We want more than we have

Sen. Marco Rubio writes that the most important measure of American strength is her people and her families. The economy is a way to measure the health of American’s people, but it is not useful in and of itself as a measure of prosperity. If this sounds counter-intuitive, it’s because accountants and bureaucrats have captured the positions of political and economic power:

There are many factors that contribute to children’s well-being, but none is more important than strong families. We know this because it’s in our DNA, of course; stable, two-parent families have been the bedrock of all successful civilizations throughout all of history. …

But a true cultural revival requires us to also recognize the inextricable connection between culture and the economy. Shifts in American trade and fiscal policy have profoundly affected American family formation and child-rearing. The growth of capital-light sectors means that companies earn more profits off of less physical investment — which in turn means that short-term profits are quickly directed to shareholders, with fewer middle- and working-class jobs.

America’s shift to a post-industrial, services-based economy also means that jobs that do exist increasingly require expensive training and education. For many working-class, would-be parents, pursuing them means spending years and financial resources to acquire a credential — resources that in a more productive economy could be devoted to spending time with family. On top of this, the more recent rise of the gig economy means even less consistent wages, benefits, and schedules.

Americans routinely report wanting more kids than they have. It’s no surprise that, lacking stable employment opportunities, our marriage and childbirth rates have fallen.

Instead of an economy based on financial and intangible assets, we can shift economic incentives to the number-one driver of dignified work: more domestic business investment. By developing productive, long-life capital assets like new machinery, equipment, and assembly lines, we create enduring work opportunities for Americans.

More stable, productive work means more stable, productive families — and better outcomes for children.

And even if one is skeptical about this line of reasoning, there is a more practical cause for concern about how we structure the American economy and what it means for children’s welfare: the United States cannot compete against China’s 1.3 billion people if we condemn 73 million American children to the sidelines of the future economy.

We want more than we have—not economically, and not even really materially, but socially and culturally. We sense our poverty in critical aspects of our lives, and too many alleged thought leaders believe that economic solutions are the answer to a spiritual malaise of the sort that Jimmy Carter diagnosed and to which Ronald Reagan turned out to be a cure.

I increasingly think we need a new Great Awakening to renew America’s sense of itself as a people with a future.

Old Reston and Lake Anne

I visited a friend in Reston on Sunday afternoon to help with a project, and after finishing we walked through old Reston and saw Lake Anne. It’s been good to experience more of Northern Virginia and especially Reston. Lake Anne and the surrounding natural trails are beautiful, especially right now. Old Reston isn’t much to look at architecturally, but it’s so perfectly situated amidst nature that this, combined with its fundamentals (public square, al fresco dining, little shops and homes nestled alongside one another, walkable paths) make up for its deficiencies.

When I woke that morning after 6am, it was pitch dark due and raining on the way to and from 7:30am Mass. That continued the entire morning, but cleared up for what turned out to be a fantastic afternoon and evening.

Living alone

John Cuddeback writes on “living as a household of one:”

The fact is that many people today end up living in a house alone. Sometimes it is by choice. Other times it is surely not, and the house has echoes of people who were there in the past, or whom the inhabitant dearly wishes, even if in the abstract and unknowing, might one day live there.

To ‘come home’ just to oneself can be very difficult. It can even make one wonder—what’s the point? One might wish that one’s own household would simply cease to exist, and perhaps be absorbed into someone else’s. Then I’d really be at home, when ‘we’ are at home, together.

A household is always about sharing life together. And so a home can be a living contradiction—even if many people are actually there. Real living together requires more than being under the same roof.

Thought it doesn’t always feel like it, a signal gift in human life is the existence of others with whom we share human nature. Shared humanity is the basis for shared life, for living together in various rich ways. The household is the specifically human way of living together on a daily basis.

So what then of a household of one?

I live alone, and I often find it lonely. But Cuddeback writes on how to live alone while preparing a home that can welcome others.

Advertising and restlessness

Patrick Deneen shared the passage from Christopher Lasch below, commenting: “Tocqueville noticed this already in the 1830s—he diagnosed it as ‘restlessness.'”

