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July 01, 2015

DOOM: A Serious House On Serious Earth

DOOOOM

I been gone too long, my groovy babies. Real life doth conspire to keep us apart, but given the spectacularly DOOM-laden week gone by, I thought I should bestir myself and vent my spleen. (TRIGGER WARNING: Some Xtianist God-bothering occurs in the below text. Please keep a paper bag handy so that if your outrage causes you to hyperventilate, you can breathe into it until some semblance of emotional equilibrium is restored.)

In the wake of the Supreme Court's gay-marriage decision, there is a lot of angst among Christians about what this latest defeat in the culture war portends. Some advocate withdrawing from the culture entirely; others advocate various forms of civil disobedience. As for me...I simply feel weary. Christians have been fighting secularism in the West for more than a century now, and losing ground the entire time.

Matthew Arnold wrote "Dover Beach" more than a century ago, but it could have been written yesterday:

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

The poet Philip Larkin brought his secularist's fear and suppressed awe to God's house in his poem "Church Going":

A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognized, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round.

Religious faith is serious, and only takes root in serious folk. To me and many of my Christian cohort, the diminution of Christianity in the West coincides more or less with a loss of seriousness in the West. Not just a decay of virtue (both public and private), but a decay of gladness, hope and optimism -- a loss of belief in the ideal that being moral, upright, kind, steadfast, and honest is something to be aspired to even when it brings no direct benefit. Even when no one is watching (for God is always watching). There has been a progressive (in both senses of the word) loss in the belief that there is pneuma as well as sarx and soma -- and that pneuma is the most important part.

A church is a serious house on serious earth...but much of the earth is no longer serious.

But we do not despair, we Christians. The faith will go on -- if not here, then somewhere else. Our religion is not a game of numbers, to be given up when the score goes against us. Over the course of two millennia, we have faced graver threats. Every Christian is taught over and over again that our lot on earth is hardship -- we are commanded to go forth even so and carry the Word with us. (1 Peter 4:11-12)


The recent failure of a SpaceX mission was a lousy end to a lousy week. That's three ISS cargo runs that have failed in the past year, for those keeping track: an Orbital Antares rocket exploded on the pad; a Russian Progress freighter was lost; and now a SpaceX resupply mission has failed. For some weird reason, the space-launch industry goes through these periods of high failure-rates -- there doesn't seem to be any common denominator. Just Murphy exerting his invincible will. NASA assures us that the ISS has enough supplies to last for quite a while, but the margins have narrowed significantly.

Has this Greek tragedyfarce finally entered the final act?

"This is humiliating," said Athanasios, an 80-year-old former army officer. "I used to receive a monthly pension of 1,500 euros and now I have to line up for hours to receive 120? This is unfair."

You elected the Socialist government now driving your country into the abyss, friend. If you believe as I do that people in democracies get the government they deserve, then this is perfectly fair. Socialism is a one-way ticket to misery and failure. As George Will put it, "There cannot be too many socialist smashups."

It's easy (and completely justified) to blame the Greeks for their predicament, but the Greeks are simply the vanguard in a long line of nations who have buried themselves under mountains of unpayable debt. (Puerto Rico is in pretty much the same straits as Greece financially, but since they use the US dollar and the US government is their sovereign, they will not face nearly the same downside as the Greeks.)

All beneficiaries of government largesse should remember one thing: a promise to pay benefits does not guarantee an ability to pay benefits.

The government is not a person -- it does not love you, or particularly care about your welfare, or worry about how well you're getting on. To the government, you are a ledger entry and that's pretty much it. The government is a set of rules and processes overseen by politicians and bureaucrats who have absolutely no personal investment in your welfare. Your value to the government is a statistical one, insofar as you are a member of some larger collection: part of a voting bloc, a certain class, or interest group. Most governments aren't evil, but they're not benevolent either. It is a colossal mistake to ascribe personal feelings or motivations to any government. Individuals within that government, sure, but not the government itself.

I've said it many, many times, but it bears repeating: the Euro was a horrible idea right from the start. It was a system so fragile and brittle that failure was inevitable -- the only surprise it that the Eurozone has managed to stagger along for this long without a major rupture.

Next up in the "California is boned" pageant: the city of Richmond! Let's give them a big hand!

Before I close, I want to say a few words about debt. I'm seeing a lot of hyperbole from my hard-money and libertarian friends that there is something intrinsically wrong with debt, and that one should never go into debt unless at gravest need -- and maybe not even then.

This is silly.

Why do I say this?

Because debt is simply one side of the coin; the other side of the coin is investment. You cannot borrow money unless someone is willing to loan it, and you cannot loan money unless there are borrowers. Without debt, there is no investment. Without investment, wealth cannot be created and the economy cannot grow.

People run into problems with debt in the same way they run into problems with food: they eat too much. The problem with debt are not intrinsic to the concept, but in the inability of many human beings to manage it. As in so much else in economics, debt is a behavioral problem. Many policy answers to the "debt problem" try to focus on the incentives of debt, but the problem is that the government wants people to go into debt -- requires them to go into debt, in fact. A consumer-driven economy in a fiat-money system cannot function without high levels of debt at all levels; this churn is needed to keep money in motion and provide opportunities for the investment side of the ledger. (Though in a ZIRP environment, the "investment" side of the equation is barely worthwhile, and it is this asymmetrical relationship that is at the root of our economy's underperformance.)

Debt is much like any other intoxicant: its usage requires self-control. Lacking that, all the laws and regulations in the world won't stop people from getting into trouble with debt -- as with a habitual drunkard, the only remedy is to cut them off.

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posted by Monty at 09:45 AM

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