Pope Francis’s TED talk

Pope Francis has talked of the “God of surprises,” and just as often turns out to be a pope of surprises. That’s true of his surprise (pre-filmed) TED appearance in Vancouver last night.

I’ve been following along with the TED conference through Snapchat from a few people I follow, so already felt somewhat connected to the talks there. I hope Pope Francis’s participation sets a standard for things like this, and that someday a younger pope might surprise an audience like this in person.

Journalists should be skeptics

Walk into almost any news room or journalism class in the country and probably a majority will say something about the importance of objectivity in reporting. It’s not that they think they don’t have biases, but rather that they believe they will be impartial in their reading of events, placement of data, and interviews with sources as to provide an “objective” picture of reality. But what if the notion of objectivity in journalism were its great weakness?

“Objectivity” presupposes an impartial observer able to share a “view from nowhere.” A journalist’s mission is to synthesize the raw materials of a situation into a coherent portrait of the truth. But as a reporter learns more about a subject, cognitive biases will take hold on what information is deemed important or relevant.

Elizabeth Murphy, Penn State’s Daily Collegian editor, wrote a few years ago on her organization’s having received a court order to remove articles from their site and why they refused to agree. She provided a glimpse into the objectivity mindset of journalists:

The Daily Collegian will not yield to intimidation.
The Daily Collegian does not answer to the government.
The Daily Collegian reports the truth as it happens, day in and day out.

What happens when the newspaper reports information that turns out not to be the truth? Or only a partial picture of the truth? Does careless research not threaten to obscure the truth each day? Does lazy interviewing not threaten to obscure the truth each day? Does simple need to fill out a minimum word count not threaten to obscure the truth each day?

A better standard to adhere to as a journalist would be to acknowledge our tendency toward bias and proclaim that journalists should be naturally skeptical—rather than claiming the mantle of objectivity and truth. Skepticism is a useful attitude for journalists because it gives them a freer hand to investigate, to maintain relationships with contentious public figures, and to share what they know without having to climb onto the high pedestal of objective public good every time they publish.

Skepticism rather than objectivity insulates journalists from the sort of attacks their credibility suffers every time something is reported incorrectly.

In 2003, Jesse Walker explained a problem with the objectivity approach:

There’s a reason that Fox News, whose very selling point is its reliable slant, would adopt a slogan like “We report, you decide.” And there’s a reason why Ann Coulter and Eric Alterman, scarcely objective writers themselves, would attack the media not merely for being wrong but for being biased. The rhetoric of “objectivity” is far too useful a tool, for denouncing your enemies or for patting yourself on the back, to expect everyone to give it up.

Jack Shafer at Slate took on the notion of the “objective” war reporter that same year.

Lefebvre on human dignity

Where has the idea of “human dignity” come from? What is its intellectual genealogy? 

In evolutionary history, we understand all the ways in which a creature takes on slightly different form over time as the genetic structures adapt and change in an attempt to fit their circumstances. The same is true in exploring the genealogy of philosophical and theological history. What this means is that a simple phrase like “human dignity” carries within it the “genetic” memory of debate and discourse as men and women attempt to reach the essential truth about mankind that it attempts to speak to. What makes us distinct? Where is our dignity located? Why is it worth conserving? What does it ask of us?

David L. Schindler and Nicholas J. Healy, Jr. capture some of the history of the debate over human dignity in their book Freedom, Truth, and Human Dignity: The Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Freedom. An interesting excerpt:

The opposition between Murray [freedom, rights] and Lefebvre [truth, duty] appears to be, and in a crucial sense is, fundamental. … Regarding the operative dignity of man, Lefebvre says that it “is the result of the exercise of his faculties, essentially intelligence and will.” (20). “To the perfection of nature is added to man a supplementary perfection which will depend on his actions” (20). Man’s operative dignity, thus, “will consist in adhering in his actions to truth and goodness” (2). It follows for the Archbishop that “if man fails to be good or, if he adheres to error or evil, he loses his dignity” (20). In a word, for Lefebvre the dignity of the human person, in the operative sense, “does not consist in liberty apart from truth … Liberty is good and true to the extent to which it is ruled by truth”(22).

