But Master Beginners are somehow Expert Beginners by nature. They are the meritocratic equivalent of sociopaths in that their incredible tolerance for cognitive dissonance allows them glibly and with an astonishing lack of shame to feign expertise when doing so is preposterous. It appears on the surface to be completely stunning arrogance. A Master Beginner would stand up in front of a room full of Java programmers, never having written a line of Java code in his life, and proceed to explain to them the finer points of Java, literally making things up as he went. But it’s so brazen–so utterly beyond reason–that arrogance is not a sufficient explanation. It’s like the Master Beginner is a pathological liar of some kind (though he’s certainly also arrogant.) He most likely actually believes that he knows more about subjects he has no understanding of than experts in those fields because he’s just that brilliant.
This makes him an excellent candidate for Expert Beginnerism both from an external, non-technical perspective and from a rookie perspective. To put it bluntly, both rookies and outside managers listen to him and think, “wow, that must be true because nobody would have the balls to talk like that unless they were absolutely certain.” This actually tends to make him better at Expert Beginnerism than his cohorts who are more sensitive to cognitive dissonance, roughly following the psychological phenomenon coined by Walter Langer:
People will believe a big lie sooner than a little one. And if you repeat it frequently enough, people will sooner than later believe it.
So the Master Beginner’s ambition isn’t to slither his way out of situations where he might be called out on his lack–he actually embraces them. The Master Beginner is utterly unflappable in his status as not just an expert, but the expert, completely confident that things he just makes up are more right than things others have studied for years.
I wonder if these types congregate more in internal tech positions, where the customers are people who are actually making money consulting or building stuff for external paying customers. In my experience, IT/Support organizations are the most dysfunctional parts of a company. They seem to exist for themselves rather than to help us line engineers do our jobs. It's part of my job to liaison with these people to get our teams what we need to do our work. We shouldn't need a liason to get support staff to actually support us, but we do. I've seen this at every company large enough to have a support group.
Many teams, maybe most, seem to be adopting some form of small team based agile development nowadays, and I would think that helps to identify the incompetents quickly. I remember a sister program was finally able to get a guy to move to another company when they moved to short sprints and it became clear that he never actually got anything done, having just talked his way through it for years before that.
In the first stage of the debate over inequality, there was widespread denial that rising inequality was even happening on any major scale.
Actually, there still is — in this debate, in which one side is sustained by vast amounts of money and influence with an interest in obfuscation, refuted arguments are never abandoned; they just keep coming back. No point is ever conceded by the apologists. But it was nonetheless true that by sometime in the early 90s you could mostly say, “Oh, yeah? Guess what.” The evidence for a sharp rise in inequality, a definitive break with the three postwar decades, was overwhelming.
For a long time thereafter, however, the apologists had a fallback position: OK, maybe inequality was rising, but it wasn’t the rich versus everyone else — it was the whole top quintile, basically well-educated Americans, on the relative rise. So it nothing like the kind of class divisions of the past. The truth is that we knew better than that even by the late 1980, but even a few years ago you still found the voices of respectable opinion insisting that inequality was about the 20 percent, not the one percent.
But at a certain point — to a large extent thanks to Piketty and Emmanuel Saez — we got to say “Oh, yeah? Guess what.” Actually, rising inequality was in large part about the rise of a tiny elite, the one percent and within that the 0.1 percent.
Oh, and to those who admitted some rise in inequality but declared that it was nothing like the Gilded Age, the answer was, “Oh, yeah? Guess what.” We don’t have Gilded Age survey data, but we do have tax records back to the early 20th century, and top income shares are right back at late-Gilded-Age levels.
This brings us to the latest fallback position of inequality’s apologists, one that has lately been associated in particular with Greg Mankiw — namely, that maybe the one percent have been thriving, but they earned it. After all, we’re talking about self-made men here, not heirs to inherited wealth, right?
Now, this is actually a very weak argument on multiple levels. Although the apologists love to talk about movie actors and sports stars, the highest incomes in America overwhelmingly go to executives, whose contributions to the economy are largely in the eyes of the beholder.
And anyway, marginal product isn’t moral justification; even if you believe that, say, Sandy Weill was so much better than the next best alternative that his earnings reflected his true contribution to GDP, that says nothing about whether it was fair or just for him to keep so much more of those earnings than he would have been able to if 1960s tax rates were still in effect.
