Less than the Least

« December 2008 | Main | February 2009 »

January 2009 Archives

January 3, 2009

Chemo Aftermath--Stuntz

Apologies for the long silence:  my chemo ended just before Thanksgiving, but the six weeks since them has been rougher than I'd expected:  I'm still pretty tired and a little queasy all the time, and have been struggling to fight off an infection.  All of which has left me feeling a little down.  It's as if something inside me didn't permit depression to take hold in the midst of chemo and cancer surgeries.  Now that I have a little breathing space, the story is different.


Dealing with cancer is a little like raising kids.  Parents figure out how to handle a two-year-old at about the time the child turns four--at least I did; I was always behind the curve.  So too here.  By the time my last round of chemo was ending, I knew how to do chemo.  I haven't yet gotten the hang of this stage of the process, when I'm trying to put one foot in front of the other with an hourglass staring at me.  But plenty of people have made this adjustment (and much harder ones) before, and I'm sure I will do so too.


Policing and Stimulus Packages--Stuntz

Obama and his underlings have emphasized, rightly, that federal spending designed to pump up the economy should do more than that: spending should rebuild needed infrastructure, invest in cleaner energy, and the like, so that money spent now would yield economic returns years later.

There is one kind of spending that would do just that: federal aid for local police. The number of urban police officers per unit population held steady through the 1970s and 1980s, while urban violence steadily rose. In the 1990s, that number rose 17%, and violent crime fell sharply. In this decade, nearly half of the gains of the 1990s have been wiped out during this decade--and that was true before the collapse of the credit markets this past fall and the broader recession that is now taking hold. Urban violence is rising again. If the federal government doesn't subsidize police spending, we will see more cuts in local police budgets, and probably more crime.

Police spending has another large benefit: over time, it reduces prison spending. Take a look at this graph--the blue curve is annual change in the number of urban police officers per unit population with a one-year delay; the green curve measures annual change in the number of prison inmates per unit population. The inverse relationship between the two curves is hard to miss:

Imprisonment and Urban Policing Rate Graph

Less crime, fewer prisoners, and more cops is a rare policy trifecta. This is an opportunity not to be missed.

January 8, 2009

Father Richard John Neuhaus--Skeel

It is hard to imagine a world without Father Richard John Neuhaus– his dazzling intellect; the wide-ranging "The Public Square" columns he wrote each month in First Things; his love of ideas and of his Creator. But with his passing away this morning, we now must.

I only saw him once. Almost exactly a year ago, he came to the annual Christian law professors’ conference to participate in a debate with Bill on the legacy of the religious right. I was well aware that his bold defense of Christian participation in the public square in the 1980s was an important part of the inspiration that eventually led to gatherings and groups like ours. But I also had the impression that he did not always suffer fools gladly. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.

I needn’t have wondered. The "debate" with Bill turned out to be a brilliant conversation about some of the positive and negative legacies of the religious right. He was unfailingly gracious, and the panel was the highlight of a remarkable conference.

I’m grateful to have seen him in action.  He was one of a kind.

January 9, 2009

Neuhaus' Passing--Stuntz

David is right:  Father Neuhaus was indeed one of a kind, and also a deeply admirable man.  He was the happy warrior of the culture wars:  eager to mix it up with those with whom he disagreed, but always with respect.  There seems to have been no anger or spite in him—a rare thing among those engaged in hot-button cultural debates.


Neuhaus embodied one of the most important developments of our time, and also one of the most surprising:  the hold conservative Catholics have on the political and legal views of conservative Protestants.  Though he converted in middle age (he was a Lutheran minister when he became a public figure), Neuhaus was every inch a Catholic.  Yet his work—both in his books and in First Things, the magazine he ran—attracted a wide and attentive audience among Protestants.  I feel confident saying that Neuhaus was far more influential in evangelical Protestant circles than figures like Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, or James Dobson.


Great as his influence was, the trend was the work of more than this one man.  The most admired legal intellectual in evangelical circles is Antonin Scalia, a conservative Catholic.  Catholic academics have spawned large and sophisticated bodies of work on the role Christian faith does and should play in law, politics, and culture.  Of course, Protestant academics work in these areas too, and some of them—Mark Noll, Alvin Plantinga, and Nicholas Wolterstorff come to mind—are every bit as smart and knowledgeable as their Catholic counterparts.  Just as Michael McConnell, longtime law professor and judge on the 10th Circuit, can match wits with anyone in wide world of legal thought.  But the Nolls and McConnells are few; their Catholic equivalents are many.  Much as Father Neuhaus will be missed, his death does not alter that state of affairs.


