Letter on Culture and Context

[This letter is part of the Little Letter Republic, a project whose purpose is to build community in St. Louis and beyond.]

Dear Nilay,

You asked about “Context is that which is scarce.”

In our last conversation you expressed mild shock when I said that none of my students and almost none of their parents know what a private equity market is. So, consider this example: I want to explain to a high school student what an equity market is. The student’s parents and family neither run businesses nor engage in any active investing, nor do their parents’ friends. From the student’s perspective there are jobs which pay money and there are places to which one goes to spend that money, and that little model, for them, is the economy. Notions like a funding round, shares, ownership, ROI, and public versus private markets are foreign concepts. But more importantly, even if they are explained, they are quickly forgotten because the concepts do not map onto the student’s experience of reality. To bring a student from ignorance to starting see how this works would require knowing one or several people whose picture of reality is formed by this other context. Such a personal network would then be adjacent to their own, and they could quickly add any new information I provided to their map of reality.

If I want to convince a student that starting their own business is something to seriously consider, their soul must grasp how this could work, but the soul can only with difficulty grasp what the senses haven’t experienced.

Consider another example found in “communities of practice.” What is the best way to become good at creating software back-end architecture? Reading a book? Certainly not, for a book cannot span all eventualities and quirks. For the most part, it seems, the best way to become good at something is to work on a problem and find people who have run into the same issues as you and talk with them or read their chats. Then, when you engage in conversation, they understand the context, or the context is shared enough that they grok the problem you describe.

A community engaged in similar practices encounters similar problems, but one cannot understand the problems or their possible solutions if one lacks the context to understand the problem in the first place.

When I dip into a work of philosophy, I can become gripped and absorbed into the text when the author is exploring a series of questions that I myself have contemplated. My “philosophical literacy” helps me see the point quickly about why a particular argument or line of inquiry matters. When I know what matters I am able to gain understanding. One needs cultural literacy to grasp the significance of any fact.

The point here is that knowledge is not a set of statements outside the mind but understanding within our intelligence about what matters and why.

We live in the information age, but it’s context that is scarce.

Here’s a trivial example. Let’s say I have had a fever for a few days, I text you, “I feel like Raskolnikov.” The information contained in that statement can only be unlocked if one has the cultural passkey, knowledge of Crime and Punishment. The most difficult part of this idea that the scarcity of context is so ubiquitous that we hardly notice the phenomenon, except by example or the experience of total confusion.

If I had to explain to my mom what I have been thinking about recently, it would take many hours of discussion before we were on the same page. The implication is that it is very hard to induct people into one’s own thought and problems unless they already share significant amounts of context with you. Nonetheless, my mother and I share other things, and so can connect on those.

There is a tragic loneliness in the scarcity of context. If I have something great to offer others, but they can’t understand it, then I will languish in obscurity. Sometimes I think about the people, the websites, the communities that I would love, that I know exist out there, but that I cannot find. I could wait for someone to link me there. But the human person is not a passive receptacle of experience, but rather a creator of context, a crafter of relationships and worlds. And so whenever we interact and build something together, we are creating context.

I hope some of that makes sense.

Yours sincerely,

A Curriculum Story

When I enrolled at Wabash College, the faculty had just voted on retiring the Cultures and Traditions course, a two semester sophomore seminar on the great texts of ancient and modern history. Such a course was meant, I presume, to serve as an introduction to at least some of the foundational texts of civilization. Arranged mostly chronologically the texts would be an introduction to some of the big ideas of humanity. But intellectual balkanization took the day, and the course was replaced with a freshman second semester course called Enduring Questions.

With all due apologies to the chief architect behind the course, Dean of the College Gary Philips, who, despite being an excellent professor for my section, fathered this disaster. EQ was a smorgasbord, The product of many kooky cooks in one claustrophobic kitchen. Some of the items on the menu were not even food. It was as though a gaggle of drunk undergrads were appointed to the curriculum committee on a Saturday night and immediately proclaimed, “For dinner we will be having strawberry gravy over Hot Wheels cars with a side of Papa John’s Red Pepper Flakes. As an aperitif, gentlemen, indulge yourself with this fine wine from an origami sippy-cup.” The course consisted of all the greats, that is, one sexist page from Aristotle, a bit of a book on freedom by an educational philosopher, In Defense of Dolphins arguing for the personhood of these ocean tricksters, a good Black experience novel, several movies (Bladerunner, Orlando, City of God), some holocaust literature, and The Power and the Glory. Despite, Gary’s heroic attempts to create a single thread holding this course together, the entire college suffered severe intellectual indigestion.

My soured relationship with Gary (would it weren’t so! He and I really should have been friends, but I spent half my college career trying to overthrow the administration, i.e. Gary and the President) met its ultimate end at an EQ course section reunion dinner three years later during senior year. As we circled around each other in conversation, looking to slide the rhetorical stiletto into each other, another student committed a terrible and crass faux pas. He ended our soft barbs with a cannon blast, a direct insult on the Dean. How could he not know to whom he was speaking? Could a senior have really been so ignorant that he did not know that Gary designed the EQ course? Did he not realize we were at that moment eating delicious vegetarian cuisine in our host’s vegetarian Victorian home? Maybe it was the light sparring that Gary and I engaged in that egged this student on? Or yet perhaps a desire to be noticed for having formed a wise and considered opinion after years of liberal arts reflection? Whatever the cause, heavenly compulsion or earthen desire, he managed to cruelly insult our host. Silence would have been golden, but instead: “Do you all remember In Defense of Dolphins?” he asked. Then continued, “Yeah, that was a really stupid book. I didn’t get it. Why did we have to read that?” So shocked was I, that I had to look at Gary and give him the reassuring I-swear-I-didn’t-put-him-up-to-saying-that.-He’s-obviously-just-really-sincere-and-heedless-of-the-fights-that-have-been-going-on-the-last-three-years look.

