Valuing Pastoral Care: Impressive and Important Aren’t the Same

Steve Horwitz and Sarah Skwire have an essay at Bleeding Heart Libertarians that addresses what he characterizes as a classical mistake made by feminists in understanding the value of housework. He writes that like many others, feminists confuse “impressive work with important work.” He goes on to say that

Garbage collection may well not be impressive. Neither are diaper changing, gutter cleaning, grocery shopping, or any number of other icky, sticky, stinky, slimy and otherwise unpleasant jobs that keep humans healthy, safe, clean, and dry. But if no one is doing those tasks, humans don’t stay healthy, safe, clean, and dry enough to do impressive work–like designing skyscrapers, doing brain surgery, writing novels, and so on.

This however doesn’t mean that we are free to dismiss unimpressive work “as unimportant.” Rather Continue reading

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Justice and College Tuition

On and off I’ve been a college chaplain since 1988 or so. In that time I seen a number of changes in university life. Some of these changes have been for the good but many not so much.

In today’s Wall Street Journal I say an article that distressed me more than a little:

Well-off students at private schools have long subsidized poorer classmates. But as states grapple with the rising cost of higher education, middle-income students at public colleges in a dozen states now pay a growing share of their tuition to aid those lower on the economic ladder.

The student subsidies, which are distributed based on need, don’t show up on most tuition bills. But in eight years they have climbed 174% in real dollars at a dozen flagship state universities surveyed by The Wall Street Journal.

During the 2012-13 academic year, students at these schools transferred $512,401,435 to less well-off classmates, up from $186,960,962, in inflation-adjusted figures, in the 2005-06 school year.

Whatever we might think of the justice of the practice, it is interesting to note that the universities themselves are not forthcoming about what they are doing. Instead  the “opaque college financing generally keeps this accounting hidden from public view.” The reason for this according to Joni Finney, of the Institute for Research on Higher Education at the University of Pennsylvania is because

“Institutions don’t want people to know how they are financed because you might get upset,” she said. “We barely accept the idea of redistribution of income at the government level and this is basically what we’re doing in higher education.”

At the very least, such a practice needs to be publicly known. and it should be voluntary. College students, whether they graduate or not, are increasingly leaving with larger and larger student loan debt. The practical result of this is that today’s students are burdened by loan repayments that compromise their ability to support themselves, marry and start a family. For universities to add to this burden without even telling students that this is being done is simply immoral.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

 

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Piety, Prudence, and Pastoral Care

We all have an unscientific weakness for being always in the right, and this weakness seems to be particularly common among professional and amateur politicians. But the only way to apply something like scientific method in politics is to proceed on the assumption that there can be no political move which has no drawbacks, no undesirable consequences. To look out for these mistakes, to find them, to bring them into the open, to analyze them, to learn from them, that is what a scientific politician as well as a political scientist must do. Scientific method in politics means the the great art of convincing ourselves that we have not made any mistakes, of ignoring them, of hiding them, of blaming others for them, is replaced by the greater art of accepting responsibility for them, of trying to learn from them, and of applying this knowledge so that we may avoid them in the future.

Karl Popper (1957), The Poverty of Historicism, p.88.

Reading Popper’s observation, I wonder if it might not be beneficial to adopt his view of science to the pastoral life of the Church. While there are limits to the empirical methodologies of the natural and social sciences, I think clergy are as prone as politicians to image there are ” no undesirable consequences” to our decisions.  This is especially so when we  judge are actions to be consonant with theological orthodoxy.

But the most theological orthodoxy can provide us is the limits beyond which we can’t go if we wish to stay in communion with the Church. What dogma can’t do is tell us which of several competing plans is best. The answer to this question requires that we cultivate the practical virtue of prudence.

While piety and prudence aren’t opposed, they can’t be reduced one to other. When piety is reduced to prudence, although is to say when we act without faith, pastoral care becomes mechanical, a means of exerting and maintaining power and control. And when prudence is reduced to piety? Then what we are left with is mere ideology.

In both cases there is a failure to preach the Gospel. We can debate if one failure is worse than the other but this too is simply another failure to preach the Gospel. Piety and prudence are both needed and one without the other is incapable of communicating the life of Christ.