At one level, the Catholic influence in Protestant circles has been a source of great good:  there is more unity across denominational lines than perhaps at any time in American history.  But there is a downside.  Today’s American Protestants are optimistic about the potential for politics and law to move the culture in positive directions.  That has led to the too-casual embrace of Republican party orthodoxy by many believers.  (I say this as a registered Republican: I’m part of the problem, not part of the solution.)  Likewise, American Protestants of my generation have placed more weight on cultural symbols—crosses and crèches in public spaces, prayers at public school graduations and sporting events, the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance—than our predecessors in generations past.  Battles over those symbols have absorbed too much of Christians’ political attention, and a host of other problems too little.


Father Neuhaus was a large part of the reason for those intellectual tilts—his thought was shaped by a religious tradition that found the exercise of government power more comfortable and Christian symbols more important than most Protestant traditions would suggest.  Maybe Neuhaus and the tradition that shaped his legal and political views got these issues right.  If so, the increasingly blurred line between Catholicism and Protestantism we see today is an unmitigated blessing.  If not—well, suffice it say that some of us often find ourselves wishing that a more distinctively Protestant voice might emerge in the ongoing conversation about the role of Christian faith in American life.


January 16, 2009

What Will Bush Do Next?--Skeel

Listening to President Bush’s short, somber farewell speech last night, I found myself wondering what he will do next. (It has been striking how much less speculation about Bush’s future there has been than with Bill Clinton, due to the failures of the Bush presidency). My guess is that Bush will set up a think tank, as Clinton did, and that he will focus on three issues. The first is promoting democracy around the world. This, and having protected the nation from a reprise of 9/11 for seven years, obviously will be Bush’s legacy, and I suspect he will spend a great deal of energy on democracy-related issues. The second issue is immigration.   Obama no doubt will take up immigration reform in a year or two, and I suspect that will send Bush around the country to promote a proposed overhaul that includes a prospect of citizenship for America’s 12 million illegal immigrants. In the meantime, Bush probably will speak frequently about immigration, which is clearly an issue he cares deeply about.  I would expect him to argue (and would personally agree)he that immigration and democracy are closely linked: more democracy outside America’s borders would remove some of the pressure for low skilled immigrants to escape their homeland and come to the US.

The final issue is faith based initiatives. Given how quiet things have been on this front recently, I was surprised to hear the President mention faith based initiatives last night. I suspect Bush will end up on the boards of one or more faith-based programs, and that he will promote these initiatives actively. Here, I suspect Bush may part ways with Obama a bit. Obama is likely to prohibit organizations that receive federal money from limiting hiring to those who share those beliefs. I suspect Bush will criticize this policy– though not in the first year or two of the Obama administration. Whatever else he is, President Bush is a true gentleman, and I suspect he will be solely a cheerleader for President Obama in the coming months.

January 20, 2009

God Bless America--Stuntz

I never much liked the Ronald Reagan rhetoric treating the United States as the new Jerusalem, the “shining city on a hill.”  It struck me then and, most days, strikes me now as idolatrous.  But I can’t help feeling that the rhetoric fits this day.  Thanks be to God, who has blessed this country lavishly.  May those blessings abound in the new President’s administration.


A small P.S.: Rick Warren’s invocation was very good, but I thought Joseph Lowery had the prayer of the day.



The Inauguration--Skeel

A few immedate thoughts on the inauguration:

President Obama's speech: I didn't think this was his most memorable, but no one delivers a speech like Obama.  The highlight for me came when he explicitly referred to scripture, and said "The time has come to set aside childish things."  This was the first of two points in the speech where Obama shifted into the cadences of Martin Luther King.  He then shifted out, as if to remind us and himself whose shoulders he stands on, but also to suggest he's another person and this is another time.

Rick Warren's prayer:  I was especially interested to see whether Warren would speak as "we," as if  all Americans share his evangelical views, or as "I," especially given the criticisms he's received of late.  I thought he handled this issue deftly and honestly.  Most of the prayer was addressed to the sovereign God, but he introduced the conclusion by saying "I ask in the name of the one who changed my life"-- not presuming to speak for everyone, but also acknowleding where his hope comes from. 

