Politics is more than economics

Eliana Johnson and Eli Stokols write:

Many political onlookers described Trump’s election as a “black swan” event: unexpected but enormously consequential. The term was popularized by Nassim Taleb, the best-selling author whose 2014 book Antifragile—which has been read and circulated by Bannon and his aides—reads like a user’s guide to the Trump insurgency.

It’s a broadside against big government, which Taleb faults for suppressing the randomness, volatility and stress that keep institutions and people healthy. “As with neurotically overprotective parents, those who are trying to help us are hurting us the most,” he writes. Taleb also offers a withering critique of global elites, whom he describes as a corrupt class of risk-averse insiders immune to the consequences of their actions: “We are witnessing the rise of a new class of inverse heroes, that is, bureaucrats, bankers, Davos-attending members of the I.A.N.D (International Association of Name Droppers), and academics with too much power and no real downside and/or accountability. They game the system while citizens pay the price.”

Chris Arnade on why Trump voters are not, as Jonathan Chait suggests, ‘complete idiots:’

Trump voters may not vote the way I want them to, but after having spent the last five years working in (and having grown up in) parts of the US few visit, they are not dumb. They are doing whatever any other voter does: Trying to use their vote to better their particular situation (however they define that).

Labeling them dumb is simply a way of not trying to understand their situation, or what they value.

In choosing a candidate, a voter is buying into that candidate. It is, in an oversimplified way, like buying a stock. In that sense, it is helpful to use some basic analysis from finance, to look at how/why voters make the choices they do.

This is entirely conventional political insight. Insight that nonetheless seems alien and unconventional in today’s political climate. In any event, what are Trump voters try to do? Arnade explains:

Frustrated with broken promises, they gave up on the knowable and went with the unknowable. They chose Trump, because he comes with a very high distribution. A high volatility. (He also signals in ugly ways, that he might just move them, and only them and their friends, higher with his stated policies). As any trader will tell you, if you are stuck lower, you want volatility, uncertainty. No matter how it comes. Put another way. Your downside is flat, your upside isn’t. Break the system.

The elites loathe volatility. Because, the upside is limited, but the downside isn’t. In option language, they are in the money.

To put it in very non-geeky language: A two-tiered system has one set of people who want to keep the system, and another that doesn’t. Each one is voting for their own best interests.

Again, this is conventional and obvious. In past election cycles, the press covered candidates like John Edwards who spoke frequently of the emergence of “two Americas.” (These divisions that have been developing are complex and not easily reduced to the usual storylines of race or engineered social inequality.) Yet years later, the election of Trump should prove that the “two Americas” are a reality. That’s a social problem on a new scale, isn’t it? One that, by its existence, hasn’t been addressed by past administrations. Arnade suggests it’s because our politics has become obsessed with a single dimension of social progress at the expense of others:

Where do most of the press and elites get it wrong? They don’t believe that we live in a two-tiered system. They don’t believe, or know they are in, the top tier. They also don’t understand what people view as value.

When the Democrats under Clinton in the early ‘90s shifted towards a pro market agenda, they made a dramatic shift towards accepting the Republicans definition of value as being about the economic.

Now elites in both major parties see their broad political goal as increasing the GDP, regardless of how it is done.

This has failed most Americans, other than the elite, in two ways. It has failed to provide an economic boost (incomes are broadly flat), and it has forgotten that many people see value as being not just economic, but social. It has been a one-two punch that has completely left behind many people.

The common good. A “worst case”, profane candidate to break a complacent system in the most peaceful way possible with an eye toward the broadest upside.

We’re living through a time when all that’s old is new: politics was once more than economics.

Infallibility

Fr. John Hunwicke writes on papal infallibility. I’ll try to summarize his essential points, but am including what I think is an important excerpt, too.

The pope’s infallibility is essentially “negative” in its nature. A responsibility of the Holy Father is to avoid cloaking his pronouncements in the garb of the Holy Spirit and in so doing make himself a dictator. Instead, the Church institutionally should perceive when any particular generation’s innovations require a response on the question of their compatibility with Christ. This isn’t being merely reactionary; it’s being responsive.

The Holy Father is not a spokesman on behalf of a “God of surprises,” but a protector of the received knowledge of humanity’s destiny with its creator. So if the pope must speak in his infallible capacity, it must nearly always be simply to say, “This is not what we have received.”

