Innovation and Ideation

Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of InnovationWhere Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation by Steven Johnson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There’s a lot of material to discuss with this book, and I have gone off on several tangents in my rather extensive notes. As a result, this book review is only complete here, on my blog, where the more religious comments will not distract folks who are simply looking for a book review.

First, general comments: I like the book. I rented it from the library at my office, but I am considering purchasing it because of the wealth of information it supplies–especially information that is inordinately useful for an author of science fiction. The development of ideas is a crucial study for anyone who wants to suggest what future ideas will be; I think that I have benefited well from reading this book, and especially recommend it to anyone interested in the history of ideation or its possible future (i.e., science fiction). (It’s also good reading for anyone looking to form an environment that promotes innovation–you know, the intended audience of the book.)

There are very few typographical errors; I can only recall two, but I do not have the quotes or page numbers on hand. The book is very well-written; Mr. Johnson has no trouble formulating his prose. Now on to more specific comments:

Perhaps the first thing you’ll notice when you start this book is that it spends a lot of time talking about evolution. Mr. Johnson’s argument is that ideation (the development or “evolution” of ideas) is largely similar to biological evolution (as are cultural and social development). I, personally, have no training in the field of evolutionary biology, so I can hardly comment on these issues. Many people agree with them, many others don’t. From what little I do know, he does not misrepresent the point, and it plays well into his subject matter (i.e., he’s not mentioning it to be confrontational, but rather, he has good reason to do so in the context of his book).

One of the great things about this book is that it highlights the way great story ideas coalesce–especially notable is the “Slow Hunch” chapter. Frequently, I don’t come up with the best novel idea ever in a flash. I come up with a good idea, and then I let it sit for a while and think about other things. Eventually, another idea–whether one I’ve had recently or very long ago–will collide with it, and I’ll have an even more complex, more gratifying story. For every one of the ideas I have (which I fully intend to write, sooner or later), this has happened at one point or another. I’ll think, “This song is inspiring. I should write a story that incorporates some of these ideas.” And then I’ll hear a saint’s life that lines up with that idea precisely. I’ll read someone else’s work, or postulate theories about the end times, or read a non-fiction book about French pirates in 18th century New Orleans, or devise a science fiction universe with my best friend, and things will come together to form a solid book idea. It’s great.

On the other hand, something that I think Mr. Johnson does not devote enough attention to is the formative and inspirational power of others’ literary works. His focus is primarily on inculcating an environment of liquid networks, where information flows freely and people share data, to produce the largest “adjacent possible” and lead to the greatest innovations. What he does not acknowledge (or at least not explicitly) is that a liquid network can form within a single mind, not just between neurons, but among the great minds of history. Theology, philosophy, science–all can be formed, adapted, expanded by studying people who have been dead for a century or more. He might relegate this to the contemplative life for which no one has any time anymore (a lament he makes when wishing that we could all spend our lives focused on developing ideas, as Darwin and Berners-Lee could), but even with a family, there is always enough free time to engage in study and contemplation… You just have to choose that over, say, watching another movie on cable or hitting “next episode” on Netflix or Hulu. Time is about choice, not constraint. Most people do not actually lack free will regarding their daily activities.

He does discuss the value of reading when it comes to the exploration and collision of ideas (pp112-113), but this is in brief. His main focus is the exploration–moving beyond the confines of daily activity–and the lament that most people don’t have time for reading. Again, make time. Also, he praises the web for its capacity to make connections (and responds to arguments that the Internet reduces serendipity by hyper-focusing everything); this is his true ideal for reading, that people find topics randomly and search for more information, not that they pursue the ideas of the ancients. It’s a component, but not a very large one. Perhaps he would argue that it’s excellent to use literature to formulate and combine ideas, but it is an incomplete architecture that does not afford every opportunity for liquid networking, slow hunches, and random connection.

Long story short, I really enjoyed this book, and I highly recommend it for purposes of (A) creating an environment that encourages innovation, (B) studying ideation in a historical narrative and imagining what may come about in the future, or (C) better understanding viewpoints that are certainly widely held among people with whom you disagree (supposing you disagree with the content of the book). Read on for more exploration of the subjects and my many digressions on matters of religion.

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Now, to my focus on religion:

I did develop a notable complaint from a very small comment he made at one point. He suggested that monastic orders in the time between the Fall of Rome and the Renaissance “controlled” information in a manner that was too ordered (no pun intended) to allow for innovation; this is his reasoning for the apparent lack of innovation during that time frame. Ignoring for a moment that innovation did not cease during that time, I thought it important to note that these methods also protected information and innovation from the clutches of the barbarian hordes, who would surely have been too chaotic to produce innovation. Barbarians of the era had no interest in liquid networks or ideation of the scientific or classical varieties. Khan’s empire produced some fine military innovations, but nothing on the order of the Renaissance or the Enlightenment.

In the same vein, he does include the perfunctory (and essential, for such books) statement about Galileo–whose “research posed a significant security threat to the established powers of the day” (p226). I suppose he’s not wrong when he writes, “Classifying two hundred good ideas into four broad quadrants certainly makes it harder to learn anything specific about each individual innovation” (also p226). He seems to know very little about the history of Galileo.

The fourth chapter of the book discusses chaotic coincidence, or serendipity. The goal of a liquid network, and especially one firing ideas chaotically across its expanse, is to formulate new ideas in ways that ordered, logical thinking could never attain. The Catholic Church has a great history of this; Thomas Aquinas, for example, baptized the work of Aristotle in a way that no one though prudent or even plausible before him–especially since Muslims like Averroes had claimed Aristotle as their philosophical predecessor. The eternal and seminal Logos, the creative Word, the Trinity, the Incarnation, the homoousios, the resurrection–every theological and christological idea has roots in other philosophies, other theologies–in innovation and chaos. And if heresy isn’t chaotic, nothing is–this production of alternate paths and ideas among bishops and priests and religious and laity produces exactly the sort of environment that led to the strongest theological foundations of our faith. Even moral and anthropological clarifications came by these means; the fundamental understanding of human life from conception to natural death would not have been formulated without the pushback from society that claimed the acceptability of eliminating inconvenient persons. Even the scientific development of prenatal study is tied to this very issue.

