Wednesday, September 27, 2006

I Wish That I Were This Smart

The Invisible Hand's Impressive Work
By Louis-Vincent Gave

We like to think of financial markets as a massive big puzzle whose pieces are scattered around the table. We also like to think that, if we concentrate hard enough, [...] then we should be able to somehow piece this puzzle together.

1- The First Piece of the Puzzle: Very Strong Profit Margins

[Shouldn't profit margins decrease rapidly, and soon]? After all, profits as a percentage of GDP have historically always returned to the mean (as they should-otherwise, given the laws of compounding, profits would end up being bigger than GDP).

The answer, as far as we are concerned is "yes". Profit margins as a percentage of GDP should come back down as our economies go through their mid-cycle slowdowns. After all, corporate profits have historically been one of the first variables of adjustments in our economic cycles.

But having said that, the "mean" to which profits revert to may be much higher than some expect. Indeed, while profits as a percentage of GDP cannot rise forever, we might have witnessed a structural shift higher in corporate profitability.

Let us take the US as an example. With ever-growing shareholder activism, and ever-improving management techniques, an increasing number of companies have become parsimonious with their capital spending. Capital is only deployed on projects which are deemed to bring returns over a certain threshold. Functions in which the company does not add value are either shut down, or spun off and sold to other investors better able to generate value. In the US, what matters first is profits and returns on invested capital. Employment then comes as a natural consequence of the companies' profit seeking activities.

Let us now take China as a second example. Thanks to a low cost of capital and a very low cost of labour, companies have sprung up all around the country and piled into new businesses. Because returns on invested capital are a distant consideration, most sectors are in overcapacity; and yet capital spending continues regardless. The country thus has over 300 auto producers, 3000 ball bearing manufacturers... In China, what matters first and foremost is employment; profits are not really even a consideration.

The US and China could of course each live as islands unto themselves [...]. But fortunately, the past twenty years have been characterized by ever greater improvements in communication technologies, port infrastructure, airplanes... Encouragingly, trade barriers and impediments to the movements of goods, and people, have been rapidly collapsing. [...]

As a result, we live in a world in which China and the US can increasingly talk to each other. And when they do talk, what do they say? China says "all I want is jobs" and the USA says "all I want is profits". And in that discussion a deal can rapidly be struck. Is it a coincidence that, just as we saw a widening of the US current account deficit, we also witnessed an explosion in the profitability of US corporations? [We would] argue "no".

Would it be a stretch to say that the impressive, and unprecedented, growth in US profits of the past few years is directly linked to Chinese companies' inability to hold on to any recurrent profitability? As the trade between the two economic giants keeps on growing, one question that investors should ask themselves is "who captures the profitability of the trade flows?" Is it Wal-Mart (or some other US distributor)? Or is it the Chinese goods manufacturer?

The answer to that question (i.e.: Wal-Mart), brings us back to the idea that profits need to return to the mean. This is undeniably true of a closed economy. But of course, few economies in the World today could be called "closed economies"; instead, companies are increasingly global, and thus their total profits should probably be compared to global GDP, instead of domestic GDP. Or to stay on the Wal-Mart example, maybe Wal-Mart's earnings as a percentage of US GDP are at the top of their band... But could the same be said of Wal-Mart's earnings relative to Chinese and US GDP. Most likely not! In other words, profits [will] probably return to the mean on a global basis; they may no longer return to the mean at a national level. [Emphasis added].

2- The Second Piece of the Puzzle: Income Disparity

This new world order (in which rich nations get the profits and poor nations get the jobs) immediately creates a quandary: massive income disparity. Indeed, in the "old days", people sitting at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder could get well-paid manufacturing jobs and ensure decent living standards for themselves and their families. The problem today is that, as the US-China trade of "we take the profits and you take the jobs" gets made, the people who were previously holding those jobs could be seen as losing out.

And, to be fair, one of the more obvious economic developments of the past decade has been the increase in income disparity across much of the Western World. The poor have not gotten poorer... but the rich have definitely gotten much wealthier. And for a simple reason; when we say "we will take the profits" the "we" is usually a somewhat concentrated smallish pool of rich people, i.e.: shareholders in Western companies.

This growing income disparity, one could fear, might lead to political problems and tensions. Are our societies sufficiently mature to cope with such income disparities? Some might be (US? Hong Kong? UK?...). Others, maybe less so (France? Italy? Germany?...). [...]

3- The Third Piece of the Puzzle: Discontinuous Inflation

[A]ssuming that we are right in our statement above that "the rich keep on getting richer", then it follows that whatever the rich buy should be going up in price much more rapidly than what poorer people buy (for there will be more competition for the goods/services that rich people buy). [...] The extent and persistence of the divergence between service and goods prices in the past decade also suggests a less obvious and more important story in three parts.

The first part of this story relates to China's entry into the global economy. By becoming the workshop of the world, China has pushed down the prices of all mass-produced manufactured goods. The virtually limitless supply of cheap labour and capital in China, and the chronic mis-allocations of capital will ensure that manufactured goods continue to get cheaper, not only in Britain but around the world.

But the relentless downward pressure on manufactured prices from China has resulted in a second effect which is less widely understood, even among economists: cheap imports from China have actually pushed up the prices of many goods and services which the Chinese cannot or do not produce - either because they lack the resources (for example, oil) or the legal infrastructure (financial services) or simply because some things cannot be traded (for example, housing, healthcare and education).

People who see China purely as a source of downward pressure on prices forget that overall inflation in any economy is essentially determined by the availability of money. If monetary policy is successfully run (as it is in Britain) to produce an overall inflation rate of 2%, [then if] the prices of manufactured goods are persistently falling by 3 or 4%, prices elsewhere in the economy must rise faster to maintain the 2% average inflation rate. [Emphasis added].

In this sense the ever-cheaper consumer goods from China have created more leeway for other prices in the world economy to go up. This effect has been particularly visible in the prices of goods and services which the Chinese are ravenously consuming but cannot produce themselves - for example oil, financial services and luxury property around the world.

Which brings us to the third, and most surprising, part of the inflation story. As the prices of services and luxury goods are driven persistently higher, service-producing countries such as Britain get richer relative to countries which specialize in manufacturing. And within Britain, the rich, who tend to work in high-end service industries which are relatively unaffected by competition from Asia, get richer, while the poor, who tend to work in industries more exposed to cheap-labour competition, get relatively poorer. [However], for the lucky bankers, lawyers and, yes, even economic analysts, who are benefiting from this seismic change in the structure of the global economy, [there is] a sting in the tail. While we are getting richer, the high-end services, most obviously housing, travel and private education - on which many of us spend a disproportionate share of our incomes - are becoming more expensive, because of the very same global trends which are making us relatively rich.

That is why, even as inflation remains almost nonexistent, the talk in London's bars and restaurants is of galloping prices. [...] Being rich has never [cost so much]. And staying rich is going to get more exorbitant by the day.

Reading the above, our friend David Scott wrote a great report where he stated that "while it has never been so expensive to be rich", it has also "never been so cheap to be poor". And, if we accept the crude simplification that poor people tend to spend more of their revenues on goods (which keep falling in price) while rich people spend more of their income on services (which seem to just keep on rising), then there might be a simple explanation to the impressive discontinuous inflation we have witnessed in recent years, [which has baffled us so]. [...]

4- The Fourth Piece of the Puzzle: A Confused & Confusing Fed

[H]ow should policy makers react to the odd inflationary environment which they now confront? [...] If policy makers take aim at the galloping service price inflation, they risk pushing the entire system into deflation.

However, given the recent tick higher in the inflation data, the question needs to be asked as to whether we have moved from an environment of: a) falling goods prices which allowed for rising service prices and an overall benign inflationary environment to b) an environment where the price of goods is no longer falling and service prices are still on the rise?

Now, as Churchill once said, most economists use statistics like drunks use lampposts: for support more than for light. And given that there are so many statistics on inflation one might be able to back-up nearly any kind of pre-conceived idea with scientific sounding data.

Unfortunately for the Fed, however, all the inflation data seems to be pointing in the same way: prices are creeping higher. The only question is whether this is a new trend? Or whether the rise in prices we have recently experienced is a short term phenomenon which will roll-over with the economic cycle? [...]

[U]ntil the mid 1990s, we lived in a world of oligopolies. When average costs went up, so did average prices. But as the recent spike in oil, copper, transportation prices has shown, this is simply not the case any more. Thanks to the combination of globalization, industry deregulation, technological progress, the spread of the Internet, and the emergence of the 'platform company model' (which feeds off all the above trends) we are moving towards a world with perfect information and perfect competition. In such a world, prices are made at the margin, and no longer on average.

The perfect examples of such pricing mechanisms can be found in the commodity markets where the information is at the same time available to most, and widely spread. As we all know, commodity prices are far from stable: if there is a shortage of one barrel of oil, the price shoots up; if we have an overcapacity of one barrel, its price collapses. The same can be said of the freight rate for oil tankers, for copper, or for any well published price determined at the margin.

And so today, we are in a situation where a growing number of prices are going up (hence the rise in median CPI) while the "heavy" prices (e.g.: rent) are still in check (explaining why the rise in the core CPI is more modest).

