Wednesday, February 27, 2008

WFB Requiescat In Pace

William F. Buckley Jr. has died. He is widely, and rightly, credited for having been the intellectual force behind the creation of mainstream conservatism beginning in the 1950s - at a time when a thinker such as Lionel Trilling could claim that there was no such thing as conservatism in America, and Louis Hartz acknowledged only one tradition in American political thought - the liberal tradition.

Buckley fashioned a form of conservatism that came to be known as "fusionism" - a combination of disparate and often divergent viewpoints, including economic libertarianism, social conservatism (or "traditionalism", often religiously based) and Cold War anti-communism. Please don't mistake what I mean when I say that there is a kind of sad fittingness to Buckley's passing at just this moment, when the coalition he helped create is fraying and increasingly untenable. The glue that held it together - internationally, the Soviet Empire, and domestically, New Deal/Great Society liberalism - have both been effectively vanquished (while many conservatives will disagree with the latter claim, I refer them to Peter Lawler, who notes that we do not face a future of government expansion, but one in which we are "more alone and on our own than ever." Our future is not likely to be one of a growing socialist state, but "creeping and creepy libertarianism." The fact that the government is broke only makes this more likely to be the case). Efforts to put the coalition together again in the current election proved to be fruitless, and the base is now angry at the nomination of John McCain, but one element or another would have been unhappy with the nomination of any of the candidates, given that it was the Humpty-Dumpty Republican primary - aimed to recreate a coalition that no one could put back together again.

I have a fond personal memory of Buckley - a time he was among a group of five representatives of various religious traditions were gathered by Princeton University's "Center for Human Values" to discuss the amorphous topic of "Mind, Faith, Spirit". Guided by Bill Moyers, the assemblage was clearly intended to reach a consensus that religion was wholly a personal and individual matter, and that one's belief should have no bearing on the public life of a nation. Buckley, as one would expect, refused to play nice. He began by announcing that "I may be a little bit of an imposter in this distinguished panel, because I'm sort of ridden with belief." In response to views that it was possible to believe in God but understand and sympathize with those who believe otherwise, he said, "The Ten Commandments say, 'Thou shalt not place other gods in my house,' and the Lord's prayer has in it the phrase, 'lead us not into temptation.' Could you understand by asking that you not be led into temptation that you be spared the seductiveness of other gods?" And, lastly (not in the transcript, but firmly burned in my memory), to the question whether religious belief necessitated rejection of belief other than one's own (which, of course, every other member of the panel dismissed out of hand as an unthinkable suggestion), Buckley replied: "As a member of the Roman Catholic Church, I hold the Creed of my Church to be true, which means by definition that the belief of any other religion in contradiction to that Creed must be categorically false." I believe it was the first time, and possibly the last, that the word "true" was used in an event sponsored by the "University Center for Human Values" without implied or gesticulated scare quotes. I became instantly aware on that day the ramrod backbone it took to write a book like "God and Man at Yale" in 1951 and to found "The National Review" in 1955. He was a man of courage and independence, and we could use more of his kind. RIP.

A Stag(flation) Party

Much ado about yesterday's consumer price index report: according to those figures, prices across the board rose 7.4% over the past year. This figure far exceeds the "acceptable" range of 1-2% that the Fed regards to reflect "stable" prices. While the stock markets rose yesterday, the more important reactions were seen in the price of the dollar, gold, and oil. The dollar fell to an all-time low against the Euro; gold is now easily within striking distance of $1,000 an ounce, closing at about $950 (and today jumping to $960); and oil yesterday closed above $100 bbl., a figure that we are likely to regard as the new bottom. During the day oil broke the $102 bbl. level, nearly reaching the all-time inflation-adjusted high of $103.76, reached in 1980 in the wake of the Iranian revolution and the OPEC oil embargo. We should notice that our flirtation with this all time high takes place in the backdrop of relative stability and peace on the international front: there are no major disruptions in the major oil producing areas and the world is on course to produce its current all-time high level of 87 million barrels a year. Quite simply, worldwide demand is absorbing every spare drop of oil, and there is considerable evidence that the major suppliers are unable to produce at levels above the current output, while also intimating that a number of the major fields - such as Cantarell in Mexico - are going into rapid and irreversible decline. All told, Mr. Market was telling us that things are going to continue to get more expensive and that we will have less wealth to afford them.

The New York Times carries a front page story today telling of the pressures that gas prices are now exerting on household budgets. While the price of oil has been rising steadily, it has manifested itself only partially in the price of gas, given that existing inventories will allow for a lag in price increases. The article points to experts who suggest that gas prices will begin approaching $4 a gallon by this Spring, when driving demand typically rises. The article provides anecdotal evidence of the way in which average Americans are beginning to cut back on a range of economic activities - such as cutting back trips to the movies and other non-essential (and increasingly essential) "consumptive" activities. Multiply these sorts of instances by millions, and it's clear that an already reeling American economy is going to go into a severe tailspin.

Economists tell us that inflationary problems necessarily and rightfully result in recessions, and through recessions the price pressures are accordingly relieved. However, the Times story paints a somewhat different picture, not only concluding that high oil prices will almost certainly plunge the U.S. into a painful economic recession, but that oil prices will continue to rise in spite of the reduced economic activity. John B. Hess - appropriately enough, the Chairman of the Hess Corporation - revealed recently that we cannot solely "blame" China and India for wanting to live the same kind of profligate lives as we have enjoyed. "It's not a matter of demand. It's not a matter of supplies. It's both." The story cites a recent study by Barclay's Capital that sets an oil price target of $137 per barrel by 2015. While itself a hefty increase in seven years time, I think this target is laughably low (and I'm not alone - Matthew Simmons, oil man, is looking at $300 bbl in the next five years).

In response the growing evidence of economic recession and commodity inflation, the Washington Post today carries an article that raises concerns about the "specter of stagflation." Even as the price of commodities rises, the worth of our housing is plummeting (most recent data suggesting a remarkable decline of 8.9%, 9.4% in the D.C. area), effectively reversing the party of the 1990's and early 00's during which housing climbed inexorably and inflation was in check. It points to the bind in which the Fed finds itself: inflation levels such as these would normally demand a rise in interest rates to stem the damage entailed by the decreasing purchasing power of money and to dampen economic activity; however, given the slowdown in the economy, the decline in housing values, and above all the systemic threat to the econmomic system that the credit crisis poses (if banks cease lending, the whole house of cards tumbles), the Fed faces the unenviable choice whether to cut rates to stimulate the credit markets or to raise rates to dampen inflation. It's obvious to everyone that the Fed has decided on which side of the bed it will sleep on: it will cut rates, and continue to do so, as long as the credit system remains locked-up, but the result will be a further exacerbating of the loss of value of the dollar and the concomitant rise in the price of foreign goods - above all, oil. The very solution to one particular and vicious problem will only contribute to an increase in the cost of goods, meaning that we will all pay the price - and a hefty one - for the foolish lending practices of our "trusts" and profligate choices of our fellow "consumers."

