Wednesday, March 25, 2009

‘What the F%$& is Wrong With Me?’: Linkin Park’s proto-Christian Anthropology

I’m sure I had heard Linkin Park (LP) hundreds of times before my layover in a Dubai hotel, but it was half a world away, in the city of contrasts, that I became a fan. I was in that strange haze that accompanies jumping more time zones than can be counted on both hands, about to attempt some bonafide horizontal sleep before the UN humanitarian flight taking me to Kabul departed in the morning. I was getting ready for bed with a music video channel on in the background (I know, they still have those in some places). Suddenly, I stopped whatever I was doing, sat on the bed, and stared through blood shot eyes at a rapid succession of disturbing images flashing across the screen. It was still several weeks before LP released Minutes to Midnight and was the first time I heard ‘What I’ve Done.’ The song was just such a shockingly accurate articulation of Christian anthropology that I realized they deserved more careful attention.

Upon further analysis, ‘What I’ve Done’ was not an aberration. Anthropology,[1] or human nature, in particular, a dim assessment of human nature born of a sober self assessment, is one of the primary themes of their corpus. There are at least two themes in LP’s music through which they illustrate the Christian doctrine of the Edenic nature as well or better than almost any explicitly Christian band[2]: 1) They describe a battle with a pernicious parallel consciousness and 2) they see continuity between the worst of the world’s ills and the content of their own hearts.

1. A Pernicious Parallel Consciousness

A major theme of their debut work Hybrid Theory was that there is a force at work in us that is not under our control, that pushes us in directions we do not want to go. A pernicious parallel consciousness, if you will.

Consider the songs Papercut[3] and Crawling[4] in which LP seem to almost describe a second consciousness inhabiting their bodies[5], working against them. In Papercut the consciousness takes on the role of accuser:

Why does it feel like night today?
Something in here's not right today.
Why am I so uptight today?
Paranoia's all I got left
I don't know what stressed me first
Or how the pressure was fed
But I know just what it feels like …

I know I've got a face in me
Points out all my mistakes to me
You've got a face on the inside too
and Your paranoia's probably worse
I don't know what set me off first
but I know what I can't stand
Everybody acts like the fact of the matter is
I can't add up to what you can
but Everybody has a face that they hold inside

A face that awakes when I close my eyes
A face watches every time they lie
A face that laughs every time they fall
(And watches everything)
So you know that when it's time to sink or swim
That the face inside is watching you too
Right inside your skin -“Paper Cut” – Hybrid Theory

In ‘Crawling’ (which I try not to listen to at work since it seems I can not not sing along…loudly) the alternate personality is not as distinct, but it is certainly present (“There's something inside me that pulls beneath the surface”) and correlated with a lack of self control and a loss of the true self.

Crawling in my skin
These wounds, they will not heal
Fear is how I fall
Confusing what is real

There's something inside me that pulls beneath the surface
Consuming, confusing
This lack of self control I fear is never ending

I can't seem
To find myself again
My walls are closing in
(Without a sense of confidence I’m convinced
that there’s just too much pressure to take)
I've felt this way before
So insecure – “Crawling” – Hybrid Theory

Then, in the opening track of Minutes to Midnight we are given the image of a battle against the self:

Another day's been laid to waste
In my disgrace
Stuck in my head again
Feels like I'll never leave this place
There's no escape

I'm my own worst enemy

I've given up, I'm sick of feeling
Is there nothing you can say?
Take this all away, I'm suffocating
Tell me what the fuck is wrong with me
-“Given Up” – Minutes to Midnight

What the f%@& indeed?

Or in the words of a much older poet:

I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do…it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.

So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God's law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!
-Paul of Tarsus[6]

At the heart of Christian theology is the idea that we are not OK…that we are each broken…what CS Lewis calls bent.[7] I have quoted him before, and I’ll do it again, but Malcolm Muggeridge used to say that the doctrine of human depravity is at the same time one of the least popular Christian doctrines and the most empirically verifiable.[8] We each hold the data in our own hearts. Which brings me to the second LP theme.

