Less than the Least

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March 2009 Archives

March 2, 2009


We’ve just passed the one year anniversary of Less than the Least—our welcome post went up on February 28, 2008. 

Bill and I had been talking about starting a blog for a month or so when Bill’s cancer was diagnosed last January. Our first impulse was to put the idea on hold, but our second thought was just the opposite: the blog might be a way for Bill to share thoughts about his cancer, in addition to whatever thoughts and ideas we had on other topics.

It’s been a memorable year, both for the nation and for us personally. We are deeply grateful for all the comments and emails—those that said one or both of us must be crazy every bit as much as the ones that agreed with us.   Keep them coming, and Lord willing we will too.

March 5, 2009

Bankruptcy Phobia--Skeel

 Almost the only tool the government hasn’t seriously tried in its battle against the economic crisis is bankruptcy. Rather than bailout out Bear Stearns, AIG or GM, it would have made more sense to address their financial distress in bankruptcy. The most sensible strategy for addressing the foreclosure crisis is a proposed amendment to the bankruptcy laws that would let a homeowner write down her mortgage to the value of the house if the house is worth less than she owes.

Both strategies have met fierce resistance, on precisely the opposite grounds. The argument against letting AIG or GM file for bankruptcy is that it would be disastrous to leave these companies to market forces, rather than intervening to prop the companies up. Lehman’s bankruptcy, which roiled the markets, is widely cited as proof that bankruptcy doesn’t work. But the problems with Lehman had very little to do with bankruptcy. They stemmed from a bait and switch by the government—the government had strongly suggested it would bail out every large troubled investment bank (see Bear Stearns), then refused at the last minute to do so with Lehman. And it’s hard to argue that the AIG bailout, which occurred at the same time, has been more successful than Lehman’s bankruptcy.
With the mortgage write down provision, the concern is too much interference with the market, rather than too little. The same banks that are taking billions of dollars of government handouts complain that the provision would undermine the enforceability of mortgage contracts.

In each case, an irrational fear of bankruptcy seems to be coloring people’s perceptions. 

Continue reading "Bankruptcy Phobia--Skeel" »

March 8, 2009

Stanley Fish on Christianity and Bankruptcy--Skeel

A student emailed me this marvelous commentary by Stanley Fish, which I hadn’t seen. I’ll only add two brief thoughts, since Fish speaks for himself as always: 1) the two Christian discourses Fish discusses don’t strike me as necessarily at odds with one another—any more than faith and works are; and 2) the forgiveness offered by Christ, and the economic imagery so often used to describe it, was of course vividly foreshadowed in the Old Testament by the Jubilee (Leviticus 25), which had both practical and spiritual significance. 

March 9, 2009

Rome Baptist Church--Skeel

Few experiences remind me of the common bond that unites all Christians as vividly as attending a worship service in a different city or country when I’m traveling. When I’m in Rome—as I am for the next two and a half weeks—this usually means worshipping at Rome Baptist Church.

 It was a joy to make my way back yesterday morning to the church—which is tucked away in a lovely alcove off Via del Corso in the heart of tourist Rome—and to see the small sanctuary packed to overflowing. The congregation looks like a United Nations meeting. The church has many Filipinos, as does Rome generally. (Apparently Rome has been an attractive destination for Filipino emigrants in the past several decades because many Filipinos are Catholic and because the immigration standards have not been quite as strict, at least until recently, as in many countries.) One also hears African inflected English in the pews. And on any given week, there is also a large block of America college students, who are in Rome for a semester abroad or on a short term mission trip.
Something about the mixture of worshippers from many different countries always reminds me of Revelation 7, where John says that he “looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne … and crying out ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
Rome isn’t always heavenly, but it seems in these moments of worship to briefly take the shape of heaven.

More Good Cancer News--Stuntz

I got the results of my latest set of films a few days ago—no visible cancer in my lungs or abdomen: the places where it is likeliest to show up. Happy news indeed. As my oncologist puts it, each clean set of films is “eating up risk”: the next eighteen months are the time when cancer is most likely to reappear. (When it does reappear, it’s likely to stick.) That scenario is still probable, but it’s less probable than it was. 

I’m still experiencing what I’d call chemo side effects if I hadn’t been off chemo for three months now: I remain more tired and queasy than I should be. Plus, my back and right leg hurt as much as they ever have—meaning, they hurt a lot and they hurt all the time. Even so, this latest news is very good news indeed. Whenever the good times end, I will still be grateful for this time.

