to come from somewhere. Government health care means we can coerce Peter to pay for Paul's vasectomy; it doesn't mean that the money comes from nowhere.

And government can use coercion to drive down prices, but if they're paying neurosurgeons less than neurosurgeons want to be payed for the joy of being woken at two in the morning to care for a six-month-old whose brain hardware is broken -- as we woke our neurosurgeon a few years ago -- then we're either going to have to give up neurosurgeons, or coerce them. Do we want a health care system in which our doctors are coerced to care for us?

At least there will be limits to the public's interest in coercion -- limits to how much money we want to pay for other people's new eyelids, limits to how much we want to be coerced to be doctors, or served by coerced doctors. The only other solution is rationing.

What will we ration? My son was born with Spina Bifida, the most common survivable birth defect. In the United States today, 90% of children like him are killed in utero; the same is true of Down's Syndrome kids. A neurosurgeon tells me that in Europe, there is no Spina Bifida: all such children are killed. Now, since these things strike more or less at random -- or at least, they're not caused by people's ideological commitments -- that means that 90% of this country would rather have an abortion than a kid with special needs. 90% of people in the United States -- one of the most pro-life countries in the developed world -- wouldn't even want to put such a child up for adoption. Of course, part of this is medical misinformation: people are not told what joy these kids can be.

But the point is, if we have government healthcare, are we going to find a political majority that is willing to pay for the kind of children that 90% would abort from their own wombs? Spina Bifida and Down's are expensive. If you would kill your own child, are you going to give up your nose job or vasectomy; are you going to choose to have coerced doctors; are you going to accept a tax hike that might keep you from shopping at Whole Foods, so that my son can have a wheelchair, regular urology consults, and emergency neurosurgery?

Maybe we kill these children because of medical misinformation. But is that misinformation going to change if we have government health care? Will there not be an even greater incentive to provide that misinformation, since my nose job -- or my good night's sleep, as a neurosurgeon -- depends on it? Why would my son not be the first one voted off the island?

By contrast, in a decentralized health industry, individuals can make the choice to put up that money. In fact, at present there exists an entire organization, the Shriners, who exist entirely to give health care, with private money, to kids with special needs. (The Shriners are Masons, and that makes me nervous, but that's beside the point.) Would the Shriners survive Obama's tax hikes on "the rich" -- that is, people who can afford to pay for my child's health care? (Their 22 hospitals are paid for by a $10.2 billion endowment; I'm guessing that didn't all come from circus tickets.) Would the Shriners survive a system in which all doctors are in the coercive employ of Uncle Sam -- and Uncle Sam is just a friendly euphemism for Nancy Pelosi?

I bring this up apropos of an article in The Australian. (The Australian, by the way, is the best-selling newspaper in Australia; this is not a kook fringe religious right scandal monger.)

THE Rudd Government is under pressure from all fronts, even Labor colleagues, to overturn a decision denying German doctor Bernhard Moeller permanent residency in Australia because his son Lukas has Down syndrome.

The Immigration Department this week rejected Dr Moeller's application for permanent residency, saying the potential cost to the taxpayer of 13-year-old Lukas's condition was too great.

. . .

"It is sad that in this modern day we are still viewing people with a disability, such as Dr Moeller's son, as a burden," Senator Bernardi said. "They can and do make significant contributions to our society."

More here.

I wonder who will decide whether my son, and children like him, makes a "significant contribution to our society." I wonder who makes that decision in Europe, where such children are not born. I wonder what would happen if the kid's dad wasn't viewed as "productive member of society." I wonder, if it comes down to it, whether American tax payers will choose a tax hike when told that kooky Christians want to bring children into the world with "massive genetic abnormalities." I wonder why they abort those children now.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

A Little Electoral History

This post will diverge a little from the standard themes of this blog, but I guess we can say Civis supports always viewing things in light of history, and taking a clear sight of the real.

The election on Tuesday had a historic turnout. I think they're saying it was the highest since 1960 -- and given that 1960 was the year of notorious fraud, where Kennedy-Johnson beat Nixon through impossibly high turnouts in Daley's Chicago and Johnson's Texas, 1908 seems to stand as the last time this high a percentage of the electorate turned out to vote. That is interesting, but what does it signify?

Far more important for questions of mandate and "landslides" is what percentage of the vote Obama actually got. The Wall Street Journal has a nice chart on popular and electoral votes for every election since 1900.

Popular Vote
In the popular vote, Obama got 51.6% -- despite 96% of the black vote, overwhelming urban and college support, and lots of new voters. That puts him even or behind (ready for this?) TR I and II, Taft, Harding-Coolidge-Hoover (Hoover!)-FDR, Eisenhower I and II, Johnson, Nixon II, Reagan II, and H.W. Bush. It has been said that Obama got the highest percentage of the popular vote since 1988 -- but the last four elections have had strong third parties: Perot got 19% of the popular vote in '92 and 8% in '96; Nader got 3% in the ultra-close 2000. All we really see is that Obama beat Bush '04.

In fact, looking back, other than 2004, for every election in which the winner got a smaller percentage of the popular vote than Obama 2008, there was a much stronger explanation than Obama has. In 1912, TR ran against the incumbent Taft, splitting the Republican vote. In 1916, Wilson barely won reelection in light of the Great War in Europe. In '48 there were four candidates: not only Truman and Dewey, but also Strom Thurmond sweeping the South and Henry Wallace, whom Truman had fired for being too soft on Communism, picking off about 2.5% on account of his popularity in the Northeast -- and still the papers said Truman had lost. Kennedy lost the popular vote and cheated to win the electoral college. Nixon won in 1968 because George Wallace took the South and Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June. I won't even begin with comparisons to Carter's 50.1% victory. And in 1980 Reagan won 50.8% of the popular vote and a 489-vote landslide in the electoral college despite John Anderson, whom Reagan had defeated in the Republican primaries, getting 6.6% as a moderate-Republican Independent.

In short, historically Obama's 51.6% running against an unpopular incumbent party with no significant third party is one of the weakest popular-vote victories on record -- with the one exception of Bush in 2004. What he won is not a landslide but a very close election. The high turnout is nothing in his favor; it suggests that people are more concerned than ever, yet very divided. Combined with his low score in the popular vote, the high turnout means not that Obama has a strong mandate, but that he will rule a very divided nation. Indeed, low turnout would be a much stronger sign that people felt confident about what was coming.

Electoral Vote
This is all the more important in the electoral vote. I should write a whole post on the importance of the Electoral College, but in sum, the Electoral College recognizes that there is no such thing as a single coast-to-coast national culture; the United States is a union of many different cultures, and the federal government must bring together, not just one or two, but all of the parts. To reject the Electoral College and let someone get elected president just by running up strong majorities in a couple coastal cities would create an even more divided country.

