Navy Beans

Economics and morality have strange intersections. Many people cannot help but assign moral value to commercial transactions. “It is wrong for athletes to be paid so much while the beer vendor is paid so little.” “It is wrong for bottled water to cost so much.” “It is wrong to sell mustard gas at any price.” For the first two examples, the complaint might as well be against the laws of supply and demand themselves. Baseball players make as much money as they do because the demand for top-level athletic ability is very high and the supply is very low. There is relatively little moral ambiguity in that case. The mustard gas example, however, reaches something beyond economics.

In Steinbeck’s East of Eden, Adam’s son Caleb gives him a gift of $15,000. Caleb insists that he came by the money honestly, having invested in bean futures in anticipation of America’s entry into the First World War. Adam refuses the gift. He makes two claims about why he can’t accept the money: first, the money was stolen from the farmers who could have realized that profit themselves if Caleb hadn’t bought the futures; and second, war profiteering is morally reprehensible.

In response to the first of Adam’s objections, Caleb rightfully denies that the farmer’s were robbed. The farmers were paid nearly 60% over market price for their beans. The profit that Caleb realized on his investment only reflected the risk that he took on himself. If the US had not entered the war and bean prices had remained stable, Caleb would have lost a sizable part of his investment.

The second objection, however, is much sticker. Adam is a member of the draft board. He signs orders sending young men to go and die in a foreign land. Profiting from such a terrible thing as war is, in Adam’s mind, utterly unthinkable. This complaint does not go away simply by saying that somebody was going to profit from the war, so why not Caleb? But is selling beans to the army any different from selling mustard gas to the army? Maybe it is all just supply and demand.

It really is hard to think about this rationally because Caleb is so sympathetic. All Caleb wants is his father’s love. He is convinced that he has done a good job, but his gift is rejected. It is so easy to side with Caleb and to find fault with Adam’s rejection, but maybe there really was something wrong with Caleb’s gift. Maybe it was wrong to profit from the war.

Boot TreadBeer of the week: Boot Tread Belgium Amber Ale – This beer comes from Martens NV, brewers of Willianbräu, Hackenberg, Kinroo Blue, and Damburger. Boot Tread is a pretty amber beer available at the discount grocery store down the street. Even a nation with as proud a brewing tradition as Belgium has its cheap beers, but I suspect that this particular brew is for export only. There is a bit of sweet caramel in the aroma, though not much. Overall, this is a standard, inoffensive cheap ale. Not much more to say.

Reading for the week: War is a Racket by Major General Smedley Butler – After a long career as hired muscle for American economic concerns, Butler finally decides to speak out against the military industrial complex. He maintains that Woodrow Wilson went back on his campaign promise to keep the United States out of the First World War to appease American bankers and manufacturers who stood to lose loads of money if Germany won the war. In this chapter, Butler reviews the obscene amounts of money made by the du Ponts, Bethlehem Steel, and other profiteers during the First World War. Needless to say, Caleb’s $15,000 pales in comparison.

Question for the week: Assuming that it is morally wrong to sell mustard gas to the army because it may be used to kill innocent people, is it morally wrong to sell beans to the army because the soldiers who eat the beans may be used to kill innocent people? What about selling beans to the factory worker who makes the gas? What about selling beans to the mechanic who fixes the car of the factory worker who makes the gas? How far removed must the transaction be before it is no longer “profiteering”?

A Pointillist Theology

A high school religion teacher once remarked to me that the only proof of God’s existence that she needed was to look out the window. “How could anybody look upon the wonder of creation,” she wondered incredulously, “and not believe in God?” I was not convinced.

Are not the awe-inspiring beauty and order the universe even more awe-inspiring if they are organic rather than miraculous? That is to say, isn’t nature more impressive than creation? Creation could have been anything that God chose, but nature had to be the way it is. Rather than focusing on the single miracle of creation, why not focus on the ever-accumulating individual discoveries of the world around us? If God created the butterfly instantly and miraculously, that would not make it any more beautiful. But the fact that the butterfly evolved over millions of years and is the distant progeny of the first spark of life, that is beautiful and awe-inspiring.

