What’s Wrong with the World

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What’s Wrong with the World is dedicated to the defense of what remains of Christendom, the civilization made by the men of the Cross of Christ. Athwart two hostile Powers we stand: the Jihad and Liberalism...read more


Barack Obama, speaking on the stump in Oregon over the weekend, and arguing that America must "lead by example" on environmental questions, stated that "We can't drive our SUVs and eat as much as we want and keep our homes on 72 degrees at all times ... and then just expect that other countries are going to say OK." To do so would represent a failure of leadership.

The response of the conservative commentariat was as predictable as the rising of the sun, death, and taxation. Jim Geraghty, writing at NRO's Campaign Spot, delivered himself of the following:

Would an Obama Administration really mean an end to "eating as much as we want?"

I want to jokingly ask if that includes airstrikes on buffet tables, or John Kerry's "global test" being followed up by Barack Obama's "global diet," but I'm semi-serious — Obama apparently feels Americans eating as much as they want is something that cannot continue, or at least with other countries' approval. What will his administration do to change that? If he isn't going to act as president on this matter, why bring it up?

Radio and TV talk-show host Glenn Beck was still more substantive than Geraghty, playing the old Soviet National anthem and declaiming that the counsels of Obama portended the imminent imposition of socialism and the demise of capitalism, and therewith the abrogation of the American way of life.

Frankly speaking, were any government, let alone our own, to establish a Quantitative Dietary Commission, for the purpose of promulgating and enforcing dietary moderation, it would be an abomination, not to mention utterly unfeasible. Nonetheless, I'm dubious that any such thing lies in prospect, and find this characteristic combination of mockery and fearmongering to be hyperbolic and overwrought. It seems manifest that, in context, Obama was not so much isolating three discrete instances of American crapulence, each of which he proposes to moderate by coercive regulation, as associating the three under a general rubric of excess and indifference, desire and entitlement, and were conservatives interested in reckoning with reality instead of scoring political points and stoking fears, they might relate Obama's utterance to recent news. For example, interpreted in connection with ongoing price inflation in foodstuffs, driven in part by the American insistence on converting food into fuel for the Happy Motoring Paradise, which has occasioned shortages and hunger abroad, Obama is essentially stating that Americans cannot a) consume all of the motor fuels they want by driving as much as they want, even transforming food into fuel in order to do so, b) eat as much food as they want, further pressuring world supplies, and c) consume yet more energy pretending that our homes can all possess, at all times, the internal climate of San Diego on a fine Spring day, and then, d) expect the remainder of the world to accept our actions as legitimate. In what alternative universe would the rest of the world, particularly the poorer parts thereof, deliver the verdict that, in a globalized economy, American profligacy is legitimate, even when it adversely impacts them? No one reasons in such a fashion: what that other party does demonstrably harms me, but it's all OK, because they possess the right to do the things that indirectly, though logically, cause those harms.

I reiterate that I oppose the creation of a Quantitative Dietary Commission, the legal regulation of thermostat settings, and the proscription of the SUV. Not that my opposition is of any consequence, as none of these things is really in view. It appears to me that 'market incentives' are addressing these questions, at least to some extent. Nonetheless, there is something more at work here.

While it pains me to make the observation, conservatives are still labouring under the mythology of morning in America; along with all of the generalized awfulness of the Carter administration, they have jettisoned that pessimistic, but ultimately realistic, recognition that resources are finite, scarcity is real, and that adjustments to scarcity will entail discomforts and inconveniences, which can be postponed only at the cost of increasing their severity. World demand for petroleum resources is increasing, concomitant with globalization, the idol of the epoch, at a time when world extraction of those resources is probably, at best, stagnant, and possibly either declining or shortly to decline. Simultaneously, modern agricultural production is overly dependent upon those resources, and an increasing percentage of arable land is being diverted to biofuels production, to compensate for the former problem. Both developments augur alterations in our modes of existence, to say no more than the patently obvious.

Apparently, however, an acknowledgment of the finitude of the resources around which we have articulated the entirety of our political and economic modernization, amounts to communist wrongthought, a traducement of the imperatives of eternal optimism, and an affront against the sovereignty of the desire, hence the 'right', to brook no limitation upon our appetites, nay, even the intimation of the advisability of self-limitation. In this, contemporary conservatives, right-liberals almost to a man, disclose their philosophy as a mere modulation of the dominant political frameworks of modernity; we are creatures of affects and drives, desires, forces of attraction and repulsion, and political society is a contractual artifact engineered to facilitate, for the individual, the maximal potential satisfaction of appetites compatible with the MPSoA of all other individuals in the simulacrum of society. The specific good of the political is the facilitation, and protection, of a regime of preference-satisfaction; the political is instrumental towards the acquisition of the objects of desire, and towards their security from the vicissitudes of history, the malice of our fellows, and, increasingly, the judgments rendered, from within the older teleological traditions, against the essentially disordered foundations of the age. In this respect, both left and right are modulations of a common theme, the left valorizing progressive lifestyle experimentation on the basis of sentimental identitarianism ("I have experienced repeated, persistent feelings of attraction to members of the same sex, and therefore, I am gay."), the right analogously valorizing a consumerist acquisitiveness ("I wish to enjoy all of the trappings of material abundance, as I define them, and no impediment should be placed across my path, no ethical crosswind should divert my trajectory."); both essentially want what they want when, how, and in the quantities they want it, and it is not the underlying disposition that distinguishes them, but only their objects, and the political doctrines expressive of the respective desire-object pairings. The givenness, the desirability (pun half-intended), the moral liceity, of this passional disposition is a feature of our discourse, an axiom or presupposition which it is simply uncouth to interrogate, notwithstanding the fact that the older tradition perceived the spiritual and psychological interrelationships between the multifarious appetitive disorders of the soul.

Confronted with trends in political economy and resource exploitation, which prophesy a future unlike the past we have known, and in the wake of the decision of the California Supreme Court abrogating the legal distinction between civil unions and marriage, a determination reflective of our societal norms of affective contractualism and hostility towards the ascetic norms of self-limitation and self-sacrifice, conservatism, in the main, wallows in its unseriousness, incognizant of the chain which binds our moral declension to our economic predicaments: a repudiation of limits, a celebration of limitlessness in a bounded world.

Comments (78)

both [Lifestyle Left and Free Consumption Right] essentially want what they want when, how, and in the quantities they want it, and it is not the underlying disposition that distinguishes them, but only their objects, and the political doctrines expressive of the respective desire-object pairings...

This reminds me of an episode of public radio's The Peoples' Pharmacy I had the misfortune of waking up to when visiting my old stomping grounds of SW VA. The subject was "Sexual solutions" (pretty sure it was this episode). And during the call-in I got the distinct impression that the unquestioned sexpert on the show was defining sexual dysfunction basically as "not getting as much (or little) as you want." The show's hosts were prostrate with deference, of course, and would never be so rude as to suggest that living within natural constraints might be construed as something less than "dysfunction". Sixty-somethings calling in for "advice". Embarrassing. If the old lady wants it, thank your lucky stars, otherwise shut-up and act yer age.

The words of Christopher Decker, writing in NOR back in 1993 seem rather apposite too:

"The logic of chastity is fatally opposed to the logic of consumerism. To live chastely requires that one master and control one's desires. As St. Thomas Aquinas points out, chastity takes its name from the fact that reason chastises concupiscence. The logic of chastity implies an ascetic attitude toward life.

The logic of consumerism is quite the opposite. Advertising, the propaganda of the consumer society, attempts to arouse desire and to convince us that a certain purchase will satisfy it. Most large-scale advertising campaigns appeal to desires for gratification. We are told, subtly or not, that a certain purchase will feel good or taste good, or make us look good and enhance our appeal to others....

Obviously, this view begs the question of whether we should want what we want. But when it comes to sex, no one (at least not anyone with much in the way of advertising dollars) seems to thing this is a question worth asking.

The question is generally not asked because it is economically dangerous.... Consumers must be continually stimulated to want more and more so that business can sell more and more. It's hard to sell the newest fashion craze to someone who tends to be suspicious of his desires; thus the question that chastity raises about desire is profoundly unsettling to those who profit from a materialistic society.

Given that our society has been overwhelmingly converted to an ethic of indulgence, chastity is not merely a type of dissent, it is a form of economic subversion.... The chaste person refuses to participate in the degradation of sex and the degradation of the human person it implies.... It is a form of rebellion. It is a virtue that undermines the very foundations of a culture based on selfishness and greed."

(as quoted by Daniel Mitsui and, as luck would have it, in part by commentator Kevin in response to one of Lydia's posts)

In short, yes, lust and gluttony are more or less of a piece... and favoritism toward one or the other is a sure display of profound cognitive dissonance.

Actually, I rather like the Geraghty quotation. I haven't read the whole column from which it comes so can't speak to it. Obama has a lot of nerve. FWIW, the non-neocon Larry Auster apparently thinks this "global test of American eating and temperature control indoors" stuff is garbage as well.

And I disagree with this: "...eat as much food as they want, further pressuring world supplies..."

That implies that we are "wronging" people in other countries by eating a lot of food, because we are somehow lowering their supplies. This reminds me of how annoyed I always get when liberals, pushing healthcare socialization, start talking about "our healthcare dollars." There is no such thing as one big pile of "world [food] supplies." As a matter of fact, _we_ supply a heck of a lot of food to the rest of the world, much of it as charity, and we aren't even obligated to do so. We produce huge amounts of food in no small part because we are a darned great country, with (more or less) free enterprise as well as God-given great natural resources of land. These are not globally owned, nor is the food produced by means of them globally owned, nor does it make sense to imagine some sort of "all else being equal" scenario in which Americans eat less and what they don't eat still gets produced but goes flying off to...I don't know...Bangladesh. It simply is not true that if I eat less someone else will have more to eat, so that I'm taking food out of the mouths of the foreign poor and hungry whenever I eat. That is just...economically wrong-headed.

So, for the record, and speaking as a contributor: Please, readers, do not think that W4 is simply becoming the new cheering ground on the Right for Obama's economic bon mots (if that is the correct plural).

