Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Defining Capitalism

Catholic (and other) discussions about economics are often clouded by ambiguities of language. The word "capitalism" is especially problematic. It seems to me that capitalism is routinely used with at least the following three definitions:

1. A free-market economy, in which prices are driven by supply and demand, rather than moral or legal imperatives

2. An investment economy, in which "capital" is separated from labor, so that I invest my money in, and make money from, someone else's work

3. A cultural mentality in which nothing matters except profit

These definitions are different, but related -- and therein lays the trouble. The distinction between the last one and the first two, I think, lies in the difference between believing the market is something, and believing the market is everything. Critics of capitalism, I think, tend to reject, or seem to reject, the market (1) and investment (2) because they think it is identical with a materialist mentality (3).

But defenders and practitioners of the market and investment tend to overstate their case in such a way that they seem to be promoting this mentality. They do this either for reasons of argument (trying so hard to get their interlocutors to admit that capital is something that they seem to make it everything) or for pragmatic reasons (a businessman's job is to make the market work, so he tends to speak in exclusively market terms). Either of these practices may incline the market-man to the materialistic mentality -- but he may also be pushed in this direction when those who preach economic morality seem to deny that the market is anything at all, and thus deny a very real good. In any case, we do well to distinguish.

The market is something (in defense of the first position above). Prices are not merely a means of sticking up for number one, but a way of coordinating information. For example, I was recently talking to a friend of mine who is a civil engineer. He works with water utilities for municipalities. He's a smart guy, and it's smart work, and I think he sort of enjoys it, but he doesn't live for it. He lives for his family, and designing water utilities for municipalities is a good way to support his family. The price mechanism makes sure someone is willing to do that job. My friend likes his job alright, but if they paid much less, he'd do something that better provided for his family. On the other hand, if he charged much more for his services, they wouldn't be worth it to the cities who hire him. They negotiate a price in order to make sure the services they need are available; because both parties enter freely into the bargain, they can establish a price that works for both of them. It's not about selfishness. It's about finding a price that satisfies both parties.

(Romantics sometimes like to think that in the good old days, farmers just worked because it was fulfilling. I think -- and I hope -- that farmers worked because it provided for their family. Part of that provision, to be sure, was decent work. But most of it was getting enough for more important things. A subsistence farmer farms till he has enough, then quits. So does my engineering friend. True, a farmer might decide to plant corn instead of soybeans because picking corn seems less back-breaking -- but my engineering friend has far more options than the old-time farmer: he stays in this line of work precisely because he does not find it dehumanizing.)

Our local co-op has smoked trout from a farm in Wisconsin. It's good. I wouldn't pay $100 for it, but the price is reasonable, so we get it and put it on bagels for breakfast. On the other hand, someone has to produce that trout, and someone has to make it available. If the farmer, and the smoker, and the truck driver, and the people who run the store don't all get reasonable pay for that smoked trout, it isn't going to be worth it for them. The price I pay at the co-op actually coordinates an amazing amount of information: what the trout is worth for me, what it's space in the store is worth for the co-op (who must pay the builders of their building, the providers of their utilities, the clerks at the counter, and the managers who manage it all), what it costs for the truck driver to get it to Selby Ave. from northwestern Wisconsin, what it costs the smoker to smoke it, what it costs the farmer to produce it, and more.

The example is useful, I think, because it shows the complexity of economics. It's easy to talk in abstractions about what the cost of fuel, or food, or rent, or whatever, should be. But what should the price of smoked trout be? It really depends on what it's worth to all the parties involved. How much am I willing to pay? There might be a trout farmer who just lives for trout, and would be willing to produce it even if he could barely scrape by. There might not. That is hugely significant to what the price of trout will be. There might be a truck driver who is already going that direction (Star Prairie, Wisconsin, is not too far from the Twin Cities, but it is in the middle of nowhere), and there might not. That matters. There might be people who just love to drive, and there might not. The market is a way to coordinate this information.

How else can we determine a "just" price for smoked trout than by asking each person along the line, what is it worth to you? If the truck driver can find enough business, and get a good enough cut from it, to make that drive worth it to him, then we have a driver. If not, then we either have to press one into service, or do without smoked trout. The price mechanism -- the market -- is the only way to coordinate all that information. As Friedrich Hayek said, the free market isn't the opposite of "planning." It's just the greater defusion of planning: it allows all the players in the game -- all the people considering a career in trout farming, or truck-driving, and all the people considering what to have for breakfast -- to participate in that planning, and coordinates their decision. The price mechanism is a beautiful thing.

It is not a mercenary thing. The example of smoked trout brings out the complexity of the market. Not everyone wants to be a trout farmer. But maybe someone does, and he needs enough money to make it work for him and his totally unique situation. I'm now working as a blogger at a bookstore: and I need enough money for me to say that this cool job is worth it; if I thought my particular family couldn't live what we consider a dignified live on this wage, I'd be willing to consider working for the IRS. Not everyone wants smoked trout. And you know, if people aren't willing to pay $15/lb. for it, then the trout farmer, and everyone else between him and the store shelf, need to think whether they really want to stay in that game.