Far be it from me to suggest that we should encourage heresy and abominable immoral practices, that our understanding of our faith may increase (Romans 6:1). But as with sin and grace, we should not flee these “opportunities” offered us by society; we should not sully our faith, obscure our position, or hide the fact that we disagree with what society has claimed. If the President of the United States declares that we must pay for the deaths of human beings who have committed no wrongdoing in society, let us take up the mantle of Justin Martyr, and explain to him–in his own terms, by his own logic and belief–why he is wrong and cannot do this thing. After all, Justin convinced the Roman Emperor Antoninus Pius to lessen his persecution of the Christians. (We must also keep in mind, of course, that Marcus Aurelius’ empire saw Justin executed. We will not always be on the winning side when it comes to society’s persecutions.) If groups of the faithful declare that homosexuality is as viable and natural a relationship as orthosexuality (from orthos, meaning “right” – cf. orthodoxy, orthopraxy), we address their argumentation clearly and accurately; nothing is gained by going off half-cocked and rambling on these issues in interviews. And we must always remember the Church’s response to heresy, historically: excommunication. People who teach these things must be removed from among the faithful–not because we seek to stifle the liquid network, the flow of ideas, or the innovative power of chaos, but because universities don’t hire astronomers who hold a terracentric view of the universe or physicists who teach that fire rises because it’s trying to reach the source of the fire element (the Sun). There are chaotic and creative ideas, and then there are just plain wrong ideas. Heresies fall in the latter category, and must be excised.

In his discussion of exaptation (cf. adaptation; “exaptation” is the use of an object or body part for a purpose totally removed from its original function–feathers originally grown for warmth became useful for flight, for example), he explains that this principle is key in rebutting intelligent design, because it is precisely the random nature of exaptation–the accidental discovery that your blanket, when asymmetrical, provides lift and improves flight speed–that makes macroevolution not only possible, but obvious. He goes on to explain, though, that human beings use exaptation as engineers; Gutenberg combined a wine press and movable type (among other things), invented long before he came along, to produce copious numbers of duplicate texts. While fortune plays a significant part in both scientific and cultural advancements (see his previous chapter on error), exaptation occurs frequently by intention and by design.

In a way, he’s unintentionally arguing against himself. It is an easy leap to go from saying that human beings design via exaptation (which involves many inventors with small pieces of the whole picture), to saying that Creation is the inventive process of a single eternal designer; the intermediary steps, so lauded by atheists as evidence of error in an inerrant God, would be the necessary movement through the adjacent possible. Intelligent design, though despised by so many on both sides of the origin argument, at least seems to stand on its own in the face of scientific principles. Whether it is right or wrong, of course, I cannot say.

Inevitably, this reminds me of one of the great failings of the Protestant approach to theology–the notion of individual, indiscriminate spiritual guidance. Is it possible that the Holy Spirit can speak to anyone, anytime, about anything, with perfect clarity? Absolutely. Does it happen as often as people claim it does? Probably not. I noticed this phenomenon most acutely on a social media network recently; someone had linked to an interview about a book by a prominent non-Christian on the identity of Jesus. The issue that came up was the discussion (by the author of the book) of christology and Christian theology. There was an argument in several comments that the author lacked the appropriate education and training, because his educational field was almost entirely unrelated to that subject; their suggestion, of course, was that his estimation of Christian theology was weak in its very foundation, because he had only had rudimentary training in the field. To this, their opponent in the argument echoed (with no small amount of incredulity), “‘Appropriate’ education?”

The implication here is that there is no such thing as “appropriate” education in theology. Anyone, apparently, can muse about the nature of God, and cannot be wrong. This is a fundamental flaw in argumentation. I cannot write a thesis on neurobiology without study. I cannot write a thesis on neo-Keynesian economics without study. I cannot write a thesis on symbolism in 16th-century Italian mannerism without study. Yet, for some reason, I am not only allowed but encouraged to write a thesis on theology, christology, soteriology–without a whit of preparation? Without reading one iota of the vast array of works which came before me? I must simply “feel” what is “right” and jot it down, and I shall be hailed a visionary, one of the elite, an academic master?

This is foolishness.

If I must attend school and study brains before I can do a lobotomy, if I must attend school and study finances before I can advise the President on his economic policies, if I must attend school and study art history before I can become the world’s leading expert on old paintings–then I must attend school and study theology before I can lead the faithful to a right understanding of God. And it occurs to me that if I want to be the best leader of the faithful, I must study under the most erudite, the most intelligent, the most well-versed teachers–those who have dedicated their entire lives to this singular pursuit, giving up all else but their love of God and neighbor.

But I digress. As I will do again very shortly.

Some of Mr. Johnson’s comments and suggestions sound suspiciously like leftist politics, but he reinforces repeatedly that he is not advocating political leanings at all, nor is he advocating the abolition of intellectual property laws. The “fourth quadrant” (non-market, non-individual innovation) allows for financial gain and free innovation; the flow of information benefits society, and a person attains individual benefits via recognition, attribution, financial reimbursement or salary, and more. The only thing incompatible with innovation, according to Mr. Johnson, is top-down bureaucracy, where the Leaders tell the Peons what to do, when to do it, and how to get it done.

