"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, December 9, 2018

What Goes Around Comes Around–Deja Vu All Over Again And The Endless Repetition Of History

Determinism is a scary prospect.  It is much harder to gin up enthusiasm for a new day when it will be pretty much the same as the one before, all the rest, and all those to come.  Forget Christian determinism – God’s has planned your life out for you and he will elect you as one of the saved regardless of what you do – natural determinism is far more unsettling.  Human nature – innate, permanent, and absolute – has not changed for millennia and for good reason.  The survival of the species depends on aggressiveness, territorialism, perimeters, self-interest, and limitless ambition; and some unfortunate consequences necessarily result.  Wars of territorial expansion and political hegemony while consolidating power, enriching the kingdom, and enabling the growth of high culture, kill tens of thousands of unwilling conscripts and peasants.  Economic growth – a pacific expression of national power and influence – is not a neutral enterprise.  There have always been haves and have-nots.  For every benefit of human enterprise, there are always consequences expected or not. 

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This natural calculus is obvious; but its predictability is often overlooked.  Human activity, generated by the same, unchanged, natural engine that has never lost speed, direction, or inertia, will always produce the same results.  Of course the expressions of human nature are infinite.  Shakespeare, a confirmed determinist, understood that history would always repeat itself.  Jan Kott, a Shakespeare critic noted that if one were to lay all of Shakespeare’s Histories down in chronological order, the characters, scenario, setting, staging, and lighting would be different but the drama would be the same.  The Bard saw no contradiction whatsoever in writing about superficially unique individuals marching to the same drummer.  In fact, that is the nature of drama.  We know exactly what’s going to happen, but are fascinated to learn how.   We know that Daphne Du Maurier’s Gothic romances cannot possibly end well, but we can’t put them down for wondering just what particular twists of fate will doom the lovers.  Turkish soap operas show unvarnished human nature as well as any serious drama.  Greed, ambition, and deceit are their staples.  There will be winners and losers but who, how, and why?

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All of which is why no one should be surprised at the news.  Why should presidents, politicians, Wall Street bankers, evangelical preachers, generals, and university presidents behave any differently than kings, popes, tribal warriors, and shoguns? The capacity for ambition, greed, venality, and self-service is limitless.  Competition is hardwired and absolute.  No one in power takes defeat lying down; no one on the way to power is careful not to trample on the flowers; and no one up and down the social phylogenetic scale will take insult, dismissal, or disregard with a smile.

Yet idealism is hard to dampen.  Life simply cannot be so predictable.  Human beings can harness the power of human nature for the best.  Why not an aggrandizement of good? A juggernaut of progress? A demanding, insistent, aggressive movement for peace, harmony, and a better world? Because people bicker, movements fracture, and competing interests destroy whatever unity there might have been.  Not only do religions disagree on salvation, but the many sects, branches, and affiliates of each religion disagree.  The pie is only so big.

Environmentalism is the biggest tent around, and in principle there should be room for those who want to protect the spotted owl, the snail darter, the air over the Mojave., the water in the Chesapeake, the small farmer, and organic agriculture.  All are welcome, but resources are never infinite and every dollar that goes to cleaning up the Bay is a dollar not invested in solar power. While the overarching principles of protecting the Earth may be universally respected, the fight for territory, resources, and political support is as internecine and bloody as any.

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As in all events, there will be environmental winners and losers.  Evangelical, mediated religions will get more adherents while Catholics, discouraged at their church’s dereliction of moral responsibility and leadership turn away.  Women who have benefitted from feminism and the civil rights movements will move from the kitchen to the boardroom and contribute to capitalism’s amoral acquisitiveness.  The virtues of motherhood, homemaking, and tradition will be diluted and finally forgotten.  Something has to give.  Human nature is unforgiving; and history keeps a well-kept balance sheet.

Why do so many people, then, persist in their idealism? Isn’t an even casual glance at history enough to conclude that there are no absolutes, that horrific things are done in the name of good, and that there is no such thing as progress? The Twentieth Century saw dramatic improvements in life expectancy, material wealth, and well-being; but it was also one of the bloodiest in history.  Not only were there as many wars as in previous years, but the nature of the wars took on a more sinister character.  Hitler did not only want to conquer Europe and Russia – that would be very understandable – but he wanted to exterminate an entire race.     Stalin and Mao were strong and powerful leaders but were responsible for the death of millions because of their policies.  It was not enough for Pol Pot to follow the example of Mao in his desire to create a perfect socialist state.  He had to murder millions to do so.

