news from the pro-lifers at feministing.com

"Sibelius confirmed: woot!" And with the approval of fun-lovin' Arlen Specter nonetheless.


learning from economic history

Before the monetarist revolution, most economists believed that the quantity of money circulating in the economy had no influence on prices or on growth. History showed otherwise, Friedman and Schwartz argued. Every time the Federal Reserve (and the central banks before it) created an excess of money, either by keeping interest rates too low or by injecting liquidity into banks, prices inflated. At first, the easy money might seem to boost consumers’ purchasing power. But the increase would be only apparent, since sellers tended to raise the prices of their goods to absorb the extra funds. Investors would then start speculating on short-term bets—whether tulips in the seventeenth century or subprime mortgages more recently—seeking to beat the expected inflation. Eventually, such “manias,” as Schwartz calls them, would begin replacing long-term investment, thus destroying entrepreneurship and harming economic growth.

By contrast, by removing excess liquidity, the central bank can cause the sudden collapse of speculative excess, and it can also hurt healthy recovery or growth by constricting the money supply. There is now a near-consensus among economists that lack of liquidity caused the Great Depression. During the severe downturn of 1930, the Fed did nothing as a first group of banks failed. Other depositors became alarmed that they would lose their money if their banks failed, too, leading to further bank runs, propelling a frightening downward economic spiral.
- City Journal


in passing

I'd like to register my disgust at the Bush administration for employing waterboarding over 266 times on two individuals.


the way it is

As modern men and women — to the degree that we are modern — we believe in nothing. This is not to say, I hasten to add, that we do not believe in anything; I mean, rather, that we hold an unshakable, if often unconscious, faith in the nothing, or in nothingness as such. It is this in which we place our trust, upon which we venture our souls, and onto which we project the values by which we measure the meaningfulness of our lives. Or, to phrase the matter more simply and starkly, our religion is one of very comfortable nihilism.

This may seem a somewhat apocalyptic note to sound, at least without any warning or emollient prelude, but I believe I am saying nothing not almost tediously obvious. We live in an age whose chief moral value has been determined, by overwhelming consensus, to be the absolute liberty of personal volition, the power of each of us to choose what he or she believes, wants, needs, or must possess; our culturally most persuasive models of human freedom are unambiguously voluntarist and, in a rather debased and degraded way, Promethean; the will, we believe, is sovereign because unpremised, free because spontaneous, and this is the highest good. And a society that believes this must, at least implicitly, embrace and subtly advocate a very particular moral metaphysics: the unreality of any “value” higher than choice, or of any transcendent Good ordering desire towards a higher end. Desire is free to propose, seize, accept or reject, want or not want — but not to obey. Society must thus be secured against the intrusions of the Good, or of God, so that its citizens may determine their own lives by the choices they make from a universe of morally indifferent but variably desirable ends, unencumbered by any prior grammar of obligation or value (in America, we call this the “wall of separation”). Hence the liberties that permit one to purchase lavender bed clothes, to gaze fervently at pornography, to become a Unitarian, to market popular celebrations of brutal violence, or to destroy one’s unborn child are all equally intrinsically “good” because all are expressions of an inalienable freedom of choice. But, of course, if the will determines itself only in and through such choices, free from any prevenient natural order, then it too is in itself nothing. And so, at the end of modernity, each of us who is true to the times stands facing not God, or the gods, or the Good beyond beings, but an abyss, over which presides the empty, inviolable authority of the individual will, whose impulses and decisions are their own moral index.
-David Hart


Hooray graduate school!

Hey everyone. Just wanted to let you know that things are still wacky in the world of education and reading research. To wit: "Once children begin reading, however, the best indicator of current and future reading may simply be reading itself."

Mind blowing.


politics and justice

The great task of Plato's Republic was to give an adequate answer to the question "what is justice?" Here I will give a wholly inadequate answer, but one that is, I hope, food for conversation.

I think it is first important to make a distinction between natural justice and supernatural justice. By natural justice I mean the justice known by the light of reason, the justice Socrates praises in the Republic. By supernatural justice, I mean God's justice, the justice that goes beyond justice; God gives us what we do not deserve. This distinction is important for the religious person thinking about politics. (Obviously this distinction is meaningless to atheists). Missing it, the religious person may forget that the Church is a supernatural community and thus is bound by an order different than that of natural communities (or ought to be), i.e. political associations (states, nations, etc.)