This is not a consumerist thing. The market is not just about everyone getting bigger and better and uglier. It's also about people getting nice things. I'm paying for smoked trout because I don't want mass-produced cereal, which would be a lot cheaper. The bookstore is paying me the wage I demanded because they think people will be interested in what I have to say. That's not consumerism. That's the promotion of the good. Goodness requires intelligence: it requires people with discernment saying, you know, this trout is pretty good, but let's try another bagel place. In itself, the market promotes greater intelligence. We can talk in other posts about what produces consumerist stupidity.

The market is also not demeaning to workers. Quite the contrary. If my civil-engineer friend, or the truck driver, found his work demeaning, he could either say he does not want to do that job or he could ask for more money, so that, for example, he could work fewer hours, or cut out a couple particularly ugly stops, or even just make his cab more comfortable. What is demeaning is forced labor and the absence of good things. And if we don't want to pay people what they think their work is worth, we will either have to give up the goods they produce (for example, leaving all the smoked trout in northwestern Wisconsin) or force someone to do it. The market is essentially the ability of people to negotiate what work is worth to them, both from the side of the worker himself and from the side of the consumer (who wants smoked trout, with all the work that goes into it).

The market is a good thing. It allows people to do work they enjoy and sustain the lifestyle they want. And it recognizes that people are legitimately different -- not everyone wants to be an academic, and I wouldn't enjoy being a trout farmer as much as some people would. It recognizes that a beautiful world is not one where everybody eats the same breakfast every day, but one where smoked trout is available for those who want it, bacon and eggs for those who want that, and breakfast cereal, whether run-of-the-mill or fancy Kashi, for those who like that. This is not consumerism. It's the pursuit of beauty and the recognition that monotony is neither natural nor good.

The market is not everything. Indeed, the examples we're working with show that it cannot be. Without sales, there is no market. If no one were buying smoked trout, no one could make a profit off of it. If no one cared to drive big cars, or go on road trips, or pick the neighborhood they live in, no one could "profiteer" off of gas. If people didn't care about sewers, municipal-water engineers would be out of work. Even the worst profiteers are not pure "capitalists" in the third sense defined above: they still want to support a certain style of life. The market is always, necessarily, hemmed in by values, by what people care to spend money on.

It should be more hemmed in. I would like to live in a world where sexual perversity was not available for sale. I would like to live in a world where people didn't subject themselves to so much mass entertainment. I wish people could live on more carefully produced food. Profit is not everything. But the market is something. To rage against "capitalism" as if anyone who works for profit, or defends profit, must care about nothing but money is to eliminate great good from the world. Those of us who defend the market, who say that prices should fluctuate freely, as a matter of contract and negotiation, not moral or legal fiat, are not "idolators of the market." (That's Obama's phrase.) We just recognize that there is something here, and that it is good. The free market serves a valuable purpose in providing for a good life. It is not everything, but it is a praise-worthy something.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Christian Faith and the Free Market (part two)

On Thursday we discussed Christian faith and the free market with regard to the problem of churches themselves being an object of free choice. Today I'd like to talk about how Christian faith affects the market itself.

The first thing to note is the distinction between what faith should determine and what it can. The latter applies to the problem of free churches. In the four-hundred-year period between Trent and Vatican II the dominant position among Catholics was that "error has no rights." That is, wrong religions have no right to appear in the public sphere. The ideal is a Catholic state. Non-Catholic religions (whether other variants of Christianity or non-Christian religions) would simply not appear.

The kernel of this argument is right. Error has no rights, because error is wrong. But Vatican II's Declaration on Religious Liberty brought forward a position, clearly articulated by Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, among others, that may be summarized (in modern "rights" language) as "error has no rights, but people do." The core of this argument is not that religion shouldn't be coerced -- if we could coerce people to accept the truth, we certainly would -- but that religion can't be coerced. Religious coercion is not so much a violation of personal dignity as a metaphysical impossibility, because religious faith stands, by its very definition, beyond the reach of external powers. I can make someone go to church, but I simply cannot make him believe. The first problem with a confessional state is that it cannot accomplish what it sets out to do.

The more controversial question, of course, is whether it can eliminate impediments to belief. Granted that we can't make people believe, we can at least keep erroneous positions from being circulated. If no one ever hears about Protestantism, or Islam, or atheism, or whatever, then it's safe to say that a lot fewer people will defect to those religions.

Vatican II's response to this question seems to switch back from the question of what can be done to what ought to be done, that is, the question of human dignity. Begin with the family. Thomas Aquinas argues against forcible Baptism of children born to non-Christian families on the grounds that this would violate the family itself; it would be contrary to the natural law, because children are naturally subject to their parents. Considered in abstraction, it would of course be better for every child to receive Baptism and a Christian education -- but in the real world, children are born to parents, and that subjection is also part of God's law. To take children from their parents, even for the eminent good of Baptism, is a violation of God's law: possible, but wrong.

Vatican II seems to be applying this same argument, analogically, to the public expression of non-Catholic (and thus, erroneous) religions. Man is by his nature social, and religion is by its nature social. Considered in abstraction, it would be better if false religions were kept quiet. But to prevent a person from talking about his religious opinions, or from gathering with those who share them, or even from acting publicly on them, says the Council, would be a violation of human nature. It would be wrong, not because error itself has rights, but because Christian civil authorities, as all Christians, are bound to respect the natural law; they are bound to respect the nature of things (and of persons) as something created by God, and social expression of religious opinions is part of human nature. We do our best to change their minds. We would prefer a society in which all are true believing (and loving!) Catholics. But we cannot violate the natural law to get there.

