Thursday, March 18, 2010

Father or Rich Neighbor?

“With liberal grace and serene naiveté, the pagans modeled relations with the gods on political and social relations among themselves. It was the Christians who substituted the paternal model, basing relations with God on relations within the family, which is why Christianity, unlike paganism, would be a religion of obedience and love.

If God is a father, there is little to do but pray to him. But if the gods are patrons, one can offer them gifts and receive gifts in return, symbolizing a friendship between unequal partners, each with a life of his own; indeed, there would be no reason for men and gods to enter into relations at all were such relations not in the interest of both parties. If the human partner behaved any more humbly, he would not be acting like a free man. People smiled when women went to temple and told the goddess Isis their troubles. Such intimacy with the gods was plebian. A free man knew how to maintain a proper distance between himself and other men and between himself and the gods. He did not abase himself before his deity. Leave it to the common people to spend all day in the temples waiting on their gods like slaves, behaving like valets and hairdressers before the statues of their deities.”
From “A History of Private Life: From Pagan Rome to Byzantium”, chapter Tranquilizers in the section on Pagan Rome.

Such a temptation to think that everyone is like us, only (in this case) they wore togas and liked fighting Gauls. This is why period pieces in film and literature are so convincing, when they should really be anything but. To interact with such people would probably be a disorienting experience.

These two worldviews, Christian and pagan, would seem virtually irreconcilable, and yet a couple hundred years later they ended up in a rather peculiar forced marriage!

You need a happy family, or an example of one, to formulate a positive image of God. Otherwise Heaven is as frightening as a drunken parent. No problem for the Roman, reconciling earthly disfunction with heavenly perfection - heaven was as dysfunctional as Roman society!

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Through a Glass Darkly

“Meanwhile, the disciples had returned from the city, and wondered to find Him talking with a woman [the Samaritan woman by Jacob’s Well]. The relations of the sexes, even in common life, were very narrow and suspicious among the Jews. That a woman should allow herself to be seen unveiled was held immodest, and for any woman to let herself be heard singing a song was almost unchaste. In Judea a bridegroom might be along with his bride, for the first time, an hour before marriage, but in Galilee even this was thought unbecoming. Trades which brought the two sexes in any measure into contact were regarded with suspicion, and no unmarried person of either sex could be a teacher, lest the parents of the children might visit the school. In Rabbis especially, even to speak with a woman in public was held indecorous in the highest degree. “No one” (that is, no Rabbi) says the Talmud, “is to speak with a woman, even if she be his wife, in the public street.” It was forbidden to greet a woman, or take any notice of her. “Six things,” we are told, “are to be shunned by a Rabbi. He must not be seen in the street dripping with oil (which would imply vanity); he must not go out at night alone; he is not to wear patched shoes (which in certain cases would be carrying a burden, when it was unlawful to do so); he must not speak with a woman in a public place; he must shun all intercourse with common people (for, not knowing the Law, they might be ‘unclean’); he must not take any long steps (for that would show that he was not sunk in the study of the Law); and he must not walk erect (for that would display pride).” Though higher in position and respect among the Jews than in other Eastern nations, woman, at the time of Christ, was treated as wholly inferior to man. “Let the words of the Law be burned,” says Rabbi Eleazer, “rather than committed to women.” “He who instructs his daughter in the Law,” says the Talmud, “instructs her in folly.”
- The Life and Words of Christ, by John Cunningham Geikie

After typing that I looked at the yahoo homepage and saw an advertisement for sexy underwear with seven mostly naked, heavily photoshopped ladies standing in a row. Treating the models so overtly as sex objects, the image is pornographic even if it is not explicit. Extra credit for the banner’s title: “I love my body” – astonishing that the examples they show us are of women who didn’t like the bodies God gave them and got new ones through fanatical activity and elective surgery. Look how different our cultures are. How can I relate to their world and experience across such an expanse? They, narrowly channeled through life by stultifying rules and laws – hedges and walls that divide humans and prevent closeness. Too many of us, imagining we have full liberty of action and interaction between the sexes, instead reduce those around us to mere objects, fulfillers of cultivated fantasies, and set up elaborate fashion systems that are so rigorous that no more than a handful can fulfill them. Giving and receiving of love between the sexes is only on the most physical and superficial level.