2. The Qualitative Sameness of the World’s Ills and the Contents of my Heart

In ‘What I’ve Done’ LP take a look at the horrors[9] human beings can visit upon one another[10] and looks for someone to blame. Shockingly, instead of self righteously projecting some illusory them, they seem to get it right:

In this farewell,
There's no blood,
There's no alibi,
'Cause I've drawn regret,
From the truth of a thousand lies.
So let mercy come, and wash away...

What I've done,
I'll face myself,
To cross out what I've become.
Erase myself,
And let go of what I've done.

Put to rest what you thought of me,
While I clean this slate,
With the hands of uncertainty.
So let mercy come, and wash away...

What I've done.
Forgiving what I've done.
-‘What I’ve Done’ - Minutes to Midnight

Contrast ‘What I’ve Done’ with this recent Nickleback[11] song:

If everyone cared and nobody cried
If everyone loved and nobody lied
If everyone shared and swallowed their pride
Then we'd see the day when nobody died...

And as we lie beneath the stars
We realize how small we
If they could love like you and me
Imagine what the world could be

-"If Everyone Cared’ - Nickleback

The uber-annoying Nickleback song is reminiscent of the old 90’s ‘message song’ genre (a genre that was brilliantly and definitively deconstructed by The Flight of The Concords,’ ‘Issues’ – seriously, if you have never heard of FOTC, do yourself a favor, push the link[12]).

At the heart of the ‘message song’ is an us-versus-them mentality…posing the question, ‘why can’t they be like us' ('If they could love like you and me/Imagine what the world could be.') The irony is that it is precisely the same us-versus-them mentality that generates most of the world evils that the message song is decrying.

There are two ways around the us-versus-them[13] mentality. We can posit that we are united under the banner of ‘us,’ good, kind, helpful, and just. Let’s call this the Nickleback Hypothesis: With hard work and lofty sentiment and mediocre rock music, we can achieve a world where we all love, care and share and don’t lie, cry or die. But this does not really hold up empirically…or philosophically.[14]

So let’s call the second option the Linkin Park Hypohesis, an approach that ends up very close to that taken by Christian theology…exemplified by a letter to the editor written by GK Chesterton wrote in response to an article called ‘What is Wrong With the World Today?”

"Dear Sir,
I am.
Yours, G.K. Chesterton."

In my opinion, Christian theology provides sound tools for escaping us-versus-them thinking. But instead of uniting everyone under the ‘us’, some fantastic, ‘why can’t we all just get along,’ alternate realities where gnomes frolic with unicorns …we are united as ‘them,’ the self centered, the broken, the wounded, the damaged…those who require mercy. The world isn’t a mess because of what that group of people (liberals, conservatives, secular humanists, Christians, Muslims, fundamentalists, neo-cons, AIG executives) did…but because we all participate in the Edenic nature. The world is the way the world is because of what I’ve done. If we are all in need of mercy, we are all more likely to extend it. And that is a world I can live in. Not a world of the righteous and the good…but a world of the broken and bent…the forgiven. A world in which damaged people extend mercy to each other and look for cosmic mercy from the God damaged for us.

So let mercy come, and wash away...
What I've done
This post was prepared while listening to: Linkin Park :)

