Character from a Vending Machine?

I was going to write a post exploring some thoughts I had on moral philosophy, but apparently David Brooks has ruined it for everyone. He wrote what may well be the definitive piece arguing that the economic decay in Baltimore (that in part led to the current uprising there) is not so much the result of policy and leadership failures but character deficiencies on the part of the residents instead. A typical excerpt:

The problem is not lack of attention, and it’s not mainly lack of money.

Actually, it’s very simple (and obvious) math: economic poverty (as opposed to the spiritual kind) is by definition a lack of material resources, therefore giving people more of the resources they lack will alleviate poverty. More simply put, if people lack money and you give them money, they will no longer lack it. In my mind, I picture David Brooks putting a couple of quarters in a vending machine, and when said machine refuses to dispense his preferred soda, he concludes that the machine does not work and perhaps never had sodas in it in the first place all the while failing to notice that the actual price for dispensation is a dollar.

Indubitably I am not the only blogger to notice and do a facepalm at the sight of Brooks’ latest pontification. There are many witty deconstructions out there such as those from Driftglass, Yastreblyansky, Jezbel, Dean Baker, et al. (Depressing fact: The neighborhood where Freddie Gray was killed has a 52% unemployment rate.) However, one thing that never gets pointed out about the (many) bad faith arguments linking poverty to character deficiency is that there is a sleight of hand taking place, a subtle conflation of the concepts of poverty and self-sufficiency. While these two concepts are related in some ways, they are in no way intertwined.

It is crucial to point out that poverty is actually the default state of life. We come into this life with exceptionally few resources and must rely on others to compensate for that reality by feeding us, clothing us, sheltering us and so forth. Poverty is not created by anything. There is always an infinite amount of potential poverty waiting in the wings if conditions ply us into it. Self-sufficiency on the other hand is a state that must be created not just through effort but material resources as well. As such, poverty is an obstacle to self-sufficiency, something to be overcome, not something caused by people’s inability to be self-sufficient. If the latter were true, certainly character might be a viable explanation for poverty, but it is demonstrably false.

Brooks and his ilk seem to be much less concerned with ending poverty than promoting self-sufficiency itself as the highest form of character. And that requires them to subtly move the debate about poverty that most of us actually want to have away from the mathematics of the situation and the quality of people’s real lives in favor of abstracting and morphing the conversation into one of causes and effects which are not dictated by anything material but only by the moral choices individuals make (which must somehow magically sync with the material results produced by the surrounding environment.)

So, let me restate all of this unequivocally. Economic poverty is not created by anything, and therefore all measures will be toward alleviating and warding off poverty, something that requires determining how to most efficiently create and distribute material resources people need and otherwise would not have. There is no other logical frame for this debate.
(Note: cross-posted on The Box Ajar.)

Thoughts About Nothing

Contemplative Moorings
    Nothing is set in stone,
    except perhaps for the occasional fossil.

    No man is an island unto himself,
    though I’ve known a few peninsulas.

    There are no absolutes in life,
    except for the fact that there are no absolutes.

    I may be talking nonsense here,
    but sometimes it’s the only sensible thing.
Copyright 2015

The Grammar Police Can Get a Wee Bit Aggressive


Through these many years of blogging, a few trends have caught my attention. Perhaps the one most surprising to me has been the consistent misspelling of the word “lightning” which I often encounter in the guise of “lightening”. I’ve often marveled at the persistence of this typographical oversight and how it took hold of so many minds.

Not that it’s a big deal, however. As long as I can understand what I’m reading, I don’t think it matters terribly when writers mistake one word for another if they sound highly similar. Another example: “then” and “than”. The former refers to cause and effect or ordinality, the latter to a comparative antecedent, but people use the two of them interchangeably. Since each word has a distinct definition, we could easily combine them into one word anyway, something which happens a lot as language evolves.

So, I do think that the self-appointed correctors of the English Language ought to chill a bit (and not in the temperature lowering definition of that word, he clarified archly.) There is however one misusage that does annoy me more than a smidge which is the use of “literally” to imply obvious exaggeration, as in “I literally died laughing.” This butchering of the concept of literalness, though intentionally ironic, does undermine the ability of people to tell when said irony is taking place. If I were to say, “I literally ran ten miles.” and mean it, people in this day and age likely would take that as hyperbole, which is precisely what the term “literally” was invented to disambiguate.

Then, let me leave you all with this last thought. Some mistakes trip us up, some expand our minds, and some become monuments to both the ignorance and creativity of the human mind. This is language, all.

Nothing Happens Twice

I emerged from the blankness of my depression when a nearby man of less than average height began his futile attempts to reach a book upon a high shelf. I suppose my intent and wordless gaze fell on him far too long. As he finally looked in my direction, I lowered my eyeline but didn’t turn away, a misguided motion of guilt.

HIM: “Do you mind lending me a hand? I can’t quite reach it.”

ME: “Sure. I can, sure.”

My words carried me up out of the plush chair I’d slunk into and away from the news magazine that heralded all the ill-fated people and places of recent weeks. I went immediately to this stranger’s aid at only his simple request. He pointed me toward the book that troubled his reach as I came forth, arm raised.

HIM: “Thank you, sir. I don’t know why they make these stacks so tall. Shrink them a couple of inches, and I’d have no problem, you know?”

ME: ” I know. They’re probably much taller than they need to be.”

That library in particular was spare in its selection. Most of its shelves held less than half their capacity. Why use the top shelves at all? A man of less than average height likely needed this variety of assistance often. I could scarcely deign not to oblige.

HIM: “Thank you again, sir. I do appreciate it.”

ME: “Absolutely. You are quite welcome.”

He smiled and I returned as much reciprocal emotion as my mood allowed. Then he strode off to some other part of the library where, hopefully, his intentions lay within easier reach. My eyes returned to the voids in the shelves. It flashed into my mind that in movies, tv shows, and other depictions of libraries, books fill the premises almost to their limitations. Reality, of course, demands excess capacity, a place for everything when it is not wandering the world.

ME: What a strange place to be thinking about nothing.

These last words I murmured to myself, still standing, eyes fixed on the heart of the quiet buzz of activity all around me, desire for re-engaging that aforementioned periodical gone. Yes. Strange indeed.

Copyright 2015

(Note: The title of this piece is a reference to the Samuel Beckett play Waiting for Godot.)

Thoughts (Life Values)


Conducting a conversation on values is a difficult task especially existential ones. One of the main difficulties in my experience lies in the contradictions at the heart of the debate over so-called Pro-Life principles. People often rely on transcendent ideas to justify the preservation and promotion of human life, such as the Sanctity of Life and the Moral Animal arguments. Yet, at the same time, these same people will often reduce humanity down to reductive biological concepts, such as Genetics, Conception, and basic Cardiovascular Function. This would seem to simplify life down to the maxim, “We are alive because we are alive.”

The issue, I tend to think, is one of passivity, i.e. we are defined by traits we do not control. The specialness of the human soul, I believe, emerges from its capacity for reciprocity, not just Golden Rule-style behavior but even the ability to arbitrarily produce harmonious give and take, as in games and casual social interactions. This is intimately entwined with human health. If the creation and nurturing of life is to have meaning, it must have social meaning.

In a nutshell, we cannot measure the value of life as if a series of individuals but as an integration of individuals into a social environment. We must consider the obligation of the individual to the social environment as well as the reverse. Most Pro-Life arguments fail this test and, I believe, leave us stuck in the untenable position of taking sides in a battle that is not a battle but becomes analogous to one when we fail to heed the essence of civilization: United we stand; divided we fall.

Copyright 2015