Friday, April 29, 2005
Thoughtful students of election theory can apply this lesson to the current American debate over the filibuster. The Republicans (who have the bare majority at the moment) would like to eliminate this supermajority mechanism at least for judicial appointments. But it is lifetime judicial appointments where the danger of partisanship makes a supermajority requirement most important.
Wednesday, April 27, 2005
- the Cloisters, an extension of the Metropolitan Museum showcasing medieval art and architecture, in a gorgeous setting on the north tip of Manhattan along the Hudson River. Large parts of European abbeys and cathedrals have been relocated here and neatly integrated into a Romanesque limestone home for gorgeous tapestries, carvings, and stained glass
- the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, which vividly illustrates the 1890s Jewish immigrant experience in situ in an actual tenement building. (this was quite relevant to the experience of my own great-grandparents)
- Mt. Zion Cemetery in Queens, where we discovered the gravestones for my great-grandparents and a great-aunt. It was really quite interesting to see the symbolism and Jewish traditions in the various headstones, for example, we realized that the headstones carved in the form of a tree trunk with chopped off limbs symbolized those (like my great-aunt Celia) who died young.
- Avenue Q, the Tony-winning Broadway musical that someone aptly described as "Sesame Street on crack". Quite humorous.
- Jesus Kid Brother, a workshop for a new musical play that should be winning Tony awards in the near future.
- Greenwich Village, where we did a fascinating walking tour during the day that took in many interesting old streets, houses, and establishments entwined with historical characters such as Aaron Burr, Washington Irving, Edna St. Vincent Milay, Eugene O'Neill, and many more; and then hit a fun piano bar (Marie's Crisis) in the evening
- stumbled onto a concert by the Wroclaw Philharmonic at St. Patrick's Cathedral, featuring a choral and symphonic work called "Missa Pro Pace" (Mass for Peace) by the Polish composer Wojciech Kilar, performed in memoriam John Paul II
- nice walk thru Central Park, where the tulips, dogwoods, cherries and pears are blooming
- window shopping down 5th Avenue, including FAO Schwarz and Bergdorf Goodman (just to make fun of the prices - I mean come on, $375 for a T-shirt? So it's made in Italy. By hand? By the Pope?)
- some good restaurants, particularly including Bistro du Vent on 42nd west of Ninth where we had an excellent dinner, and Maison, a very convenient and unexpectedly good and reasonable bistro at 53rd and Seventh.
Saturday, April 23, 2005
Wednesday, April 20, 2005
Monday, April 18, 2005
Today as the College of Cardinals begins its conclave to select the next Pope, the sport of the day is speculation not only about the Pope himself, but about the future of the church. The "one church Catholic and universal" seems increasingly divided between the "first world" (US, Canada, and Europe) and third world Catholics, with the former seeming to wither from attrition while the latter flourishes with renewed energy. In America and Europe, increasing numbers of Catholics are Catholic in name only, with some vague reverence for family tradition, but selective adherence to actual doctrine (if they're even familiar with it), and diminishing actual attendance at church. Likewise, the corps of priests and nuns are aging with fewer young recruits to replace their ranks. Meanwhile, in Africa and Latin America, the church is strong and growing, with a fervent orthodoxy more akin to first world evangelicals than to traditional Catholics. Will the new Pope be a more liberal European, moving the church toward reclaiming its relevance in the first world? Or will the new Pope be from the third world, increasing the focus of the church on the areas where it is growing fastest? Or will the cardinals seek a middle way, someone like Josef Cardinal Ratzinger, said to be the "early favorite". Some may see in Cardinal Ratzinger a European who can still speak to the West, but with unimpeachable orthodox credentials (forged from years leading the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) that should appeal to the third world notions on doctrine. Others may view him as the worst of both worlds, his advanced age being his only redeeming feature. (Conventional wisdom says that it's not good to be the early favorite.)
