Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The New World Order


Events of the past several years up close could be compared to individuated and discrete dots, each circumscribed by itself alone, each self-contained and even comprehensible. The housing bubble. The financial crisis. The energy crisis. The financialization of the American economy. Our colleges as beer-and-sports luxury purchases. "Globalization." 9/11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Federal Reserve's printing presses. China. India. Europe's empty churches and cradles. TARP. Cash-for-clunkers. Gold at $1,100 an ounce. The Federal Stimulus plan. The United States, indispensable yet teetering.

Seen from something of a distance - from a point of "perspective" - all these points, and many others, come into focus as an example of "pointillism," a comprehensible picture in which many discrete points, seen from a distance, converges into a picture altogether more comprehensive and even distinct. The picture being portrayed is the end of Western liberalism, and the beginning of something rather different - something yet without a name - but which I'll call authoritarian capitalism for shorthand.

At the end of the first decade of the 21st-century, accumulating evidence points to the decline not only of America, but the operating assumption of a market-based, liberal nation-state that has operated over the hundred and fifty or so years. That system - whose philosophical groundwork was laid in the latter part of the eighteenth-century, but which began in earnest with the industrial revolution in the mid-nineteenth century - argued in essence that two seemingly incompatible ends could be achieved.

First, it was held that modern society should be built around the goal of material prosperity - "the relief of the human estate," in Bacon's phrase, or "commodious living," in Hobbes's articulation. Human ingenuity and the rise of modern science aimed toward maximizing the ability of humans to manipulate and control the natural world, and to extract from it hitherto unimaginable bounties for life.

Second, particularly with arguments posed by John Locke and the Framers, as well as the thought of many thinkers in the Scottish Enlightenment, it was held that political sovereignty rested in the will of the people, and that political systems ultimately derived their legitimacy from the consent of the governed. This basic insight (which had some relationship to medieval theories of constitutionalism, albeit without a concept of "human will" at its core) laid the groundwork for theories of modern democracy, including periodic elections, theories of rights-based individualism, and eventually a form of liberal welfare-statism that would ensure the basic material conditions of life needed for participation in the political and civic order.

The result were two theories in pronounced tension, if not outright contradiction, with one another. The first claim recognized that practical inequality was the likely result: as people's talents and abilities were permitted maximum distinction in an environment of opportunity and progress, some would achieve great rewards, and others would risk too much or accomplish too little. Prosperity with pronounced social inequality and societal instability was the anticipated outcome. The second claim allowed for the full expression of grievances over those unequal outcomes, with the strong possibility that the popular sovereign would demand some form of equalization of outcome.

Classical political science had long understood that any such extreme and permanent forms of social inequality and instability led to social unrest and ultimately endangered the viability of private property. For this reason, political democracy was thought to be incompatible with significant forms of material inequality. Where extensive forms of inequality existed - typically in large-scale regimes, most often various forms of empire - it was believed that a strong form of autocratic rule was essential. A strong distinction between republic and empire was one inheritance of classical political science, in acknowledgment of the political incompatibility of political equality and social stratification.

The new political science introduced a third element into the mix: growth. Economic growth was the bribe that Stratification offered to Equality. In return, Equality agreed largely to respect the boundaries of rights to private property (though, truth be told, in times of economic stress, this relationship would become strained and Stratification would need to offer an additional pay-off to Equality, e.g., The New Deal). As long as economic growth tempted Equality enough that it might benefit from Stratification, the bargain held. America seemed to be a story of economic AND political progress, a constant increase in PROSPERITY and EQUALITY all powered by GROWTH.

Trouble was: until the latter part of the 20th-century, American growth was premised upon unrelenting ravaging of the resources of the continent. Everywhere something of value could be found, it was extracted and exploited. America largely eschewed the wars of imperialism (largely, though not entirely), a) because it was able to recategorize a domestic form of imperialism as its manifest destiny leading to the "Empire of Liberty," and b) the resulting continental amassing of property had more than enough resources to exploit without engaging in the kind of foreign imperial project required of the Europeans. At the same time, the regime became ever more "democratic," as political rights and even forms of State obligations were extended to ever more classes of people - the propertyless, former slaves (whose labor was replaced by machines and the energy slaves that powered them), women, immigrants, youth, and so on. A narrative of Progress (powered by Growth) hid the fundamental tension of the regime from view.

In 1971, the United States simultaneously produced as much oil as it would ever produce (hitting its point of domestic peak production) and produced an elaborate theory that philosophically justified a permanent institutionalized form of property-redistribution that at once a) would ensure the pacification of the least-well off, and b) continued to permit systemic inequality (I speak here of John Rawls's A Theory of Justice and his famous "difference principle"). I do not think it was a matter of mere coincidence that these two events occurred at the same historical moment: this was, oddly, the high water mark of the marriage between Stratification and Equality, a kind of celebration of their compatibility even as it also marked the beginning of their long separation. The continental growth that had depended on resource exploitation - above all, oil - was beginning its long descent, and with it a mad scramble to replace it with various kinds of fixes that only ensured further and more severe forms of stratification - the "unlocking of shareholder value"; outsourcing; the "symbolic-analytic" economy; the ramping up of the meritocratic educational system, and the accompanying insanity and corruption of our universities; the "financialization" of the economy; a debt culture that began in earnest with the Presidency of Ronald Reagan and reached its culmination (if not its final act) in the Autumn of 2008; and the expansion of the American military umbrella which, above all, protected sources of "foreign oil" that the empire simultaneously required for its maintenance and which it maintained through the enforcement of empire. America was on its way to foreclosure, but before that happened, those with enough know-how, cleverness, and the advantage of unscrupulousness would do what would become common in many instances of foreclosure: they would strip the domicile of everything of worth, leaving only a shell of worthless material that could barely house and protect anyone who happened to be left behind. It was a Made-off economy.

All the major players knew that the "social contract" between Stratification and Equality was teetering, but that it could be propped up a while longer with further pay-offs. For years these pay-offs had no longer come out of "current use" funds - those funds were becoming too precious, and without prospect for long-term increase - to be used to pay off the demands of Equality. Instead, pay-offs were increasingly made using future funds, the presumed inheritance and legacy of generations not born, all added to a running tab called "the deficit" or (most amusingly) the Social Security "Trust Fund." A massive fiction called "the National Debt" was sold to the rising nation of China, who - for lack of better savings depot - decided to buy out its only real competitor, biding its time for the day when it would own the West. Monetary policy was devised to create a series of oscillating bubbles, each popping ever more closely to the previous, each one indicating a growing frenzy to get what one can while one could. Fearing electoral backlash, the political classes continued to buy enough votes to bring its success in the next election, and the money-masters financed that auction in return for 1,070 blind eyes.

Without the advantage of a crystal ball, I suspect we will be looking at a New World Order within a decade. Writing at the eve of 2020, we will look back on the first score of the 21st century and see more clearly than we do now that "regime change" was afoot - albeit not the sort we might have imagined when that phrase entered the common parlance. The massing evidence that still requires a conclusion suggests that the 21st century will signal the end of the arrangement of the past 150 or so years. The marriage of Stratification and Equality will unravel, and I fear that it will not be a friendly parting. As is often the case in ugly divorces, those of us - friends of each spouse - will be forced to choose which we will remain our friend, for the other will finally brook no communication with the other. And all the evidence to date suggests that the choice will be difficult: we will not want to choose either, loving aspects of both while fearful of offending the other. We will try to remain friends of each until the bitter end, and - predictably - will end up driving both away.

The future will be China, and the new world order. That arrangement is deadly realist about the incompatibility of Stratification and Equality. It has embraced a future of Prosperity without a sentimental glance at the worn bride, Equality. It has ruthlessly elected to engage in the remaining prospects of worldwide resource exploitation, and will do so unburdened by the often tragi-comic efforts of the West to maintain the fiction that this effort can be finally made compatible with a marriage to Equality.

The choice facing America today is grim: it shows every sign of a willingness to embrace the Chinese model, a model it will likely choose to remain "competitive," but also daily demonstrates its habits of blandishing a citizenry that demands to be coddled. The "democracy" continues to demand its fair share of a dwindling pie, an expected denoument when citizens have been redefined as "consumers." I wager that in 10 years' time, the nation will either have sunk itself beneath the untenable weight of continuing payment of a bribe that could never be sustained - and will look like a third world "banana republic" - or, it will have "successfully" made the transition to another regime, an form of autocratic capitalism in which the State will change the terms of the bribe, paying us with materialist distractions in exchange for our political rights and equality. I daily see signs of both prospects, and can't clearly discern at the moment which will arise. Either way, our culmination is grim, for in either event we will cease in any real sense to be a Republic.