In a simpler time, advertising merely called attention to the product and extolled its advantages. Now it manufactures a product of its own: the consumer, perpetually unsatisfied, restless, anxious, and bored. Advertising serves not so much to advertise products as to promote consumption as a way of life. It “educates” the masses into an unappeasable appetite not only for goods but for new experiences and personal fulfillment. It upholds consumption as the answer to the age-old discontents of loneliness, sickness, weariness, lack of sexual satisfaction; at the same time it creates new forms of discontent peculiar to the modern age. It plays seductively on the malaise of industrial civilization. Is your job boring and meaningless? Does it leave you with feelings of futility and fatigue? Is your life empty? Consumption promises to fill the aching void…

A friend of mine was probably riffing off this Lasch passage a few years ago when he said something that’s stayed with me ever since: “In a world built to encourage consumer demand by stoking your anxieties and your desires for more, the most powerful and radical response is to become a no wants person.” If you can learn to live in a properly anchored way, you can become fairly immune from the advertising machine that prioritizes the ephemeral and the material over the transcendent goods, from virtue to friendship to family to personal peace.

It’s not capitalism as an economic order that does this, but rather our disordered sense that has forgotten that the economy exists for man, and not the other way around. Notice that what the democratic socialists are proposing to achieve is, in essence, a more extreme version of the disorder we’re already experiencing—that is, a wider distribution of the material goods that already fail to satisfy our restlessness.

“Our hearts are restless,” writes Augustine in his Confessions, “until they rest in you.”

Nature of a life worth living

“It’s a good thing, a vital thing, to consider what we’re willing to die for. What do we love more than life? To even ask that question is an act of rebellion against a loveless age,” said Archbishop Chaput in remarks at Notre Dame earlier this month. “And to answer it with conviction is to become a revolutionary; the kind of loving revolutionary who will survive and resist—and someday redeem a late modern West that can no longer imagine anything worth dying for, and thus, in the long run, anything worth living for.” Archbishop Chaput spoke to Notre Dame’s Constitutional Studies program:

Family, friends, honor, and integrity: These are natural loves. Throughout history, men and women have been willing to die for these loves. As Christians, though, we claim to be animated—first and foremost—by a supernatural love: love for God as our Creator and Jesus Christ as his Son. St. Polycarp, for all his caution and prudence, eventually did choose martyrdom rather than repudiate his Christian faith.

The issue at hand is this: Are we really willing to do the same; and if so, how must we live in a way that proves it? These aren’t theoretical questions. They’re brutally real. Right now Christians in many countries around the world are facing the choice of Jesus Christ or death. Last year the German novelist Martin Mosebach published an account of the 21 migrant workers in Libya who were kidnapped by Muslim extremists and executed for their faith. Twenty were Coptic Christians from Egypt. One was another African who refused to separate himself from his brothers in the faith.

The murder of those 21 Christians is captured on video. It’s hard to watch—not just because the act is barbaric, but also because, in our hearts, we fear that, faced with the same choice, we might betray our faith in order to save our lives. Put frankly, the martyrs, both ancient and modern, frighten us as much as they inspire us. And maybe this reaction makes perfect sense. Maybe it’s a version of the biblical principle that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Fear of martyrdom is the beginning of an honest appraisal of our spiritual mediocrity.

So I think we should consider this fear for a moment, rather than repressing it, as we so often do.

The Christian men beheaded on the Libyan beach are not really so remote from us. The worry we naturally feel, that we might fail a similar test, is a concrete and urgent version of the anxiety we rightly feel when we think about coming before the judgment of God. If we’re honest about ourselves, we know that we’re likely to fail that test too. After all, we’re barely able to live up to the basic demands of the Ten Commandments. Many of us have trouble following even the minimal norms of a Catholic life: regular confession and Mass attendance, kindness to others, and a few minutes of daily prayer. If those very simple things are struggles, how can we possibly have the spiritual strength to face martyrdom? Or the judgment of a just God?

The Catholic faith we hold doesn’t deny our failures. It highlights them to help us see that our hope is not in the strength of our own love, but rather in the power of God’s love. As St. Paul says in one of the most moving passages of Scripture, “I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor power, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:38-39).