This has notable implications for religious institutions. On the one hand, Protestant churches are all about individual liberty–even the ones that have their own top-down hierarchy, like Anglicanism or Presbyterianism. After all, without individual interpretation of Scripture, those denominations would never have come to be–and we know from our political science studies of these United States that individual liberty is to be prized above all else. So Protestantism seems to be at the forefront of innovation in the spiritual sphere, clearly outclassing Catholicism, which–from the outside, at least–appears to be ruled by a tyrannical monarch who has set himself up as God’s mouthpiece, especially when there are so many stories in the news about how “Catholics want this” or “Catholics don’t want that,” and it’s just the mean Pope and his crony bishops who keep it–i.e., abortions, contraceptives, universal ordination, universal matrimony–from “Catholics.”

But it is among Protestants that we see the divergent, chaotic, self-serving arbitrariness that is the very opposite of Truth. (To be fair, insofar as the Catholic Church has allowed a freer sense of liturgy, prayer, and faith, especially since the Second Vatican Council, those same elements are present therein, although rarely to the same degree.) People journey in every direction, seeking their own benefit and their own good, without consideration for reality, genuine weal, or Truth. I don’t want children, because I would have to quit work and stay home, and that would make things difficult for me right now. It’s okay to contracept, because God taught us to be good stewards, and more mouths to feed would be inconvenient and challenging. It’s unfair that anyone should be kept from any position in any field for reason of personal identity, rather than technical capacity, and gender does not alter technical capacities for anything. It’s unfair that someone should be told that they cannot marry the person they love, because marriage is about joining two people who love each other, and sexual orientation is obviously as natural and random as hair color or height. Theology is irrelevant and should be replaced with an emotional bond between us and Christ, who is our friend and brother, because “theology” is what stodgy old white men talk about, and we need to be relevant to modern generations.

Nevermind that your child is a complete and unique human being, as scientific studies continue to conclude with each passing year. Nevermind that limiting the self-gift of love cheapens your marriage and robs both you and your spouse of the divine blessings that matrimony offers; nevermind, too, that a little self-control goes a long way toward good stewardship when your family is actually imperiled. Nevermind that gender obviously alters technical capacities–there are general tendencies that deter women from accomplishing certain tasks, and general tendencies that deter men from accomplishing certain tasks, true, but more than that, no man is capable of bearing a child. (The hypothetical notion that medical science may one day produce a surgical procedure that would allow men to do so not only smacks of transhumanism, but demands a severe and unnatural process all for the sake of pretense.) Nevermind that marriage is not about joining two people who love each other (it has more do with a sacramental union of two individuals with God in an active love so strong that it must propagate itself, though even that is an insufficient description); and nevermind that not all natural orientations and inclinations ought to be followed. (It is the typical Christian argument to liken a natural predisposition toward homosexuality to the same toward gambling, or greed, or violence, but consider even personality quirks–it is unacceptable in common society to have a short temper, to be audibly proud of one’s accomplishments, to ignore the plights of others, and so on. All of these behaviors are “natural,” yet none of them are considered good and healthy, except by those who propose denying ethical strictures of all kinds.) Nevermind that theology is essential to a proper understanding of Christ and His identity–an identity which one must believe upon in order to be saved; most importantly, how can you love that which you do not know, and how can you know that which you do not study? Theology is the study of God, and leads us to knowledge of Him, and that knowledge engenders in us a deeper love than any emotional experience can. We need to teach this to modern generations, not pander to their whims.

Granted, not all Protestant communities espouse these beliefs, and many still oppose them, but the trend toward self-interest is essential to the Protestant way of life. Every time someone disagrees with his church leaders, he goes and starts a new church, placing himself (or someone who agrees with him) at the head of it. This is how there came to be so many denominations, most of which denounce all the others as heretical. The allowance for individual study and interpretation, without a method or mechanism for correcting the mistaken, produces generation after generation of “Christians” who believe some of the most outlandish moral theology heard since the Gnostics and Manichaeans and mystery cults of the first half-millennium Anno Domini. Many Christians remain steadfast in the faith, but many fall away, into hedonism, into paganism, into agnosticism and atheism and nihilism. This is the challenge of the modern Christian: how to support individual liberty, individual study, and individual interpretation–thereby allowing the sort of “fourth quadrant” thinking that Mr. Johnson has–without allowing such egregious errors as abortion and euthanasia.

The difference between theology and more measurable studies in this regard is evidence. In science, when you claim that the earth is flat or there are four (or five) elements, your observations (or those of your intellectual descendants) will prove you wrong. Theology, however, is not easily observed, and like linguistics, semantics, and other “softer” studies (i.e., the humanities), most observations can be twisted to fit an ideology that you already hold. What distinguishes theology even from the humanities is that such twists of belief are often not supported with logic, or reason, or explanation, but with divine revelation. But, “It’s this way because God says it’s this way,” only works for Apostles and prophets, and as Scripture makes it clear, both can be misled. How many times, in the Old Testament, was one prophet opposed by many others? Elijah, Jeremiah–how many more? Do you think that every one of those misleading prophets was motivated by greed, or self-interest? Isn’t it more likely that some of them were simply misled themselves? After all, God and His angels are not the only ones seeking our attention on spiritual matters. Unless we have been given the spiritual gift of discernment, how can we be sure whether a spiritual insight is divine revelation or demonic manipulation? (And no, just saying, “I have the gifts of prophecy and discernment!” does not qualify you to declare your own beliefs as incontrovertible law.) As for the Apostles, recall the case of Judas Iscariot–he walked with Jesus for three years, just like Peter and John and James and the rest, and yet he fell prey to greed. Some posit that he was also attempting to force Jesus’ hand, to compel him to take up the mantle of warrior-Messiah. Regardless of his motives, he was clearly misled, and he was about as close to Christ as any man could come.

Is it reasonable, then, to claim that you, Random Person, are infallible in matters of faith and morals?

