Monday, May 31, 2004

Cable Unbundling

Many have argued recently that the federal government ought to issue more intrusive regulation of the cable industry. Specifically, people have said that cable companies should allow customers to choose which channels they want to purchase. If all you want to watch is the Home and Garden Channel, MTV, and C-Span, you should be able to buy those three channels and nothing else.

Glenn Reynolds has endorsed this idea, while John McCain has colorfully complained that cable consumers "have all the choice of a Soviet election ballot." Conservative pro-family groups like the idea of refusing to buy vulgar or distasteful programming. But it's not just conservatives: The idea is supported by a broad and bipartisan swath of people across the country.

The metaphor of the grocery store is common. Brent Bozell has said, "If you go to the 7-Eleven to buy a quart of milk, you are not forced to take a six pack of beer, too." Similarly, a New Jersey columnist pretended that groceries were bundled as well: "I want milk and bread; they offer a "basic" bundle of milk, bread, cola, pizza, artichokes, lima beans, tampons, and beer. I can't get milk and bread without getting all the rest."

I haven't studied this issue in any detail. Still, a key distinction occurs to me: Groceries and most industries involve products that impose a significant marginal cost. If you have twelve average-priced items in the cart and add 100 more at the average price, you've added a lot of cost to the grocery store. Or, if you buy only a pack of gum, you've imposed a lot less cost on the store than the person who fills a cart to the brim.

This doesn't apply to the cable company. The signal is already there in the wire, whether you watch nothing at all or whether you buy three TVs and leave them on 24 hours per day. Cable, like other communications industries, has high fixed costs (i.e., the cost of running cable into your house in the first place) and practically zero marginal cost (i.e., it costs nothing more if you watch an extra program or channel). That's why the grocery metaphor just doesn't work here.

* * *

Normally, economic theory would say that an industry should price at marginal cost. But here that would be zero, or next to it, and this would leave the fixed costs uncovered. It would be impossible to supply cable on those terms.

There are several possible solutions: Ramsey pricing, in which the people who are going to demand the product regardless are charged proportionally more. Or, price discrimination, as airlines do when charging more for business travelers than for families on vacation or funeral-goers. Or, fully distributed cost pricing, in which each product or service contributes on some proportional basis to the fixed costs.

But cable companies have trouble following any of those schemes. Ramsey pricing is notoriously difficult without closely-tailored knowledge of price elasticities of demand. Price discrimination is also difficult, because the cable company might have difficulty pinpointing those customers who have a higher willingness to pay than anyone else. Plus, like most industries, they have trouble preventing sharing (unlike airlines, which require ID for that very reason). Fully distributed cost pricing is incoherent, because there is no agreed-on way to specify which services actually "imposed" the fixed costs in the first place, much less in what proportion.

So cable companies have settled on bundling as an option. You can buy two or three tiers of service, each with a distinct price and each with a distinct package of services.

Interestingly, newspapers have chosen essentially the same approach as well. They have high fixed costs (i.e., the costs of hiring reporters and editors, paying the bills, etc.), but very low marginal costs (i.e., the cost of printing an extra copy of the paper). So they bundle together an entire package of every type of news story that someone might want to read in a given day -- politics, human interest, local stories, sports, comics, TV schedules, classifieds, etc. Anyone who wants some piece of that package enough will pay the newspaper's subscription price.

But you can't expect the newspaper to satisfy each individual reader's idiosyncracies. Take the fact that I never read the sports section, and that I would be happy to have a newspaper without it. If I demanded that the newspaper carrier actually remove the sports section from the paper every day, I would be causing an extra cost to the newspaper. Thus, I should have to pay more, not less.

The same is probably true here. It would create a higher cost each time that a customer wants to block a channel, because the cable company has to go to extra trouble. It is as if it literally cost the grocery store more for you to leave 20 items behind rather than buying a full cart.

Again, I haven't studied this issue at all, but my instinct is to say that unbundling here is a very bad idea.

UPDATE: Read Arnold Kling's excellent essay on this topic.

Sunday, May 30, 2004

Chesteron on Spiritualist Critics

The Well and the Shallows (1935):

At the moment I only wish to wallow in sheer shameless enjoyment of the way in which the Psychic News attacks the Catholic Church and attacks me. I admit that this is mere self-indulgence on my part. I know that numbers of judicious friends will tell me that I ought not to take any notice of such an article. But nothing that can be called human is uninteresting, and this involves, to begin with, one puzzle which always interests me very much. And that is why people who fly into a rage with the Catholic Church always use an extraordinary diction, or verbal style, in which all sorts of incommensurate things are jumbled up together, so that the very order of the words is a joke.

"Spiritualism depends only on the evidence which people receive in their own homes. It does not require priests. Neither do enquirers have to buy rosaries or beads, or crucifixes, or pay for candles or masses." It must be a dreadful moment of indecision for the enquirers, when they have to make up their minds whether they will buy rosaries or beads. But the last term is the best; and here the order of words is especially significant. Apparently the first object of a Catholic is to get a candle. If once he can get hold of a candle, and walk about everywhere clasping his candle, he is all right. But if he cannot get a candle, he has the alternative of purchasing a mass; an instrument that is a sort of substitute for a candle.

Chesterton on Puns

A little vignette from Chesterton's career:
The Well and the Shallows, chap. 1 (1935):

When I was a Pauline, an assistant master received a testimonial on leaving the school for a fellowship at Peterhouse. A solemn upper master made on this occasion the first and last joke of his life by observing in a deep voice, "We are robbing Paul to pay Peter." An old schoolfellow of mine, now a journalist but cynical even at that early age, declared that the older master must have engineered the whole career of the younger, and made him a teacher at that particular school and then a don at that particular College, solely in order to enjoy one moment of supreme triumph in making that single pun.

Chesterton on Science and Miracles

Chesterton gets it exactly right:
The Thing: Why I am a Catholic, chap. 28 (1929):

That Manichean horror of matter is the only intelligent reason for any such sweeping refusal of supernatural and sacramental wonders. The rest is all cant and repetition and arguing in a circle; all the baseless dogmatism about science forbidding men to believe in miracles; as if science could forbid men to believe in something which science does not profess to investigate. Science is the study of the admitted laws of existence; it cannot prove a universal negative about whether those laws could ever be suspended by something admittedly above them. It is as if we were to say that a lawyer was so deeply learned in the American Constitution that he knew there could never be a revolution in America. Or it is as if a man were to say he was so close a student of the text of Hamlet that he was authorised to deny that an actor had dropped the skull and bolted when the theatre caught fire. The constitution follows a certain course, so long as it is there to follow it; the play follows a certain course, so long as it is being played; the visible order of nature follows a certain course if there is nothing behind it to stop it. But that fact throws no sort of light on whether there is anything behind it to stop it. That is a question of philosophy or metaphysics and not of material science.

Another Chesterton Quote

Here's another:
The Thing: Why I am a Catholic, chap. 26 (1929):

It is the remark, "We need a restatement of religion"; and though it has been said thirty thousand times, it is quite true.