This has nothing to do with collective global ownership of our arable land, or the production thereof; it has to do with the fungibility of foodstuffs as commodities in a global market, when we have converted much acreage to the production of biofuels, exacerbating a mounting global shortage. It also has nothing to do with the notion that an individual act of abstention feeds someone overseas, by the very fact of its occurrence; it is a phenomenon of the aggregates: we can afford to convert cropland to the production of fuels, and yet afford to continue feeding ourselves, while our actions have different ramifications abroad: they can afford less of the reduced supply. By diverting land from the production of food, and purchasing as much, if not more, than we require, we elevate the price floor for various foodstuffs globally; that doesn't mean that we've taken food from hungry mouths somewhere, only that the price mechanism has done so. This is simply how a global economy functions; this is what it means for commodities to be fungible.

I believe that the rhetorical notion of a 'global test' has been defined downward if it is now thought applicable to discussions of supply and demand in global markets.

To Steve Nicoloso's point; lust and greed go hand in hand, the striking difference may only be the stage of life when either vice predominates. Witness, if you can pardon the crude, but telling example; the seamless transition that so many made from Woodstock to Wall Street. The modern archtype is a well-heeled, thrice divorced programing executive at FOX, who applauds the Beltway Boys, while booking soft-porn for his network's Sunday night fare.

As for main-stream conservatism, let us mourn it's devolution into pro -corporation liberalism. Limits to what man and science can achieve? You can't be serious. Wary of unrestrained appetite? Please, stop being a kill-joy. Stewardship? Just a reactionary buzzword designed to impede progress. We've built a society on private profit and self-fulfillment, woe to those who trouble our collective conscience by questioning the status quo. The earth is our plaything. Now, pass the petro and party on.

Eat, drink, drive, and guzzle gas, for tomorrow, we die. Who cares about posterity?

I'm no fan of ethanol. But then, for that, please blame the environmentalists, who were all over the idea like a cheap suit. "Green fuel," you know. But somehow, the capitalists or the horrors of consumption and "greed" always get blamed instead. My ideas of how, in terms of energy, to help us keep up our *perfectly legitimate* American lifestyle (and let's hear it for indoor temperature control) are, however, scarcely such as to win applause from the likes of Barack Obama nor from the Crunchy Cons, either.

It simply is not true that if I eat less someone else will have more to eat, so that I'm taking food out of the mouths of the foreign poor and hungry whenever I eat. That is just...economically wrong-headed.

Probably true, Lydia, but driving less, i.e., reducing demand for oil (and worse: Ethanol), will bring down food prices for the foreign poor, thus enabling more of them to eat. And considering that about 10 kcal of fossil fuels go into each kcal of food we eat, that probably is the difference. Of course, mass starvation should bring down oil (and food) prices too.

As a matter of fact, _we_ supply a heck of a lot of food to the rest of the world, much of it as charity...

Actually, it is charity of this very nature that is thought (by some, e.g., here) to harm 3rd world agricultural producers... who should be, and for most of human history were, able to feed their own without our "help."

By all means I blame the environmentalists for the ethanol boondoggle, in concert with the usual corporatists who hopped on that excursion into the regulatory forests of managerial capitalism, privatizing their profits and socializing the externalities.

I'm interested in alternatives, but I'm not keen on mountaintop removal, aka coal and shale oil; neither am I interested in tar sands and the like. The environmental impacts are luridly adverse, and that at a time when critical resources, from fisheries to topsoil to watersheds, are all under threat. The earth, and our descendants, bear the costs of our sovereign desire to Drive Now.

Maximos, great post. If the "conservative" pundits had confined their criticism to the implied "permission-slip-ism" of Obama's statement, I would have been more sympathetic, but of course they reveal their attachment to the whole idea of life without limits, and the perversity of their idea of what's good.

That's a great explanation, too, of the way in which hedonism of the "Left" and "Right" varieties is fundamentally identical, and elections these days tend to be a competition to see who can offer the people more of this poison.

Great, Steve. Then let's please stop, and then we can stop talking about the global prices of corn, can't we? Because we'll grow it, and we'll eat it, and if we do something stupid and start burning it, we won't be "wronging" any poor foreigners but only ourselves. Which is a dumb example of ignoring the law of unintended consequences, for sure, but hardly a matter of the rich Americans harming the poor third-worlders. As indeed, it isn't now. Once you guys make it clear that it is a case of the stupid effect on food prices of the ethanol boondoggle, then our eating now isn't really what it's all about, and we aren't "wronging" anybody either by driving or eating now. Rather, the people who pushed for the ethanol thing were being foolish and short-sighted, and everybody (ourselves included) is now paying the price in higher food costs. So, to use a phrase beloved of the left, let's address that "root cause" rather than talking about gluttony and greed, which would not have had these effects you guys are talking about without the ethanol craze. I would note, too, that _exactly_ the sort of rhetoric Obama is dishing out about how our consumption is hurting the world's poor--as if we took it from them--has been around a heck of a lot longer on the left than ethanol has been in the world. It is a basic leftist way of looking at things: Inequalities in outcome in the world as a whole, or anywhere, must mean that the people who are doing better are "greedy" and are "wronging" the people who are doing worse. Conservatives are supposed to know better, and I'm going to keep pointing this out whenever I have time as long as the other way of looking at the matter is rhetorically pushed on this blog.

I would expect, moreover, that people who dislike globalization--both as to jobs and as to trade--on the grounds that it tends to level the quality of living among nations would _not_ be sympathetic to Obama-style moaning and groaning and guilt-mongering about how evil and greedy we must be because our lifestyle is so much better than that of other nations. And, yes, that applies to being able to drive to the store and keep one's home between 68 and 80 degrees year-round. And thank God for forced-air furnaces and central air conditioning, and the fuel to run them.

In the long term - I mean really long term, like decades and longer - the foodstuff production and demand will tend to even out, as long as the market is not tampered with nor improperly constrained by monopolistic entities. So, if some people stop growing rice to grow ethanol ;-) and this drives up the price, the upwards pressure will induce others to take their arable land that is not now producing and start to grow something worth money. Maybe in the short term there will be shortage, but there is no reason to think that will continue indefinitely. Eventually the demand will induce a correction.

It is really difficult to establish, for example, that I "ought" to not go on a driving vacation of 1000 miles, which I can afford, merely because this will "drive up" the price of fuel and hence food. In the absence of a direct causal link between my driving and someone else starving, I am unable to determine what the "effects" of my demand for fuel are other than that I spend the money for the fuel and this means my local gas station has less fuel and more money. If gas becomes so in demand for food-growing that its price rises ten-fold, so that it becomes a luxury for vacation usage, then I can no longer afford it for pleasure and this will show me how valuable it is. Likewise I have every right to assume that the market price shows me how valuable it is right now.

Although I agree with Maximos' initial point that Obama's remarks can indeed be taken in a more intelligent light, I do not agree with the style of Obama's characterization of the reality, nor his intended corrections. If the world wants to stop selling the US the things it sells us, then they have that right. Until they stop selling to us, they are presumably getting in return something of equal value to them. We do not at this time steal internationally, except in the securities market - and those players know enough to watch out for our thievery. Everything else we obtain is through trade. It is a gross mis-characterization to state or imply that we consume either in food or fuel that which we have a right to, when we have bargained for it on the open market.

To the extent that we have an obligation to aid our neighbors who do not have enough, this is not equivalent to an obligation to to refrain from purchasing something we can afford - as long as the two are not mutually exclusive of themselves. Moreover, the obligation we have to our neighbors is not at root an obligation that must be solved at the national level of government. Nothing in the Constitution gives the federal government the power to see to the betterment of all mankind, so that power (so far as it is a governmental power at all) must of necessity belong to the states (see reserved powers clause).

All consumption of anything by anyone in the world "drives up prices" in exactly the same sense, whether it is consumed by rich or poor, for good motives or bad, gluttonously or of necessity. Gluttony is wrong because it's wrong, even if the food I eat gluttonously would otherwise do no one else the slightest good and my refraining from eating it would not help anyone else get more to eat in any way, directly or indirectly. It is not wrong because it "drives up prices."

And one can't have it both ways: If, as Steve N. says, America is doing harm to the farmers of the third world by _giving_ away corn to them for free, then a fortiori we cannot be doing them harm by (for goodness' sake) simply _eating_ our own corn rather than selling it to them at a lower price. Nor even, for that matter, by burning it for fuel. That's that much less cheap-or-free grain flooding their markets and driving down their drive to produce, right? It is in any event incorrect to assume, merely from the bare fungibility of foodstuffs, that if we did not eat something or even burn it, it would still be grown but would be sold at a cheaper price to people in the third world. It might not be produced in the first place at all.

Finally, I don't know the answer to this but no doubt some of you do: Is Uncle Sam still in the jolly business of deliberately keeping prices high for foodstuffs grown by U.S. producers by guaranteeing a price, purchasing what the producers can't sell for that price, and then destroying it? If you want to rant about driving up food prices by driving down supply, go ahead and rant about burning tons of oranges and you will have me wholly on your side. But it would be a little more difficult to work in rhetoric about the evils of American drivers and eaters there, I guess.

Forget Obama's remarks, if only because they are his, and deal with the essence of the moral challenge in front of us; can we go on like this? And if yes, should we? Is our lifestyle "better" in a moral sense? If not why are we so casually and enthusiastically touting it?

Conservatives can either defend posterity, or they can promote consumption. They can't do both. As for the term "Crunchy Con", I'm not sure what it means, but, the conservative that prefers the local to the
global, the particular to the universal, and humility to hubris, has a longer, more noble pedigree than what passes as conservatism nowadays.

"Conservatives can either defend posterity, or they can promote consumption."

A shallow soundbite if ever I saw one. Everyone eats and sleeps, and virtually everyone wears clothes. Many people sleep in a bed with sheets. Some people even have electricity and use computers (like all of us here, obviously). It is not written anywhere, neither in the natural law or in any revealed law, that one must do these things just this way and no other, in just this much comfort but no more, have just this much enjoyment from life but no more, and so forth. There is nothing intrinsically wrong or right about "consumption." It's just a way of describing "having some stuff," "using stuff" or even more generally "doing stuff" that can be made rhetorically to sound bad. And, no, the people of the third world have no just complaint merely because others are materially better off. I'm sorry, but that whole way of looking at things is just flat wrong.

Material goods are not the greatest goods, but they _are_ goods. The material well-being of man is not the highest good, but it _is_ a good, and those inventors, entrepreneurs, and producers who have made things better for all of us have done us all a good turn--including, inter alia, the poorest in the world. I refuse categorically to be any party to all this knocking of material well-being. Those who have brought it to us are to be thanked, not condemned. We have much to be grateful for, including, as the General Thanksgiving puts it, "all the blessings of this life."

