Monday, July 30, 2007

And You Thought I was a Downer

Here's someone who's really worried about Peak Oil. But then again, living in Tucson, he'd better be. Scary once one begins thinking how much oil gets used to pump water and condition air in our fastest growing "communities." Or, how much goes into growing, processing, transporting and refrigerating our food (a.k.a., corn). Or, how much is used to pave the roads and fuel the airplanes and ships that make us one small, happy, globalized world (for a little while longer, anyway). It's really not clear how most of the areas of new settlement in the U.S. post-World War II are going to make it - places like much of the arid southwest or the tropical south. Or, perhaps I should say, it's all too clear. A tidbit:

Peak oil is the greatest challenge humanity has ever faced. If World War II rates a 1 on a scale of 1 to 10, global warming is a 3 and peak oil is a 12. Most experts who write about peak oil predict complete economic collapse within a decade, followed shortly thereafter by anarchy.

And here's a wicked rant from my favorite ranter, James Kunstler. Another tidbit:

I believe the stunning failure of [fiscal] responsibility actually can be accounted for, though my theory may not be to everyone's taste (especially the science hard-asses out there). In a word: entropy. The US has enjoyed unprecedented energy inputs and the result is unprecedented entropy outputs. The protean force of entropy then manifests as degradation in just about everything around us from the immersive ugliness of a landscape overbuilt with WalMarts, Pizza Huts, and vinyl houses, to the sexual perversion available on the Internet, to the surrender of standards and norms by executives in the financial sector. It's as simple as that. Entropy rules.

Oh, yea, have a nice day :)

Sunday, July 29, 2007

My New Kentucky Home

I come from another visit to Lexington Kentucky, this time to participate in a book-signing for the recently published UKY Press book, Wendell Berry: Life and Work, in which I contributed a version of this post. It was a truly lovely and forever memorable evening. Wendell Berry, flanked by book editor Jason Peters and photographer and long-time friend Guy Mendes, gamely signed copies of this new book about Wendell until all copies sold out. The bookstore - Black Swan Books, overflowing with a universe of used books - sold a lot of other Berry books also, as people scooped up copies of Wendell's novels, poetry and essays for inscription. Also present were contributors and neighbors, Ed McClanahan, Norman Wirzba, Kate Dalton, and Morris Grubbs, and of course, University Press of Kentucky Director and all-around good fellow, Steve Wrinn. I read most all of the book on the flight back, and it's a great read about a great man. It should be in your town and personal libraries.

Afterwards we retired to a local restaurant, drank bourbon, and ate plentifully. I was fortunate to sit between Wendell, Guy Mendes and Ed McClanahan, who regaled me with stories of their long friendship and jokes a bit too racy to repeat here (I knew when one was coming - Wendell would conspiratorially lean in, so that his wife Tanya wouldn't hear. I'm pretty sure she did, and didn't mind, but it was the courtesy that charmed). Memory and love were palpable, as were prodigious amounts of laughter and good cheer. It amuses me to think that there are people who consider Wendell to be a dour Jeremiah. His laughter is a miracle of nature, and I recall that he once wrote that only people who are not serious are unable to laugh.

In the midst of that company I marveled that I should be among its number. They were mostly Kentuckians, many were long-standing friends, and most had spent a long time working on or with Wendell's thought. And here I was, in every abstract respect the sort of person that Wendell had spent his life criticizing: a college professor at a prestigious university, a resident of Washington D.C. - locus of centralizing power, policies that were killing off the farmer, and the hulking Pentagon - someone who did not grow up around farming and knew little of living in the countryside. But, far from feeling like an outsider, I was welcomed and embraced, and I think that is no accident: beyond welcoming a newcomer with kindness, an integral part of Wendell's thought involves encouraging the ability and capacity of people everywhere NOT necessarily to till the earth, but to understand, and to understand well, the sources of their sustenance, the ground and grounds on which that sustenance rests, the presuppositions of culture that are necessary for good work, good life, and good deaths.

Wendell is often mischaracterized by libertarian and "progressive" critics that he proposes to put us all back on subsistence farms. This requires not only a willful misreading, but probably reveals an absence of actual reading. Nothing could be further from the truth, plainly visible in black and white on the printed page. Consider a few passages from Berry's book, "Citizenship Papers":

"Educated minds, in the modern era, are unlikely to know anything about food and drink or clothing and shelter. In merely taking these things for granted, the modern educated mind reveals itself to be as superstitious as ever has existed in the world. What could be more superstitious than the idea that money brings forth food?

"I am not suggesting, of course, that everybody ought to be a farmer or a forester. Heaven forbid! I am suggesting that most people now are living on the far side of a broken connection, and that this is potentially catastrophic. Most people are now fed, clothed, and sheltered from sources, in nature and in the work of other people, toward which they feel no gratitude and exercise no responsibility" ("In Distrust of Movements," 47-8).

Or, even more directly:

"At this point I want to say point blank what I hope is already clear: Though agrarianism proposes that everybody has agrarian responsibilities, it does not propose that everybody should be a farmer or that we do not need cities. Nor does it propose that every product should be a necessity. Furthermore, any thinkable human economy would have to grant to manufacturing an appropriate and honorable place. Agrarians would insist only that any manufacturing enterprise be formed and scaled to fit the local landscape, the local ecosystem, and the local community, and that it should be locally owned and employ local people. They would insist, in other words, that the shop or factory owner should not be an outsider, but rather a sharer in the fate of the place and its community. The deciders should have to live with the results of their decisions" ("The Whole Horse," 121).

Berry is commending for all of us - whether we live on the country or in the cities, in the suburbs or the exurbs - to become more thoughtful about what we are doing and to change our behavior accordingly. Does this mean selling the suburban house and buying a farm in the country? No, though some have and will. It does mean that we begin to think about the sources of our sustenance and the consequences of our actions, and that, where possible, we begin to develop skills and practices that can help sustain our families and our communities. Rather than buying the cheapest goods, look to support local agriculture, local merchants and local manufacturing (today's Washington Post carries a front page article on a groundswell of people seeking to eat local, mentioning Wendell Berry by name no less). Rather than buying a new item made in China and shipped with prodigious quantities of oil, attempt to repair the old item or use a serviceable substitute. Cook at home more; repair your clothes, even make some; pick up a hammer or split some wood (this will give you an idea of the energy that is required to heat our houses...). Consume less; save more. Live smaller, turn down the heat, use less air conditioning. Turn off the television and gather with neighbors. Invest in enterprises that support these values, not those that will make the most money in our "growth economy." Rather than thinking in terms of individual satisfaction, take into account the good of one's family, one's neighbors, one's community - and, future generations of each. All this requires us to think more than we now do about what we are doing. The one "movement" that Wendell Berry has endorsed is "MTEWIID": "the Movement to Teach the Economy What It Is Doing."

