Wednesday, February 15, 2017

ALL Our Brands are Crisis...


...If you're a US President with any popularity. In the movie I'm alluding to in the title (Our Brand is Crisis), we watch as the campaign team for Pedro Castillo, a fictional contender for the presidency of Bolivia, realizes that their candidate will only be perceived as electable if the public perceives the country to be in crisis: so they set out to sell that fiction, and shortly after the election, it becomes a reality. A more chilling example of the same plot is the closing episodes of the fourth season of House of Cards as the Underwoods become aware of the same reality: their only path to re-election is if the US believes itself to be in crisis, and so they refrain from intervening in an ISIS-style hostage beheading--and choose not to prevent the event from being broadcast live--in order to ensure the country falls in line behind them as the strongest power to provide protection in chaos.

What is more chilling is Russ Robert's recent interview with Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, in which de Mesquita discusses his book, The Spoils of War, which demonstrates how US presidents who have chosen to take the country to war--even when better alternatives were available--consistently win re-election, while presidents who preside over peace and economic prosperity tend to be discounted, disliked, and not re-elected (for example, Warren Harding, widely regarded as one of the worst Presidents in United States history, saw 0 war deaths under his presidency and also saw the average income rise by 8%, contra Abraham Lincoln who presided over 750,000 war deaths, and saw average income rise by only 2%).

Tuesday, January 03, 2017

How Immigration Beats Government Aid

We saw Meet the Patels recently--a great movie by the way--and an observation a character made got me thinking: she immigrated to the US in 1972 and was commenting to her children that there was not an Indian community to be part of. Indian immigration picked up in the '80s and '90s. This made me think of Slumdog Millionaire, a story about a boy growing up the horrific life of an orphan in Bombay in the '80s, who then competes in the titular game show in the 2000s. You get to see a surprising shift in the nature of poverty between the boyhood scenes and the adult scenes: while there is still injustice and in the interplay of poverty and power in the 2000s portion, the pervasive, grinding, dehumanizing poverty of his youth

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Collin Woodard's American Character

First, a word on the book's prequel: I found Colin Woodard's American Nations to be pretty convincing: some slurring of historical specifics, and some occasional weak arguments for interpreting a few events in ways that proved his thesis even when simpler and more cogent solutions seemed available, but that is to be expected in making an argument at the popular level. A chapter on the "first nation" nation would have been nice, but may have been beyond the scope of the book; more of a discussion of how African Americans fit into the proposed nations or if an understanding of an independent, less-geographical African American nation would make more sense--but Woodard acknowledges this.

The basic thesis is that North America, from about 100 miles south of the US/Mexican boarder north, is made up of 11 regional cultures, who's characters, goals, values, ideals and social expectations were largely formed within the first few generations of their settlement, have changed little since, and explain most of the history of the continent better than other paradigms (North vs. South, conservative vs. liberal, urban vs. rural, etc.).

What I find most difficult with the book, however, is how, as the story comes up to the present, Woodard's apparent biases seem to take over the story. While he does a pretty good job of demonstrating in their origins how each nation was behaving in keeping with its national culture, and how this was generally self-serving, by the end of the book it become clear that Woodard sees a direct line

Friday, August 26, 2016

One of the costs of commuting

This article is insane! (In that, it points out something that's very obvious, but that we somehow miss): http://www.mrmoneymustache.com/2011/10/06/the-true-cost-of-commuting/
I didn't do all the math that MMM did, but somehow it stood out to me the first time I went to choose a place to live that I did not want to be stuck in a car for a significant chunk of my life (I was evaluating an apartment option a friend owned that would have involved a 30+ min. commute, and finding something on my own closer to work, so I did look into the time cost: 6+ hrs. per week, times the 2-3 years I expected to have that job... So 600-900 hours!). In seminary I chose to live in an apartment complex 10 miles from school, but there were a lot of other students from the same school so we could share rides and thus build community and save money by carpooling (while avoiding having to live in a soulless suburb near the school...); during grad school we bought a house 2.5 miles from my school, and 2.5 miles from Abby's school; and now we've been able to live about a block from work, and are starting to see the savings of not being auto-dependent (which has also allowed us to ditch the second car).

