Dreaming of the Suburbs

Matthew Loftus brought up this article on the suburbs (The Conservative Case Against Suburbs, a reaction to an earlier Joel Kotkin piece). It’s a form of the conservative critique that sees the suburbs or suburban sprawl as the enemy of the local, the agriculture. I can get behind that to a certain extent, but still.

Of course, it’s always fun to bash Joel Kotkin. Nevertheless there is a lack of subtlety regarding suburbs, not least how we want to describe them. In larger metro areas, there are all sorts of neighborhoods that once were properly suburban but now with leafy streets and the like.

I probably would not think of the suburb as “centralized” although that fits certain conservative memes. The heart of the suburb is its decentralized quality, its “nowhereness,” part aesthetic, and part philosophic. The suburban organization is less centralized, than one of nodes and interstate ganglia. At its core, a decentralized place makes it more difficult to live a public life, to participate in public narratives be it the library. the school, the local symphony.

In further criticism of the piece, the question of race is inescapable. The federal policies that promoted home ownership did so at the cost of opportunity for African Americans. The policies (redlining) gave institutional and geographic warrant for racism — see the work of Thomas Sugrue. An urban philosophy that does not wrestle with the questions of race and economics would appear to be at best, effete, the stuff of More Brooklyn sentimentality.

Fact is, we will need to deal with our suburbs — they won’t get bulldozed. We will need to think carefully how we create robust spaces within this suburban matrix where individuals can thrive, and more importantly, where we can live out full (and public) lives.

Greed and Capitalism, Part 2

[This is the second of two essay-notes on Greg Foster’s article  at The Gospel Coalition}

Paul VanderKlay highlights the same paragraph noted in the previous post:

Capitalism has not flourished most where there was a spirit of greed. It has flourished most where there was a spirit of stewardship—a sense that we are responsible to make the world a better place. That—not greed—is what produces a capitalism that thrives.

As far as I can tell, Foster  is actually arguing for something close to an “Optimal Capitalism”, a capitalism that works best. From his viewpoint, when capitalism has worked best it has done so by being grounded in a moral viewpoint. The utilitarianism that governs the transactional side (that is, the self-interest of the actors) rests on pre-existing moral assumptions. This is obviously not a stable relationship. Indeed, the historical difficulty is that the very nature of utilitarianism tends to erode this set of moral assumptions (religious or otherwise), as one can read in the hesitation of Christians throughout the 19th Century on the role of money and enterprise, Christians both leading enterprises and those in the Church.

But if the author is arguing for an Optimal Capitalism then he is likewise advancing a moral critique of current practices, assuming that present work is not especially optimal. Now an interesting question underway would be what determines this optimal outcome. What well-being are we striving for? Again, the business of utilitarianism and the “doctrinal” neutrality of business practices seems to recreate the conflict. Can moral precepts function as a boundary to capitalist endeavors? Is there some set of moral bright lines that ought not be crossed?

That is, if we assume the following, what then is our critique? How do we put boundaries on this behavior? What cultural or moral truths are evading?

Our political system has adopted many policies and practices that incentivize materialism, exploitation, and crony capitalism.

Lastly, I found that there was a certain drift to optimism that would be experientially unwarranted. The underlying notion of most market economies is that they are self regulating through competition. Yet at the same time we also find two sets of easily observed phenomena: the regular collusion among the actors led by their own self interest; and secondly the distribution of success along Pareto’s lines (the so-called 80-20 rule, where 20 percent do 80 percent of the business). Both limit the effective role of competition as self-regulation. Cooperation and co-option seem more the order of the day.

Greed and Capitalism, Part 1

[This is the first of two articles considering Greed Is Not Good for Capitalism]


Over at The Gospel Coalition, Greg Foster takes on Max Weber, and importantly sees capitalism does not so much thrive on greed as on stewardship,

Capitalism has not flourished most where there was a spirit of greed. It has flourished most where there was a spirit of stewardship—a sense that we are responsible to make the world a better place. That—not greed—is what produces a capitalism that thrives.

Of course there are problems:

Capitalism creates wealth, and there’s no denying wealth creates special temptations. You don’t have to accept Weber’s economic charlatanry to see that!
There are other factors. In a society with religious freedom, it is especially challenging to maintain a robust public moral culture. The academic discipline of economics has adopted a materialistic anthropology and utilitarian ethical assumptions. Our political system has adopted many policies and practices that incentivize materialism, exploitation, and crony capitalism.

But are these flaws, or inherent to the practice of capitalism itself? Some thoughts.s

The notion that capitalism thrives in moral or Christian framework implicitly creates the tension that Weber observed. That idea means at the very least that there are certain values that precede and govern the economic enterprise. The very role of self-interest in transactions pushes players to test these moral boundaries. Indeed, the historical experience has been to validate game theory: violation reaps the rewards, thus the bitter outcomes of so many extractive industries. The corollary to this would be a degradation of standards, unsurprising since the observance of moral precepts, that is of self-limitation, is itself a cost. So utilitarianism, the role of self-interest (aka “greed” or in polite circles perhaps “fiduciary duty”) gets validated, and indeed becomes normative.

