Wealth & Civilization

Wealth & Civilization:

A new book by professor John Armstrong challenges the idea that wealth is bad.

Armstrong’s teachings are refreshing because high thinking has traditionally been hostile to money. Following Socrates, the philosophers of ancient Greece resolutely separated the things of this world from the welfare of the soul. The Stoics considered material goods irrelevant to the good life, while the Epicureans (despite their reputation) regarded piled possessions as a positive hindrance to the ataraxia, life without disagreeable sensation, which they sought. Cynic—“Dog”—philosophers sometimes pursued a pure asceticism: Diogenes the Cynic lived on the street in a giant pot, and (the story goes), when asked by the stooping Alexander the Great what gift he would like to receive, retorted, “Just stop blocking the sun!”

Come Christianity, the narrow eye of heaven’s needle always threatened the camel of wealth. As the new religion spread in the Roman world and had in practice to accommodate wealthy parishioners and plump prelates, nevertheless its theology shifted little in favor of Mammon. Even the globular Christian grandees of late Rome and Constantinople, whose shining silks hurt the eye and whose countless rings bent the hands that bore them—even they idolized filthy hermits babbling in the desert[.]
I wonder if Professor Armstrong indeed read the Greeks in the way that his reviewer suggests. It's always dangerous to assert that someone is 'following Socrates,' who famously asserted that he had nothing to teach; although now and then he would raise and defend propositions, it was never clear if he was doing so in earnest or for the joy of exploring the idea.

Aristotle, however, is very clear on the positive effects (as well as the moral hazards) associated with wealth. The good life becomes possible, Aristotle says in the Politics, only once the bare necessities of life have been arranged. This is true for the individual and for the wider civilization. The problem comes only if you lose sight of your objective: that is, if you stop trying to obtain sufficient wealth for the good life, and find yourself simply trying to obtain wealth.

The man without wealth cannot live well, though, because he must be driven by necessity rather than by virtue. Too, some virtues -- such as liberality and generosity -- cannot be practiced without disposable wealth.

I trust that Professor Armstrong is aware of all this, and the reviewer simply failed to mention it. These ideas are not so very new, or radical, as the review suggests: even the monastics, devoted to a very spiritual idea of the good life, nevertheless invested a great deal of labor into the production of material wealth. The monastic cell may be small and spare, but it was meant to be clean and well-kept; and the fasts were to be mixed with feasts.

A Late Easter

A Late Easter

Since the Counsel of Nicaea met in 325 A.D. to resolve a number of disputes in the early Christian Church, the "moveable feast" of Easter in the Western Christian tradition has been reckoned as the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox. This computation is modified slightly by a couple of simplifying conventions: the vernal equinox is taken as fixed on March 21, while the date of the full moon for ecclesiastical purposes may vary slightly from the astronomical date.

In any case, the result is that Gregorian Easter can fall anywhere from March 22 to April 25. In years like 2011, when one full moon appears shortly before the equinox (March 19), and the next full moon appears on a Monday, Easter comes very late: in this case, only one day before the last possible date. The last time Easter fell on the earliest possible date, March 22, was 1818, a performance that will not be repeated until the year 2285. The last time it fell on the latest possible date, April 25, was 1943; it will not do so again until 2038.

Holidays fixed by solar and lunar cycles always link me in my imagination to ancestors who began watching the skies, noting the patterns, teaching them to their descendants, and working out simple rules that could predict such complex behavior. The fact that we should be able to perceive order around us is the central mystery of my life.

Unknown Voices

Unknown Voices

I don't know who this singer/player is, but my sister just sent me a link to her rendition of "The Blackest Crow" on YouTube. I sure like how anyone can upload a performance from her living room and make it accessible to anyone in the world who likes that kind of music. It combines the best part of amateur, personal music with the easy transmission of recorded music.

This performer also does an amazing job with an instrumental rendition of the music from "The Last of the Mohicans." I didn't know it was possible to get that kind of effect out of a dulcimer.

Good Friday

Good Friday:

As seen by CamoJack.

