Less than the Least

« March 2011 | Main | May 2011 »

April 2011 Archives

April 3, 2011

Less than the Least

A number of people have asked about the future of this blog.  I'm still thinking and praying about whether to continue the blog in something like its current form.  I'll probably keep Less than the least going for at least the new few months (and probably the rest of the year), as more tributes to Bill's life and work are in the works, and two books are forthcoming-- his magnum opus on criminal justice and a book of essays based on the conference celebrating his work last year.  Even if the blog concludes this year, I hope to keep it up in some form, so that the posts and links will remain readily available.

I've gotten dozens of emails and notes expressing condolences for the loss of a beloved friend.  I am so grateful for this kindness, which is yet another reminder of what a remarkable person Bill was and how far his influence extended.


April 9, 2011

Bell's Hell--Skeel

I’ve just finished reading Love Wins, a book by Rob Bell that has stirred considerable controversy among evangelicals because of Bell’s suggestion (coyly framed more in questions than in direct statements) that hell doesn’t exist and everyone (possibly with a few rare exceptions) will be accepted by God. 

I read much of the book in a Borders in Augusta, Georgia (alas, several weeks before the Masters started), and the rest in a Borders outside of Philadelphia. The second Borders has a sign on the door saying “Rumors of our demise are exaggerated. Our landlord rocks.   We aren’t going anywhere.” I didn’t want to buy the book, so I tried to offer a little support for Borders by buying a few extras with my coffee—mostly cookies.
In my view, Bell rightly criticizes the suggestion that the rest of a person’s life is irrelevant so long as she asks Jesus for forgiveness, and the tendency to assume we can know a person’s eternal destiny (Gandhi, in this case).  But his story doesn’t seem quite true to Scripture.
Bell’s exegesis of the parable of the Prodigal Son nicely summarizes the perspective that runs through the book. According to Bell, the prodigal son had one story for his life—he had squandered his inheritance and didn’t deserve his father’s love; while the father had another story—that he would never stop loving the son and would welcome him back with open arms. Bell seems to suggest that that we should simply discard the first story and embrace the second, and that hell is the misery we experience if we refuse to accept God’s retelling of our story.
In my view, treating the two stories are unrelated misses an important dimension of the beauty of the salvation offered to us in Christ. The first story isn’t irrelevant. It’s true. We don’t deserve the Father’s love. But so is the second story, that the Father loves us nonetheless.
The same point can be made in another way, using the language of debt that Jesus so often used. Suppose I learn that a major debt of mine has been forgiven. If it turns out I didn’t really owe the debt (I was mistaken about the obligation, say, or I was defrauded into incurring it), this is nice news. But it’s nicer by far, almost too good to be true, if I truly owe the debt, but someone (perhaps the creditor himself) decides to pay it on my behalf. 
If our sins were “simply irrelevant,” as Bell says in the same chapter, the love the Father offers us would be sweet. But how much sweeter it is when we know both that our sins do matter, and that the price has been paid by Jesus.

April 17, 2011


In my experience, travelers fall into two camps: those who always assume they’ll be back, or act as if they do, and those who don’t. For those who assume that each visit is one off, the best experiences are no doubt especially vivid and intense.

