In his latest column, David Brooks examines the limits of data and “objective knowledge” in guiding or directing our imaginations when it comes to solving social problems.
Using teenage pregnancy as an example, he notes that although it may be of some use to get a sense on the general drivers of certain phenomena, such information is, in the end, “insufficient for anyone seeking deep understanding”:
Unlike minnows, human beings don’t exist just as members of groups. We all know people whose lives are breathtakingly unpredictable: a Mormon leader who came out of the closet and became a gay dad; an investment banker who became a nun; a child with a wandering anthropologist mom who became president.
We all slip into the general patterns of psychology and sociology sometimes, but we aren’t captured by them. People live and get pregnant one by one, and each life and each pregnancy has its own unlikely story. To move the next rung up the ladder of understanding you have to dive into the tangle of individual lives. You have to enter the realm of fiction, biography and journalism.
For the solution, he points to Augustine:
[Augustine] came to believe that it take selfless love to truly know another person. Love is a form of knowing and being known. Affection motivates you to want to see everything about another. Empathy opens you up to absorb the good and the bad. Love impels you not just to observe, but to seek union — to think as another thinks and feel as another feels. (more…)
Elise Hilton speaks at San Chez Bistro in Grand Rapids, Michigan – April 8, 2014
On Tuesday evening, Acton Communications Specialist Elise Hilton led a great discussion on the topic of “The Real War On Women” at Acton On Tap, held at San Chez Bistro in Downtown Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Beginning in 2010, the phrase “War on Women” became common in political discussions in the United States. Primarily, it has been used by those on the left who believe that there is an orchestrated effort to keep birth control out of the hands of women, to make abortion illegal, and to place other restrictions on women and their health care.
Hilton contends that this is not the real “war on women,” and examines these issues in light of women’s health, along with other issues affecting girls and women, such as the erosion of our religious liberty, sexually objectifying women, human trafficking, gender-selective abortions and infanticide.
You can listen to the audio of Tuesday’s event via the audio player below.
As a progressive redistribution scheme it’s rather ingenious: It allows the government to take money from private individuals and businesses and give it to other businesses (i.e., college and universities), all while giving the impression of helping another group of private individuals (i.e., students who take indebt themselves by taking out college loans). Warren’s proposal is an brilliant blend of cronyism, special interest pandering, and “soak the rich” class envy – which is why it has a high likelihood of becoming law.
But if we look past the proposal we discovers something else that is fueling the student loan debt “crisis.” Whenever a nanny state solution like this is proposed, we should ask why the government is needed to serve as a governess. In this case, it appears the government is being asked to be a surrogate parent because of the failings of actual parents.
Why are working-class men falling behind? Economic, familial, and lifestyle factors all play a role. One of the main reasons less-educated men are losing economic opportunities, explains anthropologist Michael Jindra, is that they are gaining more ways to indulge in entertainment and leisure:
Dr. Leonard Sax’s Boys Adrift lists video games among the causes of boys’ school struggles, not because they drive boys to violence, but because they create a need for stimulation, crowd out reading, and lessen boys’ focus in school and other activities. (Boys play console games, commonly used for sports and violent games, at four times the rate of girls.) Rates of ADHD have skyrocketed, and the causes of this are unclear, but overstimulation may play a role. These patterns can also lead later in life to heavy television viewing, often of sports (witness the domination ESPN has over the male gaze), and heavy online activity, such as viewing porn.
[. . .]
All of these things mentioned above—early reliance on stimulating entertainment, lower educational attainment, disconnection from families and role models, and the attractions of different, “edgy” subcultures—contribute to a widening gulf between those more connected to family, work, and society, and those without these commitments. While men are losing connections, women continue to participate in the labor force, attend religious services more often, and belong to other community and civic organizations. This is partly because many have dependent children and need to support them, whereas men can to a large extent avoid this responsibility.
For one thing, they show that crises are not limited to one feature of our lives and there are important spillover causes and effects across social spaces. So financial crises have impacts on the home, and vice versa. Or as I wrote last year, “Healthy and vibrant economies promote the flourishing of healthy and vibrant families. But the reverse is also true. The vitality of each social institution is linked with the welfare of others, and the microeconomic effects felt by families necessarily have macroeconomic implications.”
