Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Keynes and Hayek, v. 2.0

For those wising to understand macroeconomics in general or competing theories for the financial crisis, you can' t do much better than:

Fear the Boom and Bust


And, by the way, the economics in it is actually quite good.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Comic Books

With the start of the semester approaching, it is as good a time as any to survey recently read comic books.

But first, I'll register my old complaint about the use of the term "graphic novel." It has become fashionable of late (well, "of late" being the last 20 years) to call these things "graphic novels." This is all part of the campaign to stop the shocked looked one gets when one says, "I recently read a comic book." Everyone knows comic books are for kids, so nobody intelligent would ever read one. Of course, the same people who think only an idiot would read comic books, cheerfully watch TV sitcoms and reality shows and cartoon network. It's odd. I have no idea why the perception persists that comic books are only for children and feeble intellects. The writing in your average comic book is bad--about as bad as that in your average John Grisham or Dan Brown novel. The writing in a good comic book is, well, outstanding. And, a good comic book can do things that simply can't be done in any other medium--much like a good movie can only do things which can only be done in the movies. So, yeah, I read comic books.

I love comic books as a matter of fact--especially superhero comic books. I loved them ever since I was a kid. But, I could never afford them when I was a kid. Libraries never had comic books--and believe me, I checked all the time--so I had to read my friends' comic books if I ever wanted to read them. It has only been recently that I had the discretionary income necessary to convince myself I could start buying them. And, the new generation of comic books contains some amazing work.

But, onto the reviews:

1. Loeb and Lee, Batman: Hush
One of the best Batman tales I have read. The story is fantastic and the artwork is simply amazing. It isn't a good as Miller's The Dark Knight Returns (but nothing in the Batman series is), but it is a solid mystery story. It does a great job thinking about the psyche of Batman--who is probably the most interesting psychological case among superheroes.

2. Morrison and McKean, Arkham Asylum
After finishing Hush, I reread this one. I am still of mixed mind about it. As a story, it is seriously lacking, but that is part of the point. It is more a Nightmare, than a Story. The art fits that illusion nicely--it has a dreamy, nightmarish quality throughout. The art doesn't do much for me, but it certainly coveys a mood nicely. But, on the whole, it is a good attempt to do something different, but not an entirely successful attempt.

3. Marvel, the Civil War series
This was one of those whole publishing company stunts from a few years back. There is a seven comic book series called Civil War, but all the individual titles in the Marvel Universe ran stories at the same time along the same story arc. For a brief time a few years back, Marvel allowed a company (GIT) to make PDFs of all the issues of assorted series and sell them on a single DVD. So, I have the Civil War DVD, which had every issue in the storyline. I just finished reading them all. The story was...OK. The premise was good--should superheros be forced to register as government agents or be allowed to continue as vigilantes? The heroes split nicely into two camps. At first, the arguments for each side were nicely balanced. But, as the story developed, it got weaker. The pro-registration side started losing handily in the debate as the debate started sounding more and more like a debate about the Patriot Act--so the pro-Registration Act people had lame arguments set up merely to be straw men for the nicely worded anti-Registration Act people. For awhile, I thought it was doomed to be an anti-George Bush series, but it recovered in the end and returned to having some nuance. But, even still, the end of the whole story was very, very lame. The whole thing wrapped up in the way you would expect a 10 year old to wrap up a story. Seriously, a 10 year old would write an ending just like the one they wrote. Painful. So, on the whole...OK.

I also have a bunch of other series from this DVD run; they have been really great to read--it is PDFs of all those comics I wanted to read when I was young.

4. Smith, Bone
I just started this series. Clara is reading it with me. So far, very, very good.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Taking Jefferson's Advice

I had the occasion to reread George Nash's Books and the Founding Fathers. It's a short book--a lecture, plus a number of appendices. A great description of the importance of books to those forming the United States. The dominant impression it leaves--I should really read a lot more than I do. Jefferson once sent a young lawyer a reading list and a schedule--it entailed reading for 12 hours a day. Now that would be a good amount of time to devote to books, wouldn't it? Alas, Life intrudes.

The book also reminded me of a play I have often seen mentioned in discussions of the Founders, but never read: Addison's Cato. I have known this for years, and every time I see it mentioned I think I should really read it, but I don't own a copy and I never think to buy one. I am writing this paragraph solely to see if it is enough to induce me to finally read the play.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Ethics, Massachusetts Style

I have now been certified by the Massachusetts State Ethics Commission as an Ethical Person.