All of us, in all of our strengths and all of our weaknesses, are powerless to defeat God’s purpose in Jesus Christ. Our flaws, our mistakes and inadequacies, our spiritual mediocrity, and our self-sabotage are impotent in the face of God’s love. For this reason, the martyrs do not bear witness to the spiritual athleticism of remarkable men and women. Instead, they point to the relentless love of God in Jesus Christ. As the Preface for Holy Martyrs reads:

For you [God] are glorified when your saints are praised;
their very sufferings are but wonders of your might:
In your mercy you give ardor to their faith,
to their endurance you grant firm resolve,
and in their struggle the victory is yours,
through Christ our Lord.

What that means is this: Those who are faithful to God will in turn have his faithfulness at life’s ending, no matter how extreme the test.

Grace illuminates nature. The supernatural love of God in Jesus Christ that gives courage to the martyrs helps us better understand the natural loves of family, friends, honor, and integrity. The power of these loves—a power that can be so great that we’re willing to live and die to remain true to them—does not come from within the self. The mother does not conjure a love for her child out of her inner emotional resources. The same holds true for friends, honor, and integrity. Love’s power draws us out of ourselves. It comes from what is loved, not the one who loves.

Seattle and Bellevue in autumn

I’m in Bellevue, Washington for a Discovery Institute conference on the human good and technology. Full days, so here are a few of the more interesting scenes from the past two days, starting from my departure from Dulles.

The last time I was in/near Seattle in October was eight years ago, when Occupy Wall Street was happening in cities across the country. It’s good to be back and to see the autumn colors from the plane, especially.

Robert P. George, CIC New Evangelization honoree

I attended my second Catholic Information Center “John Paul II New Evangelization Award Dinner” last night. This year Robert P. George was the honoree, and his keynote focused on the imperative of Christian witness in the public square. Afterwards, met and caught up with people while catching the World Series, with Nats going up 2-0 against the Astros. Also met some of the new Leonine Forum fellows. I’ll add video later when it’s available.

I’m now heading to Seattle/Bellevue for Discovery Institute’s COSM Conference on the intersection of the human good and technology.

You have to be a man first

Matt Labash writes on GQ’s “New Masculinity” issue:

John Wayne, that repository of testosterone — now considered an illicit substance in many states — once played a character who said, “You have to be a man first, before you’re a gentleman.” …

I might be tempted to answer Vox’s Liz Plank, one of GQ’s 18 voices, who recently published a book, “For the Love of Men.” While writing it, she went to Washington Square in Manhattan, thoughtfully asking men, “What’s hard about being a man?”

“Having to listen to people who aren’t men, or who are ashamed of manhood, constantly telling me how to be one,” would be my short answer, after I stopped, dropped and rolled for cover.

But for actual guidance — more sage than anything I read in GQ’s masculinity symposium — I’d turn to Edward Abbey, the ornery liberal who enjoyed baiting those on his own team. By most lights, he was a more reliable environmentalist than he was a feminist. (“The feminists have a legitimate grievance,” he said. “But so does everyone else.”) But Mr. Abbey, a former park ranger, did spend a lot of time observing nature up close, and not just the flora and fauna. Of man/woman relations, he wrote, “It is the difference between men and women, not the sameness, that creates the tension and the delight.”

Why keep fuzzing distinctions that for millenniums have resisted fuzzing? Punish the sex criminals and pelvic pinball wizards. Good riddance to them all. But otherwise, let men and women be men and women, however that appropriately breaks, without laboring so hard to fuse them. Maybe our opposites attracting, which the furtherance of our species has depended on, isn’t a design flaw, but its very essence. And maybe the wokerati ought to take their own most oft-repeated cliché to heart: Our diversity is our strength.

I’m working my way through Camille Paglia’s “Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson,” which provides a lot of context for the unfolding culture war between masculinity and whatever is proposed for replacing it.

Napa Institute’s Principled Entrepreneurship conference

I’m spending the day at The University Club, a few blocks from Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, for Napa Institute’s Principled Entrepreneurship conference today and tomorrow. I’ve attended Napa Institute’s Summer Conference for the past few years, but not their smaller conferences. It’s already proving to be valuable, and I’m glad I’ve come. The benefit of smaller conferences is substantial face time with others, including some who you’ve seen around at different things but never meaningfully gotten to know.

Michael Novak’s approach to harmonizing faith and business permeates this conference. I wish he were here.