The family is in significant ways the vanguard of civilization, and as family life is threatened so too are all of the other civilizational institutions. As Elias Boudinot put it, “Good government generally begins in the family, and if the moral character of a people degenerates, their political character must soon follow.”
So what about social reformation and renewal? There’s no better place to start then your own family and no better time to start than right now. As Hunter Baker observed:
The first moves are the most immediate. If you are a child, be a respectful child who wants to learn and grow. If you are an adult, take care of your parents as they age. If you are a husband or wife, stay committed to your spouse. Work on sustaining a stable and peaceful household in which all the members feel heard, cared for, and respected. If you are a parent, focus on loving your child’s other parent, providing financially and emotionally for the child, and encouraging the child in learning. If you are a grandparent, help young parents adjust to the newness of their role and encourage them in the hard work of taking care of children.
In this week’s commentary, I examine the dynamic of what might be understood to reflect Maslow’s hierarchy of needs as depicted in the Hunger Games (HT to Hunter Baker for his reference to Maslow). In general, “Maslow’s theory suggests that the most basic level of needs must be met before the individual will strongly desire (or focus motivation upon) the secondary or higher level needs.” Or more succinctly: bread first, then ethics. This dynamic is captured nicely in a brief dialogue in the film between Katniss and Peeta. Peeta expresses his frustration at their situation: “I just keep wishing I could think of a way to show them that they don’t own me. If I’m gonna die, I wanna still be me.”
To this Katniss responds bluntly: “I just can’t afford to think like that.” Survival first, then she can worry about making ethical stands or moral gestures. Bread first, then ethics.
In today’s piece, I conclude that “the pagan answer to the question of hope focuses on bread first, and only afterwards (and perhaps never) on spiritual or moral matters.” The situation is a bit more complex than this, however. What we should understand by “first” in this sense is not necessarily temporal, but rather a priority of purpose or significance.
There’s a certain element of truth to something like Maslow’s hierarchy, even if one might quibble with the details. As Bertolt Brecht famously put it, “Erst kommt das Fressen / Dann kommt die Moral,” or “First comes eating, then comes morality.” A church teaching that ignores the physical needs of people, or only on the life to come, is truncated and flawed. Scot McKnight’s recent book The King Jesus Gospel makes this point quite well.
Indeed, as the Puritan Richard Baxter observed,
If nature be not supported, men are not capable of other good. We pray for our daily bread before pardon and spiritual blessings, not as if we were better, but that nature is supposed before grace, and we cannot be Christians if we be not men; God hath so placed the soul in the body, that good or evil shall make its entrance by the bodily sense to the soul.
So seek first the kingdom of God and all these other things will be added as well. Do not allow for material goods to become a distraction, or even an idol, that steals attention away from our focus on “pardon and spiritual blessings.” But don’t let our focus on “spirituality” become otherworldly and disembodied.
The gospel is good news for the whole person, body and soul. What God has joined together, let no one tear asunder.
I wrote a bit about my short essay describing some of the principles and concepts at play concerning intergenerational ethics and economics. There are also important intergenerational cultural consequences following the Great Recession. A decade ago there was much concern about the rootlessness of current generations and the transience of the workforce. But that ability for workers to move quickly to new jobs in other cities and states has been undermined by the housing crash. Most anyone who bought a home in the last decade will not be moving anywhere anytime soon.
As Robert Bridges contends in a WSJ op-ed, “Coming generations need to realize that while houses are possessions and part of a good life, they are not always good investments on the road to financial independence.” The “ownership society” means something far different today than it did even a decade ago.
In her book How the West was Lost, Dambisa Moyo describes well some of the background leading up to the housing crash. One of the contributing factors was this cultural ideal of a “homeownership” society and resulting government policy to promote homeownership. She contends,
The direct consequence of the subsidized homeownership culture was the emergence of a society of leverage, one where citizen and country were mortgaged up to the hilt; promoting a way of life where people grew comfortable with the idea of living beyond one’s means.
