25 May 2017

"Madame Butterfly" at The Kennedy Center

I'll post only a few words about the production of Puccini's Madame Butterfly we saw this past Saturday evening. We make the trip to the Kennedy Center about every other year to see an opera. Two years ago it was for La Boheme, another masterwork of Puccini. In the interim we usually get our opera fixes in Richmond.

Italian operas tend toward the melodramatic and Madame Butterfly is no exception. Yet it would take a cold heart not to be moved by the power of Puccini's score and the performance of Ermonela Jaho as Butterfly. Whomever is cast as Butterfly must be a soprano of strength and endurance, and Jaho certainly fit the bill. (The part of Butterfly is so draining that the director rotated three performers among the thirteen shows.) As a British reviewer put it here, "Jaho doesn't just sing Butterfly, she becomes Butterfly." You can listen to her in the trailer here for a few seconds.

Everything about the production was top-notch from the other performers, the orchestra, and the spare but meaningful scenery. I wish I could advise my readers to catch a performance but we saw the penultimate show and no more remain. I am confident, however, that Jaho will star in other productions so keep an eye open for one.

18 May 2017

"The Circle"

We can confirm Josh Matthews mixed comments on the recently-released film "The Circle." Adequate acting but poor dialog, unmotivated actions, and an unbelievable conclusion. On the other hand, as Matthews observes, 
This is a movie of potent ideas about our use of technology. It points out how prevalent cameras are and how much we depend on algorithms that tell us what’s good and what’s not. It really wrestles hard with the loss of privacy in a time where everything can be recorded, stored forever, and potentially accessed by anybody.
Technology has always influenced human life, of course, but with the increasingly self-referential nature of the digital world, life in community has become ever more susceptible to manipulation.
I'm not a technophobe. I do, for example, appreciate living in North Carolina in an air conditioned house. Yet, from sex robots to artificial wombs, our existence in intimate relationships is becoming less "natural" even though it's part of our created nature. (Alan Jacobs thoughts here are, as usual, insightful.)
Of course, how any of us will be necessary much less flourish in our labor is increasingly open to question with the progress of artificial intelligence.
Over the past 200 years or so we in the West have become increasingly occupied, and now preoccupied, with lives of comfort and ease. Means of avoiding pain relentlessly drive us away from thinking about the ends (or the end) of human existence.
This is also the case in my academic field of contract law where many attending a conference where I presented an early draft of a paper could not fathom the idea that the purpose of contract law aimed at commutative justice and not increasing net social welfare.
Little more than internet hand wringing, I suppose. I have few answers to the question of stopping technologically-enabled human degradation but can hope that readers who have young children will take seriously the need to keep technology in its place.

14 May 2017

"The Political Disciple"

This past February I posted here and here on the Renew Conference hosted by Westminster Reformed Presbyterian Church. Keynote speaker Vincent Bacote has written a short (88 pp.) book titled "The Political Disciple" (Zondervan 2015). Given a busy semester, it's taken me this long to finish it.

Like many in the American Evangelical tradition, Bacote grew up with little consciousness of any connection between Christian doctrine and political life. Apart from a few hot button issues, Christianity was concerned with little more that the doctrine of the atonement, personal holiness, and confidence of a heavenly reward at the end of our days.

Unlike most in the American Evangelical tradition, Bacote is of African ancestry. Thus, for him and his family, matters of racial (in)justice also figured into the political calculus. Yet even here, political action was not deeply integrated into a biblical foundation.

As Bacote continued his education through the doctoral level, however, he became acquainted with Dutch theologian-statesman Abraham Kuyper. (For more than you might want to know about Kuyper read a few of my posts about him here, here, here, and here.) Grounding political action in a robust doctrine of creation as well as the Fall and redemption, Bacote's eyes were opened to a structural approach to framing contemporary problems instead of one that found its justification in a few isolated proof texts.