[1] I will be using the term ‘anthropology’ in its role as the sub specialty of theology that deals with the fundamental nature of the human condition, not the academic specialty it has developed into specializing on cultural diversity and human origins.
[2] If you are wondering where LP is coming from spiritually, here is the best quote I could find by vocalist Mike Shinoda: “I was raised in a really, really liberal Protestant church. Two of the guys are Jewish. [Sample master] Joe [Hahn] was raised in a little more conservative Christian church and [lead vocalist] Chester Bennington has his own really unique views on religion. In general, we are all over the place."
[3] ‘Crawling’ is the much better known song with this theme, but ‘Papercut’ is far more explicit and has the added benefit of a super creepy, on theme, video.
[4] Probably their most distinctive and, maybe their best, song.
[5] Both songs describe the consciousness as somehow ‘inside my skin’ or a intellectual/spiritual force sharing their physical space
[6] From the second half of Romans 7
[7] Well before the phrase ‘get bent’ became a popular pejorative.
[8] While we are quoting the very quotable Muggeridge, check these out:
“Sex is the mysticism of materialism and the only possible religion in a materialistic society.”
“The orgasm has replaced the cross as the focus of longing and fulfillment.”
[9] Actually, the video contrasts the immense beauty and deplorable wickedness we are capable of…but that is a different post…and doesn’t seem to match the theme of the song.
[10] This counterpoint emerges from the video…the real video not the sell out transformers sound track. I always cringe when a good band gets co-opted by a major motion picture. Linkin Park selling out ‘What I’ve Done’ to the horrible Transformers flick is the most egregious recent example (except maybe Evanescence’s break out with that piece of cinematic history, ‘Daredevil’). Paramore actually pulled this off about as well as it can be done recently. Twilight is a mildly dark vampire movie targeted at the actual demographic the band member are in. The video with the band playing an a dark wood, Hayley’s crimson hair the only splash of color actually…works.
[11] Aslo, Jack Jhonson ‘Where did all the good people go?’
[12] If the flight of the concords is new to you…let me enthusiastically recommend this gem.
[13] LP isn’t immune from the us-versus-them mentality. I have a couple theories about why Minutes to Midnight seems to be considerably less popular than their earlier works. The most obvious is that it just contains too much radio music. We do not buy LP albums for the ballads. It should be hard driving, dissertation motivating stuff. But the second reason is that the album has two war songs and a Katrina song, making it kind of a ‘What Bush has Done’ album. In fairness, one of the war songs is fantastic:
Do you see the soldiers that are out today?
They brush the dust from bulletproof vests away
It's ironic, at times like this you'd pray
With hands held high into the skies above
The ocean opens up to swallow you

[14] Biological agents hard wired for the propagation of their genetic material simply cannot place morally binding oughtness upon one another.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

What do Measles, Urban Density and Anal Sex have in Common?

According to Rodney Stark, they all influenced the dramatic spread of Christianity over the first three centuries of its growth. Stark’s primary shtick is to interpolate between sparse historical and textual data from the early years of the church by appealing to contemporary sociologicalmodels. In The Rise of Christianity he offers many convincing arguments about the social conditions that lead to the eventual supplanting of Paganism by Christianity. He argues that Church growth was arithmetic, at a rate of about 40% per decade[1] for the first 250 years, well before Constantine.[2] This fits the data, but leaves a glaring question: How did a tiny Jewish sect in a crowded, pluralistic, antagonistic religious landscape grow at such a rate. He offers dozens of explanations, but I think several have interesting application to our own time. So I will summarize and comment on three:

1. Christians Fearlessness of Death Increased their Survival Rate, Social Connections and Community Respect in the Wake of Two Plagues

Stark’s most famous argument, and the one that attracted me to his work[3] is that the plagues were central to how Christianity emerged as the dominant religion of the Roman Empire. He describes the plagues of 165 and 251[4] which each wiped out a quarter to a third of the empire. He begins his argument by suggesting that, philosophically, “Christianity offered a much more satisfactory account of why these terrible times had fallen on humanity.” But the heart of his argument is that the fearless abandon with which Christians risked their lives to care for others also made the plagues more survivable for themselves and the Pagans with social attachments to the Christian community. He cites Cyprian to convey the basic Christian attitude to the Plagues:

“Plagues and pestilence…searches out the justice and every one and examines the minds of the human race; whether the well care for the sick…Although this mortality has contributed nothing else…we are learning not to fear death.”[5]

And Dionysius:

“Many in nursing and curing others, have transferred their death to themselves and died in their stead…The heathen behaved the opposite way…they pushed the sufferers away and fled from their dearest, throwing them into the roads before they were dead.[6]

These sympathetic testimonies are collaborated by official documents and unsympathetic authors which lead Stark to the conclusion that at great risk, Christians provided basic nursing care and burial to the infected. This seems like quaint martyrdom until one realizes:

“Modern medical experts believe that conscientious nursing without any medications could cut the mortality rate (during a plague) by two thirds or even more.”[7] So in the face of the most devastating disasters of the early life of the Church, Christianity proved not only intellectually satisfying, but efficacious. Christianity, ‘grew’ enormously because the population of Christians ‘shrunk’ much less. But this basic nursing care, not only improved the rate of Christian survival but the survival of Pagans that had Christian social networks and Pagans who owed their life to Christian theology. [8] So, Stark suggests, there were probably significant conversion rates among the surviving pagans.