In any case, a course which lacks coherence will neither be absorbed nor respected by the student years hence. And that is the lesson of EQ: courses are better when are topical, coherent, and lead somewhere.

It is possible to error in the other direction, but I hesitate to even bring it up, since our schools are so far away from making this error. Nonetheless, for the sake of symmetry problem do arise when one only reads the great seminal texts. My mentor in bibliophilia Mike Martel, a Thomas Aquinas College graduate, and the most nurturing text lover I have ever met, always advocates for reading the texts themselves before the scholarship. But in our back and forth for seven years, we have moved closer to one another in the proportion of scholarship to primary texts on should read.

Insight in Context

I have been meditating a lot recently on “Context is what is scarce.” The amazing and ironic thing about this statement is that it is extremely low context and yet offers a gateway into a whole view of reality. Consider this passage from Bernard Lonergan’s Insight:

A single book may be written from a moving viewpoint, and then it will contain, not a single set of coherent statements, but a sequence of related sets of coherent statements. Moreover, as is clear, a book designed to aid a development must be written from a moving viewpoint. It cannot begin by presupposing that a reader can assimilate at a stroke what can be attained only at the term of a prolonged and arduous effort. On the contrary, it must begin from a minimal viewpoint and a minimal context; it will exploit that minimum to raise a further question that enlarges the viewpoint and the context; it will proceed with the enlarged viewpoint and context only as long as is necessary to raise still deeper issues that again transform the basis and the terms of reference of the inquiry; and clearly, this device can be repeated not merely once or twice but as often as may be required to reach the universal viewpoint and the completely concrete context that embraces every aspect of reality.

Introduction

He gets the context issue. Of course, this doesn’t only apply to books, but to networks of people. Networks create context. Movement along the network to subcategories or adjacent networks creates new insights out of new context, and importantly the person retains an ability to engage with the old context, while inculturating himself to a broader view.

Build your adjacent context and they will come.

On Alcuin of York

From York long before,
A green and poorer time,
Cold the minds of Europe
Frozen in the rime,
Cold the river of letters,
A trickle in a glaze.
Cold the long horizon,
First light gloamed in haze,
From York, he came humbly,
To serve the Frankish king,
The monk of texts and learning,
The needed Alcuin.

He served the Holy Letters,
With service nobly done.
To man he passed the skills
Which he had hardly won.
For humble laid humanity
With texts so far between
That even learned people
Learned only needed things.
The Divine Word to preach,
The arts of Romans past,
The service of the king and realm,
The care for texts that last.

This Alcuin he flamed with care,
Laid on disciples’ souls
The burning embers of learning done,
Just as Isaiah ate the coals.

From Palace he received not rest,
Even at the Abbey Tours,
There the Monks with careless pens
Would lose a text’s right words.
Hardly could he read their hand,
Like Pagan women with a palm,
Upon the rack of writing he
Brought healing and a balm.

“Make distinct thy letters,
Between all words a space,
End each sentence with a dot.
Take care! It’s not a race.”

Upon his honored legacy
Mystery still does brood.
Did he foresee the value
Of this exactitude?
Did he see the longe duree
That as a morning lark,
He set the world upon the path
To form the question mark?


Morality Case Study – 1998 Afghanistan

[I am teaching a morality class. For one of our cases studies we read a section from Ghost Wars by Steve Coll (circa page 422) about a situation in 1998 Afghanistan during the early hunt for bin Laden. The students were required to apply the principle of double-effect to the case, and recommend the proper course of action for the President to take. I think the case study was interesting in itself, and so present my sample answer.]

In early 1998 Osama bin-Laden’s organization al-Qaeda bombed two American embassies in sub-Saharan Africa killing 211 and wounding around 2,000 people. The US is trying to track, capture, and kill bin Laden in order to stop the threat of future attacks. The CIA has evidence that bin Laden is seeking to possess biological and chemical armaments and would like to plan an attack within the US itself. A CIA source has provided information that bin Laden is in a compound in eastern Afghanistan. At the site are various Taliban leaders (another designated terrorist group) and a cache of 23 Stinger missiles, these are surface-to-air homing missiles for firing at helicopters and low flying aircraft. The information about bin Laden comes from one source, and there is no other independent confirmation of his existence at the site. Odds of his presence: 50%

Situation:

The US has a submarine in Persian Gulf armed with two Tomahawk missiles ready to fire at the site. Using GPS coordinates the missiles are quite accurate, however there is a possibility of error and missing the target. A mosque next to the location has up to 300 innocent civilians present, including many women and children. Based upon some cursory research on the accuracy of Tomahawk Cruise Missiles, the estimated civilian casualty count is between 20 and 300.

Do we advise the President to command the attack?

Principles:

A moral action is made of three parts: The intention, the object, the consequences.

The Principle of Double Effect dictates that when our actions have both good and bad consequences, we must prudently consider the right course of action. We may only take an action when the following conditions are met:

  1. The evil effect does not necessarily cause the good effect.
  2. The action is acceptable.
  3. The intention of the will is directed towards the good end.
  4. The means deployed are proportional to the harms caused by the action.