But, that may have happened long ago. We may never have been a Republic. We may have always been an Empire - or at least our tendency was tilted in that direction - and only became better at it over time. We have only imperfectly, and occasionally been truly self-governing. And, I sadly acknowledge at the end of an old year, the prospects for self-governance in this careening modern world have never been dimmer.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

A Christmas Prayer

John Locke was the first great liberal defender of the idea of religious toleration, as well as the thinker who lies behind many of today's arguments that religion should be excluded from political considerations in "the public square." Locke is widely regarded in the academy as the great originator of liberal secularism. Yet, it was Locke - in a less-read work called The Reasonableness of Christianity - who argued that reason alone was insufficient to arrive at certain moral precepts held to be true by modern man, above all the belief in the inherent dignity of all human beings. What Locke knew - that reason provided insufficient basis for a belief in human dignity - many of Locke's epigones have forgotten. Yet it is a lesson with which we re-acquaint ourselves every year during the celebration of the birth of Jesus.

In The Reasonableness of Christianity, Locke wrote: "'tis our mistake to think, that ... we had the first certain knowledge of [truths] from [reason], and in that clear Evidence we now possess them. The contrary is manifest, in the defective Morality of the Gentiles before our Saviour's time.... Philosophy seemed to have spent its strength, and done its utmost...." In other words, the reason-based philosophy of the pre-Christians (such as Plato and Aristotle) went as far toward ascertaining morality as was possible, but still - from the perspective of those living after the birth of Christ - fell short.

Locke concluded that the unaided reason of ancient philosophy - truth available to all humans by reason alone that preceded the truth of Biblical revelation - was finally insufficient to discover the full scope of morality: "And we see, [reason] resolved not the doubts that had arisen amongst the Studious and Thinking Philosophers; Nor had yet been able to convince the Civilized parts of the World, that they had not given, nor could without a Crime, take away the Lives of Children, by Exposing them." Reason-based philosophy was insufficient to finding an argument against the exposure of babies, a conclusion that should strike many contemporaries as worrisome, particularly as the idea of human dignity today is undergoing a new, post-Christian reason-based assault.

Today many take for granted what the Enlightenment thinker John Locke did not permit himself to assume - that unaided "reason" is sufficient to discover and defend grounds of inherent and equal human dignity. Too easily we assume that this unique legacy of Christianity is easily translated into secular terms. Yet, many would be hard-pressed to articulate the grounds for human dignity without at some point relying upon the Christian inheritance that is often attacked or denied by many elites in today's formative institutions.

Perhaps, finally, the grounds for our inherited (and, perhaps, attenuating) belief in human dignity is best understood by reflecting upon the meaning of the events that are commemorated in the next several days - the birth of Jesus, the Emmanuel. For, when God becomes man - and a woman gives birth to God - then even in God's humiliation, all of humanity is elevated. For the first time, even the lowliest human is godlike, and God is to be found in all humans, no matter their place or position. Often lost in the culture war debates over creches and Christmas trees is the basic transformative fact that God was born of woman in a barn. The world, and humankind, was never the same.

A better expression of this idea might not be found than a prayer by Ian Oliver, pastor of the University Church at Yale University. I copy this from the Christmas Eve meditation in this years Magnificat. And, to let the words of Reverend Oliver be the last here before the days of Christmas, I take this opportunity to wish readers a blessed and peaceful Christmas. Salvete.

A Christmas Prayer

On that holy night,
It happened.

God took a handful of humanity:
Proud, petulant, passionate;
And a handful of divinity:
Undivided, inexpressible, incomprehensible:
And enclosed them in one small body.

Somehow, the all too human
Touched the divine.
And was not vaporized.
To be human was never the same,
But forever thereafter,
Carried a hint of its close encounter with the perfect.
and forever thereafter,
God was never the same,
But carried a hint of the passion of the mortal.

If God can lie down in a cattle-trough,
is any object safe from transformation?
If peasant girls can be mothers to God,
Is any life safe from the invasion of the eternal?

If all this could happen, O God,
What places of darkness on our earth
are pregnant with light waiting to be born this night?

If all this could happen, O God,
Then you could be, and are, anywhere, everywhere,
Waiting to be born this night in the most
unbelievable places,
Perhaps even in our own hearts. Amen.

Monday, December 21, 2009

I'm Just Saying

"Jaywalking" is a hilarious and terrifying sketch in which Jay Leno "tests" fellow Americans on their basic knowledge of history, geography, etc. Of course, we see the most outrageously incorrect answers on air, but it is truly scary at times how utterly clueless our (voting) countrymen can be.

That said, watch this clip in which Leno quizzes Americans about some basic historical facts in relation to Independence Day. What is particularly striking about this clip is the final sequence: he quizzes a father and a mother and their son about some basic historical facts, all of which they catastrophically fail to answer. Then he calls to the "grandfather," who gives us a glimpse into the inheritance of a childhood education before many of our purported educational "reforms" (and, perhaps evidence of an age when reading was more common). It is a stunning conclusion to a rather depressing demonstration.

I know nothing about this family, but one wonders how the self-confident knowledge of one generation failed to be transmitted even two generations into the future. Writ large, it is representative of the situation in which we find ourselves, surrounded by information but knowing less than our "ignorant" forbears.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Moralism Without Morality

On the Washington Post Georgetown/On Faith website, I've posted a response to a previous posting by another author on that site. I have been struck by the growing use of the language of moral condemnation on the Left - particularly directed at greedy "fat cat" Wall Street bankers - yet without any accompanying belief in the need for the inculcation of morality. I'm struck that this is a form of "moralism without morality," and find it to be deeply disingenuous. Here's what I wrote:


A recent post on this site raises some serious issues, and I think reveals a significant problem on the Left. In a previous post by Katherine Marshall entitled "Greed (Not America) Gets the Blame," Ms. Marshall describes a recent international conference attended presumably by many in the international Left where the language of "greed" made a significant appearance. What is worth noting about this post is its confirmation that the Left has firmly returned to the use of strong moral language and even terms of moral judgment and condemnation. The Left's rediscovery of moral language has been particularly the consequence of what are regarded as the moral failings of Wall Street and its role in precipitating the financial crisis. President Obama has championed this return to moral language, and efforts by Left religious leaders (such as Jim Wallis) to circumscribe a Left Christianity have given permission for the revival of such moral categories as "greed" in the language of Left political leaders and movements.

Yet - as the conclusion of Katherine Marshall's post suggests - this reinvigoration of moral language comes without an accompanying code that translates judgment into action. What we are seeing is moralism without morality: we are hearing the remnant of moral language without a comprehensive moral system, particularly one that can confidently demand and expect changes in behavior, particularly efforts to restrict or limit behavior that is deemed sinful or vicious. The discomfort with the implications attending the use of moral language is revealed at the conclusion of Katherine Marshall's post, which emphasizes the difficulty of arriving at a solution to the problem of greed, and offers "complexity" rather than the simpler conclusion that the behavior of greed requires the exercise of and inculcation in virtue.

The Left's rediscovery of moral language marks a sea change from its more recent ways of speaking, derived from its dominant philosophical stances of the past forty years or so, when much of the language of the Left became either riven with technocratic dispassion (think Michael Dukakis) or relativistic non-judgmentalism (think "multiculturalism"). The language of morality tended to be found more staunchly on the Right, from the stirring moral tones of President Reagan to the invocations of "Good and Evil" often pronounced by George W. Bush. Most on the Left at the time found such moral language to be inappropriate in what they regarded as an increasingly secular age; if God was dead, then so was the old-fashioned language of moral condemnation and judgment. Ours was to be a new age of getting along, and getting beyond old-fashioned divisions to one in which most problems could be solved by the application of technical and technological advances or simple letting live. As John F. Kennedy declared in the 1960s,

Most of us are conditioned for many years to have a political viewpoint - Republican or Democratic, liberal, conservative, or moderate. The fact of the matter is that most of the problems ... that we now face are technical problems, are administrative problems. They are very sophisticated judgments, which do not lend themselves to the great sort of passionate movements which have stirred the country so often in the past.

The Left has been particularly uncomfortable with moral language because it has historically been linked to demands for moral strictures and restraints on behavior. The Left today denounces Wall Street for excessive greed, and at the moment Congress is considering legislation to put new regulations on the financial industry. In a sense this is to seek to alter behavior, but to treat the issue as a matter of legislative policy is to treat it as a "technical" problem, one in which the excesses of capitalism can be reined in without truly addressing the problem of greed. In fact, what the legislative solution largely seeks to achieve is leaving intact the motive of greed while minimizing the systemic damage it can wreak while increasing the opportunity for redistribution of its fruits. Further, what we have seen is condemnation of excessive greed even as the Administration calls for increased borrowing and spending by "consumers," i.e., those who "consume." This is hardly a stance that seeks to comprehensively redress the problem of greed in modern economic life. Ms. Marshall acknowledges that she doesn't really want to kill the golden calf that provides the engine for (among other things) international development, and underlying the fantasies of many Progressives is not a world of self-denying moralists, but one of ever-increasing wealth. Asceticism and self-denial are out; endless growth and personal autonomy are "in."