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Asceticism and the Public Good

An interesting take by Ray Nothstine on  the recent American budget crisis.

As our nation’s $17 trillion debt spirals out of control, and spiritual disciplines decline in the West, we need to face the reality of America’s inability to collectively sacrifice. Even the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg seemed to pass this year with scant attention, as if such extreme sacrifice is alien and distant to our way of life today.

After tracing out some of the causes and consequences of this he conclude by arguing on behalf of an idea near and dear to Orthodox Christians, the foundational role of asceticism:

To recapture a deeper sense of personal and political liberty, Americans must collectively embody sacrifice now. “Redemption comes only through sacrifice,” Calvin Coolidge once reminded Americans. Failure to sacrifice now will in the end require a different variety of sacrifice. It will be for and in the name of the state. That kind of sacrifice will prove more costly, and will come at the expense of our political and spiritual liberties.

While we can disagree about the various causes and solutions to the recent budget battles, we need to not lose sight of the fact that the way forward is not simply a matter of public policy but first and foremost virtue–both public and personal. We can’t, for example, cut government aid programs without also a greater commitment (both personal and from religious communities) to care for those in need.

Anyway, do read the whole essay: The Spending Splurge and the End of Sacrifice.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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Social Justice, Hayek, de Tocqueville, and Holy Communion

A central challenge in fostering a more just society, as I suggested in a previous post, is the general lack of a cultural consensus on what justice actually is and so isn’t.  Forget for a moment the practical questions involved. How do we decide if the redistribution of income by way of the tax code, to name a point of popular contention, is just or unjust? What standard do we use? Returning to the practical dimension for a moment, in the absence of an agreed upon understanding of justice how do we decide how money is to be shifted or who receives what? Or putting aside this question how could we, as some have, say that such redistribution is morally justified as long as the benefit received by person “B” for every dollar outweighs the pain caused to person “A” for every dollar taken?  Not only how we answer these questions, but even the questions themselves assume a particular understanding of the nature of justice and so what it means to live as a member of a society.

This is why, to give him his due, the economist Fredrick Hayek objected on both grammatical and linguistic grounds to the term “social justice.” Absent at least well delineated and mutually agreed to anthropology, the term simply means nothing and so everything. Moreover though his criticism of the political implications of the term opens him to charges of cynicism, we need take  seriously his argument  that appeals to social justice on behalf of the poor don’t necessarily benefit the poor themselves as much they benefit those making the appeal in the name of the poor. Continue reading

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The Cost of Politics

While we often pass laws for laudable ends–indeed to support and encourage goals that are firmly rooted in the Gospel such as the material care for the poor or to provide health care for those in need–political and social conservatives (Christian or not) are often highly critical of these laws. While it is easy, too easy in fact, to dismiss such opposition as mere selfishness or indifference, arguing policy on this level causes us to be unclear about the political and social costs inherent in laws that favor outcomes that are morally praiseworthy. In a nutshell, political means tend to foster not reconciliation but further division and for reasons that are largely inherent to the political process even when it is operating in another wise healthy and morally good fashion.

This at least is the conclusion that I come to when I read a recent post by the economist John Goodman. Though the essay’s title has a bit of a polemical edge (When Liberals Run Cities.), the substance of Goodman’s analysis is worth giving serious consideration. Take a look:

What I mean by “liberalism” is the political philosophy that apologizes for and defends the Franklin Roosevelt approach to politics. That approach encourages people to organize around their economic interests and seek special favors from government at everyone else’s expense (see here and here.)

To understand the mechanics of that process, we need to turn to public choice.

Groups versus individuals. Think of the political system as a marketplace. But unlike a normal market, where people purchase things as individuals, there is rarely ever a policy change that affects only one person. Policy changes usually pit two groups against each other ― those who favor the change and those who oppose it. A proposed increase in the wages of sanitation workers, for instance, pits sanitation workers against taxpayers and everyone who receives sanitation services.

Public goods and public bads. In economics, a “public good” is a good that can be consumed by everyone once it is produced ― even those that did not contribute to its production. By definition, public goods can’t be produced and sold to individuals. So if they are produced at all, they must somehow be paid for collectively. For this reason public goods are often described as a “market imperfection.”