Obama won 349 electoral votes, a comfortable margin of victory (he only needed 270), but again, far from a landslide. 349 is more than George W. Bush got in either election. But it is less than any election through Reagan-Bush I-Clinton. It is less than Nixon II (a true landslide, against McGovern), Johnson, Eisenhower, Harding-Coolidge-Hoover-FDR, or Wilson I -- an election in which, as we saw, he got only 41.8% of the popular vote, but won because TR split the vote with Taft. Obama got more electoral votes than TR or Taft had in 1900, 1904, and 1908 -- but in 1908 there were only 487 electoral votes (there are 538 now), so that's not very impressive! In fact, his percentage of the College was comparable. Nothing historic.

Again, the electoral victories Obama exceeded were only Truman's (against Thurmond in the South), Kennedy's (a close race), Nixon I (against Wallace in the South), Carter (Carter!), and George W. Bush. Obama did not break 350 electoral votes. In the 28 elections since 1900, fully half broke 400, and three ('36, '72, and '84) broke 500. If we exclude those early elections, with a much smaller College, Obama's victory puts him at the 32nd percentile for Electoral College wins (the best measure of cross-the-country support). Since 1900, he is at about the 40th percentile for the popular vote, despite no significant third party.

And, to put it into perspective, the first George Bush did far better in the electoral and popular vote than Obama, but got thwapped in 1992, while Truman, whom history has judged very well, and Kennedy, whom Obama claims to emulate, both got less than 50% of the popular vote.

Where does this get us? The historic turnout in 2008 only indicates that people care about the election. But Obama's low margin of victory shows that the people of the United States are deeply divided, as they were in 2000 and 2004. Obama has not a mandate, but a very tenuous hold on a very fractured nation.

Let us hope that he does not abuse his power. And, as cultural and political conservatives, let us pray that reform in the Church helps the balance of the culture to tip our direction in the next decade.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Moralism and the Sense of God

My family recently happened to attend a school Mass at one of our local parishes. The pastor, a pretty good preacher, and a good priest, addressed kids aged kindergarten through high school. I can't recall what the readings were (not a good sign), but he preached on responsibility, how we can't just leave things for others to do, but have to take charge ourselves. The theme was decent in itself, and well preached, but it exemplified a danger for preachers, and indeed for all Christians: Christianity is not a moralism.

It is easy, in trying to make the faith "accessible" (as when preaching to kids), to speak in terms of putting the faith into practice -- and to reduce practice to moralism. (It is striking how "putting it into practice" has come to exclude praying, studying the faith, or frequenting the sacraments.) But as St. Thomas says, in practical things, the end is first: that is, if you do not know why you are doing something, do not know the goal you are trying to attain, you will never take the first step. When preaching excludes the reality of God in our lives, as if Christianity were primarily about "being a good person," goodness becomes pointless, and ultimately emasculated. Who cares about treating kindergartners nicely, or cleaning up the school yard, unless you know why these things matter?

I bring this up not to scourge preachers, or dear Fr. Mike, who really is a good priest, but to try to explain, again, the purpose of this blog. In my mind at least, this blog is about the intersection of faith and life. But I know I focus more on politics, economics, and urbanism, than on any religious themes. Has my blog fallen into the same kind of moralism?

To try to exculpate myself from that accusation, I need to introduce a distinction--and it is really the central distinction on which this blog rests. We might lable the distinction as the difference between a "practical" morality and a "contemplative" morality. (I am trying to side with the latter.)

An excessively practical morality is interested in "being a good person," in a purely earthly sense. Subjectively, there is something of keeping a clean conscience, and keeping clear of bad entanglements. In relation to the world, it is a matter of results: caring for the weak, making other people happy, etc. Let me stress: these are good things, and I do not mean to disparage them, any more than I want to disparage telling the big kids to watch out for the kindergartners and clean up messes.

But a truly Christian morality is above all contemplative. Which is to say, first, that it is directed to God: the purpose of being good is not goodness in itself, but the contemplative embrace, unitive prayer. Mother Teresa expressed this one way when she said she saw the poor as "Christ in his most distressing disguise." Dragging the poorest of the poor out of the streets of Calcutta was not about social work or "making the world a better place." It was about embracing Christ. And thus her hours of prayer before the Blessed Sacrament was not a means of attaining energy for her apostolate, but was the goal of her apostolate: she did what she did in order to embrace her God, and to be embraced by him. Such a worldview can only be maintained by a robust life of prayer: not just for divine assistance, but to train the heart to penetrate to the one thing necessary.

A corollary to this contemplative goal of morality is that it changes the norms of morality. Our care for the created world can be an embrace of the Creator only when we embrace it precisely as creation. Which is to say, truly Christian morality -- contemplative morality -- is not a matter of following rules, or seeking results, but of receiving the created world as a gift. And that means truly receiving the world as what it is, the way the Creator made it.

The purpose of this blog -- the purpose of my writings about urbanism, economics, political philosophy, and occasionally culture -- is to nourish this kind of contemplative, receptive view of man in the world. In this view, the question for morality is not "how ought things to be," or "how would we like the world to be," but "how did God make us? What has God given us?" To see God in politics is to embrace the world as he made it. The question is not what city would be prettiest, or most fun, but what nature did God give us, what is the nature of cities, what is the nature of human relations, and economies, and polities. We should see the world as something real: not just a blob to be shaped according to our visions, but a reality to be embraced; a norm for us, not just something on which we impose our moral norms.

Though it is receptive, this is not a passive view of politics. Abortion, for example, is not wrong just because we don't like it, or because it imposes on another persons rights, or because it threatens the rights of the rest of us (though all those things are true).

Rather, the Christian opposes abortion because it is contrary to nature. It is contrary to the nature of the mother, who is most herself in nourishing her child, and the nature of doctors, who are most themselves, who fulfill their nature, in healing, not killing. And it is contrary to the nature of neighbors to idly watch self-destruction: I can only be myself, be the social being I was created to be, by withholding the implement with which the troubled woman threatens to maim herself. And it is contrary to the nature of society to be heedless of its very foundation, the love of parents for children and the love that binds families together. I cannot be a citizen and not care for the right ordering of society. It's not just that I should or shouldn't. It's that I already am, by nature, a citizen. My task is to live like one, to embrace the task I have been given by what I am.

And that I am a citizen is not a choice, not a preference, not even a prudential decision, but a fact of my creation. I fight against abortion -- and against all the other things that threaten the nature of man -- not just because it's mean, or ugly, not only because God tells me to, but because so doing fulfills my nature. It is a matter of receiving the world God gave me, embracing him -- learning to embrace him, practicing to embrace him, receiving his embrace -- by treating Nature, the world and human nature as he choose it to be, as a gift from him, a place of encounter with Nature's God, the Creator.

