Monday, April 27, 2009

Good for your ghost

Moderation is medicine no matter how you yearn.
It’s not all good for your ghost that your gut wants
Nor of benefit to you body that’s a blessing to your soul.

(From William Langland’s Piers Plowman, Passus I, lines 35-37, tr. E. Talbot Donaldson)

The older kids and I are reading Piers Plowman to each other during our afternoon colloquium — I didn’t think they’d be interested, but I read the prologue aloud and they all wanted to continue. They were getting a little tired of Tennyson’s Idylls of the King (he’s so Victorian, and, well... we’re not), so we’ve set him aside for now and are enjoying the view from the 14th century.

On "Correct English"

I may as well say here that my father did not speak dialect but the standard English of the eighteenth century. In pronunciation the criterion was the oral tradition, not the way the word looked in print to an uneducated school-teacher. For example, although he wrote ate, he pronounced it et, as if it were the old past tense, eat. He used the double negative in conversation, as well as ain’t, and he spoke the language with great ease at four levels: first, the level just described, conversation among family and friends; second, the speech of the “plain people” abounding in many archaisms; third, the speech of the negroes, which was merely late seventeenth or early eighteenth century English ossified; and, fourth, the Johnsonian diction appropriate to formal occasions, a style that he could wield in perfect sentences four hundred words long. He would not have understood our conception of “correct English.” Speech was like manners, an expression of sensibility and taste.
(From Alan Tate’s novel, The Fathers, p. 17)

The main character of The Fathers is an elderly man in the early 1900s recalling something that had happened when he was a child in northern Virginia in the 1850s. I like that last sentence: Speech was like manners, an expression of sensibility and taste.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Economics: changing definitions

It’s interesting to note how word meanings have changed over time. Here are some definitions of capitalist and capitalism (I’m putting each of the entries in reverse alphabetical order since one of the definitions of capitalism includes the word capitalist):

From comes the modern usage:

1. a person who has capital, esp. extensive capital, invested in business enterprises.
2. an advocate of capitalism.
3. a very wealthy person.

1785–95; capital + -ist

an economic system in which investment in and ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange of wealth is made and maintained chiefly by private individuals or corporations, esp. as contrasted to cooperatively or state-owned means of wealth.

1850–55; capital + -ism

From the American College Encyclopedic Dictionary, 1955, we have:

capitalist, n. one who has capital, esp. extensive capital employed in business enterprises.

capitalism, n.
1. a system under which the means of production, distribution, and exchange are in large measure privately owned and directed.
2. the concentration of capital in the hands of a few, or the resulting power or influence.
3. a system favoring such concentration of wealth.

Here’s another older set of definitions from Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Fifth Edition, date unknown as the relevant page is missing, but the latest population information in the back of the book is from 1941:

capitalist, n. One who has capital; esp., a person of large property which is or may be employed in business

capitalism, n.
1. The state of having capital; the position of a capitalist.
2. An economic system in which capital and capitalists play the principal part; specif., the system of modern countries in which the ownership of land and natural wealth, the operation of the system itself, are effected by private enterprise and control under competitive conditions.

It’s packed up now, but my circa 1970s World Book Encyclopedia defines it in the modern sense — that is, by focusing on free trade and private ownership and contrasting it with socialism.

I don’t know how important it is to the economic debate overall, but it’s important to remember changing definitions when reading works from previous generations. Belloc and Chesterton both use the word in its older sense — here’s the opening paragraph on the chapter on the capitalist state in Belloc’s Economics for Helen:

The Capitalist State is that one in which though all men are free (that is, though no one is compelled to work for another by law, nor anyone compelled to support another), yet a few owners of the land and capital have working for them the great mass of the people who own little or nothing and receive a wage to keep them alive: that is, a part only of the wealth they produce, the rest going as rent and profit to the owners. (p. 96)

["Rent" is a technical term referring to one of the three divisions of wealth produced, the other two being Subsistence and Interest (or Profit).]

