Archive for August, 2010

Meltdown: Moral Hazard and the Financial Crisis

Meltdown by Thomas E. Woods, Jr.We are all aware of the current economic crisis. Whether we’ve experienced job loss, a devalued mortgage, or simply a higher price tag on our groceries, we all know that uncertainty is in the air.

In such extreme circumstances, it’s hard to maintain a clear perception. We all feel wronged, and we all want someone to blame.

It may be fitting, then, to begin by playing a little blame game.

First of all, it’s the bankers’ fault because they’re greedy. They lent too much money to people who made too little, and they should’ve been stopped. Then again, maybe it’s their customers’ fault. After all, isn’t it a bit greedy to buy a house you can’t afford? But wait a minute, aren’t the financial speculators to blame? Just think about it. There they were, crouching like vultures, waiting to feed on the failures of poor innocents.

Conclusion? (Duh!)

“The problem is greed.” says Politician A (or Media Pundit B). “And we all know who we can thank for that. Capitalism!

It this confused, muddled mess that Thomas E. Woods hopes to permeate with his recent book, Meltdown: A Free-Market Look at Why the Stock Market Collapsed, the Economy Tanked, and Government Bailouts Will Make Things Worse (quite a laborious subtitle, if you ask me).

As far as my fun little game goes, Woods thinks there is plenty of truth behind it. Indeed, the narrative is filled with people who were overly hasty, downright foolish, and yes, excessively greedy.

But not all bankers loaned unwisely and not all homeowners went beyond their means, so why did such greed manifest so suddenly, and why didn’t we have this problem before? If bankers are Read the rest of this entry »

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

3 Comments

The Age of Adolescence: Peter Pan Syndrome in a Free Society

Video games - adolescenseI’m about one week late to the Web frenzy surrounding The New York Times Magazine’s most recent piece on “emerging adulthood.” I had a variety of reactions to the article (both positive and negative), but I wasn’t interested in saying much until I read Mark Driscoll’s provocative article in The Washington Post (“The world is filled with boys who can shave”).

The Times piece focuses on today’s ”emerging adults” and tries to answer why so many are taking so long to reach adulthood. Driscoll seems to accept most of the article’s root analysis, but he uses it more as a launching pad for his own discussion of adolescence as it relates to today’s young men.

As Driscoll explains:

Historically, a guy would go through two life phases: boy, then man…But here’s what’s happened. Rather than moving from boy to man by this succession of sociological transitions, we’ve created something called adolescence…

Today, adolescence starts somewhere in the teen years and continues indefinitely. There is no foreseeable end. The problem with adolescence is guys don’t know when they’re ever going to grow up and be men, and no pressure is exerted on them to do so.

Driscoll goes on to label this trend a “Peter Pan Syndrome epidemic” in which “men want to be boys forever.”

For me, as a twenty-something who has (hopefully) completed the transition through modern-day adolescence, it’s hard to deny the reality of what Driscoll is describing. It was always difficult to identify the exact time I was supposed to Read the rest of this entry »

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

10 Comments

Business as Philanthropy: Gates, Buffett, and Transformative Change

Bill GatesBill Gates and Warren Buffett recently pledged to join 40 of America’s wealthiest people in donating at least half of their riches to charity. For Gates and Buffett alone, such a pledge will translate into at least $115 billion in charity.

This sounds wonderful on the surface, but philanthropist Kimberly O. Dennis is a bit skeptical. In last week’s Wall Street Journal, Dennis argued that “the wealthy may help humanity more as businessmen and women than as philanthropists.”

As Dennis explains:

What are the chances, after all, that the two forces behind the Giving Pledge will contribute anywhere near as much to the betterment of society through their charity as they have through their business pursuits? In building Microsoft, Bill Gates changed the way the world creates and shares knowledge. Warren Buffett’s investments have birthed and grown innumerable profitable enterprises, making capital markets work more efficiently and enriching many in the process.

In the end, Dennis’ criticism seems to serve as a simple reminder of which approach is most promising when it comes to bringing about transformative change.

While businesses may do more for the public good than they’re given credit for, philanthropies may do less. Think about it for a moment: Can you point to a single charitable accomplishment that has been as transformative as, say, the cell phone or the birth-control pill?

On this last question there is bound to be disagreement, particularly because we all view value differently. For one person the birth control pill is extremely important. For another, feeding one hungry mouth is Read the rest of this entry »

, , , , , , , , , , , ,

12 Comments

Up from Feudalism: Cultivating Culture in the Status-Free Zone

Feudalism

When status competition was limited, people were more likely to turn to status-free zones.