This, I suppose, was the heart of Fr. Mike's preaching about taking care of kindergartners. It is the heart of my pontificating about how a life built around the automobile is not an authentically human life. But two things need to be said, again and again. First, the purpose of embracing our nature is to embrace the God who made it so. And second, because of this, morality is not about obligations or being kind, but about contemplating how the world is, and living accordingly. The purpose of this blog is to present a view of politics based on receiving the world as it is -- receiving the nature of economics, culture, cities, and polities -- not just fashioning them according to our better lights.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Auto Culture

It has become standard for social commentators to decry the way modern entertainment technology begets individualism. The movies let you witness events second-hand, sitting in a dark room, instead of out on the street with real people. (At least reading is easy to interrupt, and requires some imagination.) TV moves those images into the home, so that you can tune out of the real world and sink into your easy chair. But at least at the beginning your options were limited, so that you were watching the same thing as millions of other viewers. Cable let you choose just what you wanted, the VCR let you watch whenever you wanted, and now modern gizmos like tivo and internet movies give you greater selection, so that your media fix can be perfectly individualized.

Meanwhile, music moved from a social activity, in a concert hall or a saloon, to a phonograph in the living room, to headphones out on the street. Many commentators think the iPod is a new low, so that you don't even have to listen to an artist's whole album, but can pick and choose the program that exactly fits you. Reality becomes something not received, but created. We'll call it auto-culture: it's all about my individualized desires.

I'll acknowledge these critiques, with two hedges. First (and I won't try to work this out) I think there's a negative force as well. Take, for example, classical music. Anyone who has been to a concert knows that live music is much much more enjoyable than the radio, or even the iPod. If people come to prefer tuning out through technology, it has something to do with a lack of other options. Technological entertainment feeds individualism, but I think it's more a symptom of social breakdown than a cause. If kids had something better to do or somewhere better to go, they'd be less inclined to plug into their devices.

Second, individualism isn't all bad, because it is, in a certain sense, true. We are individuals. Society should come together as an organism, to be sure, but an organism composed of individual units, each knowing and learning and loving at their own pace. I can enjoy the social experience of an opera more if I can study it on my own time, too. The anti-technology zealots sometimes fail to appreciate the great boone that technology can be. It's not good to be tuned out all the time, but when I'm sitting alone in my office cataloging books, it's pretty nice that I can turn on a cd. There is, in fact, something socializing, and enculturating, about being able to do some things on my own time -- as long as I also plug into the world around me: go to concerts, talk to human beings, listen to birds, etc.

In any case, I think those who decry entertainment technology fail (as far as I have seen) to recognize the greatest force of auto-culture: the automobile. My daily commute has made me more aware than ever of the profound solipsism of the car. In Washington, I commuted by foot and by train. I stopped to talk to people. I looked at people, had time to observe them, and look them in the eye. I stopped to watch the construction in my neighborhood, to identify a new bird, to sort through books left on the curb by my neighbors.

In the car, everything flies by at 55mph. Every day I watch the pond where the heron lives -- but I fly by so fast that there's no time to look. It's like fleeting images on the television. But most bizarre of all, all I see of the thousands of other people on the road is the back end of their cars. At stop signs sometimes you see a face -- but it's of somebody trying to get past you as fast as possible, and trying not to crash into anything. (I think we under-appreciate how dangerous cars are, and how much of our energy has to go into not killing ourselves.) The freeway is almost like a nightmare, where all the people have been turned into machines.

Meanwhile, the car allows us to create a culture based entirely on our own desires. iPods let you choose what music you want to listen to. But a car lets you choose what landscape you live in, what people you come in contact with, what territory you experience. The ability of suburbanites to fly past poor "inner city" neighborhoods without even seeing the people who live there is truly amazing. The ability to choose a neighborhood where only people like you live. The ability to limit your contact with other people, so that an automobile life can leave the house and get to work or social activities without ever seeing a neighborhood, without ever seeing anyone one hasn't directly chosen. This is auto-culture taken to its limit.

To be sure, the hedges I noted above apply to cars as well. If people had a greater awareness of the riches of a pedestrian lifestyle, perhaps they would be less inclined to whiz past it. Politically, I am certainly more in favor of carrots than sticks in this regard: better to improve our cities than to drive people out of the suburbs. On the other hand, cars have created our social breakdown in a way that entertainment technology has not. People did not move out of their neighborhoods just because they had a tv. Entertainment is only an accoutrement; automobiles shape an entire lifestyle, so that the average American's home, work, and social life are all fundamentally conditioned by their abstraction from the neighborhood around them.

And individualism isn't all bad. Those who attack cars -- especially in favor of trains -- sometimes fail to appreciate the magic of individualized transportation. For example, later this week my family is going on vacation to New England, where we will rent a car. That car allows us to get to New Hampshire to see family and friends, then drive down to Connecticut, then over to Rhode Island. We will spend nights in three different towns and visit people in at least seven different cities over the course of a week -- all while dragging around two little kids, a wheelchair, and a bunch of luggage. Our travel itenerary is highly individualized, because our friends and family are in different places than yours. No mass transit could get us to the door of each of these houses. Travel would be difficult without cars.

Even city life is greatly improved by the automobile. It is probably not necessary for each person to drive a separate car to the grocery store. But to get the groceries from the store to each individual house (not to mention getting it to the store in the first place) it's a heck of a lot easier if there are at least delivery trucks. It makes sense for groceries to be individualized -- it is, in fact, a necessity of culture -- and that requires a more individualized system of transportation. And sometimes it's nice to have a ride home -- if someone gets hurt, or if someone isn't able to walk far, or if you're going to an event across town. I rather doubt we all need to own our own cars for that, but it certainly helps to have taxis and buses, with the individualized itinerary these vehicles allow.

In short, automobiles -- and auto-technology in general -- makes a great servant, but a terrible master. To make our lives revolve around ultra-individualism is to kill what is most human in us. But to deny the individuality that gives me an interest in Renaissance music while I work, or in getting to a concert across town, or in visiting relatives across the country, is also to deny our humanity: both our individuality and our social nature, since social things happen only when individuals can get to them. Autos, yes. Auto culture, no.

Monday, September 29, 2008


The standard summary of conservative economics is "laissez-faire," which is roughly translated as "leave it alone." Liberals assume that anyone who likes markets thinks that government should be hands-off.

Conservatives certainly feed this belief by being bristly about liberal proposals to interfere with the market. In this they manifest the truth in the phrase laissez-faire, which means not "leave it alone" but "let it do what it does." On a metaphysical plane, laissez-faire could express a fairly sophisticated understanding of nature, of letting each thing be what it is, not by leaving it alone, but by respecting its nature, letting it do what it does. When conservatives say "leave it alone," this is what they mean.

But of course "laissez-faire" is not used in a metaphysical sense -- indeed, it is rarely used by the conservatives who would think of it that way, but as a term of contempt by liberals. In order to explain how the "leave it alone" understanding of laissez-faire differs from conservative market economics, allow me to share a story.

We recently moved across country, out of an apartment in Washington, D.C., that we liked very much. The apartment was owned by a small-time investor; I rather doubt he had dealt much with renters, or really had the energy to think about it.