The State now requires anyone with any affiliation to the government to take an on-line ethics test relating to conflicts of interest. It is a multiple choice test--25 questions. Each page has a copy of the relevant law, an ethical case and a set of possibilities. Your task is to pick the ethical choice.

And, by the way, if you get one wrong, you can just go back and pick a different answer.

The questions were quite tough. Question 1 is about bribery. It asks if you can accept a $100 bribe. The four choices are 1) Yes, if the person was close to getting the thing anyway, 2) No, you can't take $100, but you can get a free lunch from the person; 3) Yes, but only if you accept the money on a Saturday, and 4) No, bribes are illegal. I know that it isn't fair to ask you to pick the right answer without providing the relevant legal material, so the correct answer is 4.

I am not making that up. And, believe it or not, I am not exaggerating at all. That really is question 1.

I took the whole test. For most of the questions, I just read the answers and picked the right one. Sometimes I had to read the question too in order to figure out what the answers meant. And in a couple of cases I actually had to go back and read the situation because the answers and question made no sense without the context. I never had to read the description of the legal code.

So, here is my puzzle. The state just said I was ethical, but I didn't actually read all the material they obviously wanted me to read. So, is the State correct in its assessment?

Don't forget, if you live in the state of Massachusetts, your tax dollars paid for the design of that test.

Also, in the something-to-look-forward-to department--I have to take the test every two years. I think that is just in case I forget that I can't take any bribes in the next two years.

And, if you wanted something from someone on the Finance Committee in Granby, MA and were thinking about giving me a bribe--forget about it. However, after taking my test, I am pretty sure you can bribe my wife and as long as she doesn't tell me that she was bribed, she can use all of her charms and get me to do whatever it is you wanted. Since she isn't affiliated with the government, she can accept any money she wants from you. And since I am allowed to talk to my wife (at least I don't think the State has outlawed conversations with my wife), she is allowed to persuade me to do the Right Thing. So, I think we are all good.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Pearls, Girls and Scott Brown

Until a week ago, I never thought I would see the day when there was a Republican Senator from Massachusetts.

When Obama was elected in 2008, I told everyone who would listen that the President he would most resemble was Jimmy Carter, that he would be terribly ineffective and indecisive and that his popularity would plummet within a year. I also predicted that sooner or later the media was going to realize they had backed the wrong horse and when they turn on him, they will turn with a vengeance--that last part hasn't happened yet, but sooner or later it will.

If anyone reads the Brown victory as anything other than an ringing statement that the Democrats have seriously overreached, they just aren't paying attention. It's chaos in Washington. The GOP is going to win big in November.

Once upon a time I would have been excited about a GOP victory in November. But, then after seeing what happened the last time the GOP ran both houses of Congress, I am not terribly thrilled. Republicans in Power do nothing, literally nothing. Democrats in power do silly things, and nothing is better than silly, but it would sure be nice if there was a Party which would do Good Things.

On a related note, I read P.G. Wodehouse's Pearls, Girls and Monty Bodkin. No plot summary is necessary--read one Wodehouse, read 'em all. They are always funny and always make me smile.

Something noteworthy: I read Wodehouse because after reading American Gods, I really wanted to read a book I knew I would like. I'd never read this particular Wodehouse before, but I was certain I would enjoy it, and I did. Here is the interesting psychological bit, which I just realized while composing this post: the thing that disappointed me about the Gaiman book was that it was the same as his other books; the thing I liked about Wodehouse is his book is the same as his other books. The difference can be explained (Wodehouse is perfection and his formula never goes stale), but it is interesting nonetheless.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Love of Markets

A Brace of Book Reviews

1. Erich Fromm, The Art of Loving
Reading Lewis' The Four Loves naturally enough got me to ruminating about love and I decided to reread this book. I last read it in my Junior Year of High School when it was assigned in my Humanities class (now that I think about it, that class had an odd set of books--Paradise Lost, Inferno, The Religions of Man, Man's Search for Meaning, The Art of Loving, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Fathers and Sons). I remembered nothing about the book. I just reread it and now I remember almost, but not entirely completely, nothing about it. The cover of my copy says "Nearly 200,000 copies in print at $3.00, now only 60[cents]" which I do not think is intended to advertise the discount nature of the contents of the book, but it might as well. As near as I can tell from the book, Love exists when you aren't so narcissistic, Love is hard to do, but by golly if we all just Loved a little more there would be world peace. Or something like that. There is something a bit odd about a book whose contents evaporate as soon as I read it.

