Chris Christie and the Case Against Term Limits

Social science has proven that Congress is even less popular than Nickelback, so it’s easy to see why term limits for senators and representatives consistently poll well among Americans of all backgrounds and ideological persuasions. Would-be reformers of various stripes have touted term limits as an important good government initiative, and even many who have not championed the cause of formally enshrining them in law have offered up pledges to voluntarily leave office themselves after a fixed number of years.

Notwithstanding the legal setbacks that have been dealt past attempts to enact term limits at the federal level, the idea has always struck me as an overrated and potentially counterproductive “solution” to the problems it purports to solve, like legislative gridlock, political careerism, or corruption. To see why, one need look no further than RM’s very own Garden State, whose chief executive looks to me like a poster boy for the case against term limits.

In 2010, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie unilaterally canceled a joint federal-state public works project known as “Access to the Region’s Core” (ARC) that would have involved construction of the first new rail tunnel under the Hudson River in over 100 years, citing the possibility of unforeseen cost overruns. As Rachel M. Cohen explains in an essay for the Winter 2015 issue of The American Prospect,

Many had expected New Jersey to raise its gas tax to meet its obligations for the ARC tunnel and other transportation investments. But Christie was emphatically opposed… [K]illing the ARC project had an additional advantage besides avoiding a gas tax increase. It also enabled him to redirect more than $3 billion that had already been put aside for the tunnel.

Christie’s Democratic predecessor, Jon Corzine, had set off a political firestorm in 2008 when he tried to pass a plan that would have used dramatic increases in highway tolls over a 12-year period to cut the state’s $32 billion debt in half and pay for transportation improvements. Although the plan was defeated, Corzine did succeed in doubling tolls on the New Jersey Turnpike. While the revenue wasn’t enough to resolve the state’s long-term fiscal problems, it included $1.25 billion earmarked for the future ARC tunnel… Christie took that money as well as $1.8 billion from the Port Authority’s ARC capital fund and used the more than $3 billion in total to pay for road and bridge projects in the state.

The existing Hudson rail tunnels suffered significant damage during Hurricane Sandy in the fall of 2012. According to Amtrak CEO Joseph Boardman, each tunnel will need to be closed for repairs for at least a year sometime within the next two decades. He has stressed that twenty years is an upper bound on the tunnels’ remaining life, and that they might need to be shuttered in as little as seven.

The closure of even one of the tunnels would be devastating, with New Jersey Transit estimating that the number of commuter trains able to traverse the Hudson every hour would be cut by up to 75%. The result would be utter chaos. Now-unthinkable measures like banning automobiles from using the Lincoln Tunnel would have to be implemented to deal with the loss of capacity. Put simply, the probability that New York and New Jersey could suffer Transitpocalypse within the next ten years is meaningfully greater than zero.

Chris Christie is constitutionally limited to two consecutive terms as governor and will leave office in January 2018. But if he were able to run for and win a third term, he could conceivably serve until 2022. Boardman’s statement was issued last year. Assuming, arguendo, that his most pessimistic prediction were to be the correct one, then the tunnels could be wheeled into surgery as early as 2021 – during the second half of a hypothetical third Christie term.

Of course, Hurricane Sandy had not yet taken place when Christie pulled the plug on ARC, and an accurate assessment of how much damage it had inflicted was not available until some time afterward. But a third-term-eligible Christie might have been galvanized by Boardman’s prognosis to prioritize the development of a funding mechanism for an alternative project like Amtrak’s Gateway proposal that would increase trans-Hudson capacity, knowing that the worst could very well happen on his watch. As it is, Christie was probably correct to gamble that the tunnels will manage to avoid flatlining for the remainder of his time in office.

This is one reason why I see him as an ideal poster boy for the case against term limits: Christie’s decision to raid the funds that had been appropriated for ARC in order to forestall a gas tax increase and have the state still be able to pay for an urgently-needed renovation of the Pulaski Skyway bridge between Newark and Jersey City is emblematic of an important way in which term limits affect political incentives. By guaranteeing that a politician who inaugurates an ultra-long-term public works project will no longer be in office when his constituents begin to reap its benefits, these limits nudge elected officials in the direction of advancing initiatives with more immediate payoffs or those whose costs can be postponed indefinitely.

As Benjamin Kabak of the transit blog Second Avenue Sagas put it in a post on New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s proposal for a new subway line down Utica Avenue in Brooklyn, “[o]ne of the reasons why politicians are so hesitant to embrace these ambitious plans concerns timing. If it’s going to take a decade or more from start to finish, those who appear at the ribbon cutting won’t be those who did the heavy lifting and secured the dollars.”

And if you know that you won’t be around for the ribbon cutting, it might start to seem like a better use of your time to focus on something else – like how to position yourself for your next job. Even politicians find unemployment stressful, so it’s only rational than term-limited officials would take steps to plan for the future when they know they’ll be sent home after four or eight years.

Which brings us to the second way in which Christie illustrates the unintended consequences of term limits: knowing that he will not have to face the voters again in his own state, he has devoted more and more energy to burnishing his national image in advance of a run for the White House. In his role as chairman of the Republican Governors’ Association for 2014, Christie frequently traveled out-of-state – and sometimes out-of-country – to campaign for GOP candidates and to promote key planks in the party’s platform. According to NJ.com, the peripatetic governor spent all or part of 137 days last year outside of the state.

The voting public seems to be growing irritated with these absences: a Monmouth University poll released in February found that about two-thirds of voters in the Garden State believed that a trip Christie took to the United Kingdom that was advertised as a “trade mission” was “mainly designed to boost his presidential prospects” (17 percent believed that the primary intent was in fact to strengthen economic ties). Of course, it’s not necessarily the case that someone who believes Christie’s globetrotting is designed to lay the groundwork for a presidential campaign is unhappy about that fact, but the same poll also found that a nearly identical percentage of voters “say he is more concerned about his own political future than he is about the state,” which suggests that his motives are viewed with a certain amount of cynicism.

In their 2012 book It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism, political scientists Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein express skepticism about the transformative potential of term limits for precisely this reason. They cite other scholars who argue that, in the twenty-one states that instituted term limits for state representatives between 1990 and 2000,

[i]f anything, the limits amplified the corrosive effects of ambition on the legislators, who focused from day one on how best to use their limited time as a springboard to their next post. That produced incentives to go for a big, short-term splash and leave the long-term mess to the next wave of their successors.

One possible counterargument could be that term limits might not actually “bind.” That is to say, ambitious politicians like Christie who believe they can be elected to higher office in the middle of their second term might still believe they could be elected to higher office at the same point in their service even if they were offered the possibility of a third or a fourth term. Perhaps they might feel they had already accomplished whatever they set out to accomplish, or at the very least that whatever accomplishments they had already racked up would make their resumé sufficiently attractive to the voters that they would be better off quitting while ahead (or quitting before their lackeys went rogue and closed down a bridge out of puerile spite, the time for which has, alas, already passed for Christie).

That’s certainly possible, but running for reelection as an incumbent is almost always easier than putting together a winning campaign for a completely new position. I would be surprised if term limits didn’t incentivize at least some politicians to take a leap they otherwise would not have or that they otherwise might have postponed, and in fact there is some research, in addition to the work referenced by Mann and Ornstein, suggesting this could be the case.

If the polling is to be trusted, a large chunk of the New Jersey electorate finds Chris Christie’s pre-campaign antics distasteful, and many of his detractors take pleasure in the fact that he’s guaranteed to leave office less than three years from today. But what those detractors may be neglecting is the possibility that his antics are in part the result of that very guarantee, and that, paradoxically, allowing him to hang around New Jersey a while longer would make him more dedicated to the people of the state and more attentive to their needs.

The Moderation Conversation: The Monstah and the Moderate

Welcome to another installment of the Moderation Conversation, a feature in which Matt and Chris get together for a live chat and completely rewrite the subsequent transcript to make themselves seem more eloquent than they actually are.

Tired of reading about the curious case of Hillary Clinton’s disappearing emails? Weary of pundits debating whether Jeb Bush is really his own man? Sick of seeing the artist formerly known as Donald Trump tease yet another godforsaken non-campaign for the highest office in the nation? RM is, too. As the country homes in on potential candidates for the 2016 election, Matt and Chris discuss two little-mentioned longshots who they would like to see become serious contenders for their parties’ respective nominations. 

(As an aside, this happens to be RM’s one hundredth post since its kickoff in mid-2013. The editors would love to invite all of you over for cake and merrymaking, but they recently squandered their annual budget on some unfortunate online purchases.)

The 2016 Election

Matt: Okay, so now that it’s 2015, we feel somewhat less guilty about talking about 2016.

Chris: Only somewhat.

M: Only somewhat. Because the presidential election is still about twenty months away. But, you know, the race is heating up!

We wanted to discuss the candidates that we would be interested in seeing run and the potential campaigns that we’re most excited about. Not necessarily because we would be backing those candidates, but because we think they might have something interesting to contribute to the conversation.

So Chris, why don’t you kick it off?

 

Bernie Sanders – The Monstah

C: Well, one of the candidates we’ve both been very excited about has been Senator Bernie Sanders from Vermont. You were the one who originally got me interested in Bernie’s would-be campaign. You mentioned that one of your friends from Haverford has been a very enthusiastic supporter of Bernie since he started hinting that he might be running. And you showed me a Bloomberg interview that he did in which he lovingly talked about how he plays “monstah” with his grandchildren.

M: For anyone who isn’t familiar with his background, Bernie Sanders is a senator from Vermont but he’s originally from Brooklyn and has an extremely thick Brooklyn accent. So he basically never pronounces the letter ‘R’.

A lot of articles that I read about Bernie say that he always comes off as extremely serious and somewhat pedantic and that he’s constantly painting a very dark picture of things. But I think that if you listen to some of his speeches you’ll find out that he’s actually got a pretty dry sense of humor that I imagine could play well on the campaign trail.

C: I think that’s actually a very big strength, that his rhetoric can be both dry and serious. That could help him quite a bit in 2016.

M: A big potential liability, though, is that Bernie Sanders is the only member of the United States Senate who identifies himself as a socialist. People generally run away from the word “socialist” in American politics. It’s used as a pejorative and politicians usually are not rushing to embrace it.

Do you think that will be a problem for him? That he’ll have to work extra hard to explain that label to an American public that recoils from the word “socialism”?

C: Yes. I think especially if he were to make it out of the Democratic primaries, that would be a huge, huge hindrance. It could even be a problem within the Democratic primary as well, just because his opponents would be able to argue that he is far too extreme for the party.

M: Now, Sanders is not actually a Democrat. He is an independent who caucuses with the Democrats. He’s talked a lot about how he’s thinking about running for president, but he’s kept alive the idea that he might run as an independent in order to capitalize on the anger that exists toward the two-party system.

At the same time, he has acknowledged that he doesn’t want to be a Ralph Nader-type spoiler. Even though he doesn’t like the two-party system he believes that the Democrats are a much lesser evil than the Republicans and he wouldn’t want to throw an election to their candidate. So if he runs he’ll probably run as a Democrat, but it’s not 100%.

C: In press conferences and debates he’s been quite critical of the Democrats, including Hillary Clinton and her relationships with big business.

M: Yeah, that’s true. There are also two more reasons why I think Bernie Sanders’ candidacy would be worthwhile even if he doesn’t win. One relates to what you said about socialism. I think it would be valuable to have a somewhat wider range of perspectives represented in American politics. I mean, we tend to believe that there’s a very large ideological gap between Democrats and Republicans, and there is. But when you look at something like the recent election in Greece, where between 10 and 15% of the vote combined went to literal communists or literal Nazis –

C: That’s horrifying.

M: Like, that’s horrifying, and I’m not saying that I’m looking forward to something like that happening here, but in a lot of other advanced countries the political spectrum is much wider than it is in the U.S. Some of that has to do with the fact that we don’t have a system of proportional representation, so it’s much more difficult for smaller parties to really gain influence. But I think in general it would be good for our discourse if we had more marginal voices able to get their thoughts out there, especially on the left. If there weren’t such a stigma against “socialism” as a political philosophy we might be able to hear from socialists in the mainstream media more often and have them actually defend their views rather than just be the butt of some joke.

So that’s one point. The other is that, based on the things that I’ve heard Bernie Sanders say in the videos that I’ve watched of him speaking, it sounds like he is really interested in trying to broaden the Democratic coalition. And for a party that has seemed over the past few months to be trying to do some soul-searching about why it lost so badly in November, someone like Sanders could be able to provide a roadmap for how to expand the Democrats’ appeal.

He really seems to downplay the so-called “social issues”. He’s mentioned in his speeches the events in Ferguson, Missouri and talked about how there’s obviously been a very acrimonious debate about race in America. But he goes on to point out that we don’t really hear a lot about how African-American youth unemployment in Ferguson and in other minority communities nationwide is something like 30 or 40%.

He always seems to try to refocus these debates onto economics and away from tribalist culture war arguments. And I think it would be good to see the Democratic Party pivot away from the culture war and try to reach out to some people who might not accept the entirety of the Democratic platform but who might be on board with some of the more bread-and-butter issues.

C: Great points. To your second argument, in considering his candidacy, I think it’s worth looking at the issues that he’s been discussing to see what he could bring to bear on the Democratic platform in 2016.

Regulation of big banks would be a huge part of his campaign. That’s been probably the number one issue he’s discussed in interviews and speeches in the last few months. That’s certainly important. There is bipartisan support for measures to rein in the big banks, and it seems like he’d be a very good person to channel that anger and that resentment.

M: Why do you say that? Why would he be uniquely well-situated?

C: Perhaps aside from Elizabeth Warren, who still has not indicated that she’s going to run, he seems like the most likely candidate to actually take action against the big banks. According to The Week, some major Wall Street investors have been very positive about a potential Hillary Clinton candidacy, which suggests they don’t perceive her as much of a threat. So if this is a debate that we want to see going forward, if we really would like to crack down on corporatism, it seems like Bernie Sanders would be a good person to do so.

That said, I don’t think that more taxes on large corporations and the wealthiest one percent are enough to solve the structural inequality that he continually highlights. This is something the Democratic Party needs to consider in the run-up to the election, but they probably won’t. Raising taxes on the wealthiest and big businesses is simply not enough to solve every single problem they’re calling attention to.

I’d love to see Bernie gain traction in the primary so he can start a debate on policy planks like infrastructure investment. Things that might not otherwise be talked about. That in and of itself would be a success.

M: Yeah! Just say the word “infrastructure” and I will probably vote for you.

C: He’d also like to expand healthcare further, which is going to die a slow and painful – actually, a quick and painful death, because it’s never going to happen.

M: [Laughs]

Maybe that’s enough about Bernie Sanders. Suffice it to say, he’s a monstah.

 

John Kasich – The Moderate

M: A candidate that we’re both interested in seeing run on the Republican side is someone who has said a little bit less about his intentions for 2016, but who does seem like he might be seriously considering a run. And that would be Ohio Governor John Kasich.

One thing I think we’re both really impressed by, given our general interest in seeing more cooperation among elected officials from different parties, is the fact that he was willing to accept the Medicaid expansion of the Affordable Care Act in Ohio. He opted not to engage in a lot of the confrontational tactics that other Republican governors had chosen to pursue.

C: I think that in looking at Kasich’s appeal, it’s important to consider him relative to the other potential candidates on the Republican side. He may not, in and of himself, be a particularly strong candidate. He’s not someone who’s really well known outside of Ohio. But he just won reelection in the 2014 midterms by double digits, so that’s why he’s been getting some press.

Betsy Woodruff and Daniel Strauss discussed this a little bit in their Bloggingheads podcast, and Betsy argued that Kasich has no chance because we’re so far along in the run-up to 2016 that he simply does not have enough name recognition to gain traction. Which is a shame. As you said, Kasich has shown himself to be open to certain aspects of healthcare reform, saying that expanding access was “doing God’s work.” This indicates that he’s willing to work with Democrats and other members outside his party to accomplish his goals. The fact that he’s able to appeal to voters in the state across party lines will be very important, especially because the other potential candidates include a lot of confrontational figures like Ted Cruz.

M: So, Betsy Woodruff – who we interviewed, by the way! – seemed to think Kasich’s comments about accepting the Medicaid expansion being motivated by his Christian duty to take care of the poor would be a negative, because the Republican base presumably wouldn’t be too pleased with someone who defends Obamacare by invoking Jesus.

At the same time, Mitt Romney got the nomination after having implemented what was essentially Obamacare in Massachusetts. And I think a broad segment of the electorate outside of the Republican base will appreciate that he’s somebody who takes his faith seriously and is motivated by that to want to work towards social justice.

One interesting thing about John Kasich that I didn’t know was that he actually ran for president in the year 2000. He was a Congressman from Ohio and he ran in the Republican primary against George Bush, who obviously ended up getting the nomination and becoming president. Apparently at the time he was a somewhat brash figure, but he has significantly mellowed out since then and is now seen as a more low-key, deal-making sort of politician instead of a firebrand. But again, maybe that’ll be a drawback if it means that he can’t generate a lot of excitement.

C: You had mentioned to me that he supports a budget policy that’s a little questionable…

M: Oh yeah. He’s working for this organization called Balanced Budget Forever. Sounds like a really bad band name.

C: That obviously will be fine in the primaries. But in a general election, those type of fiscal policies could come back to haunt him.

M: Why do you say that? I mean, it seems like a balanced budget amendment might be pretty popular.

C: You think so?

M: I don’t think it’s a good idea from an economic standpoint, but I think it could be popular. It’s something that has a lot of intuitive appeal.

C: I don’t know. Democrats could make convincing arguments for why, especially now, as the United States has been doing quite well economically compared to other European countries, it’s not critical that we balance the budget at this juncture and in fact it could be quite harmful. I think there’s plenty of ammunition on the Democratic side to puncture holes in that.

M: Another Kasich policy worth mentioning: he was partly responsible for implementing an earned income tax credit in Ohio, which the state had not had up until last year. The earned income tax credit is something that, in theory, both Democrats and Republicans like: it was expanded under Bill Clinton but a lot of Republicans also tout it as an alternative to raising the minimum wage. So it’s another indication that he seems to be serious about policies to help lower-income Americans, and if that’s a quality that he would bring to the White House then that makes him very attractive.

C: To that point: I don’t know the exact numbers, but job growth in Ohio has been very strong since he became governor. He’s going to be able to use that as a talking point if he does choose to run. And it’s especially impressive when compared with the record of other moderates like Chris Christie, whose time as governor has actually seen anemic growth in New Jersey. Our state unemployment rate has not really improved since he took office, so it seems like in terms of being a more moderate candidate on the Republican side, Kasich has solid credentials, at least for the primaries.

 

Monstah vs. Moderate

M: There seems to be some asymmetry here. Whereas on the Democratic side we like the candidate who appears to many to be more extreme, we’re gravitating towards the Republican candidate who seems the most moderate. Do you think there’s some disconnect there?

C: Yeah, I’d agree that there’s some disconnect. I think part of it is our appreciation for Bernie Sanders as a political character, almost. Because he is such a unique personality, he’s very interesting to watch. He has passion about what he’s talking about. It’s unlikely he has much of a chance of winning, but we’re rooting for him to run because of his charisma and because policies like infrastructure improvement could be very positive.

Whereas Bernie is one of the lone “fringe” candidates in his party, it seems like on the Republican side most of the candidates and party leaders have been more towards the fringes as of late. So there we’d like to see someone more temperate who can get the party back towards the middle.

M: To me, it seems like Bernie and Kasich might have something uniquely in common: both of them are interested in prioritizing economic issues. I already discussed this in the case of Bernie, but even for Kasich, who is fairly socially conservative, it seems like the issues he’s most eager to address are economic: finding ways to boost wages for low-income workers, finding ways to provide healthcare, and pursuing more traditional fiscal conservative goals like a balanced budget amendment.

C: So do you think this election is going to be focused on economic issues for the most part? It feels like the early stages of Hillary Clinton’s pre-campaign have mostly been based on other things outside of economic policy.

M: I mean, I hope the election is mostly focused on economic issues. I assume defense will also be a pretty big component in light of the upheaval in the Middle East. But I would certainly rather Hillary Clinton’s candidacy not become something like Mark Udall’s single-issue campaign in Colorado, which dealt with the abortion issue and almost nothing else. That’s not to say that abortion is not something we should debate, but it is far from the only issue and I would hope that both parties find a way to talk about other things people care about.

C: It’ll be interesting to see who ends up running. Most of the early coverage has focused on the Republican Party, and we’ve seen names of upwards of a dozen potential candidates who may or may not be interested.

M: Ben Carson.

C: Ben Carson, yes. Correct me if I’m wrong, but on the Democratic side, we’ve only heard from Hillary Clinton, Jim Webb, possibly Bernie Sanders, and probably not Elizabeth Warren.

M: And possibly Martin O’Malley from Maryland.

C: The narrative thus far is that Hillary has already been elected. And again, that’s one of the reasons I’d love to see Bernie Sanders run, just because it’d be good to see someone bring an additional perspective to that debate.

M: Amen.