Nietzsche would say that my teacher had an “old fashioned eye” that preferred “beautiful, decorative, intoxicating and perhaps beatific” myths to “simple truths, ascertained by scientific method.” But reason and scientifically discovered truths are every bit as beautiful as the old world views and aesthetics. In fact, they are even more beautiful. This is because the old views are static and limiting, but the “the richness of inner, rational beauty always spreads and deepens.”
Fiddlehead Kölsch

Beer of the week: Fiddlehead Kölsch – Fiddlehead ferns are a neat example of naturally occurring logarithmic spirals. Their geometric (near) perfection can be viewed as proof of an ordered universe. The quality beers from Fiddlehead Brewing Company are also proof of an ordered universe. This pale, cloudy ale has a soft, round bouquet with hints of pineapple. Although it is not overly hoppy, it is surprisingly bitter for its style and aroma. This is certainly a good beer, but for my taste the hops leave the mouth feeling a bit too dry in the end.

Reading of the week: Human, All Too Human, Appreciation of Simple Truths by Friedrich Nietzsche – Reading leads to reading. Reading Emerson led me to read Greenough and Landor. Reading Mencken led me to read Nietzsche. And reading Nietzsche led me to read more Nietzsche. This paragraph of Human, All Too Human directly follows the reading from two weeks ago.

Question of the week: Are the ideas of creation and evolution truly opposed?

Holy See, Wholly Do!

There are more forms of intoxication than alcohol induced drunkenness. And I am not referring to drugs. “Drunk with power” is more than fanciful speech. Euphoria after exercise is a kind of intoxication. Byron suggested music as an intoxicant. Baudelaire advocated poetry and even virtue for a reliable high. But these other sorts of intoxicants can be quite as dangerous as any drug.

Three coincident events led me to consider the dangers of such intoxicants. First, I started receiving Lapham’s Quarterly. Lapham’s is a literary magazine that includes a very wide range of excerpts and poems. I feel confident that more than a few readings on this blog will be inspired by Lapham’s. Second, Pope Francis is visiting the United States until Sunday evening. And finally, the recent Republican debates have spent a fair bit of time focused on how to “deal with” ISIS and Iran.

These may seem unrelated, but in one of the back issues of Lapham’s there was an excerpt from Charles Mackay’s Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions about Pope Urban II riling the people to war in the Holy Land. History repeats itself and, as Da Vinci said, “everything connects to everything else.”

Two particularly dangerous intoxicants are combined in Mackay’s story: personality cult and military adventurism. Some people are positively enraptured by the presence of a strong personality who has a way with words. And some people seek the thrill of conquest as incessantly as any junkie seeks his next fix. These two intoxicants are often combined with disastrous results. Among the greatest classical examples is the failed Sicilian Expedition by Athens during the Peloponnesian War. Alcibiades was a captivating figure and was able to stir the Athenians so thoroughly up that they neglected wiser advice and set about the course of events that would eventually see their own city fall into enemy hands.

Luckily, the current pontiff is not rallying the people to war. But his popularity, even among non-Catholics, is worthy of critical examination. Many people who see him on his American visit are genuinely ecstatic. And like all intoxication, intoxication with a personality can cloud one’s judgement.

More dangerous, probably, are the Republican presidential hopefuls (to say nothing of the equally dangerous Democratic hopefuls.) They aspire to have their own personality cults. Some of the candidates are already cult figures in some circles. And since the politics of the United States is war, there is little doubt that whoever wins will drum up military adventures that intoxicate the thrill seekers and zealots.

Some drugs are safer than others, and I wouldn’t take a sip of any drink that was mixed by somebody I don’t trust.

Svyturys Ekstra
Beer of the week: Svyturys Ekstra – Lithuania has been a predominantly Catholic nation since the relatively successful Northern Crusades, when the Pope Celestine III declared holy war against the Baltic pagans. Catholicism was officially forbidden during the period of USSR control, but it has bounced back considerably. (Astute readers will have noticed that the map in this photo predates the dissolution of the Soviet Union, so Lithuania is not displayed as an independent nation.) Svyturys Ekstra is straw colored. There is not much aroma to speak of, except a little sweet grass and citrus. Malty sweetness dominates the flavor, with biscuit notes and a hint of tart bitterness at the end.

Reading of the week: Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions by Charles Mackay – “Urban the Second,” writes Mackay, “was one of the most eloquent men of the day.” The pope expertly rallied an eager crowd to war in a distant land. Promising salvation for fighting the infidels yielded an unexpected result (although in hind-sight a quite natural one.) Sure of their absolution, the crusaders engaged in all manner of vice and debauchery.

Question of the week: Moderate consumption of alcohol is not unhealthy, what about a moderate indulgence in getting intoxicated by personality?