It is also true that those who say it often mean the very opposite of what they say. As I have remarked elsewhere, they very often intend not to restate anything, but to state something else, introducing as many of the old words as possible. . . . [T]hey do not really mean that we should give freshness and a new aspect to religion by calling it roly-poly or rumpti-foo. On the contrary, they mean that we should take something totally different and agree to call it religion. I mention, with some sadness, that I have said this before; because I have found it quite difficult to get them to see a fact of almost heart-breaking simplicity. It seems to strike them as being merely a fine shade of distinction; but it strikes me as a rather grotesque and staggering reversal. There would be the same fine shade of difference, if somebody of a sartorial sort came to me protesting that my aged father was waiting in rags on my door-step, and urgently needing a new hat and coat, and indeed a complete equipment; if he made the most animated preparations for the reclothing of my parent, and the whole episode ended by his introducing me to a total stranger begging for my father's old hat.

More Chesterton Quotes

Another Chesterton quote:
The Thing: Why I am a Catholic, chap. 27 (1929):

I HAVE chosen the subject of the slavery of the mind because I believe many worthy people imagine I am myself a slave. The nature of my supposed slavery I need not name and do not propose specially to discuss. It is shared by every sane man when he looks up a train in Bradshaw. That is, it consists in thinking a certain authority reliable; wich is entirely reasonable. Indeed it would be rather difficult to travel in every train to find out where it went. It would be still more difficult to go to the destination in order to discover whether it was safe to begin the journey.

Washington Post Column

As is so often the case, the most interesting thing to read on Sundays is the Washington Post column titled "Unconventional Wisdom." Today's edition theorizes that smarter people are more likely to be good-looking, shows that ex-homeless people are less likely to pity the currently-homeless, and suggests that Bush should think about going on Letterman or Leno within two weeks of the election.

Spam Poetry

I just got a spam email that featured this lovely little modern poem right after an ad for a mortgage quote:
When tomato beyond is lovely, chain saw near confess taxidermist near. Now and then, cloud formation living with throw at spider around. If dahlia over cashier reach an understanding with hand for bullfrog, then guardian angel related to beams with joy. Albert, although somewhat soothed by pocket related to and curse toward recliner. occident craven reportorial intuit documentary
A few thoughts occur:

1) "Dahlia over cashier" is a striking phrase. Not to mention "hand for bullfrog."

2) One can only imagine the travails of poor Albert, who was so forlorn that he was comforted by a mere pocket. Perhaps future poems will reveal the source of his unease.

3) Haven't we all cursed towards recliners? No wonder the imagery is so powerful at this moment. That said, sofas and chandeliers are clearly even more exasperating, and they should be added to the list here.

4) Some might suggest that the momentum of the first four sentences should be continued into a swirling climax, not dissipated in a phrase of 5 seemingly unrelated words. This is wrong. The true genius of the poet is shining through here: He refuses to be bound by trifling rules of grammar and syntax. Instead, he casts all caution to the wind in warning us of avoiding Michael Moore's pseudo-documentaries, which depend more on intuition than on reportorial honesty, and are presented to an occidental society that craves something that appeals to their partisan prejudices.

Thursday, May 27, 2004

A Gas Tax

Daniel Gross of Slate has an interesting article on the growing number of conservatives who support a higher gas tax. The problem is that a gas tax is regressive: It hits poorer people harder.

So what to do? The article has this curious passage:
Both Easterbrook and Krauthammer say the cash raised from a gas tax could be used to reduce payroll or income taxes. But if you're not really raising taxes in the aggregate, then it's less likely to have an immediate impact on consumers. Many of the extra dollars you'd get in your paycheck would get spent at the pump.
Wrong, wrong, wrong. The author doesn't understand the revenue recycling effect. The idea of "recycling revenue" is that you tax something that you think is harmful in some way -- carbon, pollution generally, gasoline, whatever. Then you use the proceeds to lower some pre-existing tax that is distortionary, or that taxes something that ought to be encouraged -- income, for example, or capital. It makes no sense to complain that this process is "not really raising taxes in the aggregate." So what? The point is that you should be raising revenue, to the extent possible, from taxing harmful things rather than beneficial things.

For example, I found one paper titled Environmental Taxes and Economic Welfare: The Welfare Cost of Gasoline Taxation in the U.S. 1959-99, by a post-doc at Princeton named Seung-Rae Kim. Here's a quote from the summary:
Moreover, in most years of the sample period, the measures of marginal deadweight cost of gasoline taxation (sample average 0.1882) are relatively small compared to those of labor taxation (sample average 0.2175). This implies a larger efficiency gain in the case of labor taxation in shifting from the existing distortionary taxation to lump sum taxation. These empirical results might suggest the modest possibility of social welfare gains from tax reforms that shift some of the burden of taxation off labor onto energy (e.g. gasoline).
Exactly. As the Pew Center says:
If permits are auctioned, this gives considerable sums of money to be recycled back into the economy, either through a lump sum payment of offsetting other taxes. If the existing taxes that are correspondingly reduced were very inefficient, this allows the possibility of both environmental and economic benefits from the trading system, commonly called the 'double dividend.'
There are many other papers that discuss this effect. Here's just a sampling of citations:
  • Roberto Roson, Dynamic and Distributional Effects of Environmental Revenue Recycling Schemes (finding that a carbon tax, if used to lower taxes on capital, would have "mild positive effects on growth and welfare, with progressivity properties on income distribution").

  • Ian Parry, Revenue Recycling and the Costs of Reducing Carbon Emissions.

  • W.H. Parry, Roberton C. Williams III, & Lawrence H. Goulder, When Can Carbon Abatement Policies Increase Welfare? The Fundamental Role of Distorted Factor Markets, at 2 (Dec. 1996) ("Pollution taxes and other environmental policies that raise revenue allow that revenue to be recycled through cuts in the marginal rates of pre-existing distortionary taxes. The lower marginal rates reduce the distortionary costs associated with these taxes, thus providing an efficiency gain. This is the revenue-recycling effect. . . . [A] five percent reduction in carbon emissions is almost six times as costly under a quota than a carbon tax.).

  • Dale W. Jorgenson & Peter J. Wilcoxen, The Economic Effects of a Carbon Tax, in SHAPING NATIONAL RESPONSES TO CLIMATE CHANGE: A POST-RIO GUIDE 237, 237 (Henry Lee ed., 1995) (noting that GNP could increase if the revenue from a carbon tax were used to “reduce taxes on capital”).
This is not to say that the double dividend from revenue recycling is a sure thing, and much is disputed over what form a pollution tax should take, what base it should reach, which tax or taxes should be lowered in response, etc. But the idea itself isn't a mystery.

Movie Previews

Just as I always thought: It is the same guy talking on all those movie previews:
The question of narration is a tricky one, thanks to Don LaFontaine, who is lovingly referred to in trailer circles as the 'Voice of God.' You've heard him. A veteran of 40 years and more than 4,000 trailers, his rumbling basso has enticed millions with dramatic intonations like 'In a world where . . .'

My Sister

I've posted about my sister Sarah LaFon's debut album before. Just a reminder that you can check it out here or here.

