Monday, December 26, 2011

Beyond our hope

Teatime, in England, the week before Christmas, years ago.  The hostess, graciously entertaining a family that included a young child, a boy, perhaps four years old.  As is perhaps inevitable, the conversation comes round to Father Christmas (Santa to my American friends).

"Will Father Christmas be coming to your house next week?"

The boy looks nervous, uncertain. "Maybe."

"Will he bring you presents?"

"I don't know."  His lip is trembling.

"Have you been good?"

The boy bursts into tears.  Embarrassed, his mother sweeps him into her arms and the little incident is over.

But it has stayed with me. Kids know the deal: if you are good, you get the stuff; if you aren't, you get the lump of coal.  But can you be sure that you've been good enough?  Is anyone good enough?  Maybe that over-sensitive four-year-old was wrestling with that ultimate question.

The difference between Jesus and Santa is this: Before sending his Son, God did not say to humanity "Have you been good?"  The angel did not say to Mary, "Have you been good?". The shepherds did not hear the celestial message, "Peace on earth and good will to those who are good."  If Jesus was like Santa, his gifts would not have been bestowed.  Because, no, there is not enough good in any of us to deserve his coming.

But we are not asked whether we deserve it.  We are empowered to welcome it.  As the Prologue to John's Gospel (itself a profound meditation on Christmas) says, "Of his fulness we have all received, grace upon grace".

That is good news beyond our hope.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Inside Job

I just took the time to watch Charles Ferguson's searing documentary about the 2008 financial meltdown, Inside Job.

The film is not a rant.  It does well at explaining the repackaging of risk into derivative securities, the unregulated "insurance" market of credit-default swaps, and how in the edn even small changes in the underlying assets could bring down the whole over-leveraged facade.

But as one lobbyist after another professes incomprehension that anyone could question the wisdom of Wall Street's obscene bonus culture (millions of dollars if you win! and if you lose, someone else goes bankrupt), one cannot but think of Upton Sinclair: "It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it."

Academe is not exempt. See the chair of Harvard's economics department reduced to  bumbling incoherence as he tries to explain how there is no conflict of interest when faculty members are paid six-figure sums to write objective-looking reports that just happen to promote the interests of their paymasters.  No, they don't have to disclose the payments, or even the fact that they had been paid.

I suppose the follow-up is to read Confidence Men and learn how the foxes are still in charge of the henhouse.  Sigh.

Seriously, watch this movie.  Key line at the end: "Real engineers build bridges. Financial engineers build dreams. And if those dreams turn out to be nightmares, someone else pays."

Monday, December 12, 2011

Fill the Earth

In Genesis 1:28, God commands the first humans to "fill the earth".  What does this mean?

If I ask someone "please fill this glass" with water, and he takes it and brings it back empty, then it's clear he did not do what I requested.  But if he holds the glass under the faucet endlessly, while the water spills over and runs on the floor, then my request has been disobeyed in a different way.

In other words, the commandment to "fill" something implies a limit - "now it is full". It is not a mandate to keep filling for ever.

In the context of Genesis, is the instruction "fill the earth" a limitation on the earlier instruction to "go forth and multiply", rather than a reaffirmation of it?

Friday, December 9, 2011


One of my students came to my office today to talk about a math problem.  He's a finance major and as he was leaving he spotted a copy of Samuelson's economics textbook nestling among the geometry and differential equations.

"Are you interested in economics?", he asked. I had time only for a quick answer.

"Yes.  But I'm especially interested in the limitations of contemporary economic thinking and the ways that they might lead us astray as we think about the future."

"What do you mean?"

"Two key assumptions in particular: that humans are individual utility maximizers, and that the economy is a self-contained and self-perpetuating growing system.  The first assumption makes it difficult to talk about community, and the second makes it difficult to talk about limits.  But perhaps those two are exactly the things we need to be talking about now."

I went on to quote Herman Daly: "The economy is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the ecosystem".  And not a small subsidiary any more.  Take a look at the article A safe operating space for humanity in Nature, maybe the world's premier scientific journal, a couple of years back. The diagram at the beginning of the article symbolizes their assessment of humanity's impact on the Earth in a number of different categories.