13 Thoughts on Apple for 2015

Much like the mechanical watches with which its newest product will compete, Apple is an organization in perpetual motion.  The Apple Watch launches in April 2015 as the company’s first foray into the wearables market.  The just-announced new MacBook, with a retina display and only two ports, joins it as a spring release.  An enterprise iPad Pro is expected to debut in the fall, and a rebranded Beats music streaming service and updated Apple TV are also forecasted to drop this year.  And let’s not even get into the Apple Car that’s purportedly in the works.

Here are thirteen thoughts, broken into four broad topics, about Apple’s product pipeline after its “Spring Forward” event last Monday.

Wearables
1) The Apple Watch is already a success.
2) The Apple Watch Edition may have a minor Glasshole problem.
3) New Beats headphones will be important, and Jony Ive shouldn’t design them.

Devices
4) The Macbook is stunningly gorgeous and two years ahead of schedule.
5) Boost Mac sales by emphasizing Continuity with mobile platforms.
6) The entire iPad line should be consolidated and renamed.
7) What’s the future of the iPod?
8) HomeKit is the next big frontier, and Apple TV is the conduit.

Speculation and Hypotheticals
9) An Apple-Nintendo partnership won’t happen, but they would be a natural fit.
10) Could iTunes or Apple TV become a carte blanche media streaming service?
11) Tesla would be a synergistic feverdream, but CarPlay makes more sense.

The Big Picture
12) Diversity beyond the iPhone is critical.
13) Tim Cook is a better CEO than Steve Jobs.

***

Wearables

1) The Apple Watch is already a success.

Full stop.  Without sales data, professional reviews, or market feedback, the Apple Watch is already a success.

Its criticisms are real and important to take into consideration: a slightly bulky frame, comparatively poor battery life, and high starting price relative to other Apple devices.  But these criticisms don’t matter in the context of this product launch.

The goal of the first generation Apple Watch is innovation informed by heritage.  Whereas other smartwatches are focused on technology, the Apple Watch is as much about fashion as it is computing – perhaps even more so.  It’s an exercise in expanding the concept of what should be expected from a digital watch.

This essay by Ben Clymer is my favorite evaluation of what Apple got right and wrong with the Watch.  It is remarkably balanced in its evaluation, and Clymer pinpoints why the Watch is so important:

Apple products have a way of making someone not want to live without them, and while I wasn’t able to fully immerse myself in the OS yesterday, what I saw was impressive. So while certainly not direct competition for haute horology watchmaking right now, the Apple Watch is absolutely competition for the real estate of the wrist, and years down the road, it could spell trouble for traditional watches even at a high level.

The Apple Watch is about setting the stage.  It’s about building that connection with customers and improving upon the current offerings in the smartwatch and entry-level luxury watch market.  “The overall level of design in the Apple Watch simply blows away anything – digital or analog – in the watch space at $350,” Clymer says.  He’s right, thanks to the relationship between form and function that Apple’s competitors have yet to attain.

Analysts are predicting that Apple will sell 12-15 million units in 2015 and nab half of the smartwatch market share.  That might be a high forecast, but Apple’s profits from the device, especially the Edition, should be significant even if fewer than 10 million units are sold.  And it will sell.  Customers will look past things like battery life because of the novelty factor.  Come for the hype, stay for the quality of apps and services that the platform affords – a far more robust infrastructure than any other smartwatch company by far.

The Watch will be a flop only if Apple fails to convince customers outside of Apple aficionados and the smartwatch market that the Watch is a valuable device by its next iteration.   This first generation Watch, flaws and all, just needs to generate enough electricity to get that conversation off the ground.  And by that metric, it’s already succeeded.

2) The Apple Watch Edition may have a minor Glasshole problem.

“Glasshole Syndrome” might be defined as when a product’s design language becomes synonymous with people who want a visible token of their superiority.  “Glasshole,” of course, refers to the early adopters of Google Glass, which became infamous for its stealth video recording capabilities, $1000+ price point, and embarrassing design.

The Apple Watch will not suffer criticisms for privacy invasion or poor design.  It is a beautiful machine whose utility and app ecosystem makes it a more worthwhile product right out of the gate.  But the Watch Edition, which starts at $10,000 and reaches $17,000 in its most expensive iteration, is ripe to become an iconic emblem of conspicuous consumption.  I fear this may unfairly tarnish the rest of the Apple Watch line.

In September 2014, John Gruber wrote about the Watch Edition’s price and its likely reception among the tech community:

Apple Watch is not a product from a tech company, and it will not be understood, at all, by the tech world. Apple creates and uses technology in incredible ways. The Apple Watch may prove to be the most technologically advanced product they’ve ever built. But again: Apple is not a tech company, and Apple Watch is not a tech product.

When the prices of the steel and (especially) gold Apple Watches are announced, I expect the tech press to have the biggest collective shit-fit in the history of Apple-versus-the-standard-tech-industry shit-fits. The utilitarian mindset that asks “Why would anyone waste money on a gold watch?” isn’t going to be able to come to grips with what Apple is doing here. They’re going to say that Jony Ive and Tim Cook have lost their minds. They’re going to wear out their keyboards typing “This never would have happened if Steve Jobs were alive.” They’re going to predict utter and humiliating failure. In short, they’re going to mistake Apple for Vertu.

Utter and humiliating failure are simply not in the cards.  Sales of the Watch Edition are going to match maximum production capacity.  The profit margin on each device is likely astronomical, and Apple is going to make a significant profit while establishing itself as a serious player in the luxury fashion market.

The Watch Edition will sell.  The question is: who will buy one?

prording to Ben Clymer, no one should buy one.  Clymer argues that for $10,000, the Watch Edition is simply a poor choice given the field of alternative options:

In addition to perceived value, mechanical watches are also priced by human value: how much of the work is done by hand (in many cases using 200-year-old methods). For example, a watchmaker named Philippe Dufour makes just 12 watches per year, alone in his one-room atelier in the mountains of Switzerland. A simple, time-only piece can cost $100,000. Whether the case is gold or platinum, the price of a Philippe Dufour watch remains (roughly) static — you are not paying for materials, you are paying for Mr. Dufour’s time and touch. The Apple Watch has minimal human value, and that is the biggest difference between it and its mechanical counterparts.

From $10,000 to $20,000, you are into the realm of watchmaking where everything you see is original and interesting — or at least should be. Consider fully ceramic chronographs,stunning hand-wound dress watches, or modern legends all fall within this range — all featuring truly in-house movements with a moderate amount of hand-finishing to internal components. These watches will be assembled by hand, completely in Switzerland and offer the incredibly low tolerances and extreme quality for which this industry is known.

Leave aside the (very good) utilitarian question of how someone could ever justify spending $10,000 for a watch when there are people dying of hunger around the world.  Assuming you have $10K to blow on a timepiece, why would you ever choose the Apple Watch Edition?  You’re not purchasing a stunningly unique style that will last your entire lifetime.  You’re not funding a the exquisite craftsmanship of a master engineer to produce a mechanical wonder.  You’re buying a product with the exact same functionality and design as its $349 sibling.

And that’s the point.  The people who buy the Watch Edition are buying it because it’s $10,000 worth of gold.  They want their wealth to be evident.   It’s tough for a non-watch expert to identify a Rolex from afar, let alone guess its exact cost.  The Apple Watch is designed to be iconic, and the Watch Edition’s price is its crown achievement.  You buy the Watch Edition so everyone knows that you spent exactly $10,000 on a watch.

Tim Lee believes that Apple is following Tesla’s lead in this regard.  He argues the Watch Edition’s high price is a means of generating a halo product for the smartwatch market, making it an enviable good:

It’s hard to remember today, but a decade ago electric cars didn’t have a great reputation. Carmakers had experimented with a few electric vehicles, but these had not been a commercial success… Tesla’s solution to this problem was to focus on the very high end of the market. The first Tesla car, the Roadster, cost $109,000.

This strategy of defying stereotypes about electric cars helped Tesla become one of the most prestigious brands in the auto industry. And as it has moved downmarket (the company introduced a $57,400 Model S in 2012 and is working on a vehicle that will cost $30,000), it has been buoyed by the luxury reputation the Roadster helped to establish.

Apple faces a similar challenge with its Watch. Smartwatches have a reputation as impractical devices for nerds. Apple’s strategy is to defy this stereotype by creating luxury smartwatches that (Apple hopes) people will pay $10,000 for.

I actually fear that the opposite of this scenario will emerge.  Instead of boosting the reputation of smartwatches, it’s easy to imagine how the clientele of the Apple Watch Edition might come to be the entire line’s defining characteristic: a product for rich Silicon Valley bros who want to flaunt their wealth in the easiest way possible.  As Racked and The Verge noted, “it was Apple fanboys who lined up to view the watch at Colette (a recent fashion show), not the fashion cognoscenti.”  That is a deathly blow for a device with aspirations of the highest fashion circles.

The Edition is, by definition, for the 1%, but it matters which people in the 1% it attracts.  It would be a shame to see this “halo” infect the rest of the Apple Watch line and make it an object of derision.  Though its capabilities are still comparatively limited, I trust Apple more than any other technology company to fully leverage the Watch’s potential as a useful, integral part of our daily lives.  Apple has largely sidestepped criticisms of conspicuous consumption by selling products at higher prices whose design and utility largely, if not wholly, justify the extra cost.  Owning an iPad or an iPhone 6 is a status symbol of relative material comfort, but that ownership extends beyond demonstration of financial wealth because of the function afforded by the device.  The burgeoning app store and the truly beautiful design of the Watch and Watch Sport suggest a promising value proposition in the same vein.   The same cannot be said of the Watch Edition, and it’s queasily easy to see it as a sort of Google Glass in vogue.

I hope I’m wrong about the arguments listed above.  In a certain sense, I’m glad Apple is going so aggressively after a slice of the luxury timepiece market, because it can put the profits earned from the Watch Edition to use in service of other world-changing technology.  And, realistically, the Watch Sport is going to be the most popular model that Apple sells; it will earn the lion’s share of market attention, making it unlikely the Edition’s aura will extend beyond the diamond wrists of the elite.

I just hope the Edition price point, and its clientele, don’t come to define the full product line and overshadow the legitimately groundbreaking work that was accomplished in creating this device.

3) New Beats headphones will be important, and Jony Ive shouldn’t design them.

If you haven’t already done so, go read the New Yorker’s profile of Jony Ive.  It’s an incredible, exhaustive look at the man behind Apple’s iconic products and the work his team does to make them a reality.

The emphasis here is on “exhaustive” in more ways than one.  From the opening paragraphs, it’s clear that Jony Ive is dead tired.  He owned the entire Apple Watch product build and he’s also responsible for design across the iPhone, iPad, and iOS.  That is a massive amount of oversight and work.

Jony Ive is synonymous with Apple.  If he retires in the near future, there might be even greater panic and uncertainty surrounding the company than in the wake of Steve Jobs’ death.

It’s a little surprising, then, that Apple hasn’t elected to give other members of his design team more high-profile platforms to discuss their work and create their own personal mythologies.  Deference to Ive is obviously warranted and justified, especially since he has given no indication of retiring anytime soon, but contingency plans are wise.

I’d like to see a couple of key figures from Ive’s team take charge of the Beats hardware division and update the product line in accord with Apple’s design philosophy.  In that New Yorker profile, Tim Cook makes it clear that Beats are currently an outlier amongst Apple’s computers and phones:

Would Jony have designed some of the products?” he said. “Obviously, you can look at them and say no… I want Beats to be true to who they are. I don’t want to wave the wand over them in a day and say, ‘You are now Apple.’ Down the road, we’ll see what happens.

Modifying a well-established brand is risky, and given Beats’ 60+% share of the premium headphone market, immediate changes run the potential of alienating Beats customers.  Much of Beats’ market penetration has been thanks to overwhelming advertising and genius marketing deals with famous athletes and stars.  Apple’s cash hoard guarantees Beats will never lose the ability to make those cultural cache deals, suggesting future changes to the product line could be conducted with minimum risk.

Why not let some of Ive’s team members take the lead on rethinking what Beats can be?  Perhaps retain current model stalwarts like Beats Studio and PowerBeats, but completely redesign Beats Pro and Mixr in accord with Apple’s design philosophy.  Introduce a new line that doesn’t fall victim to the classic Beats criticisms of ear-bloodying bass and muddy, subpar audio quality.  On the hardware development side, hire engineers from companies like Sennheiser and Audeze.  Oppo just introduced a $400 pair of planar magnetic headphones; Apple could easily introduce this kind of highest-end quality to the Beats line, and its marketing leverage (prime placement in Apple stores!) is a guarantee of huge volume and high margins.

Apple reportedly purchased Beats primarily for the streaming infrastructure and contracts of its music service.  If Apple is serious about expanding into wearables, it should look to leverage Beats hardware as another fashion item with untapped market potential.

Devices

4) The new Macbook is stunningly gorgeous and two years ahead of schedule.

Forget the Apple Watch pricing.  The most incredible parts of the March 9 keynote were ResearchKit and the new Macbook, and the latter is breathtakingly beautiful.  I thought the Dell XPS 13 gave Apple a run for its money a couple of months ago, but Apple once again blew its PC competitors out of the water with this new machine.

In terms of style, that is.  Functionality- and price-wise, the Macbook is a solid entry into the laptop market, but it’s not transcendent.  Though the retina display and weigh of the machine are attractive, the $1300 base price and the single port (!) mean that it’s primarily a device for early adopters at this point instead of the broad laptop market.

Which is as it should be.  The original Macbook Air was similarly criticized for shearing off too much too soon, but it looks prophetic in hindsight, having eliminated the CD drive before most other PCs made the leap.  The same is true for this Macbook.  With cloud storage becoming the go-to means of sharing files and Wifi available in more places than ever, Apple is ahead of the game once again.  Cutting out those extraneous ports is going to look like a smart move two years from now.  (Though an additional USB 3.0 port might be welcome.)

I can’t wait for the second-gen Macbook to lower the price on this first model.  In the meantime, I’d love to see some limited-edition color variations to the three currently offered – anodized white, rose gold, sandstone, or evening sky blue, perhaps?

5) Boost Mac sales by emphasizing Continuity with mobile platforms.

Apple sold 160 million iPhones and around 55 million iPads in Q4 2014.  In contrast, its Mac division generated around 20 million unit sales.

In 2014, Apple introduced Continuity for Mac, which allows users to swipe and send documents and files from an iPhone or iPad to a Mac in real time.  Similar capabilities also exist for Windows computers, but Apple has the benefit of a unified software ecosystem to make these transfers completely hassle-free.

Microsoft’s unpopular Windows 8 and forthcoming launch of Windows 10 gives Apple an enormous window to converting former Microsoft customers into new users.  The close integration of iOS with OS X is no doubt going to be a lynchpin of that pitch.

6) Consolidate and rename the entire iPad line.

Apple’s current iPad offerings include five different base models, each with multiple colors, storage options, connection capabilities, and price points.  At a glance, it’s difficult to tell how exactly they differ from each other, or whether they’re actually different at all.

The rumored 12.9” iPad Pro offers Apple the opportunity to slim down their iPad line and refresh the distinctions between each device.  If the Pro is launched alongside the 2015 refreshes for the line, it would be great to see a new nomenclature adopted for each category.

7) What’s the future of the iPod?

Apple’s iPod revenues have plummeted due to the popularity of the iPhone and iPad.  The company expected this self-cannibalization and appears inclined to let the iPod slowly fade away.

That’s probably the wisest course of action since it doesn’t make sense to invest in a product line that has seen its profits fall off a cliff in the last five years.  But the iPod does still have a dedicated customer base that could be well served with some incremental updates, especially since its current iPod offerings are overdue for a refresh.

Among the potential iPod revamps the company could pursue:

  • A bigger iPod Touch that aligns with the iPhone 6’s internal specs and size.
  • An iPod Pro with significant storage (possibly a hard drive?), sold at a premium to customers with enormous music collections. Essentially a replacement for the workhorse iPod Classic which was retired a while back.
  • A revamped iPod Nano that emphasizes fitness and exercise capabilities. The Apple Watch will likely fulfill this niche in a future iteration, but the Nano could be a lower-cost option that essentially replaces the iPod Shuffle as the entry Apple device.  (Either way, the Nano desperately needs to be redesigned; it’s easily the most visually unappealing product in Apple’s repertoire, an ugly mash of metal, glass, and an inferior iOS clone that looks like it’s from 2008.)

8) HomeKit is the next big frontier, and Apple TV is the conduit.

Smart household devices will become ubiquitous in the next few years – connected refrigerators, lighting systems, garage doors, etc.  Current iterations of those products usually include device-specific standalone apps for remote user access and control.

Standalone apps will increasingly become unviable as the volume of connected household items increases, and Apple’s HomeKit is positioned to become the conduit for collecting device controls.  It’s easy to imagine a scenario where an Apple HomeKit app aggregates each smarthome input and allows the user to manipulate each device from a central dashboard.

One sticking point is ensuring all devices are regulated by the same network to ensure they’re all properly synced for local and remote control via Apple devices.   Christopher Breen notes the importance of having a dedicated, centralized network for this purpose:

Wouldn’t it be better if each home had a small, power-efficient, always-on, platform-agnostic, Wi-Fi-enabled computer that could talk to your devices both remotely and over a local network?

If you haven’t yet glanced over at your Apple TV, now’s the time.

Apple TV is rumored to be receiving a substantial update later this year, which may include a hardware redesign and new content such as HBO’s streaming service.  The product has only received incremental updates since its launch eight years ago and has been largely eclipsed by Chromecast, Roku, and other streaming devices.

An Apple TV relaunch featuring full HomeKit integration would easily make Apple’s TV offering the most logical option on the market.   Robust streaming options plus full iTunes integration are an attractive proposition for Apple’s 100 million+ iTunes users, and having a centralized home base for device control and additional security only sweetens the deal.

Speculation and Hypotheticals

9) An Apple-Nintendo partnership won’t happen, but they would be a natural fit.

If Apple really wanted to own the living room beyond a relaunched Apple TV + HomeKit, it might also consider trying to acquire Nintendo.  This theory has been floated before and a deal is not going to happen, even though Apple easily has the cash to cover Nintendo’s $18 billion market cap and a purchase premium.

But what a win it would be for both parties!  Apple acquires Nintendo’s treasure trove of licensed characters and games.  On the mobile front, it essentially starts printing money by offering Nintendo classics on the App Store and perhaps reinventing the iPod as a game console a la the 3DS.  On the console front, it could offer a more powerful Apple TV Pro that competes with Sony and Microsoft as a complete living room entertainment hub.

Nintendo wins by earning a fat return for its investors and by attaining greater creative freedom than it has now.  Though its first-party games are constantly lauded for their quality, Nintendo has fallen victim to a conservative and confusing development cycle, where sequels and character appropriation replace new franchises and experiences.  The shortfall of cash generated by App Store sales and the reduced hardware development costs associated with an Apple purchase would ensure Nintendo has the financial footing to redouble its efforts to make world-class games.

10) Could iTunes or Apple TV become a carte blanche media streaming service?

Apple will reportedly price the revamped Beats streaming service at $7.99 per month and apparently has the enthusiastic support of major music labels.  The service is said to be outside the purview of iTunes, which will continue to sell music on a track-by-track basis.

Given Apple’s massive customer base and the fact that it succeeded in getting music executives on board with this price point, is it possible Apple might try to introduce the first cross-media streaming service under the iTunes brand?  Would you pay $40 a month for unlimited music streaming, unlimited television streaming, two free movie rentals of your choice, and a limited library of free eBooks?  I would in a heartbeat.

Apple has long talked about rethinking how television works as part of an Apple TV upgrade, and this would certainly qualify, especially if this “base” subscription package could also include additional bundles like HBO streaming or extra movie rentals for an additional fee.  Being able to consolidate media subscription services into one payment (combining Netflix, Oyster, Spotify, and HBO, for example) would be worth it for the convenience alone.

Again, this is not on the horizon, but it would be an absolute coup for Apple if it comes to pass.

11) Tesla would be a synergistic feverdream, but CarPlay makes more sense.

If Apple gets into the automobile manufacturing game, as recent rumors have suggested, all the more power to them.  It would be thrilling to see how Apple’s designers and engineers could rethink how we travel and engage with our vehicles.

Tesla has been cited as a potential acquisition for a couple of years now as part of that entry into the car market.  Of late, that talk has been supplanted by suggestions that the two companies are competitors, poaching each other’s employees with fat bonuses.

It’s tempting to envision a scenario where the two companies come together: Elon Musk on Apple’s board, an iPad replacing Tesla’s center console, Jony Ive designing the Model 3, Apple leveraging Tesla’s battery production process for its other devices.  But all signs point to Tesla’s continued independence.  Apple probably won’t acquire Tesla given this status quo.

That’s fine.  In the short to medium term, Apple’s CarPlay dashboard technology is a more promising avenue for immediate profits and widespread adoption.  If Apple acquired Tesla in the next year or two it would almost certainly not license CarPlay to other car manufacturers.  That would be forsaking a gold mine, given the 16.5 million cars sold in fiscal year 2014.

Apple is smart to seed CarPlay now.  If Tesla continues to expand in market share, Apple will no doubt have the cash to purchase it in the future.  And if Tesla stumbles along the way, Apple can swoop in and acquire it at a discount.