Reflections on Contemporary Relevance: It seems like the contemporary application of these events was that Christian theology made the early Christians less vested in this life and generated an abandon for service of each other and outsiders. Christianity was evaluated as efficacious[9] because it had empirical, pragmatic value. This strikes me as the only kind of Christianity moderns and post-moderns would ever consider.

2. The Church was a Place Women Could Thrive

Stark opens chapter 5 with the statement “Amidst contemporary denunciations of Christianity as patriarchal and sexist, it is easily forgotten that the early church was…especially attractive to women.” He reports that men greatly outnumbered women in the Greco-Roman world. There were between 130 and 140 men to every 100 women, sex ratios that can only occur when there is ‘some tampering with human life.’

“And tampering there was. Exposure of unwanted female infants and deformed male infants was legal, morally accepted, and widely practiced…even in large families more than one daughter was practically never reared.”[10]

Additionally, abortion[11] was prevalent and dangerous in the Roman Empire. The two primary modes of abortion (taking a just-short-of-lethal dose of poison and surgery) both had very high mother mortality rates. On top of that "in perhaps the majority of cases it was the men, rather than the women, who made the decision to abort.” It is not hard to see how, at least in this context, the Church’s early and adamant opposition to infanticide and abortion was decidedly pro-woman.

As non-abortive birth control goes, there were two primary kinds: remunerated extramarital sex and intramarital anal sex[12]. I don’t suppose it is difficult to imagine that the Church’s prohibition of these was also seen in a positive light by women of the Roman Empire.

Finally, the Church’s ideological commitment to the powerless led them to support widows in a culture that did not. Bishop Fabious wrote that in 251, the church of ~30,000 people in Antioch, was financially supporting ‘more than 1,500 widows and distressed persons.’

So, from conception to grave, the Church protected women, but it also honored them. Christian women married at a much later age[13], had much greater marital security and equity and held positions of leadership[14], responsibility and honor. In all, as a place that protected and honored women, the church inverted the cultural sex-ratio putting the Christian birth rate well above the Pagan rate.

Reflections on Contemporary Relevance:The Church’s mandate to honor the unborn and the elderly goes all the way back. But, I think we need to earn our right to speak on this as they did. The early church was a place of social safety nets. Part of a robust opposition to abortion would be church sponsored day care so teen mothers could go to college and pulpits that pushed foster care and adoption as hard as they decried abortion.

With respect to female leadership in the church, I do not believe in a ‘trajectory hermeneutic’ but it does seem to me that the church was founded as a place that acknowledged the fundamental and equal humanness of woman, and was a place they could thrive, serve and lead. We are each bound by our exegetical consciences, but I think the early church sets a provocative example for us.

Finally, a lot has been said about church demographics leaning and even marketing towards mostly women.  [15] But Stark made me think of it in a different way. He leveraged sociological theories to demonstrate that strong sex imbalance in a religious grouping demonstrates that the dominant group is finding more benefit. In that sense, even the contemporary church, with all our accusations of misogyny and sexism, seems to be EMPIRICALLY pro-woman.

3. The Church Embraced the City
 Stark, with others asserts that Christianity was, from the beginning an URBAN movement. Stark estimated the population density of Antioch at 195 persons per acre. Compare this to 100 for Manhattan, 122 for Calcutta and 183 for Bombay…but with many fewer vertical floors.

‘Parker (1967) doubted that people could actually spend much time in quarters so cramped and squalid. Thus he concluded that the typical residents of Greco-Roman cities spent their lives mainly in public places.”

Part of the reason for such high population density in the residential areas is that 30-50% of the city area was dedicated to public space. So urban Romans lived their lives in common, public spaces. The common use of public spaces increased the number and density of social networks[16] and kept Christianity ‘open’:

“The basis for successful conversionist movements is growth through social networks, through a structure of direct and interpersonal attachments. Most new religious movements fail because they quickly become closed, or semiclosed networks. That is, they fail to keep forming and sustaining attachments to outsiders and thereby lose the capacity to grow. Successful movements discover techniques for remaining open networks, able to reach out into new adjacent social networks.”