The Naturalist's Easter

The Naturalist's Easter (h/t Maggie's Farm)

The Secular Grail

The Secular Grail

Whenever I read stories like the one about "Spring Spheres" that I mentioned yesterday, or the Cult of the Pre-Patriarchal Goddess, or today's Dailer Caller article about environmentalists urging Christians and non-Christians alike to take advantage of this Sunday to celebrate "Earth Day," I reflect on how difficult it is for even for steadfastly modern, "rational," and secular human beings to be resolutely materialist. It seems that if you cut most people off from their society's traditional religion for even a short while, they revert to some kind of deism or paganism.

Don't get me wrong. A reverence for the natural world is among my strongest passions, felt so strongly that it can easily overwhelm my concern for other people, if left to itself. In general I haven't the least problem with Earth Day or even some of the more radical varieties of environmentalism. But I don't think the Easter Sunday pulpit ought to be given over to a homily on global warming. For one thing, of course, I'm unconvinced that global warming, even assuming we've identified a trend that's more than noise in the signal when viewed over millennia, is anthropogenic at all. The pulpit is no place to be expounding a contested scientific theory that will arouse divisive political passions.

What's more important, though, is that -- even if we had the perfect solution to an incontestable AGW theory in our hands -- Easter is a peculiarly inappropriate time to be indulging in fantasies about remaking the Earth into a perpetual Paradise. We can resolve not to do anything unnecessary to foul the Earth, but it is not at any time going to be converted into a place where we will find what we seek in Heaven. Earth is a place where we can find a great deal of natural pleasure, where we can meet our physical needs, and where we can do our duty. It is not a place where our souls can find their destiny. It's a creature, like us, and not something to be worshipped in its own right.

Easter is a time to reflect on what's going on besides the natural Earth around us. It's a time to grapple with Death and what might overcome it (which, in the natural world, is absolutely nothing). If those reflections send us back into our daily lives determined not to behave like self-obsessed littering ignoramuses with the beautiful natural bounty that has been bestowed on us, that's great. But that's a sideshow, not the main event. The source for virtues that will help us live better on the Earth is not in the Earth.

The Bells Have Flown

The Bells Have Flown:

Here is a comparative reading on the hours in Gethsemane.

Belief and Skepticism

Belief and Skepticism

My contribution to Holy Week here at the Hall is a link to a couple of related posts at Brandywine Books, one from "Phil" and the other from Hall regular Lars Walker. Phil links to a Wall Street Journal article by a former atheist who found that his skepticism wouldn't hold up to a dispassionate review of the evidence for the Resurrection, prompted by his wife's sudden conversion and his own responding discomfort. Commenters were pretty unhappy about it.

Lars links to an article by Peter Wood in the Chronicles of Higher Education, pointing out how differently academia views suspension of disbelief in spiritual matters, depending on whether the spirituality in question is that scary, unfashionable Christianity stuff, or the virtuous belief in a "great prehistoric cult of the Goddess in Europe connected to matriarchal rule":

The possibility that a candidate for a position in biology, anthropology, or, say, English literature might secretly harbor the idea that God created the universe or that the Bible is true, is a danger not to be brooked. But apparently, the possibility that a candidate believes that human society was “matriarchal” until about 5,000 years ago is perfectly within the range of respectable opinion appropriate for campus life.

Finally, what Holy Week blogpost would be complete without a nod to the recent story of a 16-year-old who told her Seattle radio station that she was forbidden to bring easter eggs to school for her community service project unless she agreed to call them "spring spheres." This story may turn out to be as mythical as the Sphere Bunny; either that, or it's so embarrassing that a Seattle school board spokesperson claims the district's efforts to look into the incident have failed to turn up anyone willing to admit they said any such thing. That's actually encouraging, in a twisted way. But I have to admit that the 16-year-old's circumstantial and detailed account, as reported by the radio station, has more of the ring of truth to it than the school's bland denials.

You Can Never Leave

You Can Never Leave

You can always tell a socialist society by which direction they point the guns at the border.