5- The Fifth Piece of the Puzzle: China's Export Prices

In the capitalist world, and barring the emergence of monopolies, competition always leads to the most efficient producer lowering prices in order to drive his output higher. The fall in prices is therefore inherent in capitalism, which is why Marx believed capitalism sowed the seeds of its own destruction. A claim to which Bastiat would answer: in economics there is always what you see, and what you don't see. You see the fall in prices, but you do not see the rise in disposable income, or the increase in sales triggered by the falling prices. [...]

We believe that [this natural capitalist tendency is still in effect today], if only because important parts of the world are clamouring to join the capitalist world, and in so doing, are using their excess savings (which are often large), to build excessive manufacturing capacity. This, of course, is nowhere more true than in China. A quick example will illustrate this.

As mentioned above, in China today, one can reportedly find over 300 car manufacturers. Unfortunately, the Chinese market is probably big enough for [perhaps only] ten car manufacturers. This means that 300 car manufacturing company CEOs wake up every morning and wonder: 'how do I get to be one of the ten survivors?' Being the most profitable is good, being technologically advanced is also a plus, as are political connections, but at the end of the day, one gets to survive by being the biggest; by employing so many people that, when the down phase of the cycle occurs, the government can not afford to fire hundreds of thousands of workers. One becomes 'too big to fail'.

This of course means that, when capital is offered up, all three hundred car manufacturers (following their 'too big to fail' business models) will grab it and spend it with both hands. Competing with each other for: a) raw materials, b) labour and c) allocations on the overstretched power and transportation grids.

In previous cycles, Chinese manufacturers would, in this way, end up with excess capacity that no-one would buy from them at any price. Today, the situation is very different. After the recent Chinese capital-spending boom (Chinese capital spending has grown from 32% of GDP to 45% in the past five years), most Chinese manufacturers now produce goods that are competitive on the international market not only on price, but also on quality.

This is a very important change, whose ramifications help explain China's continuous disinflationary impact. Because of the excess capital spending of recent years, Chinese producers have little choice but to export their overcapacity aggressively (hence the era of the US$5,000 Chinese car... despite rising steel, aluminum, rubber prices...). Chinese goods will attempt to gain market share by undercutting any other producer out there. Which, of course, then explains why goods prices have been under pressure in most economies in the past decade.

With that in mind, measuring China's propensity to export its excess production and put pressure on the prices of "goods" around the World becomes very important. And fortunately, there is a simple way to do this: studying the changes in Hong Kong's re-export prices. Indeed, Hong Kong is still an important port of transit for Chinese-made goods; and the data that the Hong Kong government compiles is trustworthy.

And this is where it gets interesting: according to Hong Kong re-export prices, China's deflationary impact seems to have been the greatest at the end of 2001 - beginning of 2002. It then took a little over a year for the world to really start to worry about deflation (and "the China price"). Of course, by that point, the deflation that China was exporting was already abating.

Then, for the first time in a decade, China's export prices started to rise meaningfully in 2004 and 2005. For a short while, China was exporting inflation; but once again, it took a year for the world to notice (and now people everywhere seem as concerned about inflation as they were about deflation three years ago). Today, Chinese re-export prices are back into negative territory. In other words, a year ago, Chinese companies had pricing power, [...] but this pricing power has now disappeared. China is back to exporting deflation.

6- Conclusion: The "Invisible Hand" at Work

At the risk of sounding Panglossian, we will admit that we are in awe at how Adam Smith's "invisible hand" works in strange and funny ways. If anyone had told us a decade ago that a "trade" would be put in place whereas China would say "give us all the jobs" and American companies would say "we'll take all the profits" and that this trade would lead to greater wealth, and greater social harmony in both countries, we most likely would have been very skeptical. Of course, we would have been wrong, for we would have forgotten to put our faith in Adam Smith's invisible hand which somehow has a way to make things work out in the end. [...]

To conclude, we would like to leave the reader with the following points:

(1) Inflation, at this stage, does not seem to us to be a viable threat. The current increase in prices we are witnessing reflects the past years' easy monetary policies and increases in China's export prices. These factors are now behind us. In front of us, we have the fact that China is once again exporting deflation, [...] and the tighter monetary policies of recent quarters.

(2) In a tighter liquidity environment such as the one we are now facing, owning the [company] that says "I'll take all the profits" makes a lot more sense to us than owning the [company] that says "I'll take all the jobs".

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Engines? We Don't Need No Steeenking Engines!

WARNING: No philosophical issues here, just a bit of deep background with a strong likelihood of inducing excruciating, perhaps permanent, boredom.

To a pilot, this para led immediately to a "What The ..." moment:

A BRITISH AIRWAYS jumbo jet carrying 351 passengers was forced to make an emergency landing after an 11-hour transatlantic flight with a failed engine.

"Emergency landing" just doesn't play well with rest of the sentence, especially that 11-hour part. So for those of you at home in the pixel audience keeping score, here is some deep background on how you get to an emergency landing an entire continent and ocean away from its instigation.

Just to stir the stew, the story also includes this little info-nugget demonstrating the EU has found yet another way to be incredibly meddlesome, apparently without even the tiniest tingly nanny-sense that there might just be some unintended consequnces:

The incident happened three days after a European regulation came into force requiring airlines to compensate passengers for long delays or cancellations. Under the new rules, if the pilot had returned to Los Angeles, BA would have been facing a compensation bill of more than £100,000.

The EU, in forging towards the brave new world where government ensures citizens are never exposed to any risk, has provided powerful incentive to continue a flight that might otherwise turn back. After all, it is very easy to quantify a 100% chance of losing £130,000 (including fuel dumped to get under max landing weight), but very difficult to balance that against the much smaller likelihood of losing vastly more money in deciding to continue the flight despite losing an engine.

There are really three factors bearing on the question: Safety, cost, and regulatory requirements. In general, safety is covered by the Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs), under the assumption that if you are complying with the rules, you can't be screwing things up too badly, unless you engaged in a brand new way to auger in.

With regard to engine failure, the FARs require that the pilot in command land at the nearest suitable airport following an engine failure.

Except for four engine aircraft, where the Captain may continue to a more distant airport, provided that, in the Captain's judgment, proceeding to that airport is as safe as landing at the nearest suitable.

Somehow, I doubt the rule writers had subsequent transatlantic crossings in mind. The FAA attempted enforcement action based upon some ex post facto decision as to what the rule meant, as opposed to what it clearly said, but pretty quickly gave it up.

Despite appearances, accompanied by a certain amount of press hysteria, was the Captain's decision, albeit legal, sound? (NB -- the Captain's authority is absolute, and there is no possibility BA could have penalized him in any way should he have decided to return to LAX.)

By sound, I consider whether proceeding with three engines would have exposed the aircraft to any greater hazard than four.

Oddly enough, the answer is "No." A B-747 has sufficient performance to fly until fuel exhaustion on two engines, and probably even with one, although at a much lower altitude. With three available, the only additional risk is that of diverting to a field short of the destination due to higher fuel consumption resulting from flying roughly 7,000 feet lower en route. It is further worth noting that there has never been a case of multiple, coincident, engine failure on engines equipped with digital engine controls.

At an intellectual level, it is impossible to find fault; however, I'll bet there are few Captain's who would have decided to press on. (I was on a 747 bound for London out of LAX that suffered a compressor stall about 10 minutes after takeoff; thirty minutes later we were back in the departure lounge.)

But still ...

As for the EU, it is difficult to summon enough scorn without entirely depleting my considerable derision reserves.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

If we stop memorializing 9/11, then the terrorists will have won!

Memorial excess erupted once again, this time in Arizona:

Inscriptions etched into Arizona’s Sept. 11 monument — meant to inspire and capture the horror of the terrorist attacks — sparked the beginnings of a political blog battle this week.

The monument was unveiled at Phoenix’s Wesley Bolin Memorial Plaza near the state Capitol on the fifth anniversary of the attacks.

A timeline and record of key events and quotes are etched onto a giant angled ring reflected by sunlight in what designers said was intended to capture how Arizona and the nation responded to the attacks, and to remember the strong emotions.

But this week, blog visitors have said they’re shocked at some of the inscriptions, which they describe as political statements against the Bush administration and its war on terror.

One inscription states, “You don’t win battles of terrorism with more battles.” Another: “Congress questions why CIA and FBI didn’t prevent attacks.” And another reads, “Erroneous US air strike kills 46 Uruzgan civilians,” referring to a wedding reportedly hit by mistake in Afghanistan.

“It’s a worldview that is critical of America, and in many cases cheapens 9/11,” said Greg Patterson, a lobbyist and consultant who operates the EspressoPundit blog, where he and his readers have been critical of the memorial. “It is bent on attacking the Bush administration’s take on the war, at the expense of the memory of 9/11.”

Rep. Russell Pearce, R-Mesa, said he was stunned to learn of the inscriptions. “To politicize it to me is absolutely outrageous, instead of a memorial to remember those who have sacrificed their lives,” he said.

Tempe resident Donna Bird, whose husband Gary was killed in the attack, was among the 30-member Arizona 9/11 Memorial Commission created by former Gov. Jane Hull in 2002.

She said all the inscriptions were found factual by an Arizona State University history professor. She added that she wouldn’t have helped design the memorial, which names her husband, if it were political.