Above all, the Left is uncomfortable with moral strictures because such codes ultimately apply to corporeal "greediness" - that is, human sexuality. The Left is currently the party of unfettered sexual license, one that seeks to defend nearly every form of sexual appetite short of those few forms that it still regards as forbidden (sex with minors or those in positions of inferior power are still regarded as off-limits; polygamy is a contested area, as is - surprisingly - bestiality. Homosexuality and serial monogamy, of course, are wholly accepted, even praised). The discomfort with urging truly moral consequences that one would expect to accompany the language of moral condemnation is most often lacking because the Left has come to define itself as the "Party of Progress," in opposition to the "Party of Memory" (or, "Tradition"), to use Emerson's language. Morality is problematic because, more often than not, it forestalls those "experiments in living" that were praised and recommended by John Stuart Mill. Morality consists primarily of injunctions against - the language of morality begins most often with the words "Thou shalt NOT..." Any such assertion of traditional limits has been historically a standing challenge for the Left, the barriers against which it has struggled to overcome. As D.C. councilman David Catania was quoted to say in the wake of the Council's vote to legalize gay marriage, the "other side" (i.e. conservatives) are wrong because they are "tethered to the past." To be tethered - restrained - is a sign of being on the "wrong side of history."

In short, a distinctive feature of today's Left is Moralism without Morality. It consists of the language of morality without a willingness to seriously entertain a comprehensive moral code, one that at its heart would assert injunctions and limitations upon behavior, and endorses the necessary accompanying moral formation and ethical political and cultural habits and behaviors that would reinforce such formation. The Left is in a bind, and what Marshall describes is the inevitable frustrations of a moralism combined with the absence of a morality, or a diagnosis that resists the hard demands of the necessary cure (e.g., the Left is akin to the morbidly obese patient who prefers a pill or an operation, not the hard discipline of diet and exercise).

One sees this problem today in the area most revered by the Left, namely Environmentalism. Here again one is wont to hear the language of moral judgment, even invocations of inter-generational responsibility and duty that have historically been more likely to be invoked by conservatives (think Edmund Burke's social contract, composed of the "living, the dead, and the not yet born..."). The Left recognizes that such threats as global warming, species extinction, and resource depletion are caused by various wild excesses of human behavior. But it is fundamentally unwilling to entertain the prospect of demanding the kinds of changes of human behavior that would be needed to redress the environmental threats we face, above all because the very forms of individual autonomy at the heart of the Left's agenda are deeply premised upon the current arrangements that otherwise lead to environmental degradation. The Left is largely wed to technical solutions to the problems of morality, proposing solutions such as "clean coal" (is there a "clean" way to strip mine mountains?) and massive government expenditures in the pursuit of "green energy" - rather than simply using and doing less. Just so, Marshall dismisses the notion that one rational conclusion is that "we should fly less," instead calling for "complex solutions."

We can be sure of a few things. Any such "complex solutions" almost surely will seek to avoid any serious demands for change in our behavior, but will almost certainly ramp up the need for further expansion of the governmental-industrial (and military) complex. Marshall writes of her frustration "that the solutions are so unconvincing," and lists among those unconvincing solutions the admonition to "temper your consumption." But isn't this precisely the point: if the moral failing we most exhibit is greed, then temperance must be the answer. Yet, for a political disposition wishing to retain moralism without the hard demands and self-chastening of an accompanying morality, such a path is finally "unconvincing."

One final note: it must be acknowledged that the American Right currently exhibits the same pathologies and contradictions, more often than not condemning immorality (particularly of the sexual variety) while out of the other side of its mouth praising greed (in the form of unfettered free markets). Still, I think the path to reconciliation of the contradictions on the Right is more visible, given that philosophically the Right has not jettisoned morality. The Right remains imperfectly the "Party of Memory," making its path to the reconciliation of the language of moralism with the fullness of morality less treacherous than that facing the Left. For, the Left, in the end, faces the reality of its own self-contradiction: the Party of Progress is unlikely ever to be the Party of Morality. And a Party of Moralists without Morality must face the distinct possibility that it is above all a Party of disingenuous scolds.

Monday, December 14, 2009

When Left is Right

Some thinkers on the Left have sniffed the smelling salts and are emerging from their love-fest to notice that the New Boss is increasingly indistinguishable from the Old Boss. As I predicted. Note that the mainstream Right has found much to like in Obama of late, from his Afghanistan decision to his Nobel Speech. And, more quietly, everyone has lined up to support "cap and trade" legislation designed to make our "leaders" appear to be environmentally sensitive but which is in fact designed mainly to make more money for Wall Street. The same Wall Street that is overall pretty happy with the wan piece of financial regulation legislation working its way through the system - one with enough loopholes to drive a Brinks truck through. Meanwhile, everyone pretends that there's lots of disagreement between the "parties" in debates over a bad healthcare bill and we focus our attention on media shills who bandy around the terms "fascist" and "socialist" while ignoring that the military-industrial complex continues to roll happily along.

Here's Matt Taibi (hat tip, Rod Dreher):

Barack Obama ran for president as a man of the people, standing up to Wall Street as the global economy melted down in that fateful fall of 2008. He pushed a tax plan to soak the rich, ripped NAFTA for hurting the middle class and tore into John McCain for supporting a bankruptcy bill that sided with wealthy bankers "at the expense of hardworking Americans." Obama may not have run to the left of Samuel Gompers or Cesar Chavez, but it's not like you saw him on the campaign trail flanked by bankers from Citigroup and Goldman Sachs. What inspired supporters who pushed him to his historic win was the sense that a genuine outsider was finally breaking into an exclusive club, that walls were being torn down, that things were, for lack of a better or more specific term, changing.
Then he got elected.

What's taken place in the year since Obama won the presidency has turned out to be one of the most dramatic political about-faces in our history. Elected in the midst of a crushing economic crisis brought on by a decade of orgiastic deregulation and unchecked greed, Obama had a clear mandate to rein in Wall Street and remake the entire structure of the American economy. What he did instead was ship even his most marginally progressive campaign advisers off to various bureaucratic Siberias, while packing the key economic positions in his White House with the very people who caused the crisis in the first place. This new team of bubble-fattened ex-bankers and laissez-faire intellectuals then proceeded to sell us all out, instituting a massive, trickle-up bailout and systematically gutting regulatory reform from the inside.

How could Obama let this happen? Is he just a rookie in the political big leagues, hoodwinked by Beltway old-timers? Or is the vacillating, ineffectual servant of banking interests we've been seeing on TV this fall who Obama really is?

Whatever the president's real motives are, the extensive series of loophole-rich financial "reforms" that the Democrats are currently pushing may ultimately do more harm than good. In fact, some parts of the new reforms border on insanity, threatening to vastly amplify Wall Street's political power by institutionalizing the taxpayer's role as a welfare provider for the financial-services industry. At one point in the debate, Obama's top economic advisers demanded the power to award future bailouts without even going to Congress for approval -- and without providing taxpayers a single dime in equity on the deals.

And here's yet another great Joe Bageant denuciation:

This frustrating ping pong game in which the margin of first time, disenchanted and undecided voters are batted back and forth has become the whole of American elections. That makes both the Republican and Democratic parties very happy, since it keeps the game down to fighting the enemy they know, each other, as opposed to being forced to deal with the real issues, or worse yet, an independent or third party candidate who might have a solution or two.

Thus, the game is limited to two players between two corporate parties. One is the Republican Party, which believes we should hand over our lives and resources directly to the local Chamber of Commerce, so the chamber can deliver them to the big corporations. The other, the Democratic Party, believes we should hand our lives and resources to a Democratic administration -- so it alone can deliver our asses to the big dogs who own the country. In the big picture it's always about who gets to deliver the money to the Wall Street hyena pack.

Americans may be starting to get the big picture about politics, money and corporate power. But I doubt it....

The bad news, which the Obama administration openly acknowledges, is this: Unemployment will in all likelihood go higher. And nobody on earth knows how to reduce it (although no one in the administration is about to acknowledge that). The factories are all but gone and they are not coming back. Not unless American workers are willing to work 13 hours a day for two Chinese yuan an hour, which is about 31 cents. What US factories remain are laying workers off due to high interest rates, and waiting for a lower interest rate policy before deciding if it is feasible to call any workers back into production.

During their wait they can watch hell freeze over. Banks know a fatter hog when they see it. And that hog is the consumer credit business (nobody has figured out yet that consumers need paychecks before they can consume anything, on credit or otherwise ). To that end the Federal Reserve has logically set a low interest rate policy. And in true accordance with banking logic, the banks took the Fed's money, then raised the annual percentage rate (APR) on credit card purchases and cash advances and on balances that have a penalty rate because of late payment. Next they raised the late fee. What the hell? If Americans are on the ropes, struggling to make their payments on time, then the logical thing to do is to stick it to them. Bleed 'em for all they're worth. It's an American free market tradition. We the people do not complain. We expect no mercy. America is a business and the American concept of business is pure ruthlessness.

A Deutsche Bank analyst tells me a near term worst is yet to come. Bank failures and home foreclosures have not peaked. A commercial real estate bust is coming down the pike. He says that, while there will be some minor periodic upswings, the fraudulent value of the dollar is now evident as it falls against every other currency, even the Russian ruble (13%), except those unlucky enough to be pegged to the US dollar. As former Assistant Secretary of Treasury Paul Craig Roberts says: "What sort of recovery is it when the safest investment an American can make is to bet against the US dollar?" My Deutsche Bank friend, who is younger and has a family to think about, has taken what he considers more appropriate action. He's buying gold and moving to an undeveloped Central American country.

