Thursday, October 14, 2010

Progress and Its Critics: Conservatives and the Culture of More

The other day, my wife was telling me a story (sorry for the lack of attribution – I think it might have been in one of Laura Berquist’s books) about a boy walking along the beach with his parents. Looking at all the litter, he said, “It looks like the orcs were here.” Smart kid.

If you’re asking yourself, “who are the orcs, and should they form a Constitutionally protected class?” then you are either: 1)an attorney for the ACLU, or 2)certainly not a conservative Catholic. But I repeat myself. Orcs, my patient reader, are creatures serving in the armies of one of the evil wizards in JRR Tolkien’s Ring trilogy. They leave behind them a trail of slaughter and destruction, and hate everything good, true, pure and free. Wherever they go, trees are uprooted, people displaced, farms destroyed, and machinery and factories belch out their pollution. These same images and themes occur in the writings of CS Lewis, especially in Prince Caspian and The Last Battle, as well as the first and third books of Lewis’ Space Trilogy. The enslavement of men and the destruction of nature are represented as going hand in hand. Forests destroyed, villages leveled, mountains blasted, roads paved, rivers dammed. Rules are enforced, liberties curtailed, rural regressives are relocated and reprogrammed. A literal and figurative smog descends on the land, blotting out everything. Lewis and Tolkien are not describing a futuristic dystopia. They are describing the here and now.

What I think they both saw, and what is critical for us to keep foremost in our minds, was the very real war between the “theoretical more” and the “real less.” We are in very real danger, as Catholics, of being seduced by the Theoretical More – the Siren Song of “Progress.” We must take a stand, and demand an accounting. More for whom? At what cost? Will we be better off in the end? What, and whom, must we sacrifice to achieve this “progress?”

My concern is that we, as a community, may have forgotten the identity of our true enemy – or at least we are allowing ourselves to choose in a false dichotomy. On the one side is the despair of Pantheism: sterilization of the masses, euthanasia, and a desire for the conscious mind to dissolve in the animal pulse of desire and the rhythmic flow of sap. We rightly protest, saying, “but the human soul is unique in creation, and the world is intended for man’s use and benefit.” And so we flee into the camp of the orcs, burning, tearing, fuming, digging, without restraint or conscience. We forget that conservatives were the original conservationists. We have never been willing to accept this vague notion of Progress as any sort of self-evident good. Wider asphalt roads? Hurts my horseflesh and tears down my hedges. Motorboats? Damned things scare off the fish. Digging up half of Africa to find some diamonds? Perfect – you democratize diamonds and my wife will just want something more elusive – fairy tears, or some such nonsense. Can’t be bothered. Now leave me alone. THAT is conservative, my friends.

The slavish devotion to industry, productivity, and the “march of Progress” is, in its own right, a religion – the religion of Materialism. More, further, faster! Shinier, louder, bigger, higher! See the work of man and the grandeur of his creation! So, question for you: in rejecting the “enviro-Nazi’s,” have we fallen into the trap of the Breathless Boosters of Modernity? Are either of those legitimate options? Do we have to cast our lot with one or the other? Conservatives are almost gleefully indulging in industrial and consumerist excess. The sprawl of development for 10,000 square foot McMansions. The gas guzzling SUV for the trophy wife and 1.5 children. The invasion of natural solitude with the whine of the jet-ski. Anytime someone voices concern over leach-mining, clear-cut logging, pesticides, or carbon emissions, suddenly they’re the enemy? “Drill baby, drill!”

When did this change happen? When did we go from being “a pint and a pipe” people to “a martini in the penthouse” glitterati? When did we abandon modesty and restraint? When did we abandon our posts as caretakers, and take up the banner of conquerors?

Sometimes, less is more.

The Egotists’ Club is one of the most genial places in London . . . the club is not specially exclusive. Nobody is ineligible per se, except strong, silent men. Nominees are, however, required to pass certain tests, whose nature is sufficiently indicated by the fact that a certain distinguished explorer came to grief through accepting, and smoking, a powerful Trichinopoly cigar as an accompaniment to a ’63 port. On the other hand, dear old Sir Roger Bunt (the coster millionaire who won the 20,000 pound ballot offered by the Sunday Shriek, and used it to found his immense catering business in the Midlands) was highly commended and unanimously elected after declaring frankly that beer and a pipe were all he really cared for in that way. As Lord Peter said again: “Nobody minds coarseness, but one must draw the line at cruelty.”