Measure Of All Things

Last week’s question included an uncited quotation from H. L. Mencken’s Notes on Democracy. Mencken mocked “Rousseau’s noble savage, in smock and jerkin, brought out of the tropical wilds to shame the lords and masters of the civilized lands.” How silly it seems to attribute such modern notions to man in a “state of nature.” (To be fair to Rousseau, he did not describe his “noble savage” as wearing anachronistic clothing, but his behavior and very nature were anachronistic.)

It is not likely to be a coincidence that Mencken’s delightfully caustic writing on the subject mirrors some ideas expressed in harsher terms by Friedrich Nietzsche. Mencken was a great admirer and translator of the mustachioed Saxon.

Nietzsche identified the traditional error of philosophers as the tendency to base a complete philosophical system on contemporary man. The problem is that contemporary man is a very small sample of all humanity. Since Rousseau had no way of knowing what primitive man was like, he simply attributed to primitive man the qualities of contemporary man. But man has been evolving for far longer than the few thousands of years of which we have written accounts. And, perhaps more importantly, man continues to evolve, even as we observe him. So what can we learn about constant, universal truths by first misattributing consistency to ever-evolving man?

Protagoras announced that “man is the measure of all things”, but what good is a measurement if the scale keeps changing?

Beer of the week: Ciuc Pils – This Romanian pilsner is very pale and very bubbly. The aroma is of sweet, cheap grain. There is not a whole lot to be said for the flavor. It is inoffensive, but not particularly good. It is always fun to try a beer from different countries, but there is probably a reason why Romanian beer is not more popular.

Reading for the week: Human, All Too Human, The Traditional Error of Philosophers by Friedrich Nietzsche – This paragraph, describing how philosophers err in assuming that there is something eternal about man, is part of the foundation of a book in which (to quote Mencken yet again) Nietzsche “showed that moral ideas were not divine, but human, and that, like all things human, they were subject to change.”

Question for the week: Does Nietzsche go too far? Is there nothing about humanity that is fixed and eternal?

Govern Less

Everybody ought to be familiar with Thoreau’s motto: “That government is best which governs least.” But does assessment not depend on what government is and where it comes from?

One understanding of the origin of government is the banding together of individuals for their common defense. “If every man has the right of defending, even by force, his person, his liberty, and his property,” writes Frédéric Bastiat, “a number of men have the right to combine together, to extend, to organize a common force, to provide regularly for this defense.” A government so organized may only do what each individual could legitimately do himself. And if the action of government is properly limited to the common defense, it is surely the best government that needs to act the least.

Such a government could not take from one group of citizens to line the pockets of another group any more than an individual could steal from his neighbor. Neither could such a government subsidize a given industry any more than an industrialist could demand that his neighbors fund the building of his new factory. When these things are done by individuals, they are called theft and extortion, so why should they be permitted on a larger scale?

But the idea that government sprang from the collective right of self defense is not universally accepted. John Stuart Mill identifies the origin of government (or at least most governments) as separate from “the people”. In many instances, government did not derive from organized self defense of the governed but from conquest of the strong over the weak. Such governments were “in a necessarily antagonistic position to the people whom they ruled.”

Again, is it not clear that Thoreau’s maxim holds true? At least for those who are subjugated by the hostile ruling class, the government is best which governs (or, if you prefer, subjugates) least.

The twist is that when the people take control of the government, either from the beginning as Bastiat suggests or after popular uprisings occur as identified by Mill, they almost invariably go beyond the scope of simple defense. The tyranny of the majority is every bit as dangerous as the outside forces that Bastiat’s society banded together to defend against. The majority is also every bit as dangerous as the conquering rulers that subjugated Mill’s society.

It seems that however the government comes to be, Thoreau hit the nail on the head.

Granola Shambler

Beer of the week: Berghoff Granola Shambler – It is still technically summer, and it is still warm out, so pumpkin beers can wait. A radler (also known as a shandy) is usually beer mixed with a soft drink such as pop or lemonade. Traditionally, the base beer is a cheap pale lager. Berghoff has attempted to make their radler a bit more fancy. First, they brew the beer with wheat, oats, rye, and barley malt to get a full, rich base. Then they add grape juice and citrus fruits for a refreshing tang. Personally, I think that the amount of fruit they use is over the top. But I do like the idea of trying to make a high-end shandy.

Reading for the week: On Liberty by John Stuart Mill – Language is always equivocal, so it is important to start any serious work with definitions. On Liberty starts with the definition of liberty, not as freedom of will, but freedom from tyranny.

