January 2019

  • J.D. Vance writes in response to Tucker Carlson’s critique of an excessively economic-focused conservatism:

    Tucker Carlson’s monologue heard round the world is interesting on its own terms. In it, he argues against a conservatism that consistently prizes commercial interests above those of everyone else. I encourage you to watch or read it in full. Yet the response on the right is as interesting as Carlson’s monologue itself, for it reveals a discomfort among some conservatives for balancing the tensions that exist in our coalition and in our ideology. …

    Our economy has not produced fewer dead children and more living parents in America, at least not in the section of the country where I live. The opioid epidemic, in particular, has ravaged whole communities — driving down life expectancy, depriving children of their parents, and parents of their children. The human cost of this crisis is simply incomprehensible. In states such as Ohio, West Virginia, and Kentucky, countless children are growing up with parents in jail, incapacitated, or underground. Yes, they live in a country with a higher GDP than a generation ago, and they’re undoubtedly able to buy cheaper consumer goods, but to paraphrase Reagan: Are they better off than they were 20 years ago? Many would say, unequivocally, “no.”

    Some economic libertarians might say that these problems are the consequence of bad individual choices, and I wouldn’t entirely disagree. I grew up in a family plagued by addiction, and I saw some bad choices. Yet bad choices simply aren’t enough to explain the crisis — people have always made bad choices, and the familial, neighborhood, and economic contexts in which they live can exacerbate or improve them. Others might admit that it’s not all bad choices, that bad policy plays a role, but oddly the bad policy they point to is almost always the negative incentives of the welfare state. Again, they have a point — our welfare state is far from perfect, especially when it comes to encouraging work and family formation — but there are many other policies at play here.

    To keep the focus on the opioid epidemic, the Los Angeles Times’ reporting on the role of the pharmaceutical industry is both excellent and disturbing. It chronicles the ways in which some companies gamed our regulatory system to obtain approval and patent protection for highly addictive drugs. Those companies then knowingly lied about the safety of those drugs to doctors and patients. Some commentators have framed their problem with Tucker’s argument as promoting “government intervention” when that same intervention is the problem. But if you want to protect a community from drugs that can take hold of a person’s mind and destroy whole neighborhoods soon thereafter, you need some government intervention.

    This raises a fundamental question with which so many of Tucker’s critics refuse to even engage: What happens when the companies that drive the market economy — and all of its benefits — don’t care about the American nation’s social fabric? What happens when, as in the case of a few massive narcotics sellers, they profit by destroying that fabric?

    Surely our response can’t be: “Well, the market will take care of it.”

    We are ruled by mercenaries who feel no long-term obligation to the people they rule.”

  • Inexplicable, but common

    Wendell Berry writes in Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community:

    “The miraculous is not extraordinary, but the common mode of existence. It is our daily bread. Whoever really has considered the lilies of the field or the birds of the air, and pondered the improbability of their existence in this warm world within the cold and empty stellar distances, will hardly balk at the turning of water into wine – which was, after all, a very small miracle. We forget the greater and still continuing miracle by which water (with soil and sunlight) is turned into grapes.”


    A constant challenge to remember that the commonplace is only so because we’re habituated to it. But we did not create ourselves, and nothing in this universe explains the reason for its being.

  • Noah Brier writes on Sam Hinkie, former Philadelphia 76ers General Manager:

    He is a contrarian. For the uninitiated, the brief history here is that Hinkie carried out one of the most radical transformation experiments in recent sports history. He put aside any notion that his team was trying to win and traded everything away for more ping pong balls in the NBA’s rookie lottery. In basketball, where only five guys from a team are on the floor at any one time, a superstar can have a massive impact on a team’s success. In a 2016 episode of his podcast Revisionist History, Malcolm Gladwell called basketball a “strong link” sport because a team’s success is best predicted by the quality of its best player (as opposed to soccer where it’s based on the worst player on the field he explains). Hinkie figured this out. He also figured out the best way to get one of those superstars was to draft them and to do that you had to have an early first round pick. In the end, he took a lot of heat for his strategy (even though he was following all the rules) and was eventually pushed out by the league office…

    Back to Hinkie’s letter. It was leaked and provided an amazing view into the psyche of someone who was willing to be a pariah. In it he paints an interesting picture of the connection between contrarianism and traditionalism.