And here's something else that made me settle into my chair and truly enjoy that evening with Wendell and friends, knowing that I had every reason to feel welcome in that Kentucky company: Wendell has said that this change cannot happen without the good efforts and support of "cityfolk." In 1977 Wendell Berry agreed to debate Earl Butz, former Secretary of Agriculture under Gerald Ford and subject of a withering critique by Berry in "The Unsettling of America" (Butz had told farmers, infamously, to "get big or get out"). One member of the audience asked Berry why more politicians and leaders don't listen to farmers, and this is what he said:

"I think they don't listen to farmers because there aren't enough of you. You're a negligible quantity, politically. I don't see how you're going to protect yourself without some friends in the cities, and I don't see how you're going to get them. You see, this is the split I'm talking about. You're feeding people not interested in raising food, they're interested in eating it. So when you've got a declining small population in which nobody is interested, I don't see how you stop it at an irreducible minimum. It seems to me that farmers are in rapid precipitous decline, they're without political friends, and I don't see how they can do anything except expect to decline some more. Unless values change."

Wendell Berry has done more than any man alive in helping to bring about this change in values. And he has acknowledged the need for political friends who live away from the farms, in the towns, in the cities, and yes, even in the suburbs. And so, I sipped my bourbon in full knowledge and joy that I had been invited and warmly welcomed into that fine and immortal company. There's more room at the table.

Thursday, July 26, 2007


Check out this amazing song and video:


This group has the audacity to link the loss of ownership of, and work on, real land with the rise of our abortion regime. Without belonging and patrimony, families are superfluous. And a subtle link is drawn between the disdain of our bodies for real work and its subsequent employment as a pleasure machine. A pernicious dualism is the result. Also note the decreasing amount of soil transmitted from generation to generation in the video. Incroyable!

(Thanks to Jeremy Beer)

Danger Signals

As of this morning, oil prices are approaching $77 per barrel after reports of low inventories in the U.S., gold prices are inching up toward $700 per ounce, the dollar is near its all time lows against the Euro and other currencies, a leading mortgage lender has declared that they are seeing growing numbers of defaults among their "prime" home equity loan portfolio, and "volatility" has returned to the stock market (i.e., it's gyrating pretty wildly, including some rather steep downward falls such as two days ago when the Dow lost over 200 points). The war in Iraq grinds on with few signs of hope that we can "win" or with any sensible prospect of withdrawing without leaving a broken and bloody mess in our wake.

One can find all these pieces of news scattered throughout the newspaper, but they are in fact intimately connected. Interest rates are rising as a consequence of rising inflation. Rising interest rates is the major contributing factor to the drop in housing prices, on the one hand, and the growing inability of debtors to pay back their adjustable mortgages - often gimmicky loans that began as "low monthly payments" and have now adjusted to punishing amounts on houses in which they have negative equity. Higher interest rates are beginning to dry up the "liquidity" that most pundits agree has been the driving force behind the recent all-time highs of the various stock indices (note that the big jumps upward have tended to be announcements of leveraged buy outs of various companies by private equity pools, i.e., "hedge" funds. While the economy is giving various signs of sputtering, the party has been almost wholly a creation of Wall Street cheap money shenanigans, with a bill coming due for some wild bets in the subprime lending market).

Inflation would seem to lie at the heart of many of these current danger signals, though official "economic indicators" tell us that inflation is largely under control. Of course, these government figures are doctored: inflation figures ("core prices") exclude energy and food prices, those basic staples of every American's budget that have been consistently rising at a brisk pace - as anyone who has been to a gas station or a supermarket can tell you. So, while the official figures tell us that inflation is within "normal" levels, the Federal Reserve continually tells us that they are concerned about elevated levels of inflation, revealing that they can't exclude energy and food any more than the average American. To even separate these two products is somewhat laughable, since the rising cost of food is largely a result of a rise in energy costs - an increase that has prompted the diversion of a significant percentage of our agricultural stock to the production of inefficient alternative fuels. Corn is a basic feedstock for meat and dairy, a primary sweetener, and underlies a lot of other unpronouncable ingredients in our mechanized food system. It's also a net energy loser as a fuel source, but the farmers aren't complaining. So, we're now sending a good amount of food through our exhaust pipes and paying a higher price for what remains on supermarket shelves.

As economic danger signals continue to rise, and the national debt balloons especially as a result of the cost of running an empire, other nations are scrambling to unload their massive portfolios of U.S. bonds (a.k.a., U.S. debt) and the dollar is tumbling as a result. Oil producing nations - predictably, Venezuela and Russia, but even our "friends," including the nation the U.S. once liberated, Kuwait - have announced that they will accept currencies other than the dollar for payment of oil. Gold prices correspondingly have risen as nations and individuals look for a currency that will retain its value in these inflationary and economically precarious times. The empire is especially so costly since the declaration of the "Carter doctrine" in 1980 that stability in the Middle East is considered to be in America's vital national interest. Stability would be bought either on the sly - by propping up various monarchs, tyrants and dictators (whose form of government we once fought to overturn in this nation), and as a consequence fomenting a backlash of resentment and hatred among native populations - or more brazenly, in the form of successive invasions and military interventions. Since that decade, America has gone from being a producer nation to a debtor nation - both publicly and privately - largely as a result of our transferral of treasure overseas.

That's why a recent report from the investment firm Goldman Sachs might be further cause for concern among those who are connecting these dots and seeing in them signs of the tottering of the American empire. If many of these danger signals are a result of rising oil prices - itself a consequence of shrinking supply in the face of growing demand - then one can draw little comfort from this analysis from a leading Wall Streeet firm. Goldman Sachs, and numerous other financial analysts, opine that $100 per barrel oil may arrive in only a few month's time. U.S. Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman is quoted as saying "There are questions about whether the oil industry can keep up with demand." Options traders are increasingly betting on a rise of this magnitude, which would compound the 50% rise of energy costs the world has seen since only 2003. While many analysts would have expected "demand destruction" by this time - a decreased use of energy in the face of rising prices - demand has actually increased even as prices have risen to unprecedented levels. A large part of the demand is coming from China and India, but demand has even increased by 3.6 million barrels per day in the U.S. "It appears that high prices are acceptable to the American consumer," said Robert Ebel, chairman of the energy program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "People want the house with a yard and white-picket fence so they are moving further and further out of the cities. They have to just get up earlier and drive further." What Mr. Ebel failed to mention is that growing numbers of these people are finding that ends don't meet. A sizeable number of these people are walking away from their houses and their mortgage payments, lowering the value of the houses of their neighbors and contributing further to downward pressure on the U.S. economy. Ironically, all that commuting has made the fuel scarcer and more expensive, leading to the untenability of far flung housing. We will someday marvel at the stupidity!