The natural law is the fitting segue to our next consideration: the effect of Christian faith on the non-religious parts of the market. The key distinction here is between what is of faith and what isn't. The natural law is a matter of faith: discernible by reason, but morally requisite as an expression of God's goodness, and therefore often confirmed by definitive statement of the Church.

We know, for example, that the sexual union of man and woman is ordered to children, who need stable, committed parents, and thus that there exists an institution, which we call marriage, to create that stable environment. We know this by reason, and it is confirmed by the teaching of the Church. It is well within Christian faith to use law to do our best to prevent sex outside of marriage and to do what we can to strengthen the kind of marriage that procreates and provides for children.

But note that Church teachings, and thus all matters of faith, are necessarily universal. It is a matter of faith that fornication, abortion, murder, and theft are all universally wrong. The Christian should do his best in the political arena to make these activities illegal. (Though he should recognize that this is not always possible -- Thomas himself acknowledges that some good things are beyond the capacity of law. A law that banned lustful thoughts, for example, would be simply impossible to enforce, and therefore not a valid law. I don't have a text available, but I believe Augustine extends this argument even to prostitution, saying that in his time, it just wasn't practicable to outlaw prostitution. Interesting.)

Given the universality of teachings of faith, what about matters of economic justice? The Church teaches, for example, that the economy ought to provide a "living wage," sufficient for each man to care for his family. (It taught this with more vehemence in the early twentieth century than later, perhaps for the reasons I will give here.) In itself, that is a universal teaching of faith. But what does it mean? Does every family have exactly the same needs? Can these needs even be identified in dollar values?

The simplistic idea of a minimum wage brings out the impossibility of determining human needs based on dollar amounts. We can say, for example, that everyone should get at least $8/hr., or $320/wk., or whatever. But what is $320? It depends, of course, on what you can buy with it. Inflation would make that $320 worth far less. And $320 is worth nothing in an economy that doesn't make available the things that a family would need to have. In an economy where everything is connected -- for example, where the price of groceries is largely dependent on the wages of those who produce them, and where the number of jobs is dependent on whether businesses can afford to employ people -- raising the minimum wage does not necessarily produce the desired result.

To determine a living wage, we need to know (a) the particular "needs" of each family (which presumably include a lot of particularities, like how much the kids eat, what sort of vocations the family is pursuing, including things like sports, music, and education, as well as family apostolates) and (b) how much that wage can purchase in the market.

In short, it seems to me impossible to make a universal judgment that, say, $320/wk. constitutes a living wage. To apply the universal teaching of faith that the economy ought to supply for the needs of family requires a heck of a lot of prudence.

And that, it seems to me, is the purpose of the free market. Christians need to hold firm to the teachings of faith. They should work, for example, to make sure that slave labor and all things that are inherently immoral (such as prostitution, pornography, etc.) are illegal -- so far as possible. But they must also realize the limits of faith, and not equate a thing like $320/wk. with the true teaching of faith. We should work for economic justice, but realize that the means of securing it may be more complicated than a simple formula.

Friday, July 25, 2008

The Summer of '68

Cardinal Stafford, Archbishop of Denver during the great 1993 World Youth Day and now (promuovere per rimuovere?) Apostolic Penitentiary at the Vatican, today published his recollections on the fortieth anniversary of Humanae Vitae. To mark the day, I will interrupt my series on Christian faith and the free market (and my long-awaited conclusion on commercial neighborhoods) to comment on his statement.

His comments -- overwritten, as any auditor of Cardinal Stafford would expect -- juxtapose the response to Humanae Vitae against the other events of that summer: the Tet Offensive (and the media's treasonous response), beginning in late January; the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., on April 4; the subsequent rioting, which hit Baltimore (where Stafford was a priest) and Washington (the flash point for Humanae Vitae dissent) especially hard that Palm Sunday weekend; and the assassination of Bobby Kennedy, on June 6. Stafford also recalls the decline in sexual morality and rise in hard drugs over the course of the sixties, following pari passu with Western society's absurd trust in social-science "experts." And he cites the great historian Paul Johnson's description of it all: America's Suicide Attempt.

The Cardinal then describes the dramatic events of Humanae Vitae itself: first, the papal birth-control commission's public recommendation that Church teaching on sexuality be overturned, signed by, among others, Baltimore's Cardinal Shehan. Next the Pope's surprising courage in the publication of Humanae Vitae on July 25. Then Fr. Charlie Curran's quick return from the West Coast to Washington to convene a meeting of theologians on July 29 in The Catholic University of America's Caldwell Hall (still the seat of the theology faculty), where the Washington Post fed them the encyclical as it first arrived on American presses so that they could publish their dissent by 9pm. That long night of telephone calls in which they found fully 600 theologians' names to append to their statement. And then Fr. Stafford's own test, when on August 4 he was called to a meeting of priests in which, without discussion, each was asked, individually, to say yes or no to the Washington statement. Stafford says that he was the last one asked, and the only one to say no. He was then subjected to verbal abuse in front of his brother priests before being dismissed. If you have ever heard Stafford speak, you have heard the trauma of that night.