The Big Picture

12) All of this is to say that diversity beyond the iPhone is critical.

Apple’s sales figures suggest it will live and die by the iPhone.  The enormous success of the iPhone 6 has guaranteed the company stability for the next few quarters, and the likely improvements to the iPhone 6S (Force Touch, better battery, etc.) suggest the iPhone line will be a rock-solid profit generator at least through 2016.

That said, the pressure to continually produce an expectations-exceeding iPhone is immense.  I don’t doubt Apple’s ability in the slightest to amaze customers with whatever it introduces in the iPhone 7.  But if even one new iPhone model is a flop, Apple would lose a significant revenue source that would probably wreak havoc with its stock price.  (Not that stock fluctuations should matter too much, since it has hundreds of billions of dollars in cash on hand.)

2015 will be remembered as the year when Apple consolidated its mobile phone dominance with the iPhone 6 and also took the first steps to significantly expand beyond the iPhone.  It wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if the Apple Watch is only the tip of the iceberg for new products released under Tim Cook’s leadership.

13) Tim Cook is a better CEO than Steve Jobs.

This is an admittedly tough claim to defend; Steve Jobs’ legacy speaks for itself.  But Tim Cook has already presided over some of the most important moments in Apple history, including its most profitable quarter ever and the launch of an entirely new product category.  And he has done so with poise, remarkable foresight, and efficiency.

Profiles of Jobs all lead to the same conclusion: he was a genius, a leader with unparalleled foresight, and, quite often, a horrible person to work for and with.  Cook retains Jobs’ passion without the tempermentality.  He is an exceptionally hard worker with one of the best leadership teams in the industry.  He is a man who deserves respect.

The good news is that Cook’s tenure has not shown any signs of heightened internal discord leading to a stagnant product pipeline.  On the contrary; if anything, there has never been a more exciting time to wonder what Apple has in store as its purview expands to home automation, automobiles, fashion, and untold product areas.

More than hardware and software development, however, has been the moral facet of Cook’s guidance.  Environmental responsibility has been a hallmark of his tenure; “If you want me to do things only for ROI reasons, you should get out of this stock,” he famously told a group of shareholders last year.  Product (RED) offerings have continued uninterrupted.  And, most significantly, Cook has emphasized the importance of overseeing an ethical supply chain through the publication of Apple’s progress report earlier this year.

At best, Apple is an amoral amalgamation of inputs and outputs.  It creates exceptional products while undoubtedly engaging in questionable business practices that affect workers and the environment, primarily in developing countries.  Cook will probably not change this by mandating, for example, that all Apple suppliers offer their employees a living wage.  But he seems more cognizant than both Jobs and most other tech CEOs of Apple’s ability to shape just labor policies and supply chains.  That his tenure has already seen pledges for improvement in these areas suggests he is serious about Apple’s commitment to ethical production and product creation.

I’d love to see Apple make a push at developing markets with a low-cost iPhone, essentially selling it at cost to seed those customer bases for future iDevices.  Much of Apple’s revenue comes from selling expensive products to comparatively wealthy clientele, with the Apple Watch Edition representing the peak of Apple’s pursuit of the luxury market.  It would be good for Tim Cook’s Apple to counterbalance this trend by advocating for productivity and growth in markets that can’t afford a $700 unlocked phone.

Apple’s market share and singular vision suggests it can have the most substantial impact for the good in most of the areas it chooses to enter.  Let’s hope this will be put to good use going forward.  The future certainly looks bright.

 

Pope Francis’ Cardinal Objective

Round Two

When Pope Francis announced his first slate of appointments to the College of Cardinals early last year, much of the commentary in both the Catholic press and mainstream media focused on his apparent intent to “de-Italianize” or “de-Europeanize” the upper echelons of the Church’s hierarchy. Bishops from prestigious Italian dioceses and traditional “cardinal sees” were passed over in favor of prelates from countries like Haiti that had never before had a cardinal of their own.

The recipients of Francis’ second round of red hats, which were officially handed out last Saturday in a ceremony at the Vatican known as a consistory, seem to offer further confirmation of the pope’s desire to boost the number of cardinals hailing from “the peripheries,” places like Africa, Asia, and South America where Catholicism is growing but which are still dramatically underrepresented in the highest ranks of Church government. Archbishop Soane Patita Paini Mafi, the first cardinal to hail from the tiny Pacific island nation of Tonga, claimed in an interview that his only previous conversation with the pope consisted of him explaining where Tonga is located.

It is undeniable that the College of Cardinals is becoming more geographically diverse. But is it necessarily the case that the so-called peripheries are becoming less underrepresented? After the consistory last February, I raised the possibility that the Catholic population of the “global South” was growing more quickly than the number of cardinals from these regions, meaning that the disproportionate influence of European prelates within the Vatican bureaucracy – and over the process of electing the next pope – was in fact growing stronger.

Around the time of the 2013 conclave, the Pew Research Center produced a helpful graphic that showed the share of cardinal electors coming from each continent, as well as each continent’s share of the worldwide Catholic population. Though Europe accounted for less than a quarter of the world’s Catholics in 2013, over half of the cardinals eligible to vote in the conclave that elected Francis were European; only 17% of the electors came from Latin America, which is home to nearly 40% of Catholics.

The Church is not a democracy, so saying that certain areas are “underrepresented” should not be interpreted in a narrow political sense or taken to mean that the current arrangement is necessarily unjust. But there are nevertheless good reasons why a geographic imbalance in the College of Cardinals ought to be corrected. The Church is a global institution whose leadership should not allow itself to become consumed with provincial concerns. To his credit, Pope Francis seems well aware of the need to steer clear of such pitfalls, and his pronouncements on issues like climate change reflect a global perspective that stands in clear contrast to that of his many Western critics.

Anyway, I was interested to see whether this latest move will have an appreciable impact on the representativeness of the cardinalate, so I fired up my copy of Stata 12 (alas, I can’t afford Stata 13) and got to work.

Data and Methodology 

For those of you who weren’t yet loyal RM readers a year ago, here’s a quick recap of the approach I laid out last February (much of this description is lifted verbatim from that earlier post).

For data on the nationalities of cardinals and the dates of their births, deaths, and appointments, I turned to “The Cardinals of the Holy Roman Church,” a wonderfully comprehensive website curated by Florida International University’s Salvador Miranda. Since the majority of Catholics lived in Europe for most of the Church’s history, and since the cardinals were almost all of Italian descent until relatively recently, I decided it would be sufficient to begin my analysis around 1900 (this was also the earliest date for which I could find estimates of the global Catholic population, as I explain below). I pulled information from Miranda’s website going far enough back in time to be sure that I had included all men who were cardinals at the start of the twentieth century.

Counting cardinals at any given point in time is in fact a bit trickier than it might seem. Cardinals can exit the College either by dying, by being elected pope, or (in a couple rare instances) by resigning their position. The pope can also create “secret cardinals” or cardinals in pectore, whose names are kept “in his breast” until such time as he decides to announce them. Although the date of promotion of such cardinals is technically the date the pope promoted other cardinals he chose at the same time, I figured it would make more sense to count only cardinals whose names were known publicly on the date in question.

Moreover, assigning cardinals to a particular continent can also get complicated. Many have held positions in the Vatican at the time of their elevation despite having been born and raised elsewhere. I decided to assign cardinals to regions based on where they worked when they were promoted, not on their nationality at birth. For example, Prefect of the Apostolic Signatura Dominique Mamberti (the “Chief Justice” of the Vatican’s Supreme Court) is counted as an Italian/European because he works in the Roman Curia, despite his having been born in Morocco. (That said, I also redid my analysis with nationality at birth, and the results are very similar. These, along with all of my computations, are available on request.)

For population data, I turned to the World Christian Database (WCD), sponsored by the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at the Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Massachusetts. From the website of the WCD I was able to obtain estimates of the global Catholic population by continent in 1900, 1950, 1970, 2000, and 2010, as well as projections for 2020.

Following some work in the political science literature, I employ the Gini coefficient – most commonly used in economics as a measure of income or wealth disparities – to get a sense of inequality in the geographic distribution of cardinals. Gini readings close to zero represent more equal distributions (e.g. every region of the world having a number of cardinals proportional to its share of the global Catholic population) and readings close to one represent unequal distributions (e.g. one region having all the cardinals while the others have none). In other words, the lower the Gini coefficient, the better.*

Although the Gini coefficient is constantly in flux as older cardinals pass away and/or as the world population of Catholics changes, I obviously had to limit myself to calculating it at a finite number of points in time. I chose to do so at the times of the consistories when new cardinals are inducted, and at the times of the conclaves when new popes are elected. Because I only have population data at select dates, I used simple linear interpolations to estimate population at the times of the consistories and conclaves (i.e. if population data were available at time and time t+1, I assumed that population growth between t and t+1 could be modeled with a straight line).

Following the promulgation of Pope Paul VI’s apostolic constitution Romano Pontifici Eligendo in 1975, only cardinals under the age of 80 are permitted to cast votes for pope. Since their right to vote is the primary (but by no means only) reason we are interested in their nationalities, I do my analysis in the post-1975 period on both the entire set of cardinals and on a restricted sample of the sub-octogenarians.

Results

Fig. 1: Size of the College of Cardinals, 1900 – 2015

College_Size

Fig. 1 illustrates how the size of the College has increased dramatically since 1900, even as the number of eligible electors has remained relatively constant in recent years (owing to a decree of Pope John Paul II that no more than 120 cardinals may cast ballots in conclave). In fact, the rate of growth of the number of cardinals seems to have accelerated since the early 2000’s, perhaps reflecting increased life expectancies.

Fig. 2: Percentage Share of Cardinals by Continent, 1900 – 2015

Cardinal_Shares

Fig. 2 shows how the percentage of cardinals hailing from each continent has evolved over time. While Europeans have lost a lot of ground compared to the early twentieth century, the absolute share of European cardinals has remained roughly constant for the last thirty years or so (though it appears to be ticking downward once again).

Fig. 3: Estimated Percentage of Global Catholic Population by Continent, 1900 – 2015

Population_Shares

Fig. 3 plots the population series I constructed from the WCD data, and gives a rough idea of how the Catholic populations of different parts of the world have changed in the last hundred-odd years. A comparison of Figs. 2 and 3 makes it abundantly clear that representation of the non-European continents in the College has not tracked their shares of the worldwide population of Catholics.

Fig. 4: Estimated Gini Coefficients for all Cardinals and Cardinal Electors, 1900 – 2020

Gini_Coefficients

Finally, Fig. 4 presents the estimated Gini coefficients for the College of Cardinals from 1900 to the present. The solid lines denote computations using historical data, while the dashed lines indicate projections for 2020 based on the estimated future Catholic populations of each continent in the WCD data and the assumption that shares of cardinals from each continent will remain at their current levels going forward.

The pattern remains quite similar to what I found last February, and runs somewhat counter to the conventional wisdom. The lines drop off sharply at the very end of the series, indicating that Francis’ recent set of picks is indeed moving the College toward geographic equity (the coefficient for all cardinals decreased from 0.278 on Feb. 22nd, 2014 to 0.262 today, and the coefficient for all electors decreased from 0.216 to 0.157).

But the projections for 2020 should give pause to anyone claiming that European overrepresentation is coming to an end. If each continent’s current share of the College is maintained, the Gini coefficient will actually rise modestly over the next few years – to 0.281 for all cardinals and 0.174 for the electors. Yet this is an improvement from last year’s projections for 2020, when I forecast that the Gini coefficient would rise to 0.300 for all cardinals and 0.237 for the electors. Looked at another way, the predicted 2020 Gini for the electors is 25% lower than it was a year ago. Good work, Francis!

Some reports have claimed that Francis is considering lifting the cap on the number of eligible electors from 120 to 140, presumably out of a recognition that meaningful improvements in the geographic representativeness of the College will not be brought about through attrition alone. In fact, there are already more than 120 cardinals who would be eligible to vote for pope were a conclave to be held today, so perhaps Francis can just continue to flout the official rule without explicitly changing it (he is the pope after all!). The above analysis suggests that such aggressive measures will likely be needed if the College is to become more representative in the face of continued growth in the Catholic population of the global South.

____________________________________________________

*Especially geeky readers interested in the technical details of how the Gini coefficient is computed can check out page 9 of a working paper entitled “How Has the Literature on Gini’s Index Evolved in the Past 80 Years?” by Kuan Xu of the Dalhousie University Department of Economics in Nova Scotia for a lucid, step-by-step derivation.

A Reply to Opus Publicum’s Gabriel Sanchez

Reasonably Moderate is notoriously poor at responding quickly to feedback from readers (and its two halves are even poorer at responding to each other), so I was both surprised and a little bit awed when Opus Publicum’s Gabriel Sanchez published a reply to my recent Ethika Politika article only about twelve hours after it first appeared. I very much appreciate his taking the time to read through it and offer his thoughts on my contention that a “Catholic Party” would be bad for the Church, but I’m afraid that he has misinterpreted several key pieces of my argument.

Sanchez levels two main criticisms at the piece. The first is that my concerns about “the politicization of religion” are at best vague and at worst grounded in a vision of the relationship between (the Catholic) Church and State that is out of sync with Catholic teaching:

Does Mazewski deny that the Church’s hierarchy has the right – indeed the duty – to direct the faithful in socio-political affairs?… If there is anything which is today ‘bad for the Church’ with respect to political and social movements it is its unwillingness to clearly define which matters lay Catholics can support and those they cannot. Today, neither of America’s two major political parties represent the full balance of Catholic principles; both, lamentably, stand in direct opposition to many of them.

In fact, I do not at all deny that the Church has such a right/duty. When I refer to the “politicization of religion,” I don’t mean “the involvement of religious people or institutions in the political process,” or even “political argument that draws on religious values or employs religious rhetoric.” In my original piece, in the paragraph following the one from which Sanchez quotes, I explain what I do mean:

[T]he silver lining of the status quo is that it allows the Church to more easily keep its distance from partisan politics. It would become much more difficult for it to do so were there to be a viable Catholic Party. Worse, the temptation for the Church to overlook corruption and abuse within such a party would be strong, and its public image could be tarnished if it were to be seen as turning a blind eye to wrongdoing by its favored politicians.

I welcome the fact that members of the hierarchy offer commentary on political questions, but I find it troubling when they do so in a way that implies institutional support for a particular party or its candidates (and not just because they could be imperiling the Church’s tax-exempt status). Catholicism should not be apolitical, but it is and ought to remain nonpartisan.

That’s why I’m disturbed whenever someone like Providence Bishop Thomas Tobin brandishes a letter in public confirming that he’s a registered Republican, as Tobin did during a speech to a group of young Republicans in 2013, even if he also insists that his partisan affiliation “doesn’t mean a whole lot”: not because a bishop is talking about politics, but because these kind of actions seem to insinuate that the Catholic Church finds fault with the Democratic Party’s platform but considers the Republican platform to be perfectly kosher (er, so to speak).

Sanchez writes that “the vision [Mazewski] operates with is a liberal one.” One could interpret this statement in a variety of ways, but if he means to say that I believe in cordoning off religion from the public square or in attempting to enforce a “neutral” secular political discourse that itself relies on certain contestable assumptions, then the characterization is inapt. (If he means to say that I believe in the value of pluralistic democracy, well, then guilty as charged.)

His second criticism is that the hypothetical political realignment that I describe in my piece, through which the parties of Left and Right come to be replaced by parties of “Subsidiarity” and “Solidarity,” would not really represent a meaningful development at all from the perspective of Catholic social thought:

According to Mazewski’s other main thesis, namely that we are witnessing ideological realignment within the Democratic and Republican parties, it is not clear what, if anything, this could mean for American Catholics. Any party which, inter alia, supports so-called abortion rights, the redefinition of marriage, and legal protection for immoral, incendiary, and blasphemous forms of speech is beyond the pale. Similarly, any [party] which upholds the tenets of economic liberalism… places itself out of the reach of Catholic support. Even if Democrats and Republicans begin to embrace full-throated solidarity and subsidiarity, that hardly means either will abandon their dubious policy positions. Error can always be repackaged.

I don’t believe that we’re on the threshold of an era when all politicians will “abandon their dubious policy positions,” but as I argue in the original piece,

[a] party that brought together liberals like [Zephyr] Teachout and conservatives like [Rand] Paul under the banner of subsidiarity would have to tolerate a range of views on the most divisive questions. Winters might still have a hard time pulling the lever for particular candidates, but he might also find it easier to make a home for himself in one of the parties without worrying about failing a litmus test.

My thesis is that the issues that would divide a Solidarity Party and a Subsidiarity Party would necessarily be different from those that divide conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats today (“liberal” in the colloquial sense, not in the sense in which Sanchez uses the term here). Certain viewpoints that are now sidelined within one party or the other could come to be tolerated or even embraced in a way that they currently are not. Under the existing two-party system, for example, opinions on the legal status of abortion tend to correlate almost perfectly with party affiliation, whereas thoughts on whether the government should break up large financial institutions do not.

Yet if being pro- or anti-breaking-up-large-financial-institutions were to become the key determinant of which party you ought to belong to, then the association between the abortion question and partisan identity would be greatly weakened. The issue itself would not necessarily lose its valence, just as the cause of breaking up the banks is very much alive despite lacking the institutional backing of one party or the other. But the chances of being marginalized within either party because of one’s beliefs on the matter would be dramatically reduced. (Of course, this would in many ways be a reversion to the status quo ante rather than a novel development.)

I don’t agree with Sanchez when he says that a party’s support for positions at odds with those of the Magisterium necessarily “places itself out of the reach of Catholic support” – a topic for another post perhaps! – but I do think it’s accurate to say, as Michael Sean Winters puts it, that “a person who is 100 percent consistent with the Church’s teachings is likely to find himself politically homeless.” My point is not that political ideas the Church disagrees with would disappear from the scene following the hypothetical realignment I outline, but rather that the resulting political environment would be one in which the “consistent Catholics” of the world would be less likely to be looked at askance by both parties.

Would a “Catholic Party” Be Bad for the Church?

This article first appeared at Ethika Politika.

Last September, Fordham University law professor Zephyr Teachout dealt Gov. Andrew Cuomo a major embarrassment in New York state’s Democratic gubernatorial primary when she finished with just over a third of the vote and carried 30 of the state’s 62 counties. That may not seem like much of a victory, but few believed that a race between an incumbent governor and someone who had never sought elected office would be at all competitive. The conventional wisdom in the run-up to Primary Day held that Teachout, who ran no TV ads and spent only about $300,000 on her campaign to Cuomo’s $20 million, would be lucky to crack 15 or 20 percent of the vote.

Teachout’s candidacy was portrayed by the media as a challenge to Cuomo “from the left,” but her views are not so easily shoehorned into the usual political categories. In fact, her appeal may be a sign that those categories are breaking down and that a realignment of the coalitions of American politics is in the offing. Such a shift is not likely to produce a party with a platform that lines up perfectly with the social doctrine of the Church, but it could potentially bring about a political milieu in which Catholics who are committed to seeing that social doctrine put into practice as consistently as possible find it more straightforward to reconcile their religious commitments with their partisan loyalties. And as an added bonus, it could even make it easier for the institutional Church to avoid unseemly political entanglements.

Central to Teachout’s message was her claim that concentrated power, whether economic or political, is antithetical to a democratic society. Styling herself an “old-fashioned trustbuster,” she and running mate Tim Wu, a law professor at Columbia who coined the term “net neutrality,” called for blocking a controversial cable merger between Time Warner and Comcast and even joined with conservatives like Republican gubernatorial nominee Rob Astorino in opposing “Common Core” educational standards and in pressing Albany to devolve more power to local governments.

Teachout frequently invoked Thomas Jefferson while on the stump. At a campaign stop in Oneonta, she described how he had wanted an explicit anti-monopoly clause to be included in the U.S. Constitution. Yet Jefferson, who believed that the powers of the federal government should be sharply limited and that the American economy should be powered by a strong agricultural sector, clung to a vision of society that would seem to be at odds with that of many contemporary progressives.

Indeed, Jefferson’s vision is at odds with that of many progressives, which is precisely why the Teachout phenomenon may portend a struggle on the Left akin to that between the Tea Party and “establishment” Republicans on the Right. In a recent essay for the socialist magazine Jacobin, New York University’s Christian Parenti argues that the thinking of Jefferson’s foe Alexander Hamilton, the first Secretary of the Treasury, provides the better template for contemporary liberals. Parenti writes that “Jefferson represented the most backward and fundamentally reactionary sector of the economy: large, patrimonial, slave-owning, agrarian elites,” whereas “[Hamilton’s] mission was to create a state that could facilitate, encourage, and guide the process of economic change.” If progressives like Parenti have any say, Teachout-style insurgents will not be able to take over the Democratic Party without a fight.

The Left generally worries about concentrated economic power but is less concerned about concentrated political power; the opposite is true of the Right. But what if this pattern is changing? We seem to be witnessing the recapitulation of a debate from the earliest days of the Republic: Jeffersonian advocates of the diffusion of power versus Hamiltonian enthusiasts of centralized power put to work for the public good.