2. John McMillan, Reinventing the Bazaar: A Natural History of Markets
This s one of those Economic Books for Noneconomists, and on the whole it is a good one. It is a grand tour of the universe of markets, with plenty of interesting anecdotes. Indeed, the book is mostly anecdotes, strung together with some semblance of theory. It is, as I said, good--but not great. There are 229 pages of text. Had the book been 150 pages, I think it would have been extremely good--as it is, the book really drags toward the end. Even so, if you want to learn some economics, this isn't a bad choice.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Return of Odin

I really want to like whatever Neil Gaiman writes. He is interesting, clever and can write well. But after finishing American Gods, I am not sure how much more I can stand. It's not that the book was bad; it wasn't. In fact, if I had read nothing else by Gaiman, I think I would have liked it a lot. But, therein lies the problem. I have read other things by Gaiman. And about half-way through American Gods I realized--this is the same as every other book of his I have read. How often can a writer return to the same well? There is the world in which we all live and know. And there is a Shadow world out there in which there are all sorts of fantastical creatures running around. We meet these fantastical creatures all the time; we just don't know they are fantastical. Someone begins to see both worlds; they are sucked into the fantastical world. But, they still live in our world. And so, the plot is 1) our hero doubts the existence of the Shadow world; 2) our hero comes to accept the Shadow world; 3) our hero plays an important part in rescuing the real world from the problems of the Shadow world by solving the problems of the Shadow world. End of story. Change the names; new book. Or don't change the names. It doesn't seem to matter.

I am a bit disappointed right now. Like I said, I really wanted to thoroughly enjoy the novel.

And as long as I am grousing--is there really a need for silly scenes designed purely to titillate teenage boys?

The saddest part is that I know I'll read another Gaiman novel sometime soon. What do they call it when someone keeps doing the same thing over and over, believing that this time the result will be different?

Friday, January 15, 2010

Antony and Cassius

I recently reread Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. I have absolutely no idea how many times I have read this play. I know I have read Hamlet the most often, but after that, I have no guess as to how to rank the rest of his work in order of how many times I have read each play. Well, I suppose I know where to put the few plays I still haven't read. (I dread reading those plays, by the way--after I have read everything Shakespeare ever wrote, I'll never again be able to look forward to reading a Shakespeare play for the first time.)

Julius Caesar is, of course, great--what can anyone really add to an evaluation of the merits of the play?

This time I payed more attention than normal to the underlying motivations of the conspirators. Act IV took on some extra intrigue when thinking about the differences between Cassius and Brutus. Suddenly Cassius looked a lot more like Antony. Brutus still puzzles me--is he admirable or foolish? It's hard to decide.

Lily is going to see a production of this play sometime soon on a class field trip. How did Juilus Caesar become such a staple of high school? Acts I-III are fast moving, but in terms of pure drama, I suspect most high school students find Acts IV-V a real let down. I didn't read it in high school, so I am not sure about that assessment. If I were picking a first play for high schoolers and I didn't want to use the obvious candidate (Romeo and Juliet), I think I would go with Hamlet. If that is out, I'd pick Macbeth. Lots of people die in Macbeth, the witches are great, Lady Macbeth is evil and crazy, Macbeth is a tortured soul, and there is action all they way until the end.

I think it would be hard to teach Shakespeare's comedies in high school--the Puritans were right about that--Shakespeare is really rather bawdy.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Exodus 3:14

A serious candidate for the worst book I will read in 2010: Joerg Rieger's No Rising Tide: Theology, Economics and the Future.

Here is the complete text of the book:
"Marxist Economics is Truth; Insofar as it reveals Marxist Truth, Liberation Theology is Good; Anyone who disagrees with either of those two statements is at best Complicit in Evil."

Of course it takes Rieger 160 pages of tiresome, sophomoric Marxist drivel to say that.

It took me all of two pages to be certain that this was the entire point and content of this book. But, the book was a Christmas gift, and it is good to read things with which one knows one will disagree, so I read the whole thing. For anyone else, just read Marx--oddly he is a better writer--and Marx is not known for his prose.

The funniest part of the book is that Rieger sounds just like many of my colleagues at Mount Holyoke.