The leader of the event, Stafford says, was an inner-city pastor. Stafford had spoken with him over the phone during the MLK riots, and he recalls his words: "From here I see nothing but fire burning everywhere. Everything has been set ablaze. The Church and rectory are untouched thus far." I lived for a year in a DC neighborhood only now recovering from those riots. Chaos.

Stafford draws what seems to me an odd connection between the events. For him, they are only two examples of radical violence, and the breakdown of civility that follows thereon. After the violence of August 4, he says, the communio of the presbyterate was destroyed. He recalls a failed conversation with that pastor ten years later: the two of them stared into an abyss, he says, from opposite sides, with no possibility of coming together. Stafford's summation, "He has since died while serving a large suburban parish," perhaps ironically bespeaks the only solution to the breakdown.

The Cardinal responds with his Balthsarian death-of-God theology: "Trinitarian life is essentially self-surrender and love." His article is scattered with the word abyss.

But we might view those events from another angle. Stafford treats the conjunction of chaos as purely accidental: civil society and ecclesial communion both happened to break down that summer, so it's convenient to compare the two, like two books beside each other on a shelf. But perhaps the collapse of civil society is precisely the context for the collapse in ecclesial communion. It is perhaps no coincidence that the priest who led that Baltimore meeting was the same one who had seen his parish go up in flames. '68 was a year of terror. (Stafford does not mention the student riots in Paris that May, a catacylsm that brought down the traditionalist De Gaulle government and a watershed in European history.)

In this light, we read Stafford's ultra-voluntarism. He sums up the lesson: "When the moment of Christian witness came, no Christian could be coerced who refused to be." And he sums up the Gospel: "Christ learned obedience through what he suffered" -- a passage central to his Balthasarian theology, but through which many earlier theologians tread lightly. The proper pastoral response, he says, is to call us into the abyss of radical obedience.

But we might instead read the Crucifixion more as love "till the end": a God who enters all the way into the darkness of our suffering. And we might consider the way that violence shatters our sense of order. That inner-city pastor is not just the image of disobedience, but one who has suffered terror: the terror of an entire city parish in flames. The Christian response is then not to demand obedience, not gazing across an unbridgeable chasm, but reaching out in solidarity with the broken.

And the history of the twentieth century is not the age of apostasy, but the age of terror. The crisis of the Church in the twentieth century is not just Satanic priests trampling on their vocation, but the weak being drowned by the storms of the age. And the pastoral response is not a new syllabus of errors, but the joy and compassion of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, reaching from end to end sweetly, extending the goodness of God into the chaos of the age.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Christian Faith and the Free Market

In the next two posts, I would like to offer some precisions on the relationship between Christian faith and the free market. I hope the significance of my position will come out as I work it out.

The free market is, essentially, the ability of individuals to decide for themselves what interactions they want to enter into.

Christian faith, on the other hand, is essentially a matter of revelation. In itself it cannot be freely determined, because its content is essentially given. Indeed (as is well known) the word "heresy" is simply the Greek word for "choice": to pick and choose on matters of faith is to fall away from faith. Whether Jesus is truly God and truly man is not for me to pick; it is for God (through his Church) to reveal, and me to believe.

Or, to come at it from a different angle, the core meaning of "faith" is trust in an authority. The authority might be a friend giving you directions ("well, I have faith" -- or "I don't have faith" -- "in his ability to tell me how to find the house"), a spouse's promise ("I trust that he will be faithful"), or God's self-revelation in Christ. To pick and choose is sometimes appropriate -- for example, we try to choose a spouse we can have faith in, and we might decide we have more faith in Google maps than in our friend's directions -- but this choice is, in itself, the opposite of faith. To decide for yourself is to indicate that you do not, or do not yet, trust the other person. Only after we pledge our faith to one another, or step out on a journey with faith in our directions, have we begun to have faith.

The first way I would like to apply this distinction between faith and free choice (and thus, the free market) is in the idea of church shopping. "Shopping" is a fine choice of words: because church shopping essentially reduces church to a consumer interaction. You find a pair of shoes that fit your feet and your style, you pick out the apples that look most crispy, and you shop for the "right" church for you.

Let me immediately acknowledge that this dynamic is complicated. We can't entirely rule out the role of free choice in finding a church, because you have to find a particular place that corresponds with the bigger revelation to which you ascribe. If a pastor is clearly contradicting the Gospel, you have to go elsewhere. The failing may be moral (if you fear he will abuse your children, for example) or doctrinal (if his preaching is so untrue as to prevent you from worshiping and growing in the faith).

Yet this dynamic of choice must be firmly circumscribed by faith. From the outside, it seems to me that American Protestantism has so erred on the side of choice as to undermine faith. "Church" becomes more a matter of finding what fits you than of submitting to revelation.

I think there are dangers of this in American Catholicism as well. In theory, Catholics choose a church entirely based on location: because it is assumed that you simply go to receive, not to find your favorite church. In theory, church shopping is entirely foreign to Catholics. But in our age of easy transportation -- and of widespread apostasy -- it has become normal to drive through several parishes on the way to "yours." Again, there is space for this: if the priest is truly abusive, you should leave. But it seems to me that choice has gone too far. Parish itself becomes a matter of preference.