Consumption in this context, refers to the way of life, that prefers having over being. At some point, Lydia, you will have to acknowledge the link between much that you hold repugnant in way of sexual morality, and that which you extol as the benefits of the consumerist cult.

Would it help in any way, if you knew the our consumer-economy has it's roots in the New Deal? Rexford Tugwell and Horace Kallen are in the pantheon of the Left and it's unsettling to see you hail their handiwork.

I'm a supply-sider, not a Keynesian. I don't know for sure if this is relevant to your comment, Kevin, but it unsettles me to see conservatives make Keynesian assumptions in various contexts (e.g., that consumer demand drives a country's economic well-being) and then saddle "capitalism" with the economic and other harms--e.g., government expansion of credit and creation of inflation--engendered by these assumptions.

Let me put one point this way: If Joe's children will be, in some objective and significant way, better cared for if he gives up his SUV, this is a powerful consideration that favors his giving up his SUV. But to say that if Joe gives up his SUV, this will contribute as one tiny blip in a total set of effects which _maybe_, in some highly indirect and complicated way, will drive down food prices and thus _maybe_, also in a highly indirect and complicated way, will lead to someone in the third world's having more food, is not a powerful consideration in favor of his giving up his SUV. It is not a powerful consideration both because the proposed benefits are so tenuously supported evidentially, so indirect, and depend on many other people's doing the same thing, and also because even if they were to come to pass they would favor someone for whom he is not immediately and specially responsible. Presumably the SUV is doing some good for him and his, and this is itself a consideration in favor of keeping it. This just seems to me bare common sense. Yet all the talk one hears about the supposed "wrongs" done by the consumption of the people of the West against the people of the third world just o'er-leaps this common sense approach as if it were not even there. Bottom line: Whether some particular bit of otherwise innocent consumption of goods or services by Joe is wrong or right, "too much" or "reasonable," and so forth, depends most of all and, indeed, virtually entirely, on its direct effects upon himself and those near to him.

Lydia, I find it disconcerting that people who never venture into the mountains, don't run construction firms, or serve in a para-military organization, would drive a vehicle that was designed for everything, but driving one's self to the 7-11. I find it even weirder that such a social phenomenon could be considered "harmless" on any level. Right now 1/2 of 1% of our population bears the brunt of warfare in the Middle East. I suspect Joe knows none of them.

"Right now 1/2 of 1% of our population bears the brunt of warfare in the Middle East. I suspect Joe knows none of them."

Well, a) he easily might (why not?), and if he doesn't, it has nothing to do with the fact that he drives this particular vehicle but has merely to do with the fact that who one knows is a matter of chance, and b) what the heck does that have to do with the price of tea (or corn) in China? Or the topic at hand?

Right now 1/2 of 1% of our population bears the brunt of warfare in the Middle East. I suspect Joe knows none of them.

I happen to know a half dozen of them (I live near a military base). They tend to support the view that Lydia posted, so far as I know. The core concept here is that if the world at large (which includes the US) values our corn for food more than we do who turn it into fuel, then the world at large will purchase it at a price that makes it economically desirable for the grower to sell if for food rather than for ethanol. Same goes for a gallon of gas: whatever price the market currently puts on that gallon - in the absence of market manipulations - is the value to the end user, and if I can afford at that price to use it for pleasure, then that means I can afford it.

It is an entirely different question as to how I ought to use my resources (including my money that I might otherwise spend on optional items - from gas to dvds to Christmas cards) to help my neighbor, and how to allocate those excess amounts. If I decide to use 3/4 of my excess for helping others, and 1/4 to take my kids on a vacation that uses gas, this is well within moral choices, even though it "uses up" resources another poor person might wish to have. There is no particular reason to think that I should be particularly careful about ONE specific resource over and above all the others - I have a moral obligation not to waste goods in general, but it lies equally across food and fuel and paper and clothing, etc.

Cause and effect.

Driving $50,000 worth of metal requires a lot of oil. Which in turn, can lead to sending others off into a treacherous, oil-rich region of the world. That is just one obvious example of where a life-style based on abundance and the endless multiplication of wants, can lead.

In weather, it's held the flapping of the wings of a Monarch in China influences the temperature in the Gulf of Mexico. Likewise, the "Butter-fly Effect" also occurs in the spiritual realm. Joe's actions aren't limited in their impact to him alone.

"If I decide to use 3/4 of my excess for helping others, and 1/4 to take my kids on a vacation that uses gas,"

There is no Scriptural support for the notion that our charity stems from distributing our "excess". Nor, is there much evidence that our consumerist society weighs the consequences of our spending habits so carefully. Your example fails.

I was never a supporter of the second war in Iraq, but the view that it is "blood for oil" seems to me quite incorrect sheerly as a causal matter, and it makes me unhappy to hear conservatives talk like my loonier conspiracy-theorist leftist acquaintances. Unfortunately, with paleocons, one sometimes has to bear very much that sort of discomfort.

In any event, the butterfly-wing-flapping effect works in many different ways. ONe of the odder things about all of this is that purchasing things--including perhaps cars--whose manufacture is outsourced can help those in the third world. Apparently we are supposed to feel guilty for driving the cars or even (for goodness' sake) eating food if this might indirectly drive up the price of food for the foreign poor, but we aren't supposed to feel guilty about "buying American" or even trying to put protectionist measures in place that will indirectly cause losses of jobs and less to eat in that way among the foreign poor. The jobs are, on the paleo-Crunchy view, presumptively American. The corn, for some odd reason, isn't ours presumptively even to eat, even though it's grown here. One of several reasons Joe shouldn't feel guilty towards the foreign poor about the various goods he owns that Kevin & co. think he doesn't need and hence that represent his "greed" is because the claim that he is "harming" the foreign poor by owning these goods is tenuous and implausible. He may even be helping them. This is generally true of attempts to make people feel guilty for the highly indirect effects of their actions. Once one is talking about effects that indirect, it is very difficult to know whether they are overall good or bad, and hence one cannot be constantly worrying about them and feeling guilty over them.

If Iraq II was really undertaken to make oil cheaper, I wonder if we'll find the cheaper oil with the WMD's.


Yes. To be concise: Damned if we do... Damned if we don't. Binary thinking on such matters will get us... well, come to think of it, very much into the platitudionous divide of today: All Consumption Is A Sin (Kantian Puritanism) Vs. All Consumption is Good (Late Liberal Capitalism). It's a false dichotomy... or more properly a dichotomy of half-truths, which are the worst kind.

I think doubting t has it about right. There are long term effects and short term effects that we must consider. A starving man needs calories by any means. But giving food to him could in the long run destroy his incentive, if not ultimately his very ability, to care for himself. The NT actually records this very dilemma. We live in a fallen world. Prescriptions that fail to take this into account, notably prescriptions that purport to be purely good, will likely do more harm than good.

Lydia is right to tar the "environmentalists" for the boondoggle of ethanol... but not for the sin of caring too much for the environment, but rather too little. The environmental "left" is, in short, largely in thrall of the same fairy-tale as the consumption-happy "right": that Happy Motoring™ (and all that such a "lifestyle" implies) can go on forever. And is it really any surprise? For liberalism is, if it is anything, dedicated to the proposition that human progress is tantamount to an expansion of liberty viewed narrowly in economic terms as the power to do whatever-the-hell one wants. This is what makes all the liberal hand-wringing over Climate Change™ (nee Global Warming™) so humorous: They want Big Solutions implemented on a Big Scale by Big Government and Big Corporations. But the only real solution is smallness and a perfect example of how all this can work is sitting right there underneath the liberal radar screen: The Amish. And while they might make for a fascinating museum exhibit, the Amish could hardly be further from the modern liberal ideal.

Free markets are efficient, tho' one must admit that "demand destruction" via large scale famine is one of the ways that a free market might "right" itself. Yes, higher prices will in the middle to long term encourage more production. The problem here really is that markets are not (nor have they really ever been) truly free. The thumbs of governments throughout the world are on the scales. No less so in America: And ethanol is only the tip of the iceberg. "Farm" bills for quite some time have been little more than corporate welfare with a heavy bias toward "red" states.

Steve and doubting t are right, the market will eventually make alternate and renewable sources of energy more profitable than oil. This will no doubt cause a shortage in food, but that is how these things work themselves out. Whenever a population outruns its food/energy supply, ecology predicts that there is a period of chaotic behavior (migration, war, or famine) until a stable anchor point is reached. For humans, we also can factor in the variable of innovation when necessity becomes the mother of invention. Although without oil as a fuel and fertilizer source it would have to be an impressive innovation to prevent a population crash. A post-oil world has been predicted to have a sustainable food capacity of around 3 billion people, or half its current population.

Consumption as a way of life, is rightly considered a profound disorder by traditional Christian thought. Our society has in large part, elevated acquisitiveness to the Alpha and Omega of human existence. We are now facing the harsh prospect that our current living arrangements are not only morally flawed, but may be materially unsustainable as well. A conservatism oblivious to this social reality, that reflexively defends the status quo, denies the warning signs, or tells us: "...the market will eventually make alternate and renewable sources of energy more profitable than oil.", has nothing meaningful to say.

Unserious, ideed.

"That trend was exacerbated by T. Boone Pickens, the influential investor who believes world oil production is about to peak as aging fields run dry. He warned that oil prices would hit $150 a barrel by the end of the year."

“Eighty-five million barrels of oil a day is all the world can produce, and the demand is 87m,” Mr Pickens told CNBC. “It’s just that simple.”


Obama was speaking in his capacity as a candidate for the US Presidency, so I think it's more than a little unfair to denounce the conservative commentariat for their reaction to him on those terms. He wasn't speaking as a philosopher or a social comentator, much less as a liberation theologian. He was speaking as a policy-maker selling a platform, or at least the contours of one. So it won't do to say, "Oh, there's nothing that's really serious intended here from a practical point of view. He's just talking about other people's attitudes!" I am sure Jeff would have not long ago scoffed at the idea that we'd be forced by law to buy extremely poisonous lightbulbs that emit harsh, unpleasant light, too, but it's happening, with or without his Straw Man Commission.