Where will all this end? No one can say for certain, but my guess is that we are in the early stages of a wicked and wild roller-coaster ride in which inflation follows deflation and so on and so forth. The Fed will only act reactively to the worsening of each decline or bubble, always just enough behind the curve to exacerbate the condition that will follow upon the heels of the current crisis. Our "consumers" will not know what has hit them - indeed, they are already stunned and dizzy, wholly unawares of the structural conditions that are pinching their movie-going habits - and if we now think that what is taking place in the Ohio campaign constitutes "Populism," we have another thing coming. While our candidates fight over accusations of who promised to accept limits of public financing and whether someone supported NAFTA fifteen years ago, our economy threatens to spin out of control and not one candidate is willing to stand before the American public and tell them to buckle down for tough times ahead. It is the apotheosis of modern liberal democracy not to be able to call upon the citizenry to embrace self-governance.

As Aristotle told us long ago, democracy is properly understood as a form of self-rule, in which citizens rule and are ruled in turn. However, democracy easily devolves into a kind of contractual form of tyranny, in which - barring our opportunity to rule over everyone else - we rather embrace the notion that democracy is best defined as "doing as one likes." Democracy, that is, goes from being a demanding form of government calling for extensive civic virtues to a lax and tyrannically-inclined form of government in which what is desired above all is the absence of rule. We are now reaping the results of "doing as we like," and the paramount question of our time is whether liberal democracy will prove capable of surviving its own worst instincts.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Don't Sell the Farm



Rather, sell the McMansion, at least according to this article in The Atlantic Monthly. According to the article, studies show that America's love affair with far flung suburbs may be coming to an end, and further, that the McMansions of today will be "the slums of the future." The author of the article - Christopher Leinberger - argues from evidence showing that people increasingly prefer to live in more densely populated urban settings, which he believes signals a reversal of the "Great Urban Escape" of the past fifty years. While Leinberger stresses real estate patterns that back this up, and concludes that there are aspects about more dense urban life that people prefer, it could be argued that the growing abandonment of the exurban future slum is less a matter of pure consumer choice than grim necessity. Of course, there are plenty of stories that rehearse the terrible toll of "extreme commutes" that typically absorb three or more hours of a person's waking hours, but increasingly even this "choice" - unpleasant as it may be - is becoming untenable as commuting costs inexorably rise and the worth of far-flung houses continues to plummet. The American dream has become the American nightmare - so much so that America's newspaper of record can un-selfconsciously lament the fact that Americans who owe more on their houses than they are worth - now over 10% of houseowners - are "trapped in their homes." One might imagine this phrase applying in the case of flood or fire - but "trapped in their homes" due to falling prices? Is this an misuse of the word "trapped," or perhaps more likely, an indication that we should start to be more careful about how we use the word "home"?

Given what we know about these houses - their poor construction and shoddy materials - it's even doubtful how long these slums will even last. Urban slums often developed in housing that was sturdy and held up even in the absence of upkeep and investment. What of those endless tracts of housing of subpar materials - plywood and drywall and 2x4's that aren't even 2x4 anymore - basically everything except the granite counters in the kitchens that are barely used? Writes Leinberger, "by comparison [to the well-built housing stock of urban slums], modern suburban houses, even high-end McMansions, are cheaply built. Hollow doors and wallboard are less durable than solid-oak doors and lath-and-plaster walls. The plywood floors that lurk under wood veneers or carpeting tend to break up and warp as the glue that holds the wood together dries out; asphalt-shingle roofs typically need replacing after 10 years. Many recently built houses take what structural integrity they have from drywall—their thin wooden frames are too flimsy to hold the houses up." If slums in the exurbs are truly a-borning, it's likely they won't last an exceptionally long time. If studies like these, and what much evidence points to be inexorable energy increases, hold true, then we can expect some of our most coveted housing stock to be uninhabitable within a generation, maybe less.

Meanwhile, The Washington Post reported a story on the last dairy farm in Loudon County, once a thriving agricultural area, now an endless vista of McMansion housing tracts. The story featured the Dogwood Farm, run by a family whose ownership of the farm can be traced back continuously to 1847. The story depicts the hard life of dairy farming, but too, its dignity, yet about it is the air of inevitability as changes wrought by modern settlement patterns appeared to be unstoppable. The article quotes one farmer who sold two dairy farms to say, "You can't live in the past. You love this farmland, but people need places to live."

True enough, but those places may not ultimately be in Loudon County. Even as the prices of McMansions decline, so the price of milk is rising due to rising material and energy costs (bought a gallon of milk recently? Everywhere I've looked, one costs more than a gallon of gas). At some point I wouldn't be surprised if it were our McMansion debtors who began selling out to the dairy farmers. Wouldn't that be nice for a change?

Thursday, February 21, 2008

The Origin of Radicalism and the Descent of Man

Overwhelming evidence attests to the liberal tilt on our college campuses. Studies show that the faculty at most mainstream institutions are overwhelmingly registered with the Democratic party and give a disproportionate share of their political donations to left-leaning candidates. A recent study of donations by faculty at Princeton University during the current Presidential election season shows that every faculty donation went to a Democratic candidate. Were such unanimity to manifest itself for conservative candidates at an academic institution, one can be certain that our cultural elites would decry such lack of diversity.

Anecdotal evidence everywhere further attests not only to the liberalism of most “mainstream” faculty, but the disproportionate share of radical professors in our humanities and social sciences. Innumerable stories have been circulated of aggressive efforts to “destabilize” gender, to question “normativity,” to challenge backward institutions such as marriage and family, to encourage students to break out of pre-conceived social notions they may have inherited from parents and community. A recent column in my campus’s newspaper, The Hoya, reflects this sort of radicalism. In the column, philosophy professor Mark Lance introduces himself thusly:

"I’m an anarchist, a rationalist, a feminist, a man, a pragmatist, an evangelical agnostic, a friend, a philosopher, a parent, a teacher, a committed partner of one other person and a nonviolent revolutionary. These labels are all, to different degrees, important to me; they define my sense of self. You could call them my identities, but all are “works in progress,” which is to say that the label stays roughly the same, but my sense of what it means changes and grows. (For example, I still have no idea what I mean by identifying as a man, though over the years I’ve figured out many things I don’t mean. Some days, I wish that one would drop off the list.)"