And of course, ironically, the more people choose, the more they have to choose: if all the faithful people leave St. Luke's, and all the wacky people come in, then both St. Luke's priests and its congregation will increasingly become hostile to the faithful. This is what happened to mainline Protestantism -- all the Bible folks gave up on their denominations -- and it has happened in far too many Catholic parishes. Because the faithful leave, large swathes of people who have never thought it through -- indeed, who are, as they should be, receptive to the teaching of their local church -- never come in contact with orthodoxy. This is a grave disservice. Catholics and Protestants alike should be careful about abandoning their local church. If they have to leave, they should be careful to pick the most "neighborhood" church they can: to commit to a church because it is given to them, not because they seek it out.

A second irony of free-market church shopping is that it heightens one's faith in the local authority. Some Protestants, it is true, may be so little committed to any particular church that they always check their pastor against their own private judgment. But far more common, I think (because more in line with human nature), once people "pick" a church, they do indeed receive, in faithful trust, whatever is given them. I see this in many Protestants: precisely because they have shopped, they accept their local pastor (and congregation) as a near-absolute authority. To put it differently, because they have shopped, they can assume that everyone who disagrees with "their" church must be wrong. My Protestant uncle, for example, cannot imagine that other Bible-believing people could think differently about Baptism: even though it's an issue on which Evangelical Protestants themselves hold a variety of positions.

The same happens to Catholics. In theory, Catholics are members of the universal Church, and share a faith in common with all Catholics. We go to our local parishes precisely because we trust that the faith is the same everywhere. But the flipside is that because we have not chosen our pastor, we know that he is not our infallible authority. We share the "catholic" -- that is, universal, worldwide and ancient -- faith. If Fr. Smith doesn't get it quite right, we can shrug our shoulders, and hope that the priests get rotated regularly. By not worrying too much about the perfection of our particular church, we enter into a worship that is bigger than our local church.

But this is not so when we church shop. In my experience, people who pick out a parish, and drive a long way to get there, tend to elevate the authority of their favorite priest, and of their community, above that of even the Pope. Certainly this is often the case in communities that celebrate the "old" form of the Mass: precisely because they have left other parishes to join this one, they assume that everyone else is wrong and only their local community has the true faith. In a sense, their private-judgment choice of parish has made them more obedient, because they no longer listen to any voice outside that parish.

Church shopping is dangerous. I recommend that if your local Catholic parish is really bad -- if you have true abuse (and what constitutes true abuse depends greatly on whether you have children) -- then you should go to a parish next door. And Catholics should be very wary of choosing a house based on their favorite parish. For Protestants . . . the same, mutatis mutandis. But that mutandis is pretty tricky: there is a private-judgment consumerism built into Protestantism that makes it very hard to give oneself to the local community.

That's the first part of my post: how the free market affects the Church itself. Tomorrow I will post on how the Church should (and shouldn't!) affect the free market.

Monday, July 21, 2008

The Spirituality of Driving the Speed Limit

Now that I am freeway-commuting half an hour to work every day, I've had some more time to reflect on the speed limit.

I am a convinced non-speeder. Let me say at the outset that there is some reason to doubt the legal status of the speed limit. According to St. Thomas (and the Catechism), there are four elements to a true law: an intelligible statement (the form) promulgated (the matter) by a legitimate authority (the agent) for the common good (the end). Where these conditions obtain, says St. Thomas (and the Catechism, following Romans), true law obliges, not only in the civil sphere but in conscience: he who breaks the law sins.

Speed limits are, without a doubt, uniquely intelligible (nothing is more purely intelligible than numbers); they serve the common good (more on that below); and the promulgating authority could not be more legitimately constituted than in a working democracy like ours.

There is an interesting question, however, about their promulgation. On the one hand, nothing is more clearly stated: a simple, numeric sign, frequently repeated. There is no law that is more easily determined than the speed limit. On the other hand, I do not believe I have ever seen a police car obeying it; traffic in general is not expected to obey the speed limit; and we all know that the police will not prosecute you if you're within five mph of the law. This creates the opening for an argument about custom (Thomas's technical term is consuetudo): when something is "always done" a certain way, it appears to the people that it is the law. I think one could make an argument that the custom whereby both police and drivers generally exceed the speed limit, usually by customary amounts, makes it legitimately difficult to tell what the authorities actually consider the legal speed limit to be. It undermines our ability to determine what is expected of us, an essential component of law.

In the end, I don't buy this argument. We don't have to be over strict. There are certain cases -- perhaps with decrepit parking meters, or pedestrian signals -- where long neglect is so obvious as to make the law itself questionable. But where there is doubt, we should probably assume that the law is real. Consider, for example, that Paul (in the passage the Catechism treats as determinative) demands obedience to the Roman "authorities" who killed our Lord, and then Paul himself. If Paul lends so much credence to legitimate authority, we probably should too.

All that said, I think there are spiritual fruits to obeying the speed limit, even if we're not sure whether it obliges in conscience. Reviewing these fruits will help us appreciate the beauty of law itself.