It seems that the current definition has arisen in reaction to the rise of socialism (which, I want to reiterate so there’s no misunderstanding, Chesterton and Belloc were both emphatically against), but it also seems to me that the older one reflects our current situation well. Even though statistics show modern Americans to be homeowners at unprecedented rates, it makes it easy to miss the fact that most “homeowners” don’t own the place free and clear, but have a mortgage. And most of us don’t use the property we do own (mortgaged or otherwise) to produce wealth, so it can’t properly be called “Land” or “Capital” in the economic sense of the words.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Reading about economics

Last week I read Hillaire Belloc’s Economics for Helen which was a big help to me. I’m going to read it again with my big kids as soon as we’re finished with Chesterton’s What’s Wrong with the World, so we can discuss it. I learn things much better when I can discuss what I’m reading, so since I haven’t talked through the book much yet, I may not be able to write well about it, but I’ll give it a shot while some things are fresh on my mind.

Belloc covers all the basics, defining wealth, explaining land, labor, and capital, and the process of production, and introduces a new-to-me concept, the fact that there are three kinds of wealth: subistance, rent, and interest. He discusses exchange (both domestic and international), free trade and protection, money, banking, and national debts and taxation. He also describes the three economies that have been pretty widely practiced in history: the servile (that is, slave-holding) state, the capitalist state, and the distributist state, frankly discussing the strengths and weaknesses of each. He discusses socialism briefly, mainly because in his time (the book was written in 1923) it hadn’t been successfully practiced anywhere and he said he thought it wasn’t possible for it to succeed. Of course we’ve had time to see that the only place it ever “succeeds” is at the end of a gun.

Something I really appreciated about the book was that at the beginning where he defined economic wealth, and at the end in his summary, he differentiated it from other kinds of very good things, like a beautiful painting or a good book or any of those intangibles that makes life pleasant. So many articles on the economy completely ignore this part of life and make it sound like economic wealth is the only kind of wealth, and make the mistake of thinking that if a nation has greater economic wealth at one point in their history, then they must necessarily be better off.

People confuse the word “Wealth” with the idea of well-being….

It is not so. Economic Wealth is a separate thing from well-being. Economic Wealth may well be increasing though the general well-being of the people is going down. It may increase though the general well-being of the people around it is stationary.

Another thing was that after a few chapters he pointed out that what he was talking about in the first half of the book was economic law, not moral law — i.e. the way things work, not whether it’s good or bad. He then made this astute observation: “Some people are so shocked by the fact that Economic Law is different from Moral Law that they try to deny Economic Law. Others are so annoyed by this lack of logic that they fall into the other error of thinking that Economic Law can override Moral Law (p. 47).” The moral law aspect came up in the second half of the book when he started talking about political applications.

The last chapter, Economic Imaginaries, is a brief look at what Belloc calls a new subject in Economics, and is terribly important in helping me see what’s going wrong and how it’s going wrong in our own time. An economic imaginary is “a value which appears on paper but has no real existance (p. 164).” He gives several examples of what causes this sort of thing to happen, the funniest of which is worth quoting in full:

Supposing two men, one of whom, Smith, has a loaf of bread, and the other of whom, Brown, has nothing. Smith says to Brown: “If you will sing me a song I will give you my loaf of bread.” Brown sings his song and Smith hands over the bread. A little later Brown wants to hear Smigh sing and he says to him: “If you will sing me a song I will give you this loaf of bread.” A little later Smith again wants to have a song from Brown. Brown sings his song (let us hope a new one!) and the loaf of bread again changes hands and so on all day.

Supposing each of these transactions to be recorded in a book of accounts. There will appear in Smith’s book: “Paid to Brown for singing songs two hundred loaves of bread,” and in Brown’s book: “Paid to Smith for singing songs two hundred loaves of bread.” The official who has to assess the national income will laboriously copy these figures into his book and will put down: “Daily income of Smith, 200 loaves of bread. Daily income of Brown, 200 loaves of bread. Total 400 loaves of bread.” Yet there is only one real loaf of bread there all the time! The other 399 are imaginary.

Belloc admits that this example is “an extreme and ludicrous case,” but goes on to show how that sort of transaction actually makes up a pretty good portion of our economic activity. He also mentions three other types of economic imaginaries, and I’ll bet modern readers can come up with several others.

I’d definitely recommend that anyone interested in the study of economics read this — both relative beginners like me, but also more knowledgeable people who might benefit from Belloc’s perspective, which is rather different from free-market capitalism.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Meal planning

We’re trying to learn to eat more seasonally as part of transitioning into growing as much of our own food as we can. My gardening skills aren’t very good, to say the least. We generally succeed at a tomatoes, and last year we had a bumper crop of turnips, but everything else we plant usually fails for one reason or another, but it’s spring and there’s always hope. So I’m still thinking that some day we’ll be able to grow more stuff (and even if we don’t we’re trying to buy more from local farmers), and when we do that we’ll need to be used to eating what’s available in the garden.

