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.

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!

 

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!

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.

The Moderation Conversation: Gambling in the Jersey Swamps

This is the fourth 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. The conversation topic for this edition was gambling in New Jersey. What is the likelihood of casinos opening in North Jersey? Is the proliferation of online gaming throughout the state a good thing? Are there national implications for the Garden State’s current gambling policies? Read on for RM’s thoughts.

Gambling in the Tri-State Area

Chris: So Matt, we’re in a Starbucks. It’s a Saturday night. And we want to talk about gambling in New Jersey.

Matt: I like how you set the scene.

C: Yeah. There’s warm lighting… nice music…

M: It’s almost like a casino!

C: [Laughs] So yeah, in Atlantic City [in southern New Jersey], gambling has been going on for quite a few years now, and recently there have been proposals to move gambling to the Meadowlands [in northern New Jersey]. And online gambling was legalized in Jersey in 2013.

We wanted to talk about how this is going to affect the region and whether it’s a good idea for expanded gambling to come to New Jersey. What are your thoughts?

M: I’m in general opposed to a significant expansion of gambling. Historically speaking, legalized gambling had been restricted to Atlantic City and Las Vegas, and then some people started to argue that that was unfair because New Jersey and Nevada could reap the benefits of legalized gambling while other states couldn’t. They said we should try to expand it further so all states could share equally in the benefits. But I’m not so sure there are a lot of benefits. And I’m not so sure that the states that have legalized gambling are actually any better off than the states that don’t.

C: Okay.

M: I don’t think that it’s a boost to local economies; in fact, I think in a lot of respects it’s a drain on local economies. I think that the tax revenue that comes from legalized gambling is not so much the result of any new economic activity that’s generated as it is just a redistribution of wealth from low-income communities to the government. What are your thoughts?

C: I would tend to disagree with you. I think a limited expansion of gambling, specifically in North Jersey, would make sense, and I’ll go into specific reasons why in a little bit. But to address what you said about local economies: I take your point about gambling revenue, but I don’t think that’s the whole story. I don’t have any data on the extent to which revenue from Atlantic City gambling has been benefiting the state, particularly over the last decade or so, but my understanding is that since revenue has been declining in recent years there has been a decline in the quality of services that are offered by Atlantic City. And that decline has been hurting merchants that are down there, too. You see a lot of problems with restaurants and tourism more broadly.

M: But if the goal of legalizing gambling is to stimulate other kinds of economic activity, then why not try to stimulate that activity directly? Why not create tax-free zones to incentivize restaurants to move into an area? I mean, if your priority is not so much collecting tax revenues off of the gambling itself as it is trying to grow these other businesses, then why not just go directly for that?

C: Well, the reason people come to these restaurants, at least in Atlantic City, is because gambling is the main attraction. They go there for a week or however long for the purpose of gambling and the money they spend on restaurants is ancillary to that purpose. And I’d say that’s the reason why legalizing gambling in the Meadowlands would be beneficial: you have the entire New York City market right there. So you would have people coming out to New Jersey then not only to spend money on the casinos – say, perhaps, around MetLife Stadium or wherever else in the Meadowlands – but also on any other local attractions and businesses.

M: Didn’t New York have some sort of limited expansion of casinos last year?

C: They did in northern New York, but nowhere in the New York City area. I think there might be some legalized gambling on Long Island, and there is definitely a casino in Yonkers, just north of the Bronx. But given you have a target market there that’s very, very large, it would make sense to provide an easy access point for those consumers to get to.

 

Casinos, Market Competition, and Online Gambling

M: Do you think that at some point, though, the market would just become oversaturated? Part of the reason why Atlantic City was so lucrative for casinos was that it was virtually the only place east of Las Vegas where you could gamble legally. And if we start to expand gambling so much that we have casinos all across New York state, all across New Jersey, wouldn’t that sort of diminish the value to a casino owner of building a casino? How much of the market am I really going to claim if there are already casinos all around me?

C: Possibly, but I think more competition would be good in this case. I would think having more casinos would be better for making sure that they’re paying out well and/or not encouraging negative behavior on the part of their customers. That is, they would actually try to take steps to make the experience better, and there could be heightened checks to prevent problem gambling.