But Mr. Bernanke assures us that the worst is indeed over. Despite the outside world's serious doubts, but Bernanke's announcement just might fly in the U.S. We believe whatever our Ministry of Truth tells us. We believed that debt was wealth, didn't we? And we believed in WMDs, and have come to believe warfare is a prerequisite to peace.

The saddest thing is that Americans are cultivated like mushrooms from birth to death, kept in the dark and fed horseshit.

Read the whole thing.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Packing for Montana

As reported in today's Washington Post, in an article entitled "In Debate Over Nation's Growing Debt, a Surplus of Worry."

Leonard Burman, [a Syracuse University ] economist, says he has developed a computer model that shows that a "catastrophic budget failure" is a possibility.

"I try not to get too depressed, because if I really thought it was going to play out the way this model works, I would just move to a cabin in Montana and stockpile gold and guns," he says.

Putting Christ Back into Georgetown

My final column in today's Hoya is a seasonal (and perhaps perennial) lament over the displacement of Christ for other gods - particularly Mammon - both symbolically and in the daily practice of Georgetown University.

Indeed, things are worse than I thought (and I thought they were bad to start with): the student editors of the paper made several changes to the piece, one quite egregious. Where I had written (about the new campus building of the business school) "We might be tempted to conclude that the newest religiously naked building is solely a temple to Mammon," the editor added at the end of the sentence, "— the biblical personification of wealth and greed." When I asked for the condescending definition of the obvious be removed, I was informed that the student editors found the reference obscure and had needed to look up the definition of the word. These are students at one of the best universities in the United States, who apparently had never heard of Mammon - a common piece of cultural and Biblical inheritance that was once intuitively understood by nearly anyone with even the most basic cultural (including Biblical) literacy no more than a quarter-century ago. Today's students may not know the name of the very God that too often they worship.

In any event, here is the column as originally written:


In recent years, there has been an effort by Christians of different stripes to “put Christ back in Christmas.” Noting the ubiquity of the anodyne phrase “Happy Holidays” – even when a holiday (or “Holy Day”) greeting is exchanged between Christians – something of a movement has been launched to insist that Christ remain the central focus of Advent and Christmas.

A similar effort is needed at Georgetown, a place that should by all rights have little difficulty making Christ the central focus of its campus life. I have been thinking this in particular in recent weeks as I daily pass the Hariri Building, noting with disappointment that not a single religious image was incorporated on its vast exterior. In comparison to the great and noble campus buildings of Healy, White-Gravenor and Copley Halls – which are richly adorned with religious iconography, in acknowledgment of the Catholic character of the university – we might be tempted to conclude that the newest religiously naked building is solely a temple to Mammon.

However, if our newest building evinces no external acknowledgement of the university’s Catholic identity, this is hardly a radically new development. It is striking that the campus of the nation’s first Catholic and Jesuit University should have such a dearth of images or icons devoted to Jesus or the Saints of the Church. Even worse: where apparently there were once symbols, at some point some were removed. An old photo of the Main Stairway in Healy Hall shows there was once a bust of the Sacred Heart of Jesus centrally on display on the landing between the floors. This was once a prominent space displaying the image of Jesus; one is hard pressed to think of any currently significant campus space where a statue or image of Jesus is present. As for other icons: in the porticos at the front of Healy’s main entrance – where today there are two unremarkable urns – there were to be statues of John Carroll and St. Ignatius of Loyola. The University has been exceedingly active putting up self-congratulatory video displays and expensive media equipment in the Hariri Building, but has lost interest in meaningfully filling prominently empty sacred spaces elsewhere on campus.

Of course, such religious iconography would be meaningless without the accompanying practice that such symbols are meant to reinforce. Daily afternoon mass in Dahlgren chapel is exceedingly sparsely attended. Might attendance increase with the exemplary presence of various campus leaders and faculty, demonstrating that there is no meeting or lunch appointment more important than daily communion? What of encouraging the restoration of the norm of beginning classes in prayer? And should we not create a new administrative position devoted to the mission of hiring Catholic faculty, or faculty with a strong interest in and dedication to the Catholic identity of Georgetown? We seem to have an administrator for nearly every activity of the University, but not this centrally critical facet in the ongoing life and character of the institution.

What of incorporating in a prominent and serious way the teachings of the Catholic “Theology of the Body” (so beautifully articulated by Pope John Paul II) in our first-year orientation activities, in contrast to most campuses where a more mechanistic theory of sexuality reigns? And what of devoting occasional space on the University website – where we regularly call attention to students who have been awarded various honors and awards – to proudly acknowledge the decision of some of our extraordinary students to enter the priesthood or the convent? I have known several young men in recent years who have decided to enter the Jesuit order and at least one young woman who is a novitiate in the Dominican order – why do they receive no official acknowledgment or place of pride in our public pronouncements?

Georgetown, aspiring to mimic its religiously disaffiliated peers, today shies away from firm identification with its faith tradition. But, by dint of drift, it finds itself increasingly unable – much like its academic peers – to address the pervasive utilitarianism and materialism of our day. Today, we increasingly treat the world, its resources, and fellow humans as means to our individual ends – whether in economics, politics, sexuality or biotechnology. Our main political alignments are no great help in stemming this tendency, with the Right endorsing unfettered economic utilitarianism and the Left defending reproductive and bio-technological utilitarianism. Today, it is increasingly only the firmly grounded religious traditions – and above all, Catholicism – that resists this great and nearly unstoppable philosophic trajectory of modernity. Far from being ashamed of our grounding in this great tradition, we should embrace and commend it for a broken world. Putting Christ back into Christmas is to commend His presence one day a year; putting Christ back into Georgetown is to exemplify a year-round commitment and life-long devotion by a community of witnesses.

Friday, December 4, 2009


From today's edition of Inside Higher Education:

In remarks kicking off a White House forum on job creation and the economy, President Obama repeatedly stressed the role of higher education. "I want to hear about what unions and universities can do to better support and prepare our workers -- not just for the jobs of today, but for the jobs five years from now and 10 years from now and 50 years from now," he said. "We still have the best universities in the world. We've got some of the finest science and technology in the world, we've got the most entrepreneurial spirit in the world, and we've got some of the most productive workers in the world." The Obama discussion of job creation continues today when the president will visit Lehigh Carbon Community College

The nation's universities have already implicitly justified their existence - and expense - to a generation or more of students that the main reason for attending university is to attain the necessary credential for potential employers. Universities uniformly have one devoted office or center that is dedicated to helping students make the transition into post-graduate life, namely and inevitably a "Career Services Center" (by contrast, there is no "Family Preparation" or "Transition to Being a Citizen and Neighbor" centers). Understanding well this implicit promise, alumni have begun suing their alma maters when their post-graduate job search has proven unsuccessful, and many believe such lawsuits to be anything but unjustified or frivolous.

President Obama has taken seriously his responsibility to use the "bully pulpit" (indeed, he seems at times more prone to jawbone problems than take the lead in actually advancing real solutions). Admirably, his wife has set a good example by growing an organic garden on the White House lawn - "the most important plot of land in America," according to Wendell Berry in his recent interview with Diane Rehm. But the President is doing great damage in his constant reiteration of the view that our universities and colleges should be seen solely as places of job preparation. This can only deepen the pervasive careerism that pervades our institutions of higher education.

Our universities and colleges were once devoted to the ideals of the "liberal arts." The liberal arts were oriented to teaching its students the art of being free, the art of attaining liberty. That art is above all the art of self-government, the art of learning the bounds of what is appropriate for human beings. Moreover, necessarily such an undertaking was an education in citizenship, the hallmark of the person educated for liberty (not bondage). By necessity, such an education oriented its charges toward res publica, toward public dedications that transcended narrowly private interest.

The current emphasis on "career preparation" is a profound betrayal of this ideal of the liberal arts, and can only further damage the frayed and perhaps irreparably degraded moral fabric of the nation. This emphasis elicits in two simultaneous dispositions among students: a utilitarian worldview that views all aspects of education as means for one purpose - a job, or more narrowly, "money-making" - and the transformation of the object of education of one devoted to commonweal to narrowly private interest.

The President has spoken on occasion in tones of moral condemnation over the behavior that precipitated the economic crisis, yet out of the other side of his mouth further promotes the mindset - and an educational emphasis - that would only deepen the preconditions that led to the economic crisis. A people formed with dedicated devotion to utilitarian and narrowly financial calculation, combined with extreme privatism of orientation, is the fertile ground from which just such financial chicanery and irresponsible indebtedness arises. Does he not have a sensible and liberally educated advisor in his circle that help him come to this realization? Given how many of his advisors come from our "elite" institutions - the Princetons, Harvards and Yales of the nation - and how deeply the orientation of these institutions has for a long time been precisely guided by such narrowly and perversely utilitarian aims, there can be little hope that he can be dissuaded from his mission of further destroying our institutions of higher learning. Indeed, it could even be said that those people who once would have graduated from these institutions for jobs on Wall Street are now instead flooding the halls of our governmental buildings in Washington D.C. What they have recently done for our financial system, surely they are aiming to advance through the public purse.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Wendell Berry on the FM Dial

For those with an interest in Wendell Berry, he will be on today's Diane Rehm show at 11 a.m. If you don't receive the show on your local PBS station, the show is usually available on the program's web site within a few hours of the completion of the show.