Application:

  1. In this case the US intention is to stop bin Laden’s terrorist attacks, protect American and allied lives. These are morally acceptable intentions.
  2. The action of firing an attack missile can be justified at times and so the action is acceptable.
  3. The deaths of the civilians do not cause the death of bin Laden and so they are a foreseen but unintended consequence of the action, which could be acceptable.
  4. 211 lives have already died because of this organization. Killing bin Laden would greatly weaken the organization. Bin Laden is planning future attacks of unknown size, but presumably of at least equal size to the most recent attacks. A 50% chance of stopping 211 more deaths has an expected value of saving 155 more lives, but we know bin Laden is planning more attacks than just that. We could be saving anywhere from 211 – 10,000 lives. Additionally, the destruction of the Stinger missiles and the death of a few Taliban leaders would also be a good additional outcome.

On the other hand, 20 – 300 civilians would die. If bin Laden is not killed then we did not save many lives at all, if any. Additionally, America would look weak. The international community would be upset with US belligerence and that may hurt our trustworthiness with allies, causing less cooperation and life-saving measures in the future. Furthermore, the families of the civilians likely may become lifelong enemies of the United States, creating more terrorists for the future to deal with.

Other possibilities: Osama bin Laden is a uniquely talented organizer and terrorist. His death would make al Qaeda far weaker for the foreseeable future. OR bin Laden has top lieutenants who will continue on the war against America just as effectively, so killing bin Laden will not save as many lives as we had hoped.

Recommendation:

My recommendation depends upon obtaining two further facts. One, current American understanding about the skillset and replaceability of Osama bin Laden within al Qaeda, and two, given that bin Laden is present at the target site what is the probability of him dying in the strike, this depends on both the accuracy and destructive power of the missile. A deeper understanding of both factors would be required for me to be surer of my judgment.

If the missile was 90% likely to kill bin Laden given that he is present and that it hit the target squarely. And if there was a 90% chance of the missile hitting the target squarely, then there would be a 40.5% chance of killing bin Laden, in exchange for these 20 – 300 civilian deaths. Not knowing the future of 9/11 and the War on Terror, this seems like not too great a risk. I think I would still not recommend the strike.

In retrospect from 2021, when it comes to terrorism, motivation and organizational know-how are the scarce factors. Thus, it seems that bin Laden was a uniquely big threat to the US, because without him al Qaeda was significantly less effective. At least, I think this is the case. With the gift of hindsight, I think it is (too) easy to say it may have been worth it after all.

What Life is Like in the Hybrid Model

If you want to guarantee different outcomes, create a model which can’t reproduce the same errors. The hybrid model transforms education – three days at school, two at home. This one drastic change creates many unique consequences.

Class time is not wasted by long videos that can be watched at home, or by loading up dozens of computers on to the same app, teachers burning time, or other administrative interruptions. Teachers guide the student and her classmates through a lesson, teach new skills, and prepare students to accomplish a new task at home the next day. Everyone – teachers and students- work together to understand their mission for their upcoming home-day assignments. Working with classmates throughout the day, a shared sense of purpose and joy builds lasting friendships. When the day ends, students depart with their assignments in their planner and their books and notes.

On the home day, they budget their time to read, write, reflect, practice, and create. They have a job to do, and all tools they need to complete it. Parents oversee that they are being responsible, and teachers are available by email and phone. Over time students become the master of their studies and have skills in college that other freshmen have yet to even begin learning – namely the ability to be independent and learn on their own.

Verses on Shipping

There’s a law or regulation

Near every U.S. dockyard station

That containers, stacked up to nine

On global ocean shipping lines,

May on the lots where man can see

Be only stacked up two or three.

For the sight of such a shipping tower

Causes residents to fret and glower.

But as containers come gliding in,

Those that are out, can’t get in,

And those that are in, can’t get out

Of dockyards or harbors. No turnabout.

 Oh the increasing traffic jam,

Miles wide, you understand!

But at least we residents still have the might,

To keep containers out sight!

Responses to “Contra ‘New Polity’ on Capitalism”

[These two letters written to me are part of the Little Letter Republic, a project whose purpose is to build community in St. Louis and beyond. I did not write them, and thus do not necessarily agree with everything said. I post it because them because they worth engaging with. I am always accepting letters. These are in response to “Contra ‘New Polity’ on Capitalism”.]

Hi Sebastian,

I did take a look at your letter.  It was a few days ago, but I do have a few general thoughts.  You are absolutely right to question this imagination of medieval Catholic ideas on exchange.  Virtually all serious research in this area presents a very different understanding, but the idealization persists.  On the other hand, while you cite real texts in support of your counter position, I think you go too far in the direction of imagining an understanding that can be labeled “pro-capitalist.”   I’m afraid your position comes off looking tendentious as well.  There are texts in both Albert and Thomas (and others) that indicate their real concern for a personalized ethics, and in Thomas, a real understanding that relying simply on market price relieves the exchanger of taking the necessary moral responsibility for his actions.  (I believe I make this point in E&N).  I think you need to bring this side out as well.  What I find most interesting is that even if scholastic authors question the simple assent to market price, they all recognize that there is such a thing, and they all recognize that even if not the perfect personal solution, it provides the best guide to the question of economic value.  That’s to say that at least from the time of Albert (and evidence has been found that takes this back to the 12th century), there is a clear understanding of the existence of “market price” and the elements contributing to everyday price formation, and that this price can be seen as “just” (but see below).  I’ve only found one who speaks of economic value in everyday exchange as properly determined by primarily personal decision based on the needs of the other.