–Dorothy Sayers, “The Abominable History of the Man with Copper Fingers”

Now that’s hide-bound. It’s tasteful and restrained. It’s conservative. If nothing else, it shows a proper respect for an 1863 port.

P.S. Fun reading, when you have the time: The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics, by Christopher Lasch.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Dumb and Dumberer: The Beatification of Ayn Rand

“Oh, those poor people!”

“Somebody didn’t get out of that in one piece.”

I had just caught the last 45 minutes of the film adaptation of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, starring Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal. It wasn’t so much of a movie as it was a community theater production of a 19-year old philosophy major’s “magnum opus.” That’s unfair . . . Cooper and Neal are fine actors, and did justice to the material. The stoicism of the persecuted hero. The visionary whose creative act is its own end. The 20th-century narcissistic obsession with technology and the conquest of nature. The unmistakably phallic architectural symbolism. The speeches – oh, the interminable speeches of the beleaguered hero, reviled by the parasitic masses and the bureaucrats who control them. The juvenile, self-pitying fantasy of the misunderstood artist persecuted by all but the elect few, who cast themselves at the feet of creative genius. Miss Rand may have escaped communist oppression, but she certainly managed to create her own Soviet aesthetic on this side of the Bering Strait.

For the life of me, I cannot understand the conservative obsession with Ayn Rand . . . certainly not the embarrassed apologetic offered by the Catholic element of the conservative movement. I suppose it can only be explained by the belief that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Are today’s Catholic conservatives so ill-equipped to deal with relativism and state collectivism that they actually think Rand offers some meaningful foundation and bulwark for our world view? Doesn’t anyone read Aristotle and St. Thomas any longer? Anybody heard of that guy, Leo XIII? Pius X? Ringing any bells, anyone? Have we become so hostile to the intellectual life, our standards so debased, that Ayn Rand actually represents our new moral and philosophical high ground?

What ever happened to the conservativism of only fifty years ago? Whittaker Chambers, writing for the National Review, published what has to be one of the most brilliant critiques of Atlas Shrugged.

Flannery O’Connor wrote to a friend that "The fiction of Ayn Rand is as low as you can get re fiction. I hope you picked it up off the floor of the subway and threw it in the nearest garbage pail. She makes Mickey Spillane look like Dostoevsky."

So now because she has the endorsement of Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, she’s suddenly OK? Her support of the Barry Goldwater campaign gives her Catholic street cred?

Rand’s atheistic worldview, in which the dollar sign replaces the cross, and the expression and fulfillment of the Creative Class becomes the ultimate teleological framework, is so closely allied to Marxism and the errors of modernism that I’m incapable of distinguishing them, philosophically. Whether the object be “the common good” or the good of John Galt, all of the assumptions (at least the important ones) seem to me to be the same. She may appeal to some common social good, but only in her moments of inconsistency (which are constant), and only as an accidental result of the creative acts of the hero class, rather than their intended object and purpose.

The only explanation I have to offer for the infatuation that conservative Catholics seem to have with Ayn Rand, the only explanation for a movement that, by its own stated purpose is committed to the return of godliness and Christianity to the public forum, and is now singing the praises of an adulteress, modernist, and neo-pagan, is that we are the product of the education system we love to hate. We are so stupid, so illiterate, so much a product of the moment, that we are incapable of formulating a cogent response to left-wing secular Statism, and trip after Ms. Rand like rats after the pied piper. Pathetic.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Buy High, Sell Low: Gold and the Efficient Market Hypothesis

So I’m going to go on record, and place conservatives’ gold fetish squarely in the Pantheon of Kookery (effectively squaring the circle). Gold spot price today . . . $1256/oz. Let’s check back in a year and see how this all plays out.