The passage is a predictable and typical expression one finds in academia that the one objectionable part of our identities is that one actually given by nature. This is the one unbearable aspect of identity, because it is not chosen or willed.

Conservatives are often satisfied to register their righteous anger and indignation at this state of affairs, and have tactically adopted the language of victimhood and demands for diversity as a way of combating this left-wing hegemony. This may be politically effective and may in fact help raise awareness of the current campus culture to potential supporters outside the academy. However, these arguments are only tactical at best, and fundamentally obscure deeper investigation into why this state of affairs has come to pass and what would be required to begin a more fundamental reform of higher education.

The answer may in fact be discomfiting to many conservatives. Conservatives would like to attribute the radicalism to a foreign contagion, and in particular the incursion of French and German philosophy into a once pristine American curriculum. A thinker with no less authority and insight than Allan Bloom pointed toward the influence of Nietzsche, and subsequently Weber and Heidegger, as nefarious influences who subtly infiltrated nihilist philosophical beliefs into American campuses and created the American intellectual Left.

There is doubtless much to this argument, but it tends to neglect – perhaps willfully – a potent influence that is a more native vintage, and one of considerable power and status in the academy. The culprit underlying much contemporary radicalism, I submit, is modern science.

This would appear to be an absurd assertion on the face of it; after all, it was Alan Sokal, a physicist, who exposed the profound anti-scientism and anti-rationalism of much of our radical professoriate in his publication of a comically jargon-filled and wholly parodic “po-mo” essay that was published by the postmodern journal “Social Text.” Our postmodernists especially seem to be the epitome of anti-rationalism and a force for mysticism and obfuscation.

However, in at least two respects, we can perhaps better understand the tailwinds that the reign of our contemporary sciences have provided for the Left and radical ascension in our humanistic and social-science disciplines. In the first instance, the Humanities has been historically the heart of the liberal arts education, an education that confidently understood itself as providing the cultivation of young adults through exposure to the best that has been written and thought. Professors in the humanities were curators of ideas and transmitters of an extraordinary tradition: men and women who taught texts written by geniuses like Homer, Dante and Shakespeare genuinely honored and loved these texts and the authors who wrote them, and understood these books to contain profound teachings about the nature of being human and the way in which we might pursue the good life. They approached these texts with a sense of humility and gratitude, cognizant that they were not capable of producing works of such grandeur, insight and majesty, but content that they were essential conduits in assuring that future generations would come to a similar appreciation and love for these great books and the contributions they made to forming human character.

There can be no doubt that social forces, particularly arising from egalitarian demands of the 1960s, worked to undermine this self-confident understanding of the humanities. However, also at play was a change in the internal ordering of the University itself: increasingly the humanities were regarded as antiquated and a luxury that allowed students to add a touch of class to cocktail party conversations. Instead, Universities were beginning to retool themselves in the image of a nation enamored of science, technology, and progress. Universities increasingly turned to the Federal government for significant amounts of funding, almost all of it directed toward the natural sciences. The natural science model – the discovery of new knowledge – increasingly became the model for the university writ large. Faculty who sought tenure at research universities – that is, our elite public and private institutions – were required to produce “original research” published in refereed journals and academic presses. All graduate students – future professors – are trained at such institutions, so eventually this ethic trickled down to the liberal arts colleges as well. Strong pressures for innovation and a preference for “progress” supplanted the respect for tradition and the suspicion that there was “nothing new under the sun.” In the midst of this transformation of the modern university from repositories of the collected wisdom of the ages (in which the library was the center of the university) to the scientific model in which “creating knowledge” was the key to the kingdom (in which the laboratory supplanted the library) the humanities lost its very reason for existence. Of what value were disciplines such as Classics, History, and Philosophy in such a changed environment? A profound crisis of confidence ensued.

It was into this breach that modern radicalism found a fertile foothold. Philosophies that preached “the hermeneutics of mistrust,” that taught readers that authors under study were malevolent and their texts mere collections of prejudice, and that questioned even the idea that texts any longer contained a “teaching” at all, tragically offered the humanities the possibility of proving themselves relevant in the terms set by the modern scientific approach. Faculty could demonstrate their progressiveness by showing the recidivism of the texts; they could “create knowledge” by demonstrating their own superiority to the authors they studied; they could demonstrate their anti-traditionalism by attacking the very books that were the basis of their discipline. By adopting a jargon only comprehensible to few “experts” they could emulate the tiny priesthood of scientists – wholly betraying the original mandate of the humanities to demonstrate the universal accessibility and appeal of the great books. Professors in the humanities showed their academic relevance by destroying the thing they once taught out of admiration.

There is a second, and perhaps more worrisome resemblance between our radicals and the modern sciences, and it is reflected in the sentiments expressed by my colleague, Professor Lance, in his wish no longer to have his “identity” sullied by his manhood. The modern sciences and our radicals share a deep hostility to nature and have both worked to undermine or transform the existence of nature as a governing and fundamental truth. Dating back to the seminal works of Francis Bacon and other late-Renaissance thinkers, modern science was conceived as the effort to exert human mastery over nature, to alter its forms in order to provide for the “relief of man’s estate.” Our comfort and desires became the rationale for the alteration, manipulation, or destruction of nature.

While there can be no disputing the fact that modern science has given us countless bounties – above all the cure for diseases that once killed remorselessly – there can also be no gainsaying that science itself is incapable of discerning any limits to its ability to exert control of, mastery over, and manipulation of nature. Among the aims that Bacon stated as a desideratum for the modern scientific endeavor was the defeat of mortality itself – a feature of humankind that many of the greatest texts of our humanist tradition teach us is the very essence of our humanity, our agony and our glory alike. Bacon likened the potential accomplishments of the sciences to the powers of God, and argued that science might successfully reverse the very conditions of the Fall in Eden (a sin that was the result of the desire for forbidden knowledge). In our contemporary biotechnology, nanotechnology, and the mapping of human consciousness, we grow increasingly confident of our assumption of these godlike powers, and look to a future when humans will govern their own evolution toward ever more perfect forms of life. A book title by Princeton molecular biologist Lee Silver speaks volumes: Remaking Eden, the conclusion of which asserts that we are on the verge of discovering that it is humanity that creates itself.

In a similar manner, our radicals in the Humanities reject not only the books they once taught, but the very idea of humanity. They consider all natural features of human beings to be mere constructions, social constructs that effectively cease to exist when they have been “deconstructed.” Sex becomes gender, family becomes “living arrangement,” community becomes “the social.” They seek to do through deconstruction what our scientists attempt in the test tube: the transformation of humanity into something wholly different. What is rejected in both approaches is a conception of limits based in nature.