    Here he is on contrarianism: “To develop truly contrarian views will require a never-ending thirst for better, more diverse inputs. What player do you think is most undervalued? Get him for your team. What basketball axiom is most likely to be untrue? Take it on and do the opposite. What is the biggest, least valuable time sink for the organization? Stop doing it. Otherwise, it’s a big game of pitty pat, and you’re stuck just hoping for good things to happen, rather than developing a strategy for how to make them happen.”

    And on traditionalism: “While contrarian views are absolutely necessary to truly deliver, conventional wisdom is still wise. It is generally accepted as the conventional view because it is considered the best we have. Get back on defense. Share the ball. Box out. Run the lanes. Contest a shot. These things are real and have been measured, precisely or not, by thousands of men over decades of trial and error. Hank Iba. Dean Smith. Red Auerbach. Gregg Popovich. The single best place to start is often wherever they left off.”

  • Home, household, and family life

    I spent time in Old Town, Alexandria on Sunday afternoon, which is where I took this photo. I really like little scenes like this, and wonder how often passersby think on what happens above all of the little storefronts—the lives of those unfolding in little apartments, the second floor storerooms for ground floor retailers, the abandoned spaces above some shops, etc. It also reminded me of two pieces from from John Cuddeback that I had read last month. The first is Cuddeback on Aristotle and on a deep aesthetic purpose of home:

    Aristotle suggests that the beauty of our home is a way that we serve those around us. And he goes further: building for permanence is an aspect of building for beauty. Perhaps this is one reason that there is always something about a stone house.

    Many of us are not in the position to build a new home; and among those that are, financial considerations will often be a real limiting factor in what we can do. Yet it seems Aristotle has given us a special perspective, one from which to appreciate styles that endure, and materials and construction that endure. For the sake of beauty, and for the sake of others, as well as for ourselves.

    Regardless of our financial situation we can bear in mind this wonderful, even if challenging aspect of what our houses can be and can mean, right down to their furnishings.

    Cuddeback also writes separately in First Things on “reclaiming the household”:

    Not long ago, the household was a context of daily life. The arts that provided for the material needs of human life were largely home arts, practiced, developed, and passed on within the four walls, or at least in the immediate ambit of the home. Food, clothing, shelter, as well as nonessential items that gave some embellishment to life, were commonly the fruit of the work of household members, often produced with an eye for beauty as well as utility. This carried into the industrial era. For decades, Singer sold sewing machines to housewives, who bought patterns and made their own clothes. Men built backyard toolsheds. Grandparents put up raspberry jams in Mason jars.

    The household involves more than just work. Porch times, lawn times, and by-the-fire times punctuated the more serious endeavors, and were often occasions of leisurely work, too, such as carving, fine needlework, and other hobbies. Meals called for setting aside work, as of course did prayer. These habits were times of mutual presence. To a great extent, family life meant being with at least some other members of the household for most of the day.

    Recounting these things, once taken for granted, highlights how remote a household is from the home life of today. Even those who intentionally seek to have a “traditional” family life, in fact, often lack the ability to comprehend the reality of a household that is not simply “traditional,” but ancient and profoundly human. They set out to start a family in a virtual vacuum. The husband and father usually sallies forth to a remote job, and the wife and mother attempts to manage the day-to-day work of child-rearing—a project the real nature of which is elusive—while wondering what place she too might have “out there.” Intangible pressures on parents and children seem inexorably to draw their attention and their time to activities outside of the home. Junior gets taken to soccer practice. Mom goes to a spin class.

    A renewal of family life will require a renewal of the household, especially as a place of shared work and a center of shared experience and belonging. We are missing out on truly human living because we fail to live together. …

    Because the need to restore households is not separable or even really distinct from the effort to protect or restore families, those concerned with the plight of the family today undermine their efforts when they lose sight of the household. Not thinking in terms of households misconstrues both the family and the broader societies to which it belongs.

    I’ve been thinking about the physical structure of American communities for a few years now, particularly in the context of what a more life-affirming and more human American society might look like. That is, how much of the badness and error in our politics is a result of the physically and structurally deficient nature of how we’ve built both our towns and neighborhoods as well as our daily family lives?

  • Margarita Mooney writes on personalism and the pursuits we choose in life—whether narrowly material and transitory, or also spiritual and transcendent:

    Jacques Maritain was a friendly critic of the pragmatist view of education. He argued that problem-solving, the crux of John Dewey’s or Paulo Freire’s approach to education, can’t be the end of education. Learning often occurs in response to an intuition or an insight that prompts us to pursue a new avenue of knowledge. Problem-solving is, indeed, important, but not all discoveries are practical. That is because Maritain agreed with one key idea of personalism: humans are not just material. We also have an inner depth.