Some analysts acknowledge that consumers will not be able to absorb these rising costs indefinitely, and offer some investment advice - go long on Exxon and PetroChina, and short the airline industries. While one might think of this solely as an investment opportunity, the consequences in the real world are signficant: "growth" will decrease and possibly cease, and travel especially will be restrained. Our easy assumptions about a globalizing world is facing a looming obstacle of limited and increasingly expensive resources. One of the major implications of this analysis - which acknowledges that these high prices are likely to remain with us for years - is that "globalization" may simply be a temporary condition that was made possible by the last big collective chug of cheap oil. We're not going to be able to afford to travel as much, and the falling dollar will mean that we're going to have to make more stuff here at home. This is not a "postmaterialist option" (pace Peter Lawler), but an increasingly inescapable necessity. We're going to have to wake up to the fact that "postmaterialism" was a fantasy made possible above all by cheap oil, and that we're much more dependent on material than we've realized of late. While it won't be pretty, the signals suggest we're about to discover that we're not "post-" much of anything.

T. Boone Pickens - an old fashioned oil tycoon - has argued that we can only expect prices to increase, as he believes we have reached the peak of worldwide oil production. Supplies will only continue to drop, and prices will continue to rise (or "demand destruction" will occur, and the worldwide economy will go into a massive recession if not a depression.) He's made billions on this "theory." Here's what he says: "A pullout from Iraq may be the event that pushes oil to $100 a barrel." Today he is looking for $80 within six months, and he says growing chaos in Iraq would be a bad sign. "That could run prices pretty high," he said. If so - and one has to concede he certainly seems right - then it makes George Bush's unwillingness to withdraw more comprehensible, and should force us to wonder how the Democratic candidates now calling for withdrawal will handle the economic fallout of such a spike in oil prices (certainly not a call for sacrifice). Not one of our "leaders" is willing to tell us this truth, however - Bush tells us this is about WMD or democracy or fighting terrorists over there (anything but oil), and the Democratic candidates argue for withdrawal without mentioning that there may be unpleasant consequences for us, not to mention the Iraqis, as a result - because that would disrupt the consumer's desire to "own" the house with the white picket fence with three or four garages in which to park the SUVs. In the meantime our soldiers continue to die in defense of our liberty to own such big houses and drive such big cars.

So we are left for now with the steady accumulation of seemingly disconnected news items and a conspiracy of silence at the heart of which lies our loss of self-governance. We want to continue to buy liberty on the cheap, but will find that it's only going to get more expensive, and that we lack some of the necessary good habits to pay the bill.

ADDENDUM (3:20 p.m.): I guess I should watch what I say. The market is down 300+ points with a half hour remaining in the trading day. The reasons: credit market concerns and an earnings report from Exxon that showed lower crude production. As they say in the business, "past performance is no guarantee of future results..."

Thursday, July 19, 2007

A Bit of Green for Red Staters

This recent Roger Scruton essay, which articulates a conservative case for conservation, has just been published by "The American Conservative." The article is based on a lecture delivered at Georgetown University which was hosted by "The Tocqueville Forum on the Roots of American Democracy," an initiative aimed at preserving classical liberal education (anyone who thinks higher education is in good shape should check my previous post). I began the program last year and serve as its current Director; Roger Scruton was one of the many very fine guests whom we hosted during the last academic year. Scruton is one of our best conservatives - in the true meaning of that term - less invested than many American counterparts in the electoral success of the Republican party, and more interested in the permanent things that lie at the heart of what deserves conserving. In this essay - originally delivered at Georgetown under the title "Conservatism as Conservation" - Scruton explores the rightful conservative claim to a movement often mistakenly attributed to the Left.

Scruton masterfully lays out the collective action problem involved in engaging in proper stewardship: in modern free-market liberal democracies, we have developed very bad habits of short term thinking, particularly in our thoughtless "externalization of costs" to future generations. He argues:

The real cause of the environmental problems we face is not so much large private enterprises or the pursuit of profit or even capitalism as such. It is the habit we all have of externalizing our costs. Consider air travel. If somebody offers you cheap flights, you will take them rather than the more expensive flights offered by a company that puts some of its profits into rectifying the environmental damage caused by airplanes. This is human nature: we try to ignore the damage done by our unnecessary journeys by air if someone else bears the cost of them.

Similarly, suburbanization forces millions to go to work in cars everyday when they might have been walking. It requires vast acreages of the countryside to be covered with buildings and roads, destroying natural ecosystems. Yet it goes ahead because it is something that people want, and the cost can be easily externalized onto other generations or people in other parts of the world.

Then there is nondegradable packaging. Those who live in cities don’t see the effect of this because street-cleaners gather it up and push it into landfill sites. But in the countryside, where trash blows around unpursued, you see it in every yard—a plastic bottle or a piece of packaging—and you can foretell that since these bits of rubbish are immortal, one day the entire world will be covered with a layer of plastic, and there will be no life beneath it.

Normally, if someone tries to force another person to bear the cost of his own misdemeanors, that other person retaliates, either by filing a lawsuit or by throwing the rubbish back over the fence. This conflict immediately opens the way to political solutions. If two people are in conflict, and if they have been brought up in a democratic culture, they will recognize that the best way to solve their problem is through a sustainable compromise rather than a lawsuit or a shootout....

There is a deeper problem, however, that politics cannot, in itself, address. Political solutions represent agreements among the living, but our real problems are transgenerational. At present, we are externalizing our costs not to people who can complain but to unborn people who can’t. Democratic politics, Burke and Chesterton pointed out, has an inbuilt tendency to disenfranchise the unborn and the dead.

Scruton concludes:

What then is the conservative solution, if there is one? A revival of trusteeship is the only hope for the future, and this attitude is natural to human beings. They enter the world through no choice of their own, to be greeted, as a rule, by the love of parents and the security of home. The trustee is the one who recognizes that his home, and all that it means, are inherited things, things to be safeguarded and passed on. This attitude exercises itself at the local level in the voluntary associations and small institutions of civil society. It is the core component in that associational genius that Tocqueville discerned in the American people. It is the legacy of a political order that regards people, not rulers, as the source of authority and the fount of responsible decision-making.