When Peter speaks, he says no. It is true that he also offers words of affirmation, comfort, and encouragement, as all pastors do. But when he exercises the role most typical of the Petrine mystery—the safeguarding of the faith—he speaks in the negative. We see this in two of the most important exercises of the papal magisterium in the years since Vatican II—indeed, since the Council of Trent: Humanae vitae (1968) and Ordinatio sacerdotalis (1994).

Humanae Vitae was not the first major magisterial intervention on contraception. That had taken place a generation before, in Casti connubii (1930), when the See of St. Peter judged that a reply was needed to the Anglican Communion’s Lambeth Conference. In other words, Rome spoke against an innovation. And there can be no doubt that it was an innovation, throughout the Christian world, to suggest that contraception was anything other than immoral. Previous Lambeth Conferences had taught this; and when the 1930 Conference changed its teaching, one of the great theological luminaries of the Church of England, Charles Gore, Bishop first of Worcester, then of Birmingham, finally of Oxford, attacked it publicly. His paper excoriating the 1930 Conference was far more damning and outraged than any document I have seen on this subject from a Catholic source. As far as Byzantine Orthodoxy is concerned, as late as 1963 a popular book by a popular hierarch of English origin concluded its section on marriage with the unadorned statement, “Artificial methods of birth control are forbidden in the Orthodox Church.” (Later editions of the book did not maintain this position.)

In the 1960s, the discovery of pharmaceutical means of preventing conception without modifying the sexual act itself provided an opportunity for some Catholic writers to argue that the old prohibitions no longer applied. With historical hindsight it is easy to see that sexual ethics were the major problem of that decade—the point at which the zeitgeist most directly challenged the Church.

Blessed Paul VI, un po’ Amletico, as his predecessor described him, saw the crucial importance of the doctrinal questions involved here, and the responsibility that lay upon him as Successor of St. Peter to give a decisive and authoritative ruling. Indeed, the Holy Spirit was given to him so that he might devoutly guard and faithfully expound the teaching handed down through the apostles, the Deposit of Faith. He did not summon synods in which he invited selected bishops to express with Parrhesia whatever views they had. He did not repeatedly suggest that the Holy Spirit might be abroad advocating a change in the established teaching. He did not float an ambiguously worded document in order to create an atmosphere in which those bishops who regarded themselves as closest to the pope’s mind could feel that they had been given sufficient authority to abandon the Tradition. Instead, Paul VI stated: “Therefore, having attentively sifted the documentation laid before Us, after mature reflection and assiduous prayers, We now intend, by virtue of the mandate entrusted to Us by Christ, to give Our reply to these grave questions.” And his reply was a decisive negative. It failed to claim the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

A similar pattern can be seen when John Paul II issued Ordinatio sacerdotalis in 1994. This document appeared at a stage in the sexual revolution that already seems as old-fashioned as grandmother’s lace. The veteran English feminist Germaine Greer had not yet been no-platformed by the student guardians of the dogmas of gender diversity because she had declared a “trans” candidate for a fellowship in her women’s college to be “not a woman.” Prepubescent children were not yet being encouraged to consider whether they might wish to change genders. But the proliferating absurdities of the next three decades are surely implicit in the question the pope set out to answer. That question was quite simply whether women, interchangeably with men, could receive the Sacrament of Holy Orders. And, in a brief magisterial intervention, John Paul II declared that the Church was unable (nullam facultatem habere) to ordain women.

In each of these cases, the proponents of innovation downplayed the significance of the changes they sponsored…

 

Christian citizenship

Dale M. Coulter on gifts and debts:

The original sin was in moving too fast from the language of gift to the language of right, and missing entirely the language of debt. Bernard claims that ignorance makes beasts of humans, because they begin “to use gifts as if they belonged to one by natural right.” The ignorance in question is not simply a lack of awareness of the creator, but a fundamental failure to know oneself as a creature. And so, Bernard asks that each person know two facts: what you are, and that you are not that by your own hand. With the acknowledgement of these two facets of human existence come the moral obligations that should shape human freedom. In short, humans owe their existence to something beyond themselves, and they should live in light of that debt. Before claiming their rights, individuals need to acknowledge their debts and order the discharge of those debts accordingly, as first to God and then to neighbor.