First of all, why does Arizona need its own 9/11 memorial? This is part of a trend that I find very annoying, and you see it both in state and local government as well in local news coverage. From the news perspective, it takes the form of news stories that highlight the local connection to seemingly every national or international story of interest. What local people were there, what are the reactions of them or their relatives at home, how do local people feel about the story, yada yada.

From the government perspective it takes the form of memorials, special proclamations and official days of recognition or remembrance, yada yada. I don't know if it is motivated more by a desire to grab the spotlight by politicians eager to be re-elected, or by a fear that if they don't take any action they will be viewed as insensitive, or both. But it has gone too far. And as the story shows, these events provide opportunities for political activists to hijack them to promote their own message.

The kicker has to be the quote I highlighted regarding the point that the fact-checker was a history professer at the state university. We all know how scrupulously honest tenured history professors at state universities are. Why, if they weren't, we all know that they can be sacked in a flash, right? But in the context of some of the inscriptions fact-checking really doesn't apply, because they are value statements and not facts. Like "You don’t win battles of terrorism with more battles." The statement doesn't make sense. Is the battle against terrorism? What does "battles of terrorism" mean? I think the statement implies that if we engage in a battle with terrorists, then we are terrorists as well.

I say that all future memorials should take the form of a bronze equestrian statue of some anonymous general in a local park. Just keep using the same statue for every new war or disaster. The state can make a bulk order for 100 statues and then warehouse them until they are needed. In 50 years noone will remember the war or the real persons inolved anyhow. People will just say "I'll meet you by the old dead guy on the horse in the park" like they do now .

Saturday, September 23, 2006

The Axis of Suffering Worship

Just in case my religious friends don't get the suspicion that I only use this term to knock religion, today's Rocky Mountain News has an example of secular representatives of the Axis:

Colorado's miners have struggled long and hard for the right to organize and have safe working conditions.

Many have paid with their lives in this struggle.

Some were the victims of the poor safety standards that used to characterize the industry, while others died in bloody confrontations when mine owners were quick to hire private armies to confront troublesome workers.

As a liberal European journalist, I was familiar with these stories and also knew about how Europe's miners faced similar battles to improve their working lives. These struggles meant that miners have always had a special status for us left-wingers. They were a superior breed who fought for themselves and the rights of all workers.

However in my more recent journalism, I have discovered there is a new threat to miners, their families and their wider communities.

This threat is not from cigar-sucking, champagne-swilling robber barons. Mining is now one of the most regulated businesses in the world. Banks will not lend to, insurance companies will not cover and governments will not give licenses to companies that want to open unsafe or polluting mines.

Instead I have discovered that the biggest threat to miners and their families comes from upper-class Western environmentalists.

The discovery has been particularly shocking because at heart I have always been an environmentalist. I want to protect the planet for future generations. I want to ensure that industry cleans up its messes and does more good than harm.

My admiration for environmentalists started to decline when I was lucky enough to be posted to Romania as a foreign correspondent for the Financial Times. There I covered a campaign by Western environmentalists against a proposed mine at Rosia Montana in the Transylvania region of the country.

It was the usual story. The environmentalists told how Gabriel Resources, a Canadian mining company, was going to pollute the environment and forcibly resettle locals before destroying a pristine wilderness.

But when I went to see the village for myself I found that almost everything the environmentalists were saying about the project was misleading, exaggerated or quite simply false.

Rosia Montana was already a heavily polluted village because of the 2,000 years of mining in the area. The mining company actually planned to clean up the existing mess.

And the locals, rather than being forcibly resettled as the environmentalists claimed, were queuing up to sell their decrepit houses to the company which was paying well over the market rate.

It was surprising that environmentalists would lie, but the most shocking part was yet to come. As I spoke to the Western environmentalists it quickly emerged that they wanted to stop the mine because they felt that development and prosperity will ruin the rural "idyllic" lifestyle of these happy peasants.

This "lifestyle" includes 70 percent unemployment, two-thirds of the people having no running water and using an outhouse in winters where the temperature can plummet to 20 degrees below zero centigrade.

One environmentalist (foreign of course) tried to persuade me that villagers actually preferred riding a horse and cart to driving a car.

Of course the Rosia Montana villagers wanted a modern life - just like the rest of us. They wanted indoor bathrooms and the good schools and medical care that the large investment would bring.

When I left the Financial Times, the plight of these villagers never really left me. I have come across a lot of tragedies and hard-luck stories as a journalist, but I had never covered a situation where the solution to poverty is being opposed by educated Westerners who think that people really are "poor but happy."

I'm starting to come around to the idea that nothing good comes from universities. This also seems to be a perfect example of the "lovely society" syndrome. The environmentalists should coin a new motto: "The world is my theme-park".

Friday, September 22, 2006

Happy Superfluous Self-Congratulation Day, everybody!

From the BBC:

People around the world are coming together on Friday to celebrate the world wide web.

Susan Crawford, the founder of OneWebDay, said she wanted people to reflect on how the web had changed their lives.

The day will be marked with events taking place around the world, together with online activities.

The organisers are planning to create what they hope will be the largest global online photo collaboration. Web users are being asked to tag their pictures with OneWebDay and upload them to photo-sharing sites Webshots and Flickr, to create global photo albums.

The organisers are also encouraging people to post entries to their blogs on Friday which reflect on how the web has changed their lives.

Ok, then.

The web has given me many exciting things, including some wonderful imaginary friends, repetitive strain injury in the right index finger, the evolution/creationism debate in limerick form, and a quarter share of $1.47.

But above all, the one great thing that the web has given me, and I think I speak for everyone here, is the ability to look in the mirror and confidently state, “Everyone is mad except me.”

Monday, September 18, 2006

Piling on the bull

Christopher Hitchens gives Pope Benedict some advice on how not to offend Muslims (note: it can't not be done) and says the pot should examine its own blackness:

Attempting to revive his moribund church on a visit to Germany, where the Roman congregations are increasingly sparse, Joseph Ratzinger (as I shall always think of him) has managed to do a moderate amount of harm—and absolutely no good—to the very tense and distraught discussion now in progress between Europe and Islam. I strongly recommend that you read the full text of his lecture at the University of Regensburg last Tuesday.

After the most perfunctory introduction, Ratzinger goes straight to his choice of quotation, which is taken from 14th-century Byzantine Emperor Manuel II. This potentate supposedly once engaged in debate—the precise time and place is unknown—with an unnamed Persian. The subject was Christianity and Islam. The Byzantine asks the Persian to "show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached." (On the face of it, not a very open-ended inquiry.) But, warming to his own theme, the purple-clad monarch of Constantinople allegedly added that "to convince a reasonable soul, one does not need a strong arm, or weapons of any kind, or any other means of threatening a person with death."

Now, you do not have to be a Muslim to think that for the bishop of Rome to cite this is the most perfect hypocrisy. There would have been no established Byzantine or Roman Christianity if the faith had not been spread and maintained and enforced by every kind of violence and cruelty and coercion. To take Islam's own favorite self-pitying example: It was the Catholic crusaders who sacked and burned Christian Byzantium on their way to Palestine—and that was only after they had methodically set about the Jews, so the Muslim world was actually only the third victim of this barbarity. (Sir Steven Runciman's A History of the Crusades is the best source here.) Yet of all the words he could have chosen, to suggest that religion might wish to break its old connection with conquest, intolerance, and subjugation, Ratzinger had to select an example that was designed to remind his hearers of the crudest excesses of the medieval period. His mention of Manuel II was evidently not accidental or anecdotal. He refers to him repeatedly and returns to him again in the closing paragraph, as if to rub it in.

And of course now we hear, as could have been predicted, the pathetic and unconvincing apologies issued by his spokesmen and finally Ratzinger himself. These will only serve to convince infuriated Muslims that by threatening reprisal, calling for the severing of diplomatic relations with the Vatican, and issuing a few more sanguinary fatwas, they can force yet another retreat. The usual things have happened: the shooting of a nun in Somalia and the desecration of Christian churches in Palestine. And so the ecumenical "dialogue" goes on.

To read the bulk of the speech, however, is to realize that, if he had chanced to be born in Turkey or Syria instead of Germany, the bishop of Rome could have become a perfectly orthodox Muslim. He may well distrust Islam because it claims that its own revelation is the absolute and final one, but he describes John, one of the apostles, as having spoken "the final word on the biblical concept of God," and where Muslims believe that Mohammed went into a trance and took dictation from an archangel, Ratzinger accepts as true the equally preposterous legend that St. Paul was commanded to evangelize for Christ during the course of a vision experienced in a dream. He happens to get Mohammed wrong when he says that the prophet only forbade "compulsion in religion" when Islam was weak. (The relevant sura comes from a period of relatively high confidence.) But he could just as easily have cited the many suras that flatly contradict this apparently benign message. The familiar problem is that, if you question another religion's "revelation" and dogma too closely, you invite a tu quoque in respect of your own. Which is just what has happened in the present case.