It's easy, Kevin, to just dismiss the whole impetus for the discussion, shift the goal posts, and say, "Well, forget Obama, this is really about something else." But the whole point of the conservatives' apoplexy over these remarks is precisely that they were made by a man running for the highest office in the land, and were plainly intended as a comment on what he thinks are legtimate areas for official regulation. Jeff thinks we're greedy, gluttonous sell-outs to corporate America for being disgusted by his remarks and saying so. You can't now in all fairness say that the discussion has nothing to do with Obama in princple, because Lydia never endorsed gluttony as such. She responded with the same horror I and most any person interested in living in a free society would to what was an essentially dictatorial claim that Americans ought to accept externally-imposed limits on such things as the temperature in their homes. Jeff thinks it's ridiculous to fear such things actually being regulated, but his insouciance is inconsistent with both recent history and current trends in that direction. So Obama is the issue, even if imaginary and unnecessary Commissions aren't.


We will have to make major changes to our way of life, the main question is whether we revert back to a pre-industrial economy. That is an unlikely possibility, but I do see the switch to renewable energy as a necessary and costly step in the process, driven by a combination of government action and market forces.

Much of this discussion - though there have been a few corruscating insights and observations - seems to me to be flawed and misguided, even impoverished, as it seems unable to rise from the rut identified in the body of the main post, to wit, an implicit methodological individualism. The issues implicated in the controversies are not issue of individual ethics simply, or of private judgment alone, but of the complex interactions of individual judgments and obligations and collective obligations, not to mention consequences. Consider an analogy. How should a lobbyist for some corporate conglomerate in Washington think ethically about his actions, both as a totality and discretely? Prima facie, it would seem that he should think that he is acting in a fashion consistent with both a founding motive of American political culture, that of countervailing factions, and with numerous legal precedents, which have bestowed upon his employer the legal fiction of personhood and legitimized his efforts to defend the interests of that fictive person at court; after all, given the inordinate power of government, perhaps he is merely defending non-interference rights to property & etc. against depredations of state. Nevertheless, whatever the merits - or lack thereof - of his specific arguments on behalf of his employer, his actions, though insignificant amidst the swarming and grasping of the other 34,999 registered lobbyists, participate formally and materially in a collective enterprise, a structural feature of our politico-economic system, which is intrinsically corrosive of the deliberative institutions of a republic, which are predicated upon a separation of public things from private interests. The system of interests both subverts the representative functions of our institutions, which were ordained to serve the general welfare, ie., the common good, reorienting them to the service of factions, and facilitates an interpenetration of political power and private economic power - which is to state, an implicit privatization of governance. Once appreciated, these facts of political science, these moral data, should factor into individual decision-making, though the reality is that, when disorientation becomes systemic, individual actions can only assume the form of refusal. This, however, only directs us to the further point that some matters are inherently collective in nature; any effectual action undertaken regarding them must occur societally, through whatever collective institutions a society possesses. Perhaps the response of the individual to this knowledge will be to resign his lobbying post; perhaps it will be to religiously lobby only to be let alone, instead of lobbying for positive favours (though I think the distinction a much-abused, and, beyond narrow limits, untenable one). Nevertheless, such individual ethical judgment does not, and cannot, exhaust ethical responsibility; it can do so if and only if the structures and architectures of our political economy are themselves either supra-ethical, or themselves unquestionably moral. If our hypothetical lobbyist has received the benefactions of our society, and if our society and its common good are ill-served by certain structures, then, as a member of that society, our lobbyist lies under an obligation, a duty, to do what he may, within the limits of his circumstances, to vindicate the common good by opposing his erstwhile profession and the structural evils it sustains.

Hence, the question of the American way of life, considered sacred and inviolable by our political castes (and this non-negotiability is broached in the strangest places, such as discourses on foreign policy, which is suggestive and ominous), is not one of personal ethical judgment simply, as though one performs due moral diligence by determining a personal 'need' to live with accoutrements A through Z, which are licit provided that one performs no immediate injustice, by commission or omission, in the acquisition and use of them. In point of fact, the American way of life is utterly and absolutely unsustainable, a collective squandering of a one-time geological inheritance on the construction of an anomalous historical fantasy-land of superabundance; it represents a collective psychology of presentism, the defining characteristic of lower-class thought, at once a laying up of debts for posterity and a profligate utilization of things owed them. It is a collective sundering, by the generations now living, of the sacred covenant binding the living to the dead and to those as yet unborn; and while no individual can, by his abstentions and ascetic acts and alternatives, deflect the course of this tragedy, that does not bleach the normative colouration from the scene: to betray posterity, in the vague and utopian hope that science will come up with something unspecifiable and indeterminate, is for my sort of conservatism a sacrilege: against our posterity, and against nature, which groans in its travails beneath the weight of our pleonexia.

I am not persuaded by arguments to the effect that, being finite, we are by nature destined to consume, as this strikes me as an elision of the vast conceptual gulf between our ontological status as dependent, rational animals, and the highly artifactual, artificial, and contingent system of consumerist superabundance. Human nature does not logically yield industrial modernity and its garden of material delights. Moreover, that one must consume in order to live does not warrant the conceptual leap to a political economy predicated upon consumption-as-preference-satisfaction; that any individual must consume does not entail that entire societies must be dedicated to maximizing consumption.

Finally, as regards the remarks about economic forces evening out supply problems in the medium-term and beyond, well, yes; except that this strikes me as a clinical and bloodless way of describing the proliferation of human miseries, the degradation of the environment, as marginal lands are brought under cultivation, forests are cleared for cultivation, accelerating the alarming rate of topsoil erosion, the absurdity of expanding industrial cultivation at a time when the constituents thereof - oil byproducts - are past their geological peak, and the geopolitical instability this all portends. The value of gasoline, incidentally, is not reflected in the at-the-pump price, inasmuch as that "market" price does not reflect the enormous externalities, present and future, associated with our unsustainable petroleum-based industrial/post-industrial civilization, externalities that range from the obvious ones of pollution to the collapse of fisheries and farmlands made possible by industrial farming techniques and industrial harvesting.

Oh, lest I forget, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad once asseverated something to the effect that oil should be sold at whatever price its possessors dictate, and not at some market price. Above remarks about the price of corn, were third-worlders to desire that we cultivate corn for food instead of fuel, impress me as being of the same nature: let them pay us rank tribute to induce us to produce food instead of fuel for the Happy Motoring Paradise, because our plenary property rights override even the logical operations of markets.

For the record, Sage, I intended, months ago, to post a jeremiad against the little mercury-filled glass curlicues, which must be left on for a minimum of 15 minutes if their allegedly stupendous lifespans are to be realized (how efficient is that?), and that because I already use electricity sparingly, and those bulbs would force me to use more of it, by leaving them on long after I've departed a given room.

I still disbelieve that a Central Dietary Planning Commission is in prospect. Light bulbs are one matter; food another matter entirely.

"...something to the effect that oil should be sold at whatever price its possessors dictate, and not at some market price. Above remarks about the price of corn, were third-worlders to desire that we cultivate corn for food instead of fuel, impress me as being of the same nature: let them pay us rank tribute to induce us to produce food instead of fuel for the Happy Motoring Paradise, because our plenary property rights override even the logical operations of markets."

Huh? Normally, what someone who possesses X charges for X and is able to get for it _is_ the market price for X. So now it's asking people to pay us "tribute" to charge them for our corn at something greater than some hypothetical "just price"? We owe it to the third-worlders to sell them corn at such-and-such a price and are charging them "tribute" if we charge them more? My God, never, never again am I going to listen to America First rhetoric from you, Maximos, without being tempted to remind you of this.

Huh? Just price? For the sake of argument, if the market price of corn is $100 per bushel, and the market price of that corn, converted to ethanol and subsidized by the American taxpayer, is $125, then the complaint raised against me is that the third-worlders should simply ante up, above and beyond the market value of food-corn, enough money to induce us to produce food-corn in preference to fuel-corn. If we sell corn, as opposed to donating it in charitable works, it should be at market prices, and what I object to is the plenary-property temper-tantrum which says that "Our corn is ours, dammit, and if you want to eat it, instead of watching us burn it, pay us more than it's worth as food and we'll think about it."

Apropos of above comments on the effects of food donations and sales to the third world, the products of American industrial agriculture, when distributed in the third world, have often undercut local farmers, creating a mass lumpenproletariat, which in turn exacerbated supply-related price pressures. In other words, whether by donating food or selling it cheaply, we undermined their agricultural sectors, and then, we exacerbated the supply problem for them by withdrawing food from the market in order to drive. Hence, I'd prefer to abstain from both exports and donations, except in cases of necessity, as we've already screwed them twice.

I lack your faith in an adequate alternative to oil emerging in time for my unborn grandchildren, and tremble at your scenario; "A post-oil world has been predicted to have a sustainable food capacity of around 3 billion people, or half its current population."

"You can't now in all fairness say that the discussion has nothing to do with Obama in princple..."

Sorry, but read Step2 on life without oil and then tell me why I should care all that much about the Obama angle to all of this. So far conservatives are conceding the field to the socialists, by offering nothing but platitiudes about the genius of the markets and tortured rationalizations for a cozy life of pleasantly mindless consumption.

"Hence, I'd prefer to abstain from both exports and donations, except in cases of necessity, as we've already screwed them twice."

Well, fine, then, please stop talking about how they have a just complaint because we "eat as much as we want." If we took your advice there, we _could_ eat as much as we want, and whether that was gluttony or whether it wasn't in some given case, it wouldn't have tuppence to do with them. That was, after all, what kicked this whole thing off: Is it, or is it not, any business of the third worlders how much Americans eat? I maintain that the answer is no. You apparently think it's yes.

Government subsidies for ethanol will get no support from me. Far from it. In fact, my suspicions as to whether ethanol is an efficient and good idea are raised pretty much to the max by the very need for government subsidies. If it's such a great idea, it should have to sink or swim with those nasty consumers all on its own. But really, I don't see this as having anything special to do with the third world. If it's a bad idea because it raises food prices, well, we're paying those higher prices too. We aren't "wronging" the third world just because we've done something foolish at the behest of the environmentalists which is making everybody's food prices go up.

And at that point, yes, the people who possess the corn should be able to try to get what they want for it. That's not charging "tribute" nor wronging anybody. Any more than (as I keep pointing out) it's wronging the third worlders to buy American or hire American workers and thereby put them out of a job.