For the moment I would like to restrict my comments to the idea of natural justice. Reiterating, this idea of natural justice is essential for the secular community, that is, the human community that is not bound together not by a common faith, but perhaps simply by tradition, locality, or some other common interest. Justice is traditionally defined as "giving to each what is his right". To help see what this means more clearly, we can distinguish (very broadly) two precepts.

First, justice means treating equals equally. The question follows quickly: "how are we equal?" Consulting briefly with common American wisdom, we'd learn that most everyone is mostly equal to everyone else. After all, discussing how someone is not equal to someone else is often uncomfortable - maybe even morally wrong. (c.f. Grade inflation, general lowering of academic standards, the discomfort some people feel at keeping score at childrens' sports games, our unwillingness to make clear distinctions in conversation etc.). On the other hand, common sense gives quite a different answer. Actually, a startling answer. Common sense (also science) would say that, materially, we are different in every way. Between you and I, there is nothing that can really said to be the same. No one is "as good as someone else" - not materially, anyway. What we do have in common is our essence, our nature, our humanity. This is not a material thing. Sure, we're all members of the species homo sapiens, but that category - homo sapiens, is itself not a material thing - it's a category , an abstraction but also a description of what we are. It applies to us all.

Second, justice means treating unequals unequally. This means somehow justice respects the differences between people. This is the side of justice that is unpopular to discuss in America today. People have different talents. Some people are more intelligent than other people, some people are stronger than other people, some people are more virtuous than other people, some people are weaker than other people, etc. Justice needs to respect this diversity. This second precept, however, does not mean that some people are better than other people, that is, more intrinsically valuable. We are all of the same ultimate value because of our essence, because of what we are.

These remarks draw heavily on talks given publically by Prof. Peter Kreeft. I'm very much interested in whether or not you think these distinctions are helpful, and if so, why or why not?


federalism, please

Here's something of which I would like to hear more:
“I believe that our federal government has become oppressive in its size, its intrusion into the lives of our citizens, and its interference with the affairs of our state,” Gov. Perry said. “That is why I am here today to express my unwavering support for efforts all across our country to reaffirm the states’ rights affirmed by the Tenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. I believe that returning to the letter and spirit of the U.S. Constitution and its essential 10th Amendment will free our state from undue regulations, and ultimately strengthen our Union.”
Surely this invocation of the 10th amendment comes too late to be as persuasive as it ought to be, but I think this is a case of better late than never. There is no hope for strong local community life while the need for such communities is stifled and negated by the omnipotent centrally-administered state. There is also great reason to be weary of the massive concentration of power; power certainly corrupts. The longer this continues to be ignored or misunderstood, the worse off we will be. Bravo, Texas.


a new kind of patriotism

I'm going to go ahead and quote this entire piece from Charles Kesler at Claremont:
At a ceremony whose official theme was a new birth of freedom, President Barack Obama wisely chose not to emphasize the similarities between himself and the 16th president. Oh, he used Lincoln's Bible to swear the bungled oath of office, and rode into town along the railroad route the Great Emancipator had taken. But he did not press the point, allowing the majestic facts to speak for themselves: the country's first African-American president, being inaugurated on the west front of the Capitol, overlooking the mall that sweeps past the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial.

He had not been so restrained in his victory speech on November 4. Then, he quoted Lincoln's First Inaugural and, rather egregiously, the Gettysburg Address, assuring his ecstatic supporters that their efforts on his behalf "proved that more than two centuries later, a government of the people, by the people, and for the people has not perished from this earth." Implying what, exactly—that if John McCain had won, slavery and secession would have triumphed?

He struck a more graceful note, indeed many graceful notes, in his Inaugural Address. As an orator, Obama is inspirational rather than persuasive—his speeches contain few arguments—and his post-partisan message fits the moment. The key to his post-partisan appeal is the magic word "new." Obama sprinkled it liberally over his speech, in keeping with his campaign promise to inaugurate "a new politics for a new time." He dismissed the old politics as cynical and full of "recriminations and worn out dogmas." Yet what dogma is more worn out than the empty call for a new politics? And what will generate more cynicism than raising public expectations of government's efficacy far beyond what it can reasonably deliver?