I won't take the time to work out Bacote's thoughts here because his fundamental approach should be familiar to the many of my readers who are acquainted with or part of the neo-Kuyperian tradition flourishing in North America. (Suffice it to say he chooses race, ineffectual humanitarian action, and the sexual revolution for sustained analysis.) Instead, I will pick up a theme in his book that I've not seen elsewhere in connection with Christian political action: lament.
There are three areas that I will consider.
The first is what some call the long-lost art of lament. Though I have encountered many Christian who have mourned in the face of loss and tragedy, the practice of lament has been a relatively new dimension to my conversations with God. I propose the practice of lament in the face of the frustrations that attend the practice of public engagement because this is a way for Christians to fiercely tell the truth about the heartbreak the world brings us.
[For those who are curious, Bacote's next two areas are "tempering our expectations" and "suffering along the way." No one can accuse Bacote of being a triumphalist!] 

Lament struck a special chord with me because less than a year earlier we had attended a conference titled "Recovering the Lost Art of Lament" lead by Michael Card, a Christian artist-theologian. Lament is certainly a lost art, one that disciples of Christ should employ personally but also corporately. And by drawing our attention to lament in our lives as the political disciples, Bacote has done Evangelicals a great favor.

In brief, I can commend "The Political Disciple" to my readers. Bacote's book would work well for individuals as well as small groups or Sunday School classes.

07 May 2017

"Manchester By The Sea"

The Amazon-produced 2016 film Manchester By The Sea finally arrived on Amazon Prime so we took a couple of hours to watch it. In many respects, it reminded me of Boyhood (reviewed here). Contemporary American lives painted in bleak, aimless, and depressing colors. Some have said it is the saddest movie they've ever seen. While it was dreary, I didn't find any of the characters in Manchester By The Sea sufficiently intriguing  to engage my sustained interest.

Even though I believe Denzel Washington's role as Troy Maxon in Fences (thoughts here) should have won the Academy Award, I can understand why Casey Affleck's performance as Lee Chandler won as Best Actor. Affleck's portrayal of a depressed, inarticulate introvert, whose drunken carelessness had caused the deaths of his three young children, was effective. Both Lee and his 17-year-old nephew (Patrick Chandler, played by Lucas Hedges) for whom he became guardian show progress over the course of the film but not enough to give me much hope for any truly happy futures.

Perhaps my lack of emotional engagement with Manchester By The Sea says more about me than the film. After all, lots of other folks thought the film excellent. In any event, now that it's available on Prime many more will be able to see it, and I can encourage anyone who is interested in a glimpse of "what makes America sad again" to take the time to watch it.

24 April 2017

William Ames on Lotteries

William Ames, an English Separatist theologian (the Separatists were those, like the Pilgrims who came to New England in 1621, had given up on purifying the Church of England) published his Cases of Conscience in Holland in 1639.

After concluding that games of chance were unlawful, he went on as follows:
Quest. 4. What is to be thought of public lotteries wherein many prizes, or rewards, are proposed to be gotten by lot? 
6.A.1. They might haply be so ordered, that they might be lawfull. Namely, if there were any need of a contribution so some pious use: and to avoid discommodities [inconveniences], the business should be permitted to Lot who should distribute: and there also which cast the Lots, should only venture that which they would not unwillingly give and so come to the Lottery, not out of an hope of gaining, but out of an intention of bestowing something. 
7.2 As they are now used, they seem to be unlawful, because they only aim at gain, by fraud and flattery, and give an occasion to many evils.
"Not out of a hope of gaining"! Driven by "fraud and flattery"! Well, there goes every American state lottery. 

19 April 2017

Taxes and Tax Policy

Professor Donald Roth, who teaches at my undergraduate alma mater, Dordt College, has posted a three part series on tax policy here, here, and here. Donald has his LL.M. in tax from Georgetown and knows whereof he speaks.

In addition to writing clearly and simply, Don doesn't argue that there is a distinctively "Christian" position on tax policy. He's content to explain how we (in the U.S., with a few nods to the European tax scene) got where we are and what changes might be in the offing.