A better understanding of the deeper sources of modern radicalism suggests that a re-ordering of our Universities will not occur as a result of the introduction of a few conservative faculty for the sake of “diversity.” What is needed is a deeper understanding, and ultimately debate, about whether humanity and humanism is defensible. If so, the humanities will by necessity require strengthening and a serious discussion will be needed about the role and status of science in our society. In the end, I do not argue on behalf of a neo-Luddite rejection of science on behalf of primitivism; rather, the place of the sciences should rightly be conceived within the context of the liberal arts, rather than vice-versa. Thus ordered, our humanities could instruct and guide our scientists, helping them and ourselves to understand and accept limits of what is in accord with our fundamental humanity. At the moment the situation is wholly opposite: our professors of Humanities reject the idea of humanity, and as a result, are able to offer no defense against contemporary efforts to alter, transform, and “progress” beyond our humanness. It will be an exceedingly difficult debate to win, but one that is necessary to have before we cease to retain enough of our humanity to understand what is choiceworthy and noble about being human.

The paramount reason that this debate cannot even occur is because our professors of humanities have ceased to believe in humanity – rather, they currently embrace our “identity” as “the subject.” They must be taught anew what it is to be a human and from those lessons regain the confidence to defend tradition and nature which constitute what it is to be human. They must again become willing to learn from the books that they now reject can be the source of any wisdom. Humility and the avoidance of hubris is among the first, and most permanent, of those lessons.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Hope Against Hope

In a column published today in the Washington Post, Charles Krauthammer severely criticizes the messianic aspirations of Barak Obama, even comparing his extraordinary electoral success at one point to a "cult" with all the earmarks of an irrational mass following and mesmeric charisma.

Krauthammer is among the first commentators I've encountered to take issue with the messianic and theologically suspect claims by Obama to "repair the world." Quoting Obama, Krauthammer writes, "We are the hope of the future," sayeth Obama. We can "remake this world as it should be." Believe in me and I shall redeem not just you but your country -- nay, we can become "a hymn that will heal this nation, repair this world, and make this time different than all the rest." I don't need to consult with my Catechism to detect several heresies here, among them Pelagianism (belief in the human capacity to achieve our own salvation) and Montanism (ecstatic prophecy). Krauthammer's misgivings are well placed and should generate more widespread suspicion and concern.

Yet, Krauthammer reveals his own theological shallowness in condemning Obama's millenarian claims NOT as a form of heresy, but rather, merely as a manifestation of religion simpliciter. He writes, "the Obama campaign has the feel of a religious revival with, as writer James Wolcott observed, a 'salvational fervor' and 'idealistic zeal divorced from any particular policy or cause and chariot-driven by pure euphoria.'" The charismatic appeal as a "kind of sale is hardly new. Organized religion has been offering a similar commodity -- salvation -- for millennia." What Krauthammer appears not to realize is that the greatest critiques of just these sorts of inappropriate and unrealistic aspirations to "repair the world" or "make time different" have not been secular - which has often adapted this kind of belief in the form of political ideology - but rather, orthodox belief, particularly the main Christian tradition firmly established by Augustine during the early Church. Insisting upon the distinction between the City of God where the heart can rest and salvation lies, and the City of Man, which is inescapably marked by the stain of Original Sin and the inexpungable human lust for dominion ("libido dominandi"), Augustine chided heretical contemporaries against the belief in perfectibility in this world, cautioned against the belief that salvation lie in our power to achieve, and urged upon his contemporaries a realism and humility regarding what is possible in the realm of politics. Most importantly, Augustinian realism clarifies the distinction between "hope" and "optimism," the former which is closely aligned to humility and modest expectations for what is possible in the saeculum, the latter which inclines toward over-confidence in the human power of transformation and perfection. Hope resists ideology and overinvesting in the prospect of political transformation; optimism either results in ideology resistant to the hard data of reality with attendant abuses by political elites, and ultimately elicits in optimism's close kin, disappointment, cynicism and despair.

For a campaign that so freely and frequently resorts to the language of "hope," Obama in fact evokes its exact opposite. His salvific and heretical language - reminiscent of the 19th-century rhetoric of Social Gospel such as that enunciated by Walter Rauschenbusch (whose grandson was Richard Rorty) or progressives like Herbert Croly and John Dewey, could in fact use a good dose of theological hope and its accompanying call to humility and realism. Indeed, what marks above all the fundamental similarity of all the candidates in the current election season is the absence of any such theologically-informed realism based on belief in the two cities of Augustine, such as that once articulated by Reinhold Niebuhr or later by Christopher Lasch in his "New Oxford Review" essays attacking gnosticism. But it is perhaps our own obsession with the race for the Presidency - burdened with attendant belief that its outcome might represent a fundamental and permanent improvement in our condition - that contributes to the overestimation of what is possible in politics, and now manifests itself in our longings for someone who will heal the world.

In this sense, amid our readiness for "change, we should recognize a deeper consistency between the appeal of one who would "heal the world" and the messianism that has so often colored the language of our current President. Particularly pronounced in his Second Inaugural, President Bush declared that it was now the permanent intention of the United States to support freedom everywhere, with the "ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world." The war in Iraq was undertaken for many and mixed reasons, but among them certainly - and perhaps underlying most deeply the optimism that informed the belief in the best-case scenario following the invasion, rather the possibility of a worse- or worst-case scenario - was this belief in the capacity of our nation to be the agent of the expulsion of "libido dominandi" from the world.

Let me be clear: my criticisms should not be confused as a call to avoid religious language in politics - far from it (in this sense, Krauthammer's critique is fundamentally similar to the Rawlsian calls to strip religious language from the "public square"). Rather, it's an insistence that theology matters, and we should be ready to draw distinctions between the claims of our political leaders - or aspirants to rule - based on theological grounds.

This is one great peril of the overestimation of the human capacity to "heal the world": the willingness to allow optimism to overcome good sense, and at its worse to permit ideology to trump our flawed human reality. But it is, I suspect, the other peril that we will face with an Obama presidency, namely the disappointment that will set in when, inevitably, such healing of the world proves elusive. Right now the expectations for transformation that will almost inevitably take place following the disastrous Presidency of G.W. Bush run so high as to exceed the capacity of any political leader to realize. And, as a number of commentators increasingly point out - none better than David Brooks in a recent column - the hard facts of reality, both internationally and domestically, will press in upon us starting on the first day of a new presidency, no less than they do so right now. Indeed, given the broader sets of limits that we face and increasingly confront, what is most needful is a leader who is prepared to tell us this hard truth, not promising transformation but acknowledging the hard facts of natural limits and the need for sacrifice that will be forced upon us in a far harder form unless we make some difficult choices and changes now. The prospects for disillusionment become ever more certain, the more we are tempted to convince ourselves, and are drawn to promises, that we await a future of "healing," "redemption," and paradisic contentment.