The Muslim protesters are actually being highly ungrateful. When the embassies of Denmark were being torched earlier this year, Rome managed a few words of protest about … the inadvisability of profane cartoons. In almost every confrontation between Islam and the West, or Islam and Israel, the Vatican has either split the difference or helped to ventriloquize Muslim grievances. Most of all, throughout his address to the audience at Regensburg, the man who modestly considers himself the vicar of Christ on Earth maintained a steady attack on the idea that reason and the individual conscience can be preferred to faith. He pretends that the word Logos can mean either "the word" or "reason," which it can in Greek but never does in the Bible, where it is presented as heavenly truth. He mentions Kant and Descartes in passing, leaves out Spinoza and Hume entirely, and dishonestly tries to make it seem as if religion and the Enlightenment and science are ultimately compatible, when the whole effort of free inquiry always had to be asserted, at great risk, against the fantastic illusion of "revealed" truth and its all-too-earthly human potentates. It is often said—and was said by Ratzinger when he was an underling of the last Roman prelate—that Islam is not capable of a Reformation. We would not even have this word in our language if the Roman Catholic Church had been able to have its own way. Now its new reactionary leader has really "offended" the Muslim world, while simultaneously asking us to distrust the only reliable weapon—reason—that we possess in these dark times. A fine day's work, and one that we could well have done without.

Many American religious conservatives, and a certain blogger we know, like to point out that it is Europe's abandonment of religion that leaves it defenseless against the predations of an agressive Islamist culture. If Benedict is an example of the West's cultural backbone, then I fail to see how a new Western Christian awakening will do much to help Europe. If you are searching for a cultural spine in Europe, you would do better to search among the cartoonists in Denmark than the "defenders of the faith" in Rome or Canterbury.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

This is why I don't read fiction

Fiction just can never match the awesome random wierdness of real life. While checking my email just now to see the latest posting activity on the Daily Duck (I get an email for every comment on the blog) there were no new messages in my inbox, but 10 new messages in my "bulk mail" box, which is where Yahoo deposits what its filters considers spam. I opened the bulk mail inbox out of curiosity instead of deleting the new messages, and came upon this message titled "cello fatherly" from the intriguingly named "Hugo Castaneda". Reading it, it appeared to be a normal stock tip for some pump and dump scheme, but it was the spiritual message after the tip that blew my mind for its bizarre indecipherable wierdness. Here is the spiritual message in its entirety (the stock tip was an image, so I couldn't cut and paste):

And as thenovices grew in wisdom, these were again sent forth to journey to otherlands. The baptism of Jesus came about in this wise. For insuch matters had they great learning. Ye must not confound these brethren with any creed. For Him wasnothing necessary, He being sent forth with His own purpose ready forHim.
This can Iexplain: for part of it is true and other part not set down truly. This came as a flower that shooteth from theground. But before this must He spend a year in the desert of Egypt. We that were in Judea worshipped Him throughHis might. Of the growth of one religion upon another.
I cannot give you small tales of His wanderings. But they which saw him and knew him told me that astrange child he was.
And these stirred up much strifeamong themselves.
Now, as I have told you, John was one in whom the strength of his faithand desire was very great.
But ye must not think that this Beauty was not also within Him from thebeginning.
And of thesemessengers was Moses the first, Elias the second, and John the third.
Jesus, coming into the water, did presentHimself as one desirous also of such cleansing.
But she being jealous, willedthat she should find the way to end the life of John. This came as a flower that shooteth from theground.
Of the growth of one religion upon another.
But ye must now be told that of these great Purposes were there three.
This beauty hath He brought with Him from Greece. The brethren spakeseldom among themselves but as was meet for their teaching.
Such men went seldom forth into the cities to preach. This indeed was as it hath been written: for here was amystery and yet no mystery

What do you think? Did someone actually write this, or is this the work of a random spiritual message generator? Could God be a mailbot?

The perfect venue for Ducktoberfest

I don't think that we're on for this October, but given the demographics of our tight little group, this looks like the ideal site once we ever agree on a date to get together.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Happy pills and the worship of suffering

I should rename this blog "Let's pick on Fr Neuhaus" for all the material I write at his expense. This post is no different. In today's installment the good father discusses the medicalization of happiness:
What he calls artificial happiness is being promoted by mood-enhancing drugs recklessly prescribed by primary-care physicians, by the obsession with exercise, and by “alternative” medical practices from acupuncture to meditating with crystals. What Dr. Dworkin has to say about mood-enhancing or psychotropic drugs is I think the most persuasive and most important.

The book is also about turf battles within the medical profession, between primary-care physicians, specialists, psychiatrists, and the pharmaceutical companies. Dworkin’s argument is that the champions of “artificial happiness” are winning all the battles and now have recruited religion, as well, to their cause. He is greatly alarmed that religious leaders are not alarmed by the psychotropic revolution. I believe he is on to something to which more attention should be paid.

In our discussion, I suggested that I was not very taken with his extended treatment of the fascinating discussions about the connections between brain, mind, and consciousness—discussions in which I have played a modest part over the years. Against the more vulgar materialists and determinists, the book seems to come out on the side of the proponents of “emergent materialism.” I indicated that I found this position philosophically unpersuasive, positing as it does the grounding of the rational in the irrational. Dworkin indicated that he was not advocating that position, only reporting it. I wish that were more clear in the book.

It should also be underscored that the pharmaceutical remedies for clinical depression—in the tradition usually called melancholy of various gradations, or acedia, or spiritual torpor—can frequently be a great blessing, so long as they help equip people to address other problems rather than escape or evade them.
At the core of Dworkin’s enterprise is a sharp critique of the now widespread notion that unhappiness is a disease that is to be medically treated. I spoke of the Christian spiritual tradition in which unhappiness in many forms is an essential part of growth, also in the growth toward holiness. The writings of saints such as Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, and Mother Teresa of Calcutta are replete with counsel on the uses of unhappiness. Pushing the envelope for the crowd at the Strand, I alluded to the understanding of “redemptive suffering” in the course of attaining happiness, as in wholeness, as in holiness. My impression is that this got into territory where Dr. Dworkin, and some in the audience, were not comfortable, as in happy. But our solid agreement is in contending that it is false and dangerous to go along with the notion that unhappiness is a disease to be medically remedied.

And Dworkin is surely right that we need to contend also against religious leaders who aid and abet the notion that happiness—as in feeling good about oneself—is the goal of life. I believe he exaggerates the dominance of the tradition associated with Norman Vincent Peale, “positive thinking,” and feel-good religion in general. His point is that the psychotropic revolution is putting such religious approaches out of business, and with the unwitting cooperation of the happiness preachers.

As long term readers of this blog know, I take antidepressants and I am very suspicious about arguments to the effect that such medications are a copout, or a way to avoid dealing with the real problem behind the depression, or that they somehow rob the depressed person of some meaningful suffering. I'm glad that Neuhaus didn't go there. I haven't read the book, so I can't say whether Dworkin's alarmism over psychotropic drugs is along these lines or is something to be taken seriously. Besides antidepressants and drugs like Ritalin, I'd be interested to know just what drugs are being prescribed, for what symptoms, and to what effect in the lives of the people taking them. There is certainly a danger in setting expectations for drug therapies too high, but I wouldn't assume that the widespread use of them equates to abuse.

But I think that there are other agendas at play in the debate over these drugs, and Neuhaus has certainly tipped his hand regarding his. Neuhaus comes close to representing in his comments that perverse value that I have labelled the worship of suffering. It is almost as if Neuhaus welcomes suffering as just more raw material for his personal holiness project. Now it is important to learn how to cope with suffering, because I believe that suffering will inevitably affect every person from time to time. But a meaningful life cannot be built upon a welcoming of suffering. I've quoted Victor Frankl many times on this blog, only because his insight into meaning and suffering is so blindingly obvious. Frankl said that one can find meaning in suffering only when the suffering is unavoidable. When suffering is avoidable, one should avoid it. Willingly enduring avoidable suffering is meaningless, it is masochism.

I think that the other bolded quote above exposes the other major agenda behind much of the criticism of antidepressants and other psychotropic drugs, that it is threatening to put the religious priesthoods out of business. Priests are the original grief counsellors. Like personal injury lawyers and modern grief counsellors, they rely on the suffering of others to earn their keep. Now don't think that I'm being overly cynical. Suffering exists, and people have the right to offer their assistance to those who suffer. The main criteria for judging these practicioners of the ameliorative arts is by their effectiveness. If they can help those who suffer, then more power to them.

But when new methods or new tecnologies arise that compete with these practicioners for the service of amelioration, lets not pretend that the protestations of the old guard are always motivated by the welfare of their clientele. One gets a sense that Neuhaus is struggling not just with the prospect that these drugs will eat into his pastoral care practice, but that they support a philosophy that poses a direct threat to the very basis of the religious ideal. That philosophy is materialism. If suffering can be relieved by material means, than the whole theoretical structure upon which suffering has been explained and justified, beginning with Original Sin and winding its convoluted way through the substitution, death, atonement, resurrection and onward, seems to be on a much shakier foundation.

Better not to speak out and remove all doubt

Ok, does anybody want to have a go at defining Orrin's latest theory of evolution?

(A load of) Papal bull

From the BBC:

A statement from the Vatican has failed to quell criticism of Pope Benedict XVI from Muslim leaders, after he made a speech about the concept of holy war.