It was, in part, the willingness of Christians to live in cities[17] and be participate publicly in the common spaces and objectives of corporate urban life that facilitated the dramatic growth of the church.

Reflections on Contemporary Relevance:  Tim Keller uses Stark (as well as Wayne Meeks, author of The First Urban Christians) pretty heavily to demonstrate that the missiology of the early church was to concentrate their efforts on the cities because ‘as the city goes so goes the culture.’ This actually sets up one of my favorite Keller quotes: “American Christians are the most anti-urban Christians in the world and as a result American cities are the most underserved by Christians. (It would take) 10% of evangelical Christians in this country to move into cities to live proportionally…Jews for example, gay people for example, Asian people, Black and Hispanic people all live disproportionately in cities, and as a result the have a lot more cultural power, and they deserve it, because there they are, than white evangelicals that don’t want to live there…I remember Jim Boice said ‘until evangelicals are willing to live in the city they can stop bellyaching about what’s going wrong with the culture.”

The Church does not thrive in contemporary suburban culture where houses are super comfortable and little time is spent in public spaces. Contemporary Christians could take an important lesson from the early church to live life in urban (and academic) population concentrations with dynamic public spaces where they can live and serve side-by-side with Christians and the city’s other inhabitants. Christianity dies huddled in McMasions with the family in front of the television and/or shuttled cautiously from one Christian function to another. As the exiled Hebrews in Babylon we are to vest in our cities, love them, serve them and represent the gospel.

This post was prepared while listening to: ‘Plans’ by Death Cab for Cutie.
[1] As evidence of the possibility of this kind of arithmetic growth he tells us that the Mormons have been growing at a rate of 43% per decade for the last century.
[2] In fact, Stark convincingly argues that Constantine’s edict did not make Christianity the dominant religion of the Roman empire…instead his edict acknowledged a well established phenomena. “Constantine’s conversion would better be seen as a response to the massive exponential wave in progress (of the Church), not its cause.” (p10)
[3] I first heard about this work in William Dyrness Apologetics Class materials (available from Fuller with or without taking the class). Years later, Keller cited the work as well.
[4] Both before Constantinian adoption but after the last of the eye witnesses.
[5] Interestingly, this whole thing reminds me of my famous work of existentialist fiction (if, we exclude Dostoyevsky as a proto-existentialist), ‘The Plague’ by Camus. Curiously, the roles are switched in ‘The Plague.’ The Camus type characters provide care with abandon to their own safety while the Christian seems fearful.
[6] If you suspect that I included this quote just so I could make the ‘not dead yet’ reference from Monty Python…well, you might be right.
[7] The sublime paradox here is that the more reckless and fearless approach resulted in lower mortality.
[8] Pontiaus writes “there is nothing remarkable in cherishing merely our own people with the due attentions of love, but that one might become perfect who should do more than the heathen (and)…love his enemies.”
[9] Stark’s sociology of religion rests largely on the idea that since the benefits of religious belief are uncertain, our sociological response resolves around reducing the perceived risk and uncertainty of commitments.
[10] This last conclusion was reached by examining 600 family lists and finding only 6 with more than one daughter.
[11] I don’t mean to be inflammatory, but the difference between abortion (particularly late term) and infanticide always struck me as a quantitative rather than a qualitative difference. Peter Singer (the Princeton utilitarian philosopher) famously believes the same thing…but it leads him to embrace infanticide. At least it is a consistent position. I remember the first time I heard about contemporary infanticide in India and China…I was in a developing world class in undergrad, and the whole class was horrified. But many of these same people would believe that easy access to abortion should be part of the statagy to curtail world population.
[12] This was a very memorable part of the book.
[13] In the early to mid-twenties as opposed to Pagan marriages that tended to happen in a woman’s mid to EARLY teens.
[14] Stark surveys numerous references to women as deacons…and none to women as elders…but this is still an enormous move towards equity for the time.
[15] Though the vast majority of it is overstated.
[16] Anyone who knows me knows I love Facebook. I have heard several times that the most people that one person can know is about 120, which is why so many churches max out at 120, because they are pastor driven and that is how many he can know. I honestly believe that social networking sites like Facebook can almost double that number by optimizing the transfer of event based information transfer. In a sense, it is digital public space…but it does not replace the value of utilizing physical public space.
[17] In much worse health and safety conditions as even the worst contemporary cities.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