Tuesday, May 25, 2004


Via Howard Bashman: The ACLU has threatened to sue Los Angeles to force it to remove a tiny cross from a tiny segment of the county seal. I don't mean to plant ideas in anyone's head, but I don't know why they're worried about a miniscule cross in a county seal that no one pays any attention to, when they could be suing over the very name of "Los Angeles." After all, it means "The Angels," and it comes from the name of a Catholic chapel called "Saint Mary of the Angels at the Little Portion."

UPDATE: Eugene Volokh and Tom Smith make the exact same point.


Two awesome Bach pages:

1. Via Father Jim Tucker, here's a page where you can listen to recordings of all of Bach's organ works. By comparison, the box set from Marie-Claire Alain takes up 14 CDs.

2. Via Crooked Timber, here's a page where you can listen to recordings of the entire Das Wohltemperierte Klavier. What's more, a running graphic follows along with the score, while an even more elaborate graphic actually maps out the various themes and sections as they appear. You can also read a detailed textual analysis of each piece. Just fascinating. One of my favorites has always been the Fugue in F-minor, which features a theme that is highly chromatic and, indeed, is almost a tone-row.

Sunday, May 23, 2004

Proving Belief

From C. Stephen Layman, "Faith Has Its Reasons," in God and the Philosophers (Thomas Morris, ed.):
People often think it significant to assert that "God's existence can't be proved." A proof, I suppose, is something that will convince anyone who is intelligent enough to understand it. If so, very little of interest regarding major philosophical issues can be proved. This goes for issues in metaphysics, morality, political philosophy, and aesthetics. All or nearly all of the major positions under these headings are highly controversial. There are brilliant people on either side of the interesting fences. So, if we demand proofs in philosophy, we will wind up as skeptics on all or nearly all of the important issues. Surely that is not the way of wisdom. I often ask my students to imagine themselves giving an antislavery speech to a group of slave owners. What are the chances of convincing the audience? Slim to none. Surely, then, it is possible to have good arguments for a view even though these arguments are not recognized as such by groups of people who do not share our convictions.

Saturday, May 22, 2004

James Weldon Johnson

A notable argument from a passage in James Weldon Johnson's book, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912):
[I]f the Negro is so distinctly inferior, it is a strange thing to me that it takes such tremendous effort on the part of the white man to make him realize it, and to keep him in the same place into which inferior men naturally fall. However, let us grant for sake of argument that the Negro is inferior in every respect to the white man; that fact only increases our moral responsibility in regard to our actions toward him. Inequalities of numbers, wealth and power, even of intelligence and morals, should make no difference in the essential rights of men.

Black Flight to Private Schools Is Growing

Via Tim Sandefur, a fascinating New York Times article on the fact that some black parents are fleeing the public school system:
Like the Catholic schools favored by many black parents, the Whitfield School has stuck to instruction in basic skills. The other day, the blackboard in Louise Browne-Jackson's first-grade classroom was equally divided into sections about phonics (sh, en), grammar (contractions) and mathematics (place value in three-digit numbers). Classes routinely recite aloud. Every pupil in pre-kindergarten is required to learn to read.

Such methods defy the favored approaches of many public school systems, including New York's, which downplay or altogether omit drilling and memorization. The traditional style appeals strongly, however, to A. B. Whitfield, who taught in public schools for 17 years before founding Trey Whitfield (named for his late son) in 1983. And the curriculum has helped him attract a corps of experienced immigrant teachers, many of them products of the British-style schools in the Caribbean basin, for salaries one-third lower than those in public schools.

Nobody can argue with the results. On fourth-grade math and reading tests, more than 90 percent of Trey Whitfield students meet state standards, while barely one-third do so in the nearby public schools.
Granted, there might some selection effect, in that the parents who choose this school are precisely those who care deeply about and are involved in their children's education. But still, these educational methodologies seem to produce strikingly different results. What's stopping the public schools from trying an approach that just might work?

New Look

If you haven't noticed, I'm trying out a new look for this blog. Like it? If so, leave a comment. (By the way, I figured out to accept comments from non-Blogger users.)

Friday, May 21, 2004

Sandefur on Chesterton

Tim Sandefur criticizes one of my Chesterton quotes below. I think his criticism is misguided:
The point Chesterton is trying to make is that science cannot tell us whether the soul survives death, therefore scientists shouldn’t express certainty on the subject. This argument is nonsense, as has been shown many times, but Chesterton conveys it with enough stuff to cover that fact.
No, Chesterton's argument doesn't have anything to do with certainty or uncertainty. Rather, it's about authority. If a doctor doesn't believe in the soul, it's not for medical reasons within his area of expertise. It's not that someone can disavow the soul if they have made a careful study of arthritis or heart disease or vascular conditions. Rather, the doctor's belief is for the same philosophical reasons that anyone might accept (or reject, as the case may be). When it comes to those reasons, the doctor might speak with as much certainty as anyone else.
In the absence of such a showing, it’s as irrational to believe that the soul survives death as it would be to believe that there is a teacup orbiting Pluto. No, you can’t prove that it isn’t so, but you can never prove a negative, and no person seriously interested in the truth will suggest that you do so. Rather than confront these epistemological problems, Chesterton simply characterizes this position as insufficiently imaginative: “there is nothing to make a medical man a materialist, except what might make any man a materialist.”
This point is mystifying. Chesterton said nothing about imagination, and he wasn't even trying to confront any "epistemological problems," for the simple reason that he wasn't trying to prove the existence of a soul in the first place. Rather, as stated above, his point was purely concerned whether science can claim any special authority on the subject. Thus, if a "medical man" is a materialist, it's for philosophical reasons that are open to anyone, not because of any specialized scientific expertise. His humorous examples -- about the surveyor and the fourth dimension, or the laborer and the solidity of matter -- make this clear. I.e., when it comes to the philosophical question whether matter is illusory, you can't resolve the issue by bringing in an "expert" laborer who has dealt with a lot of matter.

Thursday, May 20, 2004

An Op-Ed

I have an op-ed in the Dallas Morning News here. You might have to register.

Tuesday, May 18, 2004

More Chesterton

One more quote, this time on the silliness of attributing courage to certain novelists or playwrights:
The Thing: Why I Am a Catholic, chap. 22 (1929).

Any man living in complete luxury and security who chooses to write a play or a novel which causes a flutter and exchange of compliments in Chelsea and Chiswick and a faint thrill in Streatham and Surbiton, is described as "daring," though nobody on earth knows what danger it is that he dares. I speak, of course, of terrestrial dangers; or the only sort of dangers he believes in. To be extravagantly flattered by everybody he considers enlightened, and rather feebly rebuked by everybody he considers dated and dead, does not seem so appalling a peril that a man should be stared at as a heroic warrior and militant martyr because he has had the strength to endure it.

More Chesterton

Here's another favorite Chesterton quote:
The Thing: Why I Am a Catholic, chap. 10 (1929).

