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”?

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?

I Prefer Not To

“Up to a certain point,” observes the narrator in Herman Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener, “the thought or sight of misery enlists our best affections; but, in certain special cases, beyond that point it does not.” At some point, suffering stops inspiring pity and starts engendering revulsion. Suffering is so repulsive men often cannot bear to look, let alone get close enough to help.

There are several reasons for this. For one thing, the suffering of others reminds one of his own mortality and vulnerability, thoughts that many people would surely prefer to ignore. These thoughts can even be so powerful that one simply cannot bear them.

Another, less justifiable sort of selfishness can also cause a sort of resentment of other people’s suffering. One works hard to make his life as comfortable as possible; this can create a sense of entitlement. Since he has worked hard to safeguard himself against woe and want, he feels entitled to live in a world gated off from the suffering of others.

But selfishness is not the only reason people are repulsed by suffering and attempt to cast off all thoughts of it. Occasionally, one observes a suffering that he can simply do nothing to alleviate. Sometimes there is no balm one can offer, especially when the pain of another is not bodily pain, but distress of the soul.

“I might give alms to his body; but his body did not pain him; it was his soul that suffered, and his soul I could not reach.”

Beer of the Week: Damburger Export – This is not a very good beer. It has almost no aroma, it goes down like water and it has a hint of metal in the aftertaste. The best thing this beer has going for it is that although the head dissipated very quickly, there was actually some very significant lacing on the glass. I would probably Damburger again if no other beer were available, but in the words of Bartleby:  “I prefer not to.”

Reading of the week: Bartleby the Scrivener by Herman Melville, excerpt – This is a strangely haunting short story that is “not an easy read.” The reader learns almost nothing about Bartleby except that he is a troubled soul.

Question of the week: If suffering is so repugnant to people, what was the attraction of the classic freak show or of the gladiatorial games?

Open for discussion

“Read not… to find talk and discourse,” writes Sir Francis Bacon in his essay Of Studies. Studying for the sake of discoursing well, Bacon reckons, is mere ornamentation. This sort of study is different in kind from studying for the sheer delight of studying, which is “in privateness and retiring.” However, this is only the case if by “discourse” Bacon means “winning arguments.” Only with such a narrow definition does his claim make sense.

Discourse is an essential part of studying. In fact, the very act of  questioning Bacon on this point is discourse. Even if it is done alone. The interaction between the author and the reader is discourse (even if it does seem like a rather one-sided conversation.) Moreover, the questioning is the most delightful part of studying. The act of questioning shows that there is active learning going on. And eventually, the reading and questioning becomes too delightful and one absolutely cannot refrain from talking about it with others. Or perhaps writing his own part of the dialogue that was started long ago.

After all, that is the point of this blog. Beer and study can both be enjoyed privately, but if one has a true passion for either, he will invariably seek to share it with others. Beer tastes better in the company of friends and through discourse, philosophy comes to life.

Beer of the Week: Willianbräu Weizen – Like so many beers that find their way to me, this one has an interesting origin. Willianbräu is apparently brewed in Belgium for an Italian “Brand Management” company. I think this is essentially a supermarket house-brand. Over all, it is pretty bland, but I could imagine sitting outside with a few good friends, drinking way to many of these on some warm sunny day. In fact, I rather like imagining that.

Reading of the week: Of Studies by Sir Francis Bacon – It comes as no surprise that Bacon, the great champion of philosophy for the sake of practical ends, advocates learning so that one can properly “weigh and consider” (which almost has to refer to “the judgment and disposition of business”) rather than for discourse or for leisure.

Question for the week: Bacon prescribes different studies for different intellectual goals. Does it seem likely that the mind is actually exercised differently by mathematics than by language studies?

Rising Above

“Not wrong, just different” is a phrase that one is likely to encounter when studying foreign cultures. Table manners fall under this category. Habits such as eating loudly, slurping noodles, or eating with ones hands may be different from place to place, but they are not “wrong” in any absolute sense.

Even in the cases where an absolute wrong is committed, it tends to be a wrong that is committed universally and differs only superficially from place to place. All around the world, the man’s sins are the same, they simply have a certain local flavor. In Jules Verne’s Five Weeks in a Balloon, a character notes that the difference between scalping an enemy and beheading him is “a mere matter of fashion!”

In the same way, the brutality and viciousness of war differs but little whether it is carried on with missiles or with spears. The biggest differences are the sheer scale of the suffering that these weapons are able to inflict and the ability of the missile to offer a sort of anonymity and distance to its user. An earnest examination of exactly what war entails could hardly fail to render it utterly unpalatable. “Could the great captains of the world float above the scenes of their exploits, they would at last, perhaps, conceive a disgust for blood and conquest.”

Beer of the Week: Hackenberg Premium Export Pils – Hackenberg, brewed by Martens in Bocholt, pairs very nicely with this reading. For one thing, a Belgian beer seems to be exactly the thing when considering the exploration of Central Africa. And Martens Brewery is known for its pioneering technologies, not unlike Dr. Ferguson’s magnificent balloon Victoria. The beer is light gold in color and has a slightly malty aroma. The flavor is surprisingly creamy with just a hint of the typical pilsner hops. All in all, Hackenberg is a fine beer.

Reading for the Week: Five Weeks in a Balloon by Jules Verne, Chapter 20, Excerpt – Verne’s first novel describes the trans-African journey of three intrepid explorers in a hydrogen balloon. In this short excerpt our heroes get a birds-eye view of tribal warfare and compare the barbarism of Central Africa with the barbarism of Europe.

Question of the Week: Is there any sin unique to a specific culture, or are all of the world’s vices variations on universal themes?