M: Well, I think that one of the cruxes of the disagreement here is whether casinos would actually have reason to curb negative behaviors. It seems like casinos have a financial incentive for people to continue gambling as much as possible. It seems like the business model of a casino is built around people not exercising a lot of self-control. So I’m not sure how having legal casinos would do anything to address people having gambling problems.

C: I’d posit that having physical gambling establishments is actually more conducive to solving this problem, especially in light of the concurrent rise of online gaming in New Jersey. You’re definitely right – legal casinos don’t necessarily have the incentive to help people limit their gambling addictions. But any potential rise in online gambling would exacerbate this problem significantly because it involves people being able to gamble basically any time of the day at any place. There are very few ways to get people to consider their actions through an online system, right? You have no way to really tell people that they should take a break or get help.

So in that regard, an increase in brick-and-mortar gambling locations instead of expanded internet gambling would be more likely to temper problem gambling. Physical establishments present greater barriers to that kind of destructive gambling. There are costs associated with going out to gamble, like taking transit, staying at a hotel, etc. There’s also the ability for people on site to monitor the behaviors of people gambling. The state could probably step in and say, “If you open a site, you’re going to have to adhere to very specific restrictions on what you can allow your clients to do.”

M: Mhm, that’s true. It could be more tightly regulated. So am I understanding you correctly that you’re generally opposed to internet gambling?

C: Yeah, very much so. I think that’s much more of a problem, and I actually wish New Jersey would take steps to roll back online gambling while it’s still in its infancy. The revenues generated in its first few months have been way, way below expectations. I think it was like a tenth of what New Jersey originally anticipated.

Which I think is a good thing, at least in the short term. We don’t want that to get to a point where a lot of people are consistently gambling and losing money. And given the possibility that online gambling continues to grow in popularity, now would be the time to limit its accessibility.

M: Right. Okay. So I guess that’s our first point of agreement – we both believe that internet gambling is problematic. I would agree with you that it’s potentially insidious because of the fact that it’s very easy to become addicted, and it’s very easy to unwittingly lose a lot of money without really realizing that it’s happening – especially if you’re disposed to some kind of gambling problem in the first place.

But I guess I’m just skeptical that having physical locations really does that much to attenuate those kinds of problems. There’s research which suggests that people who live within a certain radius of a casino are many times more likely to have gambling problems than people who don’t live near casinos. And obviously, as with any kind of social science research, correlation is not causation. It could be the case that people with gambling problems move close to casinos so that they can always be near the casinos. But I think it’s suggestive of the fact that by creating this new form of entertainment (I don’t know if entertainment is the right word), by creating this new outlet for people, you sort of hook them into becoming more frequent gamblers. And it worries me that these corporations have an incentive to prey on people and to encourage the worst kind of self-destructive behavior.

C: Yeah, that’s a very fair concern. I don’t disagree with that; I’d be worried about that as well. I guess I’d propose two things. The first is that if you do have casinos come to the Meadowlands, I’d hope there would be a way to track trends in how people gamble and really incorporate that into the running of the casino. In doing so, you’re able to monitor how people are gambling and the specific decisions that they’re making and you can basically cut them off if they’re at a point where they’re really in danger. And the other point I’d make is that if gambling ever does come to New York City, New Jersey is immediately going to be behind the curve. Given that there are revenues associated either with casinos directly or the secondary businesses they support, I think it’d be better to try to get ahead of the trend, because casino gambling in Atlantic City has been on the decline for 20 years now or so. Revenues have dropped 40 or 50%, I think…

M: Why do you think that is? Why have revenues been dropping in Atlantic City?

C: Well… that’s a good question. I don’t know why people have stopped visiting the city. I’m guessing partly because of all the other casinos that have opened up in the tri-state area and partly because it’s really out of the way. There’s really nothing there besides the casinos, so there’s really nothing to attract people down to that part of the shore.

M: I think part of the issue is probably that there are casinos in eastern Pennsylvania now – I think in Bethlehem there’s the big Sands Casino?

C: I think so. Connecticut, too.

M: So New Jersey’s facing more competition. That’s the problem I was alluding to earlier, that even now, when we don’t have all that many casinos, the market is already getting somewhat saturated. I’m not necessarily saying that’s the sole reason why there’s been a decline in revenues in Atlantic City, but it seems like the more casinos you have, the less lucrative any one casino is going to be.