But in any case, the presumption here is that modern wealth is self-made, nothing like the inherited fortunes of ol. And you know the reply: “Oh, yeah? Guess what.” What Piketty shows is that inherited wealth has been making a comeback, that it’s already a much bigger factor than most people even on the left realize, and that it’s on track to become much larger still.
And this really is a revelation.
I learned the importance of this question in a conversation 12 years ago with a Marxist economist from China who was nearing the end of a fellowship in Boston, where he had come to study two topics that were foreign to him: democracy and capitalism. I asked my friend if he had learned here anything on these topics that was surprising or unexpected. His response was immediate and, to me, quite profound: “I had no idea how critical religion is to the functioning of democracy and capitalism.” Though de Toqueville also had observed this, I had never made this association between religion, democracy and capitalism in my mind. But it was like this guy parachuted in from Mars – and this is what he saw. He continued,
“In your past, most Americans attended a church or synagogue every week. These are institutions that people respected. When you were there, from your youngest years, you were taught that you should voluntarily obey the law; that you should respect other people’s property, and not steal it. You were taught never to lie. Americans followed these rules because they had come to believe that even if the police didn’t catch them when they broke a law, God would catch them. Democracy works because most people most of the time voluntarily obey your laws.
“You can say the same for capitalism,” my friend continued. “It works because Americans have been taught in their churches that they should keep their promises and not tell lies. An advanced economy cannot function if people cannot expect that when they sign contracts, the other people will voluntarily uphold their obligations. Capitalism works because most people voluntarily keep their promises.”
My friend then invited me to look around the world at those countries where, in his words, “America had snapped its fingers at the country and demanded, ‘We want democracy here, and we want it now!’” Unless there was already a strong religious foundation in those countries, he asserted, democracy has failed miserably. There are religions in every country, of course. But he made clear that democracy-enabling religions are those that support the sanctity of life, the equality of people, the importance of respecting others’ property, and of personal honesty and integrity. Those religions also had to be strong enough that they held power over the behavior of the population. People had to believe that God would punish them even if the police and court system did not. He then gave some examples.
In Russia, for instance, there are religions – but few people are influenced by them. As a result many people avoid taxes, and the government cannot collect them. Murder, bribery and stealing are a part of everyday life. He noted that American foreign policy has been naïve in Haiti and the nations of Africa that have been torn by such brutal civil strife. “You just think that because democracy works for you that it will work everywhere. It only works where there is a strong foundation of religion.” In the course of researching the issue my friend posed I happened upon an elegant summary of what he was trying to teach me, penned by Lord John Fletcher Moulton, the great English jurist, who wrote that the probability that democracy and free markets will flourish in a nation is proportional to “the extent of obedience to the unenforceable.”
— John Gray, Straw Dogs
[Quoting Coggan:] "In the last forty years, the world has been more successful at creating claims on wealth than it has been at creating wealth itself."
Only through money do nebulous obligations condense into numerically precise debts, which can and—according to "our accustomed morality"—must one day be paid off.
A debt is "a promise corrupted by both math and violence." The math abstracts obligation from the fluid process of community, while the violence wielded by mafias or the state enforces the abstraction.
As Carmen Reinhart established in a paper cited by Coggan, the real rate of interest (taking inflation into account) was, from 1945 to 1980, as often negative as positive across developed economies; in any given year, a lender was as likely to be losing as gaining real wealth. If this didn't quite bring about Keynes' "euthanasia of the rentier," it did amount to the pacification of the rentier, even as profit rates reached historic heights: the main way for capitalists to beat inflation was by investing money, not by lending it.
For most of the 1970s, labor wielded enough power to demand a growing share of those titles in the form of wages and welfare provision: hence generalized inflation. Since the late '70s, finance capital, in firmer control of most governments, has been better placed to multiple its claims: this too caused inflation, but of the restricted kind known as asset-price inflation.
If the loaning of money at interest, stigmatized as usury during the Middle Ages, has seemed a more tolerable practice during much of the history of capitalism, its acceptance has been purchased through growth [...] The more nearly property relations approach a zero-sum game, the less we will be able to distinguish between what Adam Smith called productive and consumptive loans, the former contributing to the borrower's prosperity and the latter merely draining it.
And now you can see why I'm inclined to sympathize with the nomadic programmer. Two other things fueling this sympathy are issues of personality to be discussed soon, and the fate of the nomad to be discussed immediately. And while the nomad is no longer the parasite, rest assured that he's still, in the long run, the loser.