Or does it make more sense to bring your innovations, your studies, your interpretations, before the Holy Church, the Body of Christ, the Bride of Christ, subject to His will and guidance, and seek to grow your understanding by open and honest discussion of the ideas with others? The one who reads the Bible, determines an individual interpretation, and writes a book declaring it to be the truth is like someone claiming to invent a new technology in a vacuum, as though no one else had a hand in it; and beyond that, this same person is now claiming that no one could possibly improve upon his invention. It makes no sense. The Church does not oppose the development of ideas. Despite the infamous tales of Galileo and Hus and Luther, their ideas played instrumental roles in the formation and reformation of the Church. Galileo’s science, which followed in the footsteps of Copernicus’ work, was never condemned by the Church (despite what modern representations suggest), but was actually encouraged and supported, especially by Jesuit scientists of the era. Hus and Luther proposed radical alterations to the practices of the Church, and while it may be said that their situations were mishandled by bishops and the papacy, it cannot be said that they had no effect. The so-called “counter-Reformation” was accompanied by broad reforms of Catholic practice, including the abolition of several things Luther opposed directly. Luther, however, could not contain his vitriol, and quickly moved from, “These are problems in the Church,” to, “The Pope is a heretic and a villain, and his Church is a farce,” and other things far too vulgar to print here. (His infamous description of the Book of James is but a small taste of his irreverence.)

In spite of its top-down bureaucratic appearance, the Catholic Church as a whole allows much more freedom of thought than folks give it credit for–but at the same time, it seeks to eliminate errors among its members. Protestant denominations, on the other hand, support individual freedom so completely that they allow error and sin to pervade Christendom, lest they seem too intolerant or restrictive or, Heaven forbid, Catholic.

 

*You may have noticed that I previously used a horizontal rule to separate the “normal” review from the digressions. I originally had the same set up in this post, but was forced to change it due to a bug in the WordPress software that causes very long posts with the horizontal rule HTML tag to disappear. If they ever fix this–it’s been a problem for at least two years–I’ll fix the formatting to be more consistent.

Poor Editing, Unnoticed Bias

Healthcare Delivery In The U.S.A.: An Introduction To Hospitals, Health Systems And Other Providers Of CareHealthcare Delivery In The U.S.A.: An Introduction To Hospitals, Health Systems And Other Providers Of Care by Margaret Schulte
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This book was, based on my meager qualifications, an acceptable (if mediocre) introduction to healthcare delivery in these U.S. of A. I will endeavor to cover its issues as efficiently as possible, but I promise to digress upon the conclusion of my review (available only in the version posted on my weblog).

First, the typos. I mean, seriously. This is a professionally edited and published book used for education in the spheres of healthcare and information technology. There is no reason whatsoever for this book to have as many typographical errors as it does. Throughout the early chapters especially, but with a sudden uptick in the final chapter also, misplaced words, repeated items on the same list, and similar issues pervade the text. The biggest issue with this is not their mere presence, but how obvious they are. No one caught “thir” where the word “third” should have been? Even spell-check can pick up on that. Less egregious, but equally surprising, are the problems in the flow of the prose. This or that paragraph is entirely disjointed from its topic sentence, resulting in a book that is often convoluted and misleading. At one point, Dr. Schulte (a doctor of business administration, not medicine) uses the phrase, “only more than 40%”; while this is a technically accurate phrase, there are so many better ways to say it. Later, she mistyped the same word twice in the same sentence – in different ways. How did her editor not pick up on any of this?

Another issue is the sourcing. Easily one third of this book is quoting something else. In the first three or four chapters, almost every other sentence seems to be a quote from Jonas and Kovner’s “Health Care Delivery in the United States”; given the apparent similarities in content and the obvious similarities in title, I felt compelled to ask myself, why am I not just reading their book? Later, she even quoted the Encyclopedia Britannica; is it just me, or is that only one tiny step above quoting Wikipedia?

After a few chapters, she starts mentioning (almost constantly) the lack of networking among hospitals. Based on my reading of the remainder of the book from this point, this is, in fact, her thesis; I suppose, then, my question is this: Why the heck didn’t she start with that?

Most of my other problems with the book were in its biases. In her introduction, Dr. Schulte expresses a sentiment common among moderns: the past was horrifying, but the present is almost peachy. I will not sit here and advocate that medicine in the 18th century even remotely rivals medicine today in terms of quality, but a simple acknowledgment of its own improvement would not be remiss. After all, progress is on a continuum; it has seen a notably rapid increase in the past two centuries, but that does not mean that anything old is inherently bad. Relatedly, when she discusses the statistics of health problems in the US between 1950 and 2000, she includes on the table the noted increase in cancer, but makes no mention of it, nor any discussion of why – among everything else improving – this alone got worse.

Dr. Schulte also seems to be quite the advocate of genetic manipulation of infants in the womb: “[Biological factors] are composed of heredity and genetics, both of which impact our propensity to succumb to certain diseases. They also affect our physical characteristics, such as whether we are tall or short, blonde or dark haired, and so on. Advances in the science of genetics offer the potential to reshape some of those characteristics through, for example, embryonic gene transplantation” (p21). In her later discussion of genomics, she takes the time to mention the danger of discrimination (based on genetic predispositions to certain diseases, for example, among employers who do not want to pay insurance companies for cancer bills), but she makes no mention whatsoever of the very real danger that we will endeavor to build a better human through those same studies.

Elsewhere, she writes of the “lack of public will to sacrifice and change priorities to achieve the World Health Organization’s definition of the individual human condition” (p13); while not entirely negative, it suggests (in context) that the problem is consistently other people with their bad policies. If society is to change, it takes all of society, not just the “problem” people. At another place, she implies rather blatantly that private schooling is of particularly low quality. In that same vein, she repeatedly advocates placing the government at the forefront of healthcare. She writes of “the increased recognition of the need for government to play a larger role in assuring medical care for the poor” (pp6-7); not, “the increased belief” or “the increased opinion” or “the increased position” – but the increased recognition of the need. Therefore, the need is an objective fact, and people were finally coming around to it. Later, she rather specifically advocates taxation of currently tax-exempt hospitals, unless those hospitals provide strong evidence that community benefit (i.e., free services by those hospitals) equal or surpass the tax exemption.