Two other points I think important. 

The value that  Catholic thinkers in this period allow to the Common Good is exceptional.  I stress this even more in my following book, A History of Balance, and I think you might like to take a look at my first 2 chapters.   This informs their “economic” thinking in a way that has surface similarities with the capitalist imagination, but is different in important respects as well.

I think both the authors you critique and you yourself should have a clearer understanding of Thomas’ attitudes toward “justice” with a small j, i.e. what is permissible by law.  I discuss this, too, in E&N.  I think you’ll find that it is a relatively low bar: designed to facilitate the functioning of the community, and thus many things are permitted by the “justice” of human law that are far below what divine law and justice require.  So it would be good, I think, to point to this distinction.

I commend your desire to bring scholarship into this discussion.

Cheers,

Joel

—–

Dear Sebastian,

What a feisty, pugnacious essay! I enjoyed it immensely, even if it took up my whole lunch hour. I wrote down some notes in agreement or disagreement with each of your 6 points. I have to say, though, I agree with the general tone of your essay. Granted, the burden of proof is on New Polity, so your objections can be sound without the implicit foundations of your arguments correct. In general, ironically, I found your arguments in need of more empirical data and less generalization–just like your beef with New Polity, right! I think the moral argument needs to be more nuanced. 

1) Alienation and Mechanization: First, what you say about mechanisms of economy is spot on. They’ve always existed, and having more intricate ones with more moving parts in the digital world is not bad, nor is it different. But you’re too dismissive of this point: where do you draw the line? How much alienation is too much, or at what point does a mechanism produce alienation that is definitively immoral?


For instance, the mechanisms of a global economy, if not immoral themselves, can certainly lead to immoral behavior, can certainly encourage it. People would be a lot less likely to buy Nike shoes, for instance, if their factories were in our own cities instead of Indonesia. That’s not at all a denunciation of this mechanism per se; I’m just pointing out that not all mechanisms are equal. Just because they’ve been around since time immemorial doesn’t mean some don’t encourage things like alienation. Of course NP’s attitude needs to be more nuanced, but it shouldn’t be dismissed outright. Some alienation is perhaps necessary, but at a certain point I think it’s reasonable to say that certain mechanisms lead to a level of alienation that is unacceptable.


2) Argument of Arbitrage: again, I agree completely that arbitrage is not only not immoral, but a good to be fostered, and a way of creating equilibrium. That’s fair. I especially appreciate the pre-Revolutionary France example. But again, just because arbitrage as a concept is praiseworthy doesn’t mean that it is in all its instances. Again, your refutation is legit: but I would be more interested in a positive argument for how to have ethical arbitrage. Surely at some point my buying and reselling of goods ceases to be itself good and praiseworthy. The crux of the question, I would argue (and NP seems to agree) is the common good. 


Take the crash of the housing market for example (based entirely from my watching of The Big Short). Those investors were gaining capital by purchasing bad debt, and in gaining a prophet in this way, they ended up devaluing the market and causing an economic collapse. Granted, this problem can be solved by tweaking the mechanisms of buying and selling; you don’t have to overhaul the system and eliminate the value of debt. But again, your guiding star has to be the common good, which you don’t seem to acknowledge.


3) The theorist-phenomenon fallacy (love the name!). Once again, I find myself in complete agreement that we, self righteous academic Catholics tend to way overvalue abstract ideas. I usually commit the fallacy three or four times before breakfast. But don’t go to the opposite extreme! Don’t you think that ideas, ideologies, philosophical principles gradually inform the way a people will think, act, consider? De Tocqueville makes an entire thesis of this in his visit to America. Nobody here has read Descartes, he writes, but nowhere in the world are his ideas more implemented. Accordingly, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say, quite simply: self-interest is the guiding principle of this economy, therefore people tend to act in this way first, before considering service to others secondarily. Is the basis of our economy not self interest? I would need to see this demonstrated.


4) Monopolists: you are very dismissive of the cries against big corporations destroying local businesses, etc. A year or two ago Amazon informed in a commercial that they really aren’t against the little guy. They showed a video clip of a small business owner smiling because he worked with Amazon, so it must be true! Your argument feels a little like this also. Again, I would like to see empirical evidence that either a) these monopolies are not, in fact, destructive to local business, or b) local business and economy is not in itself a good worth preserving. 


5) Index funds: I enjoyed this section most of all. I agree with you that the fact that they’re impersonal is not bad (a sentence which I hope I’ll never utter again in any context!!). But the lack of autonomy is a serious problem. I tried to do a quick search to see what percentage of an average portfolio is going into the porn industry, but I couldn’t find good numbers. But I would like that kind of statistical info before giving my approval. That’s why we’ve been investing with Ave Maria Funds. Again, I agree with you that index funds are not inherently immoral, but that doesn’t make them inherently good either.


Which leads to my next point. Albert and Aquinas, writing 800 years ago, are pro market price. That’s fine, but you fail to acknowledge the ways the market is different now than it was in their time. The index funds are a prime example: capital is considerably more fungible now than it was in their time, leading to issues that they did not anticipate. Should an item be sold at market price if the sellers have established total control of the market? Didn’t that hedge fund this winter try to pull this, and artificially lower the market price of Game Stock, before they were foiled by Reditters? But the point is, the market price cannot remain the only consideration regarding morality when investors have gained so much more control over how these things are set. All the ways capital is different from medieval times would have to be considered before we can accept Aquinas and Albert’s teachings out of hand. 