Michael Knox Beran has a hearty piece in this month’s National Review discussing the cultural implications of status competition (“Status Hiatus”). In the article, Beran discusses the evolution of such competition throughout human history, focusing primarily on the West.

Beran explains that in the feudalistic societies of old, status was organized through “state-enforced hierarchies” of one kind or another, whereas in today’s free(r) societies there is a great deal of status competition.

However, despite the advances we’ve made in making status mobility more universal, Beran sees a fundamental problem that will always exist:

The difficulty is that every tremor of satisfaction we feel when we look down (upon those who are lower than we are in a particular hierarchy) is counterbalanced by the pain we feel when we look up (to those who are higher). The farther one climbs, the more vexing the problem becomes.

There are two basic approaches to “managing” status, both of which present their own problems. First, we can make status primarily about merit (which we have done in America), but by doing so we will risk the marginalization of society’s lower-skilled members. Second, we can try to destroy all hierarchies by force (via government “equalization”), but this route will surely lead us backwards toward feudalistic containment (not to mention the resulting miseries).

To solve the problem, Beran tries to determine which approach leads to more human flourishing. Based on the historical record, Beran concludes that as silly as our status pursuits may be, they do indeed lead us to Read the rest of this entry »

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

2 Comments

John Piper on Justification: Confusing the Fruit with the Root

Desiring God recently posted a great video in which John Piper discusses justification, and more specifically, how Christians commonly confuse being counted as righteous with becoming behavioral in our righteousness.

Watch the video here:

Piper’s fundamental concern is that Christians often root their righteousness in holiness (i.e., good works) and thus they undermine the transformative power available through justification, which should be the starting point for any positive action.

As Piper says:

The only instrument by which I am made a participant in Christ’s righteousness is God’s acting through my faith. I am born into that relationship through faith alone, not through any of its fruits, like mercy and justice and love and patience and kindness and meekness and so on, which turn me into a useful person in the world.

But why does it “undermine” justification to bring holiness down to Read the rest of this entry »

, , , , , , , , , , , ,

5 Comments

Life After Death: The (Secular) Evidence

Life After Death: The Evidence by Dinesh D'SouzaLet’s imagine that an atheist asks a Christian to prove the existence of God. Most Christians would typically respond by pointing to some kind of personal experience or encounter. If the atheist is especially lucky, the Christian may be able to talk about a few fulfilled prophecies or relatively unknown archeological artifacts.

However, if the atheist presses any further on the matter, most Christians would readily throw up their hands and concede with this refrain:

“I just know, ok? I know it doesn’t all add up, but I can just feel that it’s true deep down inside. That’s enough to convince me.”

Don’t get me wrong. Personal experience is important — as are fulfilled prophecies and archeological artifacts — but the problem with arguing on these premises is that such matters seem utterly silly and unconvincing to your average nonbeliever. Unfortunately, the Church is fond of gathering evidence only so far as their own needs and curiosities require.

It is this type of Christian apologetics that Dinesh D’Souza hopes to enrich in his new book, Life After Death: The Evidence.

Although most of D’Souza’s analysis is focused on proving the existence of an afterlife rather than simply the existence of God, many of his arguments could be used to support both propositions. What is clear, however, is that D’Souza’s apologetics are far from the Christian norm.

“We speak one kind of language in church,” D’Souza says, “and must learn to speak another while making our case in secular culture.”

But what kind of “language” is that?

D’Souza continues:

I want to engage atheism and reductive materialism on their own terms, and to beat them at their own game…I am not going to appeal to divine intervention or miracles, because I am making a secular argument in a secular culture…[Secularists] wonder if there is something more beyond death, and they are eager to hear an argument that meets them where they are, uses facts they can verify, and doesn’t already presume the conclusion it seeks to establish.

This is what separates D’Souza’s arguments from the rest. He approaches the likes of Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Richard Dawkins not with Bible verses or creationist appeals to God, but with Read the rest of this entry »

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

5 Comments

Culinary Luddites: The Historical Distortions of 21st-Century Food Faith

Hot dogs

For many culinary Luddites, hot dogs are the ultimate blasphemy.

Rachel Laudan has a great post over at Utne Reader called “In Praise of Fast Food,” which is actually an excerpt from the book The Gastronomica Reader. I came across the article via Nick Schulz over at the Enterprise Blog.