Unless Sir Arthur Keith is very badly misreported, he specially stated that spiritual existence ceases with the physical functions; and that no medical man could conscientiously say anything else. However grave be the injury called death (which indeed is often fatal), this strikes me as a case in which it is quite unnecessary to call in a medical man at all.
* * *
The truth is that all this business about "a medical man" is mere bluff and mystagogy. The medical man "sees" that the mind has ceased with the body. What the medical man sees is that the body can no longer kick, talk, sneeze, whistle or dance a jig. And a man does not need to be very medical in order to see that. But whether the principle of energy, that once made it kick, talk, sneeze, whistle and dance, does or does not still exist on some other plane of existence--a medical man knows no more about that than any other man. And when medical men were clear-headed, some of them (like an ex-surgeon named Thomas Henry Huxley) said they did not believe that medical men or any men could know anything about it. That is an intelligible position; but it does not seem to be Sir Arthur Keith's position. He has been put up publicly to DENY that the soul survives the body; and to make the extraordinary remark that any medical man must say the same. It is as if we were to say that any competent builder or surveyor must deny the possibility of the Fourth Dimension; because he has learnt the technical secret that a building is measured by length, breadth and height. The obvious query is--Why bring in a surveyor? Everybody knows that everything is in fact measured by three dimensions. Anybody who thinks there is a fourth dimension thinks so in spite of being well aware that things are generally measured by three. Or it is as if a man were to answer a Berkeleian metaphysician, who holds all matter to be an illusion of mind, by saying, "I can call the evidence of an intelligent navvy [laborer] who actually has to deal with solid concrete and cast iron; and he will tell you they are quite real." We should naturally answer that we do not need a navvy to tell us that solid things are solid; and it is quite in another sense that the philosopher says they are not solid. Similarly, there is nothing to make a medical man a materialist, except what might make any man a materialist.

More Chesterton

Another Chesterton quote, in which he tears apart someone who made the common claim that theological beliefs should be replaced by love:
The Thing: Why I Am a Catholic, chap. 7 (1929).

The message of Christ [said Chesterton's opponent] was perfectly "simple": that the cure of everything is Love; but since He was killed (I do not quite know why) for making this remark, great temples have been put up to Him and horrid people called priests have given the world nothing but "stones, amulets, formulas, shibboleths." They also "quarrel eternally among themselves as to the placing of a button or the bending of a knee." All this gives no comfort to the unhappy Christian, who apparently wishes to be comforted only by being told that he has a duty to his neighbour. "How many men in the time of their passing get comfort out of the thought of the Thirty-Nine Articles, Predestination, Transubstantiation, the doctrine of eternal punishment, and the belief that Christ will return on the Seventh Day?" The items make a curious catalogue; and the last item I find especially mysterious. But I can only say that, if Christ was the giver of the original and really comforting message of love, I should have thought it did make a difference whether He returned on the Seventh Day. For the rest of that singular list, I should probably find it necessary to distinguish. I certainly never gained any deep and heartfelt consolation from the thought of the Thirty-Nine Articles. I never heard of anybody in particular who did. Of the idea of Predestination there are broadly two views; the Calvinist and the Catholic; and it would make a most uncommon difference to my comfort, if I held the former instead of the latter. It is the difference between believing that God knows, as a fact, that I choose to go to the devil; and believing that God has given me to the devil, without my having any choice at all. As to Transubstantiation, it is less easy to talk currently about that; but I would gently suggest that, to most ordinary outsiders with any common sense, there would be a considerable practical difference between Jehovah pervading the universe and Jesus Christ coming into the room.

But I touch rapidly and reluctantly on these examples, because they exemplify a much wider question of this interminable way of talking. It consists of talking as if the moral problem of man were perfectly simple, as everyone knows it is not; and then depreciating attempts to solve it by quoting long technical words, and talking about senseless ceremonies without enquiring about their sense. In other words, it is exactly as if somebody were to say about the science of medicine: "All I ask is Health; what could be simpler than the beautiful gift of Health? Why not be content to enjoy for ever the glow of youth and the fresh enjoyment of being fit? Why study dry and dismal sciences of anatomy and physiology; why enquire about the whereabouts of obscure organs of the human body? Why pedantically distinguish between what is labelled a poison and what is labelled an antidote, when it is so simple to enjoy Health? Why worry with a minute exactitude about the number of drops of laudanum or the strength of a dose of chloral, when it is so nice to be healthy? Away with your priestly apparatus of stethoscopes and clinical thermometers; with your ritualistic mummery of feeling pulses, putting out tongues, examining teeth, and the rest! The god Esculapius came on earth solely to inform us that Life is on the whole preferable to Death; and this thought will console many dying persons unattended by doctors."

In other words, the Usual Article, which is now some ten thousand issues old, was always stuff and nonsense even when it was new. There may be, and there has been, pedantry in the medical profession. There may be, and there has been, theology that was thin or dry or without consolation for men. But to talk as if it were possible for any science to attack any problem, without developing a technical language, and a method always methodical and often minute, merely means that you are a fool and have never really attacked a problem at all. Quite apart from the theory of a Church, if Christ had remained on earth for an indefinite time, trying to induce men to love one another, He would have found it necessary to have some tests, some methods, some way of dividing true love from false love, some way of distinguishing between tendencies that would ruin love and tendencies that would restore it. You cannot make a success of anything, even loving, entirely without thinking.

Saturday, May 15, 2004

Working Women and the Economy

I've seen several articles lately noting that more and more women are deciding to stay home with their children. This article sums up several sources of evidence:
According to the U.S. Department of Labor?s Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of married working women with children under 3 years of age declined from 61 percent in 1997 to 58 percent in 2002, while the number of married working women with a child under age 1 fell from 59 percent in 1997 to 53 percent in 2002.
* * *
Yet another study, done by the Boston-based Reach Advisors, indicates 51 percent of Generation X mothers were home with their children full time, compared to 33 percent of Baby Boomer mothers.
Or there's this article:
It's a trend being reported by publications from Time and the New York Times magazines to Atlantic Monthly, all backed by U.S. Census figures that indicate a drop among mothers in the work force who have a child under age 1.

That drop, from 59 percent in 1998 to 55 percent in 2002, is the first time the Census Bureau has seen a decline in that particular statistic since the agency started tabulating the figures in 1976. The biggest change is among well-educated white women over the age of 30, according to Time, which refers to a study that found 22 percent of mothers with graduate or professional degrees have opted to become stay-at-home moms.
I wonder what effect this trend has had on the GDP of the United States? After all, people who work outside the home draw salaries and spend money, all of which counts toward GDP. But people -- men or women -- who spend their time on homemaking and child-raising don't count at all. Their work is unpaid, and unpaid work doesn't count toward official statistics.

According to the Census chart found here, there were about 19.5 million children under 6 in 2002. I don't know how many of these were siblings of each other, but there were a lot of mothers involved. If a substantial number of them move out of the workforce and into household labor, that would have to affect GDP somehow.

How much? Studies show varied values for unpaid household work. An Australian study estimated the value of unpaid work at around 47% of GDP. A British study from 2000 stated that estimates range from 44% of GDP to 104%. This is obviously a wide range, and there must be quite a bit of uncertainty in the valuation mechanism, the time estimates, or both. Even so, the number is substantial.

How does this all play out? I don't know. If a genuine economic study exists, I'd love to hear of it. I'm just saying that it looks like more women have moved into precisely the sort of work whose value is huge but that is not counted toward GDP.

