Tuesday, October 31, 2006

The Lowest of the Low

I have been talking about demographics for a long time, and see that it seems to be a topic of growing interest in the world. Why? Since at least 1970 all projections from the UN on future population growth have been too high, including projections of peak population. When I first wrote about demographics in 2004 the average global TFR was 2.78, in 2005 it was about 2.65, now it is no higher than 2.59. If the current rate of descent slows to half of what we have seen over the last 3 years (which, I might add, is unlikely – it will probably stay the same or even increase) then global TFR will hit 2.3 in 2010. This is an important number because the replacement birthrate for the developing world is 2.4, sort of a symbolic number. And, of course, at that rate the world’s average TFR will hit 2.0 – sub-replacement for everyone – by 2016.

I see comments online everywhere from Amazon book reviews to other blogs to my email account arguing “So what? With increases in food productions, efficiency, and automation if the population drops the world will be better off! Less pollution, everyone left will be well-off. Sounds great!” And I must admit, in the long run this might be the case. But that will be a very long-run scenario. In the meantime, there will be a severe shortage of everything from highly-skilled workers (the engineers and programmers needed to invent, design, create, deploy, and maintain all that automation the rosy scenario counts on) to unskilled labor (who keep things going until the automation is in place and, I hate to point out, have been, are, and always will be needed). A particular crisis will occur in the earliest years. This is because of ‘population momentum’ – the much larger previous generations that decided to have very few kids are getting old, now. They need doctors, nurses, pharmacists, gardeners, aides, etc. just to care for them. Just as importantly, in most developed nations they expect to enjoy pensions and social security benefits. Yet these programs are paid for by taxes on people working right now. Since the current generation is smaller than the retiree’s generation, they have to pay for their own livelihood and the benefits of retirees. This will become a serious issue in Japan and Europe in about, oh, now. Japan has had problems finding enough workers since the late 1980’s due to population decline, and the problem of not enough people for existing jobs is spreading. The EU and Japan are already in serious discussions about what they can do to reduce the social and economic impact of rapid population decline – and it is almost certainly too late. The only solutions they can see are to increase retirement age, increase public spending on geriatric research (who is going to pay the taxes for that?), use more elderly workers, and use more immigrants.

Which brings us to immigration. Not only various on-line commenters look to immigration as the magic bullet, but so do most think-tanks and UN groups. Unfortunately, the developing world doesn’t look like a magic bullet for the problem of decreasing population. Beyond the issues of political instability which I have covered before, there may not be enough immigrants! The largest population with sub-replacement fertility is not in Europe, it is in Asia, with a TFR of about 1.7 for China and 1.3 for South Korea, with the rest of the Asian Tigers also below replacement, giving East Asia an overall TFR of 1.5. China is aware of the potential impact of declining population and they recently discussed a plan to shift their economy from manufacturing to a service-based economy. Even India, which still has above-replacement fertility, has a rapidly-dropping TFR (from 5.4 in 1975 to 2.7 now to an estimated 2.1 overall by 2011, and continuing to drop after that).

In short, Asia will have a greater total need for manpower than Europe. Japan and Europe cannot look to Asia to solve their looming problem. Australia and Oceania have an aggregate TFR of 2.1, just barely replacement – and dropping. The TFR of South America as a whole is 2.4, which is just barely above replacement level for the developing world and, you guessed it – its dropping. So South America is out, too.

The only place in the world with large numbers of nations with above-replacement fertility is sub-Saharan Africa. Ignoring concerns about education and skills, forgetting any questions of cultural assimilation, politics, or racial strife, there still remains the same bugbear – the TFRs of sub-Saharan Africa are dropping, and dropping faster than anyone believed possible just 5 years ago. While the UN estimated that Kenya’s TFR was 6.2 in 1990, more accurate research shows that it was actually “only” 5.4. Much more of a shock to demographers, however, was the amazing TFR drop from about 5.2 in 1995 to less than 3.7 today; in other words, the nation once seen as ‘a population nightmare has experienced a drop in TFR of 60% in 15 years. This is an unforeseen drop in population growth that is spread throughout the region (although not quite so dramatic as Kenya in most cases). Overall, sub-Saharan Africa’s TFR has been dropping by 20% per decade and, researchers predict, will continue to do so for at least 20 more years.

The truly stunning thing about the 60% drop in fertility in Kenya, or the 60% drop in TFR in Tunisia, is that these two nations are poor. The majority of women in them are poor, and many are illiterate. These were seen as barriers to reducing TFRs; the campaigns against overpopulation that began in the 1960’s focused on education and wealth as the tools that ‘allowed’ women to have fewer children. The last 25 years, however, have shown that all of our theories on what keeps TFR high (high mortality rates, low life expectancy, illiteracy, poverty) are wrong, or at least no longer valid.

Because of the declines in births much of the attempts to generate new demographic theories are focused on what is called “Lowest-low Fertility”, which means ‘any TFR of 1.3 or lower’. Currently there are no less than 16 nations with lowest-low fertility (including Russia, Spain, Italy, Poland, South Korea, and Ukraine) and at least another dozen between 1.4 and 1.31 with TFR’s trending down (including Japan, Germany, Bulgaria, Austria, Greece, and Hungary). Since there are so many industrialized nations already in this range and so many more nations set to enter it – with the trend repeating itself throughout the world – researchers are focusing on understanding it. This is seen in urgent terms for very practical reasons; nations want the trends to stop. A nation with a TFR of 1.3 faces the prospect that each new generation will be only half the size of the one before, and its population as a whole will be halved every 45 years. A nation with a TFR of 1.0 will face a 50% reduction in population every 30 years.

Lowest-low fertility was seen as an aberration, the result of major wars, famines, and plagues, until about 1993 when lowest-low fertility became the norm in some European nations. Since then, it has spread and continues to do so. Unfortunately, so far all the theories boil down to “women are waiting longer to have kids, it is not a big deal”. Unfortunately, this does not explain how lowest-low fertility is not just persisting, but going lower and spreading. If it truly were a matter of tempo only, then at some point the TFRs would go back up and stay up. Instead, any positive gains are not just temporary, but offset by larger losses soon after. Another theory is that the absence of day care in causing women to delay having children. This ludicrous claim may have much to do with the concerns of Social Democrats in Germany, but little to do with the TFR of 0.8 seen in Hong Kong – with virtually no day care, or the rapid decline of birthrates in nations with universal day care; the existence of either would cast a shadow over the theory, the existence of both dooms it. More importantly, research in the last 5 years shows that delaying having a first child doesn’t ‘push back’ TFR to another year – it reduces it. Put simply, the very logical idea that waiting longer to have any children means that you will have fewer children has been proven true in the field.

The best that some researchers hope for is; if there is massive social spending on programs like high-quality day care, if parents are given generous amounts of (paid) paternity and maternity leave, if there are tax breaks and cash incentives provided to parents, and if single mothers are paid full-time wages for part-time work, TFRs may recover to be as high as those in Sweden - a blistering TFR of 1.66. In short, if we adhere to the existing demographic concepts and Liberal social paradigms we can drag out the halving of population from 45 years to 55 years, and only at the cost of our economies.

So, to sum up; in a world where human population has been increasing since before the invention of written language, a decreasing population will almost certainly be a fact within our own lifetimes. The nations that are on the ‘leading edge’ of population reduction cannot depend upon immigration to soften the hammer-blows of decreased numbers of workers and increased numbers of elderly. Average Muslim birthrates are starting to slowly match secular birth rates. There seems to be no way to purposefully increase TFRs through governmental action. There is no theory to explain what is happening nor to predict what will happen next.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Joel Stein Just Doesn’t Get It

I cannot believe that I had not stumbled on this before today (of course, 4 family birthdays in the last 12 days of October does keep the Casa de Pensamientos Profundas busy). It seems the ever-juvenile Joel Stein has, I supposed, decided to add a little gravitas to his commentary by ‘trying Jesus’. How did he do? Let’s find out.

We start off with his admission that he had never gone to a church before except to go to weddings or to attempt to “hook up” with a girl. His statement that God would be fine with his attempts to use a church as an entry to fornication ‘because God knows how hot she was’ really sets the tone.

BTW: Jenny Hodge, I am sorry that Joel embarrassed you in such a crass, adolescent manner. In addition to giving the appearance of only having been interested in you because you were ‘hot’, he seems to have no concern for your feelings now, either. I hope that you have, in the interim of seeing Joel then and his writing now, found a decent man who appreciates you for who you are.

Joel, who describes himself as an “atheist Jew” (an oxymoron) decided to go to the Covenant Presbyterian Church of Austin, TX to see a college chum who is now a pastor there. The main point, so to speak, of this piece was whether or not to take communion, a decision he attempts to make funny.

Where to start? My first point is his attempt to joke about confusing the Kyrie prayer (which is usually sung) and the song by Mr. Mister almost made it to funny but, for me at least, it was ruined by his attempt to use the word ‘hermeneutics’. Joel, a little hint; reading the dictionary is not a recipe for top-notch humor.

Joel goes on to compare Communion – the center point of worship for the vast majority of Christians – to a ‘spiritual Power Bar’ and references the taking of Communion as ‘sharing a snack’ ‘buffet style’. To his credit, he does wonder if his ‘traipsing through as a tourist’ would offend his hosts, or cheapen the experience. Unfortunately, this concern is lost amidst a wash of attempted humor and a comparison of himself to James Joyce. More bizarrely, this ‘atheist Jew’ was just as concerned with breaking the Yom Kippur fast with Christian Communion!