This same struggle between first world liberalism and disaffection versus third world growth and orthodoxy is also playing itself out in the Anglican church, with the recent ordination of a gay bishop by the US Episcopal Church and the blessing of same sex unions by an Episcopal diocese in Canada signifying the fault lines. The Catholic and Anglican denominations are remarkably similar in much of their tradition and doctrine, but in obvious structural ways they are quite different. The Catholic church is organized along extreme hierarchy with supreme authority vested in the Pope, while the Anglican Communion is a global federation of churches with the Archbishop of Canterbury as its first among equals and moderator in chief but with no solid authority over the other archbishops. In other words, we have strong central government in the Catholics, and a federalist government in the Anglicans. As the evolution of this liberal-orthodox struggle unfolds within these two churches, it will be interesting to see how it plays out. At this point, it is not at all clear which system will be better prepared to handle it. Either church could face a schism (either an explicit one, or just an effective one by attrition and disaffection). Either church could undergo a miraculous transformation that heals the divide. We'll just have to watch over the coming years to see which color the smoke comes out.
(Extra credit questions: Will the smoke thing actually work this time? In the previous papal elections that I can recall, despite the best of modern technology, they couldn't get the smoke to come out white or black like it's supposed to. And where is the "second world" anyway?)
Saturday, April 16, 2005
Thursday, April 14, 2005
Here's another virtue for our time: stewardship. The word in its plainest sense means taking good care of things that have been loaned to us, such as when we borrow a friend's car, or care for a hotel room or an apartment as if we owned it rather than rented it. As a virtue, it means the recognition that life does not begin and end with each of us, and that the resources that enable and enrich our lives came to us from those before us and will be left by us to those after us.
The word has long been used in some religious traditions, by people who believe that all resources in this world ultimately come from God, and that they may be entrusted to us by Him during our temporary stay in this world. For that reason, some people believe it is important to take good care of the Creation we have been entrusted with. This can get complicated for those whose religious convictions include the belief that "the end is at hand", since such people might understandably lose their incentive for a long-term view of resource conservation. But to remain truly virtuous, those people must tend to their souls as if the end is near, at the same time tending to the world as if the end is not near. The former entails the latter, for to do otherwise -- "the end is near, so buy the Hummer and don't worry about the future" -- is just plain greedy and selfish. And greedy and selfish is not a good state of soul to be caught in when the trumpets blow.
For those not of such a religious mind, there are good secular reasons for stewardship. From a Kantian morality (more or less the "golden rule", to treat others as you would have all others treat you) or a utilitarian perspective (maximizing happiness), stewardship is the logical consequence of taking future generations into consideration. For Kantians, we must refrain from guzzling all the fossil fuels and leaving none for our great-grandchildren, just as we are grateful that our predecessors left some for us. For utilitarians, the total happiness calculations come out negative if the marginal happiness increase for the current generation in polluting, overfishing, and destroying the ozone layer is overwhelmed by endless future generations full of cancer and diminished food supply.
Some such as Andrew Sullivan have recently noted with interest a convergence of "hippies, hawks, and theocons" around environmental issues (and in particular, eliminating our dependence on fossil fuel), a rallying together of religious and secular notions of stewardship. Stewardship is much associated with environmental and energy issues, but it relates to other issues as well. Fixing Social Security many years before the ship hits the iceberg, and fixing it in such a way that is fair to our grandchildren, is a matter of stewardship. For those who are parents, our children provide a natural call to stewardship. For the rest of us, stewardship is a noble call to think beyond ourselves, to leave the world better than we found it, for the sake of other people's grandchildren.