To learn more about Daly's and related thought, visit the web site of the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The View From Seat 1D

Traveling back from Denver, I am lucky enough to score an upgrade to first class.

On the 3-hour flight, I enjoy a comfortable seat and a nice meal and attentive service.  And don't forget the exclusivity of the first-class lavatory, so carefully defended by the request that "passengers please use the facilities in your class of service"!  (Disappointingly, it is just like all the other lavatories.)

The experience is set up to convey a message: You are special. You are important. You deserve this. And almost imperceptibly, I come to think that way, as though I had "earned" this "exclusive" seat by my own status.  (Since when did "exclusive" become a term of approval, as though making good things unavailable to others was a specially virtuous act?)

It's rubbish of course.  I'm here courtesy of some random selection by US Airways' computer, not because I paid full fare.  Even if I had paid full fare, where did the skills and training and resources come from that enabled me to do that?

Those of us riding in the front of the global plane desperately want to believe that we've earned our seats.

Saint Paul says, though,  "What makes you better than anyone else? What do you have that God hasn't given you? And if all you have is from God, why boast as though you have accomplished something on your own?" (I Cor 4:7, NLT)

What do you have that you did not receive as a gift? 

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Mindfulness-Based Greed Reduction

I have been reading the book "Occupy the Moment: A Mindful Path to a New Economy".  It's an online book which you can buy for 99 cents from Amazon here.

The author, Rich Heller, spent time conducting mindfulness meditations at the Occupy Boston encampments.  He writes, "Mindfulness is focusing on the present moment with a curious, friendly attitude and with little in the way of judgment.  The opposite of being mindful is being mindless. The mindless pursuit of economic growth without considering the negative consequences is what has produced the current global crisis."

And in words that stuck in my mind, he goes on to advocate for a path of "mindfulness-based greed reduction".  For example, when I'm greedy for food, I am not really paying attention to it.  When I savor each bite - the flavors, the textures, the experiences that make it up - I eat much less.

Heller cites some experiments with popcorn.  Students watching a movie were given free bags of popcorn.  Unbeknownst to them, some of the popcorn was fresh, and some of it was two weeks old and gross.  Those students who didn't usually eat popcorn noticed the difference and rejected the stale stuff.  But those who usually ate popcorn with their move noticed no difference.  They guzzled the stale popcorn as much as the fresh.  They had stopped being "mindful" of their eating experience.

I like the book because of the practical advice it offers, and also because it understands that the cure for greed is not "just a little bit more" - there is  never any "mroe" that is going to be enough.  The cure is a heart change ("godliness with contentment", to quote St Paul).  I'm a bit nervous though about its trickle-up theory of mindfulness (as "we" the 99% become more mindful maybe the rich  and greedy 1% will become more mindful too).  That may be about as likely as the trickle-down theory of wealth creation...

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Life after the end of economic growth

Richard Heinberg writes in the Guardian (UK):
"The tide of economic growth that has flowed since the second world war may finally be ebbing. For politicians and most economists, this is like saying the sky is falling. Growth has become guidepost and grail, the sine qua non of economic existence. Growth is necessary to job creation and the health of businesses. Without growth the rolls of the homeless and jobless swell, requiring governments to shoulder more responsibility; yet at the same time tax revenues fall, making both new and existing government debt unbearable.

Stimulating growth has become job No 1 for policymakers. David Cameron insists that his nation must deregulate business and reform employment law in order to "go for growth". And at the conclusion of the recent G20 global economic summit, the US president, Barack Obama, reported that the discussions there had revolved around the question, "How do we achieve greater global growth?" Such statements raise nary an eyebrow; they are entirely expected.

Nonetheless, in recent years a few economists have advanced a contrary view. Tim Jackson in the UK, Herman Daly in the US, and Serge Latouche in France have argued that growth is not always good for the environment or for the real health of communities, and that GDP growth is impossible to sustain over the long run anyway because we live on a planet with limited natural resources. Their position has won few adherents in the mainstream. In the "real" worlds of politics and economics, questioning growth is like arguing against gasoline at a Formula One race."

Read the full article here.