For those who haven't heard of Wendell Berry before, here's a chance to improve yourself. Listen up.

UPDATE: The audio of the interview is now available online. While the interview waxed and waned, I thought Wendell was at his most intense toward the very end of the hour in answering a question about "mountaintop removal." He strongly asserted that this form of mining showed our contempt for the land, for our places, and for local people in those places. I wish he'd then said something to the effect, "and this form of mining is what we still consider to be 'clean coal.'" Just that we be clear that we don't deserve any sort of clear conscience simply because we stick the adjective "clean" and thereby avoid any further necessity of changing our behaviors...

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Giving Thanks

Thursday we commemorate the sacrifices and hardships of our forbears, and that first Thanksgiving feast that punctuated an otherwise difficult and often harrowing existence. We celebrate with tables that will (in many cases) overflow with food, and then with a weekend of shopping in anticipation of the gift-giving of Christmas. We give thanks for all that we have, in many cases, so much more than the Pilgrims whose rugged and threadbare lives we honor.

We know that these are hard times - with more than a tenth of the adult population out of work, with soup kitchen lines longer than living memory recalls, and shelters filled with the homeless. Yet, for many Americans, this is still a time of plenty: our tables will be fuller tomorrow, but not uncommonly so; we will have a greater selections of sweets and desserts, but not uncommonly so; our cars will be filled with purchased products on Friday, but not uncommonly so; our televisions will be filled with images of sports and entertainment, but not uncommonly so.

The contrast between our "feast" days and our regular days has faded nearly to the point of indistinction. In America today, we are more likely to contend with obesity than starvation, with binge shopping than asceticism, with adult diabetes than scurvy. I don't mean to minimize the genuine sufferings of the genuine poor, but many of our disadvantaged people today are far more wealthy and comfortable than even the wealthiest of the Pilgrims; poverty, "the middle class" and wealth are and have always been relative standards, points of comparison that reflect contemporary levels of material want or plenitude.

My friend and Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia, Charles Mathewes, has suggested that the problem we may face in the future (if not the present) is not too much want, but too much plenty. How do we, as a civilization, deal with the existence of so much stuff when our operative definition of the world and the economy has been based on the idea that nature is one of scarcity and we need, in response, an ever-increasing generation of more?

Much of modern philosophy - from thinkers ranging from Francis Bacon to Thomas Hobbes, from John Locke to Adam Smith - has held that nature is chintzy and that human freedom consists in extending our mastery over, and control of, the natural world. Freedom is the expansion of the human power to fulfill our wills and desires. Freedom today is so often defined as choice - but more, the power to fulfill choice. If we are so often dissatisfied, it is not that many of our desires go unfulfilled, but that new desires inevitably trail those that have been met, demanding new power and the further extension of mastery. As a result, our one official political policy - regardless of party or leader - is growth.

America has come to set the standard of what "the good life" should look like: as much as we are regarded with suspicion and even hatred around the world, our material standard of living (and our often ostentatious forms of consumption) are seen as the gold standard of what life should be like. When we speak of increasing "development" in the world, we implicitly mean that other parts of the world should eventually attain something like the living standard of the United States. And when we look at the example of rapidly developing nations such as India and China, we see countries that have thrown off their former reigning philosophies or religious guidelines of moderation, and have instead effectively adopted (if implicitly) the modern Western philosophical definition of freedom: freedom defined as the fulfillment of appetites by the expansion of power. When young Chinese and Indians come to American universities to study, they typically do not come to study English literature, philosophy and theology: they come to study science and engineering, those disciplines of applied technique that permit the increase of human power over nature.

I find this fact noteworthy - for it is our older inheritance, once embodied in our humanities disciplines, that offered a different understanding of freedom. By this older definition - found in our classical and Biblical inheritance - freedom is the attainment of self-government over our appetites. Ancient and religious thinkers (ranging from Aristotle to Augustine and beyond) argued that human appetites were infinitely expandable, and that submission to the pursuit to fulfill appetite was an endless and impossible task. To pursue their fulfillment was to make oneself a slave to one's appetites. True freedom, such thinkers argued, consisted in the governance of appetite. By extension, rather than seeing the world as one of scarcity that required our conquest, such thinkers saw a world of plenitude and as gift, one that offered us many goods and even plenitude and required of us in turn good stewardship and moderate appetites. The first Thanksgiving - for all the hardship experienced by the Pilgrims - was celebrated in this spirit, not one that despised the earth for giving us too little, but celebrated creation for offering so much.

The view of the world as miserly is becoming dominant in our world today. Even as America appears to be slipping from its top position in the world, its understanding of freedom appears to be increasingly dominant. Yet, is it possible that the very cause of our own national downfall has its source in our abandonment of that older definition of freedom? So many of the sources of our contemporary trials - ones that had their sources in excessive consumption, over-indebtedness, over-use of resources, excessive speculation, greed, concupiscence, and various other old-fashioned vices (or sins) - are quite arguably the result of our abandonment of that more ancient definition of freedom in favor of that of Bacon, Hobbes and Smith. And, viewing today the rising competitive threat from India and China, we conclude that we need more expansion of power to more fully conquer nature. Humanities are being further downgraded in favor of programs in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math). We will command more techniques, but less wisdom and prudence in how to use them.

We will, I predict, continue to confront the problem of too much (though, I would also contend that the source of our contemporary plenitude is theft from the future, particularly the constantly accelerating exhaustion of planetary resources to the disadvantage of future generations). Our response, to date, has been to combat our excesses with the application of more techniques of mastery. Where we become too obese, we seek to find a drug to cure it; when we have exhausted most of the "easy oil," we seek to drill in new and more destructive techniques; where we burn too many hydrocarbons, we seek the invention of "clean fuels"; where we exhaust the topsoil, we clear cut rainforests. All of this is to say, there is growing evidence that our definition of freedom is leading us to a new form of captivity - a captivity of diminishing returns and ultimate want. The great challenge of our time is not to find the right "solutions," but to rediscover an ancient answer: the governance of appetite. The "solutions" to many of our contemporary problems do and have always lie with us, and not the intervention of science or government. We need an ethic of less. For those concerned with global warming: stay put and do more with less. For those concerned with excessive debt: buy less. For those concerned with lifestyle immorality: stop promoting cowboy capitalism. For those concerned with economic immorality: disavow the "if it feels good do it" ethic. We must get beyond our current partisan blinders and understand that there is a connection between an economy and a personal ethic in which everything is permitted.

Changing behavior is difficult, more difficult than getting legislation passed or inventing a new form of indigestible fat. Yet, it is a capacity given to every one of us. This is our challenge and our task. In this, we have much to learn from our Puritan forbears. Let us give thanks.

(Posted at Georgetown/On Faith)

Monday, November 23, 2009


"What a good country or a good squirrel should be doing is stashing away nuts for the winter. The United States is not only not saving nuts, it’s eating the ones left over from the last winter." WILLIAM H. GROSS

The New York Times reports on its front page today that annual interest payments on the national debt will exceed $700 billion by 2019, compared to $202 billion today.

In concrete terms, an additional $500 billion a year in interest expense would total more than the combined federal budgets this year for education, energy, homeland security and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, Bloomberg reports today that the price of an ounce of gold has hit yet another all time high, jumping another 2% to $1,170. Oil is back around $80 per barrel and the dollar remains in a slump, around $1.50 per Euro.

I feel like a broken record summarizing this recent news about the bankruptcy of America, but it needs to be stressed: we have decided as a nation to respond to finding ourselves in a deep hole by digging deeper. Not surprisingly, as our mothers used to tell us, if you keep digging a hole in the ground, eventually you'll find yourself in China.

The print edition of the Times relays what most of us know: there are only four ways out of the current morass - and only one, they report, is "painless":

1. Raise taxes/cut services
2. Inflation
3. Default
4. Growth

Every "leader" is hoping and praying for the last, but we should be clear about its prospects: almost all of the "growth" of the past several decades has been illusory, built on a firesale of America's mid-century wealth in a gambit to hold onto our top spot for just another election cycle. Every administration has simply kicked the can down the road while ramping up the outsourcing, the "globalization," and, above all, the borrowing. We have been a national version of Michael Jackson, living in "Neverland" while borrowing against the things of value that we once possessed from an Asian organization willing to "loan" until it owns us. Like him, we're having trouble sleeping at night, and like him we'd rather narcotize ourselves (if on our hundreds of cable stations) rather than face facts.