~*~ ~*~ ~*~

There’s a cook book I’d love to get some day: Simply in Season. That website posts a new recipe each week — this week’s is spring greens salad, and the page includes recipes for five different dressings. That’s a site worth bookmarking.

Another helpful site is Eat the Seasons, which lists what’s in season each month and has links to several recipes.

Checking out those lists on occasion gives me fresh ideas for meals. I’ve been in an awful rut lately, owing, I think, to the way we’ve changed what we eat. Up until the last couple of years I always planned meals around a chunk of meat (plus had occasional meatless meals) but with trying to raise our own meat or buy it locally, that just doesn’t work out since we only have meat available a couple times a week.

~*~ ~*~ ~*~

Speaking of planning meals around a chunk of meat — a neighbor had more ducks than he wanted so he gave us a couple of young males last month that we’ve been saving for Easter dinner. They’ll be butchered this afternoon and I’m going to marinate them in lemon juice till it’s time to prepare them. I’ll be roasting them, so I can do all the prep on Saturday then turn on the roaster before leaving for church Sunday. For the rest of the meal, I took my cues from the list at Eat the Seasons and checked my cookbooks for recipes.

Here’s the tentative menu:

* Avocado Grapefruit Salad (from Sally Fallon’s Nourishing Traditions — sliced avocados and grapefruit sections served on a bed of lettuce, topped with homemade dressing and green onions)
* Roast Duck with bacon-rice stuffing and giblet gravy (from Good Housekeeping’s All-American Cookbook)
* Asparagus with sesame seeds (also from Nourishing Traditions — sauteed in olive oil then baked with shallots, served with a squeeze of lemon juice)

What kind of wine would be best with that?

Elai is going to make a chocolate mousse for dessert.

~*~ ~*~ ~*~

What are you eating this month?

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Palm Sunday

Ride on! ride on in majesty!
Hark! all the tribes hosanna cry;
O Savior meek, pursue thy road
with palms and scattered garments strowed.

Ride on! ride on in majesty!
In lowly pomp ride on to die;
O Christ, thy triumphs now begin
o’er captive death and conquered sin.

Ride on! ride on in majesty!
The angel-squadrons of the sky
look down with sad and wondering eyes
to see the approaching sacrifice.

Ride on! ride on in majesty!
Thy last and fiercest strife is nigh;
the Father on his sapphire throne
expects his own anointed Son.

Ride on! ride on in majesty!
In lowly pomp ride on to die;
bow thy meek head to mortal pain,
then take, O God, thy power, and reign.

~*~ ~*~ ~*~
Words: Henry Hart Milman, 1820
Best sung to: Winchester New (Musikalisches Handbuch, Hamburg, 1690

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Topsy-Turvy World

~William Brighty Rands (1823–1880)

If the butterfly courted the bee,
  And the owl the porcupine;
If churches were built in the sea,
  And three times one was nine;
If the pony rode his master,
  If the buttercups ate the cows,
If the cats had the dire disaster
  To be worried, sir, by the mouse;
If mamma, sir, sold the baby
  To a gypsy for half a crown;
If a gentleman, sir, was a lady,—
  The world would be Upside-down!
If any or all of these wonders
  Should ever come about,
I should not consider them blunders,
  For I should be Inside-out!

Ba-ba, black wool,
  Have you any sheep?
Yes, sir, a packfull,
  Creep, mouse, creep!
Four-and-twenty little maids
  Hanging out the pie,
Out jump’d the honey-pot,
  Guy Fawkes, Guy!
Cross latch, cross latch,
  Sit and spin the fire;
When the pie was open’d,
  The bird was on the brier!

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Lady Daffadowndilly

~Christina Rosetti (1830-1894)

Growing in the vale
        By the uplands hilly,
Growing straight and frail,
        Lady Daffadowndilly.

In a golden crown,
And a scant green gown
        While the spring blows chilly,
Lady Daffadown,
        Sweet Daffadowndilly.

~*~ ~*~ ~*~

Last year I launched National Poetry Month with a poem about daffodils by A.A. Milne. I just found this one this week, so I thought I’d use it today. Last year I collected poems for April for months beforehand, but I haven’t done that this year so I doubt I’ll have one every day like I did before. Things have been a little topsy-turvy around here.