Before we signed the lease, he several times told us that his son lived upstairs (there were fifteen condos in the unit; ours was the only rental) and would be "a sort of on-site super." (For those who have never spent time around New York, that means a superintendent who takes care of the building and is generally present.) But over the course of the year, every question we asked the ne'er-do-well son got the same response: "uh, I'll have to ask my dad." And every request for maintenance -- before long, we learned to just call Dad ourselves -- was met by a response like, "do you know anyone who can just do that for you?" For example, when we found that their renovation had covered all the telephone jacks with drywall, when the kitchen cabinets were falling off the wall, and when we discovered, upon move-in, that almost every window-screen in the apartment had fist-sized holes in them: "Uh, can you just take care of that yourselves . . . ?"

The general practice for rentals is that you pay an extra month's rent up front as a security deposit, to cover the landlord's expenses if you disappear midway through the lease or if you leave the apartment damaged or needing cleaning. We fully expected to have deductions from our security deposit: just before we left, our three-year-old drew on the hardwood floors with permanent marker (yikes) and, with two little kids, a pregnant wife with the flu, and a cross-country drive beginning on move-out day, we made the decision not to do all the finishing touches of cleaning up.

By law and by the terms of our lease contract, we were to receive, within forty-five days of move-out, what remained of our security-deposit (amounting, we expected, to about $1,000), plus one year's interest, along with an itemized list of deductions. Having been landlords ourselves for a college program, and having lived in several rental units previously, we knew the rules and knew how they were generally followed: most landlords deduct maybe $100 for cleaning, and skim that forty-five day limit pretty close -- but basically follow the rules.

So we were holding off on buying a couch for our new apartment until August 14, day forty-five. Actually, we got a last-minute infusion of gifts from strangers, or else we would have cut our expenses so close on the move that August 14 would have been just in time to buy groceries and help us make it to September's rent. We're renters, near the bottom of the economic totem-pole; getting that check on time was pretty important. Of course, it's important for everyone: that's why we have to pay our rent on time every month, lest the landlord himself run into cash-flow problems.

Well, the long and the short of it is that our old landlord was a full month late on sending the check; I think it was September 13 when it finally arrived. By sheer coincidence, he sent the check on the very day that I sent him a letter saying, "You know, it isn't your money to keep; that's why the law sets a time limit, which you have far exceeded." I added, perhaps imprudently, but not wrongly, that, the landlord having missed his chance to send us an itemized list of deductions, I expected to receive the security deposit in full. For my trouble, I received a threatening email from the landlord, saying I better not talk about the law to him, and he'd gladly take the rest of my deposit back.

Well, on a personal level, I raged, then backed down, realizing that the $675 I thought he owed us was not worth the emotional rollercoaster I was putting myself through. I sent him a meek apology for having had the temerity to expect that I would receive the money he owed me on the date it was owed, and gave up. On a personal level, it was probably the best thing I could do.

But for our purposes here, what is the Free Market answer to all this? Is the conservative response "laissez-faire," in the sense of, "government, hands off!"

I think not. The market depends on the enforcement of contracts. It is my opinion -- I hope this is not self-interest speaking, but a clear pro-market philosophy -- that above all, the market depends on government enforcement of contracts, in both directions. Had I not payed my rent, or even not paid it on time, I would fully expect the government to have backed the landlord in evicting me. There may be personal mercy -- I have no problem with that -- but blind-folded Lady Justice should simply recognize that I promised to pay for something, and was not paying for it. Landlords cannot afford to have property occupied by people who do not pay. (More another time, perhaps, on why it is just to charge people for use of property.)

On the other hand, my landlord was in gross violation of contract. He was in violation of contract when he sent me my security deposit a month late. We all -- he as well as I -- depend on getting money, not just whenever, but when we expect it, when we contract to get it.

I think there might have been other breaches of contract, as well. What responsibilities does a landlord have, just by virtue of being a landlord? I don't know, but it should be more clear. It seems to me that if I live in a rental property and a cupboard falls off the wall, the landlord is responsible, not I.

It seems to me that certain things should go without saying. I did not carefully inspect, for example, to make sure there were phone jacks. But is that not a reasonable expectation? It seems to me that a free-market, contract economy, mandates that things that everyone would expect to be there can be expected to be there. I should not have to check, for example, to make sure that every light switch and power outlet actually works, just as at the supermarket, if I buy a jug of milk, I should not have to open it up and make sure it's actually full of milk, and not something else. If I rent an apartment, it should go without saying that the window screens would be intact, just like it should go without saying that if there are bars on the windows, they are made of metal, and are screwed on tight. Of course you have to check things; but there should be limits to how much you have to check. Contract law should presume that certain things go without saying.

And then there is the matter of verbal contracts. If a landlord shows me an apartment and tells me there is an on-site super . . . I have the right to expect someone who does basic maintenance (as has happened in even our seediest apartments in the past), even if those duties are not made explicit in the lease -- shouldn't I? And above all, I should have easy access to the government's understanding of all these things. My inability to pay for a lawyer should not mean that I have no idea what my rights are, or the landlord's obligation. That is not justice -- and it is not a free market.

A key experience at the end of this debacle should make clear precisely what I am getting at. I went on-line to find what the DC government says about the forty-five day law. I found a couple sites that indicate that the landlord is obliged to do these things in forty-five days: but nothing whatsoever explaining what happens if he doesn't, or even how I can follow up. (I spoke to a friend who is a more experienced landlord in D.C.; perhaps she was in error, but she believed I would have to take him to court, and first do days of mediation -- on an open-shut case of him not fulfilling a deadline -- which is in any case impossible for someone who has moved cross-country.) What I did find on-line, however -- and this is the point -- is a whole government-run page giving lots of information on rent-control.

Here's the point. "Laissez-faire," market economics sees rent control as a violation of the market. Prices should be negotiated between renters and landlords, so that renters can get negotiate the best terms for their needs (including cheap rent for a cheap place), and landlords can decide what is worth their investment. Price-control creates a two-tiered system in which some renters have government backing and some do not; it discourages landlords from renting, since they will get paid less than their apartments are worth; it doesn't work because it interferes with the market. For opposing this, I would get painted by liberals with the label "laissez-faire," "do nothing," "hands-off," "leave the poor out to dry."

But market economics says the government should step in precisely to protect contracts, for the sake of the poor and the rich alike. Not government "programs" substituting for the market, but government playing its legitimate role in creating a free market. Government should determine what is to be expected, and then make that clear to all parties. It should, for example, make it known that if a landlord doesn't provide phone jacks, or window screens, he will be held liable. Government should do this -- but it should also publicize what it does. Perhaps the law is on the books. But I had no access to that law.

And I had no way to enforce it. Government should also have clear public advocates, so that if I am a thousand miles away and my rights of contract are impinged -- as they clearly were, in the case of the security deposit -- I don't have to leave work, and come to D.C. so I can spend days in mediation. That is an obstacle to justice.