A Manifesto of Personal Finance

We have short memories. I have had many, many conversations about personal finance recently. I had the same conversations seven years ago. We are a generation in charge of our own retirements[1], and we don’t really seem qualified.

I have several thoughts on this that have served us pretty well. So I thought I’d post my guiding principles of personal finance…a manifesto if you will.

1. You Can Not Time The Market

My first principal of personal finance is to embrace incompetence. The vast majority of experts cannot time the market. And I am not an expert. Day trading and moving large chunks of your retirement between stocks and bonds is not only a recipe for insanity, but a sure way to lose money. The result of embracing incompetence[2] is designing an approach to market uncertainties that is designed for all contingencies.

So I suggest forging a strategy that you can live with in bull and bear markets and sticking with it. Keep your stocks when they are crashing and hold on to your bonds when stocks are running amok. Very few people can time the market…I am not one of them…you are probably not one of them either…so make a sound strategy based on financial goals and risk tolerance and stick with it. We hold about 60% quality stock[3] mutual funds and select them based on a value approach.[4] The rest is government and industrial bonds, REITs,[5] and some emerging markets stuff. It ‘underperforms’ during bubbles but weathers crashes pretty well. Most importantly, it frees me from daily decisions. In my opinion, the quality of amateur financial decisions is inversely related to their frequency.[6]

2. Avoid Greed and Fear

At two points, in the last ten years, I have been widely advised that it was simply moronic for someone my age to be in anything but stocks. Recently someone close to me just pulled a large chunk of money out of stocks. Another contemplated a large investment in gold. These are each errors in my opinion, and they are based on the two biggest enemies of sound personal finance: fear and greed, the Scylla and Charybdis of negotiating the markets. Assets in our economy seldom seem to be in equilibrium, they tend to be in one of two states, under priced due to fear or over priced due to greed. The key to ‘beating the market’ is not timing it correctly, but making sound, objective decisions when the voices are calling you to fear or greed. Because the most profitable decisions you can make are generally counter-consensus. Making a disciplined plan and sticking to it can circumvent our emotional apparatus and help us make better decisions.

3. Buy Whatever No One Else Wants

So how do the first two principles turn into action? Well, regardless of market direction, I do not move more than 10% of our money between our stock and bond holdings based on my guess of future events. That is not my primary ‘knob.’ I am more interested in where my new money is going. I’m a sucker for a good sale.

My guiding financial principal is that most people are led into poor financial choices by either fear or greed. Therefore, I try to do the opposite of whatever the current trend is. I buy what no one wants at the time. A year ago, we stopped buying stocks and put our money in bonds and the plummeting housing market. Now, with the stock market 50% off, all our new money is going into stocks. It is all cyclical. I expect another three to five cycles before I need the money. I buy whatever assets are on the down side of the cycle. It doesn’t bother me that the market will likely loose another 10 to 15% (Or another 50% in some kind of dooms day scenario). I’ll buy then too. Probability is on the side of an eventual recovery.[7]

I am not driving myself crazy checking my dropping balance every day…I only check the balance quarterly to make sure I am on target with my overall strategy.[8] Rather than loosing sleep over how our holdings are doing, I am ecstatic to be buying whatever I am buying at a great price, confident that it has way more room to appreciate. And even the stuff that is loosing value…I knew it was over valued…I re-balanced…I kept a strategy that I could live with in bull and bear markets…and I know I got most of that stuff on sale anyway during the last correction, so most of the value it is loosing is value I didn’t pay for.