We are apt to forget that there has been one who has, and can, heal the world, but he stands for no office and offers no platform. Christians, above all, should avoid investing our hopes too fully in this world, and chasten those who would promise salvation that is only finally possible in a city beyond and after our own.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Republicans Rightly Understood

Peter Lawler is certainly one of our very best and most astute political commentators, not only understanding the horse races we're seeing, but the deeper significance of what seem to be ephemeral strategies as reflections of the soul of American politics and the longings of its citizens. Like my teacher, Wilson Carey McWilliams, Peter understands that political races are both about immediate concerns but also always reveal something about the permanent and eternal aspects of our national character.

His latest musings - particularly on the candidacies of McCain and Huckabee - are particularly fruitful reflections on the need to combine the features of a warrior and a preacher in a single candidate. Peter draws on recent work, as well as thoughts from his recently published book "Homeless and at Home in America," a book highly blurbed by a certain Georgetown professor... I recommend both the post and most everything that Peter writes.

A Moral Economy?

There is a student-blogger at Georgetown who seems to hold a particular fascination with, and irritation at, my musings. The student claims to concentrate in the study of economics, and based on the postings, gives all appearances of having learned well the lessons of that "science." He or she - anonymous, to be clear, which is the only reason that I permit myself to single out any student here - is particularly irked at my postings about the American economy, insisting over and over again that my concerns are "moral, not economic."

This is a fascinating, disturbing, but unsurprising claim. Modern economics is taught as a "science," namely the science of acquisition, growth, efficiency and money-making. It is the most mathematically-based of the modern social sciences, the one that can claim the greatest rigor (and hence is the envy of the other social sciences, who crave to base themselves on economic approaches), and seems to have the greatest relevance to the "real world." Like the natural sciences, it claims to be an amoral science, solely concerned with generating valid conclusions (the "is") without any legitimate concern for the moral consequences or implications (the "ought"). Having looked at the requirements and course offerings of the Georgetown Economics Department, it can be said with confidence that it evinces no fundamental or distinctive difference from pretty much any other mainstream Economics department in the country. In particular, there is no visible aspect of the Georgetown Economics Department that would mark out a distinctively Catholic dimension. There is no course offering in the History of Economics, no course in Economics in the Catholic Tradition (e.g., Aquinas, encyclicals such as Rerum Novarum, books like Roepke's The Humane Economy, the distributivism of Chesterton and Belloc, etc.), no course on economics and nature. Little wonder, then, that a student majoring in this field at Georgetown would be able to make such a profoundly stunted and blinkered pronouncement that one must distinguish "economics" from "morality."

Indeed, the very fact that this claim could be made at all points to the essential grounds for the promotion of actual Catholic education - and not the pale and pathetic shadow that passes for Catholic education at Georgetown and most contemporary Catholic institutions. Very little integration between and among the disciplines takes place at modern Catholic universities, which model themselves more upon the basis of Adam Smith's theory of the "invisible hand" than Newman's "Idea of the University." That is, the modern university is conceived as a discrete set of undertakings and research agendas that have no obvious connection to one another, but which together all contribute to the "creation" of new knowledge and the growing prosperity of society without any intention or effort to draw connections between the various disciplines. The faculty and administration increasingly deny that there can be any overarching end or good of education, that an integrated human being ought to be the purpose of our instruction, that requirements in philosophy, theology, and other humanities ought to inform all of the various disciplines. Our natural sciences altogether resemble the natural science disciplines of any other secular university, and our social sciences - with few exceptions - are uncognizant of conceptions of the good society and the aim of the flourishing human life that ought rightly to guide our investigations. We are guided, above all, by the secular vision of Francis Bacon who, inaugurating the modern scientific enterprise, argued that "knowledge is power" and that its aim was "the relief of the human estate" by means of the "conquest of nature."

The student rightly notes that I am influenced and guided by the arguments of Aristotle, who in turn guided the theology of Aquinas. With ample progressive spirit - undoubtedly informed by his economics training - this student rather glibly dismisses out of hand that an Aristotelian and Thomistic worldview has any relevance for a modern age. If it's old, it must be dated and superseded. This well-worn argument typically asserts that, since Aristotle's scientific theories have been shown to be false, then the whole of his philosophy must also fall. Putting aside for the moment the former claim - that Aristotle's natural science has tout court been proven false, which is itself a problematic claim - the attendant claim that Aristotelian teleology, along with its concomitant insistence upon the primacy of politics (that is, political philosophy) as the "architectonic" science by which all other sciences are ordered in a society, cannot be so readily dismissed. If there is a good for humans - if we flourish under certain conditions and not others - then it is the proper place of a political science to seek a political ordering that best ensures that flourishing.

This is, by definition, a moral undertaking: if there is a good to which human life aims, then necessarily there are non-good or even vicious forms of life. By extension, such an understanding of a good human life would implicate all the other human sciences - including, centrally so - economics. As Aristotle writes in Book I, Chapter 8 of the Politics, an economics that aims solely at acquisition without limit for the sake of acquisition alone would constitute "living, but not living well." He objects as well to "usury" for the reason that its aim is to employ money to make more money. Productive investment is justified, but a "credit" economy is necessarily one that inclines toward "mere life," the pursuit of acquisition for the sake of unlimited acquisition.

Aristotle points to a conception of the good, and thereby "the common good," that necessarily guides and influences all human activity. "Moral" activity cannot be separated to some distinct realm (indeed, if our economic life is not to be guided by morality, what is?). Whether in our political dealings, our economic relations, our family lives, our neighborhoods and communities, a moral conception of the human good ought to serve as a guiding principle. Questions we must ask ourselves in the economic realm cannot be limited to "what is efficient" or "what will result in the most profit," but also "are our actions responsible," "is this an appropriate use of limited resources," "are we living within our means," "are our economic relations and transactions contributing to the good of our community," "does our economy support good families," "are we ensuring for the good lives of our children and future generations?" These are moral questions, yes, but they are also economic questions - the two cannot be divorced.

Many of our contemporary problems are rooted in particular in this belief that we can divide such moral considerations from economics (or any other sphere of life). What this student takes to be "economic" questions are, ironically enough, amoral considerations that are increasingly invading all aspects of our lives. As we begin to think of our economic life in such amoral terms, those very amoral terms have a way of infiltrating all aspects of our society, to the point that we ask whether our marriages are personally satisfying regardless of the effect of that calculation on our children, whether goods can bought more cheaply at places without any investment in our communities, whether how we live ensures privacy and convenience at the price of "non-economic" considerations like stable and mutually supportive communities, whether "growth" ought rightly to be the sole acknowledged and undisputed aim of politics.