March 16, 2009

American Politics Through Italian Eyes--Skeel

I’ve been in Rome for a week, with ten days to go, and have asked people what they think of the Obama administration and of the Berlusconi government in Italy. I should note that I’ve been talking to Italian academics, so my sample is hardly representative.

Everyone I have talked to sees Obama’s election as a great triumph of American democracy. The most surprising thing I’ve heard—surprising to me, at least—is a view that President Obama has already shown a willingness to make courageous decisions, as exemplified by his plan to reverse the limitations on stem cell research. This struck me as an odd illustration, both because a significant majority of Americans agree with the administration’s stance, and because is unrelated to the urgent economic crisis.
The people I have talked to so far are not Berlusconi enthusiasts. Perhaps their greatest worry is that Berlusconi has significant control over the media. He owns three of the handful of major television channels, and can use the government’s purchase of space in newspapers (e.g., for notices of various kinds) to influence newspaper coverage. These concerns seem to me to make complaints about media bias in the 2008 U.S. election appear trivial by contrast.

March 23, 2009

Christianity and Secular Values--Skeel

Rome is full of reminders both of the layers of history and of the temptation to marry Christianity with pagan religions. Sitting by the fountain with Bernini’s Four River Gods fountain in Piazza Navona—a revelation both because of the light gleaming in the sheets of water and because it has so often been blocked by scaffolding in recent years—it was easy to understand the temptation to take the best from nonChristian traditions and combine them with our own.   A few blocks away, Michaelanglo’s Sistine Chapel paintings (which we saw with a few thousand of our closest friends on Friday) include both Biblical prophets and pagan ones. 

If combining Christian and classical traditions is one strategy for engaging the world, a second is to destroy the competitors when Christianity is in the ascendancy. This too was attempted in Rome. The famous statue of Marcus Aurelius in the Capitoline museum survived only because it was long thought to depict the Christian empire Constantine.
A better strategy, it seems to me, is to recognize that many pagan accomplishments are dim echoes of the Christian story, and to admire the beauty in them without either seeking to destroy them or to incorporate them. One version of this strategy can be seen in the sculpture of Peter that was placed by Christian leaders atop Trajan’s column by the Forum, and the cross that rises up from the Egyptian hieroglyph in the center of the Piazza del Popolo.
But even this seems to me to reflect a desire to dominate, to show that we are the worldly winners.
I was reminded of our true Biblical calling in the sermon at Rome Baptist Church yesterday. We are called, the pastor pointed out, to be a peculiar people—to be different from the world, even if that means being viewed as unkempt or uncool. Christians have played this role at times in Rome's history too—never more so than in the early centuries of the church when Christians stayed in Rome to minister to the sick and dying during epidemics, as nearly everyone else tried to flee the city. The church was a small minority then; it was frail, peculiar and strong

Reforming the Health Care System--Stuntz

It’s often claimed that other Western nations achieve as good or better outcomes from their nationalized health care systems as Americans achieve with our strange mix of private and government-funded health insurance—and at far less cost. Assuming that claim is true, it might be true for a reason policymakers haven’t considered. Right now, a hugely disproportionate share of the world’s medical innovation happens at the high end of America’s health care market. People like me benefit hugely from that innovation: I’m a well-insured cancer patient living near Boston, which may have the world’s highest per capita concentration of medical talent outside Rochester, Minnesota. 

But we’re not the only ones who benefit. The most successful of those medical innovations soon filter down to the rest of America’s unsystematic health care system, and then to other parts of the rich world. Those nationalized health care systems in Canada and Western Europe achieve such good outcomes partly by relying on American medical research, much of which is funded by that high-end medical market.
Why does any of this matter? It matters because we are about to take a large step toward nationalizing our own health care system. The funding has to come from somewhere, and the most natural “somewhere” is the money that now flows from companies that insure patients like me to institutions like Massachusetts General Hospital, the Mayo Clinic, or Sloan-Kettering. One must tap the money at the top of the market in order to have enough to “spread the wealth around.”
But that ignores the character of the medical market we have now. The best-off patients don’t get better care than everyone else; they get the best care sooner than everyone else. Take away the high end of America’s medical market, and a large fraction of the life-saving innovation that market produces may disappear. That will hurt all of us—in the United States and abroad.
Let me be clear: I don’t believe I have any moral entitlement to the extremely high-quality (and extremely expensive) health care I’ve gotten. I’d happily sign on to a health care system that distributed its benefits more equitably, even if I lose out in such a system. I’m less willing to go along with a system that doesn’t protect this most innovative sector of America’s economy. I hope some of the key players in the Obama Administration share that concern. I fear they don’t.