I think Joel needs to make up his mind.

In the end, this article is literally nothing. Joel Stein takes what could have been an interesting experience – an obviously conflicted man who self-identifies as both an atheist and a Jew pondering partaking in Christian Communion - and produces as mess of failed attempts at humor and borderline-offensive wisecracks that I doubt would pass muster at the typical college broadsheet.

For those who are interested: Covenant Presbyterian appears to be a PC(USA) congregation, so Joel’s participation is accepted by them. The PC(USA) Communion is not seen as valid by Catholic or Orthodox Churches, so it is neither here nor there for members of those faiths.

Also, the Anchoress has a good analysis of some of Mr. Stein’s article that I gave a miss.

H/T to the Achoress.

Edited for spelling and punctuation

Friday, October 27, 2006

Andrew Sullivan is Also a Poor Theologian

Welcome to readers from Hugh Hewitt.

Disclaimer: I haven’t read the book The Conservative Soul yet. I will do so ASAP and give a full review. This is in response to Andrew Sullivan’s interview with Hugh Hewitt (transcript).

Andrew Sullivan is out flogging his book the Conservative Soul, linked above. While doing the usual radio-show circuit, he dropped in with Hugh Hewitt. I know some people don’t like Hugh’s style – a position I flat out don’t understand. Of course, I read Gorgias for pleasure, so I am obviously mental.

Anyway, in the interview Hugh asked very simple, very direct questions. Mr. Sullivan seemed, shall we say, off-put by this and became defensive. Mr. Hewitt has comments on Mr. Sullivan’s understanding on constitutional law here, but my training is in Catholic Theology so I will take a look at what Mr. Sullivan said about the Church.

The first thing that struck me is that Mr. Sullivan is what I sometimes call a ‘Two-er”. He refers to the Second Vatican Council as the ‘Second council’. This is splitting hairs, but the real second council was the First Council of Constantinople in 381 A.D. The Second Vatican Council was actually the 21st Council. I find that people who base their Catholicism on a rather personal reading of Vatican II refer to it as if it were virtually the only council. There are four other ecumenical councils of the Catholic Church besides the Second Vatican that can be called ‘the second’. This is a strong hint to me that Mr. Sullivan knows very little, if anything, about any council but Nicea and Vatican II.

Of course, a deep understanding of all of the councils is not a requirement. Good catechesis teaches you all you need to know to be a faithful Catholic. So what did Mr. Sullivan say? Here are some examples.

The first is a quote attributed to pg. 46 of The Conservative Soul, a quote that Mr. Sullivan does not reject, “ …to take a very basic issue, like the matter of conscience. For many non-fundamentalistic Christians, conscience is the ultimate arbiter of what they believe. In fact, the right to believe only what one’s own conscience can assent to was at the root of the Reformation…long defined such denominations as the Baptists. The Catholic hierarchy long resisted such an idea until the Second Vatican Council, when it was endorsed, along with religious freedom, and an acceptance of religious pluralism.” [spelling edited]

I have no idea why ‘fundamentalistic’ was used instead of the simpler ‘fundamental’ or even ‘fundamentalist’, but whatever. As for Mr. Sullivan’s claims about what Vatican II taught, my initial response was, literally, “The Hell? Where did he get this?” I re-read it carefully and went back to my cool reference “Documents of the Second Vatican Council” and took a look. Guess what? He doesn’t understand what it says. Indeed, I don’t think he’s read it.

Here is part of what Gaudium et Spes (the Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World) says about conscience:

“In the depths of his conscience, man detects a law which he does not impose upon himself, but which holds him to obedience. Always summoning him to love good and avoid evil, the voice of conscience when necessary speaks to his heart: do this, shun that.” [section 16]

This means that a properly-formed conscience is actually an innate awareness and affinity for God’s laws. In other words, there are objective moral laws and a properly-formed conscience is an innate understanding of these unchanging truths. Section 16 also includes this,

“Hence the more right conscience holds sway, the more persons and groups turn aside from blind choice and strive to be guided by the objective norms of morality. Conscience frequently errs from invincible ignorance without losing its dignity. The same cannot be said for a man who cares but little for truth and goodness, or for a conscience which by degrees grows practically sightless as a result of habitual sin.” [emphasis added]

In short, this tells us that a properly-formed conscience leads us to turn away from our own personal preferences in favor of objective moral truth. However, it also warns us that people who prefer personal choice or people who habitually sin (break the objective moral laws routinely) have a poorly-formed, or even non-existent conscience, making them blind to the truth.

In section 87, while dicussing birth control, Gaudium et Spes states,

“But since the judgment of the parents presupposes a rightly formed conscience, it is of the utmost importance that the way be open for everyone to develop a correct and genuinely human responsibility… … sometimes this [the development of a rightly-formed conscience] requires… …at least a complete moral training.” [emphasis added]

So, without proper moral training, we do not have a rightly-formed conscience, which limits our moral judgment.

Section 50 states,

“…[the faithful] must always be governed according to a conscience dutifully conformed to the divine law itself, and should be submissive toward the Church's teaching office, which authentically interprets that law in the light of the Gospel.”

This tells us that the Church does, indeed, have the ability to interpret what the objective moral laws are, how they relate to our lives and – yes – that when our conscience conflicts with the dogma of the Church, that our conscience is poorly-formed.

Dignitatus Humanae (On Religious Freedom) section 14 says this,

“In the formation of their consciences, the Christian faithful ought carefully to attend to the sacred and certain doctrine of the Church… For the Church is, by the will of Christ, the teacher of the truth. It is her duty to give utterance to, and authoritatively to teach, that truth which is Christ Himself, and also to declare and confirm by her authority those principles of the moral order which have their origins in human nature itself.” [emphasis added]

This shows that the Church teaches truth and that the proper formation of conscience requires that we listen to the Church as the official teacher of truth empowered by Christ Himself.

Section 43 of Gaudium et Spes goes on with this.

“Laymen should also know that it is generally the function of their well-formed Christian conscience to see that the divine law is inscribed in the life of the earthly city; from priests they may look for spiritual light and nourishment…. .. Rather, enlightened by Christian wisdom and giving close attention to the teaching authority of the Church… let the layman take on his own distinctive role.”

This means that the conscience must adhere as closely as possible to the teachings, or doctrines, of the Church and must be expressed in the world. In short, you have to give great weight to things like the doctrine of priestly celibacy, tithing, etc. and you must make your beliefs part or your words and deeds, not just your church-going.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us in section 1778 that

Conscience is a judgment of reason whereby the human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act that he is going to perform, is in the process of performing, or has already completed.”

And in section 1792 the Catechism tells us.

Ignorance of Christ and his Gospel, bad example given by others, enslavement to one's passions, assertion of a mistaken notion of autonomy of conscience, rejection of the Church's authority and her teaching, lack of conversion and of charity: these can be at the source of errors of judgment in moral conduct.” [emphasis added].

This is, in my opinion, all very, very clear. Mr. Sullivan has it almost completely backward. He states indirectly and not-so-indirectly that as a Catholic one’s conscience is supreme, then the Church. But the Catholic teaching from the Second Vatican Council (which he refers to as evidence that he is right) states very clearly that the conscience must be formed according to the teachings of the Church, not vice-versa. The catechism (written after Vatican II) warns us very directly that rejection of the Church’s authority and teaching can be ‘sources of errors in judgment in moral conduct”, i.e., a poorly-formed conscience. Most importantly, the idea of ‘an autonomy of conscience’, something obviously central to Mr. Sullivan’s interpretation of Christianity, is directly refuted!

All this might explain some more of the interview Mr. Sullivan gave [AS is Andrew Sullivan, HH is Hugh Hewitt],

HH: Let me try this a separate way. If, in fact, a Catholic is in a state of mortal sin, as the Church defines mortal sin, may they receive communion?

AS: I think that’s a very hard…no, they should not, if they sincerely believe that they are in a state of mortal sin, yes.

HH: And if the Church has a teaching about what moral sin is, and it is sufficiently clear, and it’s in the Catechism, and you reject that definition, or a Catholic rejects that definition, does that empower them to receive communion?

AS: I think that’s up to the individual….

Wow. Let’s start at the top on this one.

In section 1849 of the Catechism sin is defined,

Sin is an offense against reason, truth, and right conscience; it is failure in genuine love for God and neighbor caused by a perverse attachment to certain goods. It wounds the nature of man and injures human solidarity. It has been defined as "an utterance, a deed, or a desire contrary to the eternal law” [emphasis added]

And in 1856 it goes on with this,

“Mortal sin, by attacking the vital principle within us - that is, charity - necessitates a new initiative of God's mercy and a conversion of heart which is normally accomplished within the setting of the sacrament of reconciliation: When the will sets itself upon something that is of its nature incompatible with the charity that orients man toward his ultimate end, then the sin is mortal by its very object . . . whether it contradicts the love of God, such as blasphemy or perjury, or the love of neighbor, such as homicide or adultery. . . . But when the sinner's will is set upon something that of its nature involves a disorder, but is not opposed to the love of God and neighbor, such as thoughtless chatter or immoderate laughter and the like, such sins are venial.” [emphasis added]

And 1857 defines the pre-conditions for a sin to be mortal,

“For a sin to be mortal, three conditions must together be met: "Mortal sin is sin whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent."