First, consider that a central reason for breaking the speed limit is our own passion for speed. Speed, to be sure, is a good, and the fun of going fast is a good. But we do well to put this in proportion. Twenty-five miles an hour, often treated as an absurdly slow speed limit, is about the top speed of a race horse -- until the invention of the train about one hundred fifty years ago, it was probably the fastest human beings had ever traveled. Speed is convenient and speed is fun, but there is something dehumanizing about going so far beyond our natural limits. Driving the speed limit puts our speed in context -- even going 65 when everyone else is driving 70 helps us to consider just how fast we are moving. Limiting our passions can help us appreciate them better.

Second, the speed limit is ordained for the common good. Apart from the speed limit, we often determine our speed based on our own safety. But there are other people on the road. I might be okay weaving through traffic, but for the driver who is somehow impaired, or sleepy, or distracted, my speed could be a life-threatening hazard. And what is safe for one driver might not be safe if everyone were doing it.

This turns on its head a common notion about fast driving. It seems to me that many people judge how "good" a driver is based on how fast he can go. My brother-in-law thinks he's an excellent driver because he can get from A to B in record time -- and my father-in-law is terrified to drive with me because he thinks if I drive so slowly, I must not know what I'm doing. But to the contrary, a good driver is one who considers not only his own needs, but the needs of those around him. I think it fair to say that I am more "in control" of what I am doing than the speeder.

This, in turn, leads us to a deeper aspect of law. Authority exists not only to coordinate all subjects to a common good (the end), but also to oversee the coordination itself (the means). When I drive from home to work, my only concern is to get to work -- in one piece, to be sure, but as fast as I can. The job of the Authorities, however, is to oversee the goods of the many -- to make sure that my self-centered action does not trample other selves.

Speed limits can serve this function in many ways. Driving through Northern Minnesota several years ago, I was struck by a sign outside a farm house. It stated that fast traffic is noisy. I had never thought of that before. I later learned that on a stretch of freeway through St. Paul where the speed limit mysteriously dropped to an "unreasonable" rate, the limit was determined not based on the safety of drivers but on the noise levels of the surrounding neighborhood. I had never thought of that. Similarly, I first encountered the problem of speeding in the suburban cul-de-sac neighborhood where we lived when I was in high school. To the driver, the main road seemed like an exciting series of S-curves. To those of us who walked on that sidewalk-less street, however, the speed limit was a matter of life and death. The speed limit served not only the safety of the drivers, but also the peace safety of pedestrians.

And I have read of efforts to solve traffic jams by reducing speed limits. Traffic is a complicated problem of game-theory, where what is best over all is not best for me if I'm the only one doing it. If everyone tries to go 65 during rush hour, then even one person touching his breaks can set off a long string of brake-slamming -- we've all experienced this odd phenomenon, where traffic screeches to a halt for no apparent reason. All the worse if there has been a real accident: rubber-necking can back up traffic for miles. All of this can be greatly mitigated, it seems, by just requiring traffic to drive more slowly in the first place. If we all drive 40, instead of 65, then we can all keep driving 40 and not have to stop and go.

The point of all this is that legitimate authority takes a broader view than we as individuals can see. I just want to get to work. But the road I travel affects many people beyond myself. It is right for an authority to control my actions -- to limit my speed -- in order to protect goods that I do not see, goods I had never considered. My obedience to that legitimate order, in turn, helps me to see that there is a world bigger than myself, to appreciate that my actions affect others and that I am not omniscient. Obeying the speed limit is a valuable exercise in humility.

Finally, obeying the speed limit is simply an exercise in obedience. The father of a friend of mine once gave me this advice: "children don't do what you say, they do what you do." The example he used has stuck with me: "If you tell your children to obey the law as they watch you break the speed limit, they will follow your actions, not your words, and ignore the law themselves."

The speed limit, precisely because it is so clearly stated and so numerically precise, is our most direct experience of civil authority. It is easy, in a sense, not to kill, or perjure, or steal, both because opportunities rarely present themselves and because we can see how these things affect another person. I don't steal, not just because it's illegal, but because I know it will hurt the proprietor of this convenience store. And yet it's good to realize that there are bigger goods, that life is more than a bunch of individuals not hurting one another. It is good to practice obedience -- and, I think, profoundly dehumanizing -- de-Christianizing -- when every day, everywhere we drive, we look authority in the face (in the image of that speed-limit sign) and say, "I will not serve."

I drive the speed limit. I do it because I think it is a true law, and as a Catholic, I believe that law obliges in conscience; I think it is a sin to speed. But I also do it because I think it's good for me. Not only is it safer (and let's be frank: the statistics say that speed is by far the top cause of traffic accidents), but it also helps me to appreciate that I am part of a world bigger than myself. There are things I'd never thought about. My passions are not the only rule. There are needs other than my own. And we were made for obedience to legitimate authority -- to the one legitimate authority who is Christ our God. Even if I didn't believe this was a true law, I think the spiritual benefits of driving the speed limit would be worth the extra five minutes and the occasional angry tailgater.

And I hope I can play a small role in creating a society in which everyone reaps these spiritual benefits. The custom of lawlessness is one law I will not serve.