The Acolytes of Aurum are a diverse group. There are the Harbingers of Doom: Cassandras who foresee (or desire?) a complete collapse of world currencies. These people aren’t buying gold futures – they actually want bullion. These are the “get your guns and gather the women and children” crowd, and most of them are listening to Glenn Beck. Or maybe they don’t actually believe in utter catastrophic ruin. Maybe they just disagree with the Administration’s pro-deficit policies, and buying gold is a way to register their intense dissatisfaction with said policies. Personal investment as a form of political protest. Now that’s putting your money where your mouth is.

Then there are the Austrian Dogmatists (e.g. Lew Rockwell), who harbor a deep-seated, lasting hostility for “fiat currency.” They have always believed that control of the unit of exchange by the Treasury poses an irresistible temptation – the monetary equivalent of the fox guarding the hen house. Whatever the merits of their case in principle, with the Administration bandying words like “Trillion” in relation to the fiscal deficit, and Biden reassuring the left-wing faithful that “we can do something really big” probably means the case in fact warrants some serious consideration. But to be clear, the case under consideration is a case for restraining the Treasury (reverting to a gold standard being one popular proposal) - not a case for investing in gold. In the minds of some, the gold conversation has become so dominant that they fail to maintain this distinction. "Monetary expansion bad. Gold good. Buy gold."

Lastly, there are the Arbitrage Cynics. They’re not betting on the basis of fundamentals. This is not T. Boone Pickins’ argument about BRIC development and long-term demand driving oil above $100/barrel. It’s not even a bet about the consequences of fiscal policy and debt. It’s a bet about people’s perception of these things, and the flight to gold for security. It’s about anticipated moves in the market, not about the relative worth of the assets in consideration. This group essentially admits that there’s an anomaly in the market, and they intend to exploit that anomaly.

You’ve got to at least admire the raw guts and audacity of this position.

“I absolutely believe it’s heading into a bubble, but that’s why you buy it,” said Charles Morris, who manages $2.5 billion at HSBC Global Asset Management’s Absolute Return Fund in London.

Basically, Mr. Morris is admitting it’s a game of musical chairs, but he intends to get out before the music stops. Hope you can, too.

Who knows? Maybe some of these people are right. Maybe all of them are right. But the thing they share in common (and it’s remarkable to see George Soros and Glenn Beck in such amicable agreement) – the thing that you would especially not expect to see from advocates of the free market, is that all of these people are betting against the efficient market hypothesis. I guess, in a way, any attempt to time moves for individual securities is a bet against market efficiency, but I mean something more particular than that.

The efficient market hypothesis postulates that the crowd effectively assimilates available information to determine a market-clearing price; an optimal price that induces the most sellers into the market to meet the demand of the most buyers. The price in the market reflects whatever information is available, more or less. In this sense, there is something refreshingly Aristotelian about the efficient market hypothesis. It recognizes a kind of wisdom in common experience and interaction, and uses this as a beginning point. This doesn’t mean that every price is always “right.” There is still plenty of room for “asset bubbles,” and human greed will always inspire the hope that there is a sucker out there who will overpay. But that is the basis for asset bubbles: a hope in the stupidity of the other guy, and therefore a hope in the temporary suspension in the rules of an efficient market.

The Harbingers of Doom aren’t really betting on a probable run-up in the price of gold in the case of catastrophic economic collapse. If their vision comes to fruition, ammunition, livestock, firewood, and a vegetable garden are probably more prudent investments. Shiny yellow metal won’t keep you warm at night.

The Austrian Dogmatists aren’t betting on 30-year Treasury yields. If they were, they would just take a short position or buy another currency. Their concerns might be based on macro-economic fundamentals, but there’s nothing fundamentally valuable about gold, except its performance as an efficient conductor of electricity. It’s malleable, has a known molecular weight, doesn’t oxidize, and is a solid at room temperature. So what? The bet, here, is not that it should run up with increased risk of inflation, but that the insecurity and fear of others will drive it up. It’s a bet on panic, not on intrinsic value.

At least the Arbitrage Cynics have the most intellectually honest (although the most morally perverse) position. With a shrug of their shoulders, they say, “eh . . . lemmings. What can you do?” Might as well make a quick buck if everyone is going to be stupid, right?