What this means is that sin is a failure of conscience in the face of desire and will. In other words – mortal sin is something you wanted to do it, you liked doing it, and your conscience didn’t bother you enough to keep you from doing it. For Mr. Sullivan to claim that the determination of who is in mortal sin should be the sole discretion of the sinner is not even wrong.

There is a lot more in the interview that just screams ‘I read the cliff notes of Vatican II’, but I am going to wait until I read the book to continue.

Note to my readers; I am well aware that there are vast numbers of Christians that adhere to the idea that one’s own conscience is the ultimate arbiter between Man and Christ. The thing is, most of them don’t claim to be Catholic. Mr. Sullivan does claim to be Catholic. The trickiest part of claiming to be Catholic, though, is that there is actually a definition. Mr. Sullivan doesn’t seem to match it.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

How do I Become a Distributist?

If you are interested in Distributionism as a way of life, there are a few things you need to do. The first is to remember something another commentator said, “…distributists are by definition doers, not talkers…” As much as I may bloviate about Distributionism, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, so actions are key.

The first action is simple; pay down your debt. Statistically, I am on firm ground when I assume you have debt. This debt is a form of pressure on you and your family that limits your freedom of choice. You and your spouse may want to simplify your lives and change jobs, but too much debt may prevent that from happening. There are many reputable guides to paying down debt available, please take advantage of them.

The next is to start saving money. Once again, statistics tell me I am safe to assume you do not have enough money in savings, so start putting it away. Related to these two, very closely, is the third step. Start living more frugally. This will increase your ability to pay down debt and increase savings.

“But Deep,” I hear, “I am already living on the edge! I can’t get blood from a turnip. And is saving money and paying debt really doing anything?”

I know from personal experience that there are times when you can’t do these three things – the debt is because of accident or illness that lingers, the savings are paying for food, and you are already so frugal the churchmice are bringing you food. I know. But – that won’t last forever! After it ends, hop to it or you will be back there again. The goal of Distributionism is to keep you from being there ever again, after all.

And being frugal, saving money, and eliminating debt is certainly ‘doing something’. It is allowing you freedom to choose to live as you want to live, to be independent, and to prepare for the things that will come up that no one can ever prepare for. Eventually you will be debt-free, have a comfortable amount of savings, and you will be able to redefine what ‘frugal’ means for you.

The next thing is to plan; plan for the future. Most people today have no idea how to be self-sufficient. I don’t just mean survival skills, or how to camp, I mean – run your own business, be a freelance contractor and never worry about work, be a tradesman. You know, practical, real-world skills that allow you to be independently employed. One popular option has always been what is maybe the simplest one – be a self-sufficient farmer. But never forget a maxim I learned in the Army: important things are simple, but simple things are hard. I grew up in the tall corn and I can tell you that homesteading is work, brother. It is also something anyone can do, if they have the right basic skills, patience, and a temperament that isn’t opposed to it. Especially if you can own the land outright being self-sufficient can require a surprisingly small amount of land.

Other options are the trades; one example is plumbers; they make a decent wage and future prospects for future employment. Or metalworking. Tons of jobs allow you to be a contractor. Including computer programming, web design, even management consulting. Start getting the education and contacts (and tools) you will need to work for yourself. Landscaping, photographer – somehow you need to have a plan to be either your own boss or an independent contractor with no fear of a dearth or work.

So you are saving and planning and training. I must admit, it can be hard to stick to such dry pursuits for an abstract, even if the abstract is the freedom of self-sufficiency. So in the meantime you can start doing other things in the Distributionist mold like:

Switch to a credit union instead of a bank; Shop at your local farmer’s market, join a consumers’ coop, and patronize locally-owned stores, all as much as possible; plant a vegetable and herb garden, even in the city; work with and/or donate to local charities; learn how to minimize your taxes legally; write to your local politicians about the issues of Distributionism (lower taxes on small business owners, fewer intrusive business regulations, lower or no farm subsidies) – or visit them for the same reasons!; meet your neighbors – no, the ones on the other side of the people next to you, too; teach your kids about economics, and saving, and make sure they have real-world job skills.

Never forget – this isn’t the perfect plan and Distributionism isn’t a guide to utopia. This will take time, there will be setbacks, and you may fail before you pull it off. The key is to stay focused on the goal – independence.

Addendum: Folks, this post is light on links, which is not usual for me. I struggled more in writing this than usual because I was afraid of sounding like I am telling people how they should live, or criticising people who don't do these things. This is my opinion, based on my research, of how to start putting Distributionism into practice. I am certain that there are plenty of Distributists who disagree with me on points, let alone people who don't agree with Distributivist concepts! This post is no more than a response to the hypothetical question 'how would you start?' Please take it as such.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Meanings of Words

This morning I heard Jackie Northam on NPR slip from journalism into opinion (not that uncommon on NPR) as she explained that what is going on in Iraq must be called a ‘civil war’ because, well, Webster defines it as “a war between geographical or political factions of the same country“ [Please note: I am using a transcription of what she said on the air, not the actual quote from the online Webster’s] and she (and the experts she likes) thinks it fits. Of course, she points to the Shi’a, the Sunni, and the Kurds and the factions fighting this ‘civil war’.

Big problem already, isn’t there? After all, Shi’a and Sunni are not geographically- or politically- defined, are they? They are religious groups, or “sects”, meaning that violence between such groups should be described as ‘sectarian violence’ – the very phrase dismissed by Miss Northam in an offhand manner in the radio piece I linked to, above. The Kurds are also not involved in the waves of violence we hear so much about – the geographically and politically (and racially) identified Kurdish regions are wonderfully violence-free.

In short, Miss Northam proves that she is capable of reading a dictionary, but also shows that she has trouble understanding the meanings of the definitions she finds. By her own statements of what 'civil war' means and her own description of who is doing the fighting, Iraq is suffering not from a civil war, but from sectarian violence. Her piece descends from journalism into unannounced opinion-spouting in a fairly-blatant attempt to paint anyone who doesn't call it a civil war as being dishonest.

I don’t even need to get into the definition of ‘foreigner’ and how it relates to the definition of ‘civil war’ that she uses in this context to render this piece moot.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Once More Around the Floor

Blogodidact has been kind enough to keep the conversation going. Once again, I will look at his posts and respond, hoping to add more clarity to my views on Distributionism and to answer his questions. Let’s begin.

Van is concerned about government programs and was originally concerned that my comments about things like tax breaks were endorsements of taxes in the first place. This seems to be cleared up now; personally I support the need for minimal taxes only to allow the government to do what the government only can do – a patent office, the military, foreign diplomacy, etc. I even support the FDA – to a point. Originally, the FDA was just an oversight group to investigate and prosecute fraud in medicines and foods. Fraud is criminal and some medicine manufacturers and food producers were ‘getting by’ through producing in one state and shipping to another, allowing them to defraud consumers. If the FDA had limited itself to assisting local police by investigating interstate fraud, it would be a fine (if very small) group. Its current size, cost, and powers, though, are pretty far gone.

Back to the topic at hand, the desire of Distributionists to eliminate all but absolutely necessary organizations and regulations at every level of government in pursuit of the ideal of subsidiarity seems to be clear, finally. I apologize for any confusion!

My discussion of wage slavery seems to have gotten Van, well, lathered up. My intent was not to upset him (or anyone else). But I am going to take a side trip to both explain what I meant and comment on Van’s response. Walk with me for a minute.

As I have mentioned before, my childhood is memorable for a long phase of deep poverty. I don’t mean ‘one year I got socks for Christmas instead of air jordans and it ruined my childhood’ poor, I mean ‘one year I got a bowl of hot stew for Christmas, and it was the first food I had eaten in 4 days’ poor. In the years since I have fought my way up out of poverty to a upper-middle-class life. This was through hard work, luck, and sheer endurance. I have had some serious setbacks over the years and have done everything from work 40 hours a week while taking an 18 credit course load at college to working two jobs. I’ve scraped grease in a sub-basement and I’ve made $5 million sales presentations on Wall Street. I’ve been paid salary, hourly, and commission-only. I’ve had friends and family help out when I needed it, and I’ve had no one at all to turn to when I needed it. I sympathize and empathize with all that Van wrote of his own struggles.

In my travels through life, I have, naturally, met a lot of people. There are two sorts in particular that apply to the discussion at hand about poverty, job skills, and such. [Warning – broad generalizations follow] The first is one I have met most commonly in two places – academia and the white collar world. They feel that poverty is largely an inescapable trap. They point to studies that show the life-long effects of poverty. They talk about the statistics of childhood poverty and how it is ameliorated by ‘transfer spending’ in places like Sweden. They are passionate about the effects of poverty on families and society. They insist that Something Must Be Done and want to create as many safety nets and programs as possible to eliminate poverty. In my experience, the majority of these people have never been in poverty. Oh, sure, they had ramen 3 times a week in grad school, and their entry-level jobs were only about $25,000 a year when they started their career. But they had mom, dad, and student loans to get them by in college and credit cards until they got that raise and a mortgage. They think paying taxes to make sure a kid doesn’t go to bed hungry is a pretty good deal. They, you know, worry about money – but they have never been unable to sleep for three days wondering how they will feed the kids for another meal with no idea where next week’s rent is coming from.