It is not inconceivable that the combatants in these intra-party struggles could decide that it is easier to win elections by forming wholly new coalitions than by engaging in an endless war of attrition against their own co-partisans. One reason to think such a development likely can be seen in the early reactions to the possibility of a Hillary Clinton-Jeb Bush matchup in the 2016 presidential election. Both Republicans like the New York Times’ Ross Douthat and Democrats like former Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer have bemoaned the idea of a race between two candidates who both have close ties to the existing power structures in Washington and on Wall Street.

On the other hand, there are some who are eagerly looking forward to just such a contest. Politico reporters Ben White and Maggie Haberman last year quoted an unnamed lawyer from the financial services industry as saying that

If it turns out to be Jeb versus Hillary we would love that and either outcome would be fine … we could live with either one. Jeb versus Joe Biden would also be fine. It’s Rand Paul or Ted Cruz versus someone like Elizabeth Warren that would be everybody’s worst nightmare.

Given the almost insurmountable obstacles to building a successful third party, anti-establishmentarians like Douthat and Schweitzer will only be able to challenge the status quo in a fundamental way to the extent that they can transform one of the two major parties into an effective vehicle for their ideas. And should such a transformation be successful, there would be strong incentives for those on both the Right and Left who oppose Rand Paul or Elizabeth Warren-style populism to join forces in the other party.

To borrow from the vocabulary of Catholic social thought, voters could one day find themselves choosing not between a party of the Left and a party of the Right, but between a party of solidarity and a party of subsidiarity.  The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church defines subsidiarity as the principle that “all societies of a superior order [e.g. national governments] must adopt attitudes of help … with respect to lower-order societies [e.g. local governments, families, etc.]” (186), and solidarity (quoting Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Sollicitudo rei socialis) as “a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good” (193). In other words, we are obliged to work toward eliminating social ills even if they do not affect us directly, but our solutions to those ills ought not to be imposed from on high and should be formulated and implemented by the lowest-level governmental or civic institutions possible.

This would not be quite the realignment for which some Catholics have been hoping. In the wake of Pope Francis’s election in March 2013, the National Catholic Reporter’s Michael Sean Winters penned a piece for the Daily Beast in which he laments the fact that “a person who is 100 percent consistent with the Church’s teachings is likely to find himself politically homeless.” He concludes with a cautious prediction about the future of the two-party system:

The estuary where religion and politics intersect is constantly changing. It may be that in a generation, the two parties will sort out their ideologies, with one party standing for libertarian impulses across the board and the other adopting a more communitarian approach. If that happens, the communitarian party might be the Democrats or it might be the Republicans, but either way, it would be a decidedly Catholic Party.

Winters’s forecast may turn out to be correct, but the Church should prefer the realignment that I’ve outlined to the one for which he yearns. From the standpoint of the American hierarchy, the existence of a “Catholic Party” would be bad news for the same reason it would be good news: The bishops would be free to support a single party and its candidates without reservation. For anyone concerned about the politicization of religion, this would be a worrisome state of affairs.

Catholics like Winters may complain about never being able to vote for a politician who has not taken morally objectionable stances on at least some issues, but the silver lining of the status quo is that it allows the Church to more easily keep its distance from partisan politics. It would become much more difficult for it to do so were there to be a viable Catholic Party. Worse, the temptation for the Church to overlook corruption and abuse within such a party would be strong, and its public image could be tarnished if it were to be seen as turning a blind eye to wrongdoing by its favored politicians.

In a world inhabited by a Solidarity Party and a Subsidiarity Party, though, the hierarchy could still maintain this distance by emphasizing not only the ways in which Catholic social thought is compatible with each party’s outlook, but also how its principles can be served by healthy competition between the two. The Church has already made clear that solidarity and subsidiarity are complementary and mutually reinforcing. It even holds that pursuing one at the expense of the other can lead to social dysfunction:

The action of the State and of other public authorities must be consistent with the principle of subsidiarity and create situations favorable to the free exercise of economic activity. It must also be inspired by the principle of solidarity and establish limits for the autonomy of the parties in order to defend those who are weaker. Solidarity without subsidiarity, in fact, can easily degenerate into a “Welfare State,” while subsidiarity without solidarity runs the risk of encouraging forms of self-centered localism. In order to respect both of these fundamental principles, the State’s intervention in the economic environment must be neither invasive nor absent, but commensurate with society’s real needs (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, 351).

Another upside for communitarians like Winters is that the alliances that would hold these two parties together would militate against their taking uncompromising stances on hot-button culture war issues in their official platforms. A party that brought together liberals like Teachout and conservatives like Paul under the banner of subsidiarity would have to tolerate a range of views on the most divisive questions. Winters might still have a hard time pulling the lever for particular candidates, but he might also find it easier to make a home for himself in one of the parties without worrying about failing a litmus test.

A “Catholic Party” may seem like an appealing idea to Catholics frustrated by some of the more difficult trade-offs associated with electoral politics, but the cure could easily be worse than the disease. Better, it seems, to hope for a political culture in which both parties eagerly welcome the contributions of those working to advance a Catholic vision of the common good.

Abolish the Senate, but Amend the Amendment Process First

“Abolish the Senate,” declares author Daniel Lazare in the title of his latest essay for the socialist magazine Jacobin, in which he lays out a case for why the upper chamber of the U.S. Congress “needs to go.” Lazare vividly illustrates the ways in which the Senate is “by now the most unrepresentative major legislature in the ‘democratic world’” and draws attention to the fact that the same trends exacerbating that unrepresentativeness are simultaneously pushing reform farther out of reach. Yet his apparent belief that the Senate is the main obstacle to a new era of progressive dominance in Washington is misguided, since the features of the modern-day political scene that he lays at its feet would almost certainly persist in a post-Senate world.

Most of us are aware that the income distribution in the United States skews heavily toward the wealthy, and yet surveys have shown that we tend to grossly underestimate the extent of that skew. Likewise, it’s intuitively clear that sparsely populated states benefit from the fact that every state is constitutionally guaranteed the same number of U.S. senators, but it can be hard to appreciate just how much they benefit without taking a good look at the numbers. Lazare’s piece opens with a list of arresting statistics that make plain the magnitude of the disparity:

  • Although California has the same number of votes as Wyoming, its population, currently at 38.3 million, is now some 65 times larger. One Californian thus has 1.5 percent of the voting clout in Senate elections as someone living just a few hundred miles to the east.
  • Since a majority of Americans now live in just nine states, they wind up with just eighteen votes while the minority holds eighty-two, a ratio of better than four to one.
  • Thanks to the Senate’s bizarre filibuster rules, forty-one senators representing less than 11 percent of the population can prevent any bill from even coming to a vote.
  • Thanks to the requirement that proposed constitutional amendments be approved by at least two-thirds of each house, thirty-four senators from states representing just 5 percent of the population can veto any constitutional change, no matter how minor.
  • The same goes for treaties, which also require two-thirds approval.
  • The Senate “hold” system is even more unjust since it allows a single senator representing as little as one citizen in a thousand to stall a bill or executive appointment almost indefinitely.

At the time the Constitution was ratified, the imbalance was much less stark: Lazare himself notes that the largest state in 1790 (Virginia) had “only” twelve times the population of the smallest (Delaware).

Constitutional safeguards of minority rights are important, but representatives of five percent of the population ought not to be able to block a constitutional amendment. There is a broad consensus on this point, as there should be. Even Antonin Scalia, who I assume agrees with Daniel Lazare about approximately nothing else, is on the record as saying that the Constitution is too hard to change.

Lazare’s framing focuses on the advantages afforded to certain geographic groups by the structure of the Senate, but geography ultimately concerns him only insofar as it is a proxy for political beliefs:

Not unexpectedly, equal state representation also turns out to be racially unrepresentative. While Hispanics and racial minorities make up 44 percent of the population in the ten largest states, all of which are heavily urbanized, they account for just 18 percent of the ten smallest states (in which individual voting power happens to be some eighteen times greater)…

Other groups are also penalized…. [T]he LGBT community, whose most vocal activist base is typically in urban areas, does suffer from the Senate’s reign… The same goes for socialists, labor unions, health-care activists, conservationists, and others. All suffer under an exclusionary system that deprives progressive city dwellers of their rightful representation. Yet all are strangely acquiescent.

It is only because geography and political ideology are today so strongly correlated that Lazare is exasperated by this arrangement; he would presumably be perfectly content to live under a system in which socialists had 65 times the voting clout of everyone else! But if the tight link between geography and ideology is what makes the Senate such a problematic institution, then it is also the reason why excising it from the constitutional order will not be enough to bring about the progressive dominance Lazare seeks. Absent any other changes, abolition of the Senate will leave the Congress consisting solely of the House of Representatives, which at the moment is not exactly a bastion of leftism.

In the 2012 elections, Democratic House candidates won a combined 59,214,910 votes, or 48.4% of the total cast. Republican House candidates won 57,622,827 votes, or 47.1%, yet ended up with a 234-201 majority. The conventional wisdom holds that this GOP edge is primarily the result of partisan gerrymandering in the wake of the 2010 census. According to this line of argument, by packing Democratic voters into as few districts as possible and allowing them to win congressional races there by huge margins, GOP-dominated legislatures had essentially caused their opponents to “waste” votes that could have made contests elsewhere more competitive.

But Democratic voters, who Lazare correctly identifies as more likely to be “city dwellers,” also pack themselves into districts in a way that would tend to diminish their influence no matter how the boundaries were drawn. Washington University postdoc Nicholas Goedert wrote in a post at The Monkey Cage after the 2012 elections that “the Democrats’ loss in the House was caused largely not by gerrymandering, but [by] districting itself [emphasis added],” and that

there appears to be evidence at a state-by-state level that the disparity between the popular vote in the House and the distribution of seats is not just due to Republican gerrymanders, but due to a skewed geographic distribution of population putting the Democrats at an inherent disadvantage…

Other research points to the same conclusion: while partisan redistricting has certainly helped Republicans to cement an advantage in the House, the aggregation of Democratic-leaning voters in densely populated urban areas has simultaneously resulted in a kind of natural gerrymander.

It sounds like what Lazare would really prefer is a system of proportional representation, where seats are handed out to each party in direct proportion to their share of the popular vote. I wrote last year after the statewide elections in New Jersey that the Republicans were justified in their grousing about not having taken over either chamber of the legislature despite having garnered more votes, so I’m sympathetic to electoral reforms along these lines. (Proportional representation has some problems of its own, but there are alternative setups like the mixed-member system that can work to mitigate these.)

As I mentioned at the outset, one of the most insightful pieces of Lazare’s analysis is his observation that the ever more pronounced concentration of the population in large metropolitan areas will tend to make the Senate more unequal even as it makes it harder to reform, because of the requirement that two-thirds of the Senate itself approve any prospective constitutional change (unless a constitutional convention is called by two-thirds of the states, something that has never been pulled off in U.S. history). Amending the Constitution requires a degree of consensus and political will that is almost impossible to imagine us achieving in this day and age. Why pour such unbelievable amounts of energy into a campaign to enact a change that will not even solve the problem it was formulated to address?

In my opinion, the only constitutional amendment worth pursuing at this point is one that makes it easier to amend the Constitution. Altering the structure of our government, even in apparently minor ways, is not something to be taken lightly and should be very difficult. But it should not be impossible. Many states make use of amendment mechanisms that are demanding without being unusable. Common features of these mechanisms include requirements that the legislature sign off on an amendment multiple times in different sessions or that it be approved in a popular referendum, sometimes even by a supermajority of voters.

Once we’ve amended the amendment process and adopted a more streamlined procedure, we can then debate further changes with a reasonable amount of confidence that those debates will have some chance of producing actual results. This approach could even improve the odds of making Lazare’s vision of a Senate-free world a reality. Reformers are much more likely to win an argument about whether to make it easier to tweak the Constitution, something from which any constituency could conceivably benefit somewhere down the road, than they are to prevail when explicitly demanding that small states voluntarily relinquish their perks under the current arrangement.

I share Daniel Lazare’s aim of making the American political system more responsive to the needs and preferences of the voters, though I happen to see that objective as an end in itself and not just as a strategically useful tactic for facilitating a socialist victory at the polls. But even granting that this is a worthwhile goal, his plan for achieving it is inadequate to the task.

Were the effort to bulldoze the Senate somehow to succeed, the subsequent realization that the problems highlighted by the abolitionists still remained would only engender even more cynicism about the ability of any popular movement to ever deliver meaningful constitutional reform. And if Lazare is puzzled by how “strangely acquiescent” people are to the status quo now, then I can only imagine how bewildered he would be then.

A Q&A with Slate’s Betsy Woodruff

Betsy Woodruff is Slate’s staff writer for politics and the co-host of Bloggingheads’ Woodruff & Strauss We’ve really enjoyed Betsy’s coverage of the midterm elections and her insightful podcast commentary, so we reached out by e-mail to get her thoughts on her work, gridlock in Washington, and the political landscape over the next two years. 

Congratulations on your new position at Slate!  What sparked your interest in political reporting?  What do you like most about your work?

My family always followed politics closely. We had lots of dinner table conversations about it, and I grew up very aware of the way public policy impacts people’s lives. It’s always been really interesting to me.  The best part of my job is that I get to meet a huge variety of people, which is really fun.

We hear a lot of talking heads these days lamenting the politicization of journalism and the erosion of even a basic consensus about what the facts are. Yet there are also pundits who take the “This Town” view of DC as a place where politicians and reporters alike are steeped in this common worldview that is totally out of touch with what “real Americans” outside the Beltway think and believe.  As someone who’s worked for outlets like National Review and Slate that come at things from notionally different ideological angles, which of these perceptions would you say has more merit? 

I think that’s probably a bit of a false dichotomy. My top pet peeve is when people refer to “the media.” The media is not a monolith! There are reporters who are really close with top Hill aides, and reporters who cover DC from thousands of miles away, and reporters who are very open about their partisan/ideological allegiances, and reporters who are total straight-shooters and will never betray any bias. And all of that is good. Variety is good. There are stories that outlets like Free Beacon and Talking Points Memo will get that mainstream outlets would miss. And there are stories where Politico and Washington Post will blow everyone else out of the water. “The media” contains multitudes. That’s good, because it means news consumers have a huge number of choices, and it means old media empires have to watch their backs (which makes them better!). Today, people have more access to high-quality political journalism than they have ever had in human history. There’s plenty of room for improvement, but forests, trees, etc etc.

My main concern is that people can get ideologically siloed — in other words, you have liberals only reading liberal outlets and conservatives only reading conservative ones. It’s easy to get lazy and stop thinking critically about the policies you like and the politicians you admire. That’s bad. Conservatives should read Mother Jones and Talking Points Memo. Progressives should read National Review and The American Conservative. Moderates should read all of those. You miss a ton of good journalism if you only read writers who agree with you.

What do you think can be done to ameliorate the gridlock we see at all levels of government? Do we need more politicians willing to engage and compromise with the other side, or more partisans who will resolutely argue for their convictions and push hard to implement their vision?

One man’s Gridlock-mongerer is another man’s Horatius at the Bridge, so I’m disinclined to say that gridlock is necessarily a bad thing. Here’s a non-answer answer: One example of gridlock is in drug sentencing reform. I’ve written a bit about the bipartisan backing this has on the Hill — when Ted Cruz and Elizabeth Warren are on the same side, you’d think something would get done. But many politicians are terrified of changing mandatory minimum drug sentencing laws because they don’t want their opponents to run TV ads against them saying “Rep. McGillicuddy is Soft On Crime!! Why Won’t He Protect The Children?!?!?! Why Does He Support Heroin?!??!” In that case, I think it’s voters’ responsibility to pay attention to complex issues, to call their congressmen (phone calls make a difference!) when important votes are coming up, to pay attention to advocacy groups who work on issues they care about (in the case of sentencing reform, it’s FAMM), and to shame candidates who use cheap, mendacious scare tactics.

Another point: The same politician can happily compromise one week and resolutely argue for her convictions the next week — in other words, voters don’t always have to pick between “politicians willing to compromise” and “partisans who will argue for their convictions.” Many politicians fit into both categories, depending on the issue. Ted Cruz is a good example of this.

We’ve really been enjoying your Bloggingheads episodes with Daniel Strauss.  How did the idea for the show come about? 

I met Daniel at CPAC this year and he suggested we start doing Bloggingheads. As you can tell from listening to his BH commentary and reading his stories at TPM, he’s an insightful, funny guy who is great to work with. We have a really good time.

Based on the midterm elections, what trends or potential events should we be aware of in the next two years?  What are you most looking forward to covering during the 2016 campaign season?  Any predictions about how the presidential race will play out?

I’m really excited about covering the Republicans. How do they talk about immigration, 4th amendment issues, and foreign policy? Who are the dark horses? Does the Tea Party make up some of the territory it lost in 2014? Does Sarah Palin win back any of her nigh-nonexistent relevance? Do we see the apotheosis of Kingmaker Mitt Romney? I have zero predictions. I have no idea what’s going to happen. Hooray! America!

We’d like to thank Betsy once again for taking the time to answer our questions! Be sure to check out her work at Slate and her Bloggingheads series with Daniel Strauss.

The Moderation Conversation, Email Edition: Standard Time vs. Daylight Savings

This is the second installment of “The Moderation Conversation, Email Edition”, a spin-off of RM’s “Moderation Conversation” feature.  The topic this time was something that seems inconsequential but has inspired one of our most adamant disagreements in ages: is Daylight Savings Time better than Standard Time or vice-versa? 

Chris

Matt, I’m feeling a bit down at the moment and I need your help.  I’m writing this to you on October 30, which means we only have three days left until Daylight Savings Time ends.

For me, this is perhaps the worst time of the year, at least outside of the cold doldrums of February.  The end of Daylight Savings Time means that it will start to get dark around 4:30pm from now through March.  This is terrible!  Two weeks ago, we were enjoying warm, breezy fall days, but by next week, it will be cold and completely dark by the time I leave my office each afternoon.

I love Daylight Savings Time.  I’d endorse a petition to make it the year-round standard in a heartbeat.  What’s the point of changing clocks twice a year?  What’s the benefit of manipulating time such that evening falls before most people clock out for the day?  I’d rather grab an extra hour of sun in the afternoon than an extra hour in the morning, when I’m barely conscious enough to hate the morning traffic, let alone appreciate the beauty of fresh light.

Word on the street is that you actually prefer Standard Time to Daylight Savings Time.  I find this unfathomable and I’m inclined to completely, vehemently disagree, but I’d like to hear: what’s your rationale?  Can you help convince me that there’s value in adopting Standard Time?

Matt

Chris, I’m sorry to hear that you’re feeling down, but I do think I might be able to help. What if I told you that getting rid of Daylight Savings Time might literally make all of us a little bit happier?

Before I explain why, I want to point out that one alleged benefit of DST is greatly oversold. The primary motivation for instituting DST was the belief that it would conserve energy by reducing the need for artificial lighting on summer evenings. This argument dates back at least to the time of Benjamin Franklin, who thought that people would burn fewer candles if everyone agreed to wake up and go to sleep earlier during the summer. It was also invoked by Congress as a reason for lengthening DST starting in 2007.

Unfortunately, there’s scant evidence that DST actually saves energy, and some reason to think that it actually has the opposite effect. In a 2008 National Bureau of Economic Research working paper, economists Matthew Kotchen and Laura Grant analyze the impact of an Indiana law that required all counties in the state to adhere to DST, many of which had not done so previously. By comparing patterns of energy usage in those counties that had practiced DST before the passage of the law to those that had not, Kotchen and Grant were able to isolate the effect of the time shift on electricity consumption.

Their results show that DST may paradoxically increase the amount of electricity used, perhaps because any savings realized from the “Benjamin Franklin effect” are swamped by an increased reliance on air conditioners or fans (since more sunlight in the evenings also means that the evenings will tend to be warmer). The increase is not enormous – Kotchen and Grant estimate it at a few percentage points – but at the very least it calls into question the main rationale for DST.

But why would I say that year-round Standard Time has the potential to make us happier? Well, science has shown that exposure to bright light in the morning is mood-enhancing, and therapy involving “light boxes” is sometimes used as a treatment for depression. Such therapy is most effective for individuals who suffer from the aptly acronym-ed Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a form of depression that strikes mainly during the winter months.

Although patients with SAD generally start to feel worse in the late autumn and better in the springtime, some clinicians report that they struggle with the start of DST (when the mornings suddenly become darker) and experience the return to Standard Time as a kind of reprieve (when the mornings become brighter).

Even for those of us who don’t have to deal with SAD, the “spring forward” can still have deleterious consequences for our health. In addition to its effects on mood, there are studies suggesting that heart attacks and suicides also spike around that time of year.

I agree with you that changing the clocks twice a year is pointless – so let’s stick with Standard Time all year long!

Chris

I appreciate your efforts to convince me why Standard Time should usurp Daylight Savings Time all year round.  Unfortunately, I’m having a hard time buying your arguments; even in tandem, they’re not persuasive enough to make me think that darkness at 4:30pm is a worthwhile trade-off.