The National Labor Relations Board has just asked an administrative judge to tell Boeing it must not begin production of new jets at its new facilities in South Carolina, a right-to-work state, because the relocation of this part of Boeing's business is an unlawful retaliation against its Seattle machinists union for past strikes.

The union has shut down Boeing’s commercial aircraft production line four times since 1989. Per the Wall Street Journal's take on this situation today, a 58-day strike in 2008 cost the company $1.8 billion. Talks with the union about leaving the work in Washington State bogged down over the union's demand for a seat on the board and a pledge that all future jets would be built in Puget Sound. Now Boeing has nearly completed construction of its $2 billion South Carolina plant; a thousand employees already have relocated there. Describing the motive for the relocation in an earlier interview with the Seattle Times, a Boeing executive said, “The overriding factor was not the business climate. And it was not the wages we’re paying today. It was that we cannot afford to have a work stoppage, you know, every three years.” From this, the union concluded that “Boeing’s decision to build a 787 assembly line in South Carolina sent a message that Boeing workers would suffer financial harm for exercising their collective bargaining rights.” What's more, according to the complaint filed, the decision to move had the effect of “discouraging membership in a labor organization” and thus violates federal law.

It's obvious to me that Boeing workers will suffer financial harm and discouragement for exercising their collective bargaining rights in the way they have done historically. It's probably even fair to say that Boeing's proposed move to South Carolina will bring the nature of that financial harm into sharp focus for them, thus discouraging them further. I'd go so far as to guess that some of the squintier-eyed Boeing bigwigs are experiencing a certain amount of schadenfreude. So does it follow that Boeing's move is an unlawful retaliation for past strikes? Or is the union simply being mugged by the reality that an employer won't want to work in the union's state any more if the employer keeps losing money to work stoppages every few years? If union members are feeling discouraged about the benefits of union membership, why exactly is that? It's not as though Boeing were setting fire to the houses of the most troublesome unions reps. All Boeing is doing is removing its own hateful presence. Which is wrong. Come back here, dang it.

As the WSJ puts it: "Ultimately, the NLRB seems to be resting its complaint on the belief that Boeing spent nearly $2 billion out of spite, which sounds less like a matter of law than of campaign 2012 politics."

The most puzzling line in the NY Times report may be the statement of the NLRB's acting general counsel that "he was not seeking to close the South Carolina factory or prohibit Boeing from assembling planes there." So what is it he's after again, then? Maybe he'd like Boeing to go ahead and make money in South Carolina, then let the union in Puget Sound have a "taste" of the resulting profits?

I think Boeing has no choice but to file a counter-complaint alleging that the NLRB's action "discourages" state legislatures from passing right-to-work laws, and that therefore the administrative lawsuit must be enjoined on Constitutional grounds.

H/T Hot Air and The Daily Caller.

A better article

A Better Article on the Bible:

From the Chronicle of Higher Education, a perspective on the beauty to be found in plurality.

In many ways, those dedicated to removing all potential biblical contradictions, to making the Bible entirely consistent with itself, are no different from irreligious debunkers of the Bible, Christianity, and religion in general. Many from both camps seem to believe that simply demonstrating that the Bible is full of inconsistencies and contradictions is enough to discredit any religious tradition that embraces it as Scripture.

Bible debunkers and Bible defenders are kindred spirits. They agree that the Bible is on trial. They agree on the terms of the debate, and what's at stake, namely the Bible's credibility as God's infallible book. They agree that Christianity stands or falls, triumphs or fails, depending on whether the Bible is found to be inconsistent, to contradict itself. The question for both sides is whether it fails to answer questions, from the most trivial to the ultimate, consistently and reliably.

But you can't fail at something you're not trying to do.
Anyone who has ever attended a Catholic mass has encountered the readings from Scripture; after the first two readings, in the masses I have attended, the reader underlines that the scripture is the word of God. I suspect this is the cause of much of the confusion.