Speaking in Germany, the Pope quoted a 14th Century Christian emperor who said Muhammad had brought the world only "evil and inhuman" things.

Pakistan's parliament passed a resolution on Friday criticising the Pope for making "derogatory" comments.

The Vatican said the Pope had not intended to offend Muslims.

"It is clear that the Holy Father's intention is to cultivate a position of respect and dialogue towards other religions and cultures, and that clearly includes Islam," said chief Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi in a statement.

But in spite of the statement, the pontiff returned to Rome to face a barrage of criticism, reports the BBC's David Willey in Rome.

The head of the Muslim Brotherhood said the Pope's remarks "aroused the anger of the whole Islamic world".

As Captain Aubrey might put it, the Ducks have no horse in this fight.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Islam’s Great Freudian Error

Martin Amis’s barnstorming three-part essay in The Observer, entitled The Age of Horrorism has caused a stir, and if you haven’t already done so, it is well worth investing the time to read it.

It is long, covering Islam, Islamism, the War on Terror, Iraq, religion and the West, and each subject gets the trademark Amis poison pen pummeling.

One of the most interesting passages concerns Sayyid Qutb, whom Marty pinpoints as the father of Islamism:

Established in a modest way as a writer, Sayyid took a job at the Ministry of Education. This radicalised him. He felt oppressed by the vestiges of the British protectorate in Egypt, and was alarmist about the growing weight of the Jewish presence in Palestine - another British crime, in Sayyid's view. He became an activist, and ran some risk of imprisonment (at the hands of the saturnalian King Farouk), before the ministry packed him off to America to do a couple of years of educational research. Prison, by the way, would claim him soon after his return. He was one of the dozens of Muslim Brothers jailed (and tortured) after the failed attempt on the life of the moderniser and secularist, Nasser, in October 1954. There was a short reprieve in 1964, but Sayyid was soon rearrested - and retortured. Steelily dismissing a clemency deal brokered by none other than the young Anwar Sadat, he was hanged in August 1966; and this was a strategic martyrdom that now lies deep in the Islamist soul. His most influential book, like the book with which it is often compared, was written behind bars. Milestones is known as the Mein Kampf of Islamism.

Sayyid was presumably still sorely shaken by the birth of Israel (after the defeat of Egypt and five other Arab armies), but at first, on the Atlantic crossing, he felt a spiritual expansion. His encyclopedic commentary, In the Shade of the Koran, would fondly and ramblingly recall the renewal of his sense of purpose and destiny. Early on, he got into a minor sectarian battle with a proselytising Christian; Sayyid retaliated by doing a bit of proselytising himself, and made some progress with a contingent of Nubian sailors. Then came the traumatic incident with the drunken, semi-naked woman. Sayyid thought she was an American agent hired to seduce him, or so he later told his biographer, who wrote that 'the encounter successfully tested his resolve to resist experiences damaging to his identity as an Egyptian and a Muslim'. God knows what the episode actually amounted to. It seems probable that the liquored-up Mata Hari, the dipsomaniacal nudist, was simply a woman in a cocktail dress who, perhaps, had recently drunk a cocktail. Still, we can continue to imagine Sayyid barricading himself into his cabin while, beyond the door, the siren sings her song.

He didn't like New York: materialistic, mechanistic, trivial, idolatrous, wanton, depraved, and so on and so forth. Washington was a little better. But here, sickly Sayyid (lungs) was hospitalised, introducing him to another dire hazard that he wouldn't have faced at home: female nurses. One of them, tricked out with 'thirsty lips, bulging breasts, smooth legs' and a coquettish manner ('the calling eye, the provocative laugh'), regaled him with her wish-list of endowments for the ideal lover. But 'the father of Islamism', as he is often called, remained calm, later developing the incident into a diatribe against Arab men who succumb to the allure of American women. In an extraordinary burst of mendacity or delusion, Sayyid claimed that the medical staff heartlessly exulted at the news of the assassination, back in Egypt, of Hasan al-Banna. We may wonder how likely it is that any American would have heard of al-Banna, or indeed of the Muslim Brotherhood, which he founded. When Sayyid was discharged from George Washington University Hospital, he probably thought the worst was behind him. But now he proceeded to the cauldron - to the pullulating hellhouse - of Greeley, Colorado.

During his six months at the Colorado State College of Education (and thereafter in California), Sayyid's hungry disapproval found a variety of targets. American lawns (a distressing example of selfishness and atomism), American conversation ('money, movie stars and models of cars'), American jazz ('a type of music invented by Blacks to please their primitive tendencies - their desire for noise and their appetite for sexual arousal'), and, of course, American women: here another one pops up, telling Sayyid that sex is merely a physical function, untrammelled by morality. American places of worship he also detests (they are like cinemas or amusement arcades), but by now he is pining for Cairo, and for company, and he does something rash. Qutb joins a club - where an epiphany awaits him. 'The dance is inflamed by the notes of the gramophone,' he wrote; 'the dance-hall becomes a whirl of heels and thighs, arms enfold hips, lips and breasts meet, and the air is full of lust.' You'd think that the father of Islamism had exposed himself to an early version of Studio 54 or even Plato's Retreat. But no: the club he joined was run by the church, and what he is describing, here, is a chapel hop in Greeley, Colorado. And Greeley, Colorado, in 1949, was dry

'And the air is full of lust.' 'Lust' is Bernard Lewis's translation, but several other writers prefer the word 'love'. And while lust has greater immediate impact, love may in the end be more resonant. Why should Qutb mind if the air is full of love? We are forced to wonder whether love can be said to exist, as we understand it, in the ferocious patriarchy of Islamism. If death and hate are the twin opposites of love, then it may not be merely whimsical and mawkish to suggest that the terrorist, the bringer of death and hate, the death-hate cultist, is in essence the enemy of love. Qutb:

'A girl looks at you, appearing as if she were an enchanting nymph or an escaped mermaid, but as she approaches, you sense only the screaming instinct inside her, and you can smell her burning body, not the scent of perfume but flesh, only flesh.'

In his excellent book, Terror and Liberalism, Paul Berman has many sharp things to say about the corpus of Sayyid Qutb; but he manages to goad himself into receptivity, and ends up, in my view, sounding almost absurdly respectful - 'rich, nuanced, deep, soulful, and heartfelt'. Qutb, who would go on to write a 30-volume gloss on it, spent his childhood memorising the Koran. He was 10 by the time he was done. Now, given that, it seems idle to expect much sense from him; and so it proves. On the last of the 46 pages he devotes to Qutb, Berman wraps things up with a long quotation. This is its repetitive first paragraph:

'The Surah [the sayings of the Prophet] tells the Muslims that, in the fight to uphold God's universal Truth, lives will have to be sacrificed. Those who risk their lives and go out to fight, and who are prepared to lay down their lives for the cause of God, are honourable people, pure of heart and blessed of soul. But the great surprise is that those among them who are killed in the struggle must not be considered or described as dead. They continue to live, as God Himself clearly states.'

Savouring that last phrase, we realise that any voyage taken with Sayyid Qutb is doomed to a leaden-witted circularity. The emptiness, the mere iteration, at the heart of his philosophy is steadily colonised by a vast entanglement of bitternesses; and here, too, we detect the presence of that peculiarly Islamist triumvirate (codified early on by Christopher Hitchens) of self-righteousness, self-pity, and self-hatred - the self-righteousness dating from the seventh century, the self-pity from the 13th (when the 'last' Caliph was kicked to death in Baghdad by the Mongol warlord Hulagu), and the self-hatred from the 20th. And most astounding of all, in Qutb, is the level of self-awareness, which is less than zero. It is as if the very act of self-examination were something unmanly or profane: something unrighteous, in a word.

Still, one way or the other, Qutb is the father of Islamism. Here are the chief tenets he inspired: that America, and its clients, are jahiliyya (the word classically applied to pre-Muhammadan Arabia - barbarous and benighted); that America is controlled by Jews; that Americans are infidels, that they are animals, and, worse, arrogant animals, and are unworthy of life; that America promotes pride and promiscuity in the service of human degradation; that America seeks to 'exterminate' Islam - and that it will accomplish this not by conquest, not by colonial annexation, but by example. As Bernard Lewis puts it in The Crisis of Islam

'This is what is meant by the term the Great Satan, applied to the United States by the late Ayatollah Khomeini. Satan as depicted in the Qur'an is neither an imperialist nor an exploiter. He is a seducer, 'the insidious tempter who whispers in the hearts of men' (Qur'an, CXIV, 4, 5).

Lewis might have added that these are the closing words of the Koran. So they echo.
The West isn't being seductive, of course; all the West is being is attractive. But the Islamist's paranoia extends to a kind of thwarted narcissism. We think again of Qutb's buxom, smooth-legged nurse, supposedly smacking her thirsty lips at the news of the death of Hasan al-Banna. Far from wanting or trying to exterminate it, the West had no views whatever about Islam per se before 11 September 2001. Of course, views were then formulated, and very soon the bestseller list was a column of primers on Islam.
Some things take longer to sink in than others, true; but now we know. In the West we had brought into being a society whose main purpose, whose raison d'etre, was the tantalisation of good Muslims.