In fairness, I will admit that she mellows a bit in later pages. She gives faith-based hospitals a fair shake and positive support (in spite of her comments, mentioned above, about taxing currently tax-exempt hospitals), and provides fair treatment of midwifery (a rare thing among healthcare professionals). Eventually, she really does begin to focus on real issues with healthcare delivery, especially the quality thereof.

All things considered, it’s not a terrible book, but there is a lot of room for improvement. It’s a little slow at times, but it covers the highlights, which is what an introductory book is supposed to do.

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And now for my digressions.

Dr. Schulte’s praise of government involvement in healthcare is juxtaposed (unbeknownst to her, apparently) with her appraisal of the implementation of Prospective Payment and the Stark Laws. In short, these two issues are perfect examples of politicians passing healthcare laws, assuming that one thing would happen, when in fact something totally different happened (thereby making them precursors to the Affordable Care Act). When Medicare started the Prospective Payment system (using Diagnosis-Related Groups, or DRGs, to determine how much money will be reimbursed to the healthcare provider), they expected to cut down on rising hospital costs. In reality, healthcare saw a sudden shift from the inpatient world to the ambulatory world (which, at the time, was not subject to the Prospective Payment system) and, simultaneously, hospitals stopped providing essential medical services (because they were paid for the diagnosis, not for the services, meaning that doing less got them paid more), which resulted in significantly lower quality of care for patients. The Stark Laws were a more reasonable assessment of the situation, but they, too, had an unanticipated consequence. These laws compelled doctors to have no financial stake in the clinics or hospitals to which they referred patients (since they would otherwise get financial benefits by referring them to those places). As a result, however, these laws proved a major barrier to the implementation of electronic health records, because without financial arrangements between hospitals and doctors, the EHR cannot meet several of the requirements of Meaningful Use (and makes medical practice and billing that much more complicated besides).

And the Affordable Care Act is the most recent instance of bad policy-making with unintended side effects, all because politicians fail to understand the way real people think. One of the requirements of the Affordable Care Act is that any employee who works more than 29 hours is to be offered benefits by his employer. Clearly, this is meant to increase the number of insured people among the population. The actual result, of course, is that employers everywhere cut their part-time employees’ hours, so they wouldn’t have to provide benefits. This leads to decreased income, which means fewer taxes paid by these people, and decreased spending (and also fewer taxes)… which harms the economy. This might decrease unemployment, since these companies now need to employ more people with fewer hours, but none of those employees are paid enough to buy their own insurance, which will cause problems once the individual mandate comes into effect. Even if Health Insurance Exchanges make insurance available for cheaper, there are going to be plenty of people who still can’t afford it – not because they’re unemployed and qualify for Medicaid, but because they are employed, but the ACA forced their employers to cut back their hours. Jobs are hard enough to find as-is – folks are not going to be able to find a second job so that they can afford health insurance. Honestly, this seems pretty intuitive to me – did no one at Congress or the White House think of this?

Digression number 2: The more I read of this book, the more I got the impression that very few people in the healthcare industry actually have real concern for the whole patient. This is notable, first of all, in the general lack of moral and spiritual considerations in healthcare, but also in the apathy toward financial hardship. Perhaps these are the result of the drilled-down focus of specialists on their tiny segment of health, or maybe it’s the perceived divorce between science and faith, or the general obsession with monetary gain superceding the whole notion of the Hippocratic oath. That oath, by the way, is inherently charitable and dedicated to the health of the patient, regardless of identity or ability to pay. This whole impression is reinforced by an article I read recently, at the New Yorker (but don’t let that color your opinion of it too much), which discusses in some detail the challenges facing healthcare today, especially in a financial sense. I don’t agree with everything the author there purports and suggests, but it does bring me back around to an opinion which is at once radical and traditional, simultaneously considerate and wildly despised: Doctors, like teachers, preachers, and politicians, should work for nothing more than room, board, and debt remittance. If you’re in one of these positions, and making money is more important to you than taking care of people, then you’re in the wrong profession.

The Romantic Prince

Prince OttoPrince Otto by Robert Louis Stevenson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

After reading Stevenson’s Treasure Island, Prince Otto is a startling change of pace. From adventure and pirates and sailing and treasure in the Caribbean–to political intrigue and romance in Germany.

The book, as I understand it, was not well-received in its time, and to be fair, I can see why. It did not fit the culture of the age, with its romantic optimism and vague opposition to monarchy, but it is still an enjoyable read–provided you like dialogue and romance. It was certainly far more pleasant than other romances I have perused lately.

The characters are written well and consistently, although it seemed Stevenson was adding a new name or title to some characters every chapter. (It helped once I realized that some titles were simply the German counterparts to titles he had already used in English.) The romance between Otto and Seraphina is… complicated, to be trite, but not unbelievable. Otto, apart from a brief (and destructive) moment of monarchic ire, is dedicated entirely to serving and pleasing the wife he always knew he had disappointed. Seraphina, meanwhile, is so focused on ruling the princedom that she sacrifices her personal life in frustration with Otto’s political shortcomings; yet in the end, she realizes whither her manipulations brought her and remembers her love for Otto.

I was delighted to read allusions to Scripture several times in each chapter. They were often poignant and effective, especially if you know the context, and they spiced up a book which would otherwise have been rather dreary.

The book does have a happy ending, so if you’re opposed to that, I suspect you should avoid it. If, on the other hand, a romance is only good when it all works out in the end, this is a fine choice. Not Stevenson’s best work, of course, but thoroughly pleasant.

