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I haven’t started Marvin Olasky’s new book yet, but here’s a bit from the abstract of a new NBER paper, “Rules Rather Than Discretion: Lessons from Hurricane Katrina,” by Howard Kunreuther and Mark Pauly. Speaking of property owners who suffer severe damage and don’t have the resources to rebuild:

To avoid these large and often uneven ex post expenditures, we consider the option of mandatory comprehensive private disaster insurance with risk based rates. It may be more efficient to have an ex ante public program to ensure coverage of catastrophic losses and to subsidize low income residents who cannot afford coverage rather than the current largely ex post public disaster relief program.

That solution doesn’t sound too promising to me, and it strikes me as a false dichotomy. Are the only two options government action before or after the fact?

Charles Colson, recipient of the 2006 Faith & Freedom Award

In case you haven’t heard, mark your calendars and save the date for the Acton Institute’s Annual Dinner on October 26, 2006 in Grand Rapids. You can register to attend online here.

Charles W. Colson will deliver remarks on the topic, “War of the Worlds,” describing the great clash of civilizations between Christianity with Islam on the one hand and with secular naturalism on the other.

Mr. Colson is also this year’s recipient of the Faith & Freedom Award, first established in 2000, which “recognizes an individual who exemplifies commitment to faith and freedom through outstanding leadership in civic, business, or religious life.” More information on the award is available here.

Blog author: jballor
Thursday, August 31, 2006

In the modern classic Tombstone, Wyatt Earp, played by Kurt Russell, asks Val Kilmer’s Doc Holliday why the sinister Johnny Ringo is so evil: “What makes a man like Ringo, Doc? What makes him do the things he does?”

Doc’s memorable answer is, “A man like Ringo has got a great big hole, right in the middle of himself. And he can never kill enough, or steal enough, or inflict enough pain to ever fill it.” This echoes, I think, the famous line about human beings addressed to God in Augustine’s Confessions, that “thou hast made us for thyself and restless is our heart until it comes to rest in thee.”

The popular rock band Aerosmith put it this way in their 1997 song, “Hole In My Soul”: “There’s a hole in my soul / That’s been killing me forever / It’s a place where a garden never grows.”

The Bible talks at great length about the quest for meaning apart from God. Indeed, the entire book of Ecclesiastes seems to be devoted to this topic. Some, as in the Aerosmith tune, attempt to fill the hole through romantic love. Others, like Johnny Ringo, seek to fill in the God-shaped hole through robbery, rape, and murder. Indeed, one of the most common substitutes for God is money, which is in part why Jesus warns us against this specific temptation.

The prophet Ezekiel describes the voracious appetite of the wicked foe: “He is as greedy as the grave / and like death is never satisfied.” But greed is not a vice simply of our foes or enemies; we are all tempted by this natively human sin.

It is greed, or “money envy,” I think which is in large part behind what many sociological studies are telling us about wealth and happiness. (In case you weren’t aware, the study of happiness, or “subjective well-being,” is a burgeoning academic field. See, for example, the Journal of Happiness Studies inaugurated in 2000.)

This article by finance columnist Laura Rowley, “Keeping Up with the Joneses Can Put You Behind,” (HT: Lifehacker via notes that “Andrew Oswald of England’s Warwick University and David Blanchflower of Dartmouth College found that even if our incomes are rising, we tend to become less happy if the incomes of others are increasing more.”

Other sociologists have argued that “in evaluating their own incomes, individuals compare themselves to their peers of the same age. Therefore a person’s reported level of happiness depends on how his or her income compares to others in the same age group.”

This natural tendency to compare our financial status to others is an expression of money envy, which also finds expression, at least in part, in the concern about income disparities. Oftentimes, it isn’t enough for us to be happy or satisfied with our standard of living, even if it has improved over time, if others are relatively better well-off. Check out this interview with Rob Moll, who says that in the process of working on his CT article on suburban spirituality, “it hit me how much we live our lives in relation to what others have.”