Suburban wildlife (an addendum)

I wish to add to my previous post, and to my post on urban nature study, a concession: suburbia has a lot more wildlife. A couple months before we moved away from Washington, we bought a bird book, so that we could identify what was around us. To our chagrin, we found that once we knew what we were looking at, there wasn't much. Lots of pigeons, of course, as well as starlings (a kind of blackbird), an occasional crow, a few robins, and lots of mockingbirds. There was one other gray bird I saw from time to time, but not frequently enough to find it in the bird book. And if you went to the right place, our beautiful ducks and those dirty seagulls. But that's it.

Here in the Twin Cities . . . well, maybe once I learn the names it won't seem like so many, but there are a lot of birds we never saw in Washington, including hawks and blue herons, not to mention blue jays, cardinals, yellow finches, and chickadees.

There are also lots of rabbits, an occasional fox, who knows what else? And my commute takes me past farms where I see goats, cows, and a couple horses.

This is More. And, frankly, more is better. It is good to have contact with these animals. It is unfortunate that we did not in our more urban Washington. And a solid apologia for the city needs to recognize that there are also prices for not having yards.

That said, once again, the point is to weigh the costs and benefits. Now I see herons, it is true, and that is a Very Good Thing. But I almost always see them zipping down the freeway at 55 mph. That does not negate the goodness, but it greatly diminishes it. I think I, and my children, got a lot more out of sitting next to those ducks in front of the concert hall then we get from seeing something for a brief flash out of a car window. And frankly, even with the horrible sprawl of Washington (which my arguments are trying to limit), my family often drove out of the city: we saw more wildlife on a real rural adventure than we see from our pseudo-suburban backyard and our commuter lifestyle. There are benefits to suburbia -- but I think there would be more benefits if it were gone.

Monday, July 7, 2008

The Cost of Yards: Nature

I apologize for the silence on this blog--and right in the midst of a series, on the commercial management of neighborhoods. We are in the midst of a cross-country move, from Washington, DC, to St. Paul, Minnesota; life has been upside down. I do intend to finish the series I began, but since I have been spending an inordinate amount of time in the car recently and thinking a lot about where I want (and do not want) to live, I will here give a more immediate post, on the cost of yards. Someday, perhaps, I will discuss the social costs; here I will only discuss the costs for the natural world.

To open, I'd like to acknowledge that my position is a little unconventional. In Washington, we often joked about the standard assumption that what an urban environment really needs is "dedicated green space." Indeed, I agree. But I would not extend this need as far as it is often extended. Even in the densest neighborhoods in Brooklyn (though perhaps not in some parts of Manhattan, the densest square miles in the United States), every brownstone and many apartment complexes have backyards and garden spaces. There are places for flower boxes out front (though, to be fair, in some neighborhoods flower boxes need to be kept out of range of unseemly types). There are trees in the sidewalks, huge parks, little playgrounds, neighborhood gardens, and triangle gardens caused by strange street patterns. (Indeed, Jane Jacobs emphasized the importance of using these odd spaces for natural beauty.)

Yet most Americans -- certainly those in Washington, a city of vastly greater greenspace than New York -- want more. They want a yard. They want a place to garden. Walking around St. Paul, I have been struck by the frivolity of the latter: add up all the space in my parent's upper-middle class midwestern neighborhood that is actually gardened, and, I think, you will find that Brooklyn is sufficient for the time and energy Americans have for gardening. But what of yards?

Jane Jacobs points out the irony of yards as environmental safeguards. Perhaps you need a mathematical mind to fully appreciate this, but every foot added to a neighborhood's average curb adds exponentially to the amount of countryside that will be paved over. Allow me to oversimplify in order to make a point. In our old neighborhood in Washington, the average family had about ten feet of curb space. (Actually, slightly more per house, but many houses had more than one family stacked on top of each other.) In St. Paul, let's say the average house has 100 feet of curb space. Now, if I need to go 20 houses down (to the market, or the park, or work, or wherever) in Washington that would be 200 feet, in St. Paul, it would be 2,000.

The most basic problem is that we will much more quickly reach our walking thresholds. Perhaps one is willing to carry a jug of milk no more than two city blocks before it seems easier just to drive. Whatever that threshold is, increasing the average lot size by a factor of ten means only 10% of what was formerly within our threshold will remain there.

(This is actually a bit more complicated, because yards, neighborhoods, and walks are all in two dimensions, not one. But we'll leave that alone.)

A problem subsidiary to this one is that as fewer and fewer things are within our walking threshold, our threshold is likely to decrease. This was something we often observed in Washington: those who are used to walking places consider eight blocks just a run around the corner, but when non-walkers come to visit, they consider the same distance to be unreasonable. They are used to driving. And thus that factor of 10 is quickly multiplied: not only are things ten times farther away, but people are less willing to walk a comparable distance.

And so, of course, as more and more things require driving, more and more people require cars (consider that in New York fully 50% of residents don't even know how to drive), more and more streets must be built, and more and more places will need parking lots. Dedicated green space means more concrete: you pave paradise and you put in a parking lot!

Now obviously, this math quickly reaches a saturation point. Even in the denser yarded neighborhoods of St. Paul, no one walks anywhere; you might think that once this point is reached, increased distances will be irrelevant.