4. Ownership: The Path to Social Change

I am an environmentalist. I feel pretty strongly about the human mandate to care for the things God made. When it comes to environmental groups there are two main kinds: the litigious approach and that of the Nature Conservancy (NHC). I don’t mean to drop a pejorative on the Sierra Club et al. I think it is fantastic that there are privately funded organizations that exist solely to keep industry and government accountable to the rule of law. It is a great example of why I dislike our way of governance least[9] among the options. But they are not my favorite.

My favorite environmental organization is the NHC. Our office does a lot of work with them as they have sought a cooperative relationship with the Corps, rather than an antagonistic one.[10] But the thing that is most impressive about their approach is what I would call environmentalism through capitalism. If they see endangered habitat or a river reach prime for restoration or a unique natural resource, they don’t picket or sue or whine…they buy it.

This is also my favorite approach to the ills of capitalism. In our model of publicly traded companies, it would actually be immoral for company leadership to act outside of the best interest of the share holders. And most collections of share holders are interested in one thing…share price. I have said it before, but I get tired of people with 401k’s full of stocks complain about the evils ‘big business.’ THEY are big business.

The only way to change company behavior (other than government regulation, which I cautiously support in a number of forms) is to change share holder expectation. What if the share holders largely wanted the company to take a smaller profit to reduce emissions, or pay a higher wage to factory workers in India, or offer health care to its workers? The company would be beholden to these values, since it is supposed to act in the interests of the owners…the share holders.

So much of our money are in what I am going to call ‘advocacy instruments.’ These financial products are generally called ‘screened funds’ or the nearly comically self congratulatory ‘socially conscious[11] funds.’ We originally got into these from what I will call a ‘contamination’ angle. This is the ‘screen’ idea. We wanted a company to keep us from moral contamination by keeping our portfolio free of Philip Morris and the big polluters. But my take on their value has changed with my take on Christian ethics.[12] Now I see their value is consolidating ownership behind some sane, extra-monetary objectives. If Calvert or Domani tells a company that some costly environmental policy or health benefits or a living wage is ‘worth it’ they are not just taking a moral position, they are making an ownership request. They are affecting the mandate. So we hold much of our money in these kinds of ‘advocacy’ instruments.

So there it is, my manifesto of personal finance. Bottom line, if you are 20+ years from retirement, and can avoid the siren fear, it is a very good time to be investing. But it will be imperative to remember the lessons of the last year has held when the siren of greed comes calling.

This post was prepared while listening to: ‘The Lonesome Crowded West’ by Modest Mouse.

[1] Though, as you might guess, I don’t really believe in retirement. One of the reasons I am wrapping up a PhD I don’t need and already have my sights on the next degree, is that I want to work in some capacity until the day I drop dead and answer for my life. But there are a couple famous parables about wise investment, so it is something I have given some thought to.
[2] Which is easier to swallow since ‘competence’ is so rare in economic projection.
[3] Presumably this number will drop as we get older and our risk tolerance drops.
[4] The value approach revolves around the idea that you want to evaluate the price of stocks based on how they compare to actual earnings. It is contrasted to the 'growth' approach that seeks to put money where things are 'hot'.
[5] A REIT is a way to invest in real estate incrementally, without buying a whole building. We started buying these in US and European markets
[6] And research backs this up.
[7] Even if the market never returns to its peak, fear discounted assets purchased today will VERY likely appreciate substantially…they have more room to. If someone thought buying stocks was a good idea a year ago…than it is twice as good today.
[8] For example, since stocks have dropped, my stock holdings are less than 60% so we move some money over from bonds. This is called rebalancing and is a good anti-bubble discipline to keep you from chasing bubbles.
[9] Sorry for the double negative, but dislike least, in this case, certainly means something other than like.
[10] And the approach has worked…they have found that in many places, reservoirs could be re-regulated for biological objectives without sacrificing ANY human objectives.
[11] The funny part is that the question of ‘who’s conscience’ turns out to be a big one. You can get into a fundamentalist fund that advocates against abortion and same-sex benefits or an Islamic fund that is usury free, or a Mennonite fund that military free or, what is suppose would be best called a ‘secular liberal’ fund that screens for promotion of women, environmental record, and labor practices…Oh, and the Mennonites and Catholics do those things too.
[12] Which, pretty much, was the result of reading Bonheoffer.