The other sort I usually find in ‘blue-collar’ jobs and middle management. They’ve struggled, they’ve been poor. They worked hard, they got through, they made it. They want to know why everyone else can’t. After all, they didn’t have mom and dad paying for school, they did it themselves. They are ticked off and know that things would have been a lot easier without the taxes being sucked out of their checks for programs that they either never qualified for, weren’t there to help them, or simply didn’t apply – let alone those programs that are a sheer waste of tax monies. They have largely been successful at all they have tried with no true setbacks – no crippling car accidents, no bolts out of the blue, just the grind of making Horatio Alger a prophet. They are damn decent people who think the best way to eliminate the poor is to get Uncle Sam’s hand out of our pockets and get the Hell out of their way as they Make It.

Want to hear the tough part? Distributionists think they are both almost completely right. The keys to escaping poverty are simple and self-evident – hard work and thrift. From the 19th Century Papal encyclical Rerum Novarum to Chesterbelloc to Schumacher the keys to self-sufficiency have been stated clearly: hard work and thrift. Distributionism is based on hard work and thrift and will always be so. Subsidiarity is about getting as many hands out of your pocket, as many rules out of your life, and as many people you report to out of your life as possible. But we can’t forget reality, and the reality is that things happen. We are human, not super-human. People make bad decisions; conditions change; accidents happen; people you have never met will always impact on your life. There are many things that can cast a person into poverty, and many of them are beyond our control. From cancer to a drunk driver, fraud to disabled children, life is hard and it always will be.

Blogodidact insists, again, that Capitalism is not about happiness, but is only about commerce, production, etc. At best, he concedes, it is a forecasting tool for predicting bad policy. To a Distributivist this is like claiming that the law is only about punishing criminals or that politics is only about power. To clarify terms, as Van tries, let me clarify two terms. To a Distributionist ‘Capitalism’ means “an economic system with ownership and control of capital in private hands” tied up with the concepts of private property, the rule of law, etc. while ‘laissez-faire Capitalism’ refers to ‘the error of trying to isolate economic activity from other facets of life with the expectation that the pursuit of profit divorced from ethics will somehow lead to ethical situations’. Capitalism is a group of ideas and processes within the economic areas of our lives. It must be conceded that Capitalism is intimately dependent upon our legal ideas of private property and our ethical ideas of the goal of jurisprudence and the nature of human rights. How is it possible to concede that Capitalism is dependent upon legal and ethical concepts, and then claim that it must be pursued independently of ethics?

Chesterton and Belloc both pointed out that the “failure” of Capitalism in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries was the attempt to divorce economic activity from ethical considerations – this is what I and many current Distributivists mean when they cite ‘laissez-faire Capitalism’. Chesterton and Belloc called it a failure because people instinctively realize that moral and ethical considerations must be a part of every aspect of human life, including economics. The divorcement of these ideas in laissez-faire Capitalism led to mass discontent and a yearning for more ethics in economics. Into this hole stepped Marx and the later Communists and Socialists. Their focus on ‘justice’ and ‘equality’ is a naked appeal to the ethical impulse in Man, and it obviously worked! No matter how horrific all Communists nations have been/are, no matter how badly the economies of Socialist nations wallow, people are still drawn to them because of the overwhelming desire for ethics within economics. Despite this, Objectivists, many Libertarians, and others of the same school continue to insist that ethical considerations are at best secondary within economics. These same folks also continue to wonder what the appeal of Socialism might be.

Distributionism points out that Socialism/Communism misses the mark by a much wider margin than laissez-faire Capitalism. The attempt to impose perfect justice and perfect equality by mandate leads not to justice, or freedom, or even economic improvement – it only leads to greater and greater centralized governmental and economic power. Eventually all centralized governmental and economic power is abused. Thus, Socialism and Communism lead, inevitably, to the effective servitude of workers to the state/an oligopoly.

Instead, Distributionism advances an ethical solution to the ‘problem’ of laissez-faire Capitalism that is, at its heart… Capitalist. Instead of mandated giving (taxes, fees, etc) and government programs, Distributism proposes private organizations and cooperatives and voluntary organizations. If the Guild of Carpenters is more efficient (i.e., they actually take care of their members, have a solid reputation with customers, provide the training they promise, etc) than the International Carpenters’ Guild – the International Carpenters’ Guild will go away and the Guild of Carpenters will thrive – until an even better professional organization comes along. If the Delaware County Seed Coop has negotiated better prices with a distributor for the last five years and is reducing operating costs for its members better than the Farmer’s Coop of Delaware, guess which will have more members? This goes for consumer coops, industrial coops, etc. All along the line, the goal of Distributionism is twofold – get the government (etc.) out of economics and ethics as much as possible and use the market itself to include ethics in the economy in a vibrant, competitive, voluntary manner.

Let me give you a small, personal example. My family belongs to a small consumer coop that purchases raw milk for its members directly from a dairy. We include distribution costs in our prices and we do not negotiate for reductions based on volume (not enough volume yet!). Our price for organic raw whole milk is lower than the same product at the local store; we know the producer (and the cows, and the dog that guards the cows) and can check quality personally any time. The producer is making about 30% more by eliminating the distributors and other middlemen. We are saving about 10% by doing the same. If another dairy with similar quality, quality controls, access, etc. came along with 15% savings over local stores, we would (naturally) switch suppliers (or coops!). As a matter of fact, we should be able to do so right now… except for a state law that makes it illegal for dairies in this state to sell raw milk for human consumption. Indeed, we could eliminate a great deal of our internal distribution costs if it weren’t for a law that gives the advantage to large corporate farms or corporate-processed supplies over small farmers.

So the coop works now (the supplier makes more profit, we pay lower costs) and would work even better if it weren’t for intrusive laws that favor large firms over small ones. If there were a different, more efficient/cheaper supplier available, the coop would adapt or wither away. That, baby, is Distributionism at its Capitalist best.

Within the industrial realm the preferred ‘tool’ is also a coop. The largest, most famous example is Mondragon in Sapin. Mondragon is the seventh largest corporation in Spain and has operations in over a dozen countries. With sales of almost 12 billion Euros and a workforce of almost 80,000 people (full and part-time) it is a good-sized company. With business offerings ranging from engineering consultants to brake drum manufacturing to fresh beef, they are well diversified. But how are they different from a well-diversified corporation that isn’t a cooperative? After the probationary period (six months to one year, typically), similar to an apprenticeship, workers become full members of the coop; in effect, they become part owners. Members receive shares in the cooperative (like shares in any company), but shares are only open to employees - no outside ownership exists. Every year a portion of the profits is distributed to shareholders. Typically employees receive a salary and one or more shares when they become full members. Raises and promotions may come in the form of wage increases, more shares, or a combination of both. In Mondragon the shareholders in local ventures (auto plants, dairy farms, etc.) elect spokesmen to an cooperative assembly, who then elect a board. This board then manages the corporation.

In short, it looks and acts like a corporation – but all the owners are workers and only the workers are owners. Unions are allowed but superfluous; after all, the guys on the assembly line, their supervisors, and the managers are all also the owners. If they want a pay raise, they don’t need to strike – they just tell their representative who passes it up the chain. They have all the financial data and know if their operation can afford to give them a pay raise and will elect different representatives if they are lied to. More importantly, if their wages aren’t raised any increase in profits is reflected in the payments of their share profits, too. In Mondragon’s case some profits are diverted from share payments (by the decision of the owners/workers) to run a multi-campus university. Members of the coop can attend at no cost or a reduced cost, and non-members can attend at costs lower than average. It is accredited and graduates are encouraged to attempt to join Mondragon, but it is not required. Since the goal is to create real-world skills and the oversight is by people working in business, not life-long academics, the schools have a good reputation amongst businesses.

Mondragon also provides internal health insurance where needed, pensions, etc. They adjust salaries to reflect local taxes and state-provided benefits to provide comparable compensation while keeping profits high. They also invest in research and development and maintain a strategic reserve of capital.

When it comes to support of Capitalism the Mondragon Faq has this entry:

Do you consider co-operativism to be an alternative to the capitalist production system?
We have no pretensions in this area. We simply believe that we have developed a way of making companies more human and participatory. It is an approach that, furthermore, fits in well with the latest and most advanced management models, which tend to place more value on workers themselves as the principal asset and source of competitive advantage of modern companies”

I think this is a great example of how a company based on Distributivist ideals can flourish in the ‘real world’. Mondragon’s diversification and expansion to nations like Turkey and China combined with its 13% growth in sales in 2005 seems to bear this out.

Does this eliminate risk? Hell, no. If there are no profits, shares received no dividends and some workers end up less-well-payed than employees of ‘standard’ corporations. Cooperatives can fail completely, just like other corporations. The difference is that the worker/owners decide for themselves what social safety nets they want, fund them themselves, and do so not like an exclusive union (which wants all it can wring from “Management”) but as part-owners, resulting in sensible plans that give you pensions, health care, and profits all together. If health care gets pricey, the owners look for a more affordable plan – or buy some clinics! Instead of eliminating risks, the goal is to spread out and share the risks voluntarily, keeping compulsion and government regulation out of the picture. The effect of tying ethics to the market is not only providing solutions to the potential ‘disappointment and ruin’ but allowing market forces to make those solutions more efficient and more targeted by keeping the government out of providing them.