In his First Inaugural, Lincoln promised not a new politics but government according to constitutional limits. The key word in his Address was not an adjective but a noun, not "new" but "Constitution," a term occurring in virtually every paragraph.

President Obama didn't mention the Constitution, at least explicitly. He did refer to the Founding Fathers who, he explained, "drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations." But the context was foreign affairs, not domestic. He evoked the Constitution as the emblem of his post-Guantanamo foreign policy in which "our safety and our ideals" would be easily reconciled. Though pledging that the U.S. would defeat its enemies (a shadowy "network of violence and hatred"), he looked forward to "a new era of peace" based on diplomacy, aid for poor nations, and global environmentalism. "For the world has changed," he noted, "and we must change with it." Countries and terrorists who think otherwise "are on the wrong side of history."

It will take hard work to remake America, he admonished. Yet to a surprising extent, history does the heavy lifting for Obama. He dismissed as "false" the choice between our safety and our ideals (as he defines them), between small and big government, between national sovereignty and international authority. We can have it all, it seems, because we're at a moment—that famous "moment" he brags about—when history has reconciled these competing notions for us. Change has already come.

The most striking aspect of the speech was its repeated invocations of the American Founders and the virtues of the American character. These sentiments lent dignity to the Address and pleased conservatives who didn't grasp Obama's ulterior motive: to recapture patriotism for the Left and restore the Democrats as a (actually, the) patriotic party. This is not your Founding Fathers' patriotism but (inevitably) a "new spirit of patriotism," meaning that we have to "pitch in and work harder and look after not only ourselves, but each other." (That's from his election night speech.) The old patriotism, he implied, while perhaps good in its day, was insufficiently redistributionist, forward-looking, and cosmopolitan for today's needs. The old virtues and values like honesty, courage, and patriotism are "true," then, not in themselves so much but for pragmatic reasons: they are indispensable to the vital and continuing work of remaking America and, indeed, the world. Our deepest loyalty should be to this future and therefore more perfect Union, not to America as it is or ever was.

The "true genius of America," President Obama likes to say, is "that America can change." Lincoln would have asked, for better or worse? We shall see.


"If what Christians say about Good Friday is true, it is, quite simply, the truth about everything."


President Obama goes to War

Our President was elected under the influence of great anti-war sentiment. He was "the anti-war candidate". It ought to be disappointing then, for his supporters, to learn that he is decidedly not the anti-war President. In fact, President Obama is actively pursuing the war-on-terror, significantly expanding the Afghanistan theatre with another troop surge. And we shouldn't forget that President Obama hasn't pulled the troops out of Iraq yet, and the best estimates are that troops will be in Iraq for 2-3 more years - the same amount of time President Bush would have kept them there. (The article says all "combat troops" will be out of Iraq in August of 2010, but this is misleading. If you read it, it actually says there will still be 30,000-50,000 troops there until 2011. The Obama administration redefined people who count as "troops".) President Obama's continuation of the war on terror says a number of things. First, the silence of his anti-war constituency indicates that they were not opposed to the Iraq war on principle, but rather opposed to the Iraq war when a Republican candidate was president. In fact, they seem to have a great and newfound tolerance for war now that they like the guy at the helm of it all. It also tells us that the foreign policy of President Bush was not offensive enough for the country to elect a President who would have actually changed things.
"I want an American character, that the powers of Europe may be convinced we act for ourselves and not for others; this, in my judgment, is the only way to be respected abroad and happy at home." --George Washington


an old internecine Catholic argument

Still being waged, apparently. I suppose we need to try to be more persuasive. In short, the argument is this:

There is no Catholic judgment on the war in Iraq. There are Catholics who have judgments, but none of these judgments is Divinely sanctioned. The Church teaches faith and morals - principles of dogma and principles of morality. Whether Iraq was a just war or not is not a question to which the Church supplies an answer.

We ought to listen attentively and with our whole heart to the humble and holy servant of God who currently occupies Peter’s chair, but we will not always have a wise pope. We have had and may very well have again evil popes whose judgments about war and other major contemporary issues will be deeply and obviously flawed. The gift of infallibility does not necessarily include the gift of wisdom.