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Work, Money, and Financial Distribution

The above video focuses on one point: there is an unequal distribution of wealth in these United States of America. Now, granted, it disguises that point as three separate graphs (the ideal, the perceived, and the actual distributions of wealth), but the primary point is to spread awareness about the situation.

I will grant a few important concessions to the above video: First, it tries very hard to remain politically neutral. It emphasizes that Republicans and Democrats alike think that the ideal distribution of wealth would spread the dollars a little more evenly than they are now. It does not use terms like “unfair,” which immediately smack of entitlement issues. It admits the economic shortcomings of socialism. It does not push a particular legislation, example, or ideology as the solution to this issue, but merely highlights the issue’s existence.

But there are a few shortcomings in this video, too. Even in its attempts to remain neutral, biases still slide through. There are quotation marks around “dreaded” in describing socialism; this disassociation with the original quote (supposing there were one) implies disagreement with the original speaker, suggesting a left-leaning political view. A right-leaning political view would have left the quotation marks out, implying agreement with the sentiment that socialism is “dreaded.” A truly neutral view would have left the adjective out altogether.

Furthermore, there is a certain amount of emphasis on the term “Republican,” by both word order and verbal accent, that suggests the maker of the video found it important to emphasize Republican agreement with the ideal distribution; this tends to happen when the maker of a video knows s/he is opposed to a group that s/he must convince, and this awareness drives a wedge even as it attempts to build a bridge. A truly neutral view would have said, “Remember: 92% of people agreed with this ideal distribution, regardless of their political perspective.” At least, that’s about as neutral as you can get while making a video about wealth distribution.

There is a hint of agreement with the Occupy Wall Street movement, when the video discusses the enormous wealth of the 1%, and that, too, will drive a wedge between the video’s message and its intended audience. The people who don’t already agree with wealth redistribution also don’t like the Occupy Wall Street movement, and associating yourself with it – even tangentially – is not going to do you any favors. Democrats, in general, support higher taxation and higher entitlements, which is precisely what the Occupiers sought, whereas Republicans tend to oppose that sort of budget, and thereby oppose the Occupiers. If you start suggesting that the Occupiers were right, you’re going to lose most of your audience right there. Better not to mention them at all.

Now, let’s move on to the meat of this issue: the fairness of current wealth distribution. The above video acknowledges that some of the top 20% work harder, and therefore earn more, than lower brackets, but questions whether the CEO works over 300 times as hard as his/her average employee. This highlights precisely why so many Americans are uncomfortable with the current distribution of wealth in these United States: there is an extremely common belief that there is a direct relationship between hard work and money.

Why is that? Well, in the industrial era, it was completely true. The harder you worked, the more you earned, and the more people noticed you, so the more you got promoted. When you got promoted, you got more work and more money. Plus, it’s part of the standard “American dream.” You show up, you work hard, maybe 60-80+ hours of work each week, and sooner or later, you’re going to get rewarded with a cush, highly paid position, like the CEO or the Chairman of the Board. Classic movies and TV shows and books talk constantly about how the wealthy worked hard to get where they are, and you’ve got to work hard, too. (Although, really, we should have seen through that one, because that’s always indicated to be at least a little false through the course of the story – even as far back as Dickens’ Hard Times, in which Josiah Bounderby is shown a fraud for all his claims of being a self-made man.)

Whatever the source, this notion runs rampant among the working class. Perhaps it was an invention of the ruling class to keep the working class working and the ruling class ruling – but I suspect it was less devious than that. It’s not exactly a false notion, after all – if you work harder, you tend to get paid more and get more promotions. But even if you’re the hardest worker in your company, that doesn’t guarantee you’ll become CEO – and even if you become CEO, that doesn’t guarantee you’ll be in the top 10%, much less the top 1%, of American earners and owners. Why? Because work does not equal wealth.

Somewhere along the line, somebody figured out that economic principles can be manipulated. It’s not illegal, despite the connotations of the word “manipulate,” and it’s debatably not even wrong. Instead of working hard, as they say, some people started working smart. They know economics, and they use economics to get money into their own pockets instead of someone else’s. This is where trading on the stock market, managing hedge funds, and controlling investment portfolios becomes far more important than “working hard.” By using economic principles to predict where money will be, you can get your hand into that cookie jar before the cookies even show up; that’s an overly simplistic expression of it, but it’s effectively accurate.

The above video made an important point on this topic, but I’m not sure they realized it: the bottom 50% of Americans own less than 0.5% of all investments, which means that they’re not investing. The reason the top 1% owns 50% of the investments? They’re investing. They did that “hard work makes money” thing for a while, and when they had a little capital saved up, they invested it, and they invested it well. That made them more money, which they invested some more, until suddenly, they own everything and they look like jerks for not giving it away for free.

There’s another reason the rich are rich and the poor are not. Why do you suppose the poor and middle classes are “working hard” but not making money? Is it because the rich are evil? Those dastardly villains, twirling their handlebar mustaches ‘neath their top hats while they smack street urchins with diamond-topped canes! Right?

Wrong. The poor and middle classes are not making money because they’re spending the vast majority of their money paying off debts. Credit card debt, new car debt, new house debt, student loan debt – you name the debt, they’ve got it. Because there’s one other thing that the rich do with their money: they offer it to people who don’t have any. Now, consider for a moment that rich people are rich, so they know how to make money, and they generally don’t do things that don’t provide any return on investment. Loans always make more money in the long run. Not sometimes, not only if you make minimum payments, but always. And poor and middle class people are borrowing for everything from a new lawnmower to a new car to a house they couldn’t afford if they worked for the next eighty years, much less only twenty or thirty. And they’re paying through the nose to keep it that way.