In that case, then, the amount of lost GDP would have to factor into one's assessment of the economic slowdown since early 2001. In other words, a slower economy may be in part due to the fact that more people are choosing to perform unpaid household work.

UPDATE: I found one study that examines the opposite effect: How much economic growth is really due to women moving from unpaid household labor into the marketplace? Here's the opening quote:
If one accounts for the shift of women’s work from the household to the market during the course of economic development, what does the trajectory of growth and structural change look like? Economists do not typically consider this aspect of economic development. But if a significant proportion of growth is propelled by such a shift, then analyses of growth will mistakenly attribute social and economic policies with production expansion when what is really happening is a sectoral shift.
And here's part of the conclusion:
Raising the market labor force participation of women, especially women with high levels of human capital (measured in terms of education and health) was a key feature of the Taiwanese miracle.
The opposite should logically be true as well.

Friday, May 14, 2004

More Chesterton

Another of my favorite quotes appears later in the same essay:
There is one simple test and type of this neglect of scientific thinking and the sense of a social rule; the neglect which has now left us with nothing but a welter of exceptions. I have read hundreds and thousands of times, in all the novels and newspapers of our epoch, certain phrases about the just right of the young to liberty, about the unjust claim of the elders to control, about the conception that all souls must be free or all citizens equal, about the absurdity of authority or the degradation of obedience. I am not arguing those matters directly at the moment. But what strikes me as astounding, in a logical sense, is that not one of these myriad novelists and newspaper-men ever seems to think of asking the next and most obvious question. It never seems to occur to them to enquire what becomes of the opposite obligation. If the child is free from the first to disregard the parent, why is not the parent free from the first to disregard the child? If Mr. Jones, Senior, and Mr. Jones, Junior, are only two free and equal citizens, why should one citizen sponge on another citizen for the first fifteen years of his life? Why should the elder Mr. Jones be expected to feed, clothe and shelter out of his own pocket another person who is entirely free of any obligations to him? . . . Why should he not throw the baby out of the window; or at any rate, kick the boy out of doors? It is obvious that we are dealing with a real relation, which may be equality, but is certainly not similarity.

Some social reformers try to evade this difficulty, I know, by some vague notions about the State or an abstraction called Education eliminating the parental function. But this, like many notions of solid scientific persons, is a wild illusion of the nature of mere moonshine. It is based on that strange new superstition, the idea of infinite resources of organisation. It is as if officials grew like grass or bred like rabbits. There is supposed to be an endless supply of salaried persons, and of salaries for them; and they are to undertake all that human beings naturally do for themselves; including the care of children. But men cannot live by taking in each other's baby-linen. . . . The actual effect of this theory is that one harassed person has to look after a hundred children, instead of one normal person looking after a normal number of them. Normally that normal person is urged by a natural force, which costs nothing and does not require a salary; the force of natural affection for his young, which exists even among the animals. If you cut off that natural force, and substitute a paid bureaucracy, you are like a fool who should pay men to turn the wheel of his mill, because he refused to use wind or water which he could get for nothing. You are like a lunatic who should carefully water his garden with a watering-can, while holding up an umbrella to keep off the rain.


This has always been one of my favorite Chesterton quotes, ever since I read it about 12 years ago. As far as I can tell, it has never appeared on the internet except for this text version. Chesterton explains the seeming paradox that people who don't see the use of a social institution should not be allowed to reform it. Here's the quote:
The Thing: Why I Am a Catholic, chap. 4 (1929).

In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, "I don't see the use of this; let us clear it away." To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: "If you don't see the use of it, I certainly won't let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it."

This paradox rests on the most elementary common sense. The gate or fence did not grow there. It was not set up by somnambulists who built it in their sleep. It is highly improbable that it was put there by escaped lunatics who were for some reason loose in the street. Some person had some reason for thinking it would be a good thing for somebody. And until we know what the reason was, we really cannot judge whether the reason was reasonable. It is extremely probable that we have overlooked some whole aspect of the question, if something set up by human beings like ourselves seems to be entirely meaningless and mysterious. There are reformers who get over this difficulty by assuming that all their fathers were fools; but if that be so, we can only say that folly appears to be a hereditary disease. But the truth is that nobody has any business to destroy a social institution until he has really seen it as an historical institution. If he knows how it arose, and what purposes it was supposed to serve, he may really be able to say that they were bad purposes, that they have since become bad purposes, or that they are purposes which are no longer served. But if he simply stares at the thing as a senseless monstrosity that has somehow sprung up in his path, it is he and not the traditionalist who is suffering from an illusion.


I've been re-reading some of Chesterton's collected works, most recently Volume III, which contains several books and essays on religion. I'll be featuring some quotes that caught my eye.

Like this one:
The Catholic Church and Conversion, chap. 5. (1927).

We do not really want [need] a religion that is right where we are right. What we want is a religion that is right where we are wrong. . . . [Modern people] says they want a religion to be social, when they would be social without any religion. They say they want a religion to be practical, when they would be practical without any religion. They say they want a religion acceptable to science, when they would accept the science even if they did not accept the religion. They say they want a religion like this because they are like this already. They say they want it, when they mean that they could do without it.
In a chapter of another book, Chesterton discusses H.L. Mencken's theory that literary criticism is nothing more than catharsis on the critic's part:
The Thing: Why I Am a Catholic, chap. 2 (1929).

[H]e appears to state most positively the purely personal and subjective nature of criticism; he makes it individual and almost irresponsible. "The critic is first and last simply trying to express himself; he is trying to achieve thereby for his own inner ego the grateful feeling of . . . a katharsis attained, which Wagner achieved when he wrote Die Walkurie, and a hen achieves every time she lays an egg."
Chesterton vigorously disagreed with Mencken, and demonstrated by writing his own review of a novelist named Theodore Dreiser, whose novels are described in a footnote as rather grim:
If the critic produces the criticism only to please himself, it is entirely irrelevant that it does not please somebody else. The somebody else has a perfect right to say the exact opposite to please himself, and be perfectly satisfied with himself. But they cannot controvert because they cannot compare. . . . Neither I nor anybody else can have a controversy about literature with Mr. Mencken, because there is no way of criticizing the criticism, except by asking whether the critic is satisfied. And there the debate ends, at the beginning: for nobody can doubt that Mr. Mencken is satisfied.

. . .
I can take something or other about which I have definite feelings -- as, for instance, the philosophy of Mr. Dreiser . . . . I can achieve for my own inner ego the grateful feeling of writing as follows:

"He describes a world which appears to be a dull and discolouring illusion of indigestion, not bright enough to be called a nightmare; smelly, but not even stinking with any strength; smelling of the sale gas of ignorant chemical experiments by dirty, secretive schoolboys -- the sort of boys who torture cats in corners; spineless and spiritless like a broken-backed worm; loathsomely slow and laborious like an endless slug; despairing, but not with dignity; blaspheming, but not with courage; without wit, without will, without laughter or uplifting of the heart; too old to die, too deaf to leave off talking, too blind to stop, too stupid to start afresh, too dead to be killed, and incapable even of being damned, since in all its weary centuries it has not reached the age of reason."