Rowley’s piece includes tips on how to avoid so-called “money envy,” such as the need to “figure out our purpose, identify what we love and value most, and make our money obey our values by setting specific financial goals. Because if we achieve the things we value most, we’ll be less riveted by what the neighbors are doing.”

Some of these practical tips should be quite helpful. But any long-term and comprehensive solution needs to recognize that the problem is, at root, spiritual. The solution therefore needs to be spiritual, and is, in short, captured in two words: mortification and vivification, or “dying to self” and “rising to Christ.”

Update: Check out Arnold Kling’s somewhat related post over at EconLog, “Envy, Happiness, and Social Policy.”

Passed on to me by a friend about a post last week:

If a thorium reactor, among other things “created no weapons-grade by-products,” and Iran wants nuclear reactors simply “to establish a complete nuclear fuel cycle to support a civilian energy program,” as it claims, perhaps we could set it up so that potentially dangerous regimes like Iran can use thorium and not uranium based nuclear reactors.

As Tim Dean highlights the possibility in the Cosmos article: “Imagine the West offering thorium-fuelled ADS reactors to countries such as Iran or North Korea: this would satisfy their demands for cheap nuclear power, but entirely avert the risk of the civil nuclear program leading to the development of nuclear weapons.”

Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Today’s WaPo has a story about Incident Commander, “a training simulator that gives players a lead role in managing crisis situations such as terrorist attacks and natural disasters.”

In “A Computer Game for Real-Life Crises: Disaster Simulator’s Maker Gives It to Municipal Emergency Departments,” Mike Musgrove writes about the video game software, which was used by an Illinois paradmedic just days before he was called into duty following Hurricane Katrina.

According to Musgrove, “Yesterday, on the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, game developer BreakAway Games Ltd. released the final version of Incident Commander free of charge to municipal emergency departments, part of an agreement with the Justice Department, which invested $350,000 in game development.” The game company itself devoted the remaining $1.5 million in money for the game’s development.

This is the latest installment of the trend toward the use of video games to increase skills in a variety of professions.

Blog author: jballor
Thursday, August 17, 2006

“Oh, the shark, babe, has such teeth, dear / And it shows them pearly white…
Ya know when that shark bites, with his teeth, babe / Scarlet billows start to spread…”

–Bobby Darin, “Mack the Knife,” 1959

He asked for it.

You may be familiar with the games for social change movement, which attempts to bring the power of video games to bear on social problems, such as hunger and war (for more, see a previous post here). Well, the latest commercial game from Majesco Entertainment, Jaws Unleashed, takes the stakes to a whole new level.

The plot is a familar cliche: big bad corporations are doing evil, and therefore must be punished. In this case, Environplus has come to Amity Island and is wreaking environmental havoc. This spurs Mother Earth into a fit of rage, and she releases her vengeance upon mankind in the form of Jaws.

As the game maker puts it, “the increased population around the Island and recent industrial activity has also attracted YOU–one of Earth’s most fearsome creatures–a Great White Shark.” Your task, in fitting misanthropic fashion, is to cleanse the island of the human interlopers, once and for all.

The review of the game on G4TV’s XPlay says that “when an evil corporation strolls into town and starts dumping chemicals into the sea, Jaws is unable to contain the raging Ralph Nader inside him.” You can see the rather disturbing video from the game in a review here.

It looks like Jaws is a really just an environmentalist wrapped in rows and rows of razor sharp teeth. Who knew?!

Blog author: jballor
Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Another round of stories are out about the possibility of creating a modern-day wooly mammoth, Jurassic Park-style.

The process would include injecting frozen wooly mammoth sperm into an egg of a closely related species. In this case, an elephant would be the logical choice.

And in case you were wondering what you would call such a thing, I’ve already explored the possibilities in a previous post on chimera nomenclature: it would be called a “mammophant,” with the full taxonomy being mammophantus snuffleupagus.