I think it's highly implausible that there are many more tricks that can be devised that can in turn pretend to be "growth." Our recent "boom and bust" oscillation that we call the economy has been a string of makeshift efforts to prop up a sinking ship. We have learned that the internet is a sink hole for money, since all it can "produce" are advertisements that can't ultimately sell products if its viewers are broke. We have already seen the result of the "financialization" of the entire economy, an economic design that ultimately had to feed on itself. We have sucked whatever nominal value from our "homes," the places that ought to be secure against the foolishness of the age. We have already sought to re-inflate the balloon one too many times, most recently not only by bringing interest rates to zero, but by printing and borrowing funds faster than three generations will be able to pay back. Like a hamster on an dirty-coal electric treadmill, we can't get off and we can't slow down, but the speed required to keep the contraption going is getting too fast for our small legs and tinier brains.

Frankly, the idea that "growth" is the one option that will prove itself to be "painless" is laughable, when we consider that much of our current pain is the result of illusory growth. And with our various gimmicks like "cash for clunkers," "socialism for the rich," tax "rebate" checks in the mail and so on, as the way we claim to re-boot "growth," one can only guffaw at the illusion that we can somehow permanently escape the hard bookkeeping of Reality's ledger.

Brutal honesty requires us to acknowledge that only three options realistically confront us: 1. less government for more money; 2. inflation; and/or 3. default. Any of these will leave us poorer and more miserable. Which poison will we be forced to "choose"? What will be the public response? The populace has grown so accustomed to having it all - demanding low taxes and cradle-to-grave nannying, electing Republican tax-cutters while insisting on the continuation of every program. Let us stipulate that they will be ill-disposed to hearing the bad tidings. If "tea parties" are the order of the day when we still manage to keep this creaky and leaking boat afloat, what will be the reaction when we begin to sink? When it's discovered that, once again, there are too few lifeboats? Will we stiffen our upper lip, allow the women and children their places, and sing "Nearer My God to Thee"? Or, will there be a mad scramble for the exits, in which the lucky will manage to get out by stepping on the corpses of those caught under the crush? Will our tea parties become "Black Fridays," with desperate consumers looking for that one last piece of the pie to consume, charged to their overextended credit cards, before the plate is empty?

Friday, November 20, 2009

The Control of Nature

As reported in today's New York Times, New Orleans plaintiffs in a civil suit against the U.S. Government are elated at a ruling that has held the Government liable for the floods resulting from the landfall of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. A federal judge agreed with the plaintiffs, holding the Army Corps of Engineers "negligent [in the] maintenance of a major navigation channel [that] led to major flooding in the Lower Ninth Ward and the adjacent St. Bernard Parish...." If upheld on appeal (which is not at all guaranteed at this point), the Times reports that damages could "add up to billions of dollars in compensation for residents."

"Katrina" has become synonymous with government unresponsiveness and incompetence. With this ruling, a judge has officially agreed with this widespread perception, not only expressed in the widely shared view that the government response in the aftermath of Katrina was woefully insufficient, but that the government was in fact accountable for the flood itself. The fault was not Katrina, or an "act of nature," but the Government!

This view calls to mind the very object of the modern project: the expansion of human power to effect the control of nature. Indeed, it is with the image of controlling the effects of torrential rain that Machiavelli signaled the beginning of this project:

It is not unknown to me how many men have had, and still have, the opinion that the affairs of the world are in such wise governed by fortune and by God that men with their wisdom cannot direct them and that no one can even help them; and because of this they would have us believe that it is not necessary to labour much in affairs, but to let chance govern them. This opinion has been more credited in our times because of the great changes in affairs which have been seen, and may still be seen, every day, beyond all human conjecture. Sometimes pondering over this, I am in some degree inclined to their opinion. Nevertheless, not to extinguish our free will, I hold it to be true that Fortune is the arbiter of one-half of our actions, but that she still leaves us to direct the other half, or perhaps a little less.

I compare her to one of those raging rivers, which when in flood overflows the plains, sweeping away trees and buildings, bearing away the soil from place to place; everything flies before it, all yield to its violence, without being able in any way to withstand it; and yet, though its nature be such, it does not follow therefore that men, when the weather becomes fair, shall not make provision, both with defences and barriers, in such a manner that, rising again, the waters may pass away by canal, and their force be neither so unrestrained nor so dangerous. So it happens with fortune, who shows her power where valour has not prepared to resist her, and thither she turns her forces where she knows that barriers and defences have not been raised to constrain her. [Prince, ch. 25]

Where humans once saw Fortune as fundamentally ungovernable by humans, Machiavelli argued that the only legitimate expression of Free Will was our efforts to master its effects - and, through his metaphor, closely aligning his conception of "fortune" to Nature. Arguing for boldness and mastery, Machiavelli concludes his famous Chapter, "Fortune is a woman, and if you wish to keep her under it is necessary to beat and ill-use her; and it is seen that she allows herself to be mastered by the adventurous rather than by those who go to work more coldly. She is, therefore, always, woman-like, a lover of young men, because they are less cautious, more violent, and with more audacity command her." Much of the modern project has consisted of extending our mastery even beyond half of Fortune, to governing her all and entire.

Yet, those who have been wary of this project have warned against hubris - in particular, have insisted that nature is not fundamentally governable by humans, and that efforts to extend our control in a tyrannical manner will fail. According to this view, Nature cannot finally be subject to our control; instead, our "free will" is best used in ascertaining its laws and conforming our activities within those laws. The insistence upon controlling nature is to break its laws, and such transgression carries with it severe consequences.

This view recalls to my mind a very fine book of several years' vintage - one that had a major impact on my intellectual formation - John McPhee's 1989 book The Control of Nature. The book has an entire chapter devoted to a discussion of the role of the Army Corp of Engineers in making possible the City of New Orleans, a completely implausible and even impossible city. For decades, the U.S. Government has been devoted untold resources to securing the city against waters that roll by or collect dozens of feet above sea level. In the process of doing so, it has effectively created conditions that not only cannot prevent eventual failure, but which will make failure even worse than had the efforts to extend our mastery in such an imperious way not been undertaken in the first place.

According to McPhee, the devastation of New Orleans can hardly be a surprise. The city was built in full knowledge of its susceptibility to flooding, and a succession of devastating floods occurred regularly from the time of New Orleans’s founding in 1718 throughout the 18th and 19th-centuries. Then, in 1879 the United States Government created the Mississippi River Commission which marshaled the resources of the government to control the tendency of the Mississippi river to overrun her banks. This Commission was perhaps most noteworthy due to the assignment of the Army Corps of Engineers to the task of creating a system of levees that would contain the Mississippi and protect the towns and cities along its bank – especially New Orleans.

Before its development by the French, the area that became New Orleans was largely deemed unacceptable as the location for any sort of permanent human settlement. As McPhee relates, the earliest moments of the settlement confirmed the ancient prohibition against building in that area: “The growth of New Orleans over the years since the creation of the Mississippi River Commission was due directly because of the ongoing success of the Corps to continually update and improve the levee system."

If government is to be held accountable, it could be argued that their culpability lies in the creation of the very levee system that had at once induced a sense of safety as well as the creation of certain unnatural conditions that turned New Orleans into a giant soup-bowl waiting to be filled. As a result of efforts by the Army Corps of Engineers to prevent the mighty Mississippi River from “jumping” out of its bed to find a lower pathway to the ocean, the Corps constantly built new, artificial riverbanks – a system of earthworks and levees that required increasing height as the natural collection of silt in the riverbed caused the river to rise. Meanwhile, the lack of natural flooding of low-lying areas – such as New Orleans – meant that periodic silting of low-lying areas was prevented, while the natural features of New Orleans caused the city to sink at a constant rate. The conditions for a perfect storm were devised by the very "conquest of nature" – a perfect storm, not to be unexpected in an area prone to hurricanes. As McPhee writes, "The more the levees confined the river, the more destructive they became when they failed.”

The plaintiffs' case rests on the "unintended consequences" accompanying the ongoing building of the levee system. With each "victory" over nature, the height required of the levees to protect a sinking New Orleans increased the weight at water's edge, resulting in more erosion into the bottom of the water bed and the need for increased dredging. The need to increase the height of the levee and subsequent dredging required the widening of the waterway, leading to the acquisition of wetlands and compromises to the entire water ecosystem.


Ironically, Katrina itself may be further evidence of unintended consequences of the human effort to master nature: many believe that the strength of hurricanes has increased as a result of global warming, itself a consequence of our exploitation of ancient sunlight in the service of the massive expansion of human power. Our very capacity to exert control over nature has made it more dangerous. Yet, our belief that our mastery is near-complete has induced in us a sense of complacency and expectation that failures to exert control are the blame of culpable human actors.

To be clear: what is on trial is the very success of the U.S. Government (or, put more broadly still, the modern project) in "conquering nature," and the accompanying sense of expectation that nature should no longer inconvenience "the relief of the human estate." Lying defeated, in fact, was not nature (which has a way of reasserting herself), but common sense (don't live blithely beneath the sea level; or, better put, we should know what we're doing) and Stoicism (nature giveth, and nature taketh away). Can lawsuits against the Government for rising energy costs, depleted retirement accounts, and death itself be far behind?