Van and I do seem to have friction about corporations. Van seems to at once glamorize them (“[corporations are] an organization that has yet to be improved upon for most practical purposes.”) and point out that they can be (and usually are) terribly inefficient. I particularly like his point that the collaboration of many small firms and individuals seems to be very efficient at making a particular project. Such ‘project management’ ventures are becoming much more common and effective. Yet for all of Van’s admiration for the Really Large Corporation, how much of it is misplaced? After all, a great deal of the success of a particular corporation can rest largely on… where it was incorporated. Need a corporation to dodge taxes? File in Delaware, and then never do business there! Want your shareholders to be anonymous? File in Nevada, which has no disclosure laws! In the end, corporations are legal fictions, an abstract concept in constant flux that is evolving as we speak. LLCs, large sole proprietorships, cooperatives – these and many other structures can do many of the same things, often better. More critically, what we have seen time and again through recent history is that large corporations use their economic might in coercive ways. Van wrote this:

“As long as the Corp gains NO legislative/regulatory political power, and uses no PHYSICAL force; and threatening to no longer do business with a company, or convince other members of their supply chain to not do business with their company DOES NOT qualify as Physical Force – it is negotiation, though hardball, true, it is still a legitimate part of the process of making agreements.”

Really, Van? So when Standard Oil told oil suppliers that they would take the payment Standard Oil offered (below market rate) or no one would ship their oil to a competitor, there was no coercion? When Standard Oil told the railroads that all Standard Oil shipments would get a below-market shipping rate and that Standard Oil’s competitors would pay 20% above the market or the railroads would pay triple for oil and railroad track – if there was any available - there was no coercion? Van asked:

“What is the principled difference between such hardball tactics on the part of Corporations, and your trying to wheel and deal at the local service station by saying “Look I’ll let you put a set of your top tires on both my and my wife’s car, but if I do, I want you to throw in a alignment check and road hazard on all the tires of both cars, for free, other I’m taking my business across the street to Big Bob’s place and you and your mechanics will not see any more of our regular business”?”

Here’s the difference; a large corporation can do this;

“Here’s the deal – you are going to sell my tires with a road hazard kit and an alignment check. You are going to sell my competitor’s tires with an additional 10% markup. If you do, you pay rate on electricity, lubricants, and windshield wipers. If you don’t, you pay triple for lubricants and windshield wipers and quintuple for electricity – unless there is a blackout.”

That is a big difference. What happens with a powerful enough corporation is that you are no longer capable of voting with your feet. In these cases the corporations can eliminate existing competitors and then raise the market entry costs to prevent new competitors, and then cascade into other markets. The coercion comes not from physical violence (or its threat) or governmental regulation, but it is real nonetheless.

I do not think that such behavior is inevitable. Indeed, it has been more rare than you might expect – but we have no way of knowing if that would be the case in the absence of anti-trust laws. So let us assume a simple thing – I am wrong. Large corporations never become coercive, and preventing competition is not bad. Let’s just talk about another – diseconomies of scale.

Now, everyone learns about economies of scale in Econ 101. And Econ 105. And, heck, most of Econ. You don’t hear about diseconomies of scale quite so much. In effect, economies of scale means that as you make more of something, the cheaper it is per unit to make it – so, the larger the firm, the more efficient it is. Diseconomies of scale is the opposite; beyond a certain point the per-unit costs of producing something go up – so, beyond a certain size, the larger the firm, the less efficient it is. The threshold seems to be primarily related to two factors; initial required capital; and ongoing capital requirements. Like Van, I have worked at firms small and large, and Very Large, and I prefer the small ones.

For the record, my opposition to large firms is one of ethics and efficiency. I don’t want more laws to control anybody. The preference for smaller firms, although shared by all Distributists, obviously isn’t an impediment to the creation of something like Mondragon. Indeed, if cooperative-based corporations working as a conglomerate or consortium became the world’s largest corporation, I’d have no problem with that.

If it was still ethical and efficient, that is.

In the end, all is as Van said – same words, different meaning. Most disagreements between Distributists and other Capitalists are like that, it seems. But my thanks to Blogodidact for forcing me to be more clear and more detailed. Good luck with work (I, too, am in IT). And as for the Kant, Hegel, Hume, etc. I suggest 2 beers, hot shower, two beers, read James J. Hill and the Opening of the Northwest.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Living a Happier, Healthier Life

Everyone has different goals. Some want to be rock stars, some famous actors. Some people want to win a blue ribbon at the state fair, some want to get rich and retire early. Some want to be politicians, some want a link from Instapundit. But virtually everyone wants to live longer, be healthier, and be happier while they are doing it. So how do we go about living a healthier, happier life?

Turns out there are some simple things we can do. First, get married and stay married. The Center for Health Statistics shows that married people are healthier than unmarried people. Married people are also happier and more financially secure. This comparison was true for people who had never married, were divorced, and even people who were only cohabitating; its not the living together, or even sharing responsibilities and bank accounts, it seems, it’s the fact of being married that matters here.

Another way to improve your life is to be religious. Religion has a demonstrably positive effect on people’s lives, making them statistically healthier and happier. Indeed, some research shows that religious people live 30% longer than the non-religious – all while being healthier and happier, remember!

In fact, some of the biggest boosts to happiness of women in particular are staying at home, having the husband as primary breadwinner, and having a traditional outlook on gender roles.

When you read these articles, please note that the results are the same across races and income levels and that the effects of marriage on financial status start after marriage, not before (i.e., poor people improve their lot after marriage as much as people who were already wealthy when they married).

How else can we improve our happiness? Well, Conservatives are happier than Liberals.

Let’s put this all together, shall we? If you want to maximize your pursuit of happiness, you will be; Married; Parents; Religious; Live Outside an Urban Area; a Stay at Home Wife or her Spouse; Conservative; in the Sunbelt. In other words – traditional religious Conservative nuclear families in the South are (statistically) the happiest.

Who could’ve guessed that?

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Is Star Trek a Utopian Communist Fantasy?

The atmosphere at the Deep Thought blog has been a little solemn recently so I decided to lighten things up a bit by dragging out a debate I have been having for at least 25 years – is Star Trek escapist fantasy where the Federation (i.e., the heroes of the show) represents the US, or is it escapist fantasy where the Federation represents Communism?

I have been watching Star Trek since I was a wee lad and I remember standing in line to see Star Trek, the Motion Picture when it came out. My father hated the show and called it 'a crypto-communist fable'. I thought he was loony, but after I joined the army and The Next Generation came out, my fondness for the show began to wane. My first complaint was that the writers had no idea how real military forces work. Then I, too, began questioning the politics expressed by the characters. Finally, I stopped watching it altogether and want my own children to wait until they are at least 14 before they do so. Why? I think it is a not-so-subtle endorsement of Socialism, maybe Communism.

While there are a number of bits about this on the web, and in many ways it does seem rather silly, it is a question worth reviewing. Why? Well, Star Trek has had quite an impact on society. The Star Trek franchise has impacted the design of technology, the shows continue to have a large presence in video games, and over the course of the franchise it has earned a total of no less than $6 billion dollars worldwide. Catchphrases from Star Trek are still common in English today and the primary characters (Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Picard) are global cultural icons.

That is a pretty big impact for a bunch of shows pitched as Wagon Train in space’!

One of the first things to remember is, of course, that Star Trek is a show. It had many writers, and directors and it has continued long after the death of its creator. This means that there is some ambiguity. In some episodes (The Omega Glory) Kirk obviously fights for American democracy against Chinese Communist rule. Of course, that episode also shows surviving American descendents as howling barbarians attacking the more civilized Chinese Communists that had conquered the world. While there is some argument that in the original series the Klingons represented the Communists, the Klingons also were expanding their empire in order to dominate trade.

That, of course, brings us to a cornerstone of Communism. Yes, Communism is an ideology and yes, it is a political philosophy. But first and foremost Communism is an economic system. So let’s talk about money in Star Trek. First of all, we know that it exists outside the Federation. Quark from Deep Space Nine and the rest of the Ferengi are the obvious example of this; they buy and sell things, are obsessed with gaining wealth, and use precious metals as a medium of exchange. Other aliens use money and when dealing with them the Federation and people in Star Fleet sometimes use money or refer to accounts. So money is out there and the Federation uses it when dealing with ‘foreign’ cultures.

Interanlly, however, we are told repeatedly that there is no money within the Federation. There seems to be a limit on high-energy activities (like replicator or transporter use for private reasons), but everyone from Ferengis to Picard informs the viewer that members of the Federation do not have or use money and have not since the late 2100’s. Going even farther, Picard tells us quite clearly that members of the Federation do not even have possessions! In the same incident it becomes obvious that Picard, a well-read and highly-educated man with a strong background in diplomacy (we are told through various episodes) is puzzled by the very concept of financial investments. Instead, a number of characters tell us that people in the Federation work not to accumulate wealth or possessions but to ‘better themselves and humanity’. The few instances of purchases we do see within the Federation in the original series (and its related movies) are all… smuggling. So it seems that the use of money within the Federation did exist, at least in the ‘bad old days’ of Kirk and Scotty, but it was illegal.

Was this just various writers making Star Trek ‘exotic’? Almost certainly not. Ronald Moore, a writer and producer for the Star Trek franchise from the ‘80’s to the ‘00’s said that Roddenberry himself had insisted that the Federation did not have any money, credits – nothing like cash at all, ever. The Ferengi, an invention of Roddenberry, are a not-disguised-at-all mockery of Capitalists and portray businessmen and entrepreneurs as vicious, lying, stealing, cowardly barbarians without morals or scruples at all. The Ferengi/Capitalists are portrayed as Neaderthal-like misogynists Roddenberry originally envisioned the Ferengi as the main villains of Star Trek: The Next Generation to replace the Klingons from the original series, but the other writers and producers saw them as a laughable stereotype instead of a menace and changed them greatly.