In fact, the liberal D.C. government is "active" in the sense of interfering with government -- but it is "passive," "laissez-faire," "hands-off," "leaving the poor without recourse" when it comes to the basic enforcement of contract. As a conservative, I want a lot more government action than I got. But I want government to enforce contracts all around, as a basic function of government and not as a luxury for those who can pay.

My wife and I are presently two-thirds of the way through the marvelous seven-and-a-half-hour BBC production of Charles Dickens's Bleak House. I highly recommend it for the superb production: great casting, acting, pacing, lighting, everything is great. And the story itself is gripping; we're on the edge of our seats.

But I also recommend it as an insight into social justice. The dominating economic problem of Bleak House is not that the economy cheats the poor, or that the rich themselves cheat the poor, but that the legal system is corrupt. The Court, rather than dealing blind justice, regardless of persons, is at the service of the rich. The solution to this problem is not (Obama-style) to make the Court move its thump to the side of the poor, but to make the Court do its job, so that the rights of all people are enforced, including the contracts they freely enter into. People should have a right, not to get what they didn't pay for, but to get what they did pay for. That takes an extraordinary amount of government energy -- but not the kind of energy the opponents of "laissez-faire" propose.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Freedom and the Common Good

David Brooks recently wrote a column accusing conservatives, with all our talk about freedom, of being opposed to the social nature of man and the common good. Perhaps he had in mind the recent book by Grover Norquist, an anti-tax crusader, entitled Leave Us Alone. The title suggests that what conservatives really want is radical individualism. (Though from what I've read, the book is actually a good deal more sophisticated than that.)

The charge is a serious one. Certainly from a Catholic perspective the common good is primary. We are social beings, created, not for individualism, but for community. I dare say it is a good thing that columns like Brooks' have sting, even politically: Americans know that ultra-individualism is not a good thing.

Jonah Goldberg at National Review responded that conservatism can sound like individualism because it is a "partial philosophy of life." That is, political conservatism is not meant to say everything there is to say. We want government to leave us alone, but that doesn't mean we want to retreat from society. In fact, as has been demonstrated by several recent studies, conservatives give much more money, volunteer more time, and even give more blood than liberals. We participate in more social groups, and believe in organized religion. We are not radical individualists. We just want the government to leave us alone.

I think this response doesn't quite get it right. Perhaps another time I'll try to explain the problem with creating too great a divide between the State and civil society, as if the State were a wholly abstract reality. For now, allow me simply to assert: you cannot simultaneously value civil society and say that the government should not promote it. The primary purpose of government is to promote the common good and civil society.

Nonetheless, freedom from the incursions of government -- telling government to leave us alone -- is an essential part of government's promotion of the common good.

In the fullest sense, only spiritual goods can be truly common. An apple can never be a common good, because to the extent that I partake of it, you cannot. But that is not true of spiritual things. Augustine's favorite example is teaching: sharing the apple means I get less, but sharing my knowledge means I possess it all the more. This is true above all of religion: I am most fully a Christian only in sharing my faith, both through evangelization and through the common worship of the Church.

And yet precisely in the realm of faith, the Church promote freedom. The reason is that these truly common goods can only be possessed from man's interior. No amount of external coercion can cause you to participate in the Catholic faith. We promote the faith as much as we can, but we cannot hope to share it with others unless we give them the space to embrace it freely. On the highest level, the common good depends on freedom; it cannot be shared without freedom.

This is true also, of course, of natural spiritual goods, such as learning. Compulsory education is a contradiction. As I argued in my last post, reviewing the new work by Charles Murray, real education can only happen when people freely embrace it, when they have the space to choose to learn and to truly learn, not just jump through hoops.

This is true of all of culture. Of course culture -- true culture, which is high, and must be learned, and which binds people together, as opposed to the multiculturalism that divides society -- should be promoted, by all means possible. But only by those means possible. Forcing people to participate is, again, simply a contradiction. We can provide carrots; for example, we can say that in order to vote, you need to understand the common language and the rudiments of American political philosophy and history. But we cannot use sticks, withholding basic goods from those who choose not to learn these things. Freedom is an essential part of promoting the common good which is culture; it is not everything (and that is why conservatives oppose multiculturalism), but it is a necessary component (and that is why conservatives oppose mandatory public schooling).

But the common good also exists on a slightly more complex level. Along with the common good being something "out there" in which we engage -- like religion or knowledge or culture -- there is also a common good which is society itself. We participate in this common good not by all sharing the same thing, but by each playing different roles within a greater whole. The common good of a family, for instance, can only happen when one person is the dad, and only the dad, another person is the mom, other people are children. (And the common good of the family becomes stronger, because richer and more complex, when it is extended, when there are five children, so that you have not just an "oldest" and a "youngest," but a greater complexity of relations, and when you have grandparents and other extended family members around.) Such a common good happens not by everyone being the same, but by people playing different roles in the same whole.

An old professor of mine describes a parade in traditional Poland, where different kinds of workers wore different costumes. The parade visually displayed the richness of society, which is built upon many people doing different things. He also described St. Peter's Square, where there is the Pope in white, the Cardinals in red, the bishops in magenta, the priests in black, the countless orders of religious, the flags of different nations, and countless lay people. These moments of pomp display the richness of society, which, like a family, is what it is precisely through people playing different roles. Aristotle makes the distinction between an arrangement and a heap: a heap is just a bunch of indistinguishable pieces; in an arrangement, each piece matters, because each piece plays a different role. Jane Jacobs describes a "ballet" of the city streets, with different people headed in different directions at different times of day -- not randomly, but in proper order, each playing his own role in building the city.

This common good of social life requires freedom, at least of a sort. To some extent, a certain kind of freedom can undermine it, if people no longer see their place, if people no longer have a sense of identity within the greater whole. But the good of freedom is precisely that people can find their place. Return to the potential electrician we discussed in the last post. To be an electrician is his proper place, his part of the arrangement, his place in building up the beautiful array of the social order. He may well fit that role because of his family background, but he may be an anomaly, with a set of talents we never could have predicted. This is precisely why freedom is necessary for building the social array. There is no way any authority can determine his place, except by letting things shake out and settle where they belong.

Freedom means giving people the opportunity to find their place in society. This is not a withdrawal, but a way to participate more fully. By contrast, imagine a command economy, such as occurred in China's Cultural Revolution. Professors and artists were sent to work in the fields. They could not be replaced, so that part of the array was lost. But they did not fit in the place to which they were sent, either. They could not participate in the common good, and they could not contribute to building it up, because they were not in their natural place. The Church recognizes this principle in demanding freedom for the individual to choose his proper vocation. Social order only happens when people are able to embrace what suits them. This is not relativism -- indeed, conservatives oppose "places" in society that do not naturally fit any person, such as prostitution, or thievery, or the underground economy. It is just the recognition that the social order requires diversity.

Finally, on the lowest level, there is the common good which is the economy. Economists trained in the Catholic tradition rightly point out that the economy cannot be a true common good, because it is fundamentally ordered to material goods. Material goods are private: to share is to diminish my part. To give you money is to lose money for myself.