Thursday, November 19, 2009

God, Notre Dame, Country

This past weekend I had the pleasure and privilege of attending a conference at Notre Dame entitled "The Summons of Freedom." The conference was sponsored by The Center for Ethics and Culture, an interdisciplinary program founded and directed by Professor David Solomon of Notre Dame's Department of Philosophy. It was the tenth annual conference held by the Center, though the first I attended. Based on what I saw, heard, and experienced, it will not be my last. If there is to be not only a defense of, but a revival of, the full dimension of Catholicism in America today, I believe it will emanate from the work being done by this Center.

The Center for Ethics and Culture is deeply informed by the encyclicals and teachings of Pope John Paul II and, now, Benedict XVI. As the statement of Vision on the Center's website relates, "the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture aims to transform the culture in which we live into one where the dignity of human life is respected, the compatibility of faith and reason is recognized, and the connection between the truth and genuine freedom is understood."

The Center's main intellectual influences are pairs from the early Church, the papacy, and contemporary philosophy: Augustine and Thomas Aquinas; Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI (with attention as well to Pope Leo XIII, who is largely responsible for the revival of Thomism in modern times); and the Notre Dame philosophers Ralph McInerny and, above all, Alasdair MacIntyre. MacIntyre is philosopher-in-residence at the Center, and looms large in the discussions and guiding vision of the Center's work.

This weekend's conference attracted several hundred similarly inspired academics from across the nation and the globe for discussions of the conference's themes, "virtue, sacrifice and the common good." It is fair and accurate to say that the Center and conference participants are "traditionalist," and that - in matters of the "culture wars" - their work has been on the side of defending life, calling attention to the utilitarian philosophy that underlies many assumptions of the extension of modern biotechnology, and defending forms of traditional morality. The Center was in the middle of efforts to reverse the decision of Notre Dame to award President Obama an honorary degree, and helped organize "ND Response," which sponsored a protest rally coincident with the President's commencement address.

That said, there is further dimension of the Center - prominently present at the conference - that defies most contemporary notions of Left and Right. The Conference featured several panels that argued on behalf of a way of thinking about the economic life that might strike the casual observer as coming from the Left. Among the strong defenses of the central place of morality in human affairs was an insistence that an exacting moral code extend as much to the marketplace as the bedroom. Indeed, there was an overarching insistence - one informed by Alasdair MacIntyre, a former Marxist - that there is a continuity between the individualism and relativism of the market and "personal" lifestyles, a consistent relativism that erodes social cohesion, cultural continuity, a felt sense of generational obligation, and a the centrality of the virtue of self-governance and moderation of appetite.

Among the panels that were organized were sympathetic explorations of the thought of Wendell Berry, whose writings of several decades have severely condemned contemporary form of "absentee economy" populated by "itinerant vandals." These words were penned long before the current economic crisis, a crisis that he has essentially predicted based on a view of human anthropology and nature that cannot long be denied without severe repercussions. There was also a panel consisting of authors from the webzine "Front Porch Republic," a generally conservative online journal that has been strongly critical of the neo-liberal economic orthodoxy (full disclosure: I appeared on the panel, and write for the site). Among its stable of authors are those arguing for a second look at the "Distributism" of Chesterton and Belloc and more local forms of economic organization.

In my view, the highlight of the conference was a lecture delivered by Michael Baxter entitled "God, Notre Dame and Country." Baxter reviewed the mid-twentieth century efforts of Catholic intellectuals to formulate a seamless synthesis of Catholic belief and American values - for instance, a work such as We Hold These Truths by the Jesuit intellectual John Courtney Murray. While Baxter sympathetically explored the felt-need of the oft-ghettoized Catholic minority in America to gain acceptance by the broader culture, he concluded that these efforts had gone too far, to the point of a degree of intellectual dishonesty. He argued for a more vigorous Catholic contrarian voice in the broader culture, one that is willing to call out the false premises of American liberalism (whether informing the contemporary Left or Right). He insisted that Catholicism refuse any longer to be drawn into the contemporary culture wars, lining up neatly on the Right or Left (or worse, Republican or Democrat) in complete mindless submission to the political demands of the day. He called for a more thoughtful consideration of a consistent Catholic argument that would be equally critical of both parties where they departed from the consistency of the Catholic teaching. Hence his proposed reorganization of a Notre Dame motto: not "God, Country, Notre Dame," but "God, Notre Dame, Country." That is a more properly Augustinian standard.

It was an exciting weekend and presentation, finally because in the contours of its basic premises and arguments one could see the beginnings of a revival of a truly dissenting Catholic voice in contemporary America. For too long Catholics have lined up in "conservative" or "progressive" camps in ways that have aligned too closely with the existing political parties. Those arguments have pulled the Catholic electorate to the left or right, becoming THE swing vote in national elections - but for that reason, also effectively splitting apart the consistency of the full teaching of the Church, and thereby obscuring its power and damaging its effectiveness in the broader culture.

What exists today are two parties that effectively adhere to one part of the Catholic teaching (whether they know it or not), with the Right insisting on the dignity of life in all of its forms and the Left adopting a stance of moral condemnation toward the greed and concupiscence that contributed to the economic crisis. However, the resulting divide allows each side to blame the other for their respective immorality (personal/sexual or economic), thereby obscuring the fundamental moral consistency that was bifurcated in the cauldron of Cold War American politics. The work of the Center on Culture and Ethics is clearly aimed at healing that divide, and - if its work continues to unfold with the success and vision that I witnessed - the "blame game" that has existed at the heart of American politics will be increasingly harder to play. The major players in the Parties will insist upon retaining the status quo, but the penetrating vision of this Catholic revival in the American heartland may finally be too powerful to ignore. One can at least hope.

(This post also appears at the site "Georgetown/On Faith")

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Homo Economicus

On today’s campuses, the reigning principle on most academic matters is to avoid meddling in the affairs of others. Beyond very broad curricular requirements, we are to allow respective experts to patrol the boundaries and content of their own disciplines. It is considered to be bad form to snoop around in others’ business. But, this doesn’t seem to be a very good example of “critical thinking,” and one area in which I think we need more critical thought is the reigning approach to the study of economics.

Economics is today regarded as the model of the social sciences, the one “human science” that approaches the status of the natural sciences. Increasingly technical and mathematic, modern economics has developed powerful analytical tools that provide extensive data on which to base contemporary policy and even some impressive predictive models. According to the canons of the natural sciences, economics is the reigning example for the rest of the social sciences.

However, much of the explanatory strength of economics rests on a narrow and even unrealistic understanding of human behavior, particularly an understanding of the human creature as a utility-maximizing rational actor. Stripped of conflicting devotions, shorn of history and culture, reduced to a few basic motives (especially fear and greed), economic man became highly analyzable data point, but arguably only insofar as he has ceased to be truly human. As Paul Krugman has recently written, the economics field largely failed to predict our current economic crisis due to a basic disconnection from reality: “The economics profession went astray because economists, as a group, mistook beauty – clad in impressive-looking mathematics – for truth.”

Yet, even as economic assumptions can be questioned on the basis of whether they meet the standard of good science, there is a deeper problem with the modern study of economics: those very “unreal” assumptions have tended to be imperialistic in shaping much of modern humanity’s self-understanding. Far from being merely “descriptive,” the basic assumptions of economics – that human beings are acquisitive individual utility-maximizers living in a world of scarcity – deeply shape modern humanity’s view of itself. And, more than anything else, it is this view that lies at the heart of our current economic crisis – itself a spiritual crisis. A false anthropology – one in which humans are defined above all by their fears and appetites – undergirds a system that encourages materialism, short-term thinking and a utilitarian relationship to the natural world and fellow humans. It discounts bonds born in self-sacrifice and love, and the attendant social structures that foster and perpetuate those motivations. The root of our economic crisis was not narrowly technical – and not solvable by mere economic or regulatory reform – but fundamentally anthropological, denigrating an alternative understanding of human nature that places a priority upon the personal over the impersonal; on the sacrificial over the acquisitive; on love over lust; and premised upon a view of creation as a bountiful gift of a loving God rather than a condition of miserly scarcity demanding the conquest of nature.

Based on typical course offerings in most Departments of Economics, one would hardly suspect that there are other economic approaches that start with a fundamentally different set of anthropological assumptions. Especially relevant at an institution like Georgetown is a rich tradition of Catholic economic theory, from the tradition of Church Doctors to papal encyclicals to alternative economic approaches that include the Distributism of Chesterton and Belloc. In its orbit one would count the economists E.F. Schumacher and Wilhelm Roepke, authors respectively of Small is Beautiful and A Humane Economy. These authors stress the role of economics in sustaining good and stable communities and families, where the activities of economics are understood to be subordinated to a more comprehensive understanding of the human good. This was the theme of Pope Benedict XVI’s most recent encyclical, Charity in Truth, a text that has received little official attention on campus.