C: That’s true, but especially considering the Meadowlands is so much closer than anything in Connecticut or Pennsylvania, which is a good hour and a half away, I’d think you’d have more than enough money coming in to make up for declines in Atlantic City traffic. And if anything did open in NYC, I mean, New Jersey would pretty much be shut out completely. That’d be a death knell for Atlantic City, period.

 

Lotteries and Sports Betting vs. Casinos

M: One argument that’s been raised in favor of casinos is that we [in New Jersey] already have a lottery.

C: Ah, yeah.

M: I mean, almost every state has a lottery. If the state were really all that concerned about people profiting off of gambling (or even about the state itself profiting off of gambling!), then they would ban lotteries too. So some say this shows that people who are opposing casinos don’t have any principled objection to casinos per se. They just don’t want there to be a lot of traffic in their neighborhoods, they don’t want these big corporations to be setting up shop near them. There’s really no social harm that comes with casinos.

C: Yeah, that’s a good point to bring up. To be clear: I would not say that casino gambling is an inherent good, and there are definitely dangers associated with it. You have to adhere to it in moderation, as is the case with anything else. But yeah, I’d agree with you that the government has no incentive to ban gambling outright. There are ways to profit from it. Clearly the lottery is doing that to a pretty good degree.

But again, I’m arguing in support of expanding gambling in New Jersey. I’m not arguing for gambling being a social good.

M: I think that my basic feeling about lotteries is that, yes, it probably is the case that lotteries and casinos have a lot of similarities. People could buy a ton of tickets, although it’s harder to become a problem gambler with lotteries that are only drawn once a week or so. I worry more about scratch-off cards, which it’s very easy to buy a lot of in one sitting.

This is similar to our marijuana discussion in that I’m arguing that there’s a difference between tolerating something and legalizing it and having the government or private individuals or firms make money off of it. But just as I don’t think law enforcement should be terribly aggressive in going after people who possess or are smoking marijuana, I don’t think by any means we should be penalizing people who are gambling with friends or anything.

C: Oh, yeah.

M: That said, I don’t think that we should necessarily be expanding gambling any further. When we were talking about marijuana, I think we both agreed that cigarettes are as problematic if not more problematic than marijuana, and so if you’re going to be a purist you could say, “Well, if you want to ban marijuana, why don’t you want to ban cigarettes?” And… maybe I do want to ban cigarettes! But the legality of tobacco and nicotine is not a live political issue right now. The contentious political issue is marijuana. Maybe it doesn’t make a lot of sense to oppose marijuana legalization while supporting tobacco being legal, but you know, that’s the reality of the situation.

So yeah, in a philosophical sense, maybe there is no difference between lotteries and casinos. But the political reality is that lotteries already exist and have existed for a very long time and casinos are what we’re debating right now.

C: Well, I think casinos, too, they are much more interactive, and the rapidity with which you can lose money at casino gambling is much greater than that associated with, say, scratch-off tickets. And there’s a specific stimulus associated with gambling, right? Like you’re pulling the lever, you’re seeing things pop up on the screen. I assume it hits a pleasure center in your brain that’s much more reactive than anything involved in playing the lottery.

M: That’s interesting. I would be curious to see if anybody’s done research on that. Is casino gambling more addictive than buying lottery tickets? I would think it is.

C: I would think so, without question.

M: The other thing I wanted to talk about a little bit was the idea of sports betting.

C: Oh, okay!

M: My understanding is that it’s currently illegal in the United States.

C: I think it’s legal in Las Vegas. I think. [NB: It is in fact illegal nationwide, although several states were exempted from the relevant statute because they had already permitted sports betting at the time it was passed.]

M: Okay. I know there was a ballot measure a few years ago to legalize sports betting in New Jersey, but it was very controversial because it was essentially trying to legalize it here while it remained illegal in the United States. You know, it was like California or Colorado legalizing marijuana while it’s illegal under federal law.

C: Is your position that you’re against sports betting?

M: So that’s what I wanted to get into. I don’t know. I’ve been thinking about whether there are – about the similarities and differences between sports betting and something like casino gambling or playing the lottery. It seems to me like sports betting is less problematic, again because it’s harder to – because the bets are tied to discrete events. It’s harder to become addicted and to be constantly placing bets. I mean, there’s an upper bound on how often you can place bets on sporting events.