Environmental movements on the Left seldom pause to consider the question of human motivation. It is so clear to them that something must be done that they leap to the conclusion that it must be done by state power and imposed by law. The problem with that approach is that it makes mistakes into permanent legacies and provides no incentive to ordinary citizens to do what they are told. Conservatives, on the whole, are more respectful of human nature and will recognize in the attitude of trusteeship a feeling to which we automatically tend, when given the freedom to exercise it.

Human nature - manifested in our love and care for our children - rightly translates itself into a more expansive care for the world into which we are born, which we did not create, and which we hope to leave in good condition to future generations, as stewardship rightly demands. That is, human nature rightly sees itself as part of, and therefore responsible for, nature writ large. Read the whole essay, for a necessary reminder that at the heart of conservatism lies the duty to conserve.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Fin de Siecle

From our correspondent in Paris, reporting some titles, with commentary, from a "Humanities Conference":

"At the At the Gay Bar with Male Erotic Dancers: A Phenomenology of Fuckness"

Overview: With focus on what I call the erotic capital of fuckness, I articulate a coextensive theory of gender and sexuality regarding male strip tease.
Stream: Sexuality, Gender, Families

"Ruptures in Knowing: A Comparative Study Narrating the "Veil" in Subaltern Feminine Embodiment"

Overview: This paper will think through the subaltern existence of the feminine body on ethical terms that re-articulate the complex lines of power and desire beyond the moment of the veil.
Stream: Literature, Literary Studies Language, Linguistics

[Comment]: Subaltern? The moment of the veil? This guy is going to rupture the space-time continuum....

"Growing Dendrites: Brain-based Learning, Governmentality and ways of being a Person"

Overview: This paper examines the current interest in brain-based learning from a Foucauldian perspective, in particular his idea of ‘governmentality’.
Stream: Philosophy, Ethics, Consciousness, Religion, Spirituality

[Comment]: Brain-based learning? As opposed to what?...

"Fashioning the Vagina, Fashioning the Self: Hair Management in the Nether Region"

Overview: We offer an opening foray into popular culture representations of the manner in which women are enlisted to manage their pubic hair in North American society.

[Comment]: "I am a walrus..."

"Girl-Child Education: A Reality or a Mirage among Females with Hearing Impairment in Nigeria"

Overview: The researcher is interested in investigating some of the problems militating against girl-child education among females with hearing impairment in Nigeria.
Stream: Sexuality, Gender, Families

[Comment]: Girl-child? Sounds like something right out of Newspeak. Caveat: This paper is only concerned with left-handed deaf girl-childs from northwest Nigeria. Actually, just this one village on the Chadian border. Actually, it's my village. Ok, it's about me -- it's my journal.

"Negotiating Gendered, Cultural, Canadian, and Engineering Identities"

Overview: This research will focus on the intersecting identities of women engineering students while considering which identities are viewed as important to them, in which historical, cultural, societal, and situational contexts.

[Comment]: Translation: I flunked out of a crappy Canadian engineering school and ended up in the humanities.

"The Role of Transcendental Metaphors in Birthing New Worlds: A Phenomenological Exploration of the (de)construction of Reality"

Overview: The paper unveils the transcendental structure of metaphors invoked by ten global transformational leaders, which enabled them to overcome oppressive discourses and birth new worlds in different societies and times

[Comment]: Hey, this guy got his title the same place I got mine: !

"The Phonosemantic Universality of Human Speech: A New Anthropocentric Paradigm for Word Meaning"

Overview: The hypothesis states the trilateral unity of mouth gesture, thought, and sound and attributes to each phone particular syncretic, mostly spatial, intrinsic meaning which is universal across all human languages.

[Comment]: Makes me think of another trilateral mouth gesture...

Higher Education, anyone?

Friday, July 13, 2007

Catholicism and Suburbia

There is an interesting discussion taking place at the "Mirror of Justice" website touching on a number of themes near and dear to my heart, namely, whether Catholics are better served, and serve better, in an urban or suburban setting (you have to scroll down their site to see the scattered entries; thanks to Joe Knippenberg for calling my attention to the discussion, and to the "Veggie Tales" connection - one of the contributors, Rob Vischer, is the brother of the founder of Veggie Tales). It is more than an interesting question, but a vital one.

I don't believe the Magisterium has weighed in one way or the other on this matter, but it seems to me that Catholicism as a whole cloth may not be best expressed in either setting, though I'd give considerable preference to a rightly ordered urban setting over a suburban one. The best setting, it seems to me, is a town of a reasonable size, ranging from one that might be considered to be a small city to modest town. I have in mind Aristotle's definition of a polis as a place that is to some extent self sufficient and is of such a size that one does not need to voice of Stentor to be heard through its environs. It should be a place where one can reasonably expect to rule and be ruled in turn, that is, to learn the discipline of liberty and self-rule. It should be a place where culture, as an accumulation of habituation and practice, can be passed from one generation to the next, starting in the family but continuing and being reinforced in the community at large. It should be place where people from various classes and professions can interact, and thereby with greater ease and willingness overcome the resentments or disapproval that can form in the absence of interaction between people differently placed. It should be a place where one's work and one's contributions to the common weal can be discerned and remembered. It is a place, therefore, that allows for the creation of communio, the passing on of culture, the formation of tradition, and the continuity of memory.

The suburbs, it seems to me, were formed for reasons that permitted, nay encouraged, the avoidance and escape of all these conditions. The suburbs were formed to be non-communities, to be enclaves for nuclear families that sought to be isolated from the inconveniences of community (and there are, of course, many inconveniences in communities). One revealing architectural indication of this ambition - drawing on an article I have discussed before - was the replacement of the front porch with the back-yard patio. The home ceased to possess an intermediary space that connected the public to the private, but became a private bastion for ever-smaller families (and, current design trends further emphasize our isolation, including subdivision of the McMansion into private enclaves for children and parents, for each family member, and increasingly separate sleeping spaces for each spouse). Suburbs not only segregate families from one another - and increasingly, family members from one another - but segregate our life-activities from one another. Zoning regulations forbid the intermingling of commerce and "living," and hence few suburban settings allow for the possibility of enacting commercial transactions in or near the places where one lives. Compare the current suburban enclave - where one must drive significant distances to purchase a distantly produced gallon of milk or loaf of Wonder Bread (R)- to many older American towns and cities (take, for example, the town where I live, Alexandria, Virginia) or most European communities where families still live above their shops and stores, where one's shopping can be done by walking through one's town.