    As much as Maritain praised efforts to develop new pedagogical techniques and test the acquisition of knowledge, he warned against the temptation to turn our tools and tests into idols. Humans are not pure instruments applying other instruments. The value of a person is not how much they produce for the economy nor how they score on a test.

    While Maritain was a devout Catholic who strongly valued moral character, he argued that the end of the university is not character education per se. For democracy to flourish, Maritain argued that it is not sufficient to discipline the will to accord with the moral code of a particular religion or culture. Democracy is a form of self-government, and for self-government to triumph over tyranny, universities need to form our intelligence and reason so that we can freely choose the good. Thus, universities need to form reason in order to guide our conscience towards the use of practical reason in service of the common good.

    The utilitarian, pragmatist, and moral ends of education, Maritain argued, are best pursued when our educational systems are built on a full picture of the human person; that is, a being endowed with uniqueness, freedom and creativity, and service for the common good. …

    To understand the cultural, economic, political, and educational crises through which we are living, we have to understand an important shift in philosophical anthropology. Personalist philosopher Max Scheler described how we have shifted from a theistic understanding of man as created by a personal God—marked by sinfulness but ultimately created for good—to a rejection of dependence on God and the exaltation of man as primarily constituted to satisfy natural desires for power, sex, or money.

    The deadening of our spiritual nature in philosophy has contributed to the crisis of fragmentation so many students feel. They may not comprehend how deeply rooted the rejection of our spiritual nature is in so much modern philosophy, but they do long for a break from competing to be successful in the modern, technocratic society we live in. They long to take a break from self-promotion and spend time growing in self-awareness by contemplating nature or a work of art.

    Penn State’s fascinating motto has been “Making Life Better” for some number of years. As an undergrad, I remember thinking how simultaneously perfect and absurd such a thing is as a motto. It can be read in the charitable way possible as holistically concerned with the ultimate good of the human person. But it can also be read as basically an economic promise for attaining some marginal material or professional advancement.

  • Early winter Logan Circle view

    I don’t know how many times I’ll be able to enjoy this view of the dome of the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul and Logan Circle in Philadelphia, so when I was visiting over the Christmas holidays and looked out at this beautiful moment toward sunset I took this photo.

  • When it seems like we’re getting worse at making breakthroughs on serious problems in the world, headlines like the ones I saw this week offer a rebuttal to cynicism. First, from Melissa Locker on Alzheimer’s:

    Artificial intelligence could one day change the lives of people facing an Alzheimer’s diagnosis, according to a new study by researchers at UC, San Francisco.

    “One of the difficulties with Alzheimer’s disease is that by the time all the clinical symptoms manifest and we can make a definitive diagnosis, too many neurons have died, making it essentially irreversible,” said Jae Ho Sohn, a resident in the school’s Department of Radiology and Biomedical Imaging and the study’s lead researcher, in a statement.

    For the study, published in Radiology, Sohn and his team fed a common type of brain scans to a machine-learning algorithm, and it learned to diagnose early-stage Alzheimer’s disease about six years before a clinical diagnosis could be made. …

    Sohn and his team trained the algorithm on PET scans from patients who were eventually diagnosed with either Alzheimer’s disease, mild cognitive impairment, or no disorder. The algorithm began to figure out how to predict Alzheimer’s disease. Eventually, it was able to correctly identify 92% of patients who developed Alzheimer’s disease in the first test set and 98% in the second test set…

    Second, from Fiza Pirani on a cancer breathalyzer:

    Researchers from the United Kingdom have launched a clinical trial for a breathalyzer-like cancer test that may be able to detect multiple cancers via chemical changes in the breath.

    Such breath tests have been previously examined for several cancers, including lung, colon, prostate and esophageal cancers, but scientists hope this single 10-minute breath test may be able to detect several types at a time. …

    The painless, non-invasive 10-minute breathalyzer test will detect amounts of volatile organic compounds — aldehydes or ketones, for example — usually produced in the body’s metabolic processes and found in exhaled breath. Because cancerous cells are known to produce different patterns (or signatures) of VOCs, researchers hope the test will be able to ascertain signature indicators of cancer. …

    If the Owlstone tech can help differentiate cancer signatures and healthy ones, “the team will next see if there are differences between cancer types, or if there’s just one ‘cancer signature,’”…

    Neither is in a clinical stage at this point, though the Alzheimer’s test seems nearly ready. I wish the piece had explained what next steps reman before it’s ready for public use.