I’ll readily accept the energy statistics you cite, but by your own evidence, it does not seem like Standard Time has an overwhelming advantage over DST with respect to electricity conservation.  It also sounds like the worst cases of Seasonal Affective Disorder occur during the heart of the winter when Standard Time is most acute and days are shortest.  And the instances you report regarding heart attacks and suicides imply causation with DST when only correlation may exist.  On the whole, all three points strike me as insufficient to justify a full year of Standard Time.

But there are distinct advantages to a full year of DST.  Joe Stromberg at Vox notes how a full year of DST would allow for extra time after work for leisure activities, including shopping, which is why retail sales rise a little bit during the summer.  It’s not a huge increase, but hey, it’s something.  He also reports that DST is correlated with reduced instances of robberies due to the extra light at night.

Benefits for school children are perhaps even greater.  Additional light in the afternoon would allow for more time spent in after-school activities, particularly exercise.  Interestingly, the National Parent Teacher Association has been a key opponent of expanding Daylight Savings Time in the past, arguing that light in the morning is necessary when children are traveling to school.  But this is easily solved by pushing back the start times for school, which is long overdue anyway (and perhaps a topic we could discuss in the future).

More important, though, are the lives that would be saved by full-year DST.  From Time (no pun intended): “Adding an hour of sunlight in the evening year-round would save the lives of more than 170 pedestrians annually, according to a 2004 study in Accident Analysis and Prevention. ”  Says Steve Calandrio, a professor who has studied the effectiveness of DST policies: “At 5 pm virtually everyone in society is awake.  There are far more people asleep at 7 in the morning than at 7 in the evening.”  It’s as simple as that.

Seems like there are benefits to both a full year of Standard Time and a full year of Daylight Savings Time, but the upside to 365 days of DST far outweighs that of ST.  What say you?

Matt

I admit that the research showing a link between the start of DST and heart attacks does not prove causality – it can never be repeated often enough that correlation does not imply causation! – but neither does the study you refer to which claims that DST reduces crime. That said, the evidence is pretty suggestive in both cases, so maybe we both need to acknowledge that our favored regime comes with costs and benefits.

I’m a little confused about the points one of the articles you link to makes regarding DST’s effect on retail sales. The article quotes Michael Downing, the author of a book called Spring Forward: The Annual Madness of Daylight Saving Time, as saying that “[t]he barbeque grill and charcoal industries say they gain $200 million in sales with an extra month of daylight saving—and they were among the biggest lobbies in favor of extending DST from six to seven months in 1986.” Downing also mentions the golf equipment industry, the fuel industry, and the “Hearth, Patio, and Barbecue Association” as advocates of that move.

What do these industries have in common? They all produce goods or services that are people are most likely to consume during the spring or summer. In other words, I can understand why extending DST to cover more of the times when people might be golfing or grilling or driving to the beach would benefit golf club makers or charcoal sellers or oil companies, but now that DST already runs from March to October I doubt that any further economic benefits could be reaped by making it year-round. I imagine that not very many people golf in the depths of winter (although I did see some mini-golfing going down earlier today, and it’s almost the end of November).

I wonder how you might feel about the following compromise, which would both address my concerns about rousing people while it’s dark outside and still grant you your cherished evening sunlight: shorten the workweek so that we can all awaken at the same time we do now and have time to frolic in the natural light after we come home. You might be familiar with the argument made by some economists that a shorter workweek would distribute paid employment more equitably across the population and simultaneously reduce both joblessness and overwork. I can’t say whether anyone has ever argued for such a proposal on the grounds that it would give us more evening sunlight, but it sure seems like that would be one of the consequences. I’d love to get your thoughts!

Chris

Agreed with you that it’s important to acknowledge our favored regimes both come with costs and benefits.  Though I still believe all-year Daylight Savings Time is preferable to the status quo, the arguments and information you’ve brought up against DST are definitely helping me look at the bright side of things.  (Pun sort-of intended.)

As you note, the sales benefits of DST are almost certainly a bit overblown, especially since only a select number of retailers are actually reaping the rewards.  But I still think the arguments I cited about children benefiting from light after school, coupled with research that suggests a causal relationship between Standard Time and pedestrian deaths, tip the scales slightly in favor of full-year DST.

Your compromise proposal about a shorter workweek is fascinating, albeit a few hundred orders of magnitude more difficult to institute than passing a law to mandate year-long DST. But it’s true!  If everyone is working fewer hours, there will most definitely be more time to enjoy the sunlight during short winter days.  Perhaps this will be a byproduct of the basic income policy Bernie Sanders is sure to institute when he wins the 2016 presidential election.  Only two more years!

 

Killing Benji: Mark Kozelek and the Impact of a Creator’s Sins on Artistic Achievement

Note: This post contains strong language and references a graphic song title.

Under his Sun Kil Moon moniker, singer/songwriter Mark Kozelek released his latest studio album, Benji, last February. The album was met with rapturous praise for its brutal, poignant, and raw depiction of loss. In his review for Pitchfork, Ian Cohen wrote:

There are 11 songs on Sun Kil Moon’s astonishing sixth LP Benji, and in nearly all of them, somebody dies. And that’s not including the ones where someone’s on the verge of death or seriously headed towards it. Toddlers die, teenagers die, adults die, and the elderly die. They die of natural causes and in freak accidents. People die alone and people die by the dozens—handicapped children, single parents, grandmothers, serial killers. They die out of mercy and die long before they’re due. Rednecks die as respected men and white collar kids die in disgrace. But more importantly, Mark Kozelek wants us to know that they all lived, loved, fought, fucked up, and often did the best they could, before he sets out to “find some poetry to make some sense of this and give some deeper meaning” to their tragedies. Turns out he doesn’t have to dig very far. Here, Kozelek does away with the metaphor and verbal obfuscation often used to distract an audience from their own joy, sadness, crippling failures, and small triumphs. If listeners find themselves unable to make it through Benji in one piece, it’s because Kozelek all but forces us to recognize how the most emotionally moving art can be mapped directly on to our own lives.

Benji is a monumental exercise in empathy. We empathize with and mourn for the people Kozelek so brilliantly sketches – among them, a single-mother nurse working the late shift killed in a freak accident, a friend who suffers through a debilitating injury while playing guitar, and the children and teachers murdered in the massacre at Newtown:

So when Christmas comes and you’re out running around,
Take a moment to pause and think of the kids who died in Newtown.
They went so young, who gave their lives
To make us stop and think and try to get it right…
Were so young, a cloud so dark over them
And they left home, gave their mom and dad a kiss and a hug.

So when your birthday comes and you’re feeling pretty good,
Baking cakes and opening gifts and stuffing your mouth with food,
Take a moment for the children who lost their lives.
Think of their families and how they mourn and cry.

We empathize with Kozelek’s personal acquaintances who “map directly to our own lives,” particularly when Kozelek sings about his mother and father:

My mother is 75
One day she won’t be here to hear me cry.
When the day comes for her to let go,
I’ll die off like a lemon tree in the snow.
When the day comes for her to leave,
I won’t have the courage to sort through her things.
With my sisters and all our memories,
I cannot bear all the pain it will bring.

And we empathize with Kozelek himself, who frames these insights and tributes as reflections in the course of his life on the road, often juxtaposed with memories of his youth and fears of his own mortality.

Kozelek’s lyrics are the most important component of Benji’s resonance, and his unique verse structure contributes to their incisiveness. The intensity and deeply personal subject matter of the album is paired with a lyrical delivery that often comes across as Kozelek simply reading from a diary. His couplets often run a couple of beats too long beyond traditional verse rhythms, giving each song a spontaneous, informal, and intimate feeling. At first, this comes across as a curious technique that clashes with the serious subject matter; by the end of the album, it’s mesmerizing, showing just how confessional and raw Kozelek’s stories can be.

Benji’s power comes from a source that’s greater than the sum of its parts. To appreciate Benji is to place one’s faith in Kozelek- to develop a bond of solidarity, to rage and mourn and quietly reflect alongside him. Kozelek never characterizes himself as a perfect man in any of the songs on Benji; far from it, in a couple of cases. But he does position himself as a searcher of truth through so much chaos and pain and heartache, a man trying to make some sense and create order and meaning in a world of hurt. Benji’s resonance ultimately lies in the shared conviction that the listener develops with Kozelek over how music is a vehicle to preserve and make meaning out of things that will fade away.

It’s been odd, then, to read the news surrounding Mark Kozelek over the past month. Instead of being included on “album of the year” lists, Kozelek’s name has been floating around the pop music scene because of a bizarre, pointless fight he picked with The War on Drugs, an alternative rock band based out of Philadelphia led by Adam Granduciel. It’s the kind of thing that shouldn’t make the news and shouldn’t rise above the level of “forgettable beef.” Instead, Kozelek’s words and actions have begun to make critics reconsider the merits of Benji and spurred criticism about the use of language of male violence.

Which raises the ever-recurring question once again: to what extent should an artist’s personal views and actions impact how the audience views his/her work?

* * *

To briefly summarize what happened: Kozelek and The War on Drugs were playing concurrent sets at the Ottawa Folk Festival earlier this fall. Noise from The War on Drugs’ concert was bleeding into Kozelek’s venue, prompting Kozelek to make crass remarks about how the band was playing “beer commercial lead-guitar shit.” After that concert, Kozelek issued a “challenge” through the press for Granduciel to play with him onstage and continued to take shots at The War on Drugs. He then released a new seven-minute song for free called “War on Drugs: Suck My Cock.” After Granduciel criticized Kozelek in an October interview, Kozelek then recorded another new song (“Adam Granofsky Blues”) that featured him reading Granduciel’s interview comments… and laughing at them.

This entire sequence of events probably sounds intensely stupid and pointless. And it is! For reasons unknown, Kozelek decided to press on and parlay this pathetic war of words into actual songs for all to hear, sonic tokens for a PR spat that never should have happened in the first place.

And guess what? There are a lot of problems with both “War on Drugs: Suck My Cock” and “Adam Granofsky Blues.” Here’s Meredith Graves on how Kozelek is contributing to a culture that encourages male violence through language:

When Mark Kozelek chose to start and carry on a completely one-sided and extremely public feud with a band who genuinely did nothing wrong, who chose not to retaliate and even stated their position as fans of his work, who seem hurt and confused by Kozelek’s constant public attacks that persisted for weeks and how said attacks affected their year—that doesn’t seem like entertainment. It’s important to call it what it is: emotional abuse.

Which is why, in all likelihood, Kozelek chose to say “suck my cock” instead of “I think your band is bad.” “Suck my cock” is a command heard most often in two places: heterosexual porn, and schoolyard taunts between presumably straight boys. In no way does Mark Kozelek actually want his cock sucked by the members of the War on Drugs. What he wants is to make them feel violated, to make them feel submissive. “Suck my cock” is an order, not a request. “Suck my cock” is, when used by the wrong person, the language of physical force, the language of rape.

Graves notes in her piece that the initial press response to the song was actually quite positive, with some major outlets labeling it as “goofy” and a lighthearted “dis track.” But even if you disagree with Graves’ own analysis of the song and find the track to be a bit of harmless fun, it is difficult to think Kozelek is just “playing around” after listening to “Adam Granofsky Blues.” Hearing Kozelek laugh and laugh and laugh at Granduciel’s comments comes across as vicious, mean-spirited, and slightly sadistic, especially in light of the fact that Granduciel is only just recovering from intense anxiety and depression that made it difficult to even leave his apartment.

Maybe Kozelek is unaware of Granduciel’s depression. Regardless, the aggregate effort Kozelek has put into perpetuating this fight, especially given that Granduciel and his band did literally nothing to deserve this, paints a picture of him not as cranky and curmudgeonly, but cruel, pathetic, and deeply wrong.

* * *

The events of the past few weeks have made it seem as if there are two Mark Kozeleks. The first is the creator of Benji, an imperfect, admirable chronicler of things that will fade away; the second is a guy who thinks “all you rednecks, shut the fuck up” is a witty chorus lyric. The former is trying to testify to people working their way through pain; the latter is someone who actively perpetuates pain.

This has not gone unnoticed. As noted earlier, part of Benji’s allure was its authenticity, both in terms of the people Kozelek pays tribute to and the beauty of his work in doing so. The recent War on Drugs incidents have framed Kozelek in a decidedly more negative light and, as a consequence, are casting doubt on his conviction in Benji. More broadly, Kozelek’s senseless spat with Granduciel raises the recurring question once again: to what extent should an artist’s personal sins affect how viewers interpret his/her art? Should an artist’s character bear influence on how their work is consumed and remembered?

The general answer to this question is no. An artist’s indiscreet or harmful actions outside the context of their art should not be taken into consideration when weighing their art’s merit. That Roman Polanski molested a child and fled the United States should not affect how we view the thematic quality of his films, even though we might vehemently condemn his actions and consciously refuse to view his work to refrain from financially supporting him. Of course, there are exceptions, especially when malignant beliefs and perspectives affect the thematic core of a piece of art or body of work. The debate about how Heidegger’s philosophy should be judged given his support of Nazism in the 1930s immediately comes to mind.

Kozelek’s indiscretions are obviously far less weighty than extreme sexual impropriety or support for genocidal fascism. But his words and continual mocking engagement of Granduciel have already begun to detract from the successes of his earlier work as well as his new projects. Kozelek released an album of Christmas songs during the first week of November, and in his review for Pitchfork, Mark Richardson couldn’t help but discuss both this album and Benji in the context of the War on Drugs incidents:

Timing is everything. We’ve known for a while that Mark Kozelek was going to be releasing a Christmas album before the end of the year, but for much of that time Kozelek was riding a wave of goodwill following the release of (the still very good, even if I’ve stopped bringing it up at parties) Benji. Now Sings Christmas Carols finally comes out and it feels like an unwanted present from the obnoxious uncle you try and avoid at family gatherings… Kozelek is looking pretty sad, not to mention that he’s probably alienating new fans he may have acquired since Benji’s release. And now we’re supposed to allow him into our homes and into Mom and Dad’s 5xCD changer, slotting his CD next to Dolly Parton and Nat King Cole and A Charlie Brown Christmas? If nothing else, we can be thankful that Kozelek finished this album some time ago, so he didn’t alter his version of “The Christmas Song” to include the line “Although it’s been said, many times, many ways, War on Drugs can…

The musical composition of “War on Drugs: Suck My Cock” also detracts from Benji’s positive reception. Benji’s music is sparse, plaintive, and repetitive; nearly every track is based on a simple lush melody that’s looped again and again, usually with minimal development, build, or change in form. It was a relatively low-fi approach, but the elegant simplicity of each song suggested a good amount of thought went into the planning of each piece. “War on Drugs” features almost identical production value- and Kozelek banged it out in a matter of days. Maybe there wasn’t actually that much work put into Benji, after all. Maybe that unique lyrical structure is just a lazy songwriting construct instead of a conscious attempt at intimacy.

Maybe, though, these allegations are unfair. Despite the many criticisms listed in this piece, Benji is still a gorgeous, haunting, often beautiful album. It may lack a certain authenticity that came with identifying with Kozelek through the course of the album, but even if all of his characters are fictitious and his personal struggles false, his lyrics and themes ring true. Perhaps his misdeeds may make us more hesitant to praise his work, but that doesn’t mean his work inherently lacks value and grace.

Yet there is something undeniably different when listening to Benji in light of all of Mark Kozelek’s recent adventures. Benji is no longer simply a moving testament to friends gone, family lost, strangers who deserve to be remembered. It stands now as a possible aberration created by a man who is one of the aggressors causing the pain Benji so poignantly tried to transfigure. No one is perfect, but the sheer pointlessness of Kozelek’s actions makes his decisions all the more bitter and confusing, hypocritical and tarnishing.

One of the songs on Benji is titled “I Watched the Film the Song Remains the Same.” A Stereogum reader posted the following lyrics from that song as commentary on Kozelek’s actions:

Though I kept to myself and for the most part was pretty coy
I once got baited and had to clock some undeserving boy
Out on the elementary school playground
I threw a punch that caught him off-guard and knocked him down.

And when I walked away the kids were cheering
And though I grinned, deep inside I was hurting
But not nearly as much as I’d hurt him
He stood up, his glasses broken and his face was red.

And I was never a schoolyard bully
It was only one incident and it has always eaten at me.

I was never the young schoolyard bully
And wherever you are, that poor kid, I’m so sorry.

He’s not sorry. And both Benji and innocent people are still hurting as a result.

On Prayer in a Connected World

Let’s recap a few of the headline events from Summer 2014:

  • The Israel-Gaza conflict resulted in over 2,000 deaths, including a substantial number of child casualties.
  • ISIS’ continued rise in Iraq yielded claims of genocide, extensive religious persecution, and almost unimaginable suffering and brutal torture.
  • A genocide continues unabated in Syria. New conflicts arose in Libya.
  • Ebola killed thousands of people and continues to affect thousands more.
  • Over five hundred innocent people were killed in the crash of Malaysian Airlines Flight 77, which was likely caused by errant pro-Russian separatists in ongoing Russo-Ukrainian skirmishes.
  • Hundreds of people were killed in natural disasters in China and elsewhere around the globe.
  • The murder of Michael Brown sparked protests that escalated dramatically due to near-militarized dispersal tactics in Ferguson, Missouri.

2014 was one of the coolest summers in recent memory on the East Coast, but it felt like the world was coming to a grief-stricken boil.

Of course, we live in one of the most peaceful eras that our planet has ever seen. But the ways in which we consume news and information have attuned us to pain, sorrow, and violence. It’s easier than ever to get constant story updates and to learn the gritty details of murders, disasters, and death. We have access to an almost bewildering scope of coverage; thousands of sources are seconds away at our fingertips. And we have an increasing penchant for constantly checking these sources for new updates. We are reading more about more on a more frequent basis.

How has our heightened consciousness to what’s going on in the world affected the way we pray and our belief in the efficacy of prayer?

It’s a question I continue to ask myself, particularly when reflecting on the events described above. Our relationship with each other, and our cognizance of the “other,” has been fundamentally altered by technology’s broadening of the borders of our consciousness. We can access more experiences and existences than at any other point in human history, along with detailed high-level context about events and trends. This is a fairly obvious paradigm shift on the surface, but in many ways, it’s been neglected with respect to how we conceive of experiences and relationships with each other in prayer.

For much of human history, prayer was a personal activity with a communal scope wherein supplications were primarily made for family members or local peers. I’d imagine this was true even as newspapers became more popular and gave lower- and middle-class people an understanding of what was befalling their brothers and sisters around the world. Now, we don’t just pray for our communities or families. The Catholic Church, with its globe-hopping Pope, is a network of connections that span continents, languages, and governments. Our religious communities are rooted in the local but have international scope.

Technology has facilitated and forged these connections through prayer. It’s easier than ever for believers to connect, pray, and learn more about their faiths – and to question and adjust their beliefs as they acquire new information and perspectives.

But technology’s role in shaping how we consume information might be having a counterbalancing effect to this ability to connect. It’s easy to see how this increased access to news, with its constant emphasis on death and destruction, could significantly weaken our belief in prayer’s ability to enact real change. At one point in history, prayers of petition were used to request cures for local maladies, but now they’re employed in the service of a wide array of world conflicts. And it’s somewhat disheartening to wonder how the prayers of a single person can possibly address all of these awful things. Once people stop believing prayer is efficacious, it’s likely their faith will start to wane too.

Of course, it’s all a matter of what you pray for and how you approach prayer. To pray for general resolution to global problems is important, but there are other, arguably more effective ways of approaching prayer. For example, using prayer as a time for focused reflection on particular individuals and cultures may be one avenue to active, agapic prayer. Perhaps instead of asking God for peace in the Middle East, we might learn and recite Yazidi prayers as an act of spiritual solidarity; donate money to charities working with refugees; and read about the amazing life and faith of James Foley and the other people ISIS has taken prisoner.

It is easy to look at the news and despair. It is equally easy (and sometimes justifiable) to view prayer as a ridiculous endeavor that has no tangible benefits or outcomes. In light of these temptations, we should be cognizant of how prayer need not be a fleeting plea in a sea of nightmares, but an invitation to support, empathize, and grow as individuals and communities. Our connected world taketh away; our connected world giveth, too.

 

 

Predicting 2014’s “Fauxbel” Laureate(s)

The announcement of the 2014 Nobel laureates in economics – or rather, “Fauxbel” laureates, given that the economics prize is technically not a “Nobel Prize” – is due tomorrow morning. I offered some predictions last year as to who would win, and I actually got one! (Got one correct, that is; I myself was not among those honored with an early morning call from Swedish-accented strangers.)

Marginal Revolution’s Tyler Cowen predicts that the Nobel committee will select William J. Baumol, perhaps in conjunction with William G. Bowen, for his work on the cost disease. The Guardian floats Baumol as well, along with a host of others. So does Thomson Reuters, which also places its bets on Philippe Aghion, Peter Howitt, Israel Kirzner, and Mark Granovetter (a sociologist). Econ Job Market Rumors, one of the internet’s great econ-themed cesspools, has a thread on Nobel predictions where one poster wonders whether, instead of giving a prize this year, the committee shouldn’t opt for taking some back.