31 March 2017

"The Lion in the Living Room"

Image result for the lion in the living room

Subtitled, "How Cats Tamed Us and Took Over the World" by Abigail Tucker (a/k/a Mrs. Ross Douthat). You can get a brief sense of Tucker's insights on how cats domesticated themselves in a short piece she wrote in the New York Times for my birthday here.

Unlike other domesticated animals like dogs and horses, domestic cats are little changed from their pre-domesticated ancestors. Just why humans allowed cats into their lives is a bit of a mystery; after all, despite their reputations at hunters of vermin, cats--unlike dogs and horses--are virtually useless. Cats do kill many songbirds and have wrought havoc with wildlife indigenous to Australia: "Australian scientists recently described stray cats as a bigger menace to the continent's mammals than global warming or habitat loss."

Cats may even be a threat to humans: "Toxoplasma gondii, a mysterious microorganism, is spread by felines and is by now believed to inhabit the brains of one in three people worldwide, including 60 million Americans." When found in its prey, Toxoplasma makes them unafraid of cats. Which is not a good thing when you're a mouse.

Nothing untoward seems to affect human hosts but its initial effects in preborn humans explains why pregnant women are warning against emptying cat pans:
In 1938, pathologists at Babies Hospital in New York City  ... diagnosed the congenital form of Toxoplasma, which is passed from cat to pregnant human to unborn baby, causing spontaneous abortions, stillbirths, and severe complications like blindness and mental retardation.
Of course, none of these drawbacks have slowed the explosion in cat ownership by humans (or human adoption by cats, right, Rachel?). Limited by her professional commitment to methodological naturalism, Tucker spends pages explaining why our love of cats defies evolutionary logic. Not that I can explain it, either, except that I feel no compulsion to explain everything in terms of a biological imperative.

Lest my comments suggest that I didn't enjoy reading "The Lion in the Living Room," let me be clear: I did. Tucker knows her stuff, did her work, and writes well. Thanks, Lisa and Attilio, for this gift.

21 March 2017

HH Gregg and Contemporary Bankruptcy

You can go here to read about the hiccup in the Chapter 11 bankruptcy of HH Gregg. The retailer, which filed for bankruptcy relief late on March 6 (read my pre-bankruptcy observation here), does not plan to reorganize as that term was understood through the end of the 20th century. Instead, like the first go-round of Family Christian Stores (beginning here and end here), HH Gregg planned to use the structure of Chapter 11 to get out of the leases at its underperforming stores, sell its assets to another entity, and use the proceeds of the sale to pay its secured creditors leaving a few pennies on the dollar for everyone else.

Well, that is, until the unnamed buyer backed out.

Gregg's management still believes it can sell itself as a going concern and they may be right. Or not. The current liquidation of Family Christian Stores after its sale-through-bankruptcy in 2015 stands as a cautionary tale for anyone even remotely thinking of getting into the brick-and-mortar retail business.

Some folks have raised the question of whether a government-funded Chapter 11 system should be available to companies who do not intend to reorganize. After all, the thinking goes, the bankruptcy system exists for the benefit of all stakeholders, not a few select creditors. When stakeholders such as employees, local governments, and unsecured creditors get little or nothing, what public good does Chapter 11 serve?

I am not among the the sale-through-bankruptcy naysayers. The current truncated Chapter 11 process is imply another step in the increasing efficiency of market capitalism. While one might question whether efficiency should be as important as it has become, there is no a priori reason why the government should not provide a legal forum to enhance the efficient redistribution of assets. Rather, the reason not to increase efficiency is when it would otherwise be unjust, and I can't see anything unjust about sales-through-bankruptcy.