That is what I feel about it; and it certainly gives me pleasure to relieve my feelings. I have got it off my chest. I have attained a katharsis. I have laid an egg. I have produced a criticism, satisfying all Mr. Mencksen's definitions of the critic. I have performed a function. I feel better, thank you.

Wednesday, May 12, 2004

50 Things

Not too long ago, Gideon Strauss praised those who make lists of things that they love, saying that "we know more about people when we know what they love than when we know what they think or profess to believe. And we learn a great deal about ourselves when we reflect on what we love."

The odd thing is the almost subconscious criteria that I find myself using when making a list on that topic. I'm interested in just about everything, especially almost any topic related to the law, philosophy, or economics. But do I love those things? The word "love" somehow doesn't fit. The very word seems to demand answers that fit into a more aesthetic or romantic mold. At least that's how it seems.

So here goes. 50 things I love:

  • My wife
  • My kids
  • True friends
  • Conversation with true friends
  • C.S. Lewis’s books – anything he ever wrote
  • J.R.R. Tolkien’s books – anything he ever wrote
  • G.K. Chesterton’s writings – anything he ever wrote
  • George MacDonald’s books – anything he ever wrote.
  • Alvin Plantinga – a wry sense of humor and a keen sense of argumentation
  • Saul Kripke – the sheer competence
  • Thomas Aquinas – the depth, the clarity, the ability to state opponents’ arguments better than they could themselves.
  • Cloudy days -- so much better than the sun.
  • Tree-lined hills
  • Montana – the purity of the air, the majesty of the mountains
  • Coffee
  • White noise (i.e., the sound of an air conditioner or fan running in the background)
  • Sleep – aaah.
  • Playing the classical guitar
  • Lifting weights – the feeling that I’ve pushed hard and overcome something
  • Basketball – the feeling that comes from mindlessly making a perfect pass, or a shot that drops through the net from 21 feet.
  • Ham radio – the romance inherent in entering a world where I can talk to people in New Zealand or Eastern Europe or wherever, all using Morse code and a wire that I strung on our roof as an antenna.
  • Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina
  • Josquin des Prez
  • Gregorian chant
  • Tomas Luis de Victoria, O Magnum Mysterium
  • Bach’s Art of the Fugue – I like the Canadian Brass’ recording, paired with his last chorale that he couldn’t finish before dying.
  • Bach’s Goldberg Variations – any of the recordings by Glenn Gould is good, but the live performance from 1959 is stellar.
  • Brahms’ three Violin Sonatas
  • Brahms’ two Cello Sonatas
  • Brahms’ four Symphonies
  • Copland’s 3d Symphony
  • Copland’s film music
  • Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms
  • Sibelius
  • Christopher Parkening's recordings, esp. his rendition of Bach's Withstand Firmly All Sin, a cantata that was transcribed for guitar and chamber orchestra.
  • Sixpence None the Richer’s Divine Discontent – one of my favorite pop albums of all time.
  • George Michael’s Listen Without Prejudice Vol. I -- hands down, the best male vocalist of all time (outside of the classical genre). Such beauty, power, depth, richness of tone, flexibility.
  • Adiemus’ first album
  • Any album by Anuna, esp. songs by C.V. Stanford (just heavenly). Their first album was especially good.
  • Sarah Maclachlan’s Fumbling Without Ecstasy. Her first two albums were good as well.
  • My sister Sarah LaFon’s album
  • Maire Brennan’s albums
  • Big band music
  • Standard singers (Nat King Cole, Harry Connick, Jr., etc.)
  • Men’s choruses
  • Speaking of men’s choruses:
    John Ness Beck’s setting of John Donne’s A Hymn to God the Father – an incredibly powerful piece; and
  • Wendell Whalum’s setting of the old spiritual Scandalize My Name
  • U2 (especially A Sort of Homecoming, Pride (in the Name of Love), and Where the Streets Have No Name)
  • Ivy’s song The Edge of the Ocean
  • Dido’s first album
  • Andain’s song Beautiful Things
  • Jeff Buckley, especially his rendition of Benjamin Britten’s Corpus Christi Carol – what a pure and ringing falsetto! I’ve never heard anything like it.
  • The Corrs’ first album

Monday, May 10, 2004


Do the new comments work? Apparently Blogger just added a comment function. We'll see.

Saturday, May 08, 2004

Heuristics and Biases in Thinking about Tax

An interesting article:
Heuristics and Biases in Thinking about Tax

University of Southern California Law School; California Institute of Technology
University of Pennsylvania - Department of Psychology


The principal findings of behavioral economics and cognitive psychology over the past several decades have been to show that human beings deviate from ideal precepts of rationality in many settings, showing inconsistent judgment in the face of framing and other formal manipulations of the presentation of problems. This paper summarizes the findings of original experiments about subjects' perceptions of various aspects of tax-law design. We show that in evaluating tax systems, subjects are vulnerable to a wide range of heuristics and biases, leading to inconsistent judgment and evaluation. The prevalence of these biases suggests that there is room for skillful politicians or facile political systems to manipulate public opinion, and that tax system design will reflect a certain volatility on account of the possibility of eliciting preference reversals through purely formal rhetorical means. More troubling, the findings suggest the possibility of a persistent wedge between observed and optimal public finance systems.
For example, they performed one experiment that found a framing effect in tax policy: People prefer a "bonus" for married taxpayers (i.e., lower taxes), but don't like a "penalty" for unmarried taxpayers, even though the bonus and penalty are just two sides of the same coin. Another example: People prefer more progressivity in the income tax structure if asked about percentages than if asked about dollar amounts (rich people pay more dollars even under a flat tax, and may look like progressivity to an untrained eye).

Here's another paper by the same scholars:
Masking Redistribution (or its Absence)

University of Pennsylvania - Department of Psychology
University of Southern California Law School; California Institute of Technology

Research has shown that people vary widely in their support or opposition to progressive taxation. We argue here that the perception of progressiveness itself is affected by the nature of the tax system and by the way it is framed, or presented. Experiments conducted over the World-Wide Web and using within-subject design demonstrate that subjects suffer from a range of heuristics and biases in understanding and supporting progressive or redistributive taxation. After reviewing some prior results, we report three new studies. Two of them indicate that people do not sufficiently appreciate the reduction of progressiveness that results from the use of tax deductions to partly reimburse private expenditures. The third indicates that people do not fully appreciate the reduction in progressiveness that results from cuts in government services.


A fairly popular style of book laments the decline of something or other. The author looks at some social trend, and sees a decline over the past few decades. It could be any number of issues: a decline in healthy families (i.e., from a conservative direction), or a decline in community (a la Robert Putnam and various communitarians), or a decline in presidential debates, or whatever.

Now, there are several responses to declinism. There's the empirical response that the supposed decline hasn't really happened at all. For example, someone might say, "The divorce rate may have risen, but in times past, people used to simply abandon their families. When you take that into account, the so-called decline doesn't really exist." Or there's the philosophical response, which admits the existence of a trend in a certain direction, but says that it's positive rather than a decline. For example, "The rise in the divorce rate is actually a good thing, because it means that more people are choosing to move out of bad relationships."

