Towards the end of cash

Sweden was the first country to introduce paper banknotes, back in 1661.  And now it is on the verge of being the first country to eliminate cash altogether:

In most Swedish cities, public buses don’t accept cash; tickets are prepaid or purchased with a cell phone text message. A small but growing number of businesses only take cards, and some bank offices — which make money on electronic transactions — have stopped handling cash altogether.

“There are towns where it isn’t at all possible anymore to enter a bank and use cash,” complains Curt Persson, chairman of Sweden’s National Pensioners’ Organization.

He says that’s a problem for elderly people in rural areas who don’t have credit cards or don’t know how to use them to withdraw cash.

The decline of cash is noticeable even in houses of worship, like the Carl Gustaf Church in Karlshamn, southern Sweden, where Vicar Johan Tyrberg recently installed a card reader to make it easier for worshippers to make offerings.

“People came up to me several times and said they didn’t have cash but would still like to donate money,” Tyrberg says.

Bills and coins represent only 3 percent of Sweden’s economy, compared to an average of 9 percent in the eurozone and 7 percent in the U.S., according to the Bank for International Settlements, an umbrella organization for the world’s central banks.

Three percent is still too much if you ask [ABBA's Bjoern] Ulvaeus. A cashless society may seem like an odd cause for someone who made a fortune on “Money, Money, Money” and other ABBA hits, but for Ulvaeus it’s a matter of security.

After his son was robbed for the third time he started advocating a faster transition to a fully digital economy, if only to make life harder for thieves.

“If there were no cash, what would they do?” says Ulvaeus, 66.

The Swedish Bankers’ Association says the shrinkage of the cash economy is already making an impact in crime statistics.

The number of bank robberies in Sweden plunged from 110 in 2008 to 16 in 2011 — the lowest level since it started keeping records 30 years ago. It says robberies of security transports are also down.

“Less cash in circulation makes things safer, both for the staff that handle cash, but also of course for the public,” says Par Karlsson, a security expert at the organization.

The prevalence of electronic transactions — and the digital trail they generate — also helps explain why Sweden has less of a problem with graft than countries with a stronger cash culture, such as Italy or Greece, says economics professor Friedrich Schneider of the Johannes Kepler University in Austria.

“If people use more cards, they are less involved in shadow economy activities,” says Schneider, an expert on underground economies.

Do you think eliminating cash entirely in favor of all-electronic transactions would be a good idea?

Can sports be a vocation?

David Brooks argues that the nature of competitive sports is in conflict with Christianity and, indeed, all religions.  Not just that sports can be rough–not all of them are–but that sports require pride, whereas faith requires humility.  Here is part of what he says:

We’ve become accustomed to the faith-driven athlete and coach, from Billy Sunday to Tim Tebow. But we shouldn’t forget how problematic this is. The moral ethos of sport is in tension with the moral ethos of faith, whether Jewish, Christian or Muslim.

The moral universe of modern sport is oriented around victory and supremacy. The sports hero tries to perform great deeds in order to win glory and fame. It doesn’t really matter whether he has good intentions. His job is to beat his opponents and avoid the oblivion that goes with defeat.

The modern sports hero is competitive and ambitious. (Let’s say he’s a man, though these traits apply to female athletes as well). He is theatrical. He puts himself on display.

He is assertive, proud and intimidating. He makes himself the center of attention when the game is on the line. His identity is built around his prowess. His achievement is measured by how much he can elicit the admiration of other people — the roar of the crowd and the respect of ESPN.

His primary virtue is courage — the ability to withstand pain, remain calm under pressure and rise from nowhere to topple the greats.

This is what we go to sporting events to see. This sporting ethos pervades modern life and shapes how we think about business, academic and political competition.

But there’s no use denying — though many do deny it — that this ethos violates the religious ethos on many levels. The religious ethos is about redemption, self-abnegation and surrender to God.

Ascent in the sports universe is a straight shot. You set your goal, and you climb toward greatness. But ascent in the religious universe often proceeds by a series of inversions: You have to be willing to lose yourself in order to find yourself; to gain everything you have to be willing to give up everything; the last shall be first; it’s not about you.

For many religious teachers, humility is the primary virtue. You achieve loftiness of spirit by performing the most menial services. (That’s why shepherds are perpetually becoming kings in the Bible.) You achieve your identity through self-effacement. You achieve strength by acknowledging your weaknesses. You lead most boldly when you consider yourself an instrument of a larger cause.

The most perceptive athletes have always tried to wrestle with this conflict. Sports history is littered with odd quotations from people who try to reconcile their love of sport with their religious creed — and fail.

via The Jeremy Lin Problem – NYTimes.com.