Also, of interest: for a book with a subtitle promising Theology and Economics, there is remarkably little actual theology in the book. Every time religion gets mentioned, it takes about half a paragraph to wander off into yet another refrain of Marxist economics. After reading 160 pages of Rieger's ruminations, I have no idea if Rieger even believes there is an Actual God as opposed to some general principle of Good which arises whenever anyone asserts solidarity with the working class.

The oppressed working class, by the way, includes tenured university faculty. Fortunately Rieger realizes how a tenured professor at SMU is every bit as oppressed as someone living in a garbage heap. Indeed, it is that general tone of Enlightenment that makes people like Rieger so absurd. The whole world is duped by Evil Powers of Oppression; if you don't feel oppressed it is because you have been deceived. But, lo and behold, people like Rieger have thrown off the blinders to see the blazing Truth of Oppression. Rieger Alone stands enlightened--he has come back to the cave to show us all the truth. But, and this is the absurd part, if Rieger is right, then he too is deluded by the Structures of Power, he too is a product of his social situation, and thus there is no reason to think he is enlightened. Well, of course he tells us he is enlightened. We know Rieger is right because Rieger told us he is right. Rieger Is Who He Is. I guess there is some theology in this book after all.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Love of Lewis

With the announcement that the C.S. Lewis college will be starting up nearby (see here for details if interested), it seemed a good time to read another Lewis book. I just read The Four Loves for the first time. It was...well, just like every other Lewis book I have ever read--mildly interesting, nice if I don't think about it too much, but ultimately unsatisfying. I like Lewis, and I like his books, but I cannot understand the devotion to his writings. This book, for example: it has some interesting reflections on the nature of love. He breaks love into several categories--more than four actually--and then skips lightly over the terrain throwing out a random set of observations on each. Like all of Lewis' books, it gets one pondering a topic in a pleasantly diversionary way--that is the strength of his work. So, as long as I don't think too much about what Lewis is saying and just use the occasion of reading him to think about a topic, then I like the book. But as soon as I start paying too much attention to Lewis himself, his argument seems terribly lightweight. In many ways Lewis is Chesterton-light. ( I suppose this is the same as the manner in which the Narnia series is Tolkien-light.) My favorite Lewis book is still The Abolition of Man.

Love is a great topic to ponder. Everyone cares about it, yet there is almost no discussion of it in the modern academy. I once asked a class if anyone would be interested in taking a course called "Reflections on Love." There was universal revulsion to the idea of the class. Everyone immediately thought that the class would be nothing but hearing sappy love-sick teenage tales. The idea that there is an academic side to a discussion of Love was inconceivable to anyone in the room.

That being said, it is, in fact, hard to think of a good curriculum for a course on Love. I also think it would be a nightmarish course to teach--in part because I think it would attract all the wrong sort of students.

On the aforementioned matter: the C.S. Lewis college experiment really interests me. I have no idea if it will actually work or not, but I am glad it is close enough to here that I have some chance of hearing how things are going.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Gen X Conservatives

American Conservatism is about to enter its third generation. Generation X is coming of age as the oldest children of the Boomers recently turned 40. Nobody seems to be noticing this fact, undoubtedly because Boomers still write the news and Boomers are, to say the least, a trifle self-obsessed. We children of the Boomers are used to this neglect. We did not even get a real name for our generation; the title Generation X just screams, “Oh, yeah, I suppose we have to call the kids something.” And, while Boomer Conservatives have been obsessed with cataloguing the assorted types of conservatives (movement, paleo, neo, libertarian, Straussian, postneocommunitarian), nobody seem to have noticed the Gen X Cons and what is distinctive about us.

To start with the obvious: all but the most precocious of us became politically aware sometime in the Reagan or Bush Senior Administrations. We never knew a time when a) conservatives did not dominate the Republican Party and b) conservatives were not electable. As a result, we Gen X Cons are rather attached the GOP and the political process in ways that older conservatives are not. That does not mean we are happy with the GOP; like everything else run by Boomers, it is a rather tiresome organization. (Tell me again what exactly the Republican capture of Congress got us?) We are, however, inextricably tied to the GOP.

The Gen X Cons’ attachment to the current political scene is nicely illustrated in the pages of National Review. Flip through the pages of the magazine from 40 years ago and you will immediately notice something missing. In the old days, the magazine did not contain a steady stream of signed articles on every facet of day-to-day politics. These days, on the other hand, every issue regularly reports on bills moving through Congress, behind-the-scenes looks at the Presidential administration, and reports from the campaign trail of not just Presidential candidates, but Senators and Representatives and Governors.

