Notice: This Blog is Moving!

Hi all,

Please note that as of Oct 7, 2012, this blog is being moved! Its new home is

Hope to see you there!



Who knew?

Lack of class in the upper class…

“What dismays is the utter lack of class in such businesses and businessmen here parading their skills in distortion. Michael Eisner appears twice in the table of the 25 largest compensation packages paid in a single year. In 1993 he took home $203 million. In 1998, $575.6 million.

“That money was taken, directly, from company shareholders. But the loss, viewed on a larger scale, is a loss to the community of people who believe in the capitalist free-market system. Because extortions of that size tell us, really, that the market system is not working — in respect of executive remuneration. What is going on is phony. It is shoddy, it is contemptible, and it is philosophically blasphemous.”

— William F. Buckley, in 2005

The Art of Cooperation.


The New York Times ran an article yesterday (with great photos, one of which is hearkened to on the left) about how some conservationists are learning to cooperate with ranchers in the effort to preserve wolf populations. Endangered wolves have been re-introduced to the Northern Rockies, where they become a costly, deadly nuisance to ranchers. They eat calves, and the ranchers say they dramatically reduce the weight of the cattle, who spend a less time eating, and more time scanning the surroundings for wolves.

In response, a “handful” of conservationists are investing time and money to help ranchers keep the wolves away from the ranches without killing them.

It shows a rare kind of cooperation that I consider to be the acme of approaches to complicated modern problems: The conservationists recognize that the wolves could go extinct, and they’re passionate about preventing it. It seems reasonable. The ranchers meanwhile want to make as much money as they can for their hard work, and of course they want to prevent the loss of their cattle. This also seems reasonable.

So what’s really exciting is the way the two sides are listening to each other–sometimes, anyway. The “handful” of conservationists recognize that the ranchers’ interest in their livelihoods is valid, and they are taking responsibility for upholding that interests alongside the interests of the wolves. On the flip side, it seems like at least some of the ranchers understand that extinction is bad, and they are willing to cooperate with the conservationists so long as the conservationists take a share of the responsibility for making it work.

The article makes clear that the process is neither simple nor easy. It is neither being resolved with pat answers nor with a single meeting at the bargaining table. Instead, it looks like it’s will be resolved through an on-going, frequently-adjusted, and labor-intensive process. To wit: it is going to be hard. But I think the result is likely going to be better than would have been had if nobody had done anything.

Isn’t that just what we must accept, and expect from life? That we will have things to do that are hard, but that they are worth doing because the result will be something better?

I really like it. I wish Congress worked this way.

Love’s Austere and Lonely Offices

Thinking about this today — not really by dint occupying such an office, and particularly not by dint of occupying one well…

Those Winter Sundays

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,

Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?

— Robert Hayden

The Dawn of the Robots

Source: NPR

“…[C]omputers still aren’t very good at many menial labor jobs like cleaning bathrooms and other janitorial work; we still need humans for that. So it turns out for many very low-skill jobs, there’s still demand. For high-skill and high-touch jobs like being a good manager at a company, a doctor, or a nurse, we need humans. But many middle-skill, middle class jobs are where we’re seeing the squeeze.”

— NPR,  “How Technology is Eliminating Higher-Skill Jobs”

Although the US GDP has returned to pre-recession levels, unemployment still remains about as high as it has been since the mortgage crisis began. Many companies have found ways to increase productivity with a smaller work force, and technology has a role in making it happen.

NPR seems to be developing a bit of a thread around this idea, and I think that’s a good thing. It’s a fascinating phenomenon that has the potential to influence modern life more and more powerfully, and — if it is pursued without careful consideration — perhaps not in the best ways.

The basic dynamic is simple. A new technology, from AI to articulated robots to TurboTax, makes it possible for more work to be done with fewer people, and so people are put out of work. This saves a company money, and that money tends to travel uphill.

Even critics of the pure free market would have to admit there’s something natural about the cycle, and free-market devotees would argue that there’s nothing wrong with it. Of course people are displaced by innovation, and of course they should be expected to reinvent themselves, in some small or large way, and dive back into the job market.

I taught an economics class a few years back in which we discussed this “creative destruction” of technology replacing human labor. The kids found it really depressing — even though I offered them the free-market argument that it was pretty natural. They weren’t convinced.

So to stir up the discussion, I asked them to imagine some dramatically pre-industrial tribe hunting and gathering on the savannah. Suppose those folk fell into possession of a bunch of robots; what then?