Question for the week: Is the organization of government for the common defense, like “Rousseau’s noble savage in smock and jerkin”, merely a fanciful tale to explain the creation of government?

Heavy Lifting

Plenty of people advocate physical exercise in the morning. Exercise in the morning has a way of waking up the body. After a morning run or weight lifting session, one feels energized and alert and ready to face the day.

My morning routine of late has included not only physical exercise, but also mental exercise. After I run and shower, I sit down with my copy of The Bones. The Bones is a pocket companion to Euclid’s Elements of Geometry. It contains all of the propositions and diagrams of the Elements, without the extended proofs. Without the proofs in front of me, I am forced to remember (if I am lucky) or work though how the propositions function and build upon each other. It is occasionally quite difficult, but always a great mental exercise to prepare my mind for an active day.

In the introduction to his famous translation of the Elements, Oliver Byrne claims that the “sublime science” of geometry is “better calculated than any other to call forth the spirit of inquiry, to elevate the mind, and to strengthen the reasoning faculties.” Is it any wonder that starting the day with a few propositions serves as the perfect intellectual exercise to invigorate the mind?


Beer of the week: La Trappe Quadrupel – The International Trappist Association certifies beers as “Authentic Trappist Products.” To qualify the beers must be brewed inside the walls of a monastery, any proceeds that go beyond maintenance of the monks and the monastery must go to charity, and the beer has to be of “irreproachable quality.” And this beautiful, red/amber ale is the first “Authentic Trappist” reviewed for this blog. As a quadruple, this ale has an alcohol content of 10%. The flavor is rich and full, with notes of very ripe fruit. The alcohol does make itself felt in the end, but not in a harsh way.

Reading for the week: The First Six Books of the Elements of Euclid, translated by Oliver Byrne – Like Trappist beer, Oliver Byrne was born in the Netherlands. In his introduction Byrne explains that his intention in translating Euclid is to “assist the mind in its researches after truth.”

Question for the week: There are also those who advocate exercise at other times of day, are there advantages to performing the mental labor of geometry at the end of the day?

In Australia, they are called “thongs”.

One of the most common criticisms one sees of politicians is that they “flip-flop”. A politician who changes his position on issues is regarded as untrustworthy. What faith can be put in a man who contradicts himself. But, in the words of Walt Whitman, “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)”

In the case of the elected politician, he not only contains multitudes, he represents multitudes. Should not a democratically elected representative be willing to change his stance on an issue if he finds that his constituency has changed its stance? Some might argue that the politician’s primary duty is to reflect the current opinion of the electorate. If he flip-flops, that is only because the people vacillate.

And even if the politician does think for himself rather than repeat to the crowd whatever it wants to hear, individuals change their ideas and opinions all the time. Hopefully, they do not bounce back and forth between belief systems or ideologies willy-nilly, but even the most important beliefs and ideas are subject to change. As William Harvey wrote, good and true men do not “think it unworthy of them to change their opinion if truth and undoubted demonstration require them to do so.” It is much more admirable and sound to change one’s opinion than to stubbornly hold onto an opinion that has been proved to be wrong.

But still, the flip-flopper is reviled. And often, rightly so. The idea that a politician should simply mirror the opinion of his constituency is very problematic. In that case, the best politician has no virtue or integrity of his own. This precludes any man of principle from being elected. And as far as being willing to be convinced of the truth and to abandon old opinions in the light of new information, that is so rarely the case that such a person would not even be called a flip-flopper; he would be called something much worse.


Beer of the week: Kinroo Blue – Kinroo Blue is basically a store-brand Blue Moon, so I did not expect much. On one hand, this Belgian white ale has the edge on Blue Moon simply because it is actually from Belgium. On the other hand, I have had other beers from Brouwerij Martens NV, some of which were not particularly good. But we must judge the beer on it’s own merits, regardless of its origins. This cloudy, straw colored ale has lots of orange peel and clove on the nose. It is also quite fizzy, with lots of white foam. The flavor is sweet and citrusy, and fairly good for what it is. This is certainly not a great beer, but it is refreshing and reasonably priced.

Reading of the week: On the Motion of the Heart and Blood in Animals by William Harvey – In the Dedication to this ground-breaking work on the circulation of blood, Harvey really lays into those who cling to the natural philosophy of the ancients despite mounting scientific evidence.

Question of the week: Does the elected politician have a duty to his constituency to vote against his own conscience if the majority is large enough?


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 99 other followers