John

Contra “New Polity” on Capitalism

The intersection of economics and ethics should be an area of fruitful study and inquiry, one in which we develop new tools for living freer, more prosperous, more fulfilled lives. One such attempt to think in this space and develop an outlook somehow manages to be incorrect in almost every, single particular. I spent several weeks trying to figure out how the gentlemen at New Polity have been able to err so systematically about economics and a vision for a “Catholic” economic order based on “virtue and community instead of the individual and self-interest.”

New Polity, a Catholic Utopian political project set up in the brambles of Steubenville, Ohio, “aims to deconstruct the keywords and categories of liberalism and reconstruct them according to the logic of Christianity.” Their podcast is a humorous, warm, and somewhat grave exposition of their economic worldview. It is even inspiring, if one can get past a few trifling details, such as that their philosophical history is missing pieces, their account of standard economics is “idiosyncratic”, and their empirical claims are misleading.

Nonetheless, they speak with a Catholic vocabulary, which is alluring, and they are obviously good people of upright heart and good humor. But as for their actual ideas, they are a dangerous siren song for disaffected Christians, offering a retreat from reality in the name of virtue. I worry deeply about their project, not only because I think they make important mistakes, but it seems as though they lack any sufficiently strong challengers to make them sharper and more useful and less wrong. After many hours of listening to their podcasts and reading some of the general New Polity articles, I have boiled down their insights into six core ideas (six, the number of the working man!), all of which are mistaken to various significant degrees.

I am going to be pretty harsh here, so let me reiterate. Marc Barnes and Jacob Imam are really, wonderful people. Totally sincere in what they say and without any desire except for all good things to be subsumed within that Great Good from which all good things first flowed – also jokes. Their joke game is better than mine. I made a New Year’s Resolution to be funnier, and it hasn’t really worked out. But Marc Barnes has been writing witty Catholic blog posts since like 2010, and his music rocks. In fact, listening to his album should be top priority for you, dear reader, right after you read this essay.

I will send this essay to Jacob and Marc, so that they have a chance to respond, and if they feel I am misrepresenting their claims, I want to be able to correct myself. And sorry in advance to all the other folks at New Polity whom I am overlooking, like Andrew, I just only really listened to the episodes that had Marc and Jacob on them, so I’m focusing on them. Ultimately though, my goal is not merely to critique. I am deeply devoted to the line of inquiry that connects morality and economics. I teach a course on each, and I believe getting the fundamentals right and sharing those with others will improve their lives and ultimate happiness by giving us more options on how to improve our society. Getting the fundamentals wrong makes all further inquiry vain. And being too cavalier about the prescriptions frustrates the goal of the good life. I want the New Polity project to be successful and true and beautiful!

Idea number one.

  • The Medieval notion of the just price is based upon the buyer and seller trying to fulfill each other’s individual needs within a personal virtuous transaction.

According to New Polity, the just price concerns individual needs, the needs of the seller to cover costs and take care of his own affairs, and the needs of buyer to secure what is necessary for his livelihood and affairs. For a price to be just, the seller doesn’t sell for more than he needs, and the buyer pays at least enough to cover costs and take care of the seller. In this story the purpose of bargaining and market transactions is not to get the best deal for oneself, but to find out what the other person needs at an individual level and exchange with respect to those individual needs.

Descriptively, this is not how medieval people set prices, nor was this vision of the just price a common theological prescription or the only one at the time. I don’t know where they get their particular version of this idea. The provenance of this idiosyncratic definition seems to be their own creation, based upon the values of localism, conversationism (a term I just made up), and an assumption of abundance, and moral concerns about profit.

Indicative of the wider thinking of New Polity, here we enter a mental land which valorizes medieval Europe for capacities it didn’t have, in this case, that the seller and buyer of item knew each other and thus were more likely sell items at a price that was pleasant for that individual. And even if they didn’t do this in practice, Jacob and Marc claim (or perhaps assume) that a specifically personal transaction was the gold standard of economic action held by the best thinkers of the day.

And speaking of best thinkers of the day, let’s hit up Saint Albert the Great for his explanation of the just price to see if this is true.

“Money is a quantity that measures a common quality of all things, that quality is found in the use and the need of the community; thus, money is able to be a common measure for all things, which compare things among other items of a certain value,” [1] (translation mine, but it’s not exactly literal because the Latin here makes for terrible English).

“However, the just price is the one which according to the estimation of the market of that particular time is able to be had for the thing sold,” [2] (translation mine).

Notice the emphasis on community, estimation, and contingencies of the market! Albert thought the going market price was the just price. It is shocking to me, too. And should give us pause that the early 13th century already had people, brilliant outliers, perhaps, who were quite advanced, or if you don’t like the value-laden term, “modern” in their economic analysis. Both of these statements of Albert contradict core New Polity principles. Albert thinks 1) Money was founded to allow people who don’t know each other to trade, i.e. it concerns “alienation,” (This is not an idea found in the medieval corpus, as far as I know. Aristotle says the purpose of money is to serve a common measure for diverse objects, allowing us to compare houses to shoes in terms of cost, and that is what Albert is building off of). 2) Value of an item is based upon the production costs and what use buyer can make of it for his salvation. But for Albert, value is also contingent upon market circumstances that occur beyond the individuals making the transaction. It’s relative to time and place, not merely costs of production and needs of the individual.