If the reading were of one of the visions of God -- say, Ezekiel's -- this 'word of God' is really the word of the prophet: no one is really contesting the point (except the 'debunkers,' who may contest that there was a prophet at all). The same Church has endorsed St. Thomas Aquinas' view, however, that God is simple: He has no parts. Thus, the vision of the prophet speaks of the hand of God, but God has no hand: God has no parts.
The hand of the LORD was on me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the LORD and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. 2 He led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry. 3 He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?”
I said, “Sovereign LORD, you alone know.”

4 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the LORD! 5 This is what the Sovereign LORD says to these bones: I will make breath[a] enter you, and you will come to life. 6 I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the LORD.’”

7 So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I was prophesying, there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone. 8 I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them.

9 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to it, ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: Come, breath, from the four winds and breathe into these slain, that they may live.’” 10 So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet—a vast army.
What does the Church mean, to endorse both claims? Something other than what many have taken them to mean, I suspect: but something very serious, all the same.

Holy Week

Holy Week:

We are now well into Holy Week, and I have failed to make any decent note of it here. As penance I shall try to read yet another rendition of the tired, empty gripes against religion published this week by the Washington Post.

OK, I've tried three times. Lunacy... reactionary... abortion is a natural right!... Leviticus... religion lies, lies, lies!

Great. Did you ever see the point of the thing, though? Did you ever understand what was at the root of the mystery that religion tries to approach? Failing that, there's no point talking about it with you. You're missing some essential human element; a rant like this should occasion the deepest pity for the author.


Fish and Potatoes:

A song in Norsk.

Vikings! Fish and potatoes are fine, but wasn't it more fun when you were plundering monasteries? Just let me add that public sector unions are the ones with all the golden idols, these days.

H/t: BSBfB.

We're From the Government, and We're Here to Save You Money

We're from the Government, and We're Here to Save You Money

The FDIC released a report today with the amazing claim that, if the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act had been in place in 2008, the FDIC could have prevented the multi-hundred-billion-dollar international Lehman Brothers bankruptcy and saved creditors billions of dollars without costing taxpayers a red cent.

The Lehman bankruptcy was an amazing lawyer-fest, with a whopping $1.2 billion in fees approved by the bankruptcy court to be paid out of the bankruptcy estate's assets. It ending up paying creditors only 21 cents on the dollar. The FDIC claims it could have paid creditors 97 cents on the dollar. One way it would have accomplished this public service is to avoid all the legal fees. That much I probably buy; many of the legal battles would not have been fought at all absent the special bankruptcy context.

The FDIC says it also would have helped things by making its own loan to Lehman for operating funds, thus eliminating Lehman's need to negotiate for debtor-in-possession financing in bankruptcy. I'm not entirely convinced by the FDIC's claim that Lehman would and could have repaid this loan without burdening taxpayers, but OK, maybe.

I'm less convinced about this:

Under Dodd-Frank, the FDIC can require that systemically important investment banks, insurance companies and other companies with large financial services components deemed vital to the global financial system have resolution plans.

Such a “living will” would have required Lehman Brothers to develop early on a plan to dump or restructure some of its toxic real estate and private equity investments before being placed under FDIC receivership. The FDIC and other regulators both inside and outside the U.S. would also have had the ability to study Lehman's living will and work to improve it.
I don't like contemplating the image of FDIC regulators "studying" Lehman's "living will" in order to "work and improve it" -- either quickly, cheaply, or effectively. I doubt they could have been made to understand Lehman's business at all. Then there's this:
One of the key benefits to FDIC resolution authority is the potential speed of the transaction. Title II of Dodd-Frank allows the FDIC to review a financial institution's books, identify a potential buyer and any troubled assets that need to be split off, and quietly conduct bidding prior to taking over as a receiver.
The FDIC does have a track record of pulling off these emergency prebankruptcy sales at great speed, but as you might expect, when the pressure's on, the government regulators get their shirts handed to them. Invariably they find out in a year or two that they cut a horrible deal and some evil capitalist made a lot more money than they intended to allow, and they complain about it loudly -- often suing to renegotiate the deal.