But conservative economics brings to light an ambiguity in this. Wealth can be "created." What that means is that when resources are allocated more intelligently, everyone can have more. For example, a big pile of wheat in a farmer's field is hardly "his," insofar as he cannot use it. But if it is distributed, he can still have enough, while providing for many others. And to push deeper, farming itself creates a good that did not exist: the intelligence of the farmer creates a good where there was only earth. Truth to be told, resources are virtually infinite. There are very few things that we actually "use up." (Energy is a counter-example, but our solar and nuclear resources are virtually infinite, especially once we get into space.) Resources are virtually infinite; we are bound primarily by our inability to recycle, to distribute, and to use what we have. (Using what we have, I should note, sometimes means substitutions: there is a limited number of salmon we can catch, but a virtually unlimited number of tasty things to eat.)

This virtual infinity of goods puts the private nature of the economy in an ambiguous position. It's true that the material goods I possess are goods you cannot possess: we can't both have the same slice of the pie. But we can grow the pie, so that everyone can have a slice. Economics is precisely the science of growing the economy. And so, in an ambiguous sense, the economy is also like a common good: economic growth enriches both of us.

(Explaining this is much simpler on the level of "social connection" -- the level David Brooks was talking about. Caring about economic growth is simply a matter of social connection, of understanding that no man is an economic island. The liberal assumption that the pie is a limited size, that we must rob Peter to feed Paul, is a much coarser and more competitive understanding of social connection. When middle-class conservatives vote for "tax cuts for the rich," we are actually expressing our much greater belief in social connection, on the need of a rising tide to lift all boats, instead of just stealing from other people, whether or not "they can afford it." On the level of social connection, this argument is relatively easy. On the level of the common good, it is tricky: we must say that the economy is a common utilitarian good, in that it provides for all of us, rather than a common good in itself, in that we don't desire economic growth as an end in itself.)

To achieve the useful common good of economic growth again requires freedom. Conservative economics is not a matter of "leave me alone," of getting all I can and damn the rest. Conservative economics is a matter of mustering all tools at hand in order to grow this common good. Liberal command economics -- providing for the poor by stealing from the rich, and requiring all economic actors to be regulated by a few central planners -- is destructive of the economic common good precisely because it shuts out so many minds. I will not give a complete essay on the price mechanism here, but the free market, and freely floating prices, serve the economy precisely because they convey so much information about supply and demand to every individual in society. Prices allow my wife to participate in the decision-making process about where our limited supply of flour should be sent. Price controls mean shutting my wife, and millions of other intelligences, out of that decision. Economic growth means making the economy more intelligent; central planning is bad precisely because it shuts out intelligences, making the economy less intelligent.

This isn't a matter of greed or individualism. It's a matter of asking everyone to participate in promoting the common good. I know we are not used to thinking this way, but we could think of the free market as a kind of required civil service. In a centrally planned, command economy, individuals are allowed to lazily partake of economic goods without imputing their own intelligence. A market economy requires every individual in society to think for himself, to decide for himself whether trip is really worth the cost of gas, whether that restaurant is worth what it costs to maintain it, whether these figs are important enough to my diet to warrant the resources it takes to make them available. Market economics is not about individualistic freedom. It is about civil service, requiring every individual to contribute his own intelligence to the great social cause of planning an economy that provides for all.

Whether on the level of economic planning, or personal vocation, or participation in the goods of culture and religion, freedom is not opposed to the common good, but a necessary tool to promote it. Thus freedom is not to be seen as the opposite of government, and government is not to be seen as an enemy to the good. Rather, government must actively promote freedom precisely because it is the task of government to promote the common good.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Too Many People Go To College

I would like to draw your attention to a fantastic article on education by Charles Murray: "Are Too Many People Going to College?" Murray is a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, where he has also set out excellent ideas on economic reform, including his tax and entitlement reform known simply as "The Plan." But his ideas on education are his best thing yet.

At 6,000 words, the article probably strains the internet-reading limits of most people (which, I must note, is part of his point). Here is a key section:
Let me put these calculations in terms of a specific example, a young man who has just graduated from high school and is trying to decide whether to become an electrician or go to college and major in business, hoping to become a white-collar manager. . . .

He begins by looking up the average income of electricians and managers on the Bureau of Labor Statistics website, and finds that the mean annual income for electricians in 2005 was$45,630, only about half of the $88,450 mean for management occupations. It looks as if getting a B.A. will buy him a huge wage premium. Should he try to get the B.A. on economic grounds?

To make his decision correctly, our young man must start by throwing out the averages. He has the ability to become an excellent electrician and can reasonably expect to be near the top of the electricians’ income distribution. He does not have it in him to be an excellent manager, because he is only average in interpersonal and intrapersonal ability and only modestly above average in academic ability, all of which are important for becoming a good manager, while his competitors for those slots will include many who are high in all of those abilities. Realistically, he should be looking at the incomes toward the bottom of the distribution of managers. With that in mind, he goes back to the Bureau of Labor Statistics website and discovers that an electrician at the 90th percentile of electricians’ incomes made $70,480 in 2005, almost twice the income of a manager at the 10th percentile of managers’ incomes ($37,800). Even if our young man successfully completes college and gets a B.A. (which is far from certain), he is likely to make less money than if he becomes an electrician.

Then there is job security to consider. A good way to make sure you always can find work is to be among the best at what you do. It also helps to have a job that does not require you to compete with people around the globe. . . . Low-level management jobs can often be outsourced to India, whereas electricians’ jobs cannot.

What I have said of electricians is true throughout the American job market. . . . The demand for skilled technicians of every kind—in healthcare, information technology, transportation networks, and every other industry that relies on high-tech equipment—is expanding. . . . Construction offers an array of high-paying jobs for people who are good at what they do. It’s not just skilled labor in the standard construction trades that is in high demand. The increase in wealth in American society has increased the demand for all sorts of craftsmanship. Today’s high-end homes and office buildings may entail the work of specialized skills in stonework, masonry, glazing, painting, cabinetmaking, machining, landscaping, and a dozen other crafts. The increase in wealth is also driving an increased demand for the custom-made and the exquisitely wrought, meaning demand for artisans in everything from pottery to jewelry to metalworking. There has never been a time in history when people with skills not taught in college have been in so much demand at such high pay as today, nor a time when the range of such jobs has been so wide. In today’s America, finding a first-rate lawyer or physician is easy. Finding first-rate skilled labor is hard.

Intrinsic Rewards

The topic is no longer money but job satisfaction—intrinsic rewards. . . . Our high-school graduate knows that he enjoys working with his hands and likes the idea of not being stuck in the same place all day, but he also likes the idea of being a manager sitting behind a desk in a big office, telling people what to do and getting the status that goes with it.