This segregation is only the most visible sign of a deeper segregation of activities: ths suburban arrangement is designed to divorce us from any intimate or even passing knowledge of where and how the goods of life are produced. The growth of the suburbs and exurbs and the "globalization" of production far away from the places where we would consume and use those goods are intimately connected phenomena. Once we no longer rely upon local producers, locally situated, to provide for our daily provenance, the only reason to prefer one set of goods over another becomes increasingly that of everyday low prices, and hence the flight of production and jobs to low-cost labor providers. The producer thus has no knowledge of the people who will use the goods, just as the consumer does not have the slightest familiarity with the people or practices that went into the production of the goods. This leads to all sorts of pernicious outcomes, one of the more visible being the abusive labor practices that we end up implicitly supporting as well as the shoddy products that we end up consuming (and that are nowadays killing our pets and poisoning our toothcare). These are only some of the more sensational instances, however: the deeper consequence is to divorce communities from any knowledge of the source of their sustenance, and hence to separate us from a kind of daily familiarity with how our respective forms of work and labor contribute to a common weal, and in turn how the work of others contributes to our good. Suburban life reinforces modern trends toward extreme specialization (the sub-division of labor) and our growing ignorance of how our discrete forms of work in any way contribute to the commonweal of the community. We cease to have vocations and have "jobs" or "careers" that we undertake with little knowledge or even thought to how that work contributes to - or detracts from - the good of the community or nation. Unsurprisingly, the outcome of this arrangement is one in which our pursuit of the "bottom line" of our work trumps (or, really, wholly obscures) our concern for common weal, and allows for the the kinds of work and production that not only is neutral toward community and nation, but actively undermines and even destroys those entities. Our business or plutocratic class is the most obvious manifestation of this kind of work, those people who are educated in our free-floating universities (that wholly eschew any responsibility to the communities in which they find themeselves and instead now emphasize their participation in the project of "globalization") and become "itinerant vandals" in the "absentee economy" (to quote Wendell Berry) that exploits without regard to the consequence to particular communities. I grew up in a town with a real downtown, dotted with individual propietors who ran businesses that were embedded in the community. These places sponsored local Little League teams and would provide food and provisions for school activities, local community events and the like. I grew up going to school with the children of many of those owners; most of them had no intention of taking over those establishments, given the greater remunerative possibilities of the absentee economy. Those places were put out of business by the chain stores and the box stores and the Wal-Marts that are physically located as islands in parking lots of major thoroughfares, and which have no concern or care for the communities in which they happen to be plopped down next to, other than extracting maximum profits and dumping Chinese-produced products so that local shops (a.k.a. "competitors") are quickly put out of business.

Our ignorance of how and where the goods of life are produced is further extended to our practical ignorance of people who are likely to be differently placed than us. Thinkers such as Christopher Lasch some time ago noted that the effect of current "lifestyle" arrangements (that is, suburbia) made it possible for people of similar socio-economic status to create living arrangements in which people in other socio-economic strata could be effectively excluded. Suburbia has encouraged the rise of "gated communities" and, through zoning regulations, housing that must be uniformly constructed and hence uniformly priced, ensuring that people of certain economic strata are barred from purchasing in those communities. This consciously-constructed effort to create "lifestyle enclaves" has resulted in the breakdown of informal relationships between wealthy and poor, proprietors and wage earners, farmers and shop-keepers, and so on. A further practical effect - also noted by Christopher Lasch - is the "inter-breeding" of these classes, ensuring that income inequality between the classes is only exacerbated when lawyer marries doctor, CEO marries stockbroker, and, alternatively, cashier marries busboy and construction worker marries hotel housekeeper. Upward mobility, and non-mobility, are enshrined in our living arrangments.

All the above has the practical effect of feeding into a sinful condition in which we falsely convince ourselves that we have achieved self-sufficiency and independence. The successful are tempted toward disdain toward those who have not succeeded, and the unsuccessful are given to resentment and self-reproachment. Our loss of any habituation in lived common weal undermines our capacity and willingness to act on its behalf, or even know what that would mean or entail. We care for our families, yes, but we increasingly disconnect the ways in which the sustenance of our families depends on certain kinds of culture, economy and polity. We can all-too easily allow justified criticism of "government" (especially the centralizing tendency of our time - one that has been concomitant with the rise of "globalization") - to become a blanket criticsm of "politics," with the practical effect being a withdrawal from a concern for, or even rejection of the very idea of, common good. Ironically, of course, what we possess least is actual self-sufficiency and independence: in our current living arrangement we couldn't survive a week without the products trucked and increasingly shipped from distant locales, and the (still) cheap petroleum purchased on credit from the tyrants of the Middle East whose regimes we prop up and in whose populations our way of life gives rise to vicious and deadly resentments. Our belief in self-sufficiency and independence is purchased dearly at the price of the loss of actual liberty, as self-delusive a condition as one can imagine.

Peter Lawler, in his comments to my previous post on "No Left Turns," admits to admiring the way of life described in Alan Ehrenhalt's book "The Lost City," but would also stress that it is "LOST." My reply is that this way of life was "lost" not by accident, as a marble can be lost when there happens to be a hole in one's pocket, but lost by intention and design, as well as massive government subsidy, commercial pressure, and hence huge material incentives. There are goods that come with suburban life surely (and I will admit to enjoying them in our weirdly communal and throwback neighborhood), but there are costs that are becoming so evident that it needs to be considered whether "intention and design" cannot reverse some of the worst consequences of our current suburban regime, and that - ironically - the government that undermined certain cultures and ways of life needs to be harnessed in reviving those ways.

The Catholic angle, among other places, is here: subsidiarity demands that the most local competent authority should be the proper venue for public action. Here is where the Catholic view can contribute to a recognition that simple anti-government sentiment, even anti-national government animus, is insufficient to the task at hand. Even while defending the primacy of locality in raising and providing for one's families, the forces arrayed against the realization of this proper arrangement are global in scale, and hence need a larger government entity in their defense. This argument was made cogently by Hilaire Belloc in his book "The Restoration of Property" and lie at the heart of the Distibutivism of Belloc and Chesterton. In this book, Belloc noted that local proprietorship - what he called "well-distributed property" - would not spring up of its own accord in free-market and hence centralizing economies. Since large scale economic actors evoked "all the powers of the state" to secure their positions, Belloc argued that the restoration of wide-scale ownership would require "the deliberate reversal of economic tendencies.... Well-divided property will not spring up of itself in a Capitalist society. It must be artificially fostered," he wrote. He proposed creating tax incentives for the protection of small-scale family-owned businesses against larger, distant rivals; he sought to subsidize "the small artisan at the expense of Big Business," including support for trade guilds; he sought to support small-scale farming, and thus to treat farm land differently than urban land - a proposal that would itself have prevented the viral infestation of suburbs on "cheap" farmland throughout the country; the favored treatment of local banks against distant financial institutions with no stake in the community; and "extravagantly" supported "peasant" class who would largely seek to provide much of their provenance from fruits of their own labor on their own land.