This student advises me to stick to political theory and leave economics to the economists. But herein lies the very problem we face: economists largely are incapable of thinking in these essential terms - they are some of our prime culprits in teaching that morality ought not to be mixed with the economic. Indeed, for all the accusations against the self-certainty of religious believers, it is our economists who constitute the true "faith-based" community of our age. Economics Departments are comprised of a cadre of "true believers," an order who faithfully defend the Free Market and worship at the altar of Efficiency and Profit. There is virtually no discussion or debate about the terms upon which economics is based; indeed, in contrast to nearly every other discipline in the humanities and social sciences, our economists brook no deviation from the orthodoxy of Mainline Libertarianism. When I'm told by colleagues that our aim ought to be "critical thinking," I cringe and wonder whether that critical thinking will extend to the self-certainties of Economics and the Natural Sciences, and further, whether we as an intellectual community will be willing to think critically about the Baconian reasons for our current activities and organizing principle - to expand human power and dominion over nature and increasingly ourselves.

In short, not only do I refuse to leave economics to the Economists, but I deny the legitimacy of any such separation. Indeed, following Aristotle, if political philosophy is "architectonike," then I have a positive duty to concern myself with areas of knowledge and inquiry that have been separated and relegated to "experts." It is my positive duty to resist such separation and to draw more closely together fields of inquiry in an effort to show their close and necessary connections when thinking about the human good. I must avoid "minding my own business" and seek to remind students and colleagues that what constitutes our "business" is today too narrowly defined and falsely confined. If our Economics Departments actually taught classes in the history of Economics - that is, how the discipline was formed and what arguments have led us to the point we are now, including arguments that may not have carried the day but may not be false - this student would have learned that many, if not most, of our greatest early modern economic thinkers were also political philosophers (e.g., Smith, Hutcheson, Locke, Mill, Hegel, Marx, Hayek, etc.). It is only in very recent times that the exclusive and excluding claims of scientific "expertise" have permitted this discipline to exclude important considerations that are now considered to be "non-economic."

Lastly, this student rightly asks - and challenges me - to make the moral case and eschew my penchant for "doomsday scenarios." This is a serious question and challenge, and rightly deserves a response. My first inclination is to point out that I am being asked to do something that our libertarian economists are themselves not willing to do - that is, they eagerly point to our material prosperity and assume that past performance is a certain guarantee of future results. By contrast, I point to substantial counter-evidence to suggest that we are gathering a large set of debts and costs that are increasingly unavoidable and constitute a serious challenge to how we now live. Those in the "faith-based" community are inclined to believe that we can invent and innovate our way out of any potential challenges, no matter how severe. I am an actual conservative - unlike the label that is so falsely attributed to our libertarians - who insists that we be cognizant of that one true law of politics, the law of unintended consequences. It is not proper to run a civilization based upon the belief that our children will figure out a way to rescue themselves from our profligacy. Moreover, I insist upon a true accounting of costs, one that does not "externalize" our indulgences to future generations. When we begin such a true accounting, we find that we are not quite so wealthy as we now believe, but rather we are living off what was once called a patrimony and betraying the duty of what was once regarded as trusteeship.

My second inclination is to point out that, if an Aristotelian conception of human flourishing based upon the fulfillment of our nature as human creatures is correct, then in the absence of such flourishing we will expect to see the deformation of our character and the abuse of our nature and the natural world we occupy. I see this evidence all around us, and it is a central and necessary part such a conception of nature and the good to make clear those deformations. I see them simultaneously in the abuses and ill-ordering of our human relations - manifest in so much of the disordering of our family lives, our "popular culture," the abuses of our economy, the profligacy and irresponsibility of our government, and the selfishness of our citizens - just as it is also manifested (and ultimately connected) to our abuse and disordered relationship to the natural world, that entity that we call "the environment" as if it were something separate and distinct from ourselves. If I have a tendency to seek to extrapolate some of those consequences to their possible negative and dire conclusions, I will acknowledge that it is perhaps a manifestation of a "Cassandra" syndrome, but I regard it as irresponsible to remain silent if the gathering clouds seem to suggest a growing likelihood of very bad times. As one who is privileged with a some amount of leisure and a soap-box of sorts, I have a special duty to resist the optimistic techno-faith of the prevailing culture - a faith that is especially evinced by its High Priests and Priestesses who surround me in our Universities. I should make clear - in case there is any doubt - that I do not wish for any of these worst-case scenarios to take place. I write about them with a view to hoping that I can contibute to their prevention, or at least the avoidance of the worst consequences. To do so will require an immediate change in behavior on a large scale, a scenario I regard as highly unlikely but nevertheless worthy of commending. Even small changes may help in unexpectedly large ways; all one can do is point out the trajectory of our present course and hope we can avoid the rocks.

But lastly, this student is right to demand from me a fuller explication of what constitutes the human good on its own terms. Those terms cannot finally be wholly separated from a depiction of alternative bad consequences and bad ways of living, but I have emphasized the latter at the expense of a more positive depiction. To quote a much greater mind, St. Augustine explains in his preface to "The City of God" that "lest someone should reproach us with only criticizing others without offering any solution of our own, the second part of this work does just that, although whenever necessary we state our own views even in the [negative part] and refute our adversaries even in the [positive part]." Much of the negative serves as a necessary prolegomena to the positive (as it did for Augustine), inasmuch as - so often - the positive case is viewed almost automatically as a negative depiction in light of modern presuppositions. The case for a well-ordered community of citizens who rule and are ruled in turn, living in moderation within the means permitted by relatively local economies, with widespread family ownership of property and production that puts us closely in touch with generating the fruits for life, subject to widely acknowledged laws of nature and God that govern our public and private lives, sharing in communion and community and relatively more limited in our private spheres than we could now conceive - is simply rejected as out of keeping with our modern lives and what we now regard by default as human good - namely thoroughgoing liberty and the absence of constraint. So, one can state and restate a positive conception of the good life, but in the face of a contemporary society that persists under the illusion that such limits have been superseded (much as it is concluded without argument that Aristotle has been superseded), one inevitably returns to arguments that preconditions for our contemporary faith is a fantasy that has been fueled by a one-time energy blow-out and has led to the deformation of the natural world, including our own natures. So, in the end, it comes back to an argument about what we are doing, and whether we are living well, for our own sakes and for the sakes of our children and their children yet unborn.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Paper Tiger

According to this story appearing today, the Secretary-General of OPEC now foresees a time within the decade when oil will no longer be priced in dollars. Like kicking a lumbering giant who has fallen down, this ill- (or well-) timed disclosure could send the U.S. economy further into a severe tailspin. If not immediately, it presages the end of the American Century and the final destruction of an already broken and broke U.S. economy.