She also judges that there are significant intergenerational implications:
Under the government guarantee system which propels the rapid appreciation of house prices, the only winners are those who can downsize (downgrade) their housing, or move to a different area, and buy a smaller (cheaper) place. Everyone else loses…. This ‘escalator’ effect continues until the time that the kids go to college. It’s a wealth transfer from the younger generation to the older generation as house prices become more expensive.
One of the effects of what Moyo calls “government guarantee system” is that resources (capital) was increasingly invested in homes that might have been invested in other, more productive, sectors.
An incisive piece by Roben Farzad explores why the aftereffects of the housing bubble are not likely to go away anytime soon. He quotes Doug Ramsey of Minneapolis investment firm Leuthold Group, “a student of asset bubbles,” who says, “The housing decline will be a long, multiyear process, and the multiplier effect across the economy will be enormous.”
Jonathan Smoke, head of research for Hanley Wood, a housing data company, argues, “We’ve gone through a period when we should have been tearing down houses. The supply of total housing stock is beyond what is necessary.”
The Roman philosopher Cicero once said to his son, “You are the only man of all men whom I would wish to surpass me in all things.” The form this sentiment takes collectively is a good summation of the universal hope for humankind. We want our children in particular, but also the next generation and the world more generally, to be better off than we are.
We want them to surpass us “in all things,” not simply in terms of material wealth, but also with respect to their development as whole human persons, body and soul.
Earlier this week I had the privilege of participating in a panel discussion hosted by Common Sense Concept at AEI on the current debt crisis facing America, focusing particularly on applying the concept of “intergenerational justice” to the problem. You can view the entire event at the AEI page. A highlight of my comments appears below:
One of the things we talked about during the discussion was the idea of “opportunity” and how it relates to intergenerational justice. Cicero’s sentiment assumes this idea: his son needs to have the opportunity to surpass him, to be better than him “in all things.”
I think of how this applies to the hopes and dreams of so many Americans, not particularly for themselves, but for their children. Consider the people you know or stories you’ve heard about parents who work extra shifts and second, sometimes third, jobs to put away money so that their child can have the opportunity they have never had: to go to college, to get a well-paying, rewarding, and fulfilling job, and to see flourishing on an intergenerational scale.
It reminds me of the film “The Pursuit of Happyness” that came out a few years ago. This is a story based on the real-life experiences of Chris Gardner. One of the takeaways from the film version is that so much of what drives Gardner to work harder, to never give up, to continually seek a better life, is that he is doing all this for his son. Lending the portrayal special poignancy, in the film Gardner and his son are played by Will Smith and his own son, Jaden.
A great deal of what we are talking about in this ongoing conversation about the public debt crisis and intergenerational justice centers on this idea of opportunity. Ryan Streeter mentioned it explicitly in our discussion, and Ron Sider’s explication of what the biblical picture of “economic justice” is like could be summed up as focusing on guaranteeing opportunity across generations. In his essay, “General Biblical Principles and the Relevance of Concrete Mosaic Law for the Social Question Today,” (appearing in the latest issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality) the theologian Herman Bavinck describes the Old Testament polity as one in which “the basic necessities for a life of human dignity were made possible for most Israelites.”
The fiscal reality today, however, is that we are rapidly facing a situation in which the coming generations will be constrained from having the opportunity to surpass us because of the profligacy of federal spending, the deleterious commitments to transfer wealth from younger and poorer workers to older and wealthier Americans, and the simply unsustainable levels of spending pursued for decades by politicians.
This is why in the key economic factor to consider in the debates about the ethics of intergenerational justice is that of opportunity cost. As David Henderson writes, the concept’s “virtue is to remind us that the cost of using a resource arises from the value of what it could be used for instead.”
The Social Security system is perhaps the most obvious example in this regard. It is the single largest piece of the federal budget ($695 billion in FY 2010), taking large sections of income out of the checks of working Americans every pay period, that could otherwise be put to a variety of other uses. Depending on the situation, some of these uses might be more immediate and temporary (like food and rent) and others might have longer-term implications (such as investment and savings).