20 March 2017

"The Underground Railroad"

I was about to give up on reading Colson Whitehead's "The Underground Railroad" at the end of its third chapter. Sure, the book had Oprah Winfrey's imprimatur and it was by my lights clearly and powerfully written. Yet Whitehead's unrelenting and powerful description of the worst of slave life on a plantation on the coast of Georgia wore me down. Whitehead was so good I didn't want to read any more of his book.
Image result for the underground railroad book

The underground railroad came just in time. I had known of Whitehead's conceit--a real, physical underground railroad--but it took me another several chapters to understand how it worked. "The Underground Railroad" is neither science fiction nor magical realism. Thank goodness. The physical underground railroad is a time-saving device and the states to which it took protagonist Cora (South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Indiana) are tropes for the various (and unpleasant) experiences of Africans in America. Whether brutalized or sterilized, in hiding, escaping, or seemingly free, the fate of even the strongest-willed of escaped slaves like Cora was never safe from the depredations of American race-based slavery.

"The Underground Railroad" does not end happily. Whitehead has Cora yet again on the run and the reader is left uncertain whether she will every find the freedom and opportunity for self-determination she demands. "Live free or die" could be Cora's motto as well as New Hampshire's. And, by extension, the motto for all African-Americans.

"The Underground Railroad" and its author deserve their awards While I can recommend it with the proviso that it's not for the faint of heart, I still strongly commend it to my readers' attention.

06 March 2017

The End of the Line ... for RadioShack and HH Gregg

Following last week's post about the demise of Family Christian Stores here, I want to give equal time to the near-end of the line for two additional, venerable retailers.  Go here to read about the situation of RadioShack (which only two years ago went through a Chapter 11 in the now-dashed hope of surviving as a smaller, "leaner" business) and here to read about the impending Chapter 11 of HH Gregg (which likewise is premised on the hope that a smaller version of itself will succeed).

Joseph Schumpeter coined the phrase "creative destruction" to describe the inevitable effects of a market economy. Older means of production (and their producers) are quickly replaced with newer, more efficient ones. While satisfying more needs of more people, the industrial-market stage of capitalism disrupted the lives of many others. Charles Sellers describes the initial overthrow of traditional life in America through the course of the 1820's in "The Market Revolution." Michael Sandel describes how Americans reluctantly came to grips (or failed to do so) with the market economy over the  next century in "Democracy's Discontent."

In one sense, what is happening with Family Christian Stores, RadioShack, and HH Gregg is simply the latest chapter in the process of ever-increasing efficiency. From another, deeper perspective the increasing speed of the destruction wrought by late-market capitalism (which no longer meets but instead creates human "needs") reveals the increasing level of dislocation of American society.

While I've posted on the importance of associational forms of life to a flourishing society here, here, and here, this time I want to direct my readers' attentions to an interesting piece by Adam Sandel here. Author of "The Place for Prejudice: A Case for Reasoning Within the World," Sandel's post linked above starts with a series of questions:
What is the place of work in a good life? And how should a society honor work? Neither party has been able to offer a compelling answer to these questions, or even to raise them. Their failure to do so has contributed to working-class support for Trump. The anger with establishment politics that Trump seized upon is not only about job insecurity but a growing sense that traditional blue-collar work is no longer honored as it used to be.
Why does blue-collar (and, I should add, most white-collar work including the practice of law) fail to satisfy? Because purely self-directed work, without a place of respite, renders all of life an unremitting source of competitive uncertainty.

What's missing from the contemporary picture of the unsatisfying life? According to Sandel, the place of the family: "The family and civil society ... form a pair. Unconditional family love and civil recognition based on merit; immediate family unity and individual self-expression in society. [Y]ou cannot fully enjoy one without the other."

Reading all of Sandel's post will reward the effort.

None of my comments on Sandel should be taken to suggest that the doors to Family Christian Stores, RadioShack, or HH Gregg should remain open. As businesses that have adopted the artifice of the corporate form, they have chosen to operate in calculating and unforgiving world of the market. Creatively destructive compentitors and forms of business have eliminated the space for these brick-and-mortar retailers. No tears need be shed for their demise.

Yet for all out hardened sensibilities about the modern form of market life, we must remember and enhance the important forms of non-market life starting with the family.

02 March 2017

"Natural Law in Court"

Cover: Natural Law in Court in HARDCOVER
I'm looking forward to meeting up again with Richard Helmholz, author of "Natural Law in Court: A History of Legal Theory in Practice" (2015), at the Religious Critiques of Law conference at Pepperdine University School of Law.