Lefebvre’s problem with the teaching of Dignitatis humanae, in sum, is that it roots the right to religious freedom not in this operative dignity of man, which consists in “the actual adherence of the person to the truth,” but rather in the ontological dignity of man, which “refers only to his free will” made in the image of God (33). In the view of the Declaration, “any man, regardless of his subjective dispositions (truth or error, good or bad faith), is inviolable in the actions by which he operates his ‘relation’ to God” (31). But, according to Lefebvre, this is false: “when man cleaves to error or moral evil, he loses his operative dignity, which therefore cannot be the basis for anything at all” (33).

Thus, regarding the logic of Lefebvre’s and Murray’s positions with respect to each other: on the one hand, Lefebvre recognizes that there is in man a “transcendental relation to God” and a “divine call” that founds man’s duty and dignity, and hence his right to search for the truth. But this relation and call have been profoundly affected by sin, to the extent that man’s original natural orientation to truth and God are now conceived as only “potential,” not yet in any proper sense actual or effective. Hence the operative dignity of man, the dignity that truly qualifies him as a subject of the right to religious freedom, is for Lefebvre tied to the exercise of his faculties of freedom and intelligence in the actual realization of truth and goodness in relation to God. Murray, on the other hand, locates human dignity, for purposes relevant to man’s being recognized as a subject of the right to religious freedom, in man’s exigence for exercising initiative, abstracted from man’s relation to the transcendent order of truth.

Little Free Libraries

I snapped this photo back in February when I was visiting Penn State/State College with my brother Nick. This “Little Free Library” is located at the Penn State Arboretum, and I think these are generally super-clever and valuable contributions to community life.

Little Free Libraries are often expressions of a particular neighborhood as much as a community or wider place. The people of a place make them what they are, placing books that are often specific to that place rather than just whatever was left lying around. They become a way for a community to communicate bits about itself to each other and to visitors.

And they’re valuable for suggesting Here’s how you might like to spend some of your morning when you’re enjoying a distinctive place like an arboretum’s gardens, or when you’ve reached the summit of Mount Nittany and are ready to find a tree or rock to lean up against and enjoy a secluded afternoon with friends or by yourself.

I think adding one of these to Mount Nittany’s trailhead would be the perfect way to say, A hike can be more than just coming and going—linger a bit, and here, enjoy this book while you do…

Higher cost, lower esteem

Revisiting something I noted a few years ago, an incredible story of a university suing its former student for graduating too rapidly:

A German university is suing a student for lost income because he finished his bachelors and masters degrees in only 20 months.

The School of Economics and Management in Essen is asking the court to make former student Marcel Pohl, 22, pay an extra $3,772 after he obtained his degrees in only three semesters instead of the usual 11, The Local.de reported Tuesday.

“When I got the lawsuit, I thought it couldn’t be true,” Pohl told the Bild newspaper. “Performance is supposed to be worth something.”

Could there be a better example of how ugly it is when colleges forget that their role is developing a human person, rather than producing (or benefitting from) just the economic dimension of a person?

Does a college exist to extract value from its students before producing graduates for a marketplace, or does it exist more broadly to elevate its students beyond their marketplace value?

This question prefaces almost every conversation about college life today.

Commitment, not passion

I think one of the most misunderstood ideas today is that happiness in life comes after you decide to “follow your passion.” Steve Jobs famously encouraged young people to follow their passion in his Stanford commencement address. It’s a beautiful way to think about creating an intentional and rewarding life, but those three words paper over the stark reality that “passion” doesn’t lead to “happiness.” Steve Jobs himself elbaorated on this idea in a separate talk:

“People say you have to have a lot of passion for what you’re doing, and it’s totally true. The reason is because it’s so hard that if you don’t, any rational person would give up. It’s really hard. And you have to do it over a sustained period of time. So if you don’t love it—if you’re not having fun doing it, and you don’t really love it—you’re going to give up.”