Initially - in a young and small organization - nomadic programmers tend to dominate the landscape. There are more problems than people around. The nomadic programmer travels from one urgent problem to another, grazing through them as fast as he can. Occasionally he stumbles upon a settler who has settled on a problem near the nomad's territory and grown crops of code there. Well, if the problem occupied by the settler becomes urgent, or if the crops stand in the way of solving the nomad's adjacent urgent problem, the nomad will go ahead and brutally solve the settler's problem, wiping out his crops. The politics of the invasion will be trivial - a promise to deliver by the nomad carries lots of weight at this stage and the settler will not issue a counter-promise (to deliver in his own way) because he's a peaceful code-growing villager who isn't into stress which necessarily comes with delivering quickly.
However, the time goes by and sure enough, the settled people accumulate quite some surplus. What you grow on land is surplus wheat; what you grow on problems is surplus code. Code that wouldn't naturally grow on a problem - but now that the problem was fertilized by the original settlers, they've grown enough code on it to support whole cities, a nation state, and a standing army of programmers, all making a living by fiddling with this code.
The nomad starts running out of pasture. Sure enough, there are lots of problems just like there used to be. But you can no longer solve them because (1) now it's the majority and not a minority of problems that are already owned by someone (growing them rather than solving them) and (2) in most cases invasion is no longer an option. Now that the problem is owned by a nation state, responsible for lots of code and with lots of people working on that code, the nomad's promise to deliver quickly carries very little weight compared to the danger of irritating the sovereign.
We live in a spiritual age when the political has been transformed into the soteriological.
We want people to see how brave we are—in that ingenuous phrase, and in its speaker's guileless face, was written all the burden of the Anxious Age: an anxiety not just to be morally right but to be confirmed as morally right. Not just to be saved but to be certain of salvation.
Part 1: The Poster Children and the Protestant Perplex
The Poster Children
Bonnie's life illustrates where American Mainline Protestantism has gone, the place at which it's been aiming for generations: Christian in the righteous timbre of its moral judgments, without any actual Christianity; middle class in its social flavor, while ostensibly despising middle-class norms; American in cultural setting, even as she believes American history is a tale of tyranny from which she and those like her have barely managed to escape.
Eliter Than Thou
We need "a revisionist interpretation of American history," the social critic Christopher Lasch declared in 1994, "one that stresses the degree to which liberal democracy has lived off the borrowed capital of moral and religious traditions antedating the rise of liberalism."
Trained in a socialist economic tradition, Lasch was profoundly contemptuous of the ways in which, as he saw it, the elites' ostensible leftism was increasingly defined not by economics or political ideology (in both of which he saw little difference from the views of conservatives). Instead, elite leftism is now defined by its class-bound views of morality and culture, particularly as they concern sex—views, moreover, that the elites imagine to be universal and that they attempt to impose on everyone else through international treaties, federal case law, and nationalized legislation. How could the working classes not be pushed into the arms of conservatives when "the populist tradition" has been captured by the anti-populists—the despisers of the democratic ethos?
Lasch savages the elites' childish view of religion, which they imagine is merely a way of avoiding reality. In fact, he argues, religion forces people to face up to hard truth: their moral failings, their weaknesses, their death.
We must trace the ways...by which a large class of American Protestants climbed up into post-Protestantism. What are the means by which they decided to proclaim themselves "spiritual but not religious"? The ways by which they came to believe that morality was being held back by the religion that once defined morality in America? And how, exactly, did they form what must be seen as the defining proposition of the post-Protestant age: the great unspoken and probably unspeakable thought that it is somehow more Christian not to be a professing Christian?
The Throb of the New Age
Consider merely those social forces that joined, according to Rauschenbusch, to murder Jesus Christ: bigotry, power, corruption, the groupthink of the vulgar mob, militarism, and class oppression. All we need to do is drop Christ from the explanation and we have the precise social feeling of...the current post-Protestant class, the Poster Children of today.
The sole proof of redemption is the holding of a proper sense of social ills. The only available confidence about their salvation, as something superadded to experience, is the self-esteem that comes with feeling that they oppose the social evils of bigotry and power and the groupthink of the mob.
The Communitarians imagined that if we just convince people of the good of communities in general, people will rush to form new communities in the particular. [...] Groups are most socially successful when they exist for a purpose other than the pure social effect on their members, and the nation benefits from those groups precisely when they start out with an intention other than simply benefiting the nation. [...] Call it the Law of Religious Sociology: There is no such thing as a socially useful religion.