Any time the driver of an asset price is a bet on the stupidity of the other guy (whether it’s paying an exorbitant price for a home or an ounce of gold), that seems, to me, a risky proposition, not a safe one. I am not going to bet that the market will be able to continue on the basis of irrational greed and fear. True Conservatives should know better . . . and Catholics should behave better.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Decisively Noncommittal

There are two phrases that economists use (frequently) that pundits, activists, and politicians just hate: “it depends,” and “all other things held equal.” As it turns out, whether something is true or false absolutely depends on these two relativistic phrases. I understand that they do not create ideal conditions for political frenzy, and that they do create the unpleasant necessity of actually studying the issue, instead of just screaming about it, but that’s life. Deal with it.

Case in point: “quantitative easing” and inflation. Conservatives seem to have reached the shrill pitch of a dog whistle over the Federal Funds rate and current monetary policy. The consensus orthodox Tea Party position seems to be that: 1) abnormally low interest rates created conditions of low returns, forcing lenders to make riskier loans, and 2) increases in money supply driven by the Treasury will cause inflation to spiral out of control. These arguments are driven by simple macro-economic heuristics that may or may not hold true, depending upon circumstances. What people don’t seem to be willing to do, either because it doesn’t serve their political purposes or just because they have no idea what they’re talking about, is to actually look at the data and question the assumptions which underlie their arguments. You might, if you actually cared to know the truth, ask the following sets of questions:

  1. . Does the Fed actually control commercial interest rates? What’s the relationship between the Federal Funds rate and the prime rate? If they move together, what explains the difference? Is it random? What market factors drive that difference? You might, having asked these questions, be in a better position to test the hypothesis (or unreasoned assertion) that Fed policy led to risky lending. Just sayin’.
  2. If money supply is increased, what is the prevailing tendency on inflation? What happens to Treasury yields for long-term notes? Are these tendencies currently being observed? If not, what other factors could influence Treasury bond yields? What happens when we take into consideration GDP growth and employment? What if we look at sentiment about other currencies and foreign sovereign debt?

Yes, Wally, you do actually have to ask these questions, and they really do matter. They matter enough to make something true or false, and not just the little insignificant somethings, either. I’m not arguing that these positions have no merit – I’m just arguing that they need to be argued. Start with the data. As some of you may have noticed, I created a WolframAlpha widget and added it to Contrendium. No commercial interest, but you should go check them out.

Create your own queries and widgets – you will be amazed by how much cool data they have. At least play with MacSanitizer (my widget). Want to test that thesis about money supply and inflation? Go for it. The Federal Funds rate and the prime rate? Have a ball. Cumulative Federal debt and Treasury yields? Knock yourselves out. People can make any argument they wish, but to quote Deming, “In God we trust . . . all others must bring data.”

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Contracepting Conservatives

I’m sorry, guys, but you’re not getting it both ways on this one. Unless there’s a clear Constitutional basis for excluding homosexuals from the benefits of marriage (I am not, of course, discussing the sacrament of marriage – only the social entitlements of the state’s recognition of some sort of unique and prolonged state of unity, whatever you may wish to call it), then the argument must be that marriage between man and woman brings some unique benefit to the state, and therefore deserves social protection and patronage. And, if this is the contention, then it must be made on the basis of Natural Law.

Conservatives love Natural Law. We abhor the notion that law may simply be posited on the caprice of the judiciary. We believe that the world is structured in such a way that careful observation and the application of reason allows us to discern a right way of living, and that this transcends the vicissitudes of fashion and culture. For this reason, there is not just “law,” but “good laws” and “bad laws.” Laws are good insofar as they express the natural order of things, and God’s intention for how we live our lives, individually and communally.

And so if we are to contend that marriage between man and wife is a relation that contributes uniquely to the social good, we ought to be able to identify a specific difference – some aspect through which this relationship is different from all others. The specific difference does not wholly express that relationship, but it is that through which we differentiate one kind of thing from another. Thus, we say the specific difference of man, through which he is differentiated from beasts, is rationality. I don’t mean that I think he is just rationality – but it is the part of man’s “whatness” that I can put my finger on that allows me to see that my children and my pets are, indeed, very different kinds of beings. At least on their better days (my children’s, that is).