A theology of work is at work here, a sacrament of good work in a community of continuity and remembrance - a concern that is wholly lacking in our current arrangement of "get all you can now." One way in which this is "Catholic" is in its concern for continuity between generations, familial, communal and institutional. There is at once a dedicated concern to preserve the inheritance of the past and an intention to ensure the livelihood of future generations. A culture is cultivated, preserved, and transmitted. So - to the question being raised by colleagues about the Catholicity of the suburbs, or lack thereof, I respond: let us pray.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Dr. Peter Eats His Veggies

In response to my complaints about a Veggie Tales song, Peter Lawler writes:

Deneen worries that children are being infected with the propaganda that guzzling gas and eating junk food are the heart of an authentically Christian way of life. But one of the commenters offer the plausible theory that the veggie tune is ironic about the limitations of the ordinary evangelical’s worldview. I’m pretty much pro-choice when it comes to Fritos and Dunkin’ Donuts, while acknowledging that southern superiority doesn’t include food. Gas guzzlers and trans-fat scarfers are surely not excluded from heaven, although some of them might get there a little more quickly than they might have. And, of course, I would never go to an evangelical church for the music or the poetry. Still, the best of the evangelicals have it on almost all of us when it comes to family life.

And I responded:

Dr. Peter seems to want to have it both ways here: if the song is ironic, then we are supposed to take away a lesson that there's something wrong with thoughtlessly driving SUVs and stuffing your kids with Dunkin Donuts, Fritos and Rocky Road ice cream. I don't know squat about Veggie Tales (clearly), and if it's ironic - as some of the commentators suggested - then I'll acknowledge the good intention, and I'm all for "driving" that lesson home (no pun intended). However, if my kids are any indication, the irony was lost on them. Hence my continued annoyance at the song.

However, Dr. Peter also indicates that he's pro-choice about junk food and, I guess, SUVs. As usual, the indiscriminate pro-choice position is wrong. Either way, it's bad for our kids.

At the risk of calling down damnation (literally), I want to object to his last point about the superiority of Evangelical families. It seems to me that Evangelicals and conservative Christians of many stripes, not to mention Republicans in general, have been far too accomodating of an economy that produces and sustains the poisonous and toxic culture to which they rightly object, and which gave rise to the need for alternatives like Veggie Tales. There's a peculiar dynamic at work: support "pro-choice" free markets and then complain about the outcome, resulting in a siege mentality in which we withdraw our children from the toxicity even as we ignore the way that we are complicit in the creation and sustenance of the poisonous atmosphere (literal and figurative). Conservativism rightly understood ought to seek to conserve a certain culture in which future generations will thrive, and to the extent that they are complicit in the destruction of of such a culture, they do as much damage to "conservation" as the pro-choice liberals and libertarians they decry. Taking good care of one's family, among other things, means bequething to them a planet that their parents haven't trashed and a national economy that can sustain itself, free of the debts we are prepared to saddle upon them. It's time that Christians and conservatives of all sorts cease to give themselves a "by" on this complicity, and rightly assume the full dimension of what being a conservative, qua good conservator, would require.

My recommendation: take two encyclicals (start with Rerum Novarum) and call Chesterton in the morning.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Christian Music

On our way home from Lake Anna we stopped for a bite at "Chick-Fil-A," hoping to support the chicken campus at Berry College, where my friend Peter Lawler teaches (at Berry, not at the chicken campus). Enclosed in one of the kid's meals was a Veggie Tales CD, which - for those not in the know - is a series featuring an animated set of cartoon characters who offer edifying moral and Christian messages. That's all fine and good - better than the usual schlock in kid's meals. Or, so we thought until we popped it into the CD player on the trip home. The disc - called "Family and Friends" - had a song called "Sports Utility Vehicle" with the following set of refrains:

Both: Oh you and me in our Sport Utility Vehicles, cruisin' to 7-11 for a bag of Frito-Lays! Oh you and me in our Sport Utility Vehicles, we’ll slam into 4 wheel and pick up a dozen eggs.

Both- OOoooh. You and me in our Sport Utility Vehicles cruisin' to Dunkin Donuts for a cup of steaming Joe! Oh you and me in our Sport Utility Vehicles we’ll slam into 4-wheel drive for a scoop of rocky road.

There's a lesson for the kids, and a good Christian one at that! Hop into the Sports Utility Vehicle to buy some brand name deep fried junk food! The formation of the modern American consumer and driver of impossibly big vehicles can't begin too early.

Of course, it's a really catchy tune, so now we hear it sung around the house constantly. Next time we'll pack sandwiches. Sigh...

Monday, July 9, 2007


Check this out: "May Consumer Borrowing Jumps 6.4%"

Now, if you lived in a world in which self-governance and spending within one's means mattered, this would be alarming news. But consider some of the editorial commentary embedded in this article:

"The size of the increase was nearly double what economists had been forecasting, although they were looking for a rebound from the sluggish performance in May, when the 1.1 percent rise in overall credit was the smallest gain since a 0.1 percent rise in October."

Sluggish performance - that's BAD!! Good thing we kicked it up a notch!! Thank goodness for this "rebound"!! That's some "gain"!! Way to go, consumers!!

Or this:

"The report on consumer borrowing will provide support for the view that consumer spending has held up, despite the weakness in home sales and soaring gasoline prices during the spring."

Spend, buy, consume! - even though you don't have the dough!! So long as consumer borrowing "has held up," we should be fine!!

So, in order that our "economy" keeps growing - or, to be more specific, that we continue to consume (for, after all, we are "consumers") - these economists are encouraged to see that their fellow citizens have increased their debt "by $12.9 billion to a record level of $2.44 trillion." This represents growth, after all, and as we know, growth is good. Ergo, more debt means more purchases, which means more growth, which means all is well.

But, how do we square all the excitement among the economists with this nugget:

"David Wyss, chief economist at Standard & Poor's in New York, said some of the surge in credit card debt reflects the fact that it is getting harder to get home equity loans with banks tightening up on standards and home values not soaring as they did during the housing boom. 'We think that people who had been refinancing their credit card debt into home equity loans are finding that harder to do now,' Wyss said."