The Wall Street Journal’s Real Time Economics lists a number of contenders, including my own official guess: Harvard University’s Robert Barro. As noted by RTE, Barro currently ranks as the #2 most-cited economist on IDEAS, a database of research papers in economics maintained by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, and he is mentioned almost every year as a leading contender for the highest honor in the discipline.

An additional reason why I’m wagering that it’ll be Barro is because of the rough alternation of the prize between recognition of empirical and theoretical work. Last year’s award highlighted empirical research in asset pricing, 2012’s honored two theorists, and 2011’s celebrated the development of econometric techniques used to untangle cause and effect in macroeconomics. Barro is best known for his contributions to growth theory, so his selection would certainly fit with this pattern. It’s also been over 25 years since a Nobel was explicitly awarded for work in this area, so the field is arguably due. Plus, a Barro win would undoubtedly mean some entertaining tweets from his son, a factor the committee presumably weighs heavily.

Here’s hoping my one-year streak remains unbroken!

Unreasonably Immoderate: Impressions of Atlas Shrugged Part III

Atlas Shrugged Part III: Who is John Galt? was released to little fanfare and no acclaim last month. As its clunky name implies, it is the final film in a nigh-unwatchable trilogy loosely based on Ayn Rand’s veritable doorstop of a novel. Amazingly, each installment managed to sink lower than its predecessor; the cast was completely replaced for each film, and rumors circulated that Who is John Galt? was originally conceived as a musical. For most people, this combination of awful production and stilted Objectivist dialogue does not an enjoyable evening make.

Not us! Along with our good friend Rory Marinich, we gleefully headed to one of the only movie theaters in our state that was screening Part III and livetweeted opening night. We’re happy to present the fruit of our labors to you here: a timeline of tweets covering our entire journey through this godforsaken film. Enjoy!

#TheShruggening: An Evening of Atlas Shrugged Part III

Some select highlights from the full tweetstorm linked above:

The Moderation Conversation: Talking About Divorce en Route to a Wedding

This is the fifth installment of “The Moderation Conversation,” an RM feature in which Matt and Chris meet for a live chat and completely rewrite the subsequent transcript so as to appear significantly more eloquent than they actually are. This exchange, which deals with the ongoing intra-Catholic debate about divorce and remarriage, was recorded several months ago. RM is publishing it now to mark this week’s start of the Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops in Vatican City. (This is almost certainly a lie conceived by Matt and Chris to make their procrastination seem intentional.)

The Great Divorce Debate

Matt: Okay! So, we are here in the parking lot of a Panera in upstate New York.

Chris: And, as people are wont to do in the parking lot of a Panera in upstate New York, we are going to talk about divorce.

M: … as we are on our way to a wedding. [Laughs]

Specifically we wanted to talk about the debate going on within the Catholic Church about readmitting divorced and remarried Catholics to the sacrament of Communion. There’s been a lot of discussion about this in light of the fact that Pope Francis has called an assembly of the world’s bishops known as the General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, for this October and October 2015, to discuss challenges to the family in the modern world. But the issue that’s gotten the most attention in the secular media and in the Catholic press has been this subject of Communion for the divorced and remarried. So maybe you want to give a little more context for the controversy?

C: Sure, yeah. A lot of the debate has revolved around comments made by the German Cardinal Walter Kasper about divorced and remarried Catholics. Kasper expressed support for a new sort of process that would allow them to receive Communion after a period of repentance for the failure of their first marriage. In an interview he gave with Commonweal magazine he discussed ways this could be accomplished, but a number of different bishops and others within the Church voiced dissatisfaction with his reasoning.

One of the things Kasper articulated to Commonweal is the idea that people are always entitled to an opportunity for forgiveness. Not all marriages are necessarily going to work out, and there should be a policy in place where people who are contrite about the failure of their first marriage can be readmitted to Communion and can fully reconcile with the Church.

M: Right. The Church has no problem admitting people who are divorced to Communion. The issue is divorce and remarriage, because the Church sees marriage as a permanent institution and it maintains that to enter into a second marriage is therefore to –

C: Commit adultery.

M: Yes. But while the Church doesn’t recognize divorce, it does recognize the concept of an annulment, which a lot of people see as a kind of “Catholic divorce.” The idea behind an annulment is that the Church declares that a marriage was, for whatever reason, never validly established in the first place.

Something Kasper brought up in the interview that I thought was a pretty significant bombshell was that he mentioned a conversation he had with Pope Francis, wherein Francis supposedly said that he believes roughly half of all Catholic marriages are not valid, either because people don’t really understand the significance of what they’re promising and therefore can’t really enter into a legitimate marriage, or because there were social pressures for them to get married and it wasn’t truly a free decision on their part. I thought that was an astonishingly high number and I think a lot of other observers did as well.

C: Yeah. Michael Brendan Dougherty and Ross Douthat both expressed extreme skepticism at that.

M: Mhm. John Allen [formerly of the National Catholic Reporter and now a Vatican correspondent for the Boston Globe and Crux] has said that he believes the most likely outcome of the Synod will be that it becomes easier to get annulments. I believe right now the question of whether to grant an annulment is decided by a diocesan tribunal, but the decision can be appealed all the way to Rome. Allen thinks that the Synod will sidestep the question of whether to allow divorced and remarried Catholics to take Communion and will settle for streamlining the annulment process.

C: So I guess the question that arises from this is, if we’re creating a broader standard for what warrants an annulment, then at what point is an annulment effectively a divorce? At what point do the two basically converge?

M: Hmm.

C: Did Allen specify what kinds of new things might be considered grounds for an annulment?

M: I’m not sure it’s so much that he thinks that new grounds will be entertained. I think it’s just that he believes the “burden of proof,” so to speak, will be lightened. Maybe a less thorough investigation will be required to determine whether the marriage was invalid. The number of appeals that are possible will be cut down. I don’t think it’s so much changing the definition of an annulment as it is just changing the bureaucracy that people need to go through to obtain annulments.

C: Right. But if you do go that route, if you do make it easier to obtain annulments, it doesn’t really leave a distinct impression of why divorce is unacceptable.

M: So I have to agree with Douthat and Dougherty on the point here about half of marriages being invalid. Their argument is that number is way too high. I think that this whole debate about what percentage of marriages are invalid is a side issue. It’s being raised as a way for the reform-minded side of the debate to accomplish something without having to face the real question head-on. Namely, whether the Church should formally recognize the possibility of second marriages.

C: I’m inclined to agree with the pope that the number could be quite high. Maybe not 50%, but certainly substantial if you account for people who didn’t realize what they were doing when they got married. Wouldn’t surprise me if it were much higher than people might expect.

That being said I don’t really see how this contributes to the debate at all, except to give ammunition, like you point out, to people who would be more inclined to say, “Look, marriage is not as hard and fast a thing as it might be portrayed by traditionalists, so therefore more lax standards for divorce or annulments are warranted.” Seems like a peripheral anecdote.

M: Right. And what makes this such a difficult issue both within the Church and outside of the Church is that there’s a tension between the norm that you want to uphold, the message you want to broadcast about what marriage is and what people should be aspiring to when they get married, and the reality that a lot of marriages do fail.

And so on the one hand, it seems very retrograde or cruel to deny people the possibility of second marriages, but on the other hand, if second marriages or remarriage in general comes to be seen as less of an exception to a rule and more as just a universal possibility, then in some sense that undermines the norm that you’re trying to inculcate. How you strike that balance, I think that’s a really tough question.

 

Second Chances

C: I’d like to get your opinions on a couple of pieces that ran in the August issue of First Things. Rusty Reno and Robert Spaemann both wrote columns about divorce and remarriage, and these two pieces, especially the Spaemann one, they strike me as tone deaf in a lot of ways.

M: Okay.

C: Their arguments are very idealistic. They support an aspirational vision of marriage as something that transcends temporary disagreements or romantic love, anything like that that might fade over time. The problem is that it also comes across as somewhat cruel when factoring in the myriad problems that actual couples encounter in the course of marriage, some of which may render the union unsalvageable. Reno and Spaemann seem not to acknowledge that the realities of marriage can be quite tough, and there are circumstances where people become less compatible over time.

Did you have any opinions on either of those articles?

M: Well, to get back to Kasper’s proposal for a minute, he notes that in a lot of situations where people are divorced or remarried and they have children from their second marriage, the Church essentially asks them, if they want to receive Communion, to walk away from that second marriage. But what Kasper says is that in these situations there basically is no way out of them that doesn’t cause some kind of harm. To walk away from the second marriage, especially if there are children, involves the breakup of another family.

And so, you know, there are competing obligations here – the obligation that the Church says the person has to their former spouse, and the obligation to the person that they’re living with now. In his mind, there’s no way to reconcile those two things without some kind of hurt being caused. So he says that in these situations the Church should be trying to lead people to a place where they’re striving toward the ideal even if they can’t actually reach it.

Now, as for Reno’s piece in First Things: he says that what seems like a very minor change on divorce and remarriage is likely to be interpreted by those outside of the Church as a capitulation with far-reaching consequences. If the remarried, why not the cohabiting? Again, this is what I was saying earlier about norms and rules versus exceptions. It seems to me that we have to find a way to admit for exceptions without allowing the exceptions to totally undermine the rule. But Reno’s position is that allowing any exceptions by definition undermines the rule.

C: Mhm.

M: Which I’m not so sure is the case, but he has a point: divorce is widely considered acceptable these days, and when the law first started to permit no-fault divorce, it was a positive development in the short run for people who were trapped in very abusive relationships or other situations they clearly needed to extricate themselves from. But it is equally the case that now, when divorce is seen as an option that’s always there in the background, there are marriages that are perhaps struggling but that might not get the help they need because it’s easier to just end it.

C: True. I mean, you could definitely make the case for broader support systems both within and outside of the Church to help try to reconcile couples that might be on the rocks.

M: David Blankenhorn’s Institute for American Values, which we’ve written a little bit about before, supports this legislation called the Second Chances Act. The idea is to offer more publicly funded support for marriage counseling and to impose waiting periods for people seeking divorces, during which time the state can try to provide assistance for them to work it out. They cite some research showing that for a fairly significant fraction of couples looking to divorce, at least one person generally thinks there’s some chance the relationship could be saved. Blankenhorn and his crew believe that offering people divorce as a first resort rather than a last resort is maybe not ideal in those situations.

C: I think it’s important to remember that in these proposals that Kasper and Blankenhorn are throwing out there –

M: And just to be clear, they’re very different proposals. One is set in the context of civil society and the other has to do with an internal Catholic debate.

C: I know, but the commonality between them is that divorce should not be advocated as a first solution. It shouldn’t be the go-to measure.

M: And Kasper actually – he’s clear about the fact that he agrees with the Church that divorce is technically not even possible. Marriage isn’t dissolvable and, formally speaking, second marriages aren’t official marriages.

C: [Groans] I’m increasingly frustrated by this line of reasoning. While the official stance might be that divorces are unacceptable, some of the Church’s practices and actions support that some sort of separation is possible. Take the annulment process – it’s technically not a divorce, but it gets to the same kind of themes. You’re walking away from this marriage and it’s being declared null and void. It seems like both divorces and annulments cut against Jesus’ vision of marriage as a bond that cannot be severed.

M: I think the fact that divorce is officially not permitted probably in a lot of cases does lead to the concept of an annulment being stretched farther than it should and being used as a kind of Catholic divorce. And I think that in turn undermines the credibility of the Church. When people see the divergence between the Church’s official teachings and the way that they’re applied… I understand the Church is trying to hold the line, in some sense, but when you hold the line so well that you fail to respond to the situation on the ground, you weaken yourself.

 

Those Crazy Cousins from the East

M: Let’s talk about the Eastern Orthodox position on divorce and remarriage. The Orthodox Church has been separated from the Catholic Church for about a thousand years, but one of the interesting things about the Orthodox is that they do allow remarriages after divorce. And this is based on their idea that marriages are indissoluble only in the sense that it’s immoral for two people who are married to say, “we’re not going to be married anymore.” But divorces are possible. It is possible for marriages to die, for marriages to fail irretrievably.

And so the Orthodox interpretation of the New Testament passages where Jesus says “what God has joined let man not put apart” is not so much that a marriage is somehow metaphysically indissoluble, but rather that Jesus is issuing a moral command. It’s like saying, “let man not kill other men.” Right? Like, everybody agrees that it is literally possible, it is physically possible for a man to kill other men. It’s just not morally acceptable to do that.

C: Do you think this type of interpretation might gain some traction in the upcoming Synod?

M: I don’t know a lot about the historical situation that led to the Orthodox adopting this position while the Catholic Church rejected it, so I think it would be an enormous leap for the Catholic Church to embrace this view at the Synod. And that’s why I tend to agree with John Allen that if there are any substantive changes made, they’re probably going to be peripheral changes, they’re going to be modifications to the annulment process, rather than an actual grappling with the core question of whether divorce is possible.

I mean, the fact that even Walter Kasper, who is considered one of the most liberal participants in this debate, notionally agrees that marriage is indissoluble would seem to rule out any deeper change in the Church’s position on this.

C: It seems like that’s a logical way to look at marriage because it acknowledges the reality that marriage is not easy. One of the interesting things about the passage on divorce in the Gospel of Matthew is that Jesus acknowledges that marriage is something that’s extraordinarily difficult. The disciples say that if marriage is this difficult, “it is better not to marry.”

M: Mhm.

C: It’s not something that comes off as a light commitment.

M: But I think defenders of the traditional position would say that Jesus acknowledges that marriage is difficult but then he still doesn’t allow divorce. And so we shouldn’t take the fact of marital strife as evidence in favor of divorce.

C: No, that’s fair. But at a certain point you could say that there is a level of strife that indicates that the union simply no longer exists.

M: One of the more interesting things about that passage is the apparent exception that Jesus builds into it. He says that divorce is unacceptable except in cases of adultery. From what I’ve read on this issue, the Catholic response to that is basically that this is a mistranslation, that the phrases there are a poor expression for what was actually trying to be conveyed. And that by choosing those words, modern translators have put an interpretation onto that that it shouldn’t really have.

But a lot of Protestant denominations accept divorce, even aside from the Eastern Orthodox. So there are Christians who interpret that as a more straightforward exception, that it is actually what it sounds to modern ears like it is.

C: Mhm.

M: I recently came across the following question in an online forum: “If Jesus made an exception for divorce in cases of adultery, why doesn’t the Church?” And the response is, “The word ‘adultery’ is not what Jesus said, although many Bible translations use this word. If Jesus meant to say ‘adultery’ he would have used the word moicheia, but instead he used the would porneia, meaning ‘illicit’ or ‘invalid’, and so the Church” –

C: Oh, that’s interesting.

M: I think the Catholic Church is interpreting this to mean that “divorce” is possible in cases where the marriage was not valid in the first place. In other words, this is Jesus talking about annulments. I don’t know enough about Ancient Greek to know how that should actually be read.

C: [Laughs] You’re forgiven.

I guess a little bit more of an inflammatory take on this would be: is it possible that Jesus’ explicit condemnation of divorce is something that’s no longer particularly relevant today? Is that something that, while the spirit of it might be true, the absolutism is no longer really helpful?

M: Why do you say that?

C: It seems like, in a lot of cases it could be more beneficial for couples to separate. You know, people do grow and change over time. Perhaps an absolutist interpretation lacks an appropriate level of nuance to be acutely relevant today.

M: One thing to throw into the mix here is that I’ve heard the argument made, not necessarily from people with any particular opinion on this question, that Jesus’ prohibition on divorce, given the historical circumstances at the time, was actually a very liberating statement. For a man to divorce his wife during a time when men held all the wealth was essentially for a man to leave a woman with nothing. And so, for Jesus to prohibit divorce was a way of standing up for the rights of women, to keep them from being just wantonly abandoned by their husbands.

In the modern context, obviously there are a lot of cases where divorce does have that result, but there are many more cases where it doesn’t, because both partners are similarly situated economically and could live independently if they had to.

 

Francis Goes Big… Maybe

M: It came out a while ago that Pope Francis met with the Patriarch of Constantinople (one of the leading clerics of the Eastern Orthodox Church) when he traveled to the Holy Land, and it was reported that they talked about having an ecumenical gathering in 2025, I believe, to celebrate the seventeen-hundredth anniversary of the Council of Nicaea.

There were varying reports about whether this was just a small-scale remembrance of that historical event, or whether Francis is actually thinking about calling an ecumenical gathering on the order of the Second Vatican Council, a large-scale meeting of the world’s bishops that would try to deal with fundamental questions of doctrine, and try to bridge some of the differences between the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church. And I wonder if this whole movement for doing something about changing the way that the Catholic Church deals with divorced and remarried people is a step toward making a good-faith offering to the Eastern Orthodox and showing, you know, we’re really interested in reuniting with you.

C: That would be… that’s super optimistic. I kind of hope that’s the case, but based on some of the documents released in advance of the Synod, it seems like not much will change. So, as far as a peace offering for 2025, if you will… I kind of doubt it.

M: Yeah, Michael Peppard had this really great piece at Commonweal after that came out about how it’s been thought that Francis might call a Third Vatican Council, but for Francis, Vatican III is not big enough! He wants a Nicaea III.

C: [Laughs]

So any key takeaways from all this? I don’t know if you’re optimistic that the Synod will do something that’s enough. I’m a little pessimistic myself.

M: Right. Like I said, I think this debate about divorce also raises some questions about society at large. My view tends to be that the Church is perhaps too strict in dealing with this issue, whereas the larger culture is perhaps too lax. And I’d like to think that each could learn from the other. Maybe there can be a kind of dialectical relationship between Church and society on this issue.

I also think it’s helpful to think about debates within the Church as being less between “liberals” and “conservatives” and more between those who believe in hard and fast rules and those who would rather render judgments on an ad hoc basis.

C: Mhm.

M: The people who want to uphold the traditional position in this debate are people who believe very strongly in the value of rules and in the value of not making too many (or even any) exceptions to those rules. And then those on Walter Kasper’s side – maybe even on Francis’ side! – are the people who say that things are not black and white, that you always have to take into account individual circumstances.

C: Yeah. Regarding the Church and society, I had written several months back about considering the Church as an “institutional ethical consultant.”

M: What do you mean by that?

C: To imagine it as a body that could proffer advice to non-members, to proffer advice in a secular format that still retains the spirit of Church teachings. And, to apply that to this issue, I would think it’d be really positive if the Church were able to show the benefits of a Catholic understanding of commitment and marriage to the wider society.

M: Mhm.

C: To really emphasize, instead of just why you should not get divorced or why it’s wrong for you to get divorced, why marriages in the Catholic mode are worth pursuing. That could be in the form of a broader program for people who are about to get married, or just programs along the way during the course of a marriage to say, this is what is a realistic expectation for this relationship. To share wisdom and show the value of being in a committed, devoted relationship.

And on that note, we’re going up to –

M: We are going to a wedding. So let’s think happy thoughts!

Kesler and Mac Donald on Natural Law and Moral Progress

The latest installment of the Claremont Review of Books’ interview series “The American Mind” features a wide-ranging conversation between Review editor Charles Kesler and Manhattan Institute fellow Heather Mac Donald that covers everything from literary deconstructionism to Rudy Giuliani. The interview is posted as six segments of about fifteen minutes each, so there’s quite a lot to digest. (The kitschy opening sequence, a montage of America’s founding documents and a bust of Thomas Jefferson set to classical music, may be better left undigested.)

The part that most interested me was an exchange between Kesler and Mac Donald about the concept of “natural law,” and the relationship between religion and conservative moral precepts. Mac Donald, co-founder of the blog Secular Right, is an unusual political creature. Known for her ardent support of New York City’s controversial “stop-and-frisk” policy and her restrictionist stance on immigration, she is also an avowed atheist whose writing has appeared at RichardDawkins.net and who has sparred with Ross Douthat about the problem of evil.

In the penultimate segment of the Claremont interview, Kesler observes that Mac Donald, who is often sharply critical of American academia, rarely launches any William Buckley-esque attacks on the secularism of the ivory tower. Here’s an excerpt from the exchange that follows (starting at around 3:46 in the video below):

Kesler: I wonder whether you don’t agree that there is a kind of rational morality that is not strictly dependent on God, which is, I think, the position of natural law thinkers of many schools.

Mac Donald: Yes, absolutely. Parents understand this instinctively, that you inculcate in your child a sense of “you don’t beat up your little sister,” a) because it is going to lead to household chaos and there’s an innate need for order, but b) because your little sister has feelings like you do, and you want to have reciprocal moral behavior. And what moral education is about is widening that sphere of understanding and empathy to greater and greater distance in human interaction…

K: Right. No, well I bring up the question the way that I do because it’s you who say [quoting from an essay by Mac Donald]: “Nonbelievers look elsewhere for a sense of order… valuing the rule of law for its transparency to all rational minds and debating Supreme Court decisions without reverting to mystical precepts or natural law.” End quote.

But I mean, mystical precepts and natural law are two very different things, as you say just a few sentences later: “They do not need – skeptical conservatives do not need – God or the Christian Bible to discover the Golden Rule and see themselves in others.” I think that’s absolutely true, but I think many religious conservatives would concede that, that the natural law or rational morality is a source of the Golden Rule…

M: I just, I’m not persuaded that very different tribal cultures that have not achieved our civilizational advance… they may differ on things in significant ways.