The reasons for this are complicated, but the success of the U.S. effort following WW II to convince OPEC to price all oil sales in dollars has allowed the U.S. extraordinary benefits over the half century since the agreement. Forming the world's "reserve currency," the resulting demand for U.S. dollars for the purchase of oil forces nations to purchase U.S. currency, encourages oil-producing nations to recycle those petrodollars into the purchase of U.S. treasury bonds, keeps domestic U.S. interest rates and inflation low, and allows the U.S. to maintain enormous trade deficits that would be untenable for any other nation. As described by one helpful (if somewhat outdated) 2003 website posted by The Center for Contemporary Conflict - the research institute of the Naval Postgraduate School's Department of National Security Affairs - the benefit of for the nation whose currency serves as the "reserve currency" is a form of "seignorage." According to the CCC, "this is perhaps the most important advantage of having other countries hold one's currency. These countries must give up real goods and services or ownership of the real capital stock, in order to add to the currency balances that they use...." Moreover, "most foreign central banks and other investors hold their dollars in the form of interest paying treasury bills. To the extent that the reserve currency role of the dollar allows the U.S. Treasury to pay a lower interest rate on its liabilities than most other borrowers, the difference is a further source of seignorage." In short, every purchase of oil priced in dollars subsidizes the U.S. economy, a nearly invisible but powerful form of tribute that the Empire has extracted from its protectorates.

Were OPEC to begin selling oil priced solely in Euros, those benefits would evaporate overnight and the U.S. could no longer be able to maintain its current account deficit. It is estimated that the dollar could lose nearly half of its international value as a result of the switch, and that money (foreign and domestic) would flow out the U.S. financial markets and treasury bonds as if the Hoover Dam had sprung a leak. According to one scenario that even the skeptical CCC acknowledges to be plausible (even in spite of its skepticism that OPEC would switch to Euros, a skepticism that may have been justified in 2003 but now which can hardly be maintained), such a switch would result in the collapse of the U.S. economy:

"The effect of an OPEC switch to the euro would be that oil-consuming nations would have to flush dollars out of their (central bank) reserve funds and replace these with euros. The dollar would crash anywhere from 20-40% in value and the consequences would be those one could expect from any currency collapse and massive inflation (think Argentina currency crisis, for example). You'd have foreign funds stream out of the U.S. stock markets and dollar denominated assets, there'd surely be a run on the banks much like the 1930s, the current account deficit would become unserviceable, the budget deficit would go into default, and so on."

In other words, we would suddenly be forced to confront the fact that we are really broke, with no means of any longer convincing foreign governments to continue to sell us things of value for now-worthless paper. Our current "market volatility" would look tame by comparison: the U.S. markets would plummet, investment capital would dry up, businesses would shut down by the thousands, unemployment and inflation would skyrocket, and it's quite likely that martial law would follow the unrest of a population wholly unaccustomed to hardship, unable to make or do anything for themselves, and bereft of actual communities that would in themselves represent a store of value. Our worthless suburbs would become ghettos, inescapable due to their distance from any commercial or urban centers in the absence of a cheap and steady supply of petroleum. It would be morning in America - that is, time to wake up from the slumberland of the American dream.

The "smart money" has been expatriating its money for a number of years now in anticipation of this moment. Those in the know - like Dick Cheney, that old oil man, and Jim Rogers, George Soros's business partner and investor extraordinare - have stashed their funds in foreign currencies, particularly those of "Old Europe" and China. Once again, it will be the chumps like you and me (and worse still, our kids) who are stuck holding a bunch of IOUs and no way to pay them back. This time, though, we won't be able to call on the help of "Walkaway.com." We'll have nowhere to go, only currency that won't buy a loaf of bread and a government that won't be able to print dollars fast enough, even if there were bread to buy.

UPDATE (5/08): More on the "fading glory" of the dollar's reserve status - and the central importance of "seignorage" - on the Bloomberg website. Its conclusion: "It isn't ordained that the dollar surrender its position as the world's go-to currency. Yet if Americans insist on living beyond their means, eschew sound fiscal policies, ignore the greenback's weakness and remain tempted by protectionism, the dollar will in small bites begin to mimic the British pound -- the currency of a once proud but spent imperial power."

Friday, February 8, 2008

Sell Your Stocks

Just a piece of anecdotal evidence that I do not think constitutes inside information - my site is getting a pretty consistent stream of hits from people who are "googling" "Walkaway.com" and finding this link listed second. Just to remind infrequent readers, "Walkaway.com" is the newest entrant to our service-industry economy that provides the invaluable service of instructing "homeowners" how to walk away from their mortgage obligations. The consistency of the numbers of people searching for the name of this firm over the course of the past week suggests that you could very well be seeing some moving trucks in your neighborhood even at houses where there is no "For Sale" sign...

Fun times.

Kiss Me - I'm Irish!

Everyone seems to be "going green" now. It's as if it's St. Patrick's Day all year round - everywhere you turn everyone is removing their petroleum based, Chinese produced clothing to don a green-tinted sweater made of natural fibers. Gone are the days when to be "green" meant that one was a Birkenstock wearing anarchist. Now, even our bourgeois bohemians are hugging trees.

But, our embrace of green bears a good deal of resemblance to St. Patrick's Day in other important respects: on that one day of the year, everyone suddenly claims to be Irish whether or not that claim bears any relation to reality. Heck, a few years ago even the Irish started holding parades on that day, not to disappoint the American tourists who made special trips to Ireland to celebrate (quite a bit like all the revelers at Mardi Gras who have no intent to observe Lent, nor even the knowledge of what Lent is). Our environmental "greenness" is as substantial as our March 17 Irishness: each is wholly superficial and bears no actual relation to reality.

A case in point: out of curiosity, I attended the Washington D.C. Auto Show two weeks ago, and wasn't remotely surprised that every auto manufacturer prominently advertised all the ways that they are embracing a "green future." Signs bragging about the mileage of existing cars - as if the frequent invocation that a car can get 30 mpg will convince us that this is actually good mileage
(I guess it can only be construed in that way when we take the Hummer as the baseline of any such comparisons) - and a bright future of cars running on biofuels and electricity all sought to induce the collective illusion that we could expect a future in which we will live exactly as we've been doing and pay no costs. This is a feel-good advertising campaign that promises more of just what we've been doing - paying absolutely no attention to what it is we are doing. It's quite evident that we are all rushing to embrace the "green" label so that we can avoid actually thinking about what would be entailed to slow our destruction of the natural world.

Denizens on the environmental Left, our bourgeois bohemian centrists, even our Schwarzneggerian Republicans - along with various automobile manufacturers - all evince a great deal of excitement about the prospect of a "clean" biofuel-powered or plug-in electric car. No more dirty emissions, no more addiction to oil! Just fill it with vegetable oil or plug it in and save the planet.