The theme of the 'tempter' can be taken a little further, in the case of Qutb. When the tempter is a temptress, and really wants you to sin, she needs to be both available and willing. And it is almost inconceivable that poor Sayyid, the frail, humourless civil servant, and turgid anti-semite (salting his talk with quotes from that long-exploded fabrication, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion), ever encountered anything that resembled an offer. It is more pitiful than that. Seduction did not come his way, but it was coming the way of others, he sensed, and a part of him wanted it too. That desire made him very afraid, and also shamed him and dishonoured him, and turned his thoughts to murder. Then the thinkers of Islam took his books and did what they did to them; and Sayyid Qutb is now a part of our daily reality. We should understand that the Islamists' hatred of America is as much abstract as historical, and irrationally abstract, too; none of the usual things can be expected to appease it. The hatred contains much historical emotion, but it is their history, and not ours, that haunts them.

According to Amis, at the black heart of Islamism lies this sublimely arrogant fallacy: that the West, with its sexual equality and sexual freedom, exists to tempt good Muslims from the virtuous path.

Amis describes Qutb himself as a ‘sexual truant’ unable to cope with either seduction or rejection. It has been reported that various of the 9/11 hijackers used prostitutes in the days leading up to the attack.

Islamism rests on a bedrock of sick male dysfunction, sexual immaturity and hypocrisy, and the 'Great Satan' should really be translated as the Great Temptor. The reward for destroying citizens of the Great Temptor? An adolescent afterlife fantasy of multitudes of submissive virgins.

And how much did her free-coffee-deprivation counselor charge per hour?

A Starbucks customer in the US who was told her free drink voucher was worthless is launching a $114m (£60m) lawsuit against the coffee colossus.

Starbucks pulled the free drink offer, saying it had been redistributed beyond its original intent.

The woman's lawyer says $114m equals the cost of drinks for all those turned away when the company decided to cancel its offer.

He hopes millions of other disappointed customers will join the legal effort.
he company originally e-mailed the offer to employees in the south-east of the US, with instructions to forward it to family and friends.

Like many popular things on the internet, the e-mail quickly got out of control, being forwarded to perhaps millions of people around the country and posted on websites.

When Starbucks realised how many people were coming in for their free drink, it rescinded the offer.

But one customer in New York city felt so betrayed she approached a lawyer.

He is accusing the company of fraud and is requesting class-action status for the lawsuit, hoping to sign-up countless others around the country who also missed out on their free drink.

Legal experts do not think the case has much chance of winning.

Between seeing your shrinks, suing your restaurants, suing your shrinks, shrinking your restaurants and even suing for shrinkage, it's a wonder you Americans have any time at all to build empires and fight the law over minor traffic offences.

Monday, September 11, 2006

This Just In: Evolution Proven!

One of the mainstay arguments against naturalistic evolution has been the apparently formidable objection that the number of changes required -- with whale ancestors as primary evidence for both sides of the argument -- were far too great for the time available. Dr. Berlinski, a Daily Duck target (who knew ducks shoot back?), has insisted there are 50,000 morphological changes required to get from the common ancestor of the cow and whale to the whale. (In the pursuit of brevity, I shall ignore that the number came from a contemporary cow and a contemporary whale. Further pursuing brevity, I shall also omit discussing whether he arrived at 50,000 through enumeration, or via a WAG.)

This particular argument is known as "God of the gaps," which stipulates an unidentified enigma wrapped in a mystery as the answer, rather than simply saying "dunno." Such gaps, though, have a pronounced tendency towards shrinkage.

Such is the case here. Creationists once asserted that the genetic differences between chimps and humans swamped the time available since some putative ancestor. Genome sequencing, though, has conclusively sunk that argument like a greased safe.

Scientists have identified perhaps the most crucial genetic region that makes us human. By comparing human DNA with that of chimpanzees and other animals they have found the region of the genome subjected to the strongest natural selection since we shared a common ancestor with chimps. … This region differs by just two changes between chimps and chickens, which shared a common ancestor around 310 million years ago. But since humans and chimps split 5 million years ago there have been 18 changes.

But wait, there's more. That sequencing has also pinpointed the precise changes differentiating us from our zoobound cousins.

Game. Set. Match.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Thoughts on aesthetics and morality

This post was prompted by a post and discussion on the BrothersJudd blog. Orrin Judd's provocative title for the post, "All is Aesthetics", prompts many questions, one of which is whether aesthetics comes before morality. Orrin's replies are uninformative, unsatisfying, and as usual dodge the question. He seems to subsume morality within aesthetics, so that what we find beautiful is simultaneously moral.

Yet that doesn't account for all those monsters from history in whom the aesthetic sense was very active. Take the Nazis, as an example. Hitler was a failed artist with a love of architecture, whose closest confidant, Albert Speer, started out as his architect and who designed a master building plan for Berlin to embody Aryan ideals, heavily borrowed from Classical Rome.

Judd's response is to say that their aesthetics were ugly, and thus immoral, which makes a thorough muddle of the question. Why were their aesthetics ugly? Is there anything inherently ugly about the art or architecture of the Nazis? We can enjoy the music of Wagner today for its inherent beauty, but Wagner's Nordic romanticism was highly prized by Hitler and the Nazis, and Wagner shared their antisemitism. If two people, one good and another morally abhorrent, can share the same ideal of beauty, then how can one make a connection between their aesthetic sense and their moral sense?

Now I believe that aesthetics are an important aspect of human experience to be valued, but I will always place that value below that of morality and justice. To me aesthetics are a "nice to have", not an imperative for civilized existence. Indeed, an over-emphasis on aesthetics poses a danger to morality, justice, and civilized decency. When aesthetic considerations play an overriding role in determining political and social policy, it does so at the expense of human freedom and human dignity.

To start with, aesthetics are hopelessly subjective. There are many expressions of art and design which are universally acclaimed as beautiful, but there are many more expressions that are hotly contested between those who find it beautiful and those who are repulsed by it. And aesthetic tastes change through time. People adapt to changes in their environment, and often come to treasure utilitarian artifacts that were originally designed with no aesthetic purpose. Brit's cloud machines come to mind. Another such unintended thing of beauty struck me the other day as I walked down a country road near my house. I will always associate country roads and electric/telephone poles and wires. There is something about their presence that adds to the natural beauty already present. Especially when nature has adapted to them, with birds perched on the wires, vines crawling up the grounding wires, and wooden poles weathered like driftwood. We will miss something when all electrical wires are buried in the ground.

Of course there is no right or wrong answer when the question is "what is beautiful?" We must all find beauty where we can, and put up with ugliness where it is. But there are some people who cannot accept this, but who think that beauty is an objective truth that can and should be regulated, if not imposed by government fiat. One group that comes to mind are the Crunchy Conservatives. Among other nonsense that Dreher spouts in his manifesto is article seven, which states "Beauty is more important than efficiency". Now this statement stops short at saying beauty is more important than freedom, but the logical result of a Crunchy-inspired purge of ugly efficiencies would be to restrict the freedom of commerce of many businesses and consumers. You can kiss goodbye to those low WalMart prices under a Crunchy administration, as well as those low-paying jobs, which are a lot better than no-paying jobs for low-skilled workers. A Crunchy regime would necessarily require a command economy, though the object of the economy would be to maximize aesthetic output, as opposed to economic output. Command economies have been tried, and the only thing they maximize is human misery, and a lot of ugliness to boot.

But the real danger in aesthetic ideals comes when it is not just the material artifacts of civilization that are controlled for beauty, but the social organization of people themselves which is judged for its beauty. Whenever Orrin speaks about his "lovely society" I cringe and grab for my gun. Here is a quote from the above-linked site on the Nazis:
"The dictatorship of genius" was precisely how he saw his project. It echoes the Nietzsche call in the "Will to Power" for the "Lords of the Earth:"

"-A new vast aristocracy based upon the most severe self discipline, in which the will of philo-sophical men of power and artist tyrants will be stamped upon thousands of years: a higher species of man which, thanks to their preponderance of will, knowledge, riches, and influence, will avail themselves of democratic Europe as the most suitable and supple instrument they can have for taking the fate of the earth into their own hands, and working as artists upon man himself. Enough! The time is coming for us to transform all our views on politics.\0xD3

The idea of shaping humanity occurs frequently in 19th century German texts. Schiller wrote that when an artist sets his hand to material he:

"... has no qualms about doing violence to it; he merely avoids displaying that violence. He will however seek to deceive any defender of the freedom of the material by pretending to respect it.

It is a quite different matter with the pedagogical and political artist, who uses human beings both as his raw material and as his project. Here purpose returns to the material, and only because the whole serves the parts may the parts lend themselves to the whole.

Thus the artist of the state must have a quite different respect for his materials than the sculptor pretends to have for his. He must protect the peculiarity and personality of his material, not subjectively, in order to produce a deceiving effect in the senses, but objectively for its true inner self.\0xD3

This echoes Goethe in calling for the artist of the state to protect the personality of the material to reveal its - \0xD2true inner self\0xD3 whereas Hitler would reform the state with the procrustean imposition of imperial order unconcerned with its natural character. "Politics, too, is an art,\0xD3 wrote Joseph Goebbels , Nazi Minister of Propaganda, in 1933, "Perhaps the highest and most far reaching one of all, and we who shape modern German politics feel ourselves to be artistic people, entrusted with the great responsibility of forming out of the raw material of the masses a solid, well wrought structure of a volk."