Wednesday, April 13, 2005
One of the compelling things about virtue is that it is a positive aspiration ("strive for this") rather than a negative prohibition ("thou shalt not that"). As I wrote last night, virtue is about building character through practice over time. Cultivating virtue is a worthy lifetime project, while obeying prohibitions gives little guidance for what we should do once we've avoided doing what we shouldn't. Virtue is by its nature much more challenging than avoiding prohibitions, requiring much more judgment. Most "shalt nots" are pretty cut and dried. You murder someone or you don't. You commit adultery or you don't. There are no shades of gray in prohibitions. Virtues require judgment, and are always shades of gray. While you can't be "a little bit adulterous", you can be somewhat charitable, moderately patient, mostly faithful, and sometimes prudent. Dave Jansing, in an excellent essay recommending virtues for the modern gay community, has this to say about virtue:
In the recent past, we have heard a lot of talk about "moral values". It's clear that in many cases, the term "moral value" was used as a way of judging others, used as a way of sizing people up to see if they measured up to a certain standard. Instead, we might choose to think about "moral virtues". As such, a contemplation of virtue calls us not to judge others but to examine ourselves.Whereas "values" are often yardsticks used to measure others, and "morality" is often a club used to bludgeon others, virtues are a mirror that calls us to look at ourselves, and they are works of art that inspire us to live better. As Dave writes, virtues are a calling to be good people.
Tuesday, April 12, 2005
[Conservatives] see no reason to reject as phony or ‘precious’ something that is conducive to good living. They understand that since we live in a world of appearances, a certain amount of concern with them is reasonable. They also understand that by faking it a bit, one brings oneself actually to feel the emotions that one began by faking. For example, by saying ‘Good Morning’ when I don’t quite feel like it, I contribute to my own perception of the morning as good. Or if I say, ‘With all due respect’ to an opponent for whom I initially feel little respect, I make it more likely that I will see the merit of his arguments and come to respect him. Respectful behavior leads to feeling respect. The outer does not merely express the inner; it partially determines the inner.I believe that he is correct in these observations, and in fact it is this connection between the inner and the outer that leads me to view respectfulness as a virtue. A common characteristic of virtues is that they are forged through practice. One's virtues are part of one's character, and character must be developed, by intentionally acting as one would wish to be, repeatedly, until through practice one comes to be so.
We should all be familiar with the experience that it is much easier to be horrendously offensive in email than it is to be so when face-to-face. When speaking to someone directly, we are more mindful that we are confronting a person. When writing an email, the inherent detachment in the mode of communication makes it all too easy to forget the usual brakes on disrespect. It's even easier to ride a runaway train of sarcastic invective if one is being disrespectful in forms of address. We can imagine that very different sorts of commentary would start off with "President Clinton ..." versus "Bubba ...". On the other hand, keeping to a habit of respectful address, especially when addressing someone you disagree with, will of itself slow down the runaway train, just because the same tone will more naturally follow a more respectful start. And as Prof. Vallicella said, if we give even the lip-service of all due respect, in time we may come to actually have due respect.
Sunday, April 10, 2005
Saturday, April 09, 2005
Friday, April 08, 2005
While I was not impressed with President Bush's filing cabinet theatrics earlier this week, he did say something I completely agree with. Unfortunately, this more honest and germane statement got buried under the filing cabinet in most accounts, if it was printed at all:
"Franklin Roosevelt did a good thing when he created the Social Security system. It's worked. But the math has changed," he told a crowd at West Virginia University after his trip to the filing cabinet. "The longer we wait, the more costly it's going to be to a future generation of Americans."Here the President hits the nail on the head: the math has changed. While some people are afraid of the math, there are some simple factors that go into this, that practically all Americans should be able to grasp intuitively, so I don't see why our leaders seem afraid to acknowledge them. The Social Security equation depends on the ratio of workers to retirees. In FDR's time, there were approximately 16 workers paying into the system for each 1 retiree drawing out of it. More recently, that ratio has dropped to 3 workers per retiree, and is heading toward 2. Why is the ratio of workers to retirees dropping? For one, the "baby boom" has been passing through our national demographics, like a snake digesting a rabbit, for the last sixty years, and now that generation is about to retire. Post-boom Americans just haven't been having as many children as their parents did, so as a large generation grows old, there aren't as many younger people coming along to replace it. More significantly, we're living longer. While our life expectancy has been increasing, the retirement age hasn't changed very much. In FDR's day, retirees typically enjoyed retirement for about 5 years before they died. Now, it's upwards of 10 years and growing.