And by the way, what you call "methodological individualism" is what I call "common sense." My imaginary Joe is thinking about turning on his air conditioning this summer and setting it to 80 degrees, as opposed to the 90's-and-humid it will become outside. He considers that he can afford to do so, given his job. He considers that he will thereby help his own and his family's allergies and eczema, make it easier for them to concentrate on the daily tasks they do to the glory of God without the distraction of discomfort from the heat and humidity, and keep his books, which he uses and collects to the glory of God, from becoming moldy. _These_ are normal, relevant, and, yes, individualistic considerations for Joe. You want rather to place this huge burden for the world on Joe: He has to worry about the possibility that "it's all gonna come crashing down" in some long run and that his descendants (if he has any) might have a major economic and sociological disaster because earlier generations burned "too much" oil to heat and cool their houses. You think we can know for sure that this is going to happen and that this should rank as a major consideration for Joe, perhaps even outweighing the more ordinary, everyday considerations I have listed, which you dismiss as "individualistic"--as though that's such a terribly bad thing. I call them matters of common sensically considering his obligations to himself and his family, using the resources _now_ at his command and the immediate consequences he knows of and foresees. You want him to worry about the whole world's crashing in 50 or a hundred years. The environmentalists want him to be burdened with the polar bears. And both of you apparently think he is ethically obligated to make himself and his family miserable with the heat now because _maybe_, somehow, this will play a tiny little role in avoiding or mitigating some far-away disaster for other people which you foresee with, apparently, perfect clarity in your crystal ball. I think that's just...silly.

...we _could_ eat as much as we want, and whether that was gluttony or whether it wasn't in some given case, it wouldn't have tuppence to do with them.

If and only if we jettison, in large measure, globalization. So long as we have globalization and globalized commodities markets, then the conversion of foodstuffs into fuel for pampered Americans cruising to the 7-11 in the 8 mpg SUV, commuting 100 mile round trips, will raise food prices for the poor, and this will remain an ethical conundrum, because globalization ensnares us in a wider nexus of relationships than is natural. Hence, this -

And at that point, yes, the people who possess the corn should be able to try to get what they want for it. That's not charging "tribute" nor wronging anybody.

- strikes me as a declaration that the deliverances of the market are just, by virtue of their occurrence; and, in context, that strikes me as just the sort of declaration about our corn that I have already denounced. Markets are ethically-embedded, not supra-moral.

I do empathize with Joe, because I am Joe, except for the eczema, and have entertained the entire controversy, followed every last ratiocination to its conclusion, times without number. Nevertheless, I regard the refusal to contemplate the longer-term as an appeal to exigency as over against prudence.

Finally, as regards purchasing foreign-produced goods and services, I don't believe that the analogy holds; if I purchase goods and services from fellow Americans, I honour my obligations to my neighbours, though this may adversely impact the foreigners. If, however, I convert corn into fuel, I fulfill no obligation, as there is no necessity of perpetuating the Happy Motoring Paradise, which is, in reality, a vast network of luxury. Moreover, by perpetuating that Paradise, I fail to fulfill my obligations to my neighbours, by encouraging them to persist in the delusion that it is all sustainable, and to my posterity, by establishing a path-dependency or inertia which will leave their world poorer, nastier, and rather more brutish. Preferring the neighbour to the foreigner is an obligation; the American way of life is optional.

By turning on his air conditioning, Joe honors his obligations to self (yes, there are such) and to his family, as well as to posterity, for whom he will keep the books and to whom he will pass on the knowledge he hopes to accumulate and teach, which he will do better unhindered by the torments of heat. By driving a large car, Joe may be honoring his obligations to all those who depend on him as he helps to prevent himself from being badly injured in an accident. (We have talked about this before.) By buying foreign-made clothes, Joe honors his obligation to use his money carefully and wisely and, by saving on clothing, has more to give to the poor immediately around him, who are his neighbors. You can call various of these things "luxuries," but I maintain that that is really just rhetoric. Even a large house can be wisely used to the glory of God, and calling it a luxury or a McMansion doesn't change that. By living in the country or suburbs and commuting, Joe honors his obligations to his children to give them, to the extent that he is able to, more space in which to play, cleaner air, and a less dangerous neighborhood. In one sense, many of these things are optional. You aren't doing wrong if you are forced by circumstance to live in a tumble-down house in the middle of the city and ride the bus everywhere. But if you can do better for yourself and those who depend on you, it might be negligent not to do better, and you are certainly doing no wrong by improving your lot. To no small extent, the notion of a "luxury" is relative and difficult to pin down.

"I'm interested in alternatives, but I'm not keen on mountaintop removal, aka coal and shale oil"

I've seen mountaintop removal mining first-hand in southern West Virginia; thousands of acres of once beautiful land that now look like the freakin' moon. As Archie Bunker would say, "Include me out!"

"Markets are ethically-embeddeded, not supra-moral."

The older conservatism had a fairly strong streak of the ascetical in it; not so with the new version. This comes from (metaphorically) paying too much attention to 'The Wealth of Nations' and not enough to 'The Theory of Moral Sentiments.' Capitalism, like democracy, will only work with a moral people.

Capitalism, like democracy, will only work with a moral people.

I think that is true as far as it goes, but in my view it is even worse than that implies. Treated as autonomous structures with their own self-justifying 'logic' or priorities, capitalism and democracy actively undermine the virtue of a people. They aren't value-neutral in their autonomous action, they are value-undermining in their autonomous action. A virtuous people will naturally become less so over time in capitalistic and democratic societies, unless there is a healthy suspician of them and deliberate restraint over their field of action.

Lydia, if Joe does all those things for those reasons, then he has attained a level of sanctity that surely most of us can only hope and pray for. The reality is that for every Joe, there are at least 9,999 who don't quite live up to that level of virtue; and for them their current level of consumption falls on the wrong side of the lines of Lust, Gluttony, and Sloth.

Steve, are you saying that it is _unusual_ for people to choose to live in the suburbs and commute in order to give their kids a better atmosphere in which to live than they would have in the city? That's not true. I'm sure that's a major motivation and has been for a long time, which hasn't stopped liberals from sneering at it as "white flight" and what-not. That was that generation's way of niggling the ordinary guy who didn't want to stay in the city. Now it's the green guilt-trip. Next generation it'll be something else. Basically, there's a determination to give people a hard time for driving (because liberals, environmentalists, and I gather crunchies) dislike cars and for enjoying physical comforts unavailable to anyone else. That seems "unfair" to them and is treated as nearly by definition "gluttony and sloth." There will always be some excuse for sniping at it from the kill-joys.

Nor need Joe think through all these motives explicitly, but remembering his own and his wife's exhaustion, tension, and itchy and heat-logged discomfort during the years when they could not afford air conditioning is almost certainly going to motivate him to use it for himself, her, and the children they now have now that he can afford it. This is, in my opinion, perfectly legitimate and requires no apology.

That is almost certainly true, Steve, but what will be the Washington technocrat's reasons for actively constraining his consumption? Nothing like yours, I'll wager. So as long as we're marshaling reality against ideals, I'll stack Joe's "reasons" up against Obama's (or McCain's) any day.

I can't help feeling that there is an odd almost gnostic view in the air here that doing something because it relieves physical discomfort is either in itself or at least presumptively bad. Certainly "it relieves physical discomfort" isn't a good reason for committing adultery! But as a reason for using air conditioning one can well afford or driving one's groceries home from the store instead of schlepping them on a wagon in all weathers, it sounds completely legit to me. Yet to hear some of y'all talk, it sounds like saying, "I'll be extremely physically uncomfortable with a sore back if I lug all my groceries home" or "I'll be miserable with the heat if I don't use the air conditioning" automatically is ignoble and renders the action motivated thereby an instance of sloth or gluttony. This sort of attitude is entirely beyond me and seems flatly wrong.

I have to put the girls to bed, so I'll make this quick:

1) Maximos says:

"In point of fact, the American way of life is utterly and absolutely unsustainable, a collective squandering of a one-time geological inheritance on the construction of an anomalous historical fantasy-land of superabundance; it represents a collective psychology of presentism, the defining characteristic of lower-class thought, at once a laying up of debts for posterity and a profligate utilization of things owed them."

Notice the phrase, "In point of fact". I submit that your facts are wrong Maximos, therefore, why should I listen to any of your moral conclusions?

When the paleos/crunchies get their economic facts straight, I'll be ready to listen to their recommendations.

And the reason most poor people are starving around the world has to do with bad governments (i.e. too much government interference in the market and/or with private property). If Mugabe wasn't such a thug and stole the white farmers land, those farms would still be exporting crops all over the world. Instead, Zimbabwe can't even feed its own people. People aren't starving in China anymore because the ChiCommies jettisoned all their screwed up thinking about private property and capitalism. More free trade (including the end of subsidies to domestic farmers) = less hungry people all over the world. This simple formula has been proven true time and time again over history.

2) Zippy says:

"Treated as autonomous structures with their own self-justifying 'logic' or priorities, capitalism and democracy actively undermine the virtue of a people."

I tend to share your skepticism about democracy, however, there is a strong argument to be made that capitalism actually strengthens the virtues. Here is the definitive book on the subject:


I do want to thank Maximos for introducing into my vocabulary the word pleonexia. Delightful.

...there is a strong argument to be made that capitalism actually strengthens the virtues.

My perspective, so that you know, comes from my own experience as a self-made multimillionaire entrepreneur, my own personal involvement with various billionaires and their projects, my own experiences with Wall Street -- in short, from my actual journeys with the capitalist Golem. My counsel is not to treat her as either demon or angel, but as what she is. And given that context, I stand by my contention that a moral people will always view both democracy and capitalism with a somewhat guarded and vigilant eye.

Traditional church teachings under certain topics indicate that while we have an obligation to all of our neighbors, the obligation is not equal in all cases. The greatest obligation is to those who are naturally dependent on you - your children, your aged parents, your spouse. Your next level of obligation is toward those closer to you, rather than those farther away. This is natural because for those closer to you, you see their need better, AND, you perceive how much of their wants really are needs because you live in conditions like to them. Thus, I can tell better when my next-door-neighbor needs a hand out of charity than someone 30 miles away in (pick one) inner city slum or rural slum. All the more so, then, that I have a greater obligation to my fellow citizens in need than to men and women 5000 miles away whose life-style I simply cannot fathom. Though they too have a degree of call on my mercy and compassion.