March 24, 2009

Bankruptcy vs. Bailouts--Skeel

Readers of this blog are no doubt tired of hearing me argue that bankruptcy would often be a better solution to the financial distress of large financial firms like AIG or Bear Stearns than the bailouts the government has used throughout the current crisis.  But for those who haven't yet had enough, or are interested in a more scholarly treatment, here is a link to a paper by Ken Ayotte and me about the bankruptcy vs. bailout choice.


This article made me sad. The subject is the coming depopulation of much of the world. Here’s the key graph:

For the majority of the world's inhabitants who no longer live on farms or rely on home production, children are no longer an economic asset but an avoidable liability. At the same time, the spread of global media exposes people in even the remotest corners of the planet to glamorous lifestyles that are inconsistent with the sacrifices necessary to raise large families. In Brazil, birthrates dropped sequentially province by province as broadcast television became available.
I suspect another cause: depopulation happens when religious faith disappears. If the point of a couple’s life is to maximize their own comfort, having any children is hard to justify. Raising kids costs money and, even more, time. It saps both energy and confidence—I never knew what a total screw-up I am until Ruth and I had children. Often, it’s painful: there is nothing so agonizing as watching your child suffer. And children expose parents’ worst flaws, like a mirror that reflects only warts and unkempt hair. Why go through all of that—not once, but several times—if you don’t have to?
But if life’s goal is larger than maximizing my welfare, if my job is to leave the world better for my presence in it, having children is much the best means of reaching that goal. I have far more confidence in my kids’ ability to make their corner of the world better than in my own. Most parents I know would say the same. And the point extends beyond any utilitarian calculus. Those of us who believe in a good God who made human beings in His image also believe that we honor the family resemblance when we raise families. Christians believe God’s life and creativity could not be contained in a single divine Person. As the Father begot the Son, as the Son left the Spirit to guide believers, so should we do some begetting of our own.
Last but not least, raising kids is incomparably the greatest of life’s joys. Even in purely hedonic terms, I wouldn’t trade it for a lifetime of expensive vacations. The great irony of the contemporary West is that, in their ceaseless pursuit of pleasure, far too many citizens of the nations entrusted with Western civilization are missing the greatest pleasure of all. Civilization itself may be that error’s biggest casualty.

March 27, 2009

The Geithner Proposals--Skeel

Treasury Secretary Geithner finally sketched out the administration's blueprint for new financial regulation yesterday.  Many of the proposals, such as a new registration requirement for hedge funds, strike me as sensible.  But I think the proposal to give federal regulators the power to take over troubled investment banks and hedge funds is a serious mistake.  A colleague and I criticise the proposal in this op-ed piece.

March 29, 2009

Weekly Standard Article--Stuntz

Here is the link to a magazine piece I wrote.  The subject is a model of domestic policymaking that is usually ignored in public discussion: Lincoln’s model. While fighting and winning the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln also shepherded through Congress one of the most ambitious and successful legislative programs in the nation’s history. It deserves comparison with FDR’s New Deal. But Lincoln’s program was more successful than FDR’s, because the key pieces of legislation were designed to create opportunity, not to fine-tune economic incentives and direct economic affairs. Statutes of the former type depend for their success on the energy and talent of American workers. Statutes of the latter type depend on the wisdom of American politicians. The workers are a better bet. Would that the Obama Administration thought the same.

March 30, 2009

A Pain Poem--Stuntz

Recently, I stumbled across this wonderful and sad poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay. It’s the best description I’ve ever read or heard of living with chronic pain:

And must I then, indeed, Pain, live with you
All through my life? Sharing my fire, my bed,
Sharing — oh, worst of all things! — the same head? —
And, when I feed myself, feeding you, too?
So be it, then, if what seems true, is true:
Let us to dinner, comrade, and be fed:
I cannot die till you yourself are dead,
And, with you living, I can live life through.
Yet have you done me harm, ungracious guest,
Spying upon my ardent offices
With frosty look; robbing my nights of rest;
And making harder things I did with ease.
You will die with me: but I shall, at best,
Forgive you with restraint, for deeds like these.
Pain and disease are like the walls of a prison cell; life in their midst is about breaking free, “liv[ing] life through” those walls. And yet pain is no mere physical boundary; it seems to have intelligence and personality: a “comrade” who (not that) spies on my activities “with frosty look.” It goes where I go and stays when I stay.
David and I work in an analytic business. Our professional bias is to see truth as a matter of logic and measurable empirics. But life is not all prose, and truth is not so readily found in philosophy texts and law books. Some things are deeper and richer than our analytic categories.