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This ‘ignorant’ idealism may have its roots in religion.  God cannot simply let the world fall apart.  He cannot let us destroy ourselves through war, environmental neglect, greed, and divisiveness.  He will have to intervene, perhaps with another Flood, a new start, and a new vision.  Jesus Christ’s words of compassion, love, and inclusivity must have metaphysical importance.  If we follow his example, the world will indeed be a better place.

Of course this may all be hokum, religion only a fancy myth, and the Catholic Church built on mythical false promises of Christ in the desert, may have taken advantage of man’s simple desire for miracle, mystery, and authority to build a powerful political institution. 

It is even more likely that idealism is an ironic by-product of human nature.  One must be convinced that the political struggle for individual rights is a noble one, of a higher order than mundane affairs.  Belief in a cause makes that cause more valid and energizes those in the struggle.

Or perhaps idealism is simply a happier version of life than doom-and-gloom determinism.  A Disney, Hollywood version.  Life may be sordid affair, but why look that closely?

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Besides, who wants to dwell on the fact that we are random, valueless bits in an equally random and valueless but infinite universe? We are better off at the movies.

Saturday, December 8, 2018

‘Affordable Housing’–The Myth Of Public Subsidy And Social Engineering

The DC government, like many others, has passed laws to ‘encourage’ developers to provide a certain number of ‘affordable’ housing units in any new high-rise building they construct.  The arguments for such ‘affordability’ are many.  It is important for firemen, police, and teachers, advocates say, to live near their work.  They are the backbone of middle class society, perhaps its most important members because of the charge they carry, the responsibility of safeguarding our communities, teaching our children, and saving our homes, and they need public assistance.  Theirs is a higher good, say proponents of affordable housing laws, rent control, and rent stabilization.

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‘Diversity’ is perhaps the most relevant principle underlying public support of housing.  There is something inherently good about a mix of cultures, ethnicities, race, and incomes.  A city will be a better, more tolerant, and more civil place if such social mixing occurs.  It is only right and proper for government to accelerate the trend and to engineer a more welcoming and accepting society.

Neither policy stands up to scrutiny.  There is no reason why public servants cannot live where they can afford and commute to work like employees in the private sector.  Young workers in Washington routinely live in the suburbs, in small, shared apartments in Rockville and Gaithersburg, and accept the opportunity cost and Metro fare as a worthwhile expense given the attractive salaries paid downtown.  Firemen can also live out of town, come in for their shifts, and be as ready as any colleague who lives near the station to fight fires.  The same goes for police and educators.  A teacher in a Northwest DC school who lives in Falls Church performs no less well than one who lives within city limits.

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Proponents of affordable housing say that public laws and subsidies enabling these public servants to live close to work has an ancillary public good – fewer commuters, less pollution, and less congestion.  Yet the number of public workers in one of the nation’s booming high-tech regions is infinitesimal compared to the number of private employees.   Washington’s congestion is due to the economic boom which has brought it out of the one-horse, one-employer, government town, to the place to live. 

If one were for a moment to consider affordable housing proponents’ argument, how might government assure fair and equitable distribution of public resources?  It might be all well and good for the City Council to vote in favor of its firemen, teachers, and police; but no law could be that exclusive.  Anyone falling under an income threshold  would and should be eligible for such housing.  Such a law is a boon to young private sector workers happy to be able to live in high-rent, exclusive neighborhoods of the city paying low rent.  Why should government support them?

As importantly, what would be the threshold?  One cannot fix rent limits without considering income; and how indeed could that be determined? Prevailing firemen’s salaries? And how to fix the rent?  One could match base (fireman’s) income with rents paid, and fix ‘affordable’ rates accordingly. However, this would tend to keep rents lower than they should be given ‘aspirational valuation’.  Families with modest income may be willing to pay a higher proportion of their disposable income for housing in a desirable neighborhood, and any rent below this aspirational level would be uneconomic.

There are two forms of government support for affordable housing.  The first is by law which requires developers of new buildings to reserve a certain percentage of units for lower-income families.  The second is to enforce rent control, a program whereby landlords can only raise rents minimally and gradually for existing tenants. 

The argument for the first option is that taxpayers pay nothing for the program.  Landlords simply will charge more rent for their market-based units in order to cross-subsidize the low-rent ones.  This however will result in two undesirable  consequences.  First, the higher rents will discourage those families of modest means who, as above, assess a high aspirational value to apartments in desirable neighborhoods.  In other words, the market could, left alone, serve the same purpose as government mandates.  Perhaps bottom-rung middle class renters would be excluded, but why should government make that choice or distinction?