But that is not the case. To appreciate why, think for a minute about the odd phenomenon (as a child, it drove me crazy!) of what happens when a stop light changes to green. At first glance, it seems that when the light changes, everyone should start driving. But in fact, when the light changes, the first guy starts going, but the next guy has to put some space between him and the car in front of him before he starts, and so on, so that, as we all know all to well, if you're even five cars back, the light may be red again before you even start creeping up toward it. Why is this? For the simple reason that the faster you're going, the more space you need between you and the car in front of you (and the cars to your sides, as well). In stopped traffic, you can be right on the guy's bumper, but that would be dangerous when you're moving; and a distance that's safe at 30 mph is quite unsafe at 60. A single car takes up far more space on a freeway than in downtown traffic.

This is another reason (in addition to the lowering thresholds for walking) that the yard-to-street ratio is exponential: adding a foot of yard to each house means adding a disproporionate distance that people must travel; and if people want to get there in a reasonable amount of time, they will need to drive faster, and thus take up more road space.

A third exponential factor is the flipside of the first: the more people drive, the more they get used to driving. If you're used to walking down the block for something, driving five miles seems like going a long way. If you're used to driving five miles, twenty five will seem less unreasonable. This, I'd like to suggest, is a big part of the SUV phenomenon. If you don't spend much time in your car, it's reasonable to have a small, slightly uncomfortable one. But if everywhere you go requires packing the family in for a half-hour drive, you get something big and plush (with a DVD for the kids!). The comfort of your car becomes increasingly important. (And honestly, SUVs are much more comfortable, and, truth be told, much safer. If you're going to spend all that time in your car, it makes sense to invest in something that will protect you.) In other words, increasing yardspace by a factor of ten means not only increasing drivetimes, but also increasing people's willingness to drive long distances, both for internal reasons (it seems normal to drive a long way to things) and for external reasons (people buy cars that make driving more pleasant).

A fourth exponential factor is the decreasing feasability of mass transit. This is an article in itself, but the simple fact is, putting bus lines and train lines out to the suburbs is stupid. Nobody wants to drive through ten miles of suburban traffic, park their comfy SUV in a big sunburned parking lot, then get onto a crowded train to take them in to where mass transit actually makes sense. Again, there's some math here. The area of a circle is pi times the square of its radius: in other words, adding a mile to the radial distance from you to center city means adding an exponential amount of area for mass transit to cover. It makes sense to have mass transit where everyone is close together; pi times ten miles squared is a reasonable amount of area to cover with buses and trains. But covering a circle pi times thirty miles squared is simply impracticible. (This is one of the ways that the new urbanism and other liberal projects are totally unreasonable.) The system becomes too complex, the drives are too long, the cost-benefit ratio skyrockets. Spreading people farther apart (with yards) massively increases the necessity of everyone taking their own car.

I'll cut this off before it becomes even more burdensome. The point is, a little "dedicated greenspace" exponentially increases the spaces that must be covered with roads and parking lots. (Not to mention those beautiful "green" spaces that buffer people from the freeways.)

Why does it matter? Three quick reasons. First, it means that people are increasingly far from actual nature. As more and more land is turned into exurbia, those who do not live in the exurbs must drive farther and farther to get to undomesticated places. And honestly, a yard is no comparison for fields and woods. Nor is a park really a good substitute, both because it can never be wild in the same way and because every park means that much farther that everyone must drive to get around it. And ironically, the farther people have to drive to get to the countryside, the more the countryside needs to be paved for people to get to it. Robert Moses built Jones Beach so that New Yorkers could enjoy Long Island. But he covered it with parking lots so that people wouldn't have to take mass transit. In our modern cities, where mass transit is no longer even practicable, every state park needs a massive parking lot.

The second problem is environmental. I am no expert on this so I can't say much of intelligence, but I know that the pesticides we put on our yards are far more damaging to the natural world around us than our normal lives; it's not the people, I think, who make the Mississippi unswimmable; it's the yards. I do know that dense living, because more of the transportation is done on foot, requires fantastically fewer resources; the statistic I've heard is that New Yorkers today use as much fuel as Americans in general did in the 1920's. That's a lot greener. And I know that it's more efficient to heat or cool a space when the space next to it is being heated and cooled rather than when it's surrounded by the great outdoors; energy bills go down all around with row homes and apartment buildings. And it would seem to me -- again, as an amateur -- that the land is more able to sustain the impact of human living if more of the land is left untouched. Even assuming that people produced the same environmental impact no matter how far out they were spread, doesn't it seem like concentrating all that impact on a few square miles would make it easier for the surrounding land to survive than if the impact hits a larger swathe? Greenspace is not 'green,' in the sense in which that word is now used.

And a third reason is that car culture means people don't spend much time outside anyway. If the goal is to give people some contact with nature, it probably makes more sense to promote a pedestrian lifestyle than to make people drive past yards and dedicated greenspaces (or, more likely, to drive on freeways so they don't have to deal with the greenspace).

The title of this post is the "cost" of yards. I intend this post not as a final word -- 'yards are bad' -- but as a factor to consider. If urban neighborhoods are decrepit, not family friendly, not affordable, or otherwise unliveable, than it probably makes sense to pay these costs and choose to live somewhere with a yard. But the basic conclusion is this: yards make us further, not closer, to nature.

(In postscript, I would like to note that the solution need not be coercion. The solution may be more negative -- lower taxes, lower regulations, fewer aids to the suburbs -- rather than positive, such as more services, or direct attacks on the suburbs. But this is a matter for another post.)