Thursday, July 28, 2016

The problem with the "spirituality" of the church

"Presbyterian churches in the South strongly opposed any interference in the institution of slavery. They developed the idea of the ‘spirituality of the church’ in which the church’s role was not to speak to political issues but only to evangelize, catechize, and build up the church. 
"This was, of course, an intensified form of the more Lutheran version of the two-kingdoms doctrine, but certainly a departure from the way the Reformed churches of Scotland and the Netherlands had related to society. Nevertheless, this emphasis led many doctrinalist churches in the South to shed the older Reformed culturalist impulse....
"Marsden notes many ironies about the Reformed ‘culturalist’ impulse. While the Old School in the South ostensibly held to an apolitical stance- ‘the spirituality of the church’--in reality it became a strong defender of the Southern way of life.13 In other words, to say (in a ‘Two-Kingdom’ way) ‘I’m against social reform, I just want to preach the gospel’ is to be de facto supportive of the cultural status quo, and therefore to be a cultural conservative. “Spirituality of the Church” proponents like Thornwell and Dabney ended up as de facto supporters of slavery, and so they were culturally engaged after all."


Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Blood Oil and free markets

In last week's episode of EconTalk, Russ Robert's interviewed Leif Wenar on his new book, Blood Oil, about the impact of resource trade with tyrants and despots. Wenar argues that the current trade in natural resources, particularly oil, is not a true free-market economy because free markets depend on values such as private property. As Wenar points out, if I took over a corner gas station by force no one would suggest that I had the right to then sell the oil owned by that corner station because I don't actually own those resources. When we trade for natural resources with nations run by despots who separate their state's resources from their citizens--Saudi Arabia, Russia and Equatorial Guinea receive some analysis in the interview as different ways of doing the same thing--we are engaging in an unjust system which rewards pirates who steal resources from their rightful owners and corrupt the market.

Robert's is deeply impacted by Wenar's argument, but brings up concerns about both Wenar's somewhat interventionist-sounding plea that the government ban trade with such despots, pointing out that the criteria for a despot are somewhat subjective: why should we attack Equatorial Guinea's leader's savage exploitation of oil while ignoring China's more mild exploitation of labor? Wenar's main argument is that, while labor exploitation is bad, natural resources present something of a unique case. His arguments for this are good, but I would suggest a couple of critiques of both Wenar's solutions, and Robert's concerns:

First, I'd recommend that, rather than seeking to establish an objective criteria for how much despotism is too much despotism (at which point government sanctions need to take over), we would be wiser to mandate transparency: let the public know what they're buying (i.e. gas stations post what percentage of their oil is purchased from what market - Wenar intends to begin posting such data to his website in the near future).

Second, and this plays into the first answer: we need to acknowledge that there is a spectrum between despotism and ideal economic freedom: Robert's point about how to decide that Equatorial Guinea is too despotic but China is okay can be extrapolated to point out that the US isn't perfect in economic freedom, but it's a lot better than Equatorial Guinea. We need to avoid making the perfect the enemy of the good: by not regulating the outcome but requiring transparency from merchants the public can exercise subjective judgement about how much encroachment is too much, and the market can work against truly despotic situations like Saudi Arabia and Equatorial Guinea while exercising more caution in our treatment of China or the US.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Marriage and community in Brooklyn

Abby and I watched Brooklyn last night (a really great film, by the way) and, maybe because I preached on marriage last Sunday, it made me think about the importance of the community in a marriage: we make vows before witnesses because our feelings are remarkably fickle as a means of keeping us true to vows--which are actually the means of keeping us "happy" in the older and fuller sense of the word: fully flourishing. 

[Spoiler alert!] Eilis Lacey and Tony Fiorello took vows in private; she loves him, is most happy with him, should be with him; but when she goes back to Enniscorthy, (Ireland,) to visit her mother she has community pressure to accept Jim Farrell's pursuit of her, take Rose’s old job, and have the local version of the “good life” she may have desired growing up. She hasn’t said she’s married at first because she doesn’t want to let people down: there was to be a public wedding at some future time, maybe when more family could be involved, so she keeps the marriage secret, and the community works against it since they don’t know about it. When Ms. Kelly confronts her about the one shred of community involvement in the wedding (Kelly is distantly connected to the family Eilis and Tony randomly bumped into at the Brooklyn court house) the community does its work [in a way this is like Smith’s invisible hand] even though the connection was so tenuous and the intentions of the person who was the actual instrument were not honorable. Eilis’s declaration “I’m Eilis Fiorello” places her back in her correct place in the universe again; publicly the wife of the husband she loves, bound back to the new home she has made in Brooklyn… 

(The fact that Tony’s family’s plan is to build a neighborhood on Long Island and extricate themselves from the community they are part of and settle in a place that requires ridiculous amounts of infrastructure to maintain, and where there is no community to join seems to actually break the continuity of the narrative since it means their goal is really to escape Brooklyn; but the film is putting authenticity over narrative on this point since it’s a historically accurate—if ultimately unhelpful—goal.)