In the article, Laudan criticizes what she calls “culinary Luddism” — a creative spin on the term used to describe anti-industrialists in 19th-century Britain.

Where the original Luddites had an irrational fear of free trade and technological advancement, the new “culinary Luddites” have an irrational fear of processed and preserved foods.

As Laudan explains:

Modern, fast, processed food is a disaster. That, at least, is the message conveyed by newspapers and magazines, on television programs, and in cookbooks. It is a mark of sophistication to bemoan the steel roller mill and supermarket bread while yearning for stone-ground flour and brick ovens; to seek out heirloom apples while despising modern tomatoes; to be hostile to agronomists who develop high-yielding crops and to home economists who invent recipes for General Mills.

The strange part is that Laudan describes her culinary background as being rooted in the very principles of such anti-industrialization. Why then does she depart from her Luddite collegues?

Culinary Luddism has come to involve more than just taste, however; it has also presented itself as a moral and political crusade — and it is here that I begin to back off. The reason is not far to seek: because I am a historian.

Wait a minute. Isn’t “history” what this is all about? Aren’t we supposed to hearken back to the good old days when everyone knew how to Read the rest of this entry »

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

7 Comments

Milton Friedman on Greed: Where In the World Do You Find These Angels?

This classic Milton Friedman interview has now been seen by many on the Web, but since it deals with topics commonly discussed on this blog I thought I’d post it for your weekend enjoyment.

Watch the video here:




Donahue’s first question is this:

Did you ever have a moment of doubt about capitalism, and whether greed is a good idea to run on?

Friedman responds with this:

Is there some society you know that doesn’t run on greed? You think Russia doesn’t run on greed? You think China doesn’t run on greed? …The world runs on individuals pursuing their separate interests. The great achievements of civilization have not come from government bureaus.

Friedman goes on to point out a few of these achievements (e.g. Einstein’s theory of relativity, Henry Ford’s automobile), and emphasizes that Read the rest of this entry »

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

11 Comments

The Last Dregs of Christendom: Islam vs. Postmodernism

Twilight of Islam and Christianity

Douglas Wilson recently posted a great critique of a speech given by Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich on the threat of Islamic fundamentalism (read “The Last Dregs of Christendom”). The speech itself is well worth listening to, but Wilson directs his critique at one specific piece, namely Gingrich’s claim that our struggle with Islam is primarily about preserving “Western values.”

“So?” Wilson asks. “Who cares about that?”

Such indifference to Western values is bound to perplex a few readers. What about the Enlightenment? Scientific progress? Democracy? Capitalism? What do you mean, “so what”?

The West certainly has plenty to offer in the realm of societal order, economic efficiency, and overall justice — and these are fine things to preserve — but when we’re talking about a serious and persuasive religious ideology (i.e. a spiritual force), engaging a struggle in the name of Western values is a bit risky, if not futile.

As Wilson says:

Western values only have value if they are a coded way of referring to something else. And that something else cannot be another horizontal fact, like representative government, or womens’ rights, or anything like that. That just pushes the question back a step. Why should we prefer those? And if we say that Western values simply means “our values,” then why should those outrank “their values”? In the ebb and flow of Darwinian struggle, ours sometimes loses to theirs.

In other words:

“Western values” as an appeal works only if it is a coded references to Christendom, and that only works if Christ is still there. Anything else is Read the rest of this entry »

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

13 Comments

The New Science of Morality: A Secular Argument for Cultural Competition

Last week, I came across an interesting talk by psychologist Jonathan Haidt called “The New Science of Morality” (via Arnold Kling).

Haidt is well known for his research on the evolution of morality through cultural and political lenses (he has authored two books on the subject), and he provides a good introduction to his views in this discussion.

You can watch the video here:

If you’re not in the mood to watch all 28 minutes, Haidt’s basic view on cultural formation is this:

I just briefly want to say, I think it’s also crucial, as long as you’re going to be a nativist and say, “oh, you know, evolution, it’s innate,” you also have to be a constructivist. I’m all in favor of reductionism, as long as it’s paired with emergentism. You’ve got to be able to go down to the low level, but then also up to the level of institutions and cultural traditions and, you know, all kinds of local factors.

Unlike this blog, Haidt believes in biological evolution, and likewise he takes a purely secular approach to discussing cultural evolution. However, his perspective is well worth considering, particularly because his conclusion points to Read the rest of this entry »

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

3 Comments