This one, for me, is the real howler:

One of the problems Lehman faced as it skidded into bankruptcy was that potential buyers, including Barclays and Bank of America Corp., identified between $50 billion and $70 billion in assets they did not want to touch. Lehman was in no position to bargain, so the buyers walked, necessitating the bankruptcy filing, according to the report. . . . FDIC receivership would have prevented that, the report said.
As far as I can tell, this just means that the FDIC would have strong-armed some favor-currying insured bank into accepting the toxic assets, which would have ended up some day as a drain on the FDIC insurance system.


Or at least I am delighted by finding synchronicity where I least expected it:
“The stopping of sounds and rhythms,” he added, “it’s really important, because, you know, how can I miss you unless you’re gone? If you just keep the thing going like a loop, eventually it loses its power.”

An insight like this may seem purely subjective, far removed from anything a scientist could measure. But now some scientists are aiming to do just that, trying to understand and quantify what makes music expressive — what specific aspects make one version of, say, a Beethoven sonata convey more emotion than another.


In an interview, the singer Rosanne Cash said the experiments showed that beautiful compositions and technically skilled performers could do only so much. Emotion in music depends on human shading and imperfections, “bending notes in a certain way,” Ms. Cash said, “holding a note a little longer.”

She said she learned from her father, Johnny Cash, “that your style is a function of your limitations, more so than a function of your skills.”

“You’ve heard plenty of great, great singers that leave you cold,” she said. “They can do gymnastics, amazing things. If you have limitations as a singer, maybe you’re forced to find nuance in a way you don’t have to if you have a four-octave range.”

What the NYT article calls "those goose bump moments" - it describes the reaction I've always had to the Bard:
... how is poetic language different from normal language? Consider these examples, in which Shakespeare grammatically shifts the function of words:

An adjective is made into a verb: 'thick my blood' (The Winter's Tale)

A pronoun is made into a noun: 'the cruellest she alive' (Twelfth Night)

A noun is made into a verb: 'He childed as I fathered' (King Lear)

As Davis's experiments have shown, instead of rejecting these "syntactic violations," the brain accepts them, and is excited by the "grammatical oddities" it is experiencing. While it has not been fully proven that we can localize which parts of the brain process nouns as opposed to verbs, Davis says his research suggests that "in the moment of hesitation" brought on by the stimulative effects of functional shift, the brain doesn't know "what part to assign the word to."

... we need creative language "to keep the brain alive." He points out that so much of our language today, written in bullet points or simple sentences, fall into predictability. "You can often tell what someone is going to say before they finish their sentence" he says. "This represents a gradual deadening of the brain."

It even explains the magic of a baby's laughter.

Maybe it explains why I so often prefer the company of friends who have the grace to disagree with me. Who knows?

Wonderful, wonderful, and most wonderful.

My Brain Hurts

My Brain Hurts

You'll think me mad, but I've allowed myself once more to be drawn into an economic discussion with a "Modern Monetary Theory" enthusiast, because I was so startled to read that a solid bunch of progressives out there believe that the government deficit is not only a good but an essential thing for the welfare and happiness of Americans.

First of all, I've got to link to last year's Onion video on "The Money Hole" (h/t to today's Daily Caller for reposting it), which perfectly captures the lunacy of most political/economic discussions I've ever tried to listen to:

Now back to MMT: I take it the idea is that all private-sector financial transactions balance out to zero, which is Bad Thing, so the Government/Treasury/Central Bank injects new net financial transactions into the economy by spending more than the government taxes, which is a Good Thing. I asked why, in that case, the government shouldn't make the deficit even more fabulously beneficent by spending with greater abandon and collecting no taxes at all. The answer came back that that would cause inflation, a Bad Thing. What's more, without taxes, there would be no demand for the U.S. currency, because no one would believe it had value, just as my personal I.O.U. has no value if I have no visible means of future support. So why is a deficit a Good Thing, again?