Second is that developers under an affordable housing mandate will build units inferior to those at market rates.  They will be smaller, lower, with less light and access while the higher-than-market rents will assure luxury accommodations for those renters on higher floors.  The buildings will be de facto segregated.  Such physical segregation will ensure normal, predictable social segregation.  The young lawyers and lobbyists on the higher floors will be even more unlikely to mix with the police and fire fighters on the lower.

Rent control is an even worse option, for, as in the case of San Francisco and other cities with strict rent control laws, landlords simply hold properties off the market, benefitting from increases in land values while avoiding the losses incurred because of insufficient rents. Not only that, the city benefits from high rent districts.  Former NYC Mayor Bloomberg understood that the development of the High Line, a rails-to-trails pedestrian walkway through lower Midtown Manhattan, would generate economic development nearby.  He was right, and the property taxes from the new desirable high-rent buildings have helped fill the city’s coffers and permitted it to invest in better infrastructure, parks, and public services.  Lower income residents and small business owners were indeed displaced, but such displacement is part of a dynamic economy.

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Finally, ‘diversity’.  Despite the clamor and the insistence on its higher good, there is no evidence that it in fact contribute to civil harmony, tolerance, and good governance.  In fact, as this era of identity politics has amply shown, diversity has contributed to divisiveness and disunion. Engineered diversity – like any other public distortion of the economic or social marketplace – is more likely to set back social, racial, and ethnic integration than to encourage it.

Likes have always attracted likes.  Well-paid, well-educated professionals want to interact with people like them – not policemen, firefighters, and utility workers.  They want their children to grow up and be educated in a homogeneous environment and do not want them to be held back by students from less-motivated if not dysfunctional families.  For all the public expressions of support for diversity, ambitious families want none of it.  This conviction has nothing to do with, as many critics claim, racism – the desire to keep schools white.  It has only to do with keeping them upper middle class, high-performing, and socially homogeneous. One of the greatest advantages of Washington’s private schools is that students will be in a uniform community of highly intelligent, motivated, interested, and intellectually curious classmates.

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In other words, given fundamental social behavior, the market works quite well.  Despite insistence that social engineering works, human nature will always trump interventionism.  ‘Affordable’ housing is but one example of ill-considered social engineering and perhaps the most visible and obvious.  Yet such engineering occurs throughout the public system.  Schools have become experimental laboratories for social reformation.  Academic excellence is no longer the unique guiding principle of elementary education. Teachers are now responsible for ensuring tolerance of ‘difference’, promoting ‘multiple intelligences’ at the expense of high-performance, socially practical disciplined cognitive learning, and readjusting gender behavioral patterns – e.g. discouraging typical male behavior in favor of a more collaborative, cooperative female environment) .

It is no surprise that parents who can afford it, quickly move their children to private, parochial, or charter schools.  Not only are they in search of a higher quality education; they are fed up with prescriptive administrative policies and government interference.

Affordable housing, like all other public social engineering programs will wither and die, removed without notice by economic dynamism.  It will be revived in down times – the New Deal was never finished and buried – but in good times or even modest ones, it will remain marginal and insignificant.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Recipes–Chickpea Soup Puree With Basil And Mushrooms

This recipe is derived from a classic Italian Mediterranean dish using whole chickpeas; but as a soup it is delicious as well.

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Chickpea Soup With Basil And Mushrooms
* 1 can organic, low-salt chickpeas
* 2 medium cloves garlic, chopped
* 3 lg. sprigs fresh basil
* 1 Tbsp. dried basil
* 1 med. onion, chopped
* 1/4 cup dry (Amontillado best) sherry
* 1/4 cup olive oil
* 1/4 cup dried mushrooms (porcini or portabella)
* 2 lg., stalks celery, chopped
- Saute the onion, garlic, celery, mushrooms, and basil in olive oil until soft

- Add 1 1/2 cups water (approx.)

- Add the chickpeas and their liquid and mix well

- Simmer over low heat for about 15-20 minutes until chickpeas soften a bit

- Put the mixture in a blender and blend well.

- Return to saucepan, simmer over low heat, reduce the liquid until desired consistency and flavor

- Add salt and ground pepper to taste

- Garnish with a few sprigs fresh cilantro or parsley and a dollop of sour cream (optional)

-Serve