The kids agreed those folks would be tremendously liberated — until the robots started breaking down, that is (or until they became self-aware and started cooking schemes of Skynet and big, pink-bulbed battery towers.)

But for us, in the modern era?

The robots are worrisome for us, the kids said again.

It seems to me that the question of whether labor-saving technologies are a blessing or an irritant to the job market may boil down to a question about sharing. No matter how one navigates the details, the I think the core issue might really be pretty simple. There are wealthy people who could choose to share wealth with others, to the greater benefit of society, who don’t — and, in aggregate, when wealthy people in this day and age are the benefactors of creative destruction, and therefore faced with the choice of sharing or not sharing, they tend to choose the latter.

This, of course, is what fuels the “Occupy” movement, and — of course — it is an observation with some serious limitations. It is way too simplistic to effect policy change (as one hopes the “Occupiers” will learn). However, I don’t think it’s false, either; I think it’s apparent. So while it won’t effect change by itself, I do think it adequately calls for some.

#OWS: Goldman Sachs Posts First Loss Since Financial Crisis…

…and only the second loss since it went public in 1999, The New York Times reports.

source: The New York Times

“The misstep by the financial leader speaks to what could be a more lasting shift on Wall Street, which has been steadily retrenching over the last 12 months. While protesters a few blocks away were denouncing greed and “too big to fail” banks, the institutions themselves were coming to grips with the current diminished reality.”

“The Seeds of Sin Which Are in Them…”

I think it’s fascinating to follow the GOP debates. Romney, of course, is having trouble separating himself from the fact that he created “Obamacare” in Massachusetts, and Perry has voiced his support for in-state tuition for children of illegal immigrants. Quoth Perry, to much heat:

“[I]f you say that we should not educate children who come into our state for no other reason than they’ve been brought there by no fault of their own, I don’t think you have a heart.”

Not what people expect from the brand, for sure. It seems clear to me, though, that the pickle in which these top-tier GOP-ers find themselves is, at least in part, a direct result of the party’s habits in modern times. While politicians of all stripes will make selective and convenient use of facts, and will sometimes be caught in outright lies, I feel comfortable saying that some modern Republicans, amplified by Fox News and ancillary (and not-so-ancillary) pundits, have elevated manipulative, unreasonable tactics to a rare art, and at the expense of needed governance.

It’s pretty obvious to me, for example, that the GOP has fewer good ideas for saving the economy, or reforming health care, or building a sustainable energy plan than they have clever ways to make Obama look bad. (But perhaps, we’ve all become a bit numb to the egregiousness of the tactic as a result of its continual use.) Meanwhile the party has tended to demand a stringent kind of ideological purity, with the apparent justification that all the answers are known, and Republican, and that deviation from the party line not merely undesirable, but is actually sort of contamination begging serious intervention (including the new tonic, of booing).

All that can be very powerful — until you want to do something nuanced. As, it turns out, both Romney and Perry do — because, as it turns out, Truth is not purely Republican, the Democrats are not the Anti-Truth, and there is produce to be got from a vigorous dialectic between differing views. But Romney and Perry have to contend with the base their party has created, a group which has been trained to expect homogeny and also, after years of propaganda and manipulation, seems to have been filtered to a higher than average concentration of people deficient in critical thinking skills.

The backfire, and the irony, is that it’s exactly this rabble has been invited into the conversation, deliberately, by all the propaganda and manipulation. Seems to me that this is the lesson the GOP now stands to learn from its Tea Party faction in Congress, too. In fact, the Tea Party seems to be a way to reflect the GOP back to itself, to show the party what it’s been like for anyone who disagrees with them to try to work with them over the past decade or more.

I have to say find it darkly satisfying to finally see the long-standing habit of manipulation — which, in its recent extreme, I consider a clear moral wrong — can sow its own demise. Many of the problems that are keeping the GOP from identifying a single, shining champion are a direct result of the its own habitual bad choices.

Wadded for the usual…

“…[W]e do not expect people to be deeply moved by what is not usual. That element of tragedy which lies in the very fact of frequency, has not yet wrought itself into the coarse emotion of mankind; and perhaps our frames could hardly bear much of it. If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well-wadded with stupidity.”

George Eliot, Middlemarch

cf., Amy Winehouse (–not to eclipse the other, greater tragedy of the weekend).


Shared at Meeting for Worship today:

There are two kinds of meekness, false and true. False meekness is generated by dwelling on one’s faults. True meekness is generated by dwelling on the tremendousness of God’s love.