In terms of this blog, Brooks is arguing that playing sports, professionally, say, is not a legitimate vocation for a Christian.   Do you agree?

I don’t, and this column has precipitated a request from another blog to write about whether or not some vocations are forbidden to Christians.   I’ll link to what I wrote when it comes up on the blog that invited me to contribute.  In the meantime, how would you answer Brooks?

Playing to the local yokels

We’ve posted about various kinds of condescension to Southerners and Oklahomans (not exactly the same).  Here is another kind, one seemingly more friendly and yet just as ignorant and ridiculous.  Whenever politicians of both parties visit a Southern state to which they are not native to campaign, they try to affect a Southern accent and pretend to Southern folkways!  Thus, when when Mitt Romney visited Southern states for Super Tuesday, he was all “ya’ll” and “grits” (which he called “cheesy grits” instead of “cheese grits”–the funny part is that when they try to sound like they are just like their audience they nearly always get it wrong).  But, again, all politicians do this, as do many regular visitors to these states, as Melinda Henneberger observes:

His hat-tip to “cheesy grits” didn’t win over the locals, some of whom thought he was making fun of them. . . .

And if some of the coverage seemed skewed towards Southerners from central casting, well, as my late friend the New York Times reporter Allen Myerson once wryly observed, “You can never go wrong pandering to the prejudices of your editors.”

With Louisiana yet to vote, on March 24th, and thus more wonder at the diverse region’s quaint and colorful folk ways yet to be expressed, I’m here to tell you how the hog eats the cabbage: The idea that Southerners have any wish to hear politicians from other parts of the country talk like them is silly.

Still, lots of pols who go South do try to go native, with varying degrees of success. Barack Obama, who as everyone knows was born in southern Hawaii, can drop his g’s without any fear of embarrassing himself.

Whereas Hillary Clinton, after all those years as a Yankee in Bubba’s Little Rock, wisely made no further forays into her husband’s patois after that disastrous day in Selma in March of ’07 when she sounded like Scarlett’s Mammy quoting Rev. James Cleveland’s hymm, “I don’t feel noways tired.”

There may be something in the sweet tea, because Rick Santorum’s accent during his victory speech on Tuesday night was a little more deep fried than usual.

And Obama, if you recall, talked about his love of biscuits and grits on the stump in ’08 – oh, but that was in Evansville, Indiana, where they’re not on the menu, so that wasn’t so much pandering as just confused.

In any case, I move that we give all office seekers a pass in this regard, because many of us who aren’t running for anything do the same thing.

via Why Romney’s grits are fried – She the People: – The Washington Post.

Well, I don’t think anyone should give them a pass.  This sort of thing is brazenly fake, condescending, and the flip side of mockery.  It testifies to authenticity and the lack thereof.

There’s always room at the Hilbert Hotel

I stumbled upon this series on mind-blowing math facts from a couple of years ago.  It’s by Cornell mathematician Steven Strogatz and treats things like the weirdness of pi, the quirks of probability, Zeno’s paradox, and some of the fun things you can do with calculus.

(Homeschoolers and other educators, take note:  Recovering mathematics and its different applications is urgently needed today and is the missing piece of a truly classical education.  We are doing things with the language part, the trivium, but we now must bring back the mathematics part, the quadrivium, which is far more than just Saxon math.  What Strogatz does here is show that math is far more than memorizing tables and working out problems, showing that it is wonderful, mysterious, philosophical, and imaginative, something that students need to realize.)

Anyway, here he treats the mathematics of infinity, along with the paradox that some sets are more infinite than others:

Some of its [infinity's] strangest aspects first came to light in the late 1800s, with Georg Cantor’s groundbreaking work on “set theory.” Cantor was particularly interested in infinite sets of numbers and points, like the set {1, 2, 3, 4,…} of “natural numbers” and the set of points on a line. He defined a rigorous way to compare different infinite sets and discovered, shockingly, that some infinities are bigger than others.

At the time, Cantor’s theory provoked not just resistance, but outrage. Henri Poincaré, one of the leading mathematicians of the day, called it a “disease.” But another giant of the era, David Hilbert, saw it as a lasting contribution and later proclaimed, “No one shall expel us from the Paradise that Cantor has created.”

My goal here is to give you a glimpse of this paradise. But rather than working directly with sets of numbers or points, let me follow an approach introduced by Hilbert himself. He vividly conveyed the strangeness and wonder of Cantor’s theory by telling a parable about a grand hotel, now known as the Hilbert Hotel.