Who is more restricted by rules and mores?

How foolish these old-timey Jews seem – outward signals that one is free of pride can be just as prideful as any other action that “looks” prideful. But how would they judge us? They would judge our ethic of self-worth-through-sexuality harshly.

I think their “hedge about the Law” has a lot in common with our rules of fashion. It’s a way for a self-selected elite to establish social standards of value and importance that put them at the top and others below. It is a competitive system, never about inclusion, only exclusion. One is always being judged against others, and the continual amplitude of effort and zeal leads to the most maddening and ridiculous brinkmanship.

Alternate Ending to 1984 Where Winston Becomes a God Instead of an Animal

Picking up the action in Room 101. First paragraph is from the book:

The mask was closing on his face. The wire brushed his cheek. And then - no, it was not relief, only hope, a tiny fragment of hope. Too late, perhaps too late. But he had suddenly understood that in the whole world there was just one person to whom he could transfer his punishment - one body that he could thrust between himself and the rats.

He was suddenly struck with a curiosity so powerful that he nearly forgot where he was. What was Julia’s worst thing in the world? What hidden fear, known only to O’Brien, stalked her hidden thoughts? Winston remembered his love like a hazy, half-forgotten dream slipping back into memory. With ferocious affection he imagined her alone and afraid in the same chair he was now in. He imagined throwing himself between her and some huge, dark, dreadful thing.

The rats were right before his eyes. The wire pressed into his cheek, and the cage snapped into place. O’Brien had only to depress the lever. Winston saw the end. If he waited a few seconds it would all be over.

He clenched up his will and resolved to wait a few seconds. He imagined that by waiting he might somehow protect his beloved from that same dreadful thing.

A few seconds passed. The door of the cage tremored and lifted a centimeter or two, and then stopped. One rat shuffled madly trying to get through the narrow space while the old one stared at him with malevolent eyes, but to Winston the world froze in place. Moment after moment the worst thing in the world was about to happen.

O’Brien broke the impasse by casually releasing the lever, snapping the cage door back shut, as if something had occurred to him that he wanted to say before causing the dreadful thing. “You are,” he said, “perhaps -

Winston shut out the words and closed his eyes. Why wouldn’t the dreadful thing happen? Then he realized – this was the worst thing in the world! This was Big Brother’s greatest and final claim to his loyalty! If this was not enough to make him love Big Brother, nothing would be. It was a dangerous thing for his tormentors to give him this final choice, for beyond it they were powerless. This was an act of desperation on their part.

In Winston’s mind he and O’Brien switched places. They were weak and he was powerful. He was doing the worst thing in the world to O’Brien. They needed him to love Big Brother. They needed him to agree with them, while he needed nothing from them.

He opened his eyes, and everything fell away from him: the rats, the walls of Room 101, the halls of the Ministry of Love, the bunkers, buildings, guns, tanks and floating fortresses, the secret police with minds like machines, the careful beetle-like men crawling through the Ministry of Truth, and men like O’Brien with their calculated madness. Every inch of it was a cruel façade over the face of the universe, obscuring all real meaning and value. It dropped away, and he was left with himself. He was free. The fear and hatred that had animated him so long were gone.

He loved Julia.

Monday, March 01, 2010

There’s a confusing and conflicting array of data and numbers being bandied around about the state of the economy. Reports on this or that new number give a wide variety of pictures about how things are going.

Oh no! Job numbers are down!
Oh yes! Manufacturing orders are up!
Oh yes! The stock market is up!
Oh no! Housing starts are down!
Wait…but home prices are up!
We’re losing our shirts!
No, the recession is actually over – everyone celebrate!

What does it all mean? It seems like the more information we have, the more confused we get.

There’s a problem with the way we are using all these numbers. Before explaining, I’d like to introduce a concept:


The economy is actually split into two different parts – factions we might describe as real and fake. The “real economy” is exactly what it purports to be – the portion of the economy that is real. The fake economy is, in certain crucial ways, artificial. What’s the difference? The real economy is what people themselves are willing to do with their time, energy, and resources. The fake one is dependant on what government does with the resources that it gets from borrowing, printing money, and confiscating from us.