Elizabeth Alexander's poem: For a literary poet to write a public poem is an almost impossible task.  I didn't think the poem was a great poem, but I thought it had some lovely passages, and I thought the coordinating motif of language as the place where we encounter one another was a nice choice.  There were a few clunker lines, but I liked the early line saying something to the effect that we have
"each one of our ancestors on our tongue."

John Lowery's benediction:  Like Bill, I thought Lowery stole the show (and his humorous rhyming couplets were a pleasing jolt from the seriousness of Alexander's poem).  He verged on irreverence and political incorrectness (if "yellow will just be mellow ...etc"), but added a nice note of warmth and humor-- just the thing a ceremony like this needs.

January 24, 2009

Obama's Abortion Order--Skeel

Ever since Ronald Reagan first banned funding to international organizations that promote or provide abortions in developing countries and elsewhere in 1984, this executive order has been the most visible culture wars prize of our presidential elections. Like many culture wars battlegrounds, it has heavy symbolic significance. Unlike many, it also has significant real world consequences.

My wife asked me if I felt as though I’d been kicked in the stomach, as she did, when I heard that President Obama had rescinded the order (which had been reinstated by Bush after having been removed by Clinton) yesterday. I didn’t, since there was never any doubt that this would be one of Obama’s first actions if he was elected.

For me at least, President Obama’s order didn’t bring a kick in the stomach so much as a seeping sense of sadness. Obama softened the effect slightly by waiting until the day after the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, rather than trumpeting it on the anniversary. But the fact is that our government will be funding organizations that facilitate the deaths of unborn children in other countries. The order wasn’t unexpected, but that doesn’t make it less saddening.

January 27, 2009

Obama and Roosevelt--Skeel

            The most frequent worry I’ve heard about the new administration is that President Obama will get swept up in the messianism surrounding his historic presidency, and he will take advantage of it to pass a vast legislative agenda that is already mapped out in his mind. This seems to me exactly backwards:  President Obama seems to be the one person who hasn’t gotten swept up in the messianism, and while he obviously has a few pet issues, he doesn’t seem to have a grand scheme in mind.  

            I just finished “The Defining Moment,” Jonathan Alter’s page turner about Roosevelt’s first hundred days (which Obama apparently read during the transition). The similarities at the outset of Obama’s and Roosevelt’s presidencies are uncanny, and surely not accidental. One obvious similarity is the messianism. After Roosevelt was elected in 1932, there was serious discussion about the need for a dictator. Roosevelt seems to have been tempted by this talk (Alter’s prologue recounts how he initially planned to tell a veterans’ group that “I reserve the right to command you in any phase of the situation which now confronts us” but deleted the language from his speech). But he resisted the temptation, much as Obama seems to be wary of the excesses of the current adulation in the press and elsewhere.
            Second, Roosevelt revolutionized communication between the president and the American people, most famously with his “fireside chats.” Roosevelt harnessed radio to speak directly to the people, in a way previous presidents had not. President Obama’s release of his weekly message in video form on Youtube, and his use of the internet throughout his campaign, seems designed to revolutionize presidential communication in the internet era in much the same way.
            The third issue brings me back to the question of a grand plan. Roosevelt clearly didn’t have a grand solution for the Depression when he entered office. His principal theme was the need for immediate action (“This Nation asks for action, and action now,” he said in his first inaugural), and for experimentation. President Obama seems to have brought the same attitude to the White House—the sense of a need for decisive action, rather than a particular plan.

Continue reading "Obama and Roosevelt--Skeel" »

January 28, 2009

John Updike's Passing--Skeel

John Updike was for me a little like an old friend you keep meaning to visit but never quite get around to visiting. Years ago, I read several of his Rabbit novels, and I occasionally read his short stories later on. But in the last decade or so, my contact with his writing has been limited to his art reviews in the New York Review and occasional book reviews.

When I was a teenager in the early 1970s, one would often see Rabbit, Run and perhaps Rabbit Redux on the bookshelves at friends’ houses, next to a lava lamp and a copy of The Happy Hooker. I think it is in part due to my deep ambivalence about that era that I’ve always preferred Updike’s predecessor as the bard of American suburbia, John Cheever.

But Updike’s eye for detail, and the beauty of his sentences, surely justify his reputation as one of the great twentieth century American novelists.   And the world he captured was, in all of its confusion, the world that many of us or our parents lived.

I’d be interested to hear others’ views of Updike, of favorite Updike writings, or of his significance as a writer and critic.