Although there are many kinds of intimate and loving relationships, there is one unique to that between man and wife, and that thing which makes it unique is the begetting and rearing of children. Just like “rationality,” I do not think this difference sums up the entirety of the married state, but it is the thing which is different about this love than the love between parent and child or the love between dear friends, or any other human relationship. This relationship is not unique in the state by some random assertion. Deep down to its very roots, it is unique.

When we say that somehow technology has liberated us from the natural constraints of marriage, what we are really saying is that it has liberated us right out of what marriage is. A thing is always defined by its limits. You might want to see how far those limits extend, but you can find yourself going to a point where you have left the thing behind, altogether. In this conquest of technology over nature, and the reorientation or reduction of the conjugal act towards pleasure (or I will even grant “intimacy”), we have lost an appeal to the unique difference in the relation between man and wife to other unions and relationships that fulfill a variety of human needs and appetites. Why, indeed, should this new order of marriage between man and wife be considered as fundamentally different from these other relationships? And if we are to afford this relationship special privileges and benefits, on what basis are we to argue that this differentiation is rational or just? It makes sense for an insurer, for instance, to deny coverage of obstetrical care for men, the basis of this discrimination being the unavoidable fact that men don’t have a uterus. That natural and undeniable fact is the reason we consider this to be common sense, and not really discrimination. It’s not a question of rights, or of justice. It just is.

I am not arguing that there is absolutely no differentiation between homosexual relations and marriage where contraception is a given. I’m just arguing that when we accept contraception, we have given up the single most important basis for differentiation in human relations. The conservative position on marriage will inevitably fall, unless conservatives return to the traditional teachings of the Church. It may take time for homosexuality to become an accepted social norm, but it will happen. When it does, any abstract theoretical distinctions will prove to be an inadequate platform for legal distinctions. Marriage, as we know it, will become a meaningless term.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Your Socialist is Showing

“Bless me Father, for I have sinned. I confess to having deliberately committed the sin of Roosevelt.”

It’s a well-known fact that a basic litmus test for authentic conservativism is an undying devotion to supply-side Reaganomics. And it is also a well-known fact that all conservatives are required, by law, to abhor Keynesian economics (although most of us don’t know much about what Keynes actually said, he makes an effective dogmatic foil – like “Valdimort”). At least as a very simplified model, Keynesian economists focus first on the problem of solving demand, which means full employment and high wages to drive consumption. They believe that the government can and should use the monetary and fiscal instruments at its disposal to increase the “circulation rate” of money in the economy. In other words, they can take money from the market to give to an intern at the Treasury who will subsequently come up with some hare-brained scheme for how to put it back out into the market in a way that will have greater stimulative effects than had it just been left there, in the first place. We conservatives are having none of it.

So if that’s the case (and it is), why all the wailing and gnashing of teeth about the wage effects of illegal immigration? What red-blooded conservative American cares? Apparently, the theory of anti-immigration conservatives is that, by increasing wages at the bottom of the ladder through decreasing labor supply, we will usher in an economic revitalization based on lottery tickets, pink plastic flamingos, and “I’m With Stupid” t-shirts. An interesting theory, but not one typically identified with pro-business conservative economic principles.

Most economists agree that lower labor costs redistribute wealth to capitalists, which is reinvested, as they would say, “more productively,” generating more jobs and more wealth for the country, as a whole. Or rather, I should say that it’s possible that they will reinvest this money. It’s also possible they will just pick up an extra mistress or two, or upgrade to the yacht with the helipad, or maybe build a secret lair inside of a dormant volcano on a tropical island. But I digress.

This wealth redistribution, of course, will be a difficult thing for those on the lowest rung of the wage ladder, but our response, as card-carrying free-market capitalists, should be a comforting pat on the hand while we patiently explain that it’s really in their best interest that they make less money.

“For your penance, you are to watch Knute Rockne, All American, and double the Christmas bonus for your maid, nanny, and gardener.”

Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Concerned Citizens Brigade

“I’m just so afraid that, with the direction this country is headed, people aren’t going to take it anymore. Our country is headed for total chaos, and there will be bloodshed if something doesn’t change.” My friend was explaining to me why he was stockpiling ammunition in his basement, in preparation for the coming revolution. He didn’t seem to think this would be a bad thing.

I’ve noticed that my fellow conservatives seem to be greatly preoccupied with this apparently inevitable contingency. I think it’s kind of an interesting perspective. It’s morally neutral and legally convenient – they’re not actually advocating, at least explicitly, armed revolt. They’re just worrying about its imminent arrival. Just innocent bystanders, you understand. This seemingly objective observation regarding a future contingency, however, contains an implicit argument, which goes something like this:

  1. I would not be preparing for social implosion if there weren’t an imminent threat of revolution. I’m preparing for social implosion. Therefore, there’s an imminent threat of revolution.
  2. There would not be an imminent threat of revolution unless citizens had justifiable cause. There is an imminent threat of revolution (as demonstrated above). Therefore, citizens must have a justifiable cause for such action.

It’s a great argument, because it doesn’t really require any proof that such events are inevitable (or even probable), that the actions of the agent are reasonable or proportional to the circumstances, or that there is any basis for this righteous wrath of the populace. Kind of convenient, don’t you think? “I would not be wearing a towel on my head if I weren’t about to be abducted by aliens. I am wearing a towel on my head. Therefore I’m about to be abducted by aliens.” I suppose that if you can get enough people standing around fretting about what others are about to do, then this sort of becomes its own argument that something is about to happen, and maybe there’s a reason for it. Lunacy finds strength in numbers.

And this is the real purpose of the supposedly objective sentiments of concern, isn’t it? To draw attention to the intense dissatisfaction of others, and the severity of our circumstances, which, apparently, leave almost no option but armed revolt. There’s no objectivity about it. I wouldn’t mind if my fellow conservatives just came out and said, “We disagree with the policies of our government, so we intend to vote other representatives into office.” Fine, that’s an honest statement, and one with which I heartily agree. But these backhanded threats against our democratic institutions – that’s what I find really offensive. I’m not sure who should scare me more – the tyrannical government that is taking away our liberties, or the patriots who intend to win them back.

I could reason with my friend – encourage him to articulate his beliefs in a compelling manner, to gain the support of his fellow citizens, and to elect officials who will govern wisely and well. I’m just afraid, however, that someone will get fed up with his blustering, threats, and temper tantrums, and pop him a juicy one right on the end of his nose. Some people can only take so much.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Welcome to contrendium

It could be said that conservativism, rightly considered, and Catholicism are one and the same. Especially on foundational moral values, such as the restriction of marriage to man and wife, sexual morals, the ordination of women, and abortion (all related to the theology of the body, I now realize), there are really no legitimate moral options. There is one position – the Church’s position. She has spoken definitively on these matters, and there is no room for debate or dissent. In these matters, the conservative position is the Catholic position.

Beyond these essential moral precepts, upon which Catholics and conservatives almost universally agree, there are also prevailing trends of thought and sentiment which ebb and flow as dictated by current events and circumstance. These matters are sometimes merely preferential, sometimes perceived as proximate to essential moral principles, and are often related to the virtues of prudence and justice; those habits which are a kind of wisdom pertaining to the sphere of action.

Contrendium is my “compendium of contradiction” regarding opinions on matters of this sort: contradiction between my actions and beliefs, contradictions between different facets of my beliefs, contradictions between myself and my fellow conservative Catholics, contradictions that I perceive in their various positions, and contradictions between all of these and a life and polity that is authentically Catholic. It represents an ongoing interior reflection about the practical application of my beliefs in daily affairs as a Catholic, a husband, a father, an American, and a businessman.

I welcome your comments. Please keep in mind that I don’t mean to be deliberately offensive in my remarks. I’m often playing the role of Devil’s Advocate, sometimes exaggerating for effect, and usually looking at the questions from various angles while I try to work it out for myself. Any harsh treatment for ideas you might hold is not indicative of contempt, but an attempt to put the idea through its paces. We all have different ways of clarifying our own thoughts. Mine is a meandering and rough path – that’s what Contrendium is all about.