“Okay, one example! Sure, Sebastian…” Fine, I say. Let’s turn then to the OG fat cat of Catholic philosophy Saint Thomas. While Thomas’ views on the just price are less clear and more contested than Albert’s [3], even he admits that selling high when there is scarcity is justified, even if new shipments will reduce the price shortly. He considers the case of a merchant who knows that a new shipment is coming of some good.

“Whence a vendor who sells according to the price he finds in the market it seems does not act contrary to justice, if he does not reveal that which is coming. However, if he should reveal this information or lower his prices, it would be an abundance of virtue, although it should seem outside of the duty of justice,” [4] (translation mine).

This is not something New Polity would admit into their “Christian economy”. For them, to speak of the justice of selling at a significantly higher price than the costs of production would be nonsensical. But Aquinas, although he shares many of the concerns of New Polity, is decidedly not in their camp, though he shares their concern in other places about a rupture in economics between what is natural and what is good.

So Albert conceived the just price as something practically equivalent to the equilibrium price of supply and demand, and Thomas while more circumspect, still connects the idea of exchange to scarcity. Such views of market exchange were developed further throughout the Middle Ages, by other thinkers, thinkers who have similar theological and moral concerns as our New Polity friends. The fact that medieval philosophers and theologians shared views strikingly similar to the mainstream economics profession should call into question some the revisionist economic thinking that has crept into much Catholic social philosophy recently, especially this so-called “postliberal” stuff which purports to be inspired by a medieval ideal.

Thus, I think the definition of the just price offered by our New Polity friends merely presents some pious fiction based upon wishful thinking for a world motivated by a theology of personal encounter and easy liberality due to a lack of scarcity. But in the words of economist Armen Alchian, “Since the discouraging fiasco in the Garden of Eden, all the world has been a place conspicuous in its scarcity of resources, contributing heavily to an abundance of various sorrows and sins,” [5].

Amidst the glorification of medieval thought, sometimes stylized facts worm their way in. And that brings us to idea number two.

  • Using mechanisms for determining price and value dehumanize us by removing the need for personal virtue from our account of the good society.

They are worried a lot by alienation, by external mechanisms that we can’t shape dominating our lives, and humans losing our capacity for virtue as we lose our autonomy within the greater system.

(My baser self says, “When I raised concerns like this in college, I was a wise and humane thinker, boldly questioning the trajectory of society, but when New Polity raises this concern, they are foolish luddites who rely on armchair philosophy and ignore empirical reality.”)

I no longer get the intuitions behind this claim. In my collegiate youth, I made it because I didn’t understand what half the words in the sentence really meant. In truth, I can’t really remember why I thought that, and I don’t know how to reconstruct that mind-space. I didn’t know what different types of mechanisms were, or why they mattered. I didn’t know what society was, or how to think about autonomy, or how they actually functioned. I was, frankly, an idiot. But why do these gentlemen make this claim? What does it mean to them?

First of all, taken at face value, the original claim is absurd, even bargaining and bartering is a mechanism. Courts are a mechanism. Letter writing is a mechanism for communication. So what does Marc mean? Can anyone explain what they are talking about? Well, everyone admits that producers need to cover their costs and total upkeep, so whatever method we use to figure and calculate that is a mechanism. Is there something dehumanizing about counting and accounting? Math-phobic theologians and social philosophers have always had a vendetta against Plato’s injunction to learn Geometry, even more so are they suspicious of accounting and economic models. This, of course, makes them poor judges of the use and abuse of models. Far easier is it to dehumanize and dismiss the mathematicians, than to learn their occult crafts. I am not saying that Jacob and Marc are making this error here. I frankly don’t know what they’re doing.

What I do know is that complex societies require supra-personal mechanisms to function and any honest and consistent attempt to function without them would put one back into a time before laws had to be written down.

Although, like a Spanish Man-of-War, NP makes a broadside attack against all mechanism, I suppose I should address their claims about the “mechanisms” for price setting and the “mechanisms” for determining value.

While Saint Albert and Saint Thomas and the following scholastic philosophers believe that aggregate behavior and relative scarcity can produce a just price, they never adopt a hard line against market mechanisms for prices the way New Polity does. New Polity is deeply worried that market failures and injustices are strong indicators that the majority of modern exchange is in fact morally deficient. They have never produced a sustained argument for this position as far as I know, but they suggest it very often.

In related news, error number three.

  • Arbitrage is exploitation. Interest is exploitation.

Arbitrage is not only NOT exploitation, it is oftentimes truly praiseworthy. Arbitrage creates value by moving goods from where there is less desire for them to places where there is more desire for them, until the costs are equal. This allows more people to partake in the good than otherwise would be free too. A flea market or garage sale where you sell old items is a type of arbitrage. Pawn shops deal in arbitrage. The distant merchant who buys low and sells high is only able to do such a thing because the low cost represents a low value placed on the item locally, and the profit he makes represents the high value placed on the item in some other location. As goods become more evenly dispersed, arbitrage opportunities close. If you look at the world today, most goods that travel well, like cell phones and spices cost the same everywhere precisely because there are no arbitrage opportunities left. This is great! It means that the price reflects the something very close to the average production cost everywhere and allows for the maximum number of people to benefit from that item. In general, this is a very good thing, Marc!