So Roddenberry’s personal vision of the future was a world with no money, no possessions, and work was done for the good of mankind as much as for personal satisfaction. That sounds like a fantasy Communisy/Socialist utopia to me. Writers at the Socialist Review agree, lamenting only that Star Trek isn’t quite Socialist enough.

Star Trek also resembles Communism in its open hostility to religion. The religions of the aliens in Star Trek are almost all fakes, shams, or frauds. The Bajorans, Edo, Betans, Triangulans, worship mis-identified aliens, machines, or alien machines. Closer to home, the ancient Greeks, Egyptians, Mayans, and Incans also worshipped aliens. Star Trek writer David Gerrold once explained that the Roddenberry would “When in doubt, have Kirk fight God!”. It is clearly stated a few times that rational races leave religion behind, that people and races capable of critical thought are atheists. In at least one case in Star Trek religion was genetically engineered into a race to allow total control by alien masters, preventing the religious from ‘freeing’ themselves from their ‘slavery’. While some people point to the episode ‘Bread and Circuses’ and say that it has a positive treatment of Christianity, I must disagree – although there is an oblique reference to Christ, He is portrayed as just another historical parallel, no different than a bland copy of a Roman emperor, and the Christian Church has had no true influence on this alien world in the 1,950+ years since His (presumed) life, death, and rebirth. This episode paints Jesus as just another historical episode and nothing more.

Roddenberry was an active and outspoken atheist, as is the head writer for the franchise since Roddenberry’s death, Brannon Braga. We should be surprised that the shows were not/are not much more obviously anti-religion. In the end, we see no Christians, no Mormons, and no Zoroastrians. Starfleet has no chaplains, the only Federation chapel we see is a Spartan, non-denominational affair. Although Nazis are seen in a few episodes, there are no Jews. Those few religious people we see are aliens, at best practicing their ‘quaint’, cultural worship of mythological beings seen as socially constructive fiction, but usually believers are shown as the mindless and/or violent pawns of supercomputers or aliens. Despite the careful inclusion of people obviously Russian, Scottish, African, Irish, etc., we never see someone cross themselves, carrying a prayer rug, or saying ‘Oy vey!’ While Chakotay on Voyager was ostensibly a Native American and followed traditional religious practices, in reality what was shown on screen was a mish-mash of various Native American rituals and beliefs with more in common with New Age practices than actual religion.

Roddenberry was a staunch progressive and firmly believed that the history of mankind in one of marching from a dark, unenlightened past toward a brighter, more enlightened future. Of course, this meant that the future he envisioned looked as he felt it should. It did not take long for the high ideals of the Federation to dissolve into moral relativism. The Prime Directive leads the Federation to sometimes ignore the destruction of an inhabited planet, dooming its billions of people to death unless they could be kept ignorant of space travel. This is supposedly to protect other civilizations from the Federation and to prevent the Federation from being too involved in other cultures. Of course, this ignores that fact that there is a standing order for procedures on destroying all life on an inhabited world merely for being a threat to the Federation! On the other hand, Federation officers had no problems with erasing the memories of others, or to radically change societies that they simply did not like all that much, including primitive societies fighting enemies of the Federation, societies with treaties the officer in question didn’t like, and, of course, religious societies. Picard, the captain that initially refused to save the inhabitants of an entire planet rather than violate the Prime Directive had earlier broken that same law to save a single member of his own crew. Kirk will sometimes risk his ship to save others, sometimes will violate treaties and plunge a system into interplanetary war because he doesn’t like their version of peace. All in all, Star Trek is a sea of moral relativism. Things are bad because the writers say so; things are good because the writers say so. The good things are almost invariably Liberal Socialist ideas, the bad things are almost always Conservative or Capitalist things.

There are other little things that point to a Socialist utopia as the heart of Star Trek. All space vehicles within the Federation are Federation (i.e., government-owned) vessels. Federation citizens can be (and are) punished for violating Federation law when they are outside the Federation and its jurisdiction. There is ample evidence that all communications are controlled by the Federation and that only high-ranking Star Fleet officers have access to encrypted communications. You never see independent journalists. The only corporations mentioned are beyond the Federation’s borders, and we never, ever see a brand name, logo, or corporate emblem. Scientific achievements are either ‘for the good of humanity’ (i.e., no patents or fees) or criminal (in other words, getting something for your research other than praise is illegal and/or immoral in the Federation). Star Fleet has tremendous power and influence, including being easily capable of a bloodless coup, controlling all shown research, exploration, and colonization. And being able to try civilians for breaking the law.

So, in the end, the United Federation of Planets (the Federation) looks like a highly-militarized society with central control of research, development, exploration, colonization, manufacture, and communications. Federation citizens do not earn pay, have investments, run their own businesses, or have any personal possessions beyond a few mementos – they certainly have no money. Religions beyond a vague spirituality expressed by very few people, Federation citizens are, at most, agnostic and are generally atheist. Although there seems to be an elected parliamentary body, virtually all local and regional decisions are made by Star Fleet and the majority of Federation-wide laws seems to be Star Fleet directives. Individual ship commanders in Star Fleet have the ability to either abandon non-Federation races to whatever fate they may face if they are ‘too primitive’ to be worthy of help. Conversely, these same ship captains my unilaterally decide to exterminate all life on a planet if it is deemed dangerous to the Federation. All with no appeal to any elected, or even civilian, person or body. Yet the society is portrayed as happy, even perfect, to such an extent that a mere 15-30 minutes of discussion was enough to convince Samuel Clemens, one of the most hard-bitten cynics in history, that it was a worthy aspiration for all of mankind.

In my opinion, the underpinning of Star Trek is a Socialist utopia, a vision of the world that Gene Roddenberry thought would be the pinnacle of human achievement. Roddenberry was open about his hopes that Star Trek would influence people toward favoring what he favored, so I also believe that these Communist fantasies were stated purposefully to convince the viewers that Roddenberry (and later writers) were right. What should we do about this? That’s easy – ignore them. There is so much top-notch science fiction out now that we can vote with our feet for things that we enjoy that we don’t find offensive.

Note: More Star Trek 'Motivational' posters can be found here.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Hello, Blogodidact!

The excellent Blogodidact and I have been discussing Distributionism back and forth for a little while, a process I hope we can continue. So far Van (as I call him in my head) has revealed to me that I did a lousy job at explaining where I was pointing my suggestions, how I expect Distributionism to work, and whom I expect to take the lead. Learning how badly I explained all of that was rather humbling. So let me take Van’s points from his blog entry here and respond to them. We’ll start with his analysis of my suggestions on promoting Distributionism.

Tax credits & Gov sponsored job training. For a State to have enough largess in their tax base to spare on social engineering (tax breaks) implies Income Tax, which to my mind is one of the big three (Income Tax, Federal Reserve System, Welfare & regulatory systems) physical realities behind all that has fallen in our nation today.”

I agree with Van; I have serious issues with the income tax, I think the welfare system is a self-perpetuating bureaucracy of dependence, and most regulatory agencies no longer exist for legitimate purposes but rather to expand their own power. Unfortunately, such a world is the one we live in. We have excessive taxes to the point that the government can do such things as, say, the Civilian Marksmanship Program, or 50 different homeless assistance programs that often all fund the same groups – only multiplying the overhead, not the results. Or, as an earlier article of mine showed, even welfare programs that are highly praised by the MSM and both sides of the aisle in Congress like Head Start are so inefficient that their administrative overhead is about 70%, making them criminally wasteful. This shows that the America government, a nation with very low taxes by Western standards, is wasting a tremendous amount of tax money.

Unfortunately, unless there is a massive change that comes as a total surprise to me, we will not be able to change this overnight. Instead, we will need to chip away at the existing structure until it is more just (read: we get to keep our own money) and efficient (read: they don’t waste our money). Therefore, I think that supporters of Distributionism (as well as our allies in the realms of Libertarians, Objectivists, and fiscal Conservatives) should push for serious tax breaks for small business owners, even to make small businesses tax-free. I feel the same way about job training; federal job training has been around for a long time and will not vanish overnight. I say we use this training (which is, after all, our own money) to become self-sufficient.

I have been told by others that ‘working the system’ this way is a capitulation, a tacit acceptance of the current system. I disagree (of course!). My goal is to transform the system by working within it. I want to encourage more entrepreneurs; we live in a society with progressive income taxes; I think a strong political case can be made to reduce or even eliminate taxes on small businesses. I think this is a win-win situation; taxes go down and more entrepreneurs are born.

“ “Microloans to such organizations could be subsidized by government agencies” is just a cloaked method of socialist redistributionism.”

OK, I admit it. This is obviously an encouragement of Socialism…. Well, out of context. What I said was “Microloans to such organizations could be subsidized by government agencies for a strictly limited time to encourage transition”, meaning that for a period of, say, 5 years microloans would be guaranteed in a manner similar to VA home loans or student loans; no tax money spent, just a government payment to private creditors in the case of default, then the debtors owes the government. I ws really unclear about the details of this, so I apologize. I am not talking about the federal government giving people cash, I am suggesting federal guarantee of small loans for a period not to exceed 5 years in lieu of collateral for some types of small business.

This is still egregious to Objectivists and most Libertarians, but again – let’s game the system. I am paying too much in taxes. The government is braying that ‘small businesses are the motors of growth’. OK, let’s see you actually support that while I wear down the taxes you keep collecting.

The next one is larger, so I will break it up a bit.