If that's too abstract, perhaps an image will help. Picture the population of America standing on a football field, arranged youngest to oldest from one goal line to the other. In 1945, everyone below the 30 yard line are children, and everyone above the 90 yard line are retirees. Those 60 yards in between are filled with working Americans. Flash forward to 2005. Now the children don't quite make it to the 25 yard line, while the retirees are approaching the 70 yard line (and in control of the ball, first down, moving down field). Working Americans are left defending 45 yards in the middle.
The gist of the problem is that Social Security, as currently constructed as a pay-as-you-go system, depends on a balance of workers paying into the system to pay the retirees collecting from it. If the number of retirees gets bigger compared to the number of workers, the system gets out of balance. When the system gets out of balance, there are only three ways that it can be re-balanced:
- have workers pay more (raise taxes)
- have retirees get less (reduce benefits)
- change the ratio of workers to retirees (raise the retirement age)
By far the most intriguing proposition I have heard salvages the system by diverting a small part of current payroll taxes to personal accounts (as President Bush wants), but finances that and preserves the existing system by raising the retirement age to 72. This shift in retirement age changes the equation enough to rebalance the system and finance the new personal accounts. The enticing twist is that the personal accounts can be used to finance an earlier (or a more comfortable) retirement. This hybrid system keeps the good part of the traditional system (protection against outliving one's assets, and the security of a defined benefit) and adds the good part of the personal accounts (enabling each person to make their own decisions about risk vs. potential rewards) while avoiding the bad parts of personal accounts (the possibility of risks gone bad or outliving one's savings). In this scenario, the risk of personal accounts is shifted from end-of-life to late middle age, where the worst downsides are working for a few more years or living more frugally, but not sleeping on the streets in advanced old age. This makes a heck of a lot of sense to me. I wish our leaders would start talking about some real solutions like this one.
Thursday, April 07, 2005
It should also be noted that a shift to personal accounts will not eliminate I-O-Mes. The majority of American corporate pensions/401(k)s and individual retirement accounts allow for the individual to borrow their own money out of their retirement account for present use. (Nearly one in five American families with a retirement account has an outstanding loan against it, per a 2004 ICI report.) The individual is expected to repay the loan with interest, but like all loans, it is always possible to walk away from the debt (with tax and credit repercussions). And late last year, ING announced a new credit card that is backed by your own retirement. (This was actually the idea, in part, of the Nobel-winning economist Modigliani, who believed it would have beneficial effects.)
The impact of borrowing one's own retirement savings depends on a couple of factors, according to the Center for Retirement Research. The first factor is whether the loan is used to increase current consumption (e.g., a vacation), or merely to rearrange current finances (e.g., consolidate credit card debt at a lower rate). The second factor is whether the loan is ultimately paid off or not. They note that increasing current consumption reduces total lifetime consumption. The money that you won't have later because you've spent it now is compounded by foregone earnings and tax leverage. Most of these same issues would apply to the federal government borrowing from the Trust Fund. It's already clear that the money borrowed has been used to increase federal consumption (it wasn't used to pay off other bond debt). Given the gaping national debt, will the loan turn out to have been an "early distribution"? That will depend on the willingness and ability of Americans to pay more taxes, and whether the rest of the world will finally put a credit limit on the American national credit card.
Wednesday, April 06, 2005
I credit President Bush with seizing the "third rail" of American politics, and actually getting Social Security on the agenda. But can we really make progress on this issue if both sides keep making ridiculous arguments? The Democrats insist, despite clear evidence to the contrary, that everything is hunky-dory and there's nothing to worry about. Now, the President stoops to misguided political theatrics, posing next to a filing cabinet, telling us:
"There is no trust fund, just IOUs that I saw firsthand, that future generations will pay," Bush said after inspecting the storage site. "Imagine - the retirement security for future generations is sitting in a filing cabinet."What did the President think he would find? Some huge pile of C-notes stuffed under some gigantic federal mattress? Our entire economy is based on "IOUs" and other pieces of paper sitting in filing cabinets. Why, my husband and I have a good chunk of our retirement sitting in our filing cabinet. It's called the deed to our house. Just a piece of paper. As is the note held by our lender, worth a tidy sum in their opinion, but just an "IOU" sitting in a filing cabinet somewhere. And if we had private retirement accounts as the President would like us to have, would we have a pile of gold in Fort Knox with our name on it? Um, no. We would have a periodic paper statement informing us that the federal government is holding shares of some index mutual fund. In other words, more pieces of paper sitting in some filing cabinet (in some huge new filing cabinet complex that the government would have to build, probably in West Virginia, next door to the Social Security trust fund). And even that mutual fund itself will just be a paper thing, a promise that some stock certificates (more paper) sit in yet another filing cabinet (on Wall Street).