The fact that people have less "net worth" in the form of inflated housing prices means NOT that we cut back, but instead that "consumers brushed off rising gasoline prices to storm the malls" using credit cards that charge in the area of 18-25% interest (assuming sound credit - 30% and up if you have some blemishes). How are we going to pay off this debt? Well, by more growth, of course! But, if growth is now occuring through borrowing at usurious rates, how will we be growing our way out of our debt? I know! We'll keep our economy afloat by selling some bonds to the Chinese! More growth!! Then we'll be able to buy more plastic crap made in China! And as a result, our trade deficit will grow, too - a new record, 26.9 Billion in one month! More growth!! Growth, growth, growth, everywhere the eye can see!! Records falling, left and right!!

I'm told from time to time that Economics is the only truly scientific science of the social sciences. Based on what I continue to read, however, I can't help concluding that the discipline is nothing more than faith-based hogwash. George Bush the First had it right all those years ago - what we've got here is a case of voodoo economics. But, I suppose you can't say that anymore, since it probably would offend Voodooists (not to mention fans of Ronald Reagan, under whose leadership we became a nation of debtors). Sorry about that. Go back to sticking pins into protectionists.

Good Advice

As promised, a link to Wendell Berry's commencement address at Bellarmine University (which changed its name in 2000 from the more fitting Bellarmine College. The change of name is implicitly criticized in Berry's speech, where he lambastes the dominance of "STEM" in our corporate-modeled universities - that is, "science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.")

Berry says something no one else would dare to utter at a graduation address - that the education today's students receive is nearly worthless, if we calculate worth based upon a way of life that is worthy of our admiration and one that is worth passing on to future generations. Universities usually know better than to invite a graduation speaker who will question the worth of the product they are purveying, at enormous cost, to unknowing students and their well-meaning parents.

Yet,he does have some positive things to say about attending a college like Bellarmine:

"Actual education seems now to be far more probable in the smaller schools, and I think you graduates are fortunate to have been students at Bellarmine. A school the size of this one still can function as a community of teachers and students, with responsible community life as its unifying aim. But you must not forget that the purposes and standards of the world into which you are graduating have not been set by institutions such as this one, but rather by the proponents of STEM, who would like you to have a well-paying job as an unconscious expert with Jesus Christ Munitions Incorporated, or Cleanstream Water Polluters, or the Henry Thoreau Noise Factory, or the John Muir Forest Reduction Corporation, or the Promised Land Mountain Removal Service."

And he concludes with a call to think about their future as one of vocation, not mere career - that is, to think about how their work will contribute to the good of the whole of their communities, nations, and the earth, and not their own bottom line:

"You will have to understand that the logic of success is radically different from the logic of vocation. The logic of what our society means by “success” supposedly leads you ever upward to any higher-paying job that can be done sitting down. The logic of vocation holds that there is an indispensable justice, to yourself and to others, in doing well the work that you are “called” or prepared by your talents to do."

But enough of my summary. Read it yourself, or for those who are not as technology averse as Berry, you can even watch and listen.

(Hat tip to Jason Peters)

Sounds Like Peak Oil to Me

Here's an article on today's Bloomberg website about a recent report by the International Energy Agency, predicting no spare capacity in Middle East oil production after 2010. The link to the article, appropriately, is "Oil [Prices] Will Stay High for Years as Demand Outstrips Supply Growth." It might also have been entitled, "Energy Prices will Increase Forever." Or, "Life as You Know it is Over." Or, "The Shit Hits the Fan." The article promises that constraints to energy will be relaxed by increased use of coal and nuclear, the only two energy forms that are scalable to something approaching our oil gluttony of the past 100 years. Unmentioned is the fact that these two energy forms are as non-renewable as petroleum, and each has fairly dire waste products that we will again invite future generations to pay for. Whether we'll burn coal with abandon in an age of global warming, and whether uranium supplies will be available to meet demand for electricity (imagine our automobile fleet run substantially on electricity - talk about putting a strain on the grid!), remain a pair of dubious questions.

In his recent commencement address at Bellarmine University (which I will link directly. Incidentally, why does every college now need to be called a "University"? More bunkum!!), Wendell Berry asked the students the following questions: "At present our economy and society are founded on the assumption that energy will always be unlimited and cheap; but what will you have to learn to live in a world in which energy is limited and expensive? What will you have to know – and know how to do – when your community can no longer be supplied by cheap transportation?" Reports like the one linked above assume that we will be able to conduct business as usual. Running out of oil? No problem!! Use up some other stuff! The consequences be damned! Let some poor unborn fool pay for it! (where are the pro-lifers on this issue? I guess all we have to worry about is their being born, not how they're supposed to live after that). Berry's questions are the ones we ought to be putting before our students and young people, at least if we have the courage to look them in the eyes, fess up to the foolishness of their elders and level with them with the news that life is about to get much harder and they will have to learn how to live differently than the way of life that they appear to be inheriting.

Saturday, July 7, 2007

Independence Day

It was a lovely week at Lake Anna. To commemorate Independence Day I read most of Gordon Wood's book "Revolutionary Characters" (no great shakes - marked by the historicist impulse to reduce the Founders to characters who played their parts as demanded by the Enlightenment imperative for reputation - but still 99% better than most everything written by historians nowadays), and then spent the evening with my family at the lakeside setting off some modest fireworks, burning marshmallows and watching the more impressive fireworks displays launched from other docks around the lake (where do they get those really big ones??).

Independence Day was and remains one of my favorite holidays of the year. It doesn't hurt that it's in the middle of the summer, and seems almost always to be a beautiful day. But, early on I felt tremendous pride helping my mother or father put up the American flag on the front porch of our house (we had two - the regulation flag and the colonial flag with 13 stars); in the year of America's bicentennial (I was 12) I learned all the names of the signers of the Declaration and how to sign their signatures (I can still do a pretty mean John Hancock). I would dutifully read the Declaration every July 4, and do so now aloud to my children, revealing to them the full extent of my nerdiness.

Nevertheless, this past Independence Day I was filled with misgivings about the course of the nation that I love. This article in "Moneyweek" goes some way to expressing some of those fears - mainly, the increasing hollowness of our celebration of independence given our deep and largely self-inflicted dependency on foreign powers and especially despotic regimes that serve as our creditors. The author of this article articulated well some of my own deep misgivings:

"In May, Personal Savings ranked in at a negative 1.4 percent of income (or a minus $140 billion annually). Consumers are still not saving enough and continue using credit to offset any shortfall in income just to keep up with normal expenses like a mortgage, groceries, and gas because they have chosen to live extravagantly. One major cause of our country’s need to import massive amounts of foreign capital to keep our economy afloat stems from a weary American consumer struggling to live and pay the rent, but behaving like they’re rich.