IF (and this is an absolutely huge if) the government is capable of identifying and categorizing needs of my neighbors (both near and far) better than I can, then the government would reasonably have a role in so identifying. The fact that market forces (by which I determine that the price of a gallon of gas is something I can afford for a few luxury trips) are both indirect measures and slow-acting measures of the need levels of others does not necessarily mean the government is better at it. The history of government "victim status" politics shows that once good ole gov gets involved, truth can become more obscure rather than more clear.

Therefore, though I agree with Maximos that The issues implicated in the controversies are not issue of individual ethics simply, or of private judgment alone, but of the complex interactions of individual judgments and obligations and collective obligations, not to mention consequences , I do not assume that the collective obligations and judgments are primarily those of government. There are other ways of effective collective discernment.

Ideally, I would like to have a way to discern whether a company is friendly to the environment, whether it treats is employees like humans, and whether it produces quality products to last instead of cheap trash. But I do not look to government to help with that. We already have consumer watch orgs to help identify quality products. I would like to see voluntary groups to provide a service of rendering a clear analysis of a company's method of dealing with the environment, of dealing with its employees - kind of like having a CPA "green statement" for green issues - but solely rendered because the company is willing to have its operation looked at and witnessed by an independent body. Or maybe more like the accreditation bodies for universities and schools. If I can buy from a merchant who has a "good to employees" statement from an independent body that I trust, I probably would. And this would become a useful market force.

Maximos, I have myself made the argument that we do need government for some of that discernment. For example, we will never come to a natural social agreement by simple methods on what constitutes "too much" pollution from a chicken factory or a chemical plant. The competing needs of the parties will pretty much guarantee a failure to ever agree. Thus a forced mechanism by legal fiat seems necessary. But it seems more than a stretch that this should be automatically extended to areas that not only do I not clearly understand in full, but the government also does not clearly understand. And the international market interplay between food and fuel and money is definitely one of those. In addition, it seems still more of a stretch to assume that because the government has a natural role in areas to help prevent one person from damaging his neighbors by his negligent actions, it therefore has a natural role in "assisting" me in not failing to give assistance to others in need of assistance. Do you see a fundamental difference between the two?

Since FDR and the King Abdulaziz cut their deal on the US Quincy, we have benefited from cheap energy to a degree that is hard to fathom. The cost included, protecting the House of Saud and a gradual and pronounced entanglement in Middle Eastern affairs.

Irag 1 was about oil, which you supported. Iraq 2 was, in many ways a continuation of I-1. Our interest in bringing democracy to the world's oil basin, is considerably more robust than it is for other, less endowed parts of the world.
I remember Wolfkowitz assuring us that I-2 would be self-financing, due to it's oil producing capabilities.

To say, oil didn't figure in our calculations ans motives for I-2, is to ignore the historical and geo-political reality of the past 60 plus years. I understand why all of this makes SUV Nation uncomfortable. We all should be. The fact is, our very affluent way of life comes with a cost. Just not to Joe, although he did place a "Support the Troops" sticker on his Hummer once.

I think we should really consider what we can, in good conscience, afford. And do so, before the bill comes due. Blithely passing the invoice onto our kids is not a moral option.

While there have been geopolitical motives driving forces in the oil market since before FDR, these motives are not wholly separate from the basic economic forces either. And although the Saudi regime has a political relationship with the US and the west, that relationship is extremely complex and not devoid of market considerations of "where is our (Saudi) greatest monetary benefit". They are not above telling us to stuff it when we come hat in hand - which happened just in the past week. This is due to the fact that they can play off Japan and China and India against the US as a market - which means economic forces are pretty powerful in molding the geopolitical issues.

Although it is unrealistic to say that oil was not a motive force in the Gulf War and the Iraq war, it is also unrealistic to say that these wars were all about oil. Given that, it is arguable that the non-oil reasons for Gulf War 1 were sufficient in themselves to go to war without reference to the oil component of the motives. Thus it is an unfair (and overly simplistic) argument that assumes Joe SUV is in favor of the wars just because he wants cheap gas.

I agree that we need to pay attention to the real price tag of our actions, and not hand our children a totally untenable situation. For that reason, energy self-reliance ought to be a national goal regardless of the price of oil. But don't saddle the notion of the "price" of oil with all sorts of questionable and indirect costs that nobody can reliably sort out, as if those debatable models were certain.

"I can't help feeling that there is an odd almost gnostic view in the air here that doing something because it relieves physical discomfort is either in itself or at least presumptively bad."

Actually, Lydia, I think that what you're seeing is a response to the fact that the notion of economic self-sacrifice has disappeared from a large segment of the American population that considers itself conservative. That's what I meant above about the newer conservatism's loss of asceticism. "Wants" are raised to the level of "needs" so that some people are unable even to distinguish between the two.

"When the paleos/crunchies get their economic facts straight, I'll be ready to listen to their recommendations."

Jeff, have you read Roepke? He's my touchstone on these types of issues, and I think he had a good handle on economic facts.

"I stand by my contention that a moral people will always view both democracy and capitalism with a somewhat guarded and vigilant eye."

I agree. Some conservatives have the idea that both of these automatically "work," as if they were a type of machine that once set in motion runs by itself, only needing the occasional tweak. Seems to me, though, that both will tend, if unmonitored and unchecked, toward an accumulation of wealth and/or power in the hands of the few just as assuredly as statism will.

"Thus it is an unfair (and overly simplistic) argument that assumes Joe SUV is in favor of the wars just because he wants cheap gas."

Joe may or may not favor war, but his lifestyle factors into the calculus that leads to wars. He shares not in the sacrifice war entails, but in the fruits produced by American hegemony in the ME. There is no escaping that fact, no matter how many excursions we take into the land of sophistry and forced rationalizations. And it is right to question the justice of this arrangement and wonder how long we can continue to live like this. As Rob G points out, our lexicon is absent words like; self-denial, sacrifice, modest, humble and limits. That is neither a conservative, or healthy development. Instead, it it reeks of the reality-denying utopianism, once the special preserve of the Left.

I know plenty of people whose lexicons do for sure include words like "self-denial, sacrifice, modest, humble, and limits." All of them have children. Some of them even have 7-10 children. Raising kids, not to mention bearing them, involves sacrifice even in a Western society. But they live in nice homes, which they air condition, they use plastic products and eat meat, they try to buy their clothes inexpensively, which probably means buying them at (gasp) Wal-Mart or Meijer, and they drive minivans to get all those kids around to various activities. They have better things to do with their time and energy than walking everywhere or biking everywhere. I'm _glad_ that they have the ability to aid their sacrifices by living in a prosperous country. I'm grateful on their behalf for those amenities, and I think it's...problematic to be going around judging people as non-sacrificing just because they live comfortably. It's _good_ to live comfortably. What's the matter with you guys?

Y'know, when it comes to actual _sin_ I get annoyed when people start quoting "judge not." If we're talking about something intrinsically wrong like sex outside of marriage, then it's intrinsically wrong, and we need to speak out.

But you guys are going around shaking your finger at people for making use of blessings God has provided by way of the ingenuity of mankind, the genius of the free market, and the natural resources of the earth--abundant food, ease of transportation, a way of not being at the mercy of the sometimes inclement weather and climate, conveniences such as paper plates that help one to move forward with more important things than dish-washing, appliances to assist one in maintaining a clean house and environment, and homes with space in them and a nice yard. The moralistic tone on such issues is disturbing. Can you not even admit that your accusations of "greed, sloth, and gluttony" are hardly cut-and-dried and that these are matters on which people can legitimately disagree?

It will have to be explained to me with great erudition and subtlety how a concern for the conditions of the possibility of decent lives for posterity is a gnostic preoccupation; unlike the gnostic denigration of material creation, or the untenable self-body dualism, the concern is grounded in a reverence for creaturely, embodied existence, as has the impeccable orthodox pedigree of being against (the passional abuse of) the world, for the sake of the world. Moreover, I'd note that the Baconian view of nature, which lies at the very foundations of modernity, according to which Nature is just so much raw material 'stuff' that we must manipulate and dominate in order to ameliorate the human condition, is precisely analogous to the self-body dualism of gnostic personhood theory: far from possessing an organic, integral, composite goodness, it is just the stuff upon which, and through which, the will satiates its desires.

Jeff, the essay was not a polemic against capitalism, though such polemics are a staple of my writing; rather, it was a polemic against the Micawberist fantasy that industrial modernity, whether capitalist, socialist, or somewhere in between or off on a tangent, is capable of indefinite perpetuation. There are important differences between capitalism and socialism with respect to the environment - capitalism, historically, consumes vast resources and spoils the environment, then through general prosperity and ingenuity, figures out that it has screwed up, and how to fix it (somewhat); socialism uses resources, stagnates, and ushers in an environmental apocalypse, as in the Soviet Union or, with qualifications, China (since China is a hybrid).

Doubting t, no coterie of bureaucrats may comprehend the interrelationships of money, oil, and food, but the architecture within which these relationships unfold is a political artifact, about which some things can be said with certainty, among them that the ethanol mandate is a boondoggle that makes food more dear; that world demand for oil is greater than production, leading to price increases; that American monetary policy, which has been inflationary, has weakened the dollar and placed upward pressures on the oil market, since the dollar is the currency in that market; and so forth. And while there is a difference between the prevention of harms such as externalities, and the positive mandate to perform some good, the distinction can be overdrawn (as I have argued previously), and seems not to be terribly relevant here - the argument about ethanol and food, for example, is not that government should compel us to perform charitable works on behalf of the third world, but that it should at least do no harm, particularly by means of an aneconomic, net-energy-losing mandate.

For the record, Joe's discrete considerations are mostly valid, in their own spheres; they are merely incomplete, and cannot be taken as exhaustive. That's all I'm arguing.

"It's _good_ to live comfortably. What's the matter with you guys?"

Isn't there a marked difference between living comfortably and living luxuriously though? Why have a $75,000 gas guzzling SUV when all you really need is something half that expensive and twice as fuel-efficient? Why buy anything -- ANYTHING -- for status sake? Do you really need those Tommy Hilfiger jeans, or will Lees do just as well? That's the kind of stuff I'm talking about.

I guess what I'm saying here can be summed up by something I read once (I forget who wrote it and where): "We don't need 'Robb Report' Christians."