C: I’m not sure if that’s true. There are a lot of different sporting events that you can place bets on, and my guess is that any sort of sports betting scenario would pretty much involve all of the major sports and then specific events within those games. You could probably go pretty wild with making bets on minutiae within the games.

But that also raises the question about betting on, say, horses or horse racing, which I believe is legal in certain states. I’m pretty sure it’s legal in New Jersey, actually. And you don’t really see any great debate about that. It’s a generally accepted practice.

M: I think horse racing is a pretty marginal sport to begin with. I don’t think the number of people who are betting on horse races is really all that large.

C: But it’s a precedent that’s set, that some sort of sports gambling is allowed.

M: Yeah, that’s true. But to tie this back to the issue of lotteries vs. casinos: yes, you can argue that once you’ve legalized lotteries, there’s no consistent case against legalizing casinos as well. You could also say, well, once you’ve legalized betting on horse races, there’s no principled case against legalizing betting on anything else.

 

Frolicking in the Swamps

M: So just to recap: my argument is that casinos have a business model that inherently tends toward encouraging addictive behavior on the part of their customers, and that their presence has an adverse effect on communities because they lower property values and don’t contribute anything of real economic value.

C: Well, to return to the case at hand, one benefit of having them in the Meadowlands specifically is that there aren’t as many houses around there. If you put a casino out by MetLife Stadium, it’s not going to be as directly impacting communities like in Atlantic City, which has a lot of surrounding suburbs and towns. I mean, obviously North Jersey has that too, but the Meadowlands is an area that’s defined by swamp lands.

And regarding gambling addictions, I think it’d be easier if you create a new casino hub to basically implement best practices to reduce problem gambling from the start. So you could make it the case that there is a mandatory delay time between playing one game and going on to the next, or you could say from the start that there’s no free alcohol being distributed on this floor.

M: So you’re saying that it would be a good idea to put casinos away from heavily populated areas, so that if the research that suggests that casinos have a negative impact on property values is accurate, then at least they’re in a swamp?

C: Yeah. Again, there are some towns nearby. There are towns like East Rutherford around there that might be affected.

M: Why couldn’t – instead of casinos, why couldn’t we just have people, like, play around in the swamp?

C: Just frolic in the swamps?

M: Frolicking in the swamps.

C: I’ve heard reports of convicts escaping into the swamps, and police do not like that, because they can’t find the convicts. So I feel like if you got lost in the swamps, the police would not be too happy.

M: So… [Laughs]… by putting the casino in the swamp, we could actually be creating some sort of lawless zone.

C: Yes… [Laughs]. Precisely. Outside any jurisdiction.

The other benefit is that since there are so many people in New York City and its surrounding suburbs who are potential customers, you could easily get the casinos in Atlantic City to agree to all of these best practices. If you tried to institute those now in casinos in Atlantic City, you’d get a lot of pushback. Casinos would either outright refuse or lose a lot of money because those changes could be quite expensive.

M: But if you make it a condition of opening a casino…

C: Right. Guarantee they’ll participate because the revenues from those casinos will still exceed the potential costs associated with instituting those best practices, only the costs won’t be perceived as a loss. So I’d say far and away that’d be a better idea than either trying to expand online gambling or trying to rehabilitate Atlantic City. Do you have any other thoughts?

M: I’m still unclear on the ultimate motivation here. We’re saying that it’s better to open casinos and require right off the bat that they adhere to these best practices, but why is it better to open casinos that adhere to best practices than to not open casinos at all?

C: I’d go back to the fact that casinos will probably be opening in the city or at least in other areas at some point in the future.

M: So by having NJ set the standard for what a well-regulated casino looks like, we put pressure on other states that might want to legalize them in the future to also adhere to those regulations?

C: Exactly. Pretty much take the initiative in making this the hub of gambling in the tri-state area and making it the most consumer-friendly, safe form of gambling.

M: Okay. So we have an opportunity to start a trend here. You may not be able to buy electric cars in New Jersey, but at least you’ll be able to gamble.

C: I mean, if you somehow win, you could then go to Pennsylvania and buy your electric car and bring it back to New Jersey.

M: Well, you need to win the lottery to be able to afford a Tesla anyway.

C: [Laughs] This is true.