K: They do, and I’m not sure that admission has anything to do with the notion of natural law as a rational morality, though. I mean, just because tribes don’t understand the Pythagorean Theorem doesn’t mean that it’s not true, right? I guess all I’m saying, gently, is that you may be committing natural law without realizing it, insofar as you do think that the Golden Rule, for example, is something true or something that appeals to – seeing ourselves in others is not a merely cultural thing.

M: Yeah, I just see… slavery was justified by the Christian Bible and by natural law, it’s just a fact. There were also people who argued against slavery based on Christianity and natural law.

K: It was justified on secular grounds and rational grounds too, of course.

M: Completely. Absolutely. But I’ve yet to see universal agreement on what natural law is. If I could see that, then I would know that it is truly something innate to all human beings. And what I see is, rather, evolution…

I am not offended that the Founders did not think of having females vote. It doesn’t bother me, I don’t have a chip on my shoulder. Nevertheless, that is a pretty radical difference. Nobody today, if they were to create the American Constitution from scratch, would think of limiting suffrage to males. That would be assumed as almost a part of natural law, that males and females should be voting. So I see something that we like to invoke – transcendent universal ideals – but I [also] see culture evolving.

[End of clip]

On the one hand, Mac Donald agrees with Kesler that there is a “rational morality,” and that “moral education” is something possible and worthwhile. Yet she also speaks of cultural evolution and uses the example of the framers of the Constitution limiting suffrage to males to show how ethical judgments can change over time, and how we shouldn’t fault our forebears for having held what we might now consider to be grossly unenlightened views.

But Mac Donald is confusing ethical judgments with ethical realities. Kesler’s reference to the Pythagorean Theorem is apt: to say that moral truths can be arrived at by rational inquiry is not necessarily to say that our current understanding of morality is adequate or complete, just as to say that science deals in objective facts about the universe is not necessarily to say that we have reached the pinnacle of scientific knowledge. Ignorance of the Pythagorean Theorem does not render the Pythagorean Theorem untrue, and ignorance of the moral obligation of a democracy to extend the franchise to both men and women does not nullify that obligation.

Mac Donald is worried that holding to the existence of an objective morality would lead us to have to dismiss the Founding Fathers as bigots, when really the cultural patrimony available to them at the time was not such that they could have understood sexism as we do today. This is not so. After all, believing in the validity of mathematical reasoning need not lead us to condemn as stupid “tribal cultures” that have not yet groped their way to certain insights about triangles. People can engage in behavior that we later recognize to be wrong without necessarily having been guilty of deliberate wrongdoing at that particular moment in history.

Mac Donald seems not to have fully considered the fact that a theory of moral evolution or moral progress is not the same thing as the idea that morality can change. One can believe that morality is in fact not a reality independent of human beings’ preferences, and that all of our talk about right and wrong is culturally contingent, etc. But one can also believe that morality is an independent reality, and that we discover moral truths over time by thinking hard about how to properly “widen our sphere of understanding and empathy.”

Kesler is quite right to draw a distinction between “natural law” and “mystical precepts,” which Mac Donald appears to treat as one and the same. Her misunderstanding, it seems to me, stems from the fact that “natural law” is a term inextricably bound up with religious philosophy, and in particular with Catholicism and certain branches of Protestant Christianity. It is not so much the method offered by natural law that she rejects, but specific conclusions that have historically been associated with it (e.g. support of slavery, disenfranchisement of women, etc.).

Incidentally, self-identified proponents of natural law thinking sometimes fall into a similar trap. In preparation for this fall’s Synod on the Family in Rome – about which Chris and I hope to have more to say relatively soon – the Vatican released an instrumentum laboris or working paper synthesizing the results of a worldwide process of consultation with bishops, priests, and laity about challenges to families in the modern world. One section deals with the question of how contemporary Catholics understand (or don’t understand) the concept of a natural law:

In a vast majority of responses and observations, the concept of natural law today turns out to be, in different cultural contexts, highly problematic, if not completely incomprehensible. The expression is understood in a variety of ways, or simply not understood at all…

The responses and observations also show that the adjective ‘natural’ often is understood by people as meaning ‘spontaneous’ or ‘what comes naturally’… The underlying anthropological concepts, on the one hand, look to an autonomy in human freedom which is not necessarily tied to an objective order in the nature of things [emphasis added], and, on the other hand, every human being’s aspiration to happiness, which is simply understood as the realization of personal desires. Consequently, the natural law is perceived as an outdated legacy. (21-22)

The document goes on to lament evidence of widespread nonacceptance of Catholic teaching on a host of controversial questions, mostly related to marriage and bioethics. But nonacceptance of Catholic teaching on particular issues does not imply nonacceptance of the idea that there is “an objective [moral] order in the nature of things.” Clearly, denial of such an objective order is a sufficient condition for rejecting many of the Church’s positions, but it is not a necessary one. You can believe in right and wrong and yet still maintain that the hierarchy is mistaken about what is right and wrong in certain situations. The authors of the instrumentum laboris, like Mac Donald, are mixing up method and results.

To their credit, they do concede later on that “[t]he language traditionally used in explaining the term ‘natural law’ should be improved so that the values of the Gospel can be communicated to people today in a more intelligible manner.” The term “natural law” obviously has the potential to frustrate rather than facilitate conversations about ethics, and to cause confusion about what exactly is being talked about. Its enthusiasts should consider finding different ways of expressing their view that morality, like science, is something that can be discussed objectively. The folks at RichardDawkins.net might not be pleased, but Heather Mac Donald and the pope may be able to agree on something yet.

Nate vs. Leo (and Another Nate): On FiveThirtyEight and The Upshot

Statistics guru Nate Silver has long been considered a master political prognosticator, and for some time he held a virtual monopoly over what has since come to be known as “data journalism.” But around the time that Silver ended his four-year tenure at the New York Times to build an expanded version of his popular FiveThirtyEight blog under the patronage of ESPN, several other players moved into the market: Ezra Klein, formerly of the Washington Post’s Wonkblog, hired “literally everybody” to help him launch Vox.com, and the Times’ David Leonhardt, creator of the now-defunct Economix blog, succeeded Silver as the paper’s nerd-in-chief with the debut of The Upshot in March 2014.

Much has been written about the strengths and weaknesses of each of the sites, including by our own Chris Fegan a few months back. But there’s one story about the data journalism food fight that has largely slipped under the radar: when it came time to start making forecasts for this fall’s elections for the U.S. Senate, The Upshot and its main politics writer, former New Republic contributor Nate Cohn, somehow managed to completely steal Nate Silver’s thunder.

Part of Silver’s unique appeal during the past few campaign seasons stemmed from the fact that he used statistical models to make quantitative forecasts of the outcomes of presidential and senatorial contests, as opposed to simply offering up the sort of qualitative assessments that are a dime a dozen elsewhere in the world of punditry. For all their weaknesses, these models had some important advantages: they allowed for new data to be quickly incorporated into FiveThirtyEight’s view of a race, and they made it possible to systematically attend to a wider range of variables than a mere human could on his own.

When The Upshot debuted “Leo,” its own model for forecasting the results of the 2014 Senate elections, I initially assumed that it would be a cheap knockoff of Silver’s more refined approach, and that I should really just wait for the new incarnation of the FiveThirtyEight model if I wanted to hear from professionals about what we ought to expect come November.

Leo’s methodology page features a Vox-style Q&A that walks readers through the mechanics of the model. Here’s the response to the first question, which asks about how Leo interprets polls:

We focus on the margin between two major candidates, taking steps to make different polls directly comparable. We tweak polls that count registered voters instead of likely ones. We make further adjustments depending on who conducted the poll.

“Well yes,” I thought, when I read that for the first time, “but they probably don’t make as many adjustments as Nate Silver would, like weighting polls based on their sample size or how recent they are.” Then I scrolled down to the next paragraph:

After adjusting the polls, we take a weighted average for each race, giving more weight to polls with a larger sample size and more recent polls (with a poll’s date being especially important the closer we get to Election Day). We also give more weight to a poll when we are more certain about its pollster’s house effect.

“That’s nice,” I chuckled condescendingly as I kept scrolling, “but I bet Leo doesn’t include any of the other sort of data that Nate Silver would, like candidates’ approval ratings or fundraising totals!” False:

For incumbents running for re-election, we consider their approval ratings. We also consider each candidate’s political experience; money raised; the state’s most recent presidential result; national polls on the public’s mood; and whether the election happens in a midterm or presidential year.

“Alright, this is a little better than I expected,” I said to myself, beginning to furrow my brow, “but Leo probably doesn’t account for the fact that the outcomes of races in different states tend to be correlated, which was something Nate Silver always thought was very important to model.” Also false:

We don’t think the races are independent. If the economy starts booming, it will probably help Democrats everywhere. If President Obama bungles an international crisis, Republicans everywhere could benefit. Even on Election Day, our model assumes the races will be correlated to some extent: The pollsters will tend to miss consistently in one direction or the other across the different races.

I finally realized that Leo was not only quite sophisticated, but that it was virtually identical to the old FiveThirtyEight model. In fact, the methodology page basically admits as much:

Leo owes an intellectual debt to earlier models, including those created by political scientists and especially the FiveThirtyEight model, which popularized ideas about adjusting polls, combining polls with other information and national swings.

FiveThirtyEight has been releasing informal reads on the most competitive Senate races at regular intervals for the past several months. Silver has noted that it is the site’s “tradition” to begin transitioning to algorithmic predictions sometime during the summer. This is indeed what FiveThirtyEight did in 2010, when it began publishing results from its model at the end of August. Yet does one data point make a “tradition”? In 2012, Silver’s model was launched at the beginning of June – right around the same time of year that he made this comment.

One obvious response to those (like myself) who would criticize Silver and his team for letting The Upshot beat them to the punch is that unveiling a quantitative model too early might give a false impression about the precision with which the results of an election can be forecasted many months out. Silver may have been worried that readers would fail to realize just how much uncertainty is associated with early predictions, and would put too much stock in seemingly precise numbers that aren’t really all that informative.

But this is always a danger, and Silver dealt with it in 2012 by posting confidence intervals alongside his forecasts of the popular and electoral votes. Moreover, FiveThirtyEight has argued on multiple occasions that early Senate polls have plenty to tell us about November. Here’s Harry Enten, in a piece from April entitled “Early Senate Polls Have Plenty to Tell Us About November”:

More than six months from the midterm elections, current polling and past precedent are competing for our trust. I analyzed which measure is more indicative come November, and it turns out that polls are a more robust metric even though their numbers are still sparse and there’s still so much time remaining before the election.

It’s not clear what Silver can do at this point to reassert his dominance. Maybe he’ll just try to rely on FiveThirtyEight’s superior name recognition. The site has about three times as many Twitter followers as The Upshot, so it’s possible that the efforts of Leo and Nate Cohn will simply be forgotten in the buzz surrounding the eventual rollout of FiveThirtyEight’s own model. But among hardcore political junkies, I can only assume that Silver’s brand has lost some of its luster. Barring a new model that features some truly innovative bells and whistles, it looks like he allowed himself to be totally outflanked by another guy named Nate.

In Silver’s first post at the new FiveThirtyEight, he explained that “we’ve elected to sacrifice something else as opposed to accuracy or accessibility. The sacrifice is speed – we’re rarely going to be the first organization to break news or to comment on a story.” Fair enough! RM prizes depth over quick turnaround too. (This may or may not be an attempt to offer a noble-sounding excuse for our frequent dry spells.) But it’s not clear that FiveThirtyEight is gaining much of anything by taking its time in rolling out its Senate model. Silver and his colleagues have certainly sacrificed speed, but the upshot is that they seem likely to get nothing in return.

 

Standing with Iraq’s Christians – And All of Its Persecuted Innocents

The militant group ISIS, which began seizing control of Iraqi cities several months back, has decreed that all Christians and religious minorities in the Iraqi city of Mosul will face the death penalty unless they convert to Islam or leave the territory.  The terror organization imposed Sharia law earlier this past June and recently prevented Christian services from being held for the first time 1600 years.  Last week, the city’s remaining Christian families fled – and were reportedly robbed at ISIS checkpoints as they left.

These actions have prompted many Christians around the world to adopt the Arabic character of “nun” on social media in a show of solidarity with the persecuted.  This symbol had been painted and posted on the homes of Christian families in Iraq, marking them as targets for their beliefs.

It is heartening to read the posts and essays by Christian writers who express concern for the welfare of their brothers and sisters suffering in Iraq.  Their work has been a moving testament to the pain fellow Christians are facing and an important reminder that this suffering must not be forgotten.

But there has been a slightly disturbing undercurrent in some of these tributes to Mosul’s Christians: an unspoken indifference to the plight of non-Christian Iraqis who are suffering with their Christian countrymen.  Given that most Christian denominations are defined by their concern for all people regardless of their faith, I fear this is creating a discrete, insular provincialism that does no favors to broader Christian outreach.

As an example, here’s Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry at Patheos:

The persecution of Christians happens under a great shroud of silence. Maybe, as John Allen has argued, persecuted Christians are too Christian for the Left to care, and too third-worldy for the Right to care (but, you know, there’s a War on Christmas on). And the worst thing for our governments would be to be seen in non-Christian lands as having any sort of special solidarity with Christians (yes, wouldn’t that be terrible), so better to err on the side of indifference. Right?

This blood is particularly on the hands of the American government, which has a special duty to help them and, I am sure, will do nothing of the sort.

Much credit should go to Gobry and his fellow bloggers for lifting this shroud of silence surrounding Christian persecution through their work – I certainly wouldn’t have learned as much about this crisis without their efforts.  But Gobry’s proposal for a governmental declaration of solidarity with Iraq’s Christians makes little sense.  What reason would the U.S. have for expressing any particular affinity for Christians over Muslims in Iraq, especially when ISIS’ extremism is affecting Sunni and Shi’a Muslims in different but equally disturbing ways?

For that matter, if the U.S. were to signal solidarity with a persecuted minority, why would it limit its symbolic gesture to only Christians?  Human Rights Watch reports that ethnic groups including Turkmen, Shabaks, and Yazidis have also been persecuted for their beliefs and subjected to decrees similar to Mosul’s Christians.  Turkmen are the third largest ethnic group in Iraq; 500,000 live in the Mosul area alone and 30,000 in the city proper.  Despite its Christian origins and its large Christian population, the U.S. government obviously has no explicit Christian affiliation, and to express “special solidarity” with Christians in Mosul, which Gobry sarcastically suggests would be no big deal, is actually a serious affront to the other religious groups suffering similar harm in Iraq.

Michael Brendan Dougherty at The Week falls into a similar trap as Gobry, suggesting that Christians are the primary group that deserves American attention:

The U.S. owes Christians and other persecuted Iraqi minorities assistance… Mosul was a home for Christians for as long as Christianity existed. Not anymore. Now, the U.S. cannot restore these people to their homes, or reverse the desecration of Christian shrines. But our diplomatic, financial, and moral energies should be used to protect them from any further harm.

To his credit, Dougherty references other “religious minorities” throughout the essay, but he never actually names any of them.  The piece’s title reinforces a decidedly narrow view of whom American aid should assist: “Why America is duty bound to help Iraqi Christians.”

Dougherty calls for the U.S. to withhold financial aid to Iraq until its government does more to protect only afflicted religious minorities.  To argue this point is to ignore the besieged members of Iraq’s religious majority.  While Islam constitutes 97% of the country’s religious population, Sunni Muslims account for around 35% of the total religious population and Shi’a Muslims account for around 60%.  There have been atrocities committed against both denominations and the Iraqi government is not blameless.  To suggest aid should be preconditioned solely on the welfare of minorities – and to ignore the hardship inflicted on innocent Sunni and Shi’a Muslims – seems tone-deaf at best, since civilians of all religious communities have been unjustly affected.

Rorate-Caeli similarly frames the atrocities in Iraq solely through their impact on Christians in the region:

For two thousand years, our dearest brethren saw it all from Mosul… For years, we have been warning that support for terrorists in neighboring Syria would surely end badly. But even we could not imagine that it would end so badly so fast and over such a vast area. And yet, the insane Empire-builders are still handing billions and billions, and hundreds of millions of dollars to “moderate” terrorists! Where’s the outrage? Have you contacted your congressman, senator, president, MP, prime-minister expressing your outrage, begging this madness to stop?…

After two thousand years, it is finished. It’s over. Who will pay for the lasting damage lying Western politicians created by starting a process that would lead to what not even the first Islamic rulers, thirteen centuries ago, ever did, the obliteration of Christian life and populations?…

In Mosul, genocide has been accomplished. Where’s the outrage?

There is something vaguely, quietly cruel in this call to contact government officials as a response, first and foremost, to Christian persecution in Iraq.  One million Iraqis have fled the country in 2014.  500,000 people in total have left Mosul.  Did the authors of this post think it unimportant to emphasize how a general diaspora of displaced Iraqis is equally unacceptable?  Are we to believe that Christian persecution is more important and worthy of collective action than the pain felt by those of other religions?

This is not to minimize the particularly brutal treatment of Christians by ISIS, but to emphasize that all forms of persecution to every religious group in Iraq are worthy of condemnation.  Christians should not simply stand in solidarity with their tribe, but with all believers of good will who are unjustly harmed or prevented from worshipping by ISIS’ extremism.  Action should not be a consequence of singular Christian oppression; voices should be raised because innocent people are prevented from exercising religious liberty and  fully practicing their beliefs.

I understand that, as Christians, Gobry and Dougherty feel a particular connection with those who share their conception of the world, and I do not mean to suggest that any omission of other religious groups is tantamount to dismissal of their well-being.  But to focus on Christians to the exclusion or marginalization of other religious minorities carries the whiff of a moral calculus wherein Christians effectively matter more.  We must not risk even the slightest chance of conveying this attitude in any dialogue about religious persecution in Mosul.  Framing the unjust conditions that Christians face within the broader context of Iraqi upheaval and violence is critically important as a testament to the hardship endured by all.

Muslims, Turkmen, and Iraq’s other religious minorities are as much our brothers and sisters as Christians in Iraq.  Christians around the world should not forget them as they pray and work for peace.

The Weight of Quiet Moments: On “Boyhood”

The critical consensus regarding Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, which saw a limited release in theaters last weekend, has been universally, overwhelmingly positive.  “I’m not saying Boyhood is the greatest film I’ve ever seen, but I’m thinking there’s my life before I saw it and my life now,” New York Magazine’s David Edelstein wrote in his critique of the film.

High praise for a movie that has no ostensible plot.  Boyhood follows the life of a young child named Mason as he grows up in Texas with his divorced mother and father.  Linklater filmed Boyhood over the course of 12 years, spending a few days annually with the cast and crew to edit the script and shoot new scenes.  As a result, we see Mason (Ellar Coltrane) grow from a pudgy kid into a slim young man over the course of two and a half hours.

The film does not traffic in most Hollywood clichés or plot devices.  Individual scenes are, for the most part, composed of quiet moments and routine occurrences.  Mason plays video games, fights with his sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater), falls in love, and gets a job.  He’s forced to move and picked on by other kids at school.  He celebrates a birthday and graduates high school.  Photography begins to pique his interest.   At the end of the film, he leaves for college.

The focus on Mason’s maturation is juxtaposed with a close look at the choices his parents make and the consequences of their decisions and circumstances.   Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke) is an absentee father as the film opens, chasing his misspent youth in Alaska.  His mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette) endures a series of sour and occasionally violent marriages.  Olivia, Mason Jr., and Samantha spend good chunks of the movie just getting by.

Linklater complements these tribulations with momentous events and equal measures of happiness.  Mason Sr. returns to Texas and eventually settles down with a family of his own.  Olivia obtains her degree and becomes a successful college professor.  Genuinely hilarious scenes, such as Mason Sr.’s conscription of his children to post Obama 2008 signs around the community, are generously peppered throughout.

Coltrane’s portrayal of Mason is remarkable, but the film is arguably more reliant on Hawke and Arquette as the two major fulcrums that determine what Mason’s boyhood entails.  They are magnificent.  Both poignantly capture the difficulties and joys of becoming a responsible parent and adult.  Arquette, in particular, deserves Best Actress or Best Supporting Actress consideration for her work.  Hers is a stunning, forceful depiction of multitudes of strength: raising two children by herself, going back to school while working, triumphing over abusive relationships, and, ultimately, letting her children go.

This strong character development alone is enough to make Boyhood memorable, but ascribing it life-changing properties a la Edelstein might strike some as a stretch.  How could a film without any particular action or dramatic narrative arc create such resonance?

For me, the answer came in the cumulative wash of Boyhood’s individual moments of normalcy and routine.  Watching the film in real time focuses the viewer’s attention on small plot sketches and cosmetic changes that connect each period of Mason’s life: how will his new haircut be received?  What will become of his interest in photography?  It’s only when the end credits roll that the enormity and significance of the preceding scenes become apparent- it’s easy to forget you’re watching a decade of growth in the course of two and a half hours.  To fully grasp how those individual quiet moments come together to create a full life is achingly beautiful and almost overwhelming.