That's a great line, truly.

Interestingly, one of the sociological trends that propelled the Christianization of Western Europe in the wake of the collapse of the Western Empire was the trend among the wealthy to make enormous bequests to the Church, or to found monasteries, even to found them personally, renouncing many of the prerogatives of wealth. I sense a contrast with our own times.

Lydia, cannot we all agree that we have, more and less, made our deals with devil? You seem to have almost theological fervor to pronounce certain economic decisions Good; made all the more fervent by a false insistence that the "Crunchies" are pronouncing those same decisions Evil. The truth is that we're all failing to live up to ideals (known to us and demonstrated in the lives of many Saints and most of all by Our Lord). We're all, most of us, in that in-between state neither (yet) angelic nor (yet) demonic. Recognition of the fact is the first sure sign of progress: Pelagius was a heretic.

As to Technocratic oversight from the Capital of the Empire, I think that's a red herring. The voices here questioning the virtue of consumption levels typical in the wealthy west would undoubtedly be united in their skepticism of governmental control, to say nothing of increasingly centralized (i.e., Federal) control. Equating the identification a persistent and widespread problem with an expectation that the Federal Gvmt fix it is itself a symptom very near to the heart of the very problem in need of fixing: the (natural?) infantilization of a democratic populace, and the monotonic increase in dependency of a people upon government to both define and solve its problems.

It's _good_ to live comfortably. What's the matter with you guys?

The Amish live comfortably. In fact, the virtues that inhere to their way of life help to make some of them quite wealthy. It's true that it's _good_ to live comfortably; but it's _better_ to live less comfortably.

You have never been shy about "moralizing" about the issues of abortion, euthanasia, gay marriage, divorce, et al., and most of us are in complete agreement with you. What is baffling though, is your inability to make the connection between the commodification of the human body, libertine sexual mores and the consumerist ethos. I must say, limiting your social criticism to those ills produced by lust, and dismissing the other "deadly sins" under discussion here, seems really strange.

"...but it's _better_ to live less comfortably."

Really? Always? Automatically? How far does that go? Is somebody who never bathes and lives on the top of a pole the holiest person in the world? That just sounds to me like a very simplistic pronouncement: "It's better to live less comfortably." It's by no means obvious to me that it's true. In fact, it seems to me probably false. It's better to live in love and charity with your neighbors and in service to God. It does not seem to me that "living less comfortably" is automatically, or even at all, the best way to achieve those goals.

Kevin, has it occurred to you that, say, greed, sloth, and gluttony are a heck of a lot harder to identify, particularly in someone else, than sexual sin, pornography, murder, etc.? It's pretty much that refusal to make distinctions that I'm hammering on here. It's a cut and dried matter that tearing one's child to pieces is a sin, or going to bed with someone to whom you're not married is a sin, or sodomy is a sin, etc. Or even stealing or lying. It is by no means a cut and dried matter that driving a car larger than X size or consuming Y quantity of gas is a sin. Why can't you see that?

"has it occurred to you that, say, greed, sloth, and gluttony are a heck of a lot harder to identify,..."

On a cultural level? No. It seems pretty apparent to me that our society is soaked in a suicidal quest for "self-fulfillment", and will pursue any means to attain it. The fleets of massive "recreational" vehicles clogging our streets, are part of a larger, darker social phenomenon with very damaging consequences.
The days of denial are rapidly coming to an end, as today's WSJ attests;


How far does that go?

It goes all the way down, Lydia... and yet, when queried, we'll only be able to say that we are worthless servants, for we've only done what was required of us.

It's the very difficulty of quantifying greed, sloth, and gluttony that makes them deadly--more deadly, trusted sources say, than mere lust! To say nothing of pride and envy. Nobody here is saying the a car over X size is sinfully big, or consuming over Y gallons of gasoline is a sin. Much less are the voices here suggesting that Gov't Technocrats regulate such consumption. YOU are the one stretching to find the line, or equivalently pointing out that it's impossible to draw; it seems as though you have a theological need for there to exist a level of consumption that is not at all sinful. But because the line is impossible objectively to draw, you're reduced to advocate that any level of consumption (as long as one "can afford it") is not at all sinful. So if Michael Jackson refuses to wear a pair of underwear twice is not at all sinful? Or hopping in your Hummer to drive 200 feet on a beautiful spring day to retrieve the mail is not at all sinful? Or owning and maintaining a 4000 ft^2 house for a family of 3 is not at all sinful? No, these things are sinful: sinful, that is, more or less... and that is the nuance here: sin is not merely lawbreaking (binary), but also a disorder--a disease--that affects (in infinitely small gradations) all of us in just about everything we do... which is why we need the Sacraments.

"But because the line is impossible objectively to draw, you're reduced to advocate that any level of consumption (as long as one "can afford it") is not at all sinful."

I don't see how you can possibly think that this is the position Lydia has been defending. Of course gross indulgences are the easy cases to point out. Lydia has been talking about middle class regular folk activities like driving to the store and turning on the air. By your own admission the line is impossible to objectively draw. So, I think, Lydia is saying yeah well these activities are not in the least clearly sinful so lighten up a bit. The kinds of activities she is speaking up for are in the gray area (in this setting anyway) and can often be found to be fulfilling good, local obligations. Instead you guys offer some sort of utilitarian calculus that forces us to internalize the costs of every act that we perform to not be subject to this blanket charge of globalization sin.

I consider myself a crunchy of sorts - quite a bit of one. You'll hear me complain about sprawl and watershed conditions about as much as divorce. But these blanket condemnations (from a keyboard no less) seem to me to be just sloppy.

"Instead you guys offer some sort of utilitarian calculus that forces us to internalize the costs of every act that we perform..."

We are moral agents in all aspects of our lives. The choices we make carry moral consequences. If that reminder creates discomfort, the trouble lies not with those questioning our current cultural norms.

"The fleets of massive "recreational" vehicles clogging our streets, are part of a larger, darker social phenomenon with very damaging consequences."

If it's such a "dark" phenomenon, it would, I would think, be dark even if we could keep it going forever. And, conversely, there are plenty of things that are innocent even if we can't afford them. I feel sorry for people who can't afford air conditioning and therefore do without. I don't think they are morally superior to me. It would be entirely possible for you guys to say, "Yes, it's a shame, but as an empirical fact, we're going to run out of energy and not be able to continue doing such-and-such." But that wouldn't be a moral judgement on such-and-such. Oddly, you want to use your empirical claim that we're going to run out of energy somehow as a _proof_ that these things are immoral. Which is a bit strange, to say the least. If a city were running even out of some necessity like food, it wouldn't mean that consuming food was immoral.

It goes all the way down, Lydia...

Really, Steve? So actually people really ought to live in mud huts and consume only bread and water and get scurvy, and their children, too, and if they don't, they are unworthy servants? Why am I bringing up this exaggeration? Because of your rather extreme comments about asceticism, which seem to imply that everyone should feel guilty for not being miserable, or at least more miserable than they are at any given moment. If Maximos doesn't like the word "gnostic" for this attitude, then perhaps "Kantian" will do better--It's not good unless it hurts you.

Lydia states: If a city were running even out of some necessity like food, it wouldn't mean that consuming food was immoral.

Well, that depends.

If there is such disparity wherein only the affluent of that city's population has possession of all, if not, most of the food stock; then it would seem immoral for the wealthy to continue to greedily consume this limited necessity without a thought of providing such to its needy members.

I mean, at the very least, wouldn't this strike you as a sin of omission?

As Christian, I do believe that faith should manifest in works, as Christ teaches ever so strikingly in Mt 25:41-46.

Every road out of Jerusalem is also a road into it.

Lydia, you seem to be blithely ignoring the point here: that virtually all prudential considerations we undertake are clouded by, tainted with hamartia, personal and, insofar as societies are made up of persons, communal. So let's just admit that and stop trying to justify our behaviors, whatever they may be, as being utterly good.

Let's say I give about $14k-$18k a year to the Churches and various charities. Let's say, given that the former figure is substantially larger than 10% of gross income, that only leaves about $8k-$9k a year to save for my (say 7 as of 2 weeks + nine months ago) children's future college/business venture/dowry expenses. Whom have I wronged? I could have given more to charity, and it would've been better to do so. Then again, I could've saved more for my children, and that would've been better too. The best, i.e., to be utterly blameless, whatever that is, is simply not attainable... And it is you, I think, not the "crunchies" who attempting to formulate the utterly blameless ideal. So I can merely do the best I can... knowing I have probably short-changed those less fortunate, all the while short-changing my own children. When, I stand before God, I'll likely not be prepared to justify either decision, to say nothing of the $11.42/month I spend on Netflix, or the over $40/month for tobacco, or the $80/month for wine, beer, and whiskey. Should I walk around feeling guilty? Not if I've done the best I can. That's why we say in confession, "I'm sorry for these sins, and all the ones I can't remember." But we also shouldn't go around pretending we're utterly blameless in our prudential decisions. We haven't been; we cannot have been.


"The best you can" is not supposed to be some amorphous thing like "pretty good, much better than people who never even think about it, and a durn sight more sacrificial than I could have been." It is supposed to mean "the best I was aware it was possible to be in the actual circumstances I had before me . I admit that I am not that, and according to Scripture and the Fathers nobody else is either.

But, the places where I fail to be the best I can are constituted of places where (a) I knew concretely what was better and chose a good which I knew was not the better one (sins of commission), or (b) times where I had the concrete capacity to know really what the best was but I ignored my duty to consider and thus failed to act on knowledge that was within my capacity concretely to know (sins of omission).

You guys seem to be saying that it is a sin of omission to fail to sacrifice a good for a possible benefit to another which may outweigh the good I desire even though I do not know it does in fact outweigh, and even though nobody can ascertain with high degree of certainty that it does in fact outweigh the good I desire.

I had company last night - people I had never before met but wanted to form a positive wholesome relationship with and so I wanted to give them a good meal as an initial step in that direction. I debated whether to serve a bottle of wine. As far as I am concerned, wine is ALWAYS a luxury in America other than for Mass or for medicinal purposes. The good I had in mind - better hospitality and charity and supportive relationships, in my mind, may outweigh the $7 worth of good I might have done some poor person - but I simply cannot know for certain and don't think anyone else can either. I made a judgment call that the good I was called on to do was for the people God put in my path, and I could do that good better with wine. I might have made an error, but the error was not in failing to consider the competing goods. Therefore it was not a sin of omission. It was not in knowingly choosing a lesser good, so it was not a sin of commission. Thus it WAS the "best I could do" with the knowledge God has granted.