Anselm of Canterbury would build his understanding of the atonement on these premises. The gift of human nature entails the obligation to pursue justice as the vehicle by which humans fulfill their debt to God and realize their potential. They fulfill the appetite for happiness through the pursuit of justice. When humans turn this debt into a “natural right,” they turn away from the origin of the gifts of nature and forfeit justice in the process. Anselm’s use of the language of debt in relation to sin is part of an overarching moral framework in which humans come into this world with gifts and a purpose that entail obligations. All obligations to other humans, including political communities, stem from the recognition of the more fundamental debt one owes to God for capacities one possesses.

This is the medieval underpinning to Kennedy’s words of 1961 [—ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country]. It is also the Christian basis for citizenship in any nation, and for the particular gratitude Christians should have for living out their earthly existence in the United States. Too many people today have skipped over debts and gone straight to rights.

Reducing learning to outputs

Scott Schwartz writes on the “financialization” of higher education and what impact this has on the experience of learning, ostensibly higher education’s raison d’etre:

The City University of New York (CUNY) is the largest urban university system in the country and ranks alongside the California and New York State systems for total enrollment. Until 1976, CUNY was entirely tuition-free. While remaining significantly cheaper than other private universities in New York, CUNY has increasingly pursued a neoliberal business model reflective of for-profit institutions. This is hardly surprising. The financialization of CUNY has occurred in tandem with the financialization of New York City itself, and indeed much of the nation and world economy. …

The banality of this particular evil glazes over the continued emaciation of public education. Several authors have addressed this process (see Giroux’s Neoliberalism’s War on Higher Education), as well as discussed models for attempting to stem this trend. While CUNY continues to struggle for funding, both for its students and its large number of precariously contracted educators, the learning experience becomes increasingly denigrated – classroom sizes balloon, facilities erode, teachers exhaust. Commoditizing education (prioritizing its exchange-value over its use-value) inevitably impoverishes public institutions, no matter how skilled CUNY’s Chancellor (with his $500k salary) is at branding. A for-profit space reduces its occupants to their potential output, rendering experience marginal or impossible. By this, I mean to convey the mutual exclusivity of the concepts output and experience. Experience is something that only occurs in the present (one can remember a past experience, but the experience occurred in a present). Output, on the other hand, is something that cannot have a present (if I say ‘I have an output’, it denotes either something that is done or something that will be done).

A deadly thing that this “financialization” does to places meant for learning is the favoring of activity over leisure. “Leisure” meaning not a checked-out vacation-type mentality, but a thoughtful, contemplative, inquisitive way of living. If every school becomes a place for its students and faculty to demonstrate professional output, there’s no longer a purpose to it compared to any vocational school or the professional world generally. 

It seems to me that “financialization” might simply be the packaging and selling of what something is at present, at the expense of what it might become.

Johnson Amendment

About a month ago I was in Washington where I heard a congressman talk about whether a Trump administration might really push the senate to get rid of the Johnson Amendment. What does the Johnson Amendment do? It restricts any 501(c)3 nonprofit from engaging in meaningful political activity. The IRS explains:

Under the Internal Revenue Code, all section 501(c)(3) organizations are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office. Contributions to political campaign funds or public statements of position (verbal or written) made on behalf of the organization in favor of or in opposition to any candidate for public office clearly violate the prohibition against political campaign activity.  Violating this prohibition may result in denial or revocation of tax-exempt status and the imposition of certain excise taxes.

Certain activities or expenditures may not be prohibited depending on the facts and circumstances.  For example, certain voter education activities (including presenting public forums and publishing voter education guides) conducted in a non-partisan manner do not constitute prohibited political campaign activity. In addition, other activities intended to encourage people to participate in the electoral process, such as voter registration and get-out-the-vote drives, would not be prohibited political campaign activity if conducted in a non-partisan manner.

On the other hand, voter education or registration activities with evidence of bias that (a) would favor one candidate over another; (b) oppose a candidate in some manner; or (c) have the effect of favoring a candidate or group of candidates, will constitute prohibited participation or intervention.

The first thing to understand is that the Johnson Amendment isn’t a law. It’s a senate-committee amendment to the federal tax code. It’s just a tax policy; easily changed.

The second thing to understand about the Johnson policy is that Lyndon Johnson pushed this through his senate committee in 1954 after narrowly winning re-election in Texas after he faced serious, nearly career-ending attacks from 501(c)3 nonprofits. This was created by a singular politician and very much motivated by his own self-interest.