It is easy to make aesthetic judgments of societies. We find beauty in hard-working, suffering, poor or financially struggling people, and people who share a collective identity. There is something beautiful about such a well ordered society. Unfortunately what we value in the people of these ideal societies are the characteristics that we strive to avoid in our own lives. We crave freedom and individuality, not conformity. We seek prosperity and comfort, not poverty and struggle. We don't find beauty in a society of prosperous consumers and individualists, yet we all want to be prosperous consumers and individualists.

That is why the Quebec Catholic church pushed "survivance" on its flock for so long, trying to hold back the insidious secularizing and prosperizing effects of the Industrial revolution and urbanization imperative that would fracture their rustic, pious, ultramontanist vision of a medieval French society untainted by the Reformation, modernism and secularism.

A necessary outgrowth of social aestheticism is an intolerance with the particular failings and vices of individual human beings. To quote Lucy, "I love Mankind, it's people that I can't stand!" Social aestheticism is fundamentally collectivist and authoritarian. It will commit and/or permit the most cruel treatments of individuals to fit them into the Procrustean mold of the "lovely society". It is a perverse irony that the ugliest episodes of human history have been driven by a love of beauty.

Communist idealism is a form of social aestheticism. The Proletariat, that mythically noble working man who works only for the good of all and only takes what he needs in return, is a mold of perfection that has crushed every poor soul who has been forced into it.

This is why it is wrong to associate aesthetics and morality. Morality is necessary because life is often ugly. It is treating those people that repel us with the feelings of love that we give naturally to those people whom we find beautiful that defines the moral impulse. Our only moral actions are taken while holding our nose or repressing the impulse to vomit. We don't go to fancy dinner parties to commit morality, we go to leper colonies.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

But don't call us religious!

No, I'm not talking about Darwinists who deny that their theory qualifies as a religion. I'm talking about Richard John Neuhaus, uberChristian and proprietor of the First Things blog and magazine:

Robert Royal, who runs the Washington-based Faith & Reason Institute, has a new book out from Encounter, The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West. The argument of the title and subtitle is persuasively set out, and we will be giving the book more attention in the pages of First Things. But I am struck by a review of the book in the New York Sun by Brooke Allen.

She writes: “Mr. Royal’s belief that religion has acted as a restraint on human cruelty rather than an instigation to it addresses a question that probably will never be settled satisfactorily. He points out, as others have, that anti-religious regimes like Mao’s and Stalin’s murdered many more people than religious persecutions ever did. While this is certainly true, Mr. Royal does not take into account the fact that ideology functions as a sort of religion in its own right, offerings its acolytes the feeling of transcendence normally associated with faith, and the sublimation of the ego in a larger cause.”

This is part of a very old word game. If you say anti-religious ideologies are more destructive than religion, it is only because anti-religious ideologies are, in fact, religion in another guise. Part of the problem, of course, is in the defense of religion-in-general. Any thoughtful Christian has to have at least a modicum of sympathy for Karl Barth’s solution, which is to insist that Christianity is not a religion. In this view, religion is a human enterprise aimed at reconciliation with, or manipulation of, transcendent powers such as God or the gods. Christianity, by way of sharpest contrast, is not a human enterprise but the revelation of God in the person of Jesus Christ. It is a human enterprise only in that a community of human beings, the Church, responds to that revelation, but that, too, is the work of God in engendering faith in response to God’s revealing initiative.

I give him A+ for hubris. So, people who gather in churches and worship Christ are not trying to reconcile or manipulate God, it is the other way around. Christians are being manipulated by God, as by remote control, to fulfill God's reconciliation with humans. But that only applies to Christians. All you other guys are religious, because you're just pretending. We're the real thing, baby!

I have to say that this theory takes me by surprise. But it makes sense. A religion (yes, Christianity is a religion, no matter what Barth and Neuhaus say) is like any other organized human enterprise. To sustain itself it has to continue to bring in new adherents (or customers, if you will), and it must compete for those adherents with other like-minded enterprises. What Barth and Neuhaus are doing is known in the marketing world as "differentiation". You have to make your potential adherents/customers believe that no matter what similarities exist between your message/product and others, your message/product stands in a class by itself. The more similar your message/product is to others, the more radical the perceived differences must be made to seem. That is why Coke and Pepsi, two nearly identical brands of sugar water, must advertize so broadly and constantly to make it seem as if the choice between these products is a life-altering choice for the customer.

That brief description does not do justice to the argument of Barth and Barthians, but it suggests one way of drawing a sharp distinction between Christianity and religion-in-general. The whole idea that there is such a category of human belief and action that can be fitted into the category of “the religious phenomenon” is misbegotten, as Robert Royal points out in his critique of “religious studies” departments in higher education.

An alternative to the Barthian strategy is to observe that all thoughtful people are engaged in a search for the truth of things and the wisdom to live in accord with the truth of things. At one level, one might simply call this “thinking,” although traditionally we have called it philosophy—meaning the love of wisdom. In the Christian intellectual tradition, the early church fathers called Christianity the “true philosophy.” The claim was that Christianity, grounded in the logos or reason that created and sustains all things, makes more sense of more facts than alternative ways of thinking about reality.

In this view, it is entirely misguided to speak of philosophy, on the one hand, and religion, including Christianity, on the other. But, of course, over the last centuries, and dating back to the initiatives of Bacon, Descartes, and Kant, a philosophy that aspires to account for the whole of reality is called not philosophy but religion. In our day, John Rawls influentially warned against “comprehensive accounts” that, according to Rawls, do not count as public reason. Authentically public reason, or philosophy, is limited to ways of thinking that assiduously refrain from thinking about the really big questions about, for instance, the final and formal causes of existent beings.

These are huge conceptual problems with a very long history, and the dichotomy between philosophy (or reason) and religion is deeply entrenched in our intellectual culture. The problems are luminously addressed in John Paul II’s encyclical Fides et Ratio, but even there we have the difficulty of a title that, contrary to the substance of the argument, suggests a sharp division of labor between faith and reason. That faith is an integral and necessary part of reason is very powerfully argued in Michael Polanyi’s Personal Knowledge, a book I never tire of recommending to people engaged by these questions.

While I am in warm agreement with the case that Robert Royal makes, I do wish he had chosen a subtitle other than How Religion Built and Sustains the West. Christians have no stake in defending religion as such. Except to the degree that all rational people have a stake in exposing the irrationality of a philosophy of ideological secularism that refuses to engage the big questions that secularists dismiss as “religious.” In addition to Polanyi, I suggest Robert Louis Wilken’s The Spirit of Early Christian Thought as an important aid in rethinking the way that Christianity should position itself in relation to other ways of thinking. It is the great work of the next generation of Christian intellectuals to rehabilitate philosophy in a way that makes it possible to persuasively propose Christianity as the “true philosophy.”

Good luck with that project. The religious traditionalist really is in a bind. To combat secularism he builds up the value of being religious, and so you see conservative Protestants, Evangelicals, Catholics, Orthodox Jews, and even some Muslims publicly minimizing the differences between themselves to present a united front against secularism. And yet such a stand for the generic practice of religion, or "belief in belief" as Brit puts it, undermines their own truth claims. Neuhaus very clearly expresses this conundrum in the article.

There is additional irony in the title of the book by Robert Royal that Neuhaus refers to in the article: "The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West". It is ironic because the main accomplishment for which we celebrate the West above other world civilizations is Modernity. And yet it is modernity that threatens orthodox faith. Modernity has only been possible through secularization, the disestablishment of orthodox creeds and the multifaith tolerance regime. "Religion" gained at the expense of orthodoxy. And this is why Neuhaus won't celebrate it.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Speak of the Devil

From the BBC:

Plans for three new skyscrapers to sit alongside Freedom Tower on the site of the World Trade Center in New York have been unveiled by architects.

The towers will descend in height in a semicircle around the memorial to the victims of the 11 September attacks.

The latest designs complete the plans for Ground Zero whose showpiece Freedom Tower is already under construction.

But five years on, frustration is growing over the lack of actual rebuilding work, correspondents say.

British architects Norman Foster and Richard Rogers have each designed one of the new towers, as has Fumihiko Maki of Japan.

Each building will be covered in glass and the tallest will stand as high as the city's iconic Empire State Building.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg told a news conference in New York that the new skyline would "restore the splendour of our city's historic birthplace".

Notice that the cowards have altered Skipper's design by surreptitiously swapping the two left-hand buildings.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Grief counselling is a scam…

…suggested Duck earlier.

This article from Reason Magazine last year would seem to support his case:

The Mental Health Crisis That Wasn’t
How the trauma industry exploited 9/11

On September 14, 2001, three days after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, a group of psychologists sent an open letter to the American Psychological Association. The 19 signatories, all established experts in trauma research and treatment, were concerned that thousands of people in New York City and elsewhere would receive dubious, even damaging, counseling. “In times like these,” the letter said, “it is imperative that we refrain from the urge to intervene in ways that—however well-intentioned—have the potential to make matters worse.…Unfortunately, this has not prevented certain therapists from descending on disaster scenes with well-intentioned but misguided efforts. Psychologists can be of most help by supporting the community structures that people naturally call upon in times of grief and suffering. Let us do whatever we can, while being careful not to get in the way.”