However, he should face facts that he is unlikely to know on his own, but that a guidance counselor could help him face. His chances of getting the big office and the status are slim. He is more likely to remain in a cubicle, under the thumb of the boss in the big office. He is unlikely to have a job in which he produces something tangible during the course of the day.

If he becomes a top electrician instead, he will have an expertise that he exercises at a high level. At the end of a workday, he will often be able to see that his work made a difference in the lives of people whose problems he has solved. He will not be confined to a cubicle and, after his apprenticeship, will be his own supervisor in the field. Top electricians often become independent contractors who have no boss at all.

The intrinsic rewards of being a top manager can be just as great as those of a top electrician (though I would not claim they are greater), but the intrinsic rewards of being a mediocre manager are not. Even as people in white-collar jobs lament the soullessness of their work, the intrinsic rewards of exercising technical skills remain undiminished.

Finally, there is an overarching consideration so important it is hard to express adequately: the satisfaction of being good at what one does for a living (and knowing it), compared to the melancholy of being mediocre at what one does for a living (and knowing it). This is another truth about living a human life that a 17-year-old might not yet understand on his own, but that a guidance counselor can bring to his attention. Guidance counselors and parents who automatically encourage young people to go to college straight out of high school regardless of their skills and interests are being thoughtless about the best interests of young people in their charge.

I would like to offer three comments to fill out Murray's excellent perspective.

First, I would like to connect his bell-curve analysis to one of my central theses: the importance of birth and family. Murray's 1994 book The Bell Curve was hugely controversial for pointing out the simple fact that most people are not exceptional, and many people are below average. (Murray was accused of being a racist, though I think that misses his point.) What I would like to point out is simply that where you come from matters. To expect the children of laborers to become doctors is unreasonable and unfair. It is also anti-family. It is appropriate for people to follow in their fathers' footsteps. It is natural. The passion in our culture for making everyone alike cuts out the beautiful diversity, and the beautiful continuity within families, that makes a culture strong.

Murray is not saying that the sons of laborers should be barred from college. He is saying that people are different, and their differences should be accepted: let the natural electrician be an electrician! I would add, letting people be who they are recognizes that family matters. That recognition is good, first, because it is true: an educational system that tries to make family irrelevant is bound to fail, because family makes a difference. And second, society is stronger when people are free to be part of their family, instead of being pushed to scorn who they are and where they come from.

Second point: I disagree with Murray's dismissal of brick-and-mortar campuses. Murray is too quick to dismiss the intangible goods of being in the same place. Or rather, the tangible goods: I love email and the internet, and they have greatly helped my intellectual development, but being in the same room as a person, holding a book in your hand, and walking through a library are important precisely because we are material beings. Disembodied friendship is not fully human friendship.

Murray would have done better to say that the kind of personal, tangible contact for which universities are built is hampered by the presence of people who do not really want to be there. And the real way to "come in contact with people who are different" is through real contact: that is, through actual human interaction, which happens much more when you are actually engaged, on the job, than when you are just showing up for class. "College" does not happen just by throwing everyone onto the same campus. It happens, on campus or off, when people are actually interacting about things in which they are invested.

In any case, I do not think Murray's dismissal of brick-and-mortar colleges plays any crucial role in his argument.

Last point: Murray is perhaps too quick to dismiss the value of liberal education for true human development. This is something we should try to make more broadly available -- it is a key part of the Catholic educational mission from the beginning.

However, we should again acknowledge that true liberal education cannot happen without personal investment, and it has very little to do with 32 courses or a piece of paper. One of the great benefits of eliminating our culture's preference for a B.A. would be to separate education from degrees. The first benefit, as conservative education reformers have noted in the past, would be to strengthen earlier education. People should learn how to read and write in high school, and even middle school, not in college. Our current system allows high schools to slough off that duty, knowing that people will get a remedial college education anyway. I heard once on C-SPAN an author detailing his study of letter-writing in the Civil War. Short summary: the average "uneducated" soldier in the nineteenth century was way more educated than even most smart college grads now, because they made sixth grade count for something.

A second benefit of separating education from college would be to promote non-traditional learning. Good Catholics ought to be reading books on their own, taking correspondence courses just for personal development, taking night classes through their parish or other non-degree program, etc. People should be learning. But they would learn more if they were moving at their own speed and learning for learning's sake, instead of because taking an English course is supposed to get you a higher-paying job in middle management.

(Incidentally, the promotion of such learning for learning's sake would also be helped by a looser work week, so that people could study on Thursday afternoons, for example. The more government defines what normal is -- especially the forty-hour week -- the more people will be pressed to do that. We should all be working for a world where there is no "normal" work week, so that people can model work to their own needs. One of the main ways to do that is to get government out of the business of defining what counts as full-time. It comes across in things like mandating who gets benefits and over-time, and how businesses pay taxes.)

Finally, a political note: one of the beautiful parts of this presidential campaign is the disconnect between Obama and McCain on education. Notice how McCain is talking about vocational training and middle school, while Obama wants to push more people to go to college. McCain is profoundly right on this.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Managing Alaska

Amidst all the excitement of the Sarah Palin announcement -- and we are thrilled -- we've had a side conversation about Alaskan fishing. My boss is a former salmon fisherman on the very Bristol Bay where the Palin family fishes (and for which their eldest daughter is named). Here's a short video showing what they do:

For a few weeks each year, the salmon come up Bristol Bay by the millions to spawn in the streams where they were born. For the fishermen, it's a bonanza. Boats cover the bay with nets and drag in fish until, my boss says, the boats are literally sinking.

But there's an obvious danger. When you're pulling in fish like that, how do you make sure enough survive to keep things self-sustaining?

It's interesting to learn that salmon, like deer, are their own worst enemies. So many fish are swimming upstream that if fisherman don't diminish their numbers, they will crowd each other out. Letting all the fish get through would actually result in a smaller number of next-generation survivors then culling them first. Which is to say, man is not entirely an intruder: we have a role to play tending the garden.

Nonetheless, it can obviously be overdone. We've all heard of over-fishing, whether or not we know where it happens. What to do?

The obvious answer is government oversight -- and that's what they do in Alaska. The government determines what hours you can go out each day. One day might be 9am-4pm, the next day 7am-7pm, the next day 3am-noon. From what my boss tells me, the numbers are not immediately intelligible: the point is to limit fishing, and to change up when fish get through, presumably to preserve some diversity among the animals. Well-managed fishing means the fish survive to the next generation.

But it seems to me -- someone correct me if I'm missing something -- that there are different ways to manage the harvest. Government is the obvious choice, but is it the best? As I noted in my posts on managing urban neighborhoods, government tends to prefer over-simplistic methods, and democratic government is especially prone to short-term thinking: re-election next year means finding solutions that sound good in the short-term, not the long-term. And because you only need 51% to get elected, there is no incentive for politicians to care for everyone. There is no incentive, for example, to maximize who gets to take part in the fishing.