The third thing to understand about the Johnson policy is that it’s a simple and straightforward violation of the First Amendment right to freedom of expression that applies to some (but not others!) simply based on their tax status. A nonprofit corporation is a still a corporation—a coming together of people to engage in public life and ultimately to influence its development in a certain direction. Like any other corporate or human activity. If Trump had the senate create a tax policy restricting the speech rights of Medicaid-eligible citizens, or granting speech rights (rights to libel or defame) to hedge fund managers, it would be immediately recognized for the obvious farce that it is. This farce exists today for every nonprofit from charity:water to United Way to your local church. A young Pell grant recipient in college doesn’t lose his right to give to a political candidate or publicly speak on behalf of a candidate. Neither should a corporation, regardless of tax status.

The fourth thing to understand about the Johnson policy (as Mark Kellner points out) is that it’s contrary to 165+ years of American experience that understood freedom of expression in a much simpler and less compromised way.

This anti-speech tax policy was created by a politician whose self-interest required muzzling nonprofits to ensure easier re-election. I’m hopeful it will be eliminated by a politician who now finds it in his self-interest to restore these simple speech rights.

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John & Harriet Stanton

John Stanton died three years ago.

John was a founder of the Pro-Life Union of Greater Philadelphia, but far more than that, he was a good man. I knew of him for years, and got to know him in his final years as a fellow Pro-Life Union board member.

John and his wife Harriet helped create the Pro-Life Union as husband and wife, and its continuing mission is imbued by their insight that the Culture of Life has always been larger than any single issue—their work began in the years leading up to the consequential 1971 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision, and the Pro-Life Union’s work continues to impact lives across Greater Philadelphia through its efforts for alternatives, public affairs, outreach, and education.

I joined the board in January 2012 to assist in developing the Pro-Life Union’s governance structure, along with its brand, content, and communications. The history and depth of impact of the organization over the decades continues to impress me, and reminds me of the need and importance of personal action. Putting aside the intellectual and ethical debate over how America determines the worth of human life, there will always be people in need and in situations requiring real assistance.

In just the past few years, an enormous portion of our budget has directly supported men, women, and children in crisis situations. This sort of practical charity typifies the Pro-Life Union’s culture of witness and service over fraught ideological arguments—and John & Harriet’s personal, living example continues to guide how our mission translates into reality.

It was in November 2014 that Fr. Chris Walsh announced the John & Harriet Stanton Pro-Life Union Leadership Fund, a modest way we continue to honor the Stanton’s spirit. We endowed this fund with the Catholic Foundation of Greater Philadelphia, and continue to build it up. Its purpose is to support internships and training for new generations of servant leaders.

Tyhisha Hudson spoke in November 2014 about the Pro-Life Union’s impact on her family: “The Pro-Life Union was not just about preserving the life of the child. It also was about preserving family—husband and wife.”

Real communities support a robust family life, with parents at the heart of the home. It starts with a Culture of Life and is realized in practice through a real spectrum of choice.

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Board retreat

This month marks the start of my fifth year with the Pro-Life Union of Greater Philadelphia as a board member.

The Pro-Life Union is one of countless organizations across the country that came alive in the years prior to Roe v. Wade, and whose mission and scope can basically be summed up as “proclaiming the sanctity of all life.” While a lot of the Pro-Life Union’s activity centers on providing mothers and fathers with alternatives to abortion (like housing, job opportunities, financial literacy, spiritual resources, etc.) it is just as much focused on promoting the basics for strong marriages and healthy sexual experiences and how to preserve the dignity of self and others throughout life, particularly at its natural conclusion. 

As vice-chair of the board for the past few years, I’ve been grateful to be a part of the Pro-Life Union’s evolution over the past five years and a number of key changes in its structure that have equipped it for the years and decades to come. I’m also looking forward to elevating new leadership later this year. 

I’ve been wanting to put together a board retreat for the Pro-Life Union for a while, and with much of the board having been refreshed in the past few years the right moment came to try this. We held a healthy and fruitful social retreat for ~4 hours in Mount Airy, Philadelphia—specifically at St. Raymond of Penafort church, where one of our board members is pastor. Afterwards, a number of people took me aside to comment that it was a great opportunity to get to know each other better. That’s exactly what I wanted to happen, and I hope this can be the start of an annual board tradition to ensure board members know each other as human beings, rather than just as peers who come together periodically to discuss/vote on corporate issues.

Why are you pro-life? What led you to the Pro-Life Union? What do you want to leave behind? What do you think is your greatest strength as a pro-life witness? What’s your greatest weakness?