Let’s take it back to Aquinas’ example of the merchant who knows a new shipment of some good that he sells is about to hit the market. That merchant will try to sell as much as he can right now before the price drops. Notice that in Aquinas’ account it is implied that lower prices are good for the consumers, and the merchant’s desire to sell at the current price before the supply increases is not considered to be unjust. In a word, Aquinas does not assume these normal economic actions and reactions to be morally unjust. This brings us to arbitrage. The merchant who brings the new goods to market commits the good action of creating lower prices by increasing supply in a constrained market. If lowering one’s prices in anticipation of new goods coming to market was virtuous on the part of the original merchant, how much more praiseworthy is it that the new merchant is bringing the goods themselves to market?

The low price means that even the poorer person can obtain this good, so he or she may use it for their good and the good of their family, friends, community etc. If you care for this relatively poorer person being able to make use of goods, then arbitrage is generally praiseworthy!

But according to New Polity’s episode on prices, “A merchant starts with money, buys a product, sells the product and then is left with additional money… that is not okay.”

Consider 1780s France. Each county and duchy had its own import and export duties. This diminished arbitrage opportunity and kept production quite local. It was a localist dream! Except for the constant grain shortages, high prices, and local monopolies, which led to conspiracies that the crown was secretly hoarding grain, to civil unrest, and to… you get the picture. It’s one example, but I think it is salient and instructive. Allowing money and goods to flow to where they are most needed is generally helpful to people in their own estimation.

Marc might say that a merchant’s profit is not good for the merchant. But it is for the people he sells to. There is no one wronged here. And while Marc may want to object that the merchant’s disposition is bad for wanting to make a profit, I simply observe that the profit is only possible because of a service provided, and thus is not necessarily unjust.

Once I am granted the good of arbitrage, I will be able to make the basic story of interest sensible to the theologically scrupulous.

  • A Paraphrase: “Mises says that the economy must be based upon self-interest and scarcity. Hobbes says that the state must be based upon violence and scarcity, therefore our modern liberal state is based upon an anthropology of self-interest and violence to neighbor through the profit motive.”

To what shall I compare this mistake? Or what fallacy can we call it? The theorist-phenomenon fallacy, I will call it, a terrible fallacy. Watching what the economy actually does is how one should judge the economy. Knowledge of the economy comes from the senses, descriptions of what people do, not from philosophical works.

Error number four is very typical of over-blogged, post-empirical post-liberals, and so it is unfair to pick on Marc and Jacob for this one. New Polity combines a normal lack of economic insight with Catholic studiousness/infatuation with the history of ideas. For example, while Locke and Hobbes are important thinkers and theorists of political economy, their effect on the actual workings of our society approaches zero. Yet, when it comes to understanding economic theory, our New Polity hosts and writers put great weight on these philosophers as representative examples of what “capitalism” is all about.

  • Most businesses are monopolistic in price setting.

Empirically not true. Really what is happening here Marc and Jacob are just crying in frustration that we don’t live in a society where people are negotiating prices all the time. They do not like (attempted) equilibrium pricing. They feel they are powerless to oppose it. Ironically, one of the key texts for helping write this article, I purchased off Amazon… after negotiating for a better price from the private seller.

And furthermore, negotiation on prices is constant in our society, if one cares to look for it.

When New Polity describes the economy, the businesses they list are frequently big name consumer facing tech companies and other vogue villains, as though that is where all the value is in the economy. It’s a skewed picture.

(Unrelated: I tried to negotiate for a better price on YouTube Premium, and they didn’t get back to me. So I go without, because $12/month is just egregious!)

  • Putting money in index funds is unchristian and selfish.

By far New Polity’s take with the worst consequences for the individual, for families, and the common good is this one. But explaining why this claim is wrong in a way that is succinct and capable of moving the needle for Marc and Jacob is hard. Their two main concerns are lack of personal connection and lack of capital autonomy. Let’s take these objections one at a time.

Because index funds are impersonal your investments are not tied to investing in something or someone you know. This means that your money is not being used to benefit your community, but rather a diffuse unknown group of persons. Thus, investments become divorced from personal charity, so the thinking goes. I don’t think this is a very strong objection. Like the objection to mechanism before it, it’s too broad. If I accept it, then I wind up committed to all sorts of bizarre notions that forbid me from doing things that generally and systematically produce good, even if I don’t see it or know the people who benefit from it.

The other objection to blind investing complains that when one loses control over what one’s money is going towards, one is enabling some evils in society by providing material cooperation with evildoers or bad businesses which are not making the world a better place. At some margin, this is certainly true. But is indexing morally problematic? Is the financial sector mostly bad? I am not so cavalier.

What I will say is this, we should presume that most businesses provide positive value to society. The value businesses provide would not exist without investors and lenders, and so, on average, index funds are creating a lot of value – for individuals through returns, for businesses through financing their projects, for consumers by enabling those businesses to arbitrage opportunities, and for society as a whole through the growth in capital goods, which make this cycle of growth possible in the first place. Are they entrenching incumbents? Or buoying the size and inefficiencies of big businesses? Perhaps! It’s an empirical question I’d like to know more about.

But even though I think normal index funds are good, I do like value investing. Well, I like the idea of it. Matt Levine, my current and only heartthrob for finance news, has been tracking the growth of ESG investing (environment, sustainability, governance), that is, the growing number of investors who don’t only want shareholder value maximized by the company but are also interested and agitate for reforms in other non-pecuniary areas. Why would they do this? Because they are indexed! Investors own parts of lots of companies, and if one company is going around doing something bad for society or government stability or human reproduction or the environment or something, then that company is a liability to the entire portfolio of the world by making it less sustainable. Hence the recent story Matt wrote today about the shareholder complaint lodged against Facebook. A possible moral is that indexing allows us as a society to internalize the costs of the bad things all the companies do, because “bad things” makes the world worse and more volatile. Not that money isn’t being made off of vice, surely lots of dough is rolling in because of the intemperance, ignorance, and general failings of human nature. The world can still hum along despite quite a bit of vice, but when it gets too out of hand, finance sometimes can step in to take the longer view. It’s a weird world.