What if Bristol Bay was managed by private land-owners? As I argued previously, a private owner worries not only about the profit he makes today, but also about re-sale value. If a private investor created Bristol Bay, Inc., his financial interest would be to manage the waters so that many fish were caught every year, both now and far into the future: overfishing would greatly diminish the value of the property. The standard assumption is that a private owner would just strip all the value, then move on; but that would not in fact be in his own interest. He could get more money from selling a Bay that continues to produce.

The same might be said of Alaska's oil fields. The common assumption is that oil moguls would take all the money they could, while destroying the future value of the land. But so doing would hurt even them. If a private investor owned the section of ANWR where oil could be taken, his financial interest would dictate a method of oil extraction that allowed the land to produce for a relatively long time and still have high re-sale value down the road.

This argument, of course, has limits. Some things deserve to be kept purely as treasures. Perhaps, for example, the ANWR oil moguls would see little resale value in the survival of a rare species of seal; perhaps they would judge that the sole breeding ground of the species was also the best place for their refinery, and determine that they could make a lot more money puting the refinery there than preserving the seals. And perhaps the world would be better off in some intangible way if those seals survived.

But let's be careful to distinguish the two questions. One question is how a resource is best managed so as to survive long-term. The other question is how to preserve treasures that cannot be priced. The question of how best to manage the salmon stock, for example, should not be confused with how best to ensure the rights of the Yup'ik eskimos who live there. Government can step in to preserve the Yup'iks without therefore having to manage the salmon.

The government can tell the ANWR moguls that they can own and manage the land, but they must preserve the seals. Private enterprise can better manage the oil resources, and can in fact better determine how to harmonize the needs of the seals and the needs of the oil industry. Rather than letting politicians make short-term, interest group-based determinations of what means are best -- for example, dictating where the drills go, what methods are used, etc. -- the government should simply tell the oil moguls, if the seal population goes down, you will pay.

The best way to make them pay would be a simple threat to revoke the charter. The state of Alaska should auction off charter rights to the highest bidder, with certain restrictions. If, for example, the seal population went down, the charter holder would simply lose his rights to the land, and the land would again be auctioned off. Perhaps the same company would win the auction again -- but the price of diminishing the seal population would be having to buy the land a second time. The profit for the people of Alaska, of course, would be significant.

This policy allows the government to set clear mandates (the seal population must go up every year), but allows private enterprise to determine how to achieve those goals, and how to harmonize them with other legitimate goals, such as oil extraction. And private enterprise can pursue these goals with means that match long-term interests instead of short-term politicking, with the flexibility of individual initiative instead of parlimentarian wrangling. The best way to manage Alaska is to get the politicians out.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Abortion and God

Reading lots of abortion commentary from Catholic authors writing about the Democratic platform, Biden, Pelosi, Obama-at-Saddleback, etc.

I disagree with many Catholic authors who say "it's just patently obvious from science that there's a human person from conception." I don't think personhood is determined by DNA. Dead bodies have human DNA, but that doesn't give them the same rights as live ones. At least some reference needs to be made to the soul -- and then you either have a disembodied soul, in which case even the DNA would be irrelevant, or you have a soul that is the form of a body, in which case not just DNA, but the body itself has some pertinence. I think abortion is grievously wrong at any stage, but I don't think it's obvious why.

But I also think that the category of rights is more religious than people want to think it is. Thou shalt not kill is not entirely obvious.

I recently read Barzun's "From Dawn to Decadence: 1500 to the Present: 500 Years of Western Civilization." (I don't recommend it -- tedious.) He defines decadence as when a society likes what it has but no longer knows why it has it. In the time of the decline, the Romans still loved their Empire, but they'd forgotten the virtues that built it. And I think he'd say that "Western Culture," including the arts, but even more including things like individual liberty, is just . . . well, Chesterton said it's like a corpse, where the outside is still the same, but the animating principle is gone, so it looks like the same person . . . until all of the sudden the face caves in. Ick.

I think there's a little of that, where we (liberals and conservatives, Catholics and atheists and agnostics, etc.) all believe that things like "all men are created equal and endowed with rights" are just "self-evident," but they really aren't. The notion that you should do unto others, that you shouldn't murder, etc. -- I don't think we really know where these things come from, or why we believe them. And I think that's evidenced a bit in the abortion debate. Why shouldn't we kill our children again? Well, mostly because we don't like that. But we don't know why, and so when it comes to the really tricky cases, like where the child is seriously impeding the liberties of the mother (and pregnancy is a huge impediment!), we get a bit squishy.

In the end, I think there are only two ways of resolving debates on civil law. (Three, if you count the simple power principle: I have power, so the law serves me.) One conception of law is by reference to contract: I agree not to kill you, so you agree not to kill me. But on this basis, lines can be drawn arbitrarily. If we all promise not to kill people under the age of thirty, I'm fine. I think this contract mentality is operative, and fully coherent, in the pro-choice argument: you can't kill unless someone is seriously trampling on your individual liberty; the fetus tramples on the liberty of the mother; therefore . . . . This is a perfectly rational argument, and social conservatives make themselves look dumb when they pretend it isn't.

(Incidentally, even Obama's "extreme" support of infanticide for children born by botched abortions works fine in this logic. The mother has a right to kill her unborn child. And it's fair enough to say that the mother has a right not to suffer unduly from that child surviving. Since it would be horribly traumatic to see the child you tried to kill accorded full human dignity, I think it's perfectly reasonable, in a contract view of law, to say that you have the right to have the job finished, the born-alive infant allowed to die.)

The other argument against killing is based on natural law. But we -- many good Catholics included -- need to realize that natural law does not mean "plain obvious moral sense," and it does not mean contract. Natural law, as it comes to us from the Catholic tradition, means that nature is normative, that we live in accord with how God made things. We respect, for example, the divine creation of motherhood, by which a mother is inseparably bound to her child. This isn't imposed from the outside: mother's are happier when they live according to their nature, and mothers who abort their children are always torn apart by it. So in a sense, it is common sense: it doesn't take a genius to see that killing your children is not good for mothers.

But nonetheless, ultimately natural law hinges on more than judgments of expedience. The reason we don't kill babies is because it is wrong. It is wrong because it violates our natures -- but it violates our natures because we have natures, and we have natures because we are a product, not of random evolution, but of the wise providence of God. You don't need to think of God every time you evoke natural law, but without God, natural law falls apart. It is not a coincidence that the people pushing for the rights of the weakest are the people who believe in a provident God, and the opposite side keeps God at a distance. Nor is it a coincidence that our culture of individual rights grew up out of Christianity. Individual rights is not obvious. It's nice; it feels good; but in the end, without the animating principle of divine faith, individual rights begins to give way to me first.

When Catholics talk about abortion, they shouldn't say, "it's just blatantly obvious from the DNA that this is a person deserving respect." They should say, "you're damned right that my respect for the person comes from my faith. Here's why I believe in human dignity. Why do you? Can you give a better account? Can you explain why you have any rights at all? Until you do, don't tell me to keep my faith out of politics. I care for you because of my faith."