Most folks, by the time they finish a car payment, decide to upgrade to a new car, so they get a new car payment. They finish paying off their house, so they do a little remodeling and put in a room over the garage. And I would comment about what they do when they finish paying off their credit cards if any of them ever did that.

“But– but– but!” you will say, “Everyone knows you need to have good credit!” Maybe. Maybe you need to have good credit. But you can have good credit for a lot less than $10,000 of credit card debt earning interest every month.

But at the end of the day, when you get a loan, you lose money. Loans are for when you need money today to set up something that will be worth more tomorrow, like an education or a house in a good community. A car loses value; certainly other, smaller products do, too. It never makes sense to borrow money to lose it. And yet the poor and middle classes do that every day.

And then they complain that the people they’re losing money to have their money.

The distribution of wealth in America is very unequal. Inequitable. But unfair? Hardly. People are poor because of the choices they make; by making different choices, by saving and spending rather than borrowing and losing, they could develop the capital they need to start investing. And by investing well, they can redistribute the wealth in America legally, equitably–and fairly.

Jimmy Carter & the Religious Oppression of Women

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter recently wrote an opinion piece characterizing his frustration with the religious establishment (Christian and otherwise) regarding the fair (or rather, unfair) treatment of women in society. I have quoted that article here, with no modifications, so you can read it before I begin.

Women and girls have been discriminated against for too long in a twisted interpretation of the word of God.

I HAVE been a practising Christian all my life and a deacon and Bible teacher for many years. My faith is a source of strength and comfort to me, as religious beliefs are to hundreds of millions of people around the world. So my decision to sever my ties with the Southern Baptist Convention, after six decades, was painful and difficult. It was, however, an unavoidable decision when the convention’s leaders, quoting a few carefully selected Bible verses and claiming that Eve was created second to Adam and was responsible for original sin, ordained that women must be “subservient” to their husbands and prohibited from serving as deacons, pastors or chaplains in the military service.

This view that women are somehow inferior to men is not restricted to one religion or belief. Women are prevented from playing a full and equal role in many faiths. Nor, tragically, does its influence stop at the walls of the church, mosque, synagogue or temple. This discrimination, unjustifiably attributed to a Higher Authority, has provided a reason or excuse for the deprivation of women’s equal rights across the world for centuries.

At its most repugnant, the belief that women must be subjugated to the wishes of men excuses slavery, violence, forced prostitution, genital mutilation and national laws that omit rape as a crime. But it also costs many millions of girls and women control over their own bodies and lives, and continues to deny them fair access to education, health, employment and influence within their own communities.

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The impact of these religious beliefs touches every aspect of our lives. They help explain why in many countries boys are educated before girls; why girls are told when and whom they must marry; and why many face enormous and unacceptable risks in pregnancy and childbirth because their basic health needs are not met.

In some Islamic nations, women are restricted in their movements, punished for permitting the exposure of an arm or ankle, deprived of education, prohibited from driving a car or competing with men for a job. If a woman is raped, she is often most severely punished as the guilty party in the crime.

The same discriminatory thinking lies behind the continuing gender gap in pay and why there are still so few women in office in the West. The root of this prejudice lies deep in our histories, but its impact is felt every day. It is not women and girls alone who suffer. It damages all of us. The evidence shows that investing in women and girls delivers major benefits for society. An educated woman has healthier children. She is more likely to send them to school. She earns more and invests what she earns in her family.

It is simply self-defeating for any community to discriminate against half its population. We need to challenge these self-serving and outdated attitudes and practices – as we are seeing in Iran where women are at the forefront of the battle for democracy and freedom.

I understand, however, why many political leaders can be reluctant about stepping into this minefield. Religion, and tradition, are powerful and sensitive areas to challenge. But my fellow Elders and I, who come from many faiths and backgrounds, no longer need to worry about winning votes or avoiding controversy – and we are deeply committed to challenging injustice wherever we see it.

The Elders are an independent group of eminent global leaders, brought together by former South African president Nelson Mandela, who offer their influence and experience to support peace building, help address major causes of human suffering and promote the shared interests of humanity. We have decided to draw particular attention to the responsibility of religious and traditional leaders in ensuring equality and human rights and have recently published a statement that declares: “The justification of discrimination against women and girls on grounds of religion or tradition, as if it were prescribed by a Higher Authority, is unacceptable.”

We are calling on all leaders to challenge and change the harmful teachings and practices, no matter how ingrained, which justify discrimination against women. We ask, in particular, that leaders of all religions have the courage to acknowledge and emphasise the positive messages of dignity and equality that all the world’s major faiths share.

The carefully selected verses found in the Holy Scriptures to justify the superiority of men owe more to time and place – and the determination of male leaders to hold onto their influence – than eternal truths. Similar biblical excerpts could be found to support the approval of slavery and the timid acquiescence to oppressive rulers.

I am also familiar with vivid descriptions in the same Scriptures in which women are revered as pre-eminent leaders. During the years of the early Christian church women served as deacons, priests, bishops, apostles, teachers and prophets. It wasn’t until the fourth century that dominant Christian leaders, all men, twisted and distorted Holy Scriptures to perpetuate their ascendant positions within the religious hierarchy.

The truth is that male religious leaders have had – and still have – an option to interpret holy teachings either to exalt or subjugate women. They have, for their own selfish ends, overwhelmingly chosen the latter. Their continuing choice provides the foundation or justification for much of the pervasive persecution and abuse of women throughout the world. This is in clear violation not just of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights but also the teachings of Jesus Christ, the Apostle Paul, Moses and the prophets, Muhammad, and founders of other great religions – all of whom have called for proper and equitable treatment of all the children of God. It is time we had the courage to challenge these views.

OBSERVER

Jimmy Carter was president of the United States from 1977 to 1981.