This obsession with the intricacies of policy as opposed to the broader philosophy of conservatism and this identification with Republican Party politics arise from a simple cause. Gen X Cons have no idea what it is like to live in a world without a dominant conservative presence. We have no idea what it is like to live in a world where conservative arguments are not expected to have an immediate political consequence. Our time horizon is shorter. The original editors of National Review would wait 25 years for a conservative President; Gen X Cons are dismayed by the prospects of 4 years without a Republican (conservative or not) president.

Gen X Cons are not without a broader political philosophy, however. We too have our libertarians and our traditionalists, but we are unified across this divide by a particular mindset, perhaps best illustrated with a few examples.

Consider the plight of the poor in America. Boomer conservatives just inwardly groaned, now certain that this is just going to become one of those incipient liberal pleas for a new War on Poverty. Sigh. I was 2 when LBJ left office. Charles Murray’s Losing Ground is right. We all agree. The Great Society was a failure. Conservatives won. Well, we won except for fact that there are still all those people living in circumstances that I personally would find intolerable.

I grew up in the suburbs of California. I am doing fine in small-town New England. If you put me on a farm in Kansas, I could cope; if I had to live out my life in Sioux Falls or Houston, I would make it. But, if I had to live in the inner city of Detroit? Uh, I’ll pass. But, here is the thing: there are people living in the inner city of Detroit. And those people are our fellow Americans. It is certainly correct that the Left’s policy proposals are failures and that we should scrap the Welfare State, but after we do that, what are we going to do for our fellow Americans who live in places I would be unwilling to live?

Boomer conservatives think small when it comes to helping those living in the inner cities. School Choice? It is a fantastic idea, but let us face it: a) it is not happening anytime soon and b) it is not going to solve the problems real quickly. More police enforcing Broken Windows policies? Also a fantastic idea, but while it lowers crime and makes life a little more tolerable, it is not going to solve the problem.

What will it take to help our fellow Americans? I do not know either. But, I do know that unless conservatives learn how to talk as if they care about the question, there is no way the problem is going to be solved. It is all well and good for conservatives to say the private sector should take care of the problem, but if we are not all, all of us, figuring out ways we can personally help, then our rhetoric is hollow. Try talking to a bunch of Boomer conservatives about our personal responsibility to help the poor sometime. See how quickly they assume you are campaigning for Hillary’s “It Takes A Village Crusade.”

Gen X Cons know all this and it bothers us. It bothers us that the inner cities exist and there is a horrific level of tolerance about it. A horrific level of tolerance. Helping our fellow Americans escape the intolerable conditions in which they live is surely one of the highest domestic priorities we have. And yet, it sure does not sound like it when you listen to Boomer Conservatives talk.

This is, of course, intricately tied up with the issue of race. Those fellow Americans living in the inner cities are predominantly Black. Does that matter to anyone? Boomer Conservatives were burned, and burned badly, in the race discussions of the 1960s. I, however, grew up in a very different world. Growing up, I never, and I mean never, heard anyone use a racial slur. I grew up in an age when everyone said that there was no difference between the races. I believed it. Then I got to college and was told by some Boomer Administrator that I was a racist because I objected to the claim that all of those with paler complexions are racists. To which I shrugged and responded, “Whatever.”

We Gen X Cons are sick of the neurotic and obsessive Boomer discussion about race. Sick of it. We want to help our fellow Americans because they are Americans, not because of the color of their skin. But, identify yourself as a conservative and enter a discussion on race and it will not be long before you are faced with being accused of wanting to repeal the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Sigh. I was not even born in 1964. I bear no responsibility for Jim Crow or segregation or the pre-Civil Rights era. I feel no guilt on this matter. Yet, everyone assumes that since I proclaim to be a conservative, I must not care about Black Americans. Why is that?

Yes, affirmative action is a failure and an offense to fairness and equal standing under the law. We conservatives all agree. But, what are we going to do about the fact that a disproportionate number of those living in the circumstances we find intolerable are Black? It is all well and good to say that we should treat them the same as we treat everyone else, but is it not obvious that the larger society in which they live is not the same as the larger society in which I live?