Brightest and Best
By the time Rauschenbusch came of age, the anti-Catholic strain of Protestantism had made common cause with both the pietistic movement and scientific modernism to produce a liberal view of the world that essentially denied the existences of demons and angels—together with ghosts and blessed relics and priestly powers and sacramental realities and efficacious prayers for the dead. The churches placed their emphasis instead on personal piety and moral reform, with the only salient supernatural entities reduced to the individual soul on the one hand and the triune God on the other.
Rauschenbusch's genius was to repopulate the metaphysical realm. A hunger for a thicker world, for a supernatural infusion, is written across the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It's there in the movement that was born in Hydesville, New York—thirty miles east of Rauschenbusch's home in Rochester—when the Fox sisters, Kate and Margaret, reported in 1848 the rapping noises of the ghost of a murdered peddler. It's there in the spiritualism that enthralled innumerable liberal congregations, particularly the Hicksite branch of the Quakers, in the early days, and Universalists, later in the century.
It's there in the reasons the Aesthetes, from Oscar Wilde to Joris-Karl Huysmans, were drawn first to horror fiction and then to Catholicism. It's there in the popularity of Bram Stoker's 1897 Dracula, for that matter. Table rapping, séances, spirit photographs, magic, Arthur Conan Doyle's flirtation with the Cottingley Fairies early in the 1920s, the American spiritualist Pearl Curran's popularizing of the Ouija board during the First World War. Western culture (meaning, especially, Protestant culture in Great Britain and the United States) was awash with claims of new ways to observe the supernatural. The fascination with clairvoyance and the occult. The rebirth of astrology. Theosophy and the revival of long-dead Eastern religions: the cult of Isis, the worship of the Thrice-Great Hermes. Even, to a certain degree, Mormonism, founded in 1830 by Joseph Smith in Palmyra, an upstate town just twenty miles outside Rochester.
Walter Rauschenbusch was the most successful of them all. "A better and more Christian method of getting a religious realization of sin," he told his flock, "is to bring before our minds the positive ideals of social righteousness contained in the person of Christ and in the Kingdom of God, and see sin as the treasonable force which frustrates and wrecks these ideals and despoils the earth of their enjoyment."
Sin is not any particular action. Sin is not an action at all. It is a shroud, a "treasonable force," that spreads across human society. It is the cause of social actions. And our confidence in our salvation comes solely from a personal, interior, rejection of that evil—without any particular deeds necessary on our part.
A great emotional gift of post-Protestantism...is the constant sense of superiority—intellectual superiority, in this case, not necessarily in the sense of genuinely being smarter, but in the sense that they can say to themselves, "We have cultural, social, and economic explanations for others, while they have no explanation for us."
The death of the Mainline [denominations] is the central political fact of the last 150 years of American history.
The End of the Line
Deism and the Enlightenment provided little of the religious liberty [the Founding Fathers] put in the Bill of Rights. The real cause was the rivalry of the Protestant churches
Even at its greatest, the undivided current of Protestantism never reached the ecclesial unity of a single church. It achieved, instead, a vocabulary
The high-water mark came around 1965, when members of the various churches broadly within these denominations constituted well over 50 percent of the American population.
[Today, the Mainline denominations number] around 21 million people, in a nation of more than 300 million. The conservative Southern Baptist Convention alone has 16 million members in the United States. The Catholic Church has 67 million.
In other words, well under 10 percent of Americans today belong to the central churches of the Protestant Mainline.
Preaching to the Choir
European churches helped the American denominations remain theologically distinct even while those denominations were socially united in creating the culture of the United States. Protestantism is essentially gone from Europe now—its population center shifted to the global south, and its intellectual center dissolved. And once Europe ceased to produce defining theological work, the American churches had less confidence in maintaining their old historical distinctions.
Such movements [feminism, homosexuality, environmentalism] seek converts, not supporters, and they respond to objections the way religions respond to heretics and heathens. Each of them wants to be the great vocabulary by which the nation understands itself.
The Road Not Taken
At the peak of its late-Victorian foliage, liberalism was humane, intelligent, and engaged. It was ethically serious, intellectually open, socially approved, and religiously advanced
The fiction of Henry James mercilessly reveals a people whose moral thoughts, untethered from the intellectual foundations of previous generations, had become moods rather than ideas.
Conclusion: The Erie Canal Thesis
[Post-Protestants] do not feel themselves elite in any economic or political sense of real personal power.
What they do feel is that they are redeemed. [...] They have awakened from the sleep of past ages and now see the evil, the metaphysical miasma, that is spread over civilization.