And why is it not a Good Thing that all private-sector financial transactions net out to zero? Isn't that another way of saying that part of the private sector (say, older people who've amassed assets for retirement) is always lending to another part of the private sector (say, younger people who are starting businesses)? Why shouldn't it balance? And what, in the name of all that's comprehensible, would any of this have to do with the dream of full employment provided to us by a benevolent government?

I've never been schooled properly in economics. It was one of those things I never even considered studying in college. Now I'm completely at sea, trying to read up on this stuff. Can someone tell me whether MMT is complete lunacy, or is it worth trying to read more about it until I can make sense of some of the concepts? Because reading some of the links I've been sent to really makes me feel like I'm trying to understand the works of Joseph Smith, but without bringing sufficient faith to the task.

My husband recommended Thomas Sowell's excellent text, Basic Economics, to make up for my inadequate formal education, and I'm enjoying it thoroughly, because it's written in something I recognize as English. In the meantime, I see S&P has "revised its outlook" on the U.S. sovereign credit rating, perhaps preparatory to downgrading its AAA status:

Because the U.S. has, relative to its ‘AAA’ peers, what we consider to be very large budget deficits and rising government indebtedness and the path to addressing these is not clear to us, we have revised our outlook on the long-term rating to negative from stable.

We believe there is a material risk that U.S. policymakers might not reach an agreement on how to address medium- and long-term budgetary challenges by 2013; if an agreement is not reached and meaningful implementation does not begin by then, this would in our view render the U.S. fiscal profile meaningfully weaker than that of peer ‘AAA’ sovereigns.

Preferences in Culture

Preferences in Culture

I have no idea how to explain the seeming decline in culture that Grim has posted about, except for my persistent suspicion that it has more to do than I would like with my tastes having been cemented in early adulthood. I become more of a curmudgeon with every passing decade. I do think it's interesting to look at differences in opinion between lay readers and "expert" readers in compiling a "100 Best Novels" list, in this case one compiled by the Modern Library.

The expert list places a higher value on craft and the sophistication of ideas, while the popular list rewards sheer entertainment value. It pains me to admit that I am familiar with many titles on the expert list only because I've seen movie versions (The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, The Wings of a Dove, The Golden Bowl, Deliverance, The Maltese Falcon, A High Wind in Jamaica, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Brideshead Revisited, Sophie's Choice, The Sheltering Sky, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Ragtime). Others I've read only because they were assigned to me, but found that they'll never be for me: any James Joyce, for instance, or F. Scott Fitzgerald. But there's a solid core of titles I agree with: Lolita, the Forster works, the Faulkner works.

The readers'-choice list is heavy on Ayn Rand and other speculative or ideological works such as science fiction. It includes some of my pulp favorites: books I actually like well enough to re-read, even if I would never try to defend my choice on purely literary grounds to a discriminating reader. Yes, I confess, I enjoyed both "Atlas Shrugged" and "The Fountainhead" and I've at least read all of the several additional Rand entries. No, I won't try to defend the awful writing; I don't care. L. Ron Hubbard (three entries! Yikes!) and Frank Herbert and Lovecraft, not to mention Cormac McCarthy, will never be my cup of tea, but this list contains no fewer than six of my favorite Heinlein yarns, each of which I've re-read till the covers came apart. I was also happy to see some of my favorite Faulkner works on both this and the expert list. But who is this Charles de Lint guy, with eight winners? He's not even remotely familiar to me.

Reading lists like this always tempt me to go over to Amazon and order a bunch of stuff. Since I just did that last week with a pile of books about economics and social science that are still lying around in an accusing pile, I guess I'll have to defer my gratification. But I will put in a plug here for a recent fiction purchase, an early Patrick O'Brian coming-of-age romp called "The Road to Samarcand," the adventures of an orphaned young man traveling on the Silk Road in the 1930s with his adventurous, worldly-wise uncle and a scholarly dingbat of a cousin. (Hey, where's O'Brian on the popular list?)

In the meantime, I want to hear from all of you about all the books on these lists that I haven't read but should.