"The United States might be the only superpower but we still owe Japan and China each about a trillion dollars. (We owe even more to the Gulf Arabs.) With no savings, America continues to run an $800 billion dollar trade deficit. We are effectively giving America away to our creditors and if we continue to give more and more away, we will lose the ability and the will to take back control and ownership of our own economy. Not only are Americans, individually, becoming debt slaves, but the country on a national level is losing its independence this 4th of July, one manufacturing job and one container shipment at a time, as jobs continue to go overseas."

He ends his article with the following admonition - the sort that one rarely if ever sees in the financial press, whose interest is closely aligned to the plutocrats whose national loyalty is tenuous at best. The author - Richard Benson - writes: "It's time to get out of debt and live small, not large. Own only what you need, not what you want so you can save. Invest in beautiful things you will enjoy for years, rather than fancy dinners that only leave your stomach bloated and your wallet empty. Build up savings in tangible assets that will hold their value regardless of the rate of inflation. America the beautiful is still a rich country. On July 4th we should be celebrating our financial independence because without it, there is no freedom."

Imagine one of our current candidates running on this platform! Not a chance in hell, I realize (even Ron Paul stops short of calling too explicitly for self-sacrifice). But, one wonders what would happen if one of the candidates, really any of the 37 or so dwarfs, had the courage to say any of these sorts of things aloud. Might Americans show themselves to be true friends of liberty after all? Might the better angels of our nature govern our baser appetites? We now seem to equate freedom with the ability to purchase whatever we want whenever we want - whether we have the money or not, and regardless of what nations we borrow from - and have lost the firm sense of the connection of the words freedom and independence. It is a connection we need to reestablish, and very soon, lest we lose all.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Hooking Up

I am slowly, very slowly, making my way through a backlog of newspapers during a week’s vacation at Lake Anna, a.k.a., the cooling lagoon for the North Anna Nuclear Generating Plant (we are staying on the “warm” part of the lake, which can run about 15 degrees warmer than the rest of the lake. Swimming is reminiscent of taking a bath). The fishing is good, especially landing catfish with three eyes.

I was struck by the juxtaposition of two articles on the front page of this past Sunday’s Washington Post, the first a report on the rise of political independents in the American electorate, and the second, a report on the declining importance of children in a survey on the bases of happy marriage. Taken together, the two articles document the deepening American commitment to non-commitment, more evidence of the vaunted American “individualism” which Tocqueville diagnosed in the 1830s and seems only to become more realized with each passing year. Partisanship becomes yearly more disreputable in the electorate, with some 30-40% of voters expressing their independence from the political parties. They are the fastest growing part of the American electorate, but are especially noteworthy on grounds of gender and religion: independents are generally male and less religious. In part the dissatisfaction with the parties arises on the understandable grounds that neither party is likely to wholly satisfy the variety of views of individual voters. However, many of the respondents report a deep dissatisfaction with politics itself – perhaps also understandable except when we consider that “politics” is the way in which we deliberate and govern ourselves as a democratic polity. Non-partisanship is often the expression of disengagement from the effort to participate in the hard work of politics in which compromises must be made and imperfection accepted. Self-satisfied independence can often be a mask for indifference and even the absence of public spiritedness. It can often reveal a pride in which our purity and separateness trumps our concern for common weal. The fact that independents are less likely to be religiously observant would seem to confirm that such a stance comports with a rejection of, or unfamiliarity with, original sin and its attendant temptation of the pride of independence and rejection of an acceptance of our shared need. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” is a legacy of our Fall.

The other front page article further attests to our growing rejection of commitment on the grounds that it may interfere with our individual satisfaction. The survey – in which respondents ranked nine contributors to a happy marriage – found that having children was one of the least cited reasons, trumped by such other factors as a happy sexual relationship, household chore-sharing, economic factors and shared tastes and interests, among others. Marriage might be increasingly described as an arrangement between roommates who hook up. The article notes that the survey shows “how separately marriage and children are viewed,” and one of its primary investigators, Andrew Cherlin, summarized the findings as revealing that “marriage today, like the rest of our lives, is about personal satisfaction.” Distinguishing marriage from child-rearing makes it more possible for marital partners to view themselves as individuals contingently and contractually involved in a marital arrangement until prevailing reasons for the marriage (e.g. a happy sexual relationship, economic factors, or shared tastes and interests) no longer provide sufficient satisfaction. Cherlin thus noted that these more contingent rationales “allows us to grow and change throughout our lives, and most Americans value that. On the other hand, our relationships are much more fragile, because we think we should leave them if they are unsatisfying.” By severing the connection between marriage and children, we make the possibility of exit all the easier, just as when our political parties do not satisfy all our preferences and politics continually disappoints, we declare ourselves to be independent of the political process.

Almost 40 years ago Albert Hirschman wrote a book called “Exit, Voice and Loyalty.” In the book – one that was explicitly a study of economic relationships, and even brand loyalty – Hirschman noted that most economic relationships were marked by a high possibility of “exit” which was the option most likely to be exercised when a consumer grew unhappy with the quality or price of a product. However, in some instances – one thinks of the introduction of “New Coke” about two decades ago – people develop a loyalty to a product, and in the face of inadequacies or dissatisfaction, exercise a different option to that of “exit” – they employ “voice,” or active involvement by means of vocal or written communication articulating and thereby influencing the direction of the company. “Voice” is the option that is exercised as a consequence of “loyalty”; absent such loyalty, the more frequent and easier option is “exit.” What fascinated Hirschman was that loyalty and “voice” occurred at all in economic relationships, and why that was the case.

Hirschman’s study was mainly one of economic relationships, since – one imagines – the economic agent’s first and most likely recourse to “exit” seemed so inappropriate to other forms of human relations, personal, communal, and political. However, in many respects the analysis of the book has proven more relevant and applicable to all domains of human life as our loyalties have declined and our resort to “exit” in all spheres of life has increased. On the one hand, it would appear that economic thinking increasingly colonizes all parts of our lives, driven above all by the consumerist imperative of “personal satisfaction.” On the other hand, perhaps the decline of loyalty to loyalty itself (nod to Josiah Royce) – and its attendant willingness to sacrifice some part of our individual satisfaction to the good of others, including our children, our communities and our nation – has fostered the conditions in which the virus of short-term individualistic and often economic “rational” decisionmaking (qua “exit”) increasingly dominates those parts of our lives, personal and political, where it never ought to have applied. Thus, far from being discrete pieces of random news that happened to appear on the front page of the same newspaper, the news of our deepening unwillingness to commit is really bad news for the culture as a whole, a culture that depends upon, but increasingly lacks, loyalty to our families, our communities, and our nation.