““I was surprised when Fr. Neuhaus, whom I normally find to have a very informed opinion, dismisses Distributionism as not having anything to which to attach policies or platforms in the political arena. America has; a Small Business Administration that promotes small business; farm co-ops, credit unions, consumer co-ops, and business co-ops like ACE hardware on almost every corner; a history where the Grange movement held strong, if brief, political influence over national politics; a growing concern over the impact of large enterprises like Wal-Mart and Microsoft of the well-being of the average person; and a rather large (and growing) government job training program.” Which I take to mean that having a Small Business Administration, government sponsored jobs training and a growing concern over a growing Wal-Mart, are signs of optimism and hopeful solutions in the making; but I emphatically believe that these are not part of a solution, they are instead part of the problem! Anytime that Government steps out of its role of ensuring that rights are not infringed, upholding law and order, and defending the interests of the Nation, moral and physical disaster is in the making.”

Well, my point was to refute Fr. Neuhaus, not support anything in particular. I was pointing to these various things as proof that topics like small business, large corporation, cooperative business, etc. are proven political topics. I didn’t mean this section to support any particular government program or refute it – just show the political impact of some ideas.

Van goes on:

“I also have my doubts about a wider scope being attributed to an economic policy, than is proper to its function. The Goal of Economics is not happiness, but production; it is philosophy and ethics that point towards happiness. Economics should of course be compatible with, even complimentary to the goals of philosophy - which as Aristotle says, is happiness – but Happiness is not the goal of Economics, producing, distributing and managing wealth, is the goal of Economics. “Their goal is to create a community where the members avoid the excesses of materialism”, but I think that the only defense against materialism is an education which better teaches what is truly valuable in life, and that again is the job of philosophy, not of economics.”

Bingo! Proof that I was opaque. The core concept of Pope Leo, Belloc, Chesterton, Schumacher, Penty, and other Distributivist thinkers is that the separation of economics from ethics and philosophy is a critical error that leads to a decline in ethics, a divorcement of philosophy from practical concerns and, ultimately, economic disruption, all of which will culminate in an unethical, unjust society of poor people ruled by a corrupt oligarchy. Saying that economics is about production only is like saying that the law is about winning court cases, not about justice. Or that politics is about power, not leadership. Yes, stripped of context, economics is about nothing but production, law is about winning and losing decisions, and politics is about power. But this divorcement of ethics and philosophy from the basics of life is exactly what the underlying problem is.

Communism, Socialism, etc. did not spring from a vacuum. They sprang from an understanding, conscious or not, that economics cannot be divorced from ethics and philosophy. Likewise, Capitalism and Democracy are usually mentioned together because people recognize that the freedoms and justice that are part of the best democracies allow Capitalism to exist – and vice versa. The 20th Century was a century of warfare between different concepts of economics/ethics/justice competing one with another. Classical Fascism, Communism, Socialism, and Democracy/Capitalism are all defined not solely by their ethics, nor their philosophy, nor their economics, but by all three as a whole. This is because these things are a whole within a society.

Chesterton, Belloc and the other early leaders of Distributionism rejected Communism and Socialism as inherently unjust. Indeed, they felt that the injustice of such systems was self-evident. Their insight was into why such inherently unjust systems not only had adherents but were actually competing with Capitalism and Democracy. This insight is, like many deep insights, both simple and profound. It is this – laissez-faire/’pure market’ Capitalism rejects ethics and philosophy; this rejection leads to injustice; therefore, laissez-faire Capitalism must be rejected.

Their answer was not abolishment of ownership (Communism), nor state ownership of capital (Socialism), nor strict governmental regulations that supported and controlled Capitalism (Fascism, at least as it was defined by them). Their answer was the engagement of the most important element of economics – the individual. The goal of Distributionism is moderation of Capitalism by many individual Capitalists.

Van again, in the same vein:

““Their goal is to create a community where the members avoid the excesses of materialism”, but I think that the only defense against materialism is an education which better teaches what is truly valuable in life, and that again is the job of philosophy, not of economics.”

But the goal of a society, any society, must be achieved within the realms of economics, and ethics, and philosophy, showing that they cannot be separated.

Van then jumps around a bit (just like I tend to do!), so I will break it up a bit more:

““Deal as directly as possible with the producer/end user” … is of course a wise policy when it saves time and effort to do so, but there are many middlemen that do give significant savings in time and effort, and so are worthwhile. Super markets are an excellent example of middlemen being valuable services provided to consumers. Most Mom & Pop stores are not. Wal-Mart is a time saver, visiting all the mom & Pop stores you would need to in order to quickly pickup the products that can be found at a single Wal-Mart, would be a massive time waster, and the expense would more than likely be higher. I n fairness, Deep Thought does say that if middlemen are adding value, then use them – my reaction may be more to an overall tone I perceive (especially concerning expanding corporations and Wal-Mart) which makes me rise to imaginary bait, than a direct quote by Deep Thought on this. I see Corporate consolidation as usually being a good thing; the reason it is done is to increase productive efficiency and profits; and if it is done poorly, it too will collapse or be broken up, so that eventually the frozen productivity that had been locked up in inefficiency and waste, can be thawed & released from its parts once again, back into the wider economy.”

Whew. OK, I will admit it – I don’t like large corporations. But the reasons aren’t aesthetic, they are ethical and economic. In many markets once a corporation hits a certain threshold of market share it can use its strength within the market to affect the barriers of entry to a market upward, increase the sunk costs of potential competitors, and use predatory pricing to drive out existing competitors. Additionally, high levels of market penetration allow firms to impose artificial switching costs, even artificial transactions costs, to shelter themselves from the ‘free’ in free market. If am opposed to Socialism, I must also oppose such corporate-driven market controls, too. And if a corporation is large enough, it can enter new markets and use its economic resources to do the same to more and more fields of transaction. Think this is loopy? Look at Standard Oil; in the 1880’s began a decades-long practice of coercing shippers to give them discounts and to increase shipping prices for competitors. Soon their control of transportation allowed them to literally dictate oil prices to oil producers in America, demand further discounts on their own shipping costs and ‘rebates’ (i.e., kickbacks) from the artificially-high shipping costs they demanded for their competitors, and other such actions. Using this clout, they also gained very effective control of steel production and, eventually, railroads. This was an especially good idea – by controlling the steel industry, Standard controlled the cost of railroad tracks and cars. By controlling oil, they controlled the cost of fuel and lubricants of the railroads. When they moved into the railroad business it was a foregone conclusion that they would dominate it shortly.

Analysis by economists then and now agree; Standard Oil began as more efficient than its competitors, which allowed it its initial rapid gains. Once it reached its height, however, its efficiency began to drop. In the end it was less efficient than its (few remaining) competitors (or, in some ways, no more efficient than the others). But it retained its dominance for some time because of its power over entry costs, sunk costs, transition costs, etc. and its continued ability to artificially set prices within a number of markets. After the retirement of some of the leaders of the Standard Oil trusts many of these practices were abandoned. By the time laws had been passed and litigation begun the effects of actual competition were seen – Standard Oil’s share of most of its markets had tumbled very badly within 30 years of its founding.

But if its directors had continued the practices of its founders there is little evidence that Standard Oil’s coercive control of at least 3 major markets would not have continued without government interference.

So, I have no problems with a monopoly of efficiency – after all, a more efficient competitor will eventually come along. But I have issues with coercive monopolies. I have yet to meet a Conservative who likes coercive monopolies, but I also rarely find a Conservative who will admit that large firms can establish a coercive monopoly almost as easily as a government can. The result? I prefer small firms to large ones.

I have no problem with Wal-Mart as Wal-Mart. I sop there, I see nothing wrong with them in general. I also have no problem with communities that try to bar them with zoning laws (their own loss, after all. If they want to drive out jobs and low prices, that is their choice). I also think that Wal-Mart has provided more monetary benefit to low-income Americans with low prices than welfare programs have with grants, etc.

But Wal-Mart is not a silver bullet that ‘proves’ that massive consolidation is ‘the answer’. Wal-mart’s size and efficiency has proven amazing in the US and many markets, but it has also failed. Wal-mart’s entry into Germany was a shock to some since they failed to succeed there as was expected. This is because Germany already had a number of players in its robust discount retail market. Some argue that this indicates that Wal-Mart’s success in the US has more to do with barriers to entry and Wal-Mart-imposed transition costs than with real efficiency, but I think we don’t have enough data about that yet. Much more interesting to me are Wal-Mart’s failure in China and South Korea. In both cases Wal-Mart failed due to a number of factors including poor marketing, but also because of their inability to compete with small businesses in the same space. Indeed, as one commentator pointed out - on a global scale, Wal-Mart is a regional business. I would add that the market has shown that Wal-Mart can’t compete with smaller competitors outside of the shelter of American barriers to entry into its market.

And just to carry this side-trip a bit further, Wal-Mart is starting to face real competition in the US, too. Dollar store chains are really eating into Wal-Mart’s market share not just by meeting or beating the pricing but because many consumers are showing a preference for smaller stores closer to where they live instead of very large stores further away. Add in the suspicion of some economists that some of Wal-Mart’s efficiencies of price may be an ‘artifact’ of the transition of manufacturing to the Third World and I suspect that Wal-Mart is much more of a fad than many believe. Not because it is ‘evil’, but because it will lose to smaller, more agile companies relatively soon.

Let’s go on with Van:

““All men have a right to private property, just compensation for their goods and labor, and to enter into business agreements of their own free will” Unfortunately I do not see that this will protect property rights and ensure fairness, but instead only serve as a mandate for those people in power, to demand that their constituency have property, then some property, then some minimum amount of property, then an increased amount of property - and agitate to get government programs established to distribute it. Property Rights are not to be violated, but they aren’t to be awarded either, they flow from the nature of being human, they are not bestowed or granted.”