Similar choices abound in every American's day. If, as seems likely, many of the choices are made without thought for the competing goods that are inherent in the choice, then they can constitute sins of omission. But if, as ALSO seems likely, many of the choices are made with a positive thought that discounts uncertain possibles and indeterminate contingencies of alternate goods, then that act of discounting the uncertain alternates is NOT an omission.

The real problem is in understanding where the right dividing line is between something that I can know with relative certainty has a bearing on my choice but I can not state exactly what that bearing is, and something that may have a bearing on my choice - even a large one - but I cannot determine how likely that "may" is.

I agree that we can know with relative certainty that a choice to buy an SUV that gets 15 mpg instead of a sedan with 25 mpg will have a negative impact on (a) my gas spending, (b) the overall demand for gas, (c) the price of gas, (d) the dependency of the US on imported gas (e) the political choices made by the leaders of the US and other nations in part on account of that dependency. These are clearly the case.

What is not clear is whether the degree of negative impact from MY decision here and now is greater or lesser than the other goods I have before me: if I get the SUV, I can belong to the team that gets Drs and nurses and non-emergency patients to the hospital in snowstorms, I can belong to the search and rescue team, and I can put my bike in the SUV and take up the biking vacations I wanted to do (thus becoming healthier etc). I defy any of you to provide a method of determining which set of competing goods outweighs the other FOR SURE. In the absence of certainty, or even relative certainty, is there some specific moral problem going ahead and buying the SUV?

You guys seem to be saying that it is a sin of omission to fail to sacrifice a good for a possible benefit to another...

doubting t,
If you were referring to my recent comments, please note that I was strictly referring to the hypothetical posed by Lydia, which obviously is nothing to reality.

In that one concrete situation, I would think that such deliberate acts were indeed immoral.

I don't see it as a brownie point system. I don't see it in terms of merits and demerits. I see asceticism as a means of stripping down, of simplifying, of jettisoning the baggage that keeps the camel from going through the eye of the needle. I see it as a means of allowing oneself enough solitude and quiet time to hear the small still voice that is ever present to the saints. We are charged to be perfect, not "pretty good, relatively speaking." We can't do that; but we must try. It takes quite a lot of conforming to the world in order place oneself in a position where one can make the kind of money that will allow one to buy a $70K SUV. A peasant who spends his life hoeing the rows and singing hymns just might be choosing the better part. I see no virtue in the consumer society. I don't see how one can be simultaneously picking up one's cross and also arranging one's life around the acquisition of creature comforts. Finally, I think that Jesus meant exactly what he said, and that he was talking to us.

"...it would've been better to do so. Then again, I could've saved more for my children, and that would've been better too."

I'm sorry, Steve, but that is incoherent. You are saying that A is better than B and B is better than A in the same sense at the same time. You're trying to conjure up some sort of mystical necessity of sinning in money choices where it just doesn't exist.

He speaks to us:

Revelation 3:15 “I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were cold or hot. 3:16 So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will vomit you out of my mouth. 3:17 Because you say, ‘I am rich, and have gotten riches, and have need of nothing;’ and don’t know that you are the wretched one, miserable, poor, blind, and naked; 3:18 I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, that you may become rich; and white garments, that you may clothe yourself, and that the shame of your nakedness may not be revealed; and eye salve to anoint your eyes, that you may see. 3:19 As many as I love, I reprove and chasten. Be zealous therefore, and repent.

Rob #2, the "better part" for each person will be slightly different depending on what God's will is for them. Even among religious, some choose contemplative orders, and some "active" orders, and perfection can be found in either one. For the married vocation, the virtues of asceticism are still virtues, but they are located differently, because while I have the right to choose to do without for myself, I do not have that right (in absolute terms) to so choose for my kids. Thus, for a parent, it is his or her duty to go around in the acquisition of those goods needed to raise a family, duties which are not present for a monk.

I seriously considered doing an Amish/Mennonite alteration of lifestyle, and I respect those who have made such a choice for themselves. It is a mistake, however, to believe that the cross Christs asks of all of us, and that the detachment from worldly goods required for true virtue, can ONLY be found in exactly that sort of umble lifestyle. The spirit of poverty is not found intrinsically in doing without every good one can possibly do without, it is an interior disposition toward every worldly good that one would willingly do without it if God wills it. It is true that this interior disposition is only found by practicing doing without habitually. But habitually denying oneself worldly goods still admits of using worldly goods for the greater glory of God, and also admits of taking pleasure in them upon occasion, within limits of reason. Thus even Christ was found to accept the pleasures of certain worldly goods at times.

Therefore, a parent has a job of practicing abstention for worldly goods, and inducing in the kids the same willingness to practice sacrifice, while at the same time creating a home suitable for children to grow up, and to try (so far as he can) to have a workplace suitable for human occupation 8 hours a day. Thus, for example, it is highly suitable to have works of art in the home to inculcate a sense of the beautiful in the children (and in the parents), and this cannot be done without purchasing something which, strictly speaking, one could have done without - if God wishes that one does without. So the upright parent purchases art with a desire to do good for God in the children and a willingness to forego that good if God shows He has another idea in mind. This harbors all of the virtue of poverty desired of by God of a parent while also maintaining the natural duties of a parent toward raising and educating upright children.

There are some goods that it is impossible to acquire on behalf of a family here in the US without more wealth than a poverty-level bare bones peasant who spends his life hoeing the rows and singing hymns can produce. One of those, for example, is a high-quality college liberal education which is capable of producing great Church musicians, theologians, and doctors. While God may desire that some be great peasants, it is impossible to maintain that He does not want there to be higher education capable of producing great theologians. And this takes wealth.

Consumerism is not found in being a consumer - Christ was a consumer of goods. It is found in the interior disposition to locate all the goods one cares for in worldly goods made by hand. If one habitually practices abstention from worldly goods, one can have an interior disposition of freedom from that grasping desire for more while at the same time having and using some worldly goods for God's work. And although I can agree that many people and many common practices in this society are consumerist, I cannot agree that we can discern it from any one act of being a consumer, like purchasing an SUV.

Christ was a consumer of goods.

doubting t--
Can you direct me to any teaching in the New Testament that would tend to support what you've said above?
I'm old enough to remember life in the 1950s quite clearly. We didn't have all this "stuff." I don't say that people were any more God-oriented then than they are now, although some claim that they were. What I do say that we can have happy, fruitful, culture-rich lives, and send our children to college after growing up with Van Gogh and Monet prints on their bedroom walls, without having central a/c and more car than we need.
What I said about the peasant was not meant to prescibe that we all take up sharecropping. It was meant to say that what used to be referred to as "pyramind climbing" is a virtual necessity in our society because WE have made it so. To "consumerist," I would add the concept of "careerist." We have lost the gift of being content with enough. We always have to have more. I don't think that a TV commercial is God's way of telling me that I need an SUV. Christ was a consumer of gifts.

I don't want to start a huge debate on this, but I wonder if there is a subtle 'Catholic/Orthodox vs. Protestant' dynamic underlying these disagreements. It seems to me that many times Protestants, and especially Evangelicals, simply don't "get" asceticism. In their minds it reduces to legalism: if I say I shouldn't own a $75,000 car if I don't need one, that becomes "thou shalt not own a $75,000 car."

As Rob#2 said above, asceticism's got nothing to do with brownie points or merits and demerits or even rules. It's also got nothing to do with self-flagellation (physical or mental) or living in a cave. It's about resisting the passions and stripping away the non-necessities of life that fuel them.

In our culture the temptation is to always be in upgrade mode. We can upgrade our computers, our cars, our stereos, our cell-phones. But what we need to ask ourselves is how many of these upgrades are really necessary? One could almost say that the ceasing of unnecessary upgrades and accumulation is the beginning of asceticism.

The major divide here seems to be between those looking at this matter from a spiritual/theological perspective and those who are analysing it from of a more political/social one. The former deny the social order little if any, autonomy from the divine drama. The latter allow for greater space between the two.
The former will be accused of being head in the clouds "killjoys", the latter as cultural conformists.

I agree that we DON'T need a constantly upgraded this or that. And that our society has indeed a strong consumerist bent to it. (I would love to see a cable company that sells me TV time by the minute watched instead of advertising products to me...not that I watch enough TV to make it all that attractive to such a company.)

But even so, there are ways in which a person who is willing to be in non-upgrade mode is forced to just to maintain his own status quo. Just for example, suppose I still want to use my Win 95 computer (with no software upgrades since '96) for working on the web. The fact is there are so many changes in the web since '96 that my computer no longer will interface in an effective manner. It has become nearly useless for that purpose, whether I like it or not.

Similarly, I could keep maintaining my 1975 Dodge, but frankly it guzzles gas and spews pollution in large amounts compared to newer cars with catalytic converters. Although it gets me from place to place, it does not do the job (the whole job, considered with its impact on everyone) as well as a newer car with newer technology because technology has made it obsolete.

Again, though there is certainly an excess of desire for more, better, bigger, faster, etc, it is difficult to impossible to identify any one single item as excess - it takes seeing items in context with a whole range, or a whole lifestyle.

Agreed, doubting t. Some upgrades are necessary some are not. And I concur wholeheartedly with your last paragraph, although I'd qualify it by saying that the beginning of seeing the 'whole range' or 'whole lifestyle' may be the ID'ing of single items.

but I wonder if there is a subtle 'Catholic/Orthodox vs. Protestant' dynamic underlying these disagreements

I was thinking the same thing from early on... but was also hesitant to bring it up... and still am!

I'm sorry, Steve, but that is incoherent.

Lydia, it was intended to be incoherent... not unlike the scriptural advice about answering a fool according to his folly. I was merely pointing out the impossibility of being utterly without fault in a familiar prudential economic decision: To restate, we've all made our deals with the devil; the only question that remains is the direction on the road on which we're traveling.

I was merely pointing out the impossibility of being utterly without fault in a familiar prudential economic decision: To restate, we've all made our deals with the devil; the only question that remains is the direction on the road on which we're traveling.

I very interesting comment.

(I once used the word "orientation" instead of "direction" to stress this point in an academic setting and I heard the spirits gnashing their teeth.)

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