Despite the repeated insistence of Boomer Leftists, the problem we need to solve is not racism. It is not even clear that the real problems are related to race. When a Black student at an elite college complains about the discrimination she faced growing up as the daughter of a Palo Alto doctor, I think we can all agree that that is not exactly what we mean by bad social conditions. The problem is the poor kid who has no father around, and does not know anyone who has a father around, going to a school which has teachers who cannot pass tests on the subject they are nominally teaching, walking home to a dilapidated building in which gang members hang out in the stairwell and sell illegal substances at the curb. What exactly are we going to do for that kid?

This is not a theoretical problem; it is a real problem. Sure, conservatives are tinkering with ways to fix it, but where is the conservative rhetoric of outrage that our fellow Americans are living like that? And where is the conservative outrage that Black Americans are disproportionately living like that?

Gen X Cons care a lot about these issues. We want to fix the terrible mess that the Boomer generation is leaving us. But, we have no idea how to do it yet. And, as long as the discussion is burdened by the tone-deaf rhetoric of the Boomer conservatives, we are not going to make any progress on the matter. As long as every attempt to discuss matters like these is set into the context of the battles of 40 years ago, then we will not be able to have a discussion on how to tackle these difficulties in the next quarter-century.

The divide between Boomer Conservatives and Gen X Cons is, I suspect, going to become the clearest on the issue of gay marriage. The traditional conservative argument on the matter crucially hinges on the fact that marriage has always been a heterosexual union designed to stabilize the family and rear the next generation. Let us all agree that heterosexual marriage is a great idea, that it provides for a sound basis for the future, and that defending the traditional view of marriage is a battle well worth fighting. But, where exactly does that kind of marriage currently exist?

We Gen X Cons grew up in the age of no-fault divorce. If your parents were not divorced by the time you were 21, then your friend’s parents probably were. This whole “mom and dad raising the kids” story is ancient history. So, before we go worrying about gay marriage, how about repealing no-fault divorce laws? Not going to happen? So, what was that argument against gay marriage again?

That sounds cynical? Whatever. The war on marriage was lost when Boomer parents decided that getting divorced was a Fundamental Right, and let us be honest, even Conservative Boomers jumped on that bandwagon. So, when those same Boomers on their second marriage start preaching the benefits of a stable home life, we Gen X Cons can at best say, “It sure sounds nice.” In the modern age, the best we Gen X parents can do is to say, “I will not get divorced; I will raise the next generation.”

That personal responsibility will, I suspect, form the basis of the mantra of the Gen X Cons: The solution is not in the government, it is in myself. Myself, not ourselves. The original latch-key kids, raised by divorced parents or two-earner households, we are well used to independence and figuring things out for ourselves. We do not need some Boomer bureaucrats telling us what we can and cannot do.

The shape of things to come can be seen in a curious feature of Rod Dreher’s Crunchy Cons. Set aside whatever you think about his argument and take a look again at his ten-point manifesto opening the book. Nowhere in it is there a legislative proposal; it is purely a manifesto on how to live an individual life. Arguments about the proper size of government are not enough for Gen X Cons. We all know that Big Government is, alas, here to stay; we have never lived in a world which was any different. Naturally, many Gen X Cons will make a vocation of politics; there will be the usual array of politicians, journalists and policy-wonks fighting for better government. However, the tendency will not be towards becoming Big Government Conservatives or Small Government Conservatives, but rather towards Agovernment Conservatives; not anarchists or libertarians, but simply conservatives who bypass the whole debate over the role of government and discover the power of moral suasion and personal responsibility.

It is going to be an uphill battle, though. There is an inherent tension in our mindset. We were raised by the Boomers and taught the primary importance of Self-Satisfaction. Eager young Boomer teachers made me sit through more lessons on building my self-esteem than I could count. I matter! I am important! But, as we age, we are getting tired of the perpetual adolescent revolt of the Boomers and we want to, well, make a difference in this world. Yet we are skeptical of the Grand Cause, the Group Effort, the Government Program. We are conflicted by our desire to do good and our awareness that the problems left to us are monumental, our inherent self-sufficiency and our belief that the individual is largely irrelevant. We are just now figuring out how to talk about these issues which concern us without using the rhetoric of the Boomers.

At a recent Philadelphia Society meeting, a panel of young conservatives was asked if they were optimistic or pessimistic about the future. They were optimistic on the whole, directly counter to the Boomer perception that we are all a bunch of disaffected, pessimistic slackers. The panelists reflected the mindset of Gen X Cons as we hit middle age. We believe we will change the way things are going and in time we will change the tone of conservatism.