Is there a problem in the amount of money in index funds? Are there supply-side bottlenecks throughout our economy? Should we have a more “venture-capitally” world? Probably. I don’t know. It’s worth investigating. But any investigation into these problems is going to be a very empirical data-heavy endeavor far removed from armchair opining on John Locke. I will take a long bet that our world could be so much better and greater than it is today. But I think the innovations which will improve the current state of affairs will build from and transform the good that is already present, especially fundamental insights of mainstream economic theory, rather than some new “opt-in” polity born from whole cloth.

Conclusion

I think New Polity can do great things and create an inspiring message of how to be a Catholic in the modern economy. Right now, they are stuck in a scrupulous theological mode, which corrupts all the interesting analysis by lacing it with mistaken empirical claims, sloppy arguments, historical fiction, and missing engagement with the actual existing economics profession. Grace builds on nature. They are all grace with not enough substance to build on. I don’t think it would take much for them to break out of the silly presumptions common in their Catholic milieu; they just need to learn how to think like “bad economists” as well as “bad Catholics.”

[1] Kaye, 68. Albert 334b.
Sic ergo dicimus, quod si fiat mensuratio artificialium secundum esse suae speciei, non mensurantur omnia numismate, sed domus domo et sic de aliis. Si autem mensurantur quantum ad hoc accidens ipsorum, quod est appretiabile esse, secundum quod veniunt in usum et utilitatem communitatis, sic possunt habere omnia mensuram, quae sit certissimi pretii inter alia, quia hoc est dispositio mensurae.

I was successfully harassed, so I put the Latin in here, thanks Joe!

[2] Kaye, 76. Justum autem pretium est, quod secundum aestimationem fori illius temporis potest valere res vendita.

[3] Kaye, 96.

[4] Kaye, 97. Unde venditor qui vendit rem secundum pretium quod invenit non videter contra justitiam faere, si quod futurum est non exponat. Si tamen exponeret vel de pretio subtrahet, abundatiatoris esset virtutis; quamvis ad hoc non videatur teneri ex justitiae debito.

[5] Alchian, 1. This was written in English.

References

Joel Kaye, Economy and Nature in the Fourteenth Century: Money, Market Exchange, and the Emergence of Scientific Thought. 1998. The footnotes are mostly in Latin.

Armen Alchian, Universal Economics. 2011.

McConnell Brue and Flynn, economics, 2016. It’s the AP book I teach out of.

Marginal Revolution University. A great website for watching economics videos and learning the subject.

The Loyalty Advantage

Life is a matching problem. We arrive in the optimal place for ourselves often after a lot of sampling, in our hobbies, in jobs, in romance, in vocation. Cf. RANGE for research on the utility of sampling different things.

While I am strong proponent of sampling, testing, and experience, I wonder if the advantages of loyalty get overlooked when it comes to truth-seeking and matching.

One advantage of loyalty over the course of a long period of time may be that in the course of ups and downs one gains a clearer, more accurate, and more complete view of a thing.

If one first experiences ups, one may overrate an institution, person, etc, and become fanatically loyal or unrealistic or overoptimistic. If one first experiences downs, one may underrate the matter, flee from it, and never get the fuller picture. The fuller picture, however, is the most important thing to gain when trying to find a good match.

Examples: First dates. Social groups.

When one sticks around, a clearer view presents itself. However, in the course of negative experiences there is opportunity cost for loyalty, but that loyalty is also an investment to see the matter through, which in many cases is ultimately valuable even if the negative experience persists.

Examples: Rocky times in a marriage. A risk that isn’t working out.

We can’t get the outside view or an objective view of interior situations. Stubborn stick-to-it-tive-ness allows us to see through a situation long enough to get a fuller picture.

Agnes Callard’s account of Aspiration starts with reasons which are superficial, but ultimately lead to deep inner transformation. However, such transformation is only possible with a type of loyalty and faith that the transformation will come after certain trials. To me, this seems very similar to a loyalty advantage, that is, only time can give one enough experience to judge a thing whose most important characteristics concern your internal experience of it or relation to it.

Of course, this all just begs the question. When should one stick to it, and when should one abandon the sinking ship or the job that’s not the right fit?

On the other hand, loyalty often does not preclude time set aside for exploration, to see what other jobs are out there, to get to know more people, to see what other types of skills one could acquire, or hobbies one could take up.

I think the answer is to judge whether the truth and longevity of the matter matters sufficiently that it is worth extended suffering on behalf of it. A non-answer like this still cashes out in a few guidelines.

  1. Jobs in which you are suffering are generally not worth sticking to. Exceptions include learning skills you really want to learn and the possibility of switching roles within the same company.
  2. Dating/ engagement should last long enough that it goes through a few cycles of negative and positive.
  3. One can overdose on flitting around at the expense of finding the right match (Applied Divinity Studies discusses the optimal dating problem).
  4. When you expect loyalty to a thing result in a positive change to your own character, it worth sticking around.
  5. Loyalty is a long-term strategy. Sometimes it won’t pay off as success, but it might be right call anyway.