Catholics of good faith can and do disagree about complex prudential questions. Further, we ought to be weary of the authoritarian cast of mind that would make everyone submissive to every thought and whimsy of the Pope. There is a great temptation in trying to give one’s opinions the force and weight of the Divine.

This is why it is important to be able to make a distinction between a question of principle and a question of the application of principle - if we lack this ability, we lack the ability to understand the nature of the Church’s teaching, which is another way of saying we lack the ability to understand a tremendous gift.

C.S. Lewis said the same thing, but better, in an essay titled "Meditation on the Third Commandment". Here he is speaking on the the idea of a Christian political party:
It is not reasonable to suppose that such a Christian Party will will acquire new powers of leavening the infidel organization to which it is attached. Why should it? Whatever it calls itself, it will represent, not Christendom, but a part of Christendom. The principle which divides it from its brethren and unites it to its political allies will not be theological. It will have no authority to speak for Christianity; it will have no more power than the political skill of its members gives it to control the behaviour of its unbelieving allies. But there will be a real, and most disastrous novelty. It will be not simply a part of Christendom, but a part claiming to be the whole. By the mere act of calling itself the Christian Party it implicitly accuses all Christians who do not join it of apostasy and betrayal. It will be exposed, in an aggravated degree, to that temptation which the Devil spares none of us at any time --- the temptation of claiming for our favourite opinions that kind and degree of certainty and authority which really belongs only to our Faith. The danger of mistaking our merely natural, though perhaps legitimate, enthusiasms for holy zeal, is always great. Can any more fatal expedient be devised for increasing it than that of dubbing a small band of Fascists, Communists, or Democrats `the Christian Party'? The demon inherent in every party is at all times ready enough to disguise himself as the Holy Ghost; the formation of a Christian Party means handing over to him the most efficient make-up we can find. And when once the disguise has succeeded, his commands will presently be taken to abrogate all moral laws and to justify whatever the unbelieving allies of the `Christian' Party wish to do. If ever Christian men can be brought to think treachery and murder the lawful means of establishing the regime they desire, and faked trials, religious persecution and organized hooliganism the lawful means of maintaining it, it will, surely, be by just such a process as this. The history of the late medieval pseudo-Crusaders, of the Covenanters3, of the Orangemen4, should be remembered. On those who add `Thus said the Lord' to their merely human utterances descends the doom of a conscience which seems clearer and clearer the more it is loaded with sin.


Humans of the future are here!


our Nihilism and a way out, maybe

Man cannot find meaning in himself, not in himself alone anyway; he must feel part of something greater than himself. And to belong simply to a social group will not do, for then we may be all together but we are just the lonely crowd in a void. No, he must feel that he belongs to something cosmic that is not of man and not of men, and least of all man-made, but toward which in the deepest part of himself he can never feel alien. This is not the nature of the Romantics. We are pushing back here toward something more primal than that. The intimations of deity behind the sublime veil of nature lay too easily at hand for the Romantics. Theism has become too remote for us, one more man-made construction, an abstraction placed over the mystery of things, and above all we must get beyond abstractions even if in the end we will have to come back to them. God, maybe later, but right now we must get closer to the things themselves, particularly the things that are not of man, so that we can rediscover our lost kinship with them and a cosmos can be born for man again. For man, as alien to the cosmos, has always been, and must continue to be, a Nihilist. We have to learn to live again in the presence of a mystery that forever baffles the understanding but renews us even as it goes on baffling us. And, let us make no bones about it, this is a nature that cannot be prettily sentimentalized in the manner of some of the Romantics, for lavish as it may be it is also implacable and harsh in the limits it imposes on us so that at times we must cry out with Faulkner's dirt farmer speaking to his land in a fit of expaseration and love: "You got me, you'll wear me out because you are stronger than me since I'm jest bone and flesh. " Yet that was the source out of which came the life-giving energy that created our species in the first place; and ultimately it is the source out of which must come the energy that will carry us beyond Nihilism.

- William Barrett, "Time of Need", pp. 141-142
Barrett's conclusion here is, to me, profound: recognition of our limitations precedes our escape from the meaningless universe.