But, if you want to be pessimistic, just take a look at Generation Y; those kids are nihilists.

The State of First Things, January 2010

Next in a continuing series...

I. Must read articles


II. Flawed, but worth reading:

1) Glendon, "Cicero Superstar"
A nice little biography of Cicero which made me want to go back and read some more of his work. The lessons Glendon draws at the end of the article--what we should learn from Cicero--were a bit flat, though. She raised some interesting questions (Is the life of a political compatible with a satisfying private life?), but the article just lost steam after the biography ended.

2) Thomas, "The Killer Instinct"
A fun article about how little boys are different than little girls no matter how much the modern age wants to pretend otherwise. Boys like to play with guns and swords and if they don't have toy guns and swords, well, they will use their imaginations. Give a boy a stick and he has a sword or a light saber. Thomas has some interesting ideas on raising boys, but there wasn't anything in the article I found terribly different from other things I have read.

3) Goldman's review of Mitch Albom's latest book Have a Little Faith
Now I know I don't have to read Albom's book. But, the article makes it onto this list for two reasons:
a) The cover of First Things highlights this article with the title, "Mitch Albom is an Idiot." That is quite the change for First Things. Does it signal a more aggressive magazine?
b) Clara is always making fun of what I read. We read together at night a lot and she constantly makes fun of the books I am reading. So, when I was reading First Things one time and she started to laugh at me, I told her she should read the magazine. For reasons unexplained, she took the magazine and seeing the "Mitch Albom is an Idiot" headline on the cover, she read this review. She liked it. Now she doesn't make fun of me for reading First Things because she says the magazine is pretty good.

4) Hart's review of Dawkins' The Greatest Show on Earth
This has some nice reflections on Dawkins and Intelligent Design.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Trial of Jury Duty

I went down to the courthouse for Jury Duty yesterday. This is the third time I have had to appear for Jury Duty in my life. The first two times, I sat around for a few hours and then the judge came in and sent us all home because the trials for the day had all been settled. I never even made it into the courtroom. This time...well, the same thing happened again. Is it me? Does anyone ever actually get to go into the courtroom and be peremptorily challenged?

I did get to hear four times how valuable my jury service was--it turns out that merely by being in the courthouse, willing to serve, I was performing an invaluable public service because, well...they never do actually say what invaluable public service I performed. Unless of course the lawyers in the cases all said, "You know Jim Hartley in in the jury pool--I guess we better settle this one quick."

I can report that the new courthouse in Belchertown is much better than the one I previously had to go to in Northampton. For one thing, there is free parking--I found it highly annoying on my previous two trips to the jury pool that I had to pay for parking to perform my invaluable service as a juror, when said "invaluable" service is apparently not valuable enough to the Commonwealth for it to pay the cost of parking my car for the day.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Yes, Virginia

One of the books I received for Christmas was Bill Bennett's latest, The True Saint Nicholas: Why He Matters to Christmas. It's a short book tracing what we know about the historical Nicholas through the development of the legends of Saint Nicholas after his death and onto the conversion of Saint Nicholas into Santa Claus. There are larger, scholarly tomes on these questions, but I have never read one of those, so I knew almost none of the details in this book. As a result, I thought the book was great.

I'd never known, for example, that Santa Claus was so uniquely American. Almost everything about the modern Santa is an American creation, and then he was exported all around the world. I suppose this is yet another example of what an awesome country America is. Indeed, it was Americans who first united Saint Nicholas and Christmas--Nicholas' feast day, is December 6, and for most of history that was the day he showed up to drop off gifts in stockings.

The book also hits on one of the things that really annoys me about Christmas these days. Christmas is a wonderful time to give gifts--after all, the whole story starts with a gift to mankind, and one of the details of that story is Magi bearing gifts. Giving gifts at Christmas is fun. Christmas is the only time of year that I enjoy shopping and going to the mall. Yet, I constantly hear people complain about the "commercialization" of Christmas, lament about being "required" to buy presents and agonizing about the "perfect gift." It saddens me a bit that so few people seem to have realized that the whole point is the joy of giving and receiving gifts with cheer and goodwill. Saint Nicholas understood the joy of gift-giving. Santa understands the joy of gift-giving. Why is it so hard for everyone else to get it?