This conflict between the moral sentiment and religious grounding and the imperatives of the emerging market or capitalist economies is well attested to in the literature and journals of the 19th Century, or for that matter in the family practices of the great capitalists themselves (thinking here of Ron Chernow’s portrait of John Rockefeller in Titan). In short, it’s real.

Second, the article assumes in good business school optimism, that companies in fact act for the best interest (“humanizes work, builds trust with customers, and orients workers toward creating value and serving the customer with excellence”). Greater honesty would admit that realizing this view is more a matter of privilege, that many work only to survive, seeking a satisfice role rather than one of pursuing excellence. Where one does not have a market dominant position the force of competition at the least creates the sense that one cannot afford such a move to excellence, no matter how personally desirable.

And that brings the other issue left out here, the nature of internal policies. The question of greed is often as much expressed in how one understands the varying claims on revenue: what portion properly belongs to the investor, what to the worker, what to benefits, what to reinvestment, what to improved processes and the like. Again, there is a societal or group dynamic at work here that limits the view of the participants themselves as to what they may consider to be even feasible. (Case: in the 70s the Fortune 500 firm, Herman Miller, limited CEO pay to a multiple of 35x the wage on the floor; current practices would find that decision to be fiscally irresponsible. Or read Dickens to see what could be tolerated).

To sum, while the idea that capitalism rests properly on moral precepts and Christian teaching may offer an explanation of where and how capitalism works best, it is a notion that is limited. And indeed, were we to admit it, by putting (biblical) ethics before business, it functions as an implicit critique of current practice. And ironically, that is not so far from where social justice begins.

You Say It like That’s a Good Thing


Karl Smith suggests that perhaps it’s all a matter of numbers. That is, with sufficient numbers in the system at least one person will win the lottery. And that one person will be sure that his or her achievement is the result of personal virtues, even though it can best be explained by random selection.

To expand the thought, the problem of a meritocratic system is that those inside naturally believe that they have achieved by their own efforts, even if the circumstances are in fact random.

This, of course, is not much help to those of us would-be strivers. We want our accomplishments to be from our own efforts. And that in turn is the mystery of it, only by surrendering the sense of “I earned it” can we actually begin to possess. To have means not to hold, etc. Life, in other words, is a gift. And a life of giftedness creates a politics very different from that generated by the notion that one has “earned” it. Very different.

Listening to the Day of Silence

In Why Christians should support the Day of Silence, Neil de Koning starts the conversation

How should Christians respond to April 20’s Day of Silence, a student-led national event that brings attention to the bullying and harassment of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students in schools?

The focus on bullying is something of a distraction, at least in the high school where I coach. The kids who will participate will be the gays and kids from same-sex households, but also their straight friends. Day of Silence is less about bullying than about solidarity and standing with your friends. And that, I would think,  is where Christian reflection might best begin.

It starts with presence. After all, you really cannot do anything until you’re there with them, alongside them and in the halls. And if we aren’t already in the school (and many Reformed Christians are not) then any response on Day of Silence will be at arm’s length. It will seem contrived. Or worse there will be some sort of counter narrative, one that creates gaps rather than bridge them (e.g. Day of Dialogue from Focus on the Family)

And then there is hospitality. Day of Silence is an invitation to create a welcoming space. The t-shirt and duct tape will be an act of identity, a force of our gaze. As such it is clearly political (i.e. “some folks don’t like us; tough”), and also has that edge of dare: do you, will you accept me? For me, the question will be how do I accept this gift of self-identification?

I think what I will reflect on most will be how these are kids who are deeply, deeply loved.

Guns and Civilization

The news that Sen. Meekhof was out to reform Michigan’s already liberal gun laws brought out the usual thoughts.

Ralph March 22, 2012 at 12:17PM
 I’m just glad and proud to live in a State that recognizes the Second Amendment. Both Open Carry and Concealed Carry are legal in this great state !! As for me…I will continue to carry everyday whether the “sheep” like it or not.

Just an idea, but the proof of a civil society is actually one where violence is constrained and people can live peaceably. Carrying a weapon of lethal force also carries the implicit threat of coercion. Any friend of self-government should be at least cautious about naive and sentimental embrace of firearms.

The underlying point, not developed on MLive, is that self-government depends on an equality of citizens. The intrusion of coercive tools (guns) into public sanctuaries like schools, voting booths, and especially houses of worship, is an assertion of voice by one segment of the population. Because it is both voice and lethality, the necessary outcome is one of coercion. Although they certainly do not intend it, the Second Amendment fan club is laying the foundation for the role of tyranny.

Change of Heat?

News today was the change in proposed policy on contraceptive coverage. According to MLive,
President Obama is changing a controversial rule requiring religiously affiliated organizations to provide birth control to employees by putting the onus on insurance companies to pay for the contraception.
Kevin Rahe responds
In other words, he is making no substantive change to the policy at all.

Yes and no. Functionally what the policy does is to shift the administration of the plan (at least the contraceptive part) to a secular third party — the insurance company. This gets a bit problematic with respect to self-insured hospitals, say. But it terms of respecting religious scruples of the administration of a college or hospital, a third party shift does look like  an appropriate accommodation.

Of course, the deeper desire not to offer contraception even at arms length is not dealt with, but then at lest at state level, case law allows for neutral public policy to over ride religious scruples; faith is not a trump card.