The letter voiced a second powerful warning: not to mistake normal reactions—intense sadness or sleeplessness, jumpiness, and so on—for mental abnormality. The letter was posted online and picked up by a New York Times science reporter who fast-tracked the controversy into Sunday’s paper, five days after the attacks. As Gerald Rosen, a Seattle psychologist and one of the letter’s authors told the reporter, “The public should be very concerned about medicalizing what are human reactions.”

By then, though, the trauma industry had shifted into high gear. Roughly 9,000 counselors raced to lower Manhattan, advocating, in the words of one observer, “intervention for any person even remotely connected to the tragedy.”


Therapism is a worldview that valorizes openness and emotional self-absorption; it assumes that vulnerability, rather than strength, characterizes the American psyche, and that a diffident, anguished, and emotionally apprehensive public requires a vast array of therapists, self-esteem educators, grief counselors, workshoppers, healers, and traumatologists to lead it through the trials of everyday life.

In fact, there is no evidence that large segments of the population are in psychological free fall.

The biggest challenge for grief therapists presumably lies in jockeying for position with the personal injury claim lawyers, as they all gallop headlong after the ambulances.

I blame modern secular rationalism

In the (London) Times today:

What explains this return to family values?
Richard Morrison

Astonishing news. The divorce rate is going down. What on earth is happening to this country? First we had that trendy campaign to overturn centuries of British tradition by making school meals tasty and nutritious. And now this — the return of family values! Is there no end to these assaults on our way of life?

I couldn’t believe the divorce figures that came out last Friday. They seemed so counter-intuitive, so contrary to the usual view that the state of matrimony is about as alive and well as the state of ancient Carthage. But the Government does not lie. (Well, except about weapons of mass destruction, obviously.) And the eye-popping revelation from the Office for National Statistics is that the number of divorces is down a whopping 8 per cent in a year.

What’s more, it isn’t us fogeyish wrinklies who are making the running in the eternally-yours stakes. It’s the young ’uns who are turning all meek and monogamous. Among the under-forties, divorces are at their lowest level for 15 years. Admittedly, there are still more than three times as many each year as there were before the “permissive society” reared its promiscuous head in the 1960s. But there’s no doubt about it: the trend is down, down, down. In defiance of all sociological predictions about the collapse of the family, it seems that more and more people are sticking conscientiously to that chilling pledge: “till death us do part”.


Could it be that the decline in divorce is evidence (or rather, further evidence) of the public mood finally turning against the liberations of the 1960s? Naturally such a notion will be ridiculed by the baby-boomers who run the world. They are blithely confident that the changes they wrought upon society are such self-evident improvements in the human condition that they will never be reversed.

But that is mere vanity talking. And badly informed vanity at that. British history is full of periods when social and moral values were turned upside-down in astonishingly quick time. Often a climate of permissiveness, even licentiousness, gave way to an overwhelming aura of propriety and repression within the span of a single generation.

And such changes always came as a surprise to the generation involved. Who, among the free-spirited Elizabethans of the 1590s, would have predicted that, barely 50 years later, fun and laughter would be stifled by Cromwell’s censorious Puritans? Who would have imagined, a century later, that the working-classes would be flocking in their millions to hear the gospel of sobriety preached by John Wesley just a decade or two after Hogarth captured the apparently permanent degradation of Gin Lane?

Hell in a handcart, I tell you! Hell in a handcart!

Monday, September 04, 2006

But don't call us materialists!

For a group of people who like to tout their spiritualistic, anti-materialist credentials, those Catholics sure do worry about material matters. Just take this passage from a line of posts on First Things about the doctrine of the resurrection of the body:
Professor Barr originally argued that the reassembly view of the resurrection is inconsistent with quantum physics, which says that subatomic particles lack individuation. We responded by observing that the reassembly view need not refer to subatomic particles, that some type of material continuity might be required, and that this could be referred to as the same parcels of matter or matter-energy. Let us add that for living organisms (and a human being is a particular type of living organism), the continuity of matter usually involves gradual replacement of the matter in its body; continuity, or “sameness of body,” is ensured by an immanent causal connection between the material constituents at one time and the material constituents at the immediately succeeding time. That is, usually, in a living organism sameness of body means that the parts, roles, and processes of a living organism are caused by the previous parts, roles, and processes of that organism. If resurrection occurs by God reassembling at least some of the matter that made up the human being just before he died, then there is a real material continuity, though not of the same sort as obtains in this life: the parts, roles, and some of the processes of the risen human being would be modeled after the parts, roles, and some of the processes of the premortem human being, and in some way take up where the premortem being left off—and this, it seems to us, is completely consistent with believing that this being will be bodily transformed (glorified, in some unexpected way). So, the fact that in this life we gradually replace the matter in our bodies does not mean that bodily continuity is unimportant for remaining the same living body, and the bodily continuity that might be involved in the resurrection would be a type of material continuity.

However, Professor Barr fears that our referring to the same bits of matter or parcels of matter-energy (to give meaningful content to the phrase “same body”) does not solve “the basic problem” with our position. He argues as follows: If the body is resolved into its constituent particles (by explosion, decay, etc), then any material continuity of the kind we envisage would require numerical identity of particles, and this latter is—we take Professor Barr to be saying—impossible. So, Professor Barr’s argument seems to be this: (1) When a body is completely decayed or “resolved into its constituent particles,” then the only continuity possible is at the subatomic or atomic level; (2) continuity at that level does not make sense according to quantum physics, therefore, etc.

But (1) does not strike us as sound. Clearly, there are many instances in which there is macro-level material continuity. If one placed an apple on the table yesterday, it makes sense to ask whether the apple on the table today is the same apple or another one just like it. If one eats a carrot, then the same matter, or part of the same matter, that was in the carrot is transferred to one’s stomach. If a few hours after eating the carrot, one is consumed by an alligator (say, while vacationing in Florida), surely some of the matter that was in the carrot and then in that person is now in the alligator. Moreover, affirming that there is no material continuity after extensive changes amounts to saying that, at some point, some matter, or matter-energy, completely disappears and entirely other matter or matter-energy is created. Our understanding—though we will be happy to defer to Professor Barr’s expertise as a physicist—is that contemporary physics not only offers no support for such a notion, it actually operates on the opposite assumption.

This opens up many new possiblities for after school cathechism students to torture their hapless instructors:
* So what happens if a cannibal eats part of a dead guy, and then dies shortly thereafter. Does the eaten flesh belong to the first dead guy or the cannibal?
* Does this include artificial parts? Will grandma's artificial hip make it to Heaven, or will she have to hop around on her good leg?
* Will Michael Jackson's old noses make it to Heaven?

This whole discussion just shows the disingenuousness of the "spiritual" religious person who makes such a blustery, self-important show of eschewing materialism and the humorless, unfeeling materialists who don't tune into the wonderful poetry of the spirit, blah, blah, blah. Human existence is unthinkable apart from the material world. Everything that we are and can imagine being is based on a material substrate. Noone imagines getting to Heaven as some vaporous, glowing essence of themselves, they imagine their own body interacting with other material bodies on a planetary surface with gravity and air. And food. And water. And other good stuff to help them pass the time between now and eternity.

Yes, there is time in Heaven. But time is a material artifact as well. It is the fourth dimension of the universe. SpaceTime, get it? The only difference is that in Heaven material things don't decay. People don't grow old. It is better material. Spritual people arent non-materialists, they are super-materialists. They're just waiting for God to give them an improved version of this universe before they'll worship it.

Speaking of fighting the Post-modern with the Pre-modern, we can no longer include Catholics among the enlightened religious folk who "get" evolution. Not after this:
Pope Benedict XVI has sacked his chief astronomer after a series of public clashes over the theory of evolution.

He has removed Father George Coyne from his position as director of the Vatican Observatory after the American Jesuit priest repeatedly contradicted the Holy See's endorsement of "intelligent design" theory, which essentially backs the "Adam and Eve" theory of creation.

Intelligent design

Benedict favours intelligent design, which says God directs the process of evolution, over Charles Darwin’s original theory which holds that species evolve through the random, unplanned processes of genetic mutation and the survival of the fittest.

But Father Coyne, the director of the Vatican Observatory for 28 years, is an outspoken supporter of Darwin’s theory, arguing that it is compatible with Christianity.

He has been replaced by Argentine Jesuit Father Jose Funes, 43, an expert on disk galaxies.

Although the Vatican did not give reasons for Father Coyne’s replacement, sources close to the Holy See say that Benedict would have been unhappy with the priest’s public opposition to intelligent design theory.

Father Coyne’s most notable intervention came after Cardinal Christoph Schonborn of Vienna, a former student of the Pope, put the case for intelligent design in an article in the New York Times in July last year.


The cardinal, responding to an explosive debate on evolution in the US, had argued that Darwinian concepts of "random variation and natural selection" were incompatible with the Catholic belief that there is a divine purpose and design to nature.

The cardinal also said that the evolution had become an atheistic ideological dogma that was being used against the Church.

Can a retraction of the heliocentric theory be far behind?