  • I skimmed Mitt Romney’s Washington Post op-ed on January 1st, and didn’t think much more about it. Tucker Carlson’s surprising response makes for worthwhile reading, where he writes that Romney’s piece is “a window into how the people in charge, in both parties, see our country:”

    Romney’s main complaint in the piece is that Donald Trump is a mercurial and divisive leader. That’s true, of course. But beneath the personal slights, Romney has a policy critique of Trump. He seems genuinely angry that Trump might pull American troops out of the Syrian civil war. Romney doesn’t explain how staying in Syria would benefit America. He doesn’t appear to consider that a relevant question. More policing in the Middle East is always better. We know that. Virtually everyone in Washington agrees.

    Corporate tax cuts are also popular in Washington, and Romney is strongly on board with those, too. His piece throws a rare compliment to Trump for cutting the corporate rate a year ago.

    That’s not surprising. Romney spent the bulk of his business career at a firm called Bain Capital. Bain Capital all but invented what is now a familiar business strategy: Take over an existing company for a short period of time, cut costs by firing employees, run up the debt, extract the wealth, and move on, sometimes leaving retirees without their earned pensions. Romney became fantastically rich doing this.

    Meanwhile, a remarkable number of the companies are now bankrupt or extinct. This is the private equity model. Our ruling class sees nothing wrong with it. It’s how they run the country. …

    At some point, Donald Trump will be gone. The rest of us will be gone, too. The country will remain. What kind of country will be it be then? How do we want our grandchildren to live? These are the only questions that matter.

    The answer used to be obvious. The overriding goal for America is more prosperity, meaning cheaper consumer goods. But is that still true? Does anyone still believe that cheaper iPhones, or more Amazon deliveries of plastic garbage from China are going to make us happy? They haven’t so far. A lot of Americans are drowning in stuff. And yet drug addiction and suicide are depopulating large parts of the country. Anyone who thinks the health of a nation can be summed up in GDP is an idiot.

    The goal for America is both simpler and more elusive than mere prosperity. It’s happiness. There are a lot of ingredients in being happy: Dignity. Purpose. Self-control. Independence. Above all, deep relationships with other people. Those are the things that you want for your children. They’re what our leaders should want for us, and would want if they cared.

    But our leaders don’t care. We are ruled by mercenaries who feel no long-term obligation to the people they rule. They’re day traders. Substitute teachers. They’re just passing through. They have no skin in this game, and it shows. They can’t solve our problems. They don’t even bother to understand our problems.

    Neil Postman’s critique of contemporary American culture as essentially a trivial culture, in the literal sense of a culture obsessed with “details, considerations, or pieces of information of little importance or value,” has stuck with me since reading “Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business” last year.

  • New Moon landings

    Michael Martina reports on China’s probe landing on the Moon’s far side:

    A Chinese space probe successfully touched down on the far side of the moon on Thursday, China’s space agency said, hailing the event as a historic first and a major achievement for the country’s space programme.

    The Chang’e-4 lunar probe, launched in December, made the “soft landing” at 0226 GMT and transmitted the first-ever “close range” image of the far side of the moon, the China National Space Administration said.

    The moon is tidally locked to Earth, rotating at the same rate as it orbits our planet, so most of the far side – or “dark side” – is never visible to us. Previous spacecraft have seen the far side, but none has landed on it.

    The landing “lifted the mysterious veil” of the far side of the moon and “opened a new chapter in human lunar exploration”, the agency said in a statement on its website, which included a wide-angle colour picture of a crater from the moon’s surface. …

    The United States is the only country to have landed humans on the moon, and Trump said in 2017 he wanted to return astronauts to the lunar surface to build a foundation for an eventual Mars mission. …

    As soon as 2022, NASA expects to begin building a new space station laboratory to orbit the moon, as a pit stop for missions to distant parts of the solar system.

    In 2003, China became the third country to put a man in space with its own rocket after the former Soviet Union and the United States, and in 2017 it said it was preparing to send a person to the moon.

    In time, America’s return to the Moon in the next 15 years might be seen as consequential an achievement as Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the lunar surface, because it will likely signal our first permanent human settlement beyond earth.

  • Visited Georgetown Waterfront Park shortly after Christmas. If you didn’t know better, these photos look practically like summer. Rode an electric Lime scooter for the first time, which was both a funner and sturdier experience that I had thought it would be.

    That’s the Key Bridge linking Georgetown with Arlington, Virginia that I cross twice daily.