Wow. I was misunderstood. This is not meant to mean ‘everyone gets 40 acres and a mule’, but rather ‘confiscation of land by the government is a violation of a person’s rights’. This is not for land redistribution schemes, but against Socialism and Communism. This was taken from Rerum Novarum, a response to the Communist Manifesto and related work in addition to being a statement of rights and principles.

And more:

““, a man who produces goods or commodities must be paid a just amount for those items.” No, he must be paid what someone is willing to spend and which he is willing to accept – nothing more. More means waste, regulations, and agencies and bureaucratic regulatory law.”

This is a statement of ethics, not regulation. This is against the concept of ‘from each according to his ability, to each according to his need’. It is also a moral and ethical guideline for employers and workmen. As with ‘the right to freely enter into contracts’ it means there cannot be any coercion in the setting or payment of wages or in the pricing of goods.

Here Van gets into some interesting territory:

“Deep Thought makes a reference to “Wage Slavery”, and that is a term that just gets my hackles up. It has its most common origins as a Marxist concept, intended to obscure the fact that the employer/employee relationship is freely kept and for mutual benefit. A so called “living Wage” cannot be the goal of a business. A desirable product at the most appropriate cost is all that can be expected. If the people working at such jobs need more, they must find other sources of income, or put another way, if they are only able to produce ¾ of what they need as income from their job, then they need to seek the remaining ¼ elsewhere and probably should be looking for ways – new skills, education, to make possible a change of their main productive skill.”

My definition of ‘wage slavery’ is less like Marx and more like Belloc. Let me quote Robert Nisbit and his comments on this;

“Hilaire Belloc defines the servile state as "that arrangement of society in which so considerable a number of families and individuals are constrained by positive law to labor for the advantage of other families and individuals as to stamp the whole community with the mark of such labor." "Given the debasement of the language of politics in our time, there are of course many who describe this condition as progress, or as a higher freedom and democracy or as humanitarianism. But the harsh fact remains: a steadily enlarging number of families and individuals in the United States, and other Western countries, are in the position of being constrained by law, beginning with the progressive income tax but extending to numerous other areas of legal requirement, to labor, not for themselves, but, in Belloc's words, 'for the advantage of other families and individuals,' those who do not work and who enjoy what is called welfare in one or other of its by now diverse forms."”

That is one way to describe part of what I mean by wage slavery. Here is a more personal one.

“Through a combination of governmental regulations/laws and predatory practices we have a resulting group of people who do not have the skills or education to be employed in a self-sufficient manner, resulting in them being constrained to labor for an amount too small to support themselves and lacking the time, resources, or opportunity to avail themselves of the means to exit this condition.”

Face it – public schools suck. They are more and more divorced from providing a practical education while they continue to tighten their focus on indoctrination. The result is a populace less and less able to actually become entrepreneurs, forcing them into a spiral of jobs that pay too little for them to live one, resulting in debt resulting in…. Well, you get the idea. The end result is an entire class of people who cannot do that most basic of things – be self-sufficient. Communists recognized this, called those people the Proletariat, and said the answer was to destroy the government and share everything equally. Somehow. The Socialists say the answer is to take things from those who have it and give it to those who don’t. Fascists said the answer was to use government regulations to prevent it from happening. Objectivists say that, well, that’s what happens to the non-demi-gods. Libertarians say get rid of all those regulations and things will sort themselves out, eventually.

Distributivists say work together, voluntarily, to get people out of that trap while also getting rid of the lousy laws that started the whole mess. This is just a piece of the puzzle, of course. I’ll talk about more of it as we go and in the near future.

But I must say, Van is a bit, uh, blithe about the whole idea of ‘if your job only earns you ¾ of what you need to live, get another job for the additional ¼ and look for the skills to get you out of it’. Ya’ think? Of course, where they are to find the time for further education while working at least 1 ½ jobs can be a bit of a puzzler, I suspect.

Another topic from Van:

“Deep Thought supports the creation of Guilds, he raises most of the objections I would raise at such organizations, but I don’t see that they are as easily solved and dismissed as he thinks possible. One key concern of mine, is that If the workers of Guilds are allowed to set prices, that means that prices will be artificially high, such as Detroit's automakers were in the 70’s, and then soon some one, such as Japan, will come along and see that costs are indeed too high, and they will take that opportunity to do better work for less cost, and once that happens those workers and Guilds are going to be seen as Fat fast, and then cut off ASAP.”

The key to Guilds are that they directly involve workers AND supervisors AND owners. Indeed, the ‘classic’ guild is really a consortium of tradesmen/owners that are self-employed. Larger shops also include representatives for employees, all of whom usually are independent contractors, capable of being independent, or are in training to be independent. Even when it is comprised of large shops with many employees and few owners, remember – the owners and managers are part of it, too.

Usually Distributivists admit that Guild are not a universal solution (I am one of them), but are primarily for the trades and professions. However, I have less general objection to unions than Blogodidact. My specific complaint is with mandatory unions. If the UAW, Teamsters, etc. were not mandatory unions, they would have A) never had the power that they had and B) ceased to exist when they began abusing their powers. I’ve worked in mandatory union shops and I can testify – they are hellish. I have also worked in voluntary union shops and they were much, much better. When you can join any union, no union, or drop out of a union when you wish it means that the unions are forced to do what they are designed to do – help workers. If they do a lousy job, people leave them. If they try to wring concessions from management that makes the business less competitive, they are going to go away pretty quickly when the other unions and the independents oppose them.

Therefore, I see Guilds as also being voluntary out of necessity. I stated the historic results of mandatory Guilds – they were worse than unions in the long term. Where they do work, Guilds work like a combination consortium and brand; they allow many small businesses to pool resources to gain the economies of scale and provide a familiar guarantee of quality to consumers. Mutual agreements on pricing and quality within the Guilds will therefore be aimed at being competitive out of sheer necessity.

Van then hits two points quickly, which I will combine:

A lender may charge reasonable fees for a loan or for exchanging money. A lender may charge a reasonable penalty for a late payment.”


“…argue that interest rates should be extremely low (on the order of 1-2% at most) and, especially for home loans, others argue that no interest is acceptable at all, only fees.”

And then comments:

“…Deep Thought promotes Distributionism as more of an ethical practice, which if emulated (aside from the concerns above) would be for the most part a positive step, certainly an improvement over the state of our current mixed economy.”

Exactly. The comments on things like interest rates, types of loans, cooperatives, etc. are guidelines for Distributionists to follow voluntarily. This is about Distributionists working with each other to build a better way of life by remembering that economics and ethics and philosophy can’t be separated.

Van then goes on and, well, confuses me a little bit. He writes this:

““Laissez-faire Capitalism is an argument that “Selfish, unjust actions lead to altruistic, just results… eventually.” This is typical of conservative views, which I think undermines us in so many ways. Being able to do what you see fit because it is right to be able to – that will produce the most wealth and value in the end, but that is a non-essential side effect, and ignores the fact that it will inevitably bring disappointment and ruin to many people as well. It is that ignored last part, which those demagogues lurking out there, looking for an in, will inevitably use in an attempt to cast the first part as 'an unmet promise', a tool, to put governmental power into their hands to “do good’.”

Which is dead on, and the main focus of Distributivist thinkers. But he follows it immediately with this:

““…It goes on to point to the continued failings of unfettered Capitalism and the need to always remember the inherent worth of the individual and the need for solidarity.” What failures are they? When?”

Uh…. The ones you just mentioned. Van just wrote that laissez-faire Capitalism “…ignores the fact that it will inevitably bring disappointment and ruin to many people, as well” and that this empowers demagogues to take advantage of that to undermine the rights and freedoms of people. That is what Belloc was discussing in the Servile State, Chesterton in What’s Wrong with the World, etc.

Van then concludes:

“There is, admittedly, a harshness associated with capitalism, a harshness which I am in the process of experiencing a taste of it myself at the moment – our CIO has been sacked, our projects restructured, and I’ve got to learn and become proficient in a new programming language lickety-split, or I’ll be out the door as well.It is harsh, life is harsh – Black & White is harsh and it is only through the painfully slow process of earning and saving your wealth that we are able to soften the edges a bit and provide some cushion and comfort for ourselves. As I see it, any attempt at artificially creating that cushioning through the power of governments ability to rob Peter to pay for collective Paul, or even worse, to force Peter or Paul to act against what their own judgment tells them they should do - will be doing no one any favors in the end. If we want our Ends to be Just, our means must be Just, anything else is necessarily using the Ends to justify the Means, and that will most certainly be a bitter end for all.” [emphasis mine –DT]

This is great stuff. Great stuff. This is the point of Distributionism. Capitalism is the best economic system we have figured out so far, but when its ends are divorced from its means, when its processes of production are isolated from ethics and philosophy, then you have laissez-faire Capitalism. Laissez-faire Capitalism has long term good results that have short-term victims. The goal of Distributionism is to use the voluntary actions of individuals to ameliorate these negative effects in a manner that not only remains Capitalist, but has competitive advantages.

Van and I seem to share a problem – we can’t be brief! But I hope that now he and I will do a bit less talking past each other and more actual discussion on this topic.

I’ll add more detail next time to exactly how I propose to make Distributionism work and why.

note: fixed a bad link