Indeed, even cash itself, those crisp green bank notes, are just paper promises representing faith in our economy. It seems truly bizarre for the President of the United States to be trivializing the full faith and credit of the United States. Just what does President Bush imagine that the Treasury is going to give to the people who are supposed to finance all the money he wants to borrow? Just an IOU. Fancy folks call them "bonds", and they have an expectation that the United States actually honors its bonds. Imagine.
Tuesday, April 05, 2005
President Bush is the true "obstructionist" here by renominating candidates he knows full well are not broadly acceptable. If the President honestly means any of his "uniting" bipartisan rhetoric, he would nominate judges that can be confirmed by broad consensus. Last term, he succeeded in doing so over 200 times. Why not find just a few more judges like those first 200, rather than squander his political capital and the nation's trust in picking a fight over the handful of judges who failed to garner broad acceptance?
Attention any Senators who care about doing what's right for America: don't nuke the filibuster, nuke the aisle.
Monday, April 04, 2005
He was a very worldly and people-loving Pope, traveling the world to greet those hungry for his presence, sometimes at risk to his own health or safety. It has been said that he was personally seen by more people than anyone else in all of history. He was also a deeply philosophical Pope and an amazingly industrious Pope. It would not surprise me to hear that the accumulation of his writings exceeds the output of the last several centuries of Popes combined. And though I may disagree with some of his convictions, I can still respect him for holding them so strongly and speaking them so forcefully. Yet the thing that stands out for me the most about John Paul was the strength of his desire for reconciliation. This manifested in three ways. Ecclesiastically, John Paul desired reconciliation among Christian churches, and he made significant efforts to reach out to the Orthodox and Anglican churches in particular. And he reached out to all religions in ways previously unthinkable for a Pope. What other Pope would have lead a multidenominational prayer gathering for peace that included Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and more? Magisterially, while he was strict in demanding adherence to doctrine, he was also uniquely forthright in apologizing for the church's past wrongs where he recognized them, including the remarkable rehabilitation of Galileo, the acknowledgement of Darwin, and most importantly, his reconciliatory moves toward the Jewish people. Spiritually, he practiced forgiveness, most powerfully illustrated when he visited and forgave the man who attempted to assassinate him. By such dramatic examples, he lived to forgive and to seek forgiveness. Though I am personally hurt that he considered my convictions to be insidiously evil, and I am concerned about the horrendous consequences of some of his doctrinal legacy, I will also remember the Christian example of how he lived, and respond in the appropriate way -- the way that he would fervently have wished to inspire in all of us: in a spirit of forgiveness. Ego te absolvo, Iohannes Paulus II, requiescat in pace.
"Hi, my name is Tom. I'm a genealogist. I've been researching my family history for about a year now..."
Okay, I admit it. This genealogy stuff is totally addictive. My husband only dimly understands why it keeps me up until 3AM sometimes, or how I can be motivated to pore over endless microfilms in dimly lit underground libraries. Part of it is the fascination of learning about American (and world) history in the process, and discovering a more personal connection to historic events, because some ancestor of mine fought in the Civil War, or helped settle colonial Connecticut, or married a Scottish laird. And part of it is the thrill of the "detective work", because every new piece of information answers one question and raises a few new ones, and it can be a real sleuthing challenge to find the clues and make the puzzle pieces fit. It's definitely a thrill when you break through what had been a brick wall. So now the secret's out. And now you know why I've missed a few days of blogging this past week!