Alas, were it that easy - as easy as putting on a hat that says "Erin Go Braugh." A report in today's "New York Times" recounts growing evidence of the enormous destruction and carbon emissions of "bio-fuels," the boom in which is resulting in the destruction of huge swaths of carbon-consuming rainforests and nature preserves. It turns out our rush to adopt this new, "clean" energy source - which, incidentally, is also resulting in the starvation of poor peoples who cannot afford the rising price of food, a consequence of our refusal to drive less to eat at "TGIF" and "Dunkin' Donuts" - is contributing mightily to the ravaging of the planet.

Further, enthusiasts of the electric car can spare nary a thought to the question of where electricity comes from (do we suppose we collect the static electricity generated by rubbing our sneakers on a carpet?). Well, what a surprise it is to most people to learn that we generate most of our electricity using coal, followed by natural gas and then distantly by nuclear, water, wind and solar. Our "clean" electric car future is going to be powered by a different (and still limited) fossil fuel, one that is considerably more polluting than refined oil and which is mined in ways that destroys the land and unsettles communities. As I've noted previously, our lust for coal (to power our IPODs and televisions) even trumps our sacred spaces. Once we begin to reflect on our desperation to continue our current rate of consumption and reckless addiction to profligate energy usage, it's quite clear that all the "green" that is being embraced is as genuine as the Irish heritage of our St. Patrick's day revelers. It's all a kind of pretending.

But, we're told by our techno-optimists, we'll just bury the carbon generated by coal plants and drive happily into less brilliant sunsets. The problem with this scenario is the pure fantasy that it peddles - a fact brought home with particular force last week when the Bush Administration pulled the plug on federal government investment in "Future Gen," once touted as our path to "clean coal" technology. As this program discusses, it turns out that sequestration of coal will require an industry as large and complex as the current oil extraction industry. Yet, that industry - in the first instance - took nearly a century to develop into its current form, and secondly, was able to become so massive because of the enormous profits that were generated from that expensive investment. What was being proposed - and was just killed - was a comparably large industry that would generate no return - would actually draw down on whatever energy (and resulting profit) that was being generated by the burning of the coal in the first instance. In the end, the Government was forced to face "the reality based" realization that such sequestration had no economic justification and would require such massive investments as to make the gains of burning coal nugatory.

This means two possible things: if we are going to have an electric fleet, it will surely be running to a great extent on "dirty coal" (Note that no one will call it that - it will just be called "coal," with adjectival descriptors magically disappearing). Or, the second possibility is that we really truly mean it about "going green," and thus forgo our current way of life, begin to make changes to our built community so that we can walk more, buy goods from more local sources, and live smaller and leaner and poorer.

For the record, my money is on a big self-delusive continuation of our St. Patrick's Day party. I think we are likely to make the transition to an electric fleet all the while enjoying the illusion and willed self-deception that we are helping the planet. Only unfortunate people living in certain parts of West Virginia, Kentucky, Colorado and Wyoming will know the difference (and, of course, the owners of coal company stock who live nowhere near those places and will be unaffected by the consequences of strip mining and "mountaintop removal").

Above all, we will continue to insist on living in a condition of willful separation, a state of complete oblivion from the consequences and costs of our actions, its impact on future generations and at a distance from the sources of our gluttony. Wendell Berry has written that the only movement that he would agree to joining is a MTTEWIID - a "Movement to Teach The Economy What It Is Doing." So far, it looks like it's going to be an exceedingly small movement, and barely noticeable from behind the tinted windows of our "clean" electric cars.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Involuntary Thrift

An article in today's New York Times notes that we may be reaching "a cultural inflection point" that marks a change from a culture dominated by credit-fueled consumerism to a culture in which, increasingly, we will be forced to pay as we go. This change is not to be unexpected, coming as it does as a form of "involuntary thrift," a combination of a shrinking of the ersatz assets in stock and housing "investments" that have fueled our sense of national wealth for the past two decades, along with the contraction of available funds for loan in our profligate and devastated fiscal institutions.

Increasingly we have passed the point at which we can choose virtue over the various vices of gluttony, avarice, envy and profligacy. It is becoming increasingly obvious that we are "stuck with virtue" because we have no choice in the matter: we are being forced by circumstance to cut back on our inclination to submit to appetite and be governed by will. I have argued here that circumstances will eventually force us to act as we should be acting by choice, but that once this has happened we will not greatly benefit from this form of enforced virtue. Indeed, it is the point when we must submit to the need of going through the motions of virtue that we will know that our vices are beginning to exact their inevitable and heavy toll. The sad truth is that our involuntary virtue comes late, and will do little to prevent us from suffering the worst consequences of our vices. While it's certainly the case that we do better to spend within our means, we have come to a pass in which - rather than benefiting from our behavior of spending within our means - we will rather experience an ongoing downward spiral of the increasing anxiety and a growing sense of poverty. Rather than having the effect of making us feel more financially sound, our enforced thrift comes in a context in which even the dollars we are able to save will only slow but not stem the grinding sense of decline.

Part of this is the self-fulfilling prophecy that our economy is driven by consumer spending - roughly two-thirds of our economic activity is consumption. As we begin to cut back our spending by necessity, we don't in fact strengthen our economy by producing goods or making things of value, but reveal the deep structural flaws of an economic system built on the quicksand of debt and fleeting and universally popping bubbles. Part of this, too, is the real decline of our power to buy things of value that we can no longer provide for ourselves, but which must be supplied by increasingly hostile nations to a captive public that has built a society that cannot be run without those substances, petroleum in particular. And part of this decline that our enforced thrift reveals is induced by the fact that we are being forced to recognize that we can no longer afford what previous generations took for granted. We are beginning to import inflation from everywhere, even as our economy stagnates and deflates, and we enter a period which combines two economic nemeses that are normally at odds with one another but will increasingly be closely linked and simultaneously destructive.

We are told that we will innovate and invest our way to new energy, new technologies that will liberate us from these economic scourges and our enforced frugality. Yet we witness almost daily in our "markets" the evaporation of our national wealth, untold billions of dollars that were only notionally ours, and are just as fancifully disappearing. Whether we will have the capacity to "invest" in the future will be dictated less by any miracles that we might create than by the hard work we will have increasingly to embrace as part of what life will be like in a very different future.

We are passing a "cultural inflection point" that will force virtue upon us: the question now becomes daily more real to us whether we will embrace virtue as something choiceworthy and which we joyously enact for the many benefits it will bear - or whether we will labor and save with pursed lips and resentment, mimicking virtue while reaping none of its rewards.