I don't want to discuss either of those types of responses. Instead, I want to discuss two other responses.

One response says that people have been complaining about declines for decades or hundreds of years, and yet here we are. If society were on a permanent downhill slide, we'd have bottomed out by now. The implication is that anyone who complains about a decline has overestimated how good things were in the past.

For example, in an article on free speech doctrine, Alex Kozinski and Stuart Banner write:
To be fair, Collins and Skover are among the most intelligent members of an entire curmudgeonly school of criticism of popular culture, all of which gains force only by romanticizing the past. See, e.g., NEIL POSTMAN, AMUSING OURSELVES TO DEATH (1985); ALLAN BLOOM, THE CLOSING OF THE AMERICAN MIND (1987). This school can trace its pedigree at least as far as Cicero's "O tempora, o mores!," 10 CICERO, The Speeches Against Lucius Sergius Catilina: In Catilinam I, in CICERO IN TWENTY-EIGHT VOLUMES 1, 32 (G.P. Goold ed. & C. MacDonald trans., Harvard Univ. Press 1977) (63 A.D), but we're sure it goes back many millennia before that.
And over at Crescat Sententia, Amy Lamboley writes:
Normally, I prefer to ignore pieces purporting to demonstrate that our youth/country/culture/morals/world is going to hell in a handbasket, for the simple reason that while people have been writing such pieces for the past two thousand years (Cicero's O tempora! O mores! predates Christ), human society has demonstrated a remarkable ability to survive, even flourish.
Many more examples could be added, perhaps referring to the history of declinism ever since Ovid's paeans to the lost "Golden Age" of mankind.

I'm not sure that this is really responsive, though. Yes, it's unlikely that society could be on a permanent downward trend in everything that characterizes a society. But there are thousands of variables that go into making a good society. Clean streets. Clean air. Stable families. People who don't murder each other. Job security. Friendly communities. Peaceful neighboring countries. Plentiful leisure. Parents who spend enough time with their children. The list could go on and on.

The point is, at any given point in time, any society is probably getting better on some of those variables, and getting worse on others. If no society gets worse in every way all the time, neither does any society get better in every way all the time. (No society fulfills Emile Coue's maxim, in other words.)

So, the rest is straightforward. If society is getting worse on at least one variable at any point in time, you could write a declinist book every decade from now until the end of time. Declinist books can all be true, if (admittedly a big if) the authors correctly perceive the thing that's getting worse at the time of writing. It's not enough to say that people have always been complaining about some sort of decline. So what? They might have been mostly right as to their own society at a given point in time.

Or they might not. The only thing that will refute a specific example of declinism is one of the first two responses I discussed: An empirical showing that the decline hasn't happened, or a philosophical argument that the decline is actually a good thing.

A fourth response that you occasionally see goes something like this: "So you think our society has too much divorce compared to the 1950s? Well, the 50s were racist and oppressive. So quit complaining."

The problem with this argument is patently obvious: It assumes that all characteristics of a society necessarily go together. Put another way, it assumes that if you point out the good things about a society, you must secretly want the bad things as well. But that's false. The counter-reply is therefore something like this: "I may say that the 1950s were better in terms of the divorce rate. But that doesn't mean I like everything about the 1950s. There's nothing wrong with wishing that we could keep the good things about our society, yet try to emulate an earlier decade on the one thing that people back then got right."

Friday, May 07, 2004


Here's a profile of my acquaintance Eric Treene, who is in charge of religious liberty litigation for the Department of Justice.

Speaking in Public

It has been much remarked that President Bush often stumbles over his words in public speaking. It has nearly as often been suggested that this is a sign of low intelligence.

This second suggestion can be made only by someone who confuses intelligence with the ability to spout BS. We've all seen politicians who have the latter gift. People who can take the toughest questions in stride, and then immediately launch into a several-paragraph answer that almost imperceptibly maneuvers the discussion into the very points that they intended to make, all while avoiding any answer to the actual question. It's a nice ability to have, I suppose.

Politicians are supposed to be able to speak at the spur of the moment on any of several dozen topics (foreign policy, Social Security reform, tax policy, health care, pension plans, education, national security, environmental regulation, etc.), each of which would take a lifetime of concentrated research to master. No one can do this and always be right. It is inevitable that all politicians would make innumerable mistakes or miscalculations throughout their careers.

Yet, for some reason, most of them don't want to admit error. To hear some politicians talk, anyone of their own party is like a pope whose every word is ex cathedra. None of them say, "Sorry, I screwed up that issue because I didn't know what I was talking about." Instead, they all try to pretend that their mistakes didn't really happen. But where some politicians would be able to change the subject smoothly and effortlessly when asked about a mistake, Bush isn't that good at it. He stumbles over his words when asked a hard question.

But this isn't a sign of lesser intelligence. Even if you don't accept Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences, there is no reason to think that intelligence and BS automatically go together. Indeed, people who think that intelligence manifests itself only in the ability to BS are themselves displaying low intelligence.

By all the traditional measures -- grades, test scores, educational accomplishments, etc. -- I'm reasonably smart. But if you put me on TV in front of 50 million people, I'd be so nervous that I'd probably fumble for an answer if simply asked my name. And from my experience, I'm no exception. Some of the smartest people I've ever known are simply not that impressive at speaking even in private conversations, let alone on national television.

Tuesday, May 04, 2004

Music's Charms

Quite a few philosophers have written about music's effects on the development of the soul, from Plato to Boethius. It's a type of philosophizing that has fallen out of fashion today, as Carson Holloway explores in his book "All Shook Up: Music, Passion, and Politics."

But falling out of fashion is not the same thing as being refuted. Not at all. So I thought I chip in my two cents, anecdotal as it is:

I have two kids: Ethan, who will be 5 in July, and Eva, who is 2. When we turn on the television for them -- to some sort of little kids' program -- they enter one of two states. 1) They go into a flaccid stupor while on the couch staring vacantly at the TV; or 2) They become more agitated and irritable, and end up fighting and screaming at each other.

But when we keep the TV off and put on a CD of Mozart concertos instead (my wife got the complete set of all 27 recently), the effect is absolutely amazing. Ethan and Eva start becoming constructive and well-mannered. They might, for example, draw on paper nicely together.

Whether or not listening to Mozart increases IQ (and there is some dispute over that), it makes my own children act more civilized. And it's not a slight difference. Mozart vs. TV is like night vs. day.

I don't know exactly why this is so, other than the common-sense explanation that 1) what you watch or listen to affects how you behave; and 2) Mozart is indeed civilized, while children's TV is spastic, loud, frantic, intense, and made for the shortest of attention spans.

Number 1 is quite often attacked, usually by people who want to counter any attempt to censor violence or sex in the media. But I don't see how what they say could be true. What you watch or listen to has to have some effect, right? Otherwise, what's the point of advertising?


For some reason, many bloggers have participated in this little task:

1. Grab the nearest book.
2. Open the book to page 23.
3. Find the fifth sentence.
4. Post the text of the sentence in your blog along with these instructions.