I should be clear that not everything that the government does is “fake economy”. There’s nothing fake about a government takeover of health care, for example. That portion of the economy will be real regardless of who is running it. I am talking about things that, if government wasn’t doing them, they would not be done at all. That is the fake economy.

Example: Recently our leaders in Washington decided that Americans weren’t buying enough cars. American auto manufacturers were already being kept on life support by tens of billions of government largesse, but still people weren’t buying enough of their cars to make them healthy again. So, to support those companies and their unions, government pledged three billion dollars of our money to subsidize the purchase of new autos.

Predictably, auto sales during this time were extraordinary, as consumers either advanced a planned auto purchase to take advantage of the program, or were convinced to buy autos they didn’t need and couldn’t otherwise afford.

Due to the prominence and popularity of this program (which you probably remember as Cash for Clunkers), there was no risk of people thinking that improved auto sales meant the economy was recovering. But government is spending trillions of dollars every year right now to prop up the economy, and its activities are affecting things in ways that are very difficult to measure.

(This, by the way, is the role government tries to play in economic downturns. Rather than tough it out through the trough of a depression before things eventually improve, government papers things over. People are too poor and scared to buy anything right now, so government steps with loads of money, spending to make up some of the difference. Essentially, government deficit spending replaces consumer spending and investment, in hopes that this will lessen the severe parts of a depression. By providing artificial demand for cars, houses, stocks and so forth, the government hopes to gin things up until the storm is over and the real economy has recovered.)

Now we can circle back to the confusion about what’s really going on in the economy. We already know that the fake economy is doing great – free money from government for people to do things that no one else is willing to pay for. What we really want to see is an improvement in the REAL economy – people being willing and able to spend more of their OWN money and invest and work hard and so forth. Unfortunately, these two economies are very difficult to separate and the economic numbers that get reported usually include the fake numbers as well. Thus, when (for example) home sales go up, it is hard to tell how much is because people really want new houses and are willing to sacrifice to get them, or if they were just doing it because government made it practically free and riskless to buy one. It’s like holding a magnet next to a compass and then trying to point which way is north.

This is something people have a hard time perceiving. We are very used to relying on certain measures to describe economic progress. Numbers that describe unemployment, real estate, and the stock market used to give a somewhat more trustworthy indication of how things were going, but right now they are largely reflecting the effectiveness of various government programs, rather than any underlying strength and optimism. Housing and stock market numbers in particular are so heavily reliant on government money and support that they have almost no meaning right now.

So, if all the various measures of economic productivity are tainted by meddlers in Washington, what SHOULD we be paying attention to so we can understand how things are really going?

Well, one of the main causes of our ongoing depression is the over-indebtedness of the American consumer. Beguiled by easy credit and the false promises of an ownership society where everyone owns a house and gets rich, Americans have gone into debt at levels that haven’t been seen since the run-up to our last great depression. (Our government is also assuming trillions of dollars of debt every year, but here I am talking just about private non-government debt.) Over-leveraged and deeply in debt, Americans have had no stomach for the investment, indulgence and consumption that are such a large part of our economy. Certainly American debt levels will have to decrease – a lot – before the sort of recovery Wall Street and Washington are waiting for can happen. See the graph.

It shows the total debt held by Americans, in trillions of dollars. Since 1997 the amount has more than doubled, before finally leveling off at the start of the depression last fall.

So at least it isn’t going UP any more, but it’s rather distressing to see that, in more than a year, the number hasn’t moved down very much. There’s still a long way to go, and Americans, jobless and living in homes worth a fraction of their previous value, are having a hard time managing it. Until we work off a significant portion of this debt, it will be hard enough for people to pay for food and mortgages, much less the conspicuous consumption that fueled our chimerical global boom.

For all its importance, this important statistic has been largely ignored by government and the media. Instead, our leaders are wasting time and trillions of dollars trying to maintain an artificial status quo. In fact, by subsidizing and encouraging big-ticket purchases, government programs like the first-time homebuyer’s credit and Cash for Clunkers have served to INCREASE consumer debt. They are pushing us in exactly the wrong direction right now.