In politics, almost everything that happens is a public good to those who favor the change and a public bad to those who oppose it. If a law passes that benefits me, I enjoy those benefits whether or not I contributed to the effort to pass it. If a law harms me, I suffer the harm regardless of whether I contributed anything to try to defeat it.

Whereas economic markets are occasionally imperfect, the political system is perpetually imperfect almost by definition.

Free riders. Because almost everything that happens in the political system is a public good or a public bad, each of us has an incentive to hold back and be a free rider. Various groups do various things to overcome this inclination.

In many cities, the sanitation workers have formed a union that collects mandatory dues and has an established communication network to help organize and motivate its members. On the other side, residential consumers of sanitation services generally have no formal organization, other than the occasional homeowners association. Business consumers of sanitation services may rely on trade associations and other organizations (such as the Chamber of Commerce).

On balance, though, the producers of city services are much better organized and their interests are far more concentrated than the consumers of those services. So even though the consumers outnumber the producers and can potentially outvote them, the political price the producers as a group are willing to pay in city elections is often higher than the price offered by their opponents.

Political prices. Just as there are prices in a normal market there are prices in the political system. The “price” people are willing to pay to elect a candidate or obtain a legal change is the effort they are willing to make per dollar of benefit they expect to receive. The effort may consist of voting, campaign contributions, get-out-the-vote efforts, lobbying, etc. But because of the free rider problem, the effort people make understates ― and in most cases greatly understates ― their real interest in the issue.

Would you be willing to make 10 cents of effort in return for a dollar of benefit? Of course. But in the political system, you never get the opportunity to trade a dime for a dollar as an individual. What counts is the effort entire groups are willing to make. And this creates a problem.

Political equilibrium. Just as economic markets have a tendency to gravitate toward equilibrium prices and quantities, the same is true in politics. I won’t go into details here, since I have done that elsewhere. But let’s jump to an important bottom line. In order to get optimal government, we need the political prices paid by every pair of opposing groups to be the same, for every issue. When this doesn’t happen, we get bad government. And the greater the dissimilarity in prices, the worse the governance will be.

Absent a counterforce, Detroit’s experience is almost inevitable. As taxpayers escape to other jurisdictions, the political imbalance grows, leading to higher taxes, deteriorating services and more taxpayer migration. The ultimate end is a “corner solution” in which a bankrupt city falls under the control of a judge or some other non-democratic entity. This result is in no one’s interest. But no single group is in a position to stop it. If all the interest groups could get together and agree to show restraint (by asking less from the system and taking less), the unfortunate demise could be avoided. But there is no mechanism that allows this to happen.

A discontinuity. Each of us is a member of more than one group. In fact we are often members of groups with opposing political ends. Sanitation workers, for example, are consumers of sanitation and other city services as well as producers of city services. It is in their role as producers that they tend to be organized and in a position to exert political influence. But that doesn’t mean they lose their consumer interest.

There is one thing that city workers can do as individuals to derail the demise I just described. Even though their union dues and their organized activities are supporting more of same, they can enter the voting booth and secretly vote for the opponent. When this happens, there is a major discontinuity in the normal political process.

The result is the election, for example, of Republican mayor Michael Bloomberg in New York. And because he doesn’t get to be mayor through the normal processes, he arrives in office owing hardly anyone anything. Thus he can take on the teachers unions and reform the schools and institute other reforms, just like his Republican predecessor, Rudy Giuliani.

For this to happen, however, there must be enough voters who put the general interest above their own union’s special interest. New York had enough such people 40 years ago. In more recent times, Detroit did not.

Your thoughts are welcome.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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The Four Lies

Culture-Wars-Web-300x270David French, Senior Counsel at the American Center of Law and Justice, lists what he calls the “four quite seductive lies [that] play to our innate selfishness while convincing us that we’re also somehow brave and selfless.” He concludes by arguing that “The conservative project to reclaim culture – a far more important project than reclaiming the White House – has to relentlessly and creatively expose these lies while also demonstrating the attractiveness of true virtue. I fear we’re better at the former than the latter and thus succeed mainly in making people feel bad, not in inspiring them to do good.”

So what are these four lies? Take a look: Continue reading

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