To that end, I left the theater with two distinct impressions: a keen sense of how my own body, mind, and spirit had changed since I was a boy, and an appreciation for other people (parents, in particular) that I’ve never really felt after consuming a piece of art.  Boyhood prompts the viewer to recognize that mundane and regular moments are a shared experience and that all people are in the middle of their own narrative of normalcy.  Seeing Mason and his family evolve and change is an exercise in immense empathy; you come to realize the commonalities of your own joys, sorrows, and appreciation of moments both large and inconsequential.  And after the film, it is almost shockingly clear how Mason Jr., Olivia, or Samantha could be any random person on the street.

It is a wonderful movie, filled with small joys, deeply resonant moments, and the gorgeous backdrop of warm Texas landscapes.  Highly recommended.

Did Teilhard de Chardin Ever Ask the Beasts?

A couple of months ago, Chris and I went to hear Fordham theologian Elizabeth Johnson’s keynote address at the annual meeting of the American Teilhard Association, an organization dedicated to promoting the work of the French paleontologist and Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (we sometimes have unusual ideas about what makes for an enjoyable Saturday afternoon). Johnson’s argument, a variation on the thesis of her latest book, Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love, was that Teilhard, despite having worked out an impressive synthesis of Catholic doctrine with an evolutionary understanding of the origins of life on Earth, was held back by an anthropocentric mindset that kept him from fully appreciating the inherent dignity of nonhuman life and the irreducible value of the natural world. Although Johnson conceded that his thought can be “grown forward” in ways that transcend this limited perspective, she nevertheless maintained that Teilhard, like most Christian thinkers throughout history, espoused a worldview in which creation is ultimately subordinate to humankind.

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Elizabeth Johnson, CSJ at American Teilhard Association Annual Meeting; May 3rd, 2014

Teilhard’s oeuvre is formidable, both in terms of the quantity of his output and the density of his prose, so the fact that I’ve read a few of his books by no means makes me an expert on his views. Yet even though Johnson went out of her way to praise what she saw as Teilhard’s strengths, I had a sense that her characterization of him as someone who failed to recognize the intrinsic worth of the other residents of our planet – animal, vegetable, and mineral – was somewhat unfair.

In the weeks after the talk, I worked my way through Teilhard’s Future of Man, a collection of essays that develop his ideas about how homo sapiens, far from representing the terminus of evolution, is actually still in the process of growing and developing, no longer by way of “natural selection” but now through its own conscious action upon itself. As I read the book, I came across a number of passages that further convinced me that while Teilhard’s attention was mostly trained on humanity, his perspective was in fact broader than Johnson implied.

Unfortunately, no transcript or video of Johnson’s remarks at the ATA meeting is available. Since I want to be careful not to mischaracterize her views, I’ll focus instead on two quotations of hers from sources that are available: one from Ask the Beasts and another from a talk on the book given at Boston College last July.

Here’s Johnson, during the Q&A following her lecture at BC (at around 80:45 in the video):

There’s a great movement in theology today – I speak the name of Tom Berry and Brian Swimme calling on Teilhard and so on, in taking the cosmos and the power of the cosmos and getting that into our spirituality, making us understand that. And what I am trying to do is to say – my criticism of Teilhard and of Tom Berry is that they are still focused on the human person, and the plants and animals are left out in many ways. Not deliberately! It’s the era that people live in. And that – what I was trying to do very explicitly is to say, those insights are wonderful, and we need to apply them to the rest of life on our planet. In other words, cosmos is one thing, and it’s beautiful and it’s mystical – it lifts you up! – but I want to say, get down and dirty with biology.

And here she is on pg. 11 of Ask the Beasts:

Teilhard de Chardin[‘s]… scientific and religious passions fuse in ‘a mystic’s vision of holy matter,’ a sense that God is working in the evolutionary world which is pressing forward toward final convergence in the Omega Point, which he identifies with Christ. In view of the ultimate purpose of the evolutionary trajectory that has produced human life, his interpretive model sanctifies human endeavor that builds the earth toward that final destiny. Teilhard’s orientation of evolution to its eschatological future remains valuable, though criticism perdures that it credits the natural process with a too clear, almost linear sense of direction, and subsumes the natural world into human destiny. For all the nuance now needed, his work, poetic and pervaded with deep spirituality, has made a lasting contribution not least by integrating science with faith at a time when the two existed in watertight compartments.

Criticism about Teilhard’s alleged belief that evolution proceeds linearly may indeed perdure, but as far as I can tell it does so without justification. For one thing, Teilhard did not think evolution was like one of those drawings where the monkey gradually stands up straighter and straighter and becomes less and less hairy until it finally turns into a human. He subscribed to the scientific consensus that evolution is a divergent process whereby simpler life forms give rise to a wide variety of more complex life forms (and that “similarity to humans” is not the only criterion by which we can call one creature more “complex” than another):

Formerly ‘instinct’ could be treated as a sort of homogeneous quantity varying (something like temperature) on a scale running from zero to the point of Reflection representing human thought. Now we have to accustom ourselves to seeing things differently. It is not along a single line that Consciousness has emerged and is increasing on earth, but along an immense fan of nervures, each nervure representing a particular kind of sensory perception and knowledge. There are as many wave-lengths of consciousness as there are living forms. (Future of Man, pg. 227)

This is followed by an intriguing footnote:

i.e., in seeking to grasp the interior world and associative faculties of an animal it is not enough to try to diminish or decenter our own picture of the world: we have to modify our angle of vision and our way of seeing. Failing this we fall into the anthropomorphic illusions which cause us to be amazed at the phenomena of mimetism, or by mechanism arrangements which we ourselves could only carry out with the full aid of science, whereas the insect or the bat seems to have acquired the skill directly. (227)

Examples of seemingly preternatural talents in the animal kingdom abound. Dolphins can use echolocation to perceive the size and shape of objects that are concealed from their sight, and can communicate this information to human trainers. When I learned about this ability, I was amazed; how can dolphins pull this off when humans would require advanced technology to accomplish the same thing? What would it be like to have this kind of sixth sense?

Teilhard would say that we shouldn’t imagine it to be like wearing a pair of goggles hooked up to a sonar device. Animal consciousness is not just human consciousness with certain abilities subtracted and others added on. The subjective experiences of other creatures may very well be entirely orthogonal to our own. When Teilhard criticizes “amazement” in this footnote, he is not saying we shouldn’t be awed by the wonders of nature. In a sense, he is criticizing those of us who are not awed enough by nature, and who assume that the human mind is the best reference point for understanding animal minds. Some anthropocentrism!

To be sure, Teilhard did think that humans were objectively the most advanced organisms in the known universe because of their capacity for reflective thought. Yet he did not think that natural selection was destined to produce homo sapiens per se, although he did believe it would tend over time to produce conscious, self-aware creatures of some sort:

It is perfectly possible that in the general spectrum of Life the line ending in Man was originally no more than one psychic radiation among countless others. But it happened, for some reason of hazard, position or structure, that this sole ray… among the millions contrived to pass the critical barrier separating the Unreflective from the Reflective…

Because it did so (and although in a sense, I must repeat, this ray was only one attempt among many) the whole essential stream of terrestrial biological evolution is now flowing through the breach which has been made… [T]here has occurred, at a first ending of time, the breaking of the dykes, followed by what is now in progress, the flooding of Thought over the entire surface of the biosphere. (pp. 227-229)

In a later essay in Future of Man, Teilhard once again writes about this metaphysical fungibility of humans and other hypothetical rational creatures in a passage about the “Noosphere,” his term for the network of cognitive interactions among human beings, which he believed was growing into a kind of “super-organism” with the advent of modern communications technologies (some read Teilhard as having successfully predicted the invention of the Internet with his talk of the Noosphere):

It is, of course, perfectly legitimate to regard all the biological stems composing the Biosphere as proceeding equally, each according to its own orientation, in the universal direction of considered thought. But what is even more certain… is that if a given Phylum X, shall we say, preceding the anthropoids, had succeeded in passing the barrier separating reflective consciousness from direct consciousness, Man would never have come into existence: instead of him, Phylum X would have woven and constituted the Noosphere. (pp. 283-284)

Although Teilhard is in principle open to the idea that some animals are subjects of mental experiences, he is also convinced (perhaps wrongly) that, as an empirical matter, no other creatures have in fact “succeeded in passing the barrier separating reflective consciousness from direct consciousness.”

Ask the Beasts charges Teilhard with “subsuming the natural world into human destiny,” and it is true that most of Teilhard’s work is concerned with situating humankind in an evolutionary universe. But as Johnson admits, this is largely a function of the era in which he lived. His Jesuit superiors forbade him from publishing many of his writings during his lifetime, a period when the theory of evolution was still viewed with a great deal of skepticism by the institutional Church. Teilhard’s project was to illustrate how an evolutionary worldview is compatible with Catholic doctrine on subjects like free will and sin, and so his emphasis on humanity should not be read as an attempt to justify the reckless domination of nature.

There are many who do try to justify such domination though, and Johnson is performing a great service by identifying the philosophical and theological errors involved in these arguments. When I asked her after the ATA keynote about what she thinks Pope Francis should say in the encyclical on the environment he’s said to be drafting, she replied that he ought to insist that nature is good and beautiful apart from its practical uses, and avoid even caveated claims that “it’s all here for us.”

There is certainly a sense in which the Church’s and Teilhard’s ideas about “the beasts” are anthropocentric, but it seems to me that a distinction needs to be drawn between a benign or even salutary sort of anthropocentrism that sees human beings as the stewards of creation and a more pernicious sort of anthropocentrism that would license humans to do with creation as they wish. Johnson, in advocating for a strict anti-anthropocentrism that rejects any “focus on the human person” as inappropriately narrow, blurs the distinction between the two and makes it appear as if Teilhard and/or the Church share in or are even partly responsible for the mindset that is leading us toward ecological ruin.

According to the description of Ask the Beasts on the publisher’s website, Johnson wants theologians “to look out of the window, so to speak, as well as in the mirror.” It would be wonderful if Francis were to use his first solo encyclical as an opportunity to underscore the urgency of the threats posed to the global ecosystem by global warming, deforestation, and the like, and to articulate clearly that plants and animals have more than just utilitarian value. And – who knows? – he might even consider the work of his fellow Jesuit Teilhard de Chardin as he brainstorms what he wants to say. If he looks closely enough, I think he’ll find Teilhard to be a more helpful resource than he might seem at first glance.

A Q&A with Nick Ripatrazone

Nick Ripatrazone is an author, poet, and teacher living in New Jersey. He is a staff writer for The Millions and has had his work published in Esquire, The Kenyon Review, and Shenandoah. His new collection of short stories, Good People, will be published later this year.

Nick wrote or was featured in a number of insightful pieces over the last couple of months, including an essay about writing as a sacramental act, a beautiful list of reflections on teaching English, and an interview on the state of Catholic writing with The Jesuit Post. We reached out to Nick to ask a few additional questions about literature, art, teaching, faith, and New Jersey, and he graciously accepted our request.

In “Sacrament of Fiction,” you wrote: “The Garden State is a mixture of the real and the supernatural. We often cannot tell the difference.” Why did you return to New Jersey after college? To what extent does a sense of place influence or weave its way into your work? Given the political and economic tumult that our state seems to face rather consistently, what role (if any) do you believe art and literature can have in shaping public policy?

There are 565 municipalities in New Jersey, each with its own culture and power structure. That observation would apply to any state, but New Jersey is unique in that this fragmentation occurs in a small state with marked economic inequalities in bordering towns and counties. I grew up in a suburban area of the state, my family is from an urban section, and I live in a rural part–Sussex County–which looks like Vermont.

I came back to New Jersey after college for family, and for those geographic and cultural diversities. I actually think being from New Jersey forces one’s imagination to be on high alert, because of all these stratifications. But I don’t often write about this state in my fiction. Place is essential to my work, but not exactly this place. I’m attracted to fiction in which topography dictates culture, so I lean more toward pastoral writers like Ron Rash, Jayne Anne Phillips, Thomas McGuane and Cormac McCarthy. My fiction tends to be set in the West, Midwest, and Southwest, for those reasons. I can write essays about this state, but my fiction is set elsewhere. Our truths are strange enough, I guess.

Now, that’s an interesting question about art and literature in relation to public policy. I worked in a county elections office one summer, and watched all of the handshake agreements and constant “meetings” between local officials and election officers. That made me incredibly skeptical of politicians, and the idea of parties, especially. Unfortunately, I think New Jersey is a place of endless squabbles and backstabbing (or frontstabbing?), so a scene from Hamlet might be most appropriate for what happens at the Statehouse.

I think art and literature can help people transcend the ephemera of the political world. That doesn’t result in the governor’s administration actually making a pension payment, nor does it lower our property taxes, but it might give some solace. More practically, art and literature adds nuance and texture to single-column, talking-point style reporting. There is a great political and social novel to be written about the theater that is Chris Christie’s New Jersey: from Xanadu to closed lanes, we’ve got high drama for low reasons. I tend to think writers and artists do better helping make sense of policy rather than directly shaping or building it.

In what ways is teaching similar and/or dissimilar to writing as a vocational, devotional endeavor?

Although I get paid to teach, if done well, it is also a selfless pursuit, focused on helping students discover themselves intellectually, socially, and emotionally. Teachers are only a part of this process, but they are an important part. At some level, teaching is a kenotic activity. Writing is an inherently selfish activity. I hope that my teaching somehow evens-out my tendency to write (since I think writing for publication is, effectively, the claim that my words are somehow worth the time and money of an audience). There is certainly a penitential aspect to the teaching-writing equation.

Both endeavors require an absolute attention toward an audience, which includes mediation between performance and genuine feeling. Since I write two essays a month for The Millions, an online magazine that covers books, writing, and publishing, I need to craft pieces that are worth reading on the screen. We have a wide audience, but they are a discerning one. When it comes to teaching, I have had students who took several different courses with me, say that I seemed like a different person in each course. I’ll take that as a compliment. When Thomas Merton said “what we have to be is what we are,” I think he was more concerned with our internal than external selves. As a teacher, I play to the audience while trying not to get played (Flannery O’Connor said if a student doesn’t find a teacher’s methods or content to his taste, “Well, that is regrettable. Most regrettable. His taste should not be consulted; it is being formed.” She’s funny, but she never taught high school English. There needs to be some compromise.). There’s a difference between being emotionally raw, wearing your emotions on your sleeves and slacks, and being genuinely interested in the well-being of your students. Many teachers leave the profession because they take it too personally. The same goes for writers.

You’ve published novellas, nonfiction books, poetry collections, and essays. Does your writing and composition process differ for each of these forms?

Yes. My novellas have been pared down from novels. This Darksome Burn, which was published last year, is more than 200 pages less than its longest version. I’m a big fan of almost maniacal line-revision on the printed page (with as sharp a pencil as possible). I like to pare away, clear the chaff, and add more.

I take the same approach to short essay writing. My book of literary criticism, The Fine Delight, was a different beast. That required so much research and sourcing and comparing that I held-off on worrying about the prose until the content was finalized. It was a weird feeling to not write a paragraph and then revise it, but the book was meant to impart information, not be lyric.

I can draft a poem very quickly, but I always put those manuscripts in a desk drawer and let them sit for a few weeks before thinking about revision. I print one poem per page at 14 point font (the errors jump out a bit more there, and it also forces me to make sure my lines aren’t too long). After a line-edit, I do one more run-through since I sometimes am too heavy on concision. I have to resuscitate the rhythm of a line before the poem is finished.

If you had to choose one writer and/or theologian who most influenced the way you think about belief and your craft, who would you select?

This is such a difficult question! Let me start with the runners-up. The only theologian who has really formed me is Fr. Teilhard de Chardin, but he has not had as much influence as Flannery O’Connor, Andre Dubus, Thomas McGuane, Ron Hansen, and Don DeLillo. If I had to pick a runner-up, it would be DeLillo. Raised Catholic, he attended a Jesuit high school and university. His work is profoundly Catholic, but he does not appear to have practiced the religion as an adult. We differ in that sense, but I often learn best from writers who are not quite like myself.

I would choose DeLillo over Dubus and O’Connor because, ultimately, even though I write about the West and Southwest, my soul is from Newark. I’m a Northeast guy with that sensibility, and it’s a sentiment DeLillo captures in everything, from Underworld to Point Omega to my favorite work of his, End Zone, which is set in Texas but is narrated by a character from New York.

The writer who has lived a life of faith that I try to emulate is Ron Hansen. I love his range: he moves from historical fiction like The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford to a postmodern theological thriller, Mariette in Ecstasy. His collection of essays, A Stay Against Confusion, has helped me as a writer, and has been a spiritual document for me as a Catholic. He’s been the model of a Catholic writer who publishes in the secular world not to proselytize, but to widen the cultural conversation.

The Church has seen a significant amount of change since Francis became Pope. You’ve written about your youthful aspirations to become a priest; do you think we’ll see more substantial changes in Church policy or doctrine in the coming years on subjects such as married priests? Would these kinds of changes be good for the Church?

I think we have seen changes in delivery and tone under Francis, more so than we have seen doctrinal shifts. He appears to be more self-aware of the theater of his role than Benedict. Outside observers, particularly lapsed Catholics or those who have never had a faith, expect swift dogmatic moves. His humble gestures are in the tradition of the name he has taken, and have certainly improved the face of the Church. Fr. James Martin, one of America’s most known Jesuits, has been in magazines, on websites, and on television and radio stations with a consistent refrain: Pope Francis is a brilliant, compassionate man who will likely not deviate from traditional church teachings.

In regards to married priests, I think Francis’s presence will hopefully create more reasonable dialogue about priestly celibacy (and, really, the emotional and physical identities of priests overall), but I do not think the Church will shift its stance here. While still a Cardinal, Francis said that celibacy is “a matter of discipline, not of faith. It can change.” Some media markets have run with that statement, but to again echo Fr. Martin, it is important to remember that Francis is both a theologian and a Jesuit, prone to extemporaneous thinking. I think that is a positive trait. He is open-minded and dynamic. I don’t think it means he is necessarily malleable. It’s not my place to say whether priests should be married are not. There are instances of Lutheran pastors (and those of other rites) converting to Catholicism and remaining priests, but this gets into theologically murky territory that I don’t have sufficient background in to comment. I think the best thing for the Church is to view the laity as “their people,” not a separate entity. That seems to be happening more under Francis.

In response to Dana Gioia’s essay “The Catholic Writer Today,” you noted the following in an interview with The Jesuit Post:

The ultimate problem is that we are lacking a Catholic critical infrastructure…. Without this critical infrastructure–without conversation and contradiction–we are left with a provincial literature. Catholic stories published in Catholic magazines for Catholic readers, or Catholic books reviewed on Amazon by Catholic reviewers who gauge the writer’s fidelity to Catholicism as you would rate a vacuum.

This quote suggests an aversion to literature that falls in an exclusively “Catholic” genre. Would you say that “Catholic literature” should instead be more of an approach, a movement to interpret and discuss all secular art from a faith-based frame? What steps could we take to initiate conversations on a broader scale? What kind of infrastructure would you want to see created?

I do have an aversion to literature that forcefully identifies itself as Catholic in a genre sense, as if self-identification is an affirmation of aesthetic quality. I like the idea “approach” much better, for the reasons you mention; articulating Catholicism as a worldview. I happen to think it is a wonderfully nuanced worldview. Catholic faith and Catholic Mass are intrinsically analogical and performative. Catholic schooling and upbringing are excellent preparations for sensitive artists. As Catholics, we are taught close reading, the power of song to transform story, the possibility of something being simultaneously a symbol and a real thing, the wealth of community, the models of saints, and more—all experiences that translate well into the creation of, and appreciation for, art.

In order for a return to a significant presence of Catholic arts and letters in the wider secular discussion (as in the time of Flannery O’Connor), we need a recognition of certain aesthetic standards, and the acceptance that not all work written by Catholics (or about Catholics) is necessarily good. There is a difference between private and public literature. Private literature is cathartic, personal, immediate. It does not need an editor. Public literature needs an editor, a publisher, an audience. It needs distribution and discernment. In order for these Catholic conversations to reach a “broader scale,” we need men and women writing from a Catholic worldview articulating that aesthetic sense in the largest and most influential markets, magazines, and locations. I think of Mary Karr, Dana Gioia, Gregory Wolfe, and Paul Elie. But four is not enough.

The infrastructure component you discussed was well-covered in “The Catholic Writer Today” by Dana Gioia, but I would add that we need to bring the private versus public conversation to the undergraduate and graduate classrooms in creative writing. We need top-notch writing programs at Catholic universities, training young writers to also write criticism for wide audiences, not simply peer-reviewed journals (which are excellent, but don’t reach enough readers beyond the academy). These movements will be slow, but they are necessary. Catholicism is a tremendously misunderstood and misrepresented religion, culture, and intellectual space. Catholic writers need to do the work of correcting these errors while inspiring adherents to look at their faith with new eyes.

Thanks again to Nick for responding to our questions. Check out his latest novella, This Darksome Burn, here. For more information on Nick, visit www.nickripatrazone.com.