It’s always booked solid, yet there’s always a vacancy.

For the Hilbert Hotel doesn’t merely have hundreds of rooms — it has an infinite number of them. Whenever a new guest arrives, the manager shifts the occupant of room 1 to room 2, room 2 to room 3, and so on. That frees up room 1 for the newcomer, and accommodates everyone else as well (though inconveniencing them by the move).

Now suppose infinitely many new guests arrive, sweaty and short-tempered. No problem. The unflappable manager moves the occupant of room 1 to room 2, room 2 to room 4, room 3 to room 6, and so on. This doubling trick opens up all the odd-numbered rooms — infinitely many of them — for the new guests.

Later that night, an endless convoy of buses rumbles up to reception. There are infinitely many buses, and worse still, each one is loaded with an infinity of crabby people demanding that the hotel live up to its motto, “There’s always room at the Hilbert Hotel.”

The manager has faced this challenge before and takes it in stride.

First he does the doubling trick. That reassigns the current guests to the even-numbered rooms and clears out all the odd-numbered ones — a good start, because he now has an infinite number of rooms available.

But is that enough? Are there really enough odd-numbered rooms to accommodate the teeming horde of new guests? It seems unlikely, since there are something like “infinity squared” people clamoring for these rooms. (Why infinity squared? Because there were an infinite number of people on each of an infinite number of buses, and that amounts to infinity times infinity, whatever that means.)

This is where the logic of infinity gets very weird.

via The Hilbert Hotel – NYTimes.com.

Does it ever.   Including a set of guests that there is no room for after all.  Read the whole post and the whole series (which is reportedly coming out as a book).

An interview about “Family Vocation”

Christianity Today interviewed Mary and me about our new book:

For Gene Edward Veith Jr., provost and professor of literature at Patrick Henry College, Martin Luther’s doctrine of vocation undergirds a truly Christian theology of the family. Vocation, as he describes it, is “the way God works through human beings.” In his latest book, Family Vocation: God’s Calling in Marriage, Parenting, and Childhood (Crossway), Veith looks to Luther’s ideals of loving and serving our neighbor, and to his view of the family as a “holy order” unto itself. Coauthored with daughter Mary J. Moerbe, a deaconess in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, the book applies Luther’s understanding to the various family vocations (marriage, parenthood, and childhood) and the “offices” within those vocations (husband, wife, father, mother, and child). Author and Her.meneutics blog contributor Caryn Rivadeneira spoke with father and daughter about Luther’s vision of family life.

Did writing this book together help you learn anything about your own family?

Veith: As I look back, I can see how God has been working through our family; how he brought Mary into her callings as wife and mother and everything else she does. Of course, that’s the part of vocation that is often forgotten: that God works through our vocations. God is present and active, and he works through fallen, weak, mistake-prone human beings to accomplish his purposes. It’s illuminating to see how even ordinary family life is really God’s working through us.

In terms of everyday life within the individual family offices, is there freedom to re-interpret or step outside of one’s roles?

Veith: We do say that there are roles within family. There is authority in family. But at the same time, Christian books tend to reduce things to, “Who has to obey whom?” It reduces roles to power relations, whereas the Scriptures and the doctrine of vocation teach that the purpose of every vocation is to love and serve your neighbor.

When we forget the mystery of how God works in vocation—that it’s about loving and serving—we end up with a legalistic set of rules. That’s what happens when the gospel is drained out of our view of vocation.

Moerbe: There’s also a tendency to oversimplify our understanding of vocation by prioritizing vocations. Yes, motherhood is great, and frankly, motherhood takes so much time that it’s often difficult to be active in a lot of other vocations. However, when I think about God being the source of vocations, he is Father, he is Son, and he is King. Do we say that God the Father is more important than God the King? No, he relates to us in different ways.

Veith: These differences make each vocation personal and unique. No two people have the same callings because no two people have the same neighbors, the same gifts, or the same tasks and opportunities.

You suggest that the proper and unique work of marriage is sexual intercourse. Can you explain?

Veith: Every vocation has its unique work, its defining work. Sex inside of marriage is sex according to God’s design, and thus sex becomes a good work within marriage.

Many of us are Victorian and prudish. It’s very uncomfortable to write about sex, but it’s so important. What the Bible says about sex inside of marriage is quite remarkable. It says we’re one flesh. There’s a mutuality: The husband doesn’t have control over his own body, but his wife does. And the wife doesn’t have control over her own body, but her husband does. Just the fact that the wife has control over the husband’s body was very radical in the ancient world. There is mutuality.