Eschewing modern assumptions, this approach is equally critical of both big business and big government – arguing that any economy that permits organizations “too big to fail” will require a massive government that assists in their creation and maintenance. It was thinkers in this tradition who were generally more accurate in predicting the recent economic crisis. Basing their judgment less on sophisticated models than on the insight that human institutions that grow too large ultimately weaken our attachments and encourage narrow self-interest and irresponsibility, such thinkers warned of the likelihood of an economic (and ultimately, social) unraveling.

Recent events have shown that the modern study of economics not only misinterprets the world, but that it changes it in ways for the worse. It is time for a better economics, and – not limited to that end – time for a truer and reality-based understanding of human nature.

(This column appears in today's edition of The Hoya, Georgetown's student newspaper)

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

What's Not the Matter With Kansas?

E2100Tonight I happened to attend a pair of extremely interesting, and strikingly juxtaposed, events. The first was a Bradley Lecture at AEI delivered by Peter Berkowitz entited "The New Progressivism." According to the description of the lecture - which is a fairly accurate summation -

"The original Progressivism, the Progressivism that arose in the 1880s and 1890s and flourished during the first two decades of the twentieth century, was marked by a paradox. On the one hand, it sought to democratize American politics, reforming American political institutions to make them more responsive to the will of the people. On the other hand, Progressives favored the creation of an administrative elite that would exercise substantial state power but without traditional forms of political accountability. It is one of the virtues of Progressive era that writers gave both opinions clear and emphatic expression. Like the original Progressivism, the new Progressivism, which arose in post-1960s politics and has been refined and taken to a new level by President Barack Obama, seeks to democratize American political institutions by making them more responsive to the will of the people. And like the original Progressivism, it has great confidence in the ability of elites to administer the state on the people’s behalf.

"In contrast to the original Progressivism, the new Progressivism does not give clear expression to Progressivism's awkward combination of egalitarianism and elitism. On the contrary, the new Progressivism strives to conceal Progressivism's paradox--the new Progressivism's academic wing has even developed a variety of theoretical and rhetorical approaches that conceal the paradox. Whereas the dependence on elites can be reconciled with self-government, this concealment has disquieting antidemocratic and illiberal implications."

Thereafter, I was caught up in a general exodus to a book party a few floors below AEI in the offices of the Weekly Standard, where revelers were toasting the publication of Matthew Continetti's latest title The Persecution of Sarah Palin.

Both of these events, serendipitously or not, were devoted to the exposure of Left elitism toward ordinary opinion. Both sought to highlight the close alignment of progressive elitism on the Left and populist sympathy on the part of the Right. Both partook of the longterm narrative that has defined the realignment of Populism from a Left anti-elite suspicion of economic concentration to a Right anti-elite suspicion of Statist concentration. And, both struck me - occuring as they were in the heart of the imperial metropole of Washington D.C., attended by the extremely well-heeled, cosmopolitan metropolites, that something was askew.

Peter Berkowitz's talk turned out to be revelatory: what he was in fact attacking was NOT the elitism of the Left per se, but rather the obfuscation of a paradox at the heart of the Left that at once presents itself as the party of the working man while also advancing policies (e.g., Gay Marriage) to which the working man cannot subscribe. This dynamic was at the heart of my study of "democratic faith," the belief that democracy could and should be embraced NOT because the lovers of democracy embrace the "people" as they are, but only as they should be. But this criticism of Left elitism does not one a populist make.

The modern Right has built itself on the exposure of this contradiction. However, it should not be confused that a criticism of this Left elite mistrust of the people translates into a Right elite embrace of the people. Berkowitz concluded his talk with praise for the "conservative liberal" position of the Framers and the Constitution, a conservatism of limited government and balanced powers. But this very accustomed invocation of the Founders should give pause, coming as it did in the midst of a lecture that implicitly excoriated the anti-democratic antipathies of the Left elite. For the Founders were no less fearful of the populist irrationalities of the populace as the contemporary elitist Left: pressed particularly on issues of economics, most of the audience in that lecture room at AEI would doubtless regard popular efforts to curb the excesses of Wall Street with no little horror and alarm It's worth recalling that William Jennings Bryan was hardly a friend of big business, after all, and particularly not Wall Street. Bryan populism tended to be more sympathetic to the use of State authority to curb private concentrations of power than contemporary Right embraces of populism would suggest.

The contemporary Right can trace its roots to the original American mistrust of the people, particularly seen in the frequent invocation of the wisdom of the Founders. The Framers were just as afraid of popular discontents and governance as the elites on the contemporary Left. The Federalist Papers - the official document that describes and defends the Constitutional order - is rife with condemnations of popular rule, particularly "democracy" that was pervasive in ancient settings. The Framers held the view that human irrationality came to the fore in group or crowd settings. As Madison argued in Federalist 55, "Had every Athenian been a Socrates, the Athenian assembly would still have been a mob." That is, even if every citizen of Athens had been a reasonable and philosophic soul, the fact that they came together in a crowd would naturally lead to the overcoming of reason in favor of irrational mob mentality. The Constitutional order aims to circumvent the creation of a widespread popular will.

Representation was to elicit in the leadership by a select class of distinguished individuals. Even as the contemporary Right condemns the elitism of the progressive Left - embracing instead the Founders for their rejection of basic principles of progressivism - it was Madison who declared that a properly constituted government would give rise to leaders who would rule in a manner wiser and better than the common mass of humanity. As Madison wrote in Federalist 10, ideal representation would "refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations. Under such a regulation, it may well happen that the public voice, pronounced by the representatives of the people, will be more consonant to the public good than if pronounced by the people themselves, convened for the purpose."

A populist suspicion of the elitist orientation of the new Constitution had motivated opposition by a number of the Anti-federalists, and was largely manifested in an anti-Federalist, anti-Whig, and eventually anti-Republican opposition party (Jeffersonianism, Jacksonianism, and the populism that motivated the candidacy of William Jennings Bryan). In the 1960s, the Democratic Party - increasingly a party of establishment Washington and educated elites - threw off their traditional blue-collar (and largely Catholic) electoral base in favor of a new coalition of anti-war activists, the college-educated, and feminists. The result was a political vacuum in which the "populist" wing of the Democratic party was without representation - until Nixon developed a strategy to bring them into the Republican fold. While old habits died hard - many still continued to vote Democratic - by the time of the candidacy of Ronald Reagan, many overcame old habits and thus became "Reagan Democrats." The transformation of Republicans as the party of the Northeast and financial elites to that of Joe the Plumber was complete.

But this accretion of populists into the Republican fold was never altogether comfortable: Republicans - the heirs of the old Federalist and Whig parties - had been, and remain, mistrustful of the unwashed masses. The masses were historically the great threat to the sanctity of PROPERTY, the very manifestation of the "diverse faculties of men" that Madison argued was in need of protection in the new Constitutional order. Republicans successfully adopted the old populist strain of American politics by turning its ire toward the pointy-headed professoriate and their dreams of a utopian political order, all the while pretending that the economic policies of Reaganism were friendly to the common man. Even as jobs were being shipped overseas under the new orthodoxy of Free Markets, Reagan cleared brush, George Herbert Walker ate pork rinds, and the Texan yahoo George Walker Bush (Andover, Yale, Harvard MBA) said "nucylar."

Inviting the populist elements of the American electorate was - to use the Jeffersonian metaphor - a bit like having a wolf by the ears: they didn't dare to let go, but they knew the longer they held on, the more dangerous the beast. Even now efforts are afoot to keep the incendiary potential of a populist rage in control. This, I take it, is in part the purpose of Matthew Continetti's recent book on Sarah Palin - to "enlarge and refine" populism for the purposes of the Republican party. Thus he writes (in an excerpt published in the most recent issue of The Weekly Standard), that there is a need of a new political leader who can separate "good" populism from "bad" populism. "The left-wing populists rail against CEO compensation, bank bailouts, and lobbyist influence in government. The right-wing populists attack the auto bailouts, government spending, and Obamacare. There is no central authority directing the tea party protestors.... All of which creates an opportunity for a figure who will separate the good populism (championing free-enterprising individuals) from the bad (concocting loony theories and vilifying "enemies of the people")." That is, populism must be purified of its hostility to economic elites and instead directed at Left political elites. The way to do this is to assume the pose of sympathetic populist and denounce at the elitism of the Left. Even as one embraces policies which encourage "too big to fail" economic entities that should be largely unsupervised by a pared down government.

There is one quite revealing datum in Continetti's essay: "About twice as many people call themselves "conservative" as "Republican," which means that a large chunk of potential Republican voters are alienated from the national party." Perhaps this is another way of saying "We Won't Be Fooled Again." Not that Washington D.C.'s smart set won't try. Let's hope Kansas isn't buying.

More: let's hope that some cagey political leaders understand that the way to harness this populist anger is not by purging its Left or Right elements, but understanding its consistency - the anger toward private and public concentrations of power, the elimination of a dignified role for the citizen, the infantilization of the American freeman, and the looting of the Republic by power elites of all stripe, is cause for righteous and fervent anger. Inchoate and ill-directed, the Glenn Beck, "tea-party" movement reveals a justified anger toward both K Street and Wall Street. What good sense and manly indignation have put together, let no political maneuvering put asunder. It is high time for "a true and defensible populism."