Part 2: The Swallows of Capistrano and the Catholic Conundrum
The Mind in the Pews
While Christianity is a faith, Catholicism is an idea. [...] And that's what irritates and frightens the hell out of newspaper editors and college professors and political activists—all of religions cultured despisers, all the people who think they have this modern world pinned down and understood. Faith they can deal with: an illogical remnant of bygone ages, to be admired in other cultures and mocked in our own. But an idea? That's a problem. An idea can change the world.
[Benedict] has, he implicitly claims, mastered and now presented to the world a technique of reading with the tradition of the Church. It's the historical-critical method, without the pseudo-scientific suspicion that was once thought to be the vital core of the discipline.
[Dulles's] objection to radical theology was, finally, that the people who practice it wreck theology. There is almost no idea so wild it cannot find some place in Dulles's system of theological models. But radicals—of both the revisionist left and the revisionist right—refuse to be accommodated in this way. They don't want to be in the Church; they want to be the Church. And that, as Dulles observes, it was makes them so uncivil.
There's nobody left who votes for Methodist candidates because they are Methodists, or Episcopalian candidates because they are Episcopalians—or even Catholic candidates because they are Catholics. Instead, serious religious believers vote for other serious religious believers, with Mere Religion trumping denominationalism.
The Public Role
"Evangelicals supply the political energy, Catholics the intellectual heft," the New Republic claimed as it attempted to explain the Catholic ascendancy on the Supreme Court.
Compelled to moral seriousness by the urgency of the pro-life cause and granted a surprisingly public prominence by the collapse of the old Protestant Mainline, post-ethnic Catholic thinkers developed an exciting and powerful rhetoric in which to talk about public affairs in a modern democracy.
The major role—perhaps the only role—that Catholicism genuinely played on the American stage is as a source of the vocabulary for phrasing moral issues. Sanctity of life, just war theory, natural law, dignity of the person: It has because the single viable vocabulary for expressing moral concepts in a secular space.
The Swallows' Return
A rebellion against rebellion doesn't escape the problems of rebellion, and a chosen tradition is never quite the same as an inherited one.
John Paul II and the Papal Difference
The Catholic Church, drawing intellectual converts, seemed almost uniquely to contain a lively philosophical and theological discussion of high-minded topics. But the American Church itself was felt by the majority of cradle Catholics to be a thing in decline: the political power of its ethnic enclaves faded, the moral authority of its bishops gone, and the culture that had once produced the 1950s Catholic literary renaissance lost beyond recall.
Every step John Paul II took in those early years was a denial that our options are as limited as they appear
A Room With A View
God and Man at Yale is not a particularly religious book, and it certainly is not a volume of Catholic apologetics or exegesis. Nonetheless,read as a text in the Catholic renaissance, it bears some resemblance to Flannery O'Connor's stories and Robert Lowell's poetry and Walker Percy's prose. The writings of Buckley through the 1950s assumed Catholicism. They took it a secure place to stand—a place from which to look outward on the world. They accepted it as the system of truth by which other things could be judged.
To be a Catholic was, for their 1960s generation, to think and write constantly about being a Catholic.
Conclusion: American Exceptionalism and American Religion
However wobbly, however ready to flip over, the three-legged stool of America proved surprisingly stable. Or stable, at least, until the second half of the twentieth century, when one leg—Mainline American Protestantism—simply collapsed, leaving only democracy and capitalism to battle it out in the public square.
Morality may not require religion, as a matter of sheer logic, but it certainly does as a matter of mass psychology.
When people are well formed by family, church, and all the other institutions of civil society that mediate between the individual and the state, they naturally resist the politicization of life and the encroachments of the state even as many are motivated to become and remain civically engaged.
Neither the consumer society nor the nanny state does anything to form, sustain, or improve the moral character of the citizenry. In the long run, this proves as destructive philosophically as it is socially. Liberalism is based on certain ideas, such as that of human dignity, that are actually predicated on Christianity and biblical religion. Human dignity, at least in the relevant sense, did not exist for the Greeks; and as we analyze the waves of modernity, it because evident that every attempt to anchor human dignity in something other than biblical religion has failed.
Religion actually works to ground the American experiment because we take religion more seriously than the American experiment.
Atheism is a late bloom of a Christian passion for truth. No pagan is ready to sacrifice the pleasure of life for the sake of mere truth. It is artful illusion, not unadorned reality, that they prize. Among the Greeks, the goal of philosophy was happiness or salvation, not truth. The worship of truth is a Christian cult.
— John Gray, Straw Dogs
I blog regularly at hewhocutsdown.net.
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