Indeed, the Bible says that sex is what creates marriage. The reason you’re not supposed to have sex with someone you’re not married to is because you’re not called to. You don’t have an authorization—it’s not part of your vocation—to have sex with someone you’re not married to, so it’s sinful.

Moerbe: Sex also reminds us that marriage is a vocation unlike other vocations. In marriage, you serve one neighbor. In parenthood, you might have more than one kid. If you work outside the home, there will be plenty of customers and plenty of co-workers. But marriage is unique in that it is one-on-one.

What do readers need to grasp about how the doctrine of vocation applies to family?

Moerbe: The message is simple: Love and serve your neighbor. Love and serve your family, not because of who is in your family, but because God is in your family. Christ is hidden behind our neighbors, and Christ is present with us in our neighbors.

UPDATE:  This was an hour-long conversation from which the reporter excerpted a few lines, often leaving out the context.  We do a lot with the concept of “one flesh,” which is intrinsic to marriage and parenthood in the family,and which Scripture discusses in term of sex.  We’re not saying that if someone has a sex with a prostitute then he is married to her, and we go on to say that one flesh unions can be broken.  One of the contributions of our book is to show why sex outside of marriage is wrong, beyond just breaking arbitrary rules.  We do consider the orders of creation, the fall, and the distinction between law and gospel.  And we do indeed say that marriage and family and everything we say about these callings are for non-Christians as well!

via Family as Calling: Finding Vocation In and Near the Home | Christianity Today | A Magazine of Evangelical Conviction.

Enough with the “war” metaphor

Charles Lane is sick of the “war” metaphor in political discourse, something all sides are doing:

The Democratic National Committee accuses the GOP of a “Republican War on Women,” to go along with its “war on working families” (according to the Progressive Change Campaign Committee) and “Paul Ryan’s war on seniors” (Democratic Rep. Jan Schakowsky).

Various Republicans accuse President Obama of waging “war on religious freedom” or even, in the words of Texas Gov. Rick Perry, “a war on religion.” According to the Republican National Committee, the president is also waging “war on energy,” the sequel, apparently, to what the House Republican Leadership has called “Democrats’ war on American jobs.”

Progressive author Chris Mooney called his book “The Republican War on Science”; not to be outdone, conservatives Grover Norquist and John R. Lott Jr. have published “Debacle: Obama’s War on Jobs and Growth.”

A Washington Times editorial warned Wisconsin taxpayers that “President Obama and the Democratic National Committee have declared war on you.” “Doonesbury” cartoonist Garry Trudeau observes that “[Rick] Santorum, [Rush] Limbaugh, et al. thought this would be a good time to declare war on half the electorate.”

And on and on and on — until you could almost lose sight of the fact that not one of these institutions or individuals is describing a physical conflict in which people fight, bleed and die.

There are, of course, plenty of real wars raging around the world; in some of them, Americans are dying. But the folks back home, busy with their election-year quarrels, have little interest in discussing such matters.

No, what the metaphor-mongers are referring to is political disagreement among citizens of the same democracy. And the last time I checked, most of those disagreements were being expressed through peaceful means — and neither side in any of these debates had a monopoly on the truth.

To be sure, we have been waging “war on” this or that for decades. America is such a diverse and disputatious country that war, actual or metaphorical, has been one of the few causes capable of bringing together its various factions, regions and races. That is why we had Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty, Richard Nixon’s war on drugs and a series of presidents’ war on cancer. Heck, even Jimmy Carter tried to convince us that saving energy was “the moral equivalent of war.”

These metaphors attempted to recast an abstract threat as a particular enemy, thereby rallying the country to a common effort.

That is totally different from what the professional polarizers who dominate today’s politics, and their respective media allies, are trying to achieve. . . .

For both parties, the goal is to encourage Americans to think of one another as enemies and, eventually, to hate and fear one another. Today’s “wars on” are all civil wars. . . .

Multiplied across the entire electorate, however, the effect may be more corrosive. To the extent that sensible citizens tune out politics, they abandon the field to people who are receptive to constant cries of war, war, war — people who are prepared to think of their opponents as enemies.

When you think of someone as an enemy, it’s harder to contemplate trusting, respecting or cooperating with him or her. Indeed, those behaviors start to look like treason, instead of what they really are: the minimum requirements of democratic life.

via In the war of words, we are all losing – The Washington Post.

War imagery is a staple of today’s Christian discourse too.  We have “worship wars,” “the battle for the Bible,” and, of course, the “culture wars.”   I’ve sometimes used that kind of language myself.

Is it appropriate sometimes?  Or does it short-circuit thought, riling people up and creating “enemies” while doing more harm than good?


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X