When we ignore opportunity cost and its intergenerational implications, we are constricting the range of options available to current and future generations. We are, in fact, infringing on their rights to liberty and “the pursuit of happiness.”
I argue in “Christ’s kingdom is bigger than the federal government” that there is a basic confusion from many religious voices in the budget debate about the primary role of the federal government, and make the point that Abraham Kuyper’s “famous quotation attributes the claims of lordship over ‘every square inch’ of the world to Christ, not to the government. To miss this critical distinction is to undermine the very basis of Kuyper’s comprehensive and variegated social thought. For Kuyper, there are important differences among the responsibilities of the government, the church, the family, schools and a host of other social realities.”
I also refer to last month’s conversation with Gideon Strauss of the Center for Public Justice on “A Call for Intergenerational Justice” (audio here). Be sure to check out the event later this month where I’ll be a panelist to discuss these issues along with Strauss, Jennifer Marshall, Ron Sider, Jonathan Merritt, and Ryan Streeter, “I Hope I Die Before I Get Old,” hosted by the American Enterprise Institute (the event will be streamed online for those fortunate enough not to live in or near the Beltway).
It’s been awhile since I’ve done a summary post of this kind, but there’s been a fair number of things of interest over the last week or so that are worthy of a quick highlight. So here’s an edition of the aptly named “Five Things” (HT):
Carl Trueman reflects on his visit to the Acton Institute. Concerned about how his Republocrat credentials might come across, Trueman says, “Despite my fears that I might be heavily outgunned at Acton, the seminar actually turned out to be great fun. I had, after all, never before lectured in the back room of a pub, with a pint of Pale Ale in one hand and a notebook in the other. And I thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity of arguing that Mrs Thatcher, and not the trendy Left, was the real radical of the eighties and had actually done much to shatter the class ossification that had gripped Britain for generations.” You can listen to Trueman’s Acton on Tap visit here.
John H. Armstrong discusses his relationship with the Acton Institute. Fresh off a visit to Rome, where among other things he spoke at an event for Istituto Acton, our Rome office, John Armstrong writes of his first impressions of the institute: “I felt like I had wandered in from the cold. As I listened to Catholic and Protestant scholars explain the freedom of markets and governments, all rooted in virtue, I felt as if I was drinking from a fountain that I had been searching for over the course of my whole life. I was frankly tired of political partisanship as a way to change culture. I wanted to connect with people who saw a better way to make a real difference in society without overtly linking their vision and efforts to raw party politics. I also wanted a different paradigm for understanding principles of economic freedom that was not rooted in the modern ideas of socialism, captialism, etc.”
Napp Nazworth chides me for putting principle above prudence. After starting a blog to stop feeling “the need to be somewhat secretive with what I say about my religious and political views, particularly, in my easily found online writings,” Napp Nazworth opens with a series of posts on “A Call for Intergenerational Justice,” in which he writes, “The time for action on our federal budget crisis is now, and Congress can only accomplish this task by working in a bipartisan manner. Solutions to the crisis will be painful to many voters. Neither political party, therefore, will tackle the problem by itself because to do so would be disastrous for that party at the next election.”
Greg Forster has some questions about “A Call for Intergenerational Justice.” In his inaugural post at the First Things blog “First Thoughts,” Greg Forster wonders about “A Call for Intergenerational Justice,” asking, “Will democratic debate be well served if people who admit that they don’t know the difficult details behind the policymaking get up on a high horse and proclaim what the reform agenda must include – with the (barely) implicit suggestion that anyone who disagrees is an enemy of the public good – or of God?”
David Mills rebukes the “Evangelical Left” for coming late to the debt-denouncement party. Sticking with First Things for a “A Call for Intergenerational Justice” trifecta, in a piece “On the Square” today at First Things, David Mills notes the Acton Institute engagement of the Call, but contends in particular that the signers of the document, the “Evangelical Left” in his view, “are very late to the party, and they ought to apologize for being late before they start talking about it as if they’d helped plan it.”