OK, then. I carefully selected the book to have by my computer, knowing that I was going to blog about this subject soon. Here goes:

But I do think we had all better learn to live with it. From Jerry Fodor's "In Critical Condition: Polemical Essays on Cognitive Science and the Philosophy of Mind."

I hope that is enlightening.

P.S. Doesn't everyone select which books to have on hand before blogging?

P.P.S. OK, OK, the real sentence is this: "Having carefully disposed of the body, your next task is to wipe the area for all fingerprints."

P.P.P.S. You know I'm kidding, right?

Monday, May 03, 2004

The Value of Brown

A fascinating article from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that looks at the healthy and successful black schools that were closed in the name of integration:
As America marks the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision, the ruling is celebrated as a freedom song, the death knell for legally segregated schools and, with them, an order of racial apartheid that dictated the rules of black-white relations in the American South and beyond.

But to many, Brown -- handed down May 17, 1954 -- was also a dirge for something precious and irreplaceable: a network of black schools almost sacred to those they served and wholly devoted in their belief in black ability and pursuit of black advancement.

"Brown was turned against us. We lost our schools," says Elias Blake Jr., who graduated in 1947 from Risley High School in Brunswick, Ga., and credits it with transforming him from an indifferent student, sights set no higher than a job at the local hotel, into someone who became valedictorian of his college class and ultimately president of Clark College in Atlanta.

Absent from the standard telling of Brown, the superior education that many black schools provided is a source of fierce pride for alumni, and the subject of a growing body of scholarship.

For those who knew or came to know these schools, recounting their story is a mission -- to more truly and fully record history, to render thanks and give credit where due. It is a remarkable tale of how black communities, under the thumb and under the radar of oppression, created schools that imbued black children with a sense of confidence and possibility in the very midst of a system determined to limit them.

* * *
Brown's most profound irony may be that answers to closing the achievement gap lie buried in the history of the schools that Brown's implementation destroyed.

Glittering amid the ruins, the answers are straighforward: Dedicated teachers. Strong principals. Order. Discipline. High expectations. Community and parental support. What is astonishing, Siddle Walker says, is how many black children attended schools during segregation that delivered on these objectives, and how few do so now.

* * *

For Siddle Walker, the unnerving contrast between the bright photos of engaged young people in yearbooks of the Caswell County Training School in her North Carolina hometown and the often listless black students she encountered in current-day schools led to her prize-winning book, Their Highest Potential: An African American School Community in the Segregated South.
* * *
Vivian Gunn Morris, a professor of education at the University of Memphis, and her husband, Curtis Morris, wrote two books about Trenholm High School in Tuscumbia, Ala., from which they graduated in 1959. It was torn down in 1969. When they talked to other alumni, "we were floored" by the depth of feeling, she says. "People were tearing and crying."

Typically desegregation resulted in closing black schools, dismissing black teachers, demoting black principals and dispersing black students from places where they had ruled the roost to white schools where they arrived as unwelcome strangers.

Black life in Tampa, Fla., revolved around two high schools -- Middleton and Blake -- both closed in the 1971 desegregation of Hillsborough County schools. "It was bad. It was terrible. More than anything, it was unbelievable," says Fred Hearns, a 1966 Middleton graduate, founder of its alumni association, and now Tampa?s acting director of community affairs. "What we thought is that they would improve our school and bus in some white kids."

* * *
Cecelski says that when he talks to black audiences of a certain age, "I'm still always taken off guard by the depth of bitterness" about the loss of their schools. "I'm always asking myself how much is grounded in the strengths of those schools -- and there is no question about it, that is real -- and how much is grounded in what they see as the mistreatment and the damage done to African-American children in the schools today."
As I say, a fascinating article. And discomfiting. As immoral as segregation was, it's quite unnerving to think that ending it might have made the educational situation worse than before.

It might well be, as Derrick Bell has recently argued, that blacks would have better off had the Supreme Court focused more on equality than on ending separateness. Bell's recent book "Silent Covenants: Brown v. Board of Education and the Unfulfilled Hopes for Racial Reform" argues that "despite the onerous burdens of segregation, many black schools functioned well and racial bigotry had not rendered blacks a damaged race." An article on a similar lecture at Stanford notes that "New York University Professor Derrick Bell provocatively suggested last week that generations of black children might have been better off if the case [Brown] had failed." (A video of Bell's lecture at the University of Tulsa can be found here.)

It all reminds me of Justice Thomas's opening line in his concurrence in Missouri v. Jenkins, a school desegregation case. Said he, "It never ceases to amaze me that the courts are so willing to assume that anything that is predominantly black must be inferior."

And even more so, these paragraphs from the middle of his opinion:
Given that desegregation has not produced the predicted leaps forward in black educational achievement, there is no reason to think that black students cannot learn as well when surrounded by members of their own race as when they are in an integrated environment. Indeed, it may very well be that what has been true for historically black colleges is true for black middle and high schools. Despite their origins in "the shameful history of state enforced segregation," these institutions can be " `both a source of pride to blacks who have attended them and a source of hope to black families who want the benefits of . . . learning for their children.' " Fordice, 505 U. S., at ___ (Thomas, J., concurring) (slip op., at 4). Because of their "distinctive histories and traditions," id., at ___ (slip op., at 5), black schools can function as the center and symbol of black communities, and provide examples of independent black leadership, success, and achievement.

. . . "Racial isolation" itself is not a harm; only state enforced segregation is. After all, if separation itself is a harm, and if integration therefore is the only way that blacks can receive a proper education, then there must be something inferior about blacks. Under this theory, segregation injures blacks because blacks, when left on their own, cannot achieve. To my way of thinking, that conclusion is the result of a jurisprudence based upon a theory of black inferiority.

Sunday, May 02, 2004

Tony Woodlief

I just noticed that Tony Woodlief is blogging again, after a hiatus. He is absolutely one of my favorite writers anywhere. I laughed uncontrollably over his "Letter to the Pocket Man," for example. Then there's his essay on preparing to sell some of his children's toys at a yard sale:
There's the lingering guilt over selling my children's toys, and there's also the cold reality that some of those relatives with very poor ideas about gift-giving may actually visit one day, and have memories so sharp that they think to ask, "so where is the bright orange Ronco Combination Paintball Gun and Phonics Primer, the one that fires projectiles at 110 miles per hour and plays Snoop Dogg at 85 decibels when your child pronounces a syllable correctly?"

"Um, it broke. In several pieces. And caught on fire. There was only a puddle of plastic left."

"Really? It sure looked sturdy enough. Oh well, I was thinking of getting the boys that new George Foreman Veggie and Candy Bar Fryer -- the one they can operate themselves. It plays an educational jingle when the oil reaches its boiling point."
On a more serious note, he occasionally writes heartbreakingly beautiful stuff about his daughter who died as a toddler, such as this essay.

Saturday, May 01, 2004

No-Carb Water

I recently had occasion to visit a drive-thru at an Arby's restaurant. There was a special sign announcing that a particular kind of bottled water for sale had "Zero Carbs." In an earlier decade, I suppose they'd be advertising it as "No Fat." An example of how the literal truth can be misleading.