"Natural Law in Court" has been reviewed here and here. The purpose of this post is to let even more folks, particularly lawyers, know about this splendid (and relatively brief) work.

Helmholz set out to answer a basic question: for all the philosophical and theological to-do about natural law, did it ever actually make an impact on the ground, i.e., in court? Helmholz thus surveyed the legal literature of three legal communities over the course of roughly 300 years. The communities were Continental Europe, England, and the United States. The period examined begins with 1500 and ends around 1800 for the first two communities and in the late 19th century for the U.S.

His conclusions?
This survey of the relevant evidence ... proves that natural law was carried into practice in the courts of each of the three geographical areas surveyed. ... At least six specific conclusions about its use emerge from a consideration of the evidence.
First, in all three geographical area surveyed, future lawyers learned something about the basic characteristics of the law of nature as part of their early training. ...
Second, once launched in their careers, some lawyers brought what they had learned about the law of nature into their professional lives. They used it. ...
Third, the law of nature was a common possession of lawyers in the world of Western jurisprudence. ... This consistency [across legal communities and through time] is remarkable ...
Fourth, in actual cases the law of nature was almost always treated as a source of positive law, not as a rival or alternative to it. ... The fact that an institution was contrary to the law of nature did not in itself make the institution unlawful. ...
Fifth, throughout its history, the law of nature has been a modest force for good. ... It was not a cure-all, but it did promote the cause of justice. It helped cement principles of right and wrong in the minds of lawyers and consequently in the decisions made in courts of law. ... Natural law served as a useful vehicle in securing many results we now regard as self-evident.
Sixth, the history of natural law's use in courts does suggest that it would be a mistake to claim too much for it. ... 
Not nothing but not everything or even as much as might be hoped-for characterized the history of natural law in important Western legal systems. Justice is a virtue but so is modesty about justice.

PACA-ing It In

Warning: Inside legal agribusiness baseball.

Nearly 20 years ago the California Bankruptcy Court Reporter published a short piece I wrote titled The Perishable Agricultural Commodities Act and the Bankruptcy Code: A Trap for the Unwary. You can download it here if you're interested.

PACA, the acronym for the Act, is evidence of the continuing infatuation of Americans (and their representatives in Congress) with the virtuous yeoman farmer of yesteryear. No matter that farming today is a fully integrated corporate enterprise that bears almost no relationship to what most Americans imagine, farmers are the beneficiaries of much federal largesse. (For a summary of Wendell Berry's thoughts about the current state of American agribusiness go here. For some of mine go here and here.)

PACA permits unpaid farmer-sellers of perishable agricultural products, typically fruits, to get their money from their buyers ahead of virtually all other unpaid creditors. Now, I'm all in favor of folks getting what's owed them but why should sophisticated corporate farmers get paid ahead of everyone else? What about employees of a now-defunct buyer? What about all the other creditors who are getting stiffed? What about the buyer's bank?

Well, okay, no one much cares about the bank of the defaulting buyer of perishable agricultural commodities but such were my clients in an earlier life. Even if there is little sympathy for the lending industry it strikes me as simply another example of political rent-seeking to prefer farmers to banks that have followed state law to get a perfected security interest in the defunct buyer's assets.

All of which is to get to the latest foray of the courts into the battle between farmers and banks over the reach of PACA. You can go here to read an opinion of the federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in which two judges asked the full court to review an earlier decision giving banks a work-around with respect to PACA. If you'd rather not wade through the full opinion you can read Bill Rochelle's summary here.

For what it's worth, I think the Ninth Circuit's earlier decision was wrong and that as a matter of statutory interpretation the farmers in this case should have prevailed over the lender. As a matter of principle, however, whether PACA was needed in the 1930's, it's no longer needed today. But I'm not holding my breath to see if the Republicans in Congress or the White House will take the opportunity to let the market rule in this aspect of the economy.