In other words, people who are committed to their vision, or who have a strong sense of vocation or purpose in life, are the ones likeliest at least not to be discouraged by the sheer difficulty of realizing their vision. Jobs suggests needing to be irrational in pursuit of the passion, but I think it’s simpler to think in terms first acting out of a place of happiness, and second, living with commitment. Warren Buffett spoke to this many years ago:

If you think you’re going to be a lot happier if you’ve got 2x instead of x, you’re probably making a mistake. You outta find something that you like that works with that and you’ll get in trouble if you think that making 10x or 20x is the answer to everything in life, because then you’ll do things like borrow money when you shouldn’t, or maybe cut corners on things your employer wants you to cut corners on. It just doesn’t make any sense, and you won’t like it when you look back on it.

Far better to encourage young people to have a fixed ethical/moral sense, and unshakeable commitment to something concrete.

Castes v. mobility

I want to share some excerpts from R.W. Grant’s The Incredible Bread Machine, a “study of Capitalism, Freedom, and the State” published in the 1970s:

Every enterprise imaginable — dry cleaning, trucking, beauty parlor, grocery store, and on and on — is today under the thumb of the politician. ….

For those who already have capital, experience and education, the numberless “barriers to entry” erected by the state [ie – licensing, regulatory requirements] can be overcome, but to the under-capitalized poor, often with little experience and scant education, these barriers are virtually insurmountable. The illegal immigrant selling oranges at the off-ramp of the Los Angeles freeway is a truer capitalist than those businessmen who are constantly running to government for this-or-that favor or restriction.

Regulation is a necessary evil, but onerous or punitive regulation is a genuine evil in that it distorts natural relations and market activity, typically to the greatest detriment of the “under-capitalized poor.”

[T]he barriers are more complex today than they were then. For example, suppose a person in a poor area saw the need for a low-cost barber shop. One might suppose that with a few hours practice, a $15 set of clippers, a chair and a willing customer, he could go into business. Then, if her were industrious, and were truly able to provide a service of value to his neighbors, he would prosper. Perhaps one day he could open a bigger shop and hire two of his relatives. That is the way things are supposed to be in a “land of opportunity.” But that is not the way things are. In California, this is what the law says he must do.

The first step for an aspiring barber is a barber’s license granted by the state Board of Barber Examiners. But this requires either two years as an apprentice working for someone else or 1500 hours (!) at a state-licensed barber school at a cost upwards of $3,500. … Then, it costs $50 to register for the state test. And then, if the test is passed, there’s another $50 for the two-year state license. But there’s still more, for the new shop must now be inspected and approved by the Board — for another $50. Then, a city business license ($106.43 in Los Angeles). …

Now, assuming he were still in business, suppose the new proprietor hires an assistant. Deductions, contributions and fees must be accurately computed and paid. Just for starters there’s Worker’s Compensation and unemployment insurance (around 1.3% of the first $7,000 in wages) paid for by the employer. Then, in California there’s something called the Employee Training Tax, 0.1% of the first $7,000. Then there is a Federal Unemployment Tax, $56 per year per employee.

Now come the payroll deductions. State Disability Insurance (SDI) is 15% of the first $31,767 in wages. Then there’s State Withholding Tax (variable). Then come the federal calculations which include Withholding plus Social Security/Medicare (7.65% matched by the employer).

The paperwork for all this represents a severe burden even to people with a fair degree of schooling; to the person with only a meager education and perhaps only a scant familiarity with the mysteries of bookkeeping, these artificial barriers to business survival are simply overwhelming. But there is still more: most states enforce — or try to enforce — minimum price schedules. But a poverty area shop forced to charge these inflated rates would go out of business in a week!

The decision a few years ago to give the FDA power to regulate tobacco demonstrates the way in which regulation can be used to insulate existing interests from competition. Who came out on top in that case? Marlboro. Flush with cash, and with an army of lobbyists, they successfully convinced the FDA to ban flavored tobacco cigarettes on the grounds that they appealed to children. Okay…

A big maker of flavored cigarettes (a competitor) was Djarum, an Indonesian company that was effectively eliminated from the U.S. market by that protectionist regulation.

And most interestingly, Marlboro’s menthol flavored cigarettes were exempted from the flavored tobacco ban. Critics have dubbed this change in law the “Marlboro Monopoly Act of 2009.” (Black Americans are a large percent of menthol sales, and a ban including menthols would have dealt a heavy blow to Marlboro’s market share.)

It seems as if bureaucracy and regulators function well when promoting a principle, but often stumble when enforcing specific policies.