I fall squarely into the other category.  The odds that I will ever travel to Australia again are not great, yet when my family and I visited a decade ago, I noted which things might or might not warrant a closer look, as if the visit were simply a scouting trip.
Our attitudes toward travel surely have parallels elsewhere in our lives as well. I suspect that those of us who assume that we will be returning find it harder to say goodbye, and experience loss as a series of small, sad epiphanies rather than a single devastating blow.
It is especially sweet for those in my camp to find ourselves back in a special place we’ve imagined returning to. Yesterday morning, at the end of a three day stay in Florence for a conference on the Eurozone crisis, the vagaries of Italian opening hours gave me just enough time to visit two of my favorite places in Florence: San Marco, the museum in the monastery where Fra Angelico lived; and the Church of the Ognissanti, which has an enormous painting of the Last Supper by Ghirlandaio, Michelangelo’s teacher.
The Fra Angelico paintings in San Marco can only be seen in person there. Each small, white-washed, chapel-like cell on the second floor of the monastery has a single devotional fresco. In the annunciations [here is one], Gabriel is as modest and abashed as Mary; Judas is half hidden—only his lead-colored halo giving him away—as the apostles listen to Jesus deliver the Sermon on the Mount [here]. Even the crucifixions—the dominant motif—are almost unbearably elegant. 
Ghirlandaio’s Last Supper takes up an entire wall of the convent adjoining the Church of the Ognissanti, and is only open Monday, Tuesday and Saturday mornings (for the happy reason that the church and convent are still actively used for worship). The Ghirlandaio fresco is much more psychologically complex than Fra Angelico. Judas sits on one side of the long table facing Jesus and the other apostles, who interact in a multitude of attitudes: John evidently drowsy (no doubt he will be the first to fall asleep in Gethsemane), Peter with a thumb in the air and knife in his hand, others busily conversing or, in one case, brooding. 
In The Stones of Florence, Mary McCarthy identifies both Fra Angelico and Ghirlandaio with the “Maytime” mode of Florentine painting, which she contrasts with the more severe, autumnal tendencies of Masaccio or Michelangelo. I'll admit that neither alone is altogether satisfying. Nor would the world be quite so rich if there were only one kind of traveler, those who think they'll be back, or those who accept that they're leaving.

April 20, 2011

Magical Thinking at the FDIC--Skeel

The FDIC has just released a report speculating about how Lehman’s crisis would have been handled if the Dodd-Frank Act had been in place in 2008. As the report imagines it, the FDIC would have intervened early in the crisis, and guided Lehman to a soft landing that got the utmost value for the business. The FDIC “could have participated in a meeting in the spring of 2008, together with [other regulators], to outline the circumstances that would lead to the appointment of the FDIC as receiver.” The FDIC could have parachuted in and conducted on-site oversight on Lehman’s premises from that point forward.   The FDIC could have prodded Lehman to sell itself or, if “Lehman were unable to sell itself, the FDIC would have commenced with marketing Lehman.” Once Lehman was taken over pursuant to the new resolution rules, the FDIC “would have minimized losses and maximized recoveries,” assuring that Lehman’s general creditors recovered roughly 97% of what they are owed—as compared to the roughly 20% they are likely to get in the actual bankruptcy case.

Heroic assumptions abound, such as an assumption that the counterparties to Lehman’s derivatives would have been fully collateralized. Most heroic of all is the suggestion that the FDIC would have deftly nudged Lehman to plan for its demise, and that the FDIC would be able to handle a resolution on this scale.   The Dodd-Frank Act does include provisions that could improve regulators’ oversight in the future, such as its requirement that systemically important institutions prepare a “living will” (or “rapid resolution plan,” in Dodd-Frank terminology) that explains how the institution would respond to a crisis. But the claims that regulators will intervene early in a future crisis rather than delaying the inevitable (that “next time will be different,” to paraphrase the title of a recent book on financial crises), and that they’ll foreswear future bailouts because Dodd-Frank says they aren’t supposed to do them, are wildly implausible.
Perhaps the most interesting question is why the FDIC would write a report that could prompt guffaws from financial experts. Two possible reasons come to mind. First, the FDIC made these kinds of claims throughout the debates that led to Dodd-Frank, and somehow they worked. The FDIC was given extraordinary new powers under the new resolution rules, even though the FDIC’s track record in handling large cases is not good. Second, the FDIC has been floundering in its efforts to implement Dodd-Frank’s new requirements. It may be that the report is designed to distract attention away from growing fear that the living will requirement will not be effectively implemented, and that the resolution rules are a disaster.

April 23, 2011


Three years ago, a month or so after his initial cancer diagnosis, Bill wrote this post for Easter.  The post was stunning then, and is I think even more powerful to read now.