Read more: http://www.theage.com.au/opinion/losing-my-religion-for-equality-20090714-dk0v.html#ixzz2Im6CF8eP

Let me start with what the former President got right.

  1. The cessation of abuse. Any continent, country, state, county, city, suburb, community, or household which perpetuates the abuse–physical, sexual, verbal, mental, social, or spiritual–of women should cease and desist immediately. This includes things which the former President mentioned in his article: genital mutilation, rape, restriction of basic health care to save lives, slavery, and human trafficking. It also includes things that the former President did not mention: sex-selective abortions (most often used to eliminate female children), for example. But I digress.
  2. Equal education. I think you would be hard-pressed to provide evidence of unequal education for women in these United States, a nation in which the disparity between higher-educated men and women greatly favors the female sex, even when it comes to disparity of success within an institution. But certainly unequal education for women happens in other countries, and in those countries, it should be stopped.
  3. Equal employment. I think women ought to be offered equal employment and equal consideration for employment in any secular job or career, provided that they have equal qualifications, experience, and ability in every respect. If this equality is not already happening in this country, then it should.
  4. Equal pay. I think women ought to be offered equal benefits, both financial and otherwise, for an equal position… again, provided that they have equal qualifications, experience, ability, and performance in that position.

Now, let us examine several of former President Carter’s other points, and see how he is… inaccurate.

  1. He has a frail grasp of ecclesiastical history. Notably, he claims that women served as priests and bishops. (Their service as Romans 16" href="http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=romans%2016&version=NASB" target="_blank">deacons, apostles, Acts 18" href="http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Acts%2018&version=NASB" target="_blank">teachers, and Acts 21" href="http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Acts+21&version=NASB" target="_blank">prophets is documented well enough, although I should note that the modern definition of “deacon” is altered slightly from “fellow worker” or “servant of the LORD,” as determined by 1 Timothy 3" href="http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1%20Timothy%203&version=NASB" target="_blank">the writings of Paul to Timothy.) In the early Church, women would never have had positions of high authority, such as priests, and especially not as bishops (the “overseers” mentioned in the above-linked letter to Timothy). Furthermore, if they did have such positions, (1) why were they not present in those offices by the 4th century, when President Carter suggests that an exclusive group of men twisted Scripture to serve themselves and subject women, and (2) why would Paul’s very obvious requirements for the office of bishop need to be “twisted” in this case? Regardless, President Carter neither understands the Church in the Book of Acts, nor the Church of the 4th century, nor the concerns and goals of either.
  2. He makes a fallacious equivocation. President Carter does not declare it outright, but he suggests that a lack of free contraceptives and abortion is roughly equivalent to subjugating women to strict modesty laws, genital mutilation, unprosecuted rape, and more. He writes, “At its most repugnant, the belief that women must be subjugated to the wishes of men excuses slavery, violence, forced prostitution, genital mutilation and national laws that omit rape as a crime. But it also costs many millions of girls and women control over their own bodies and lives, and continues to deny them fair access to education, health, employment and influence within their own communities.” I must give him credit: he does not say that they are outright equal violations, but he does say that they are along the same continuum, the same spectrum, and are caused by the same belief. The implication is, of course, that if we do not pay for birth control, we may as well rape, abuse, and enslave women, because the only difference is time.
  3. He does not understand the difference between “authoritatively subordinate” and “objectively inferior.” He does not hesitate to declare this; any suggestion that women are subordinate to the authority of their husbands, as well as to the male authority in the Church (pastor, priest, bishop, patriarch, pope), is to claim them as inferior, less than human, and roughly equivalent to property. This is simply untrue. Jesus, Mark 14" href="http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Mark+14&version=NASB" target="_blank">the Christ, John 3" href="http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=John%203&version=NASB" target="_blank">the only begotten Son of God, John 1" href="http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=john%201&version=NASB" target="_blank">humbled Himself to become flesh, Matthew 26" href="http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew+26&version=NASB" target="_blank">submitted Himself Mark 14" href="http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Mark+14&version=NASB" target="_blank">to the will Luke 22" href="http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Luke%2022&version=NASB" target="_blank">of God, Matthew 27" href="http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew+27&version=NASB" target="_blank">even Mark 15" href="http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Mark+15&version=NASB" target="_blank">unto Luke 23" href="http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Luke+23&version=NASB" target="_blank">death John 19" href="http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=John+19&version=NASB" target="_blank">on a cross. He certainly submitted to the authority of God the Father, making Him authoritatively subordinate. But John 5" href="http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=John+5&version=NASB" target="_blank">we know that He is not unequal with the Father, but rather Philippians 2" href="http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Philippians+2&version=NASB" target="_blank">He is equal. So he cannot be objectively inferior. And how is this relationship–subordinate but equal–classified? 1 Corinthians 11" href="http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1%20Corinthians+11&version=NASB" target="_blank">Exactly as the relationship between man and woman.
  4. President Carter thinks school-based education is better for society than home-based education. This is a minor point, but if an educated woman betters society by sending her children to school, why is it that this notion does not line up with education statistics? Unless, of course, the “betterment of society” is not caused by a stronger, more thorough education. Which makes very little sense, in context.

Feel free to disagree with me and my analysis, but unlike President Carter has suggested, I did not pick and choose my verses, but provided them in context for you to peruse at your leisure–not to mention that Bibles are widely available in almost every bookstore, and can be found for free in hotel dresser-drawers throughout the nation, as well as in apps for smart phones, and online. Finding the context is easy enough.

To be honest, that President Carter holds this position is no surprise to me, and in the long run, it is of little consequence. The Jimmy Carter presidency is widely regarded, by Republicans and Democrats alike, as one of the worst presidencies in recent memory. Its most memorable moment may have involved a swamp rabbit.

What is, perhaps, most surprising about this entire article… is that it was published in an Australian newspaper. How weird is that?