At sea

On the cruise just entering Glacier Bay.  We just saw some whales.  What luxury this ship offers.  I’m sure my ancestors never got above the orlop deck with the bilge water and the ballast.   But this is a dream.    Internet connection is very slow and–as one of you commenters helpfully and correctly informed us–VERY EXPENSIVE  (75 cents a minute!).   Plus, the carefree existence here keeps us insulated from all the bad news of the outside world.  So I don’t have much to say.   (I did catch a stock feed that informed me of how the economy is collapsing.)   Anyway, my posting might be irregular but I’ll do the best I can.  We disembark in Vancouver, Canada, the middle of next week.

Another economic collapse?

The stock market has nosedived 500 points and the economic indicators appear to be disastrous.

This, right after the debt ceiling agreement that supposedly allows the government to stay solvent by borrowing money while also cutting more than $2 trillion in government spending.

Could it be that Keynesian economics is right, that the government keeps the economy going through its spending and that cutting expenditures during a recession is exactly the wrong way to produce economic growth?  Or are the free marketers right and that the trillions in new debt will mean less money for productive investment?  Or, in the worst of all possible worlds, are both right?

Are there any policies the government should take that would actually help?  Or do we just need to let the cycle play out, even at the cost of another recession, or worse?

Marketing & consumer tastes

Economics columnist Steven Pearlstein goes off on how super-thick clam chowder has replaced the thinner, more authentic version that is much tastier.  In doing so, he makes some point about how markets actually work:  not so much by fulfilling a consumer preference but by getting consumers to change their preferences.  As when research showed that Americans like weak coffee, whereupon Starbucks–going in the opposite direction–taught Americans to like strong coffee.

My search for a decent bowl of clam chowder got me thinking about consumer preferences — how they are established, how they are reinforced by market competition and how they change over time.

One of my first calls was to Greg Carpenter, a marketing professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. Carpenter explained that the way most of us think and talk about market competition is based on something of a mythical model in which consumers know what they want in a product and companies engage in a continuous battle to satisfy those preferences with better and better offerings.

In fact, Carpenter says, most of our preferences are learned and largely formed by social norms and expectations that producers have a strong hand in shaping. Moreover, such preferences are anything but fixed, susceptible to changes in technology, culture, fads and the business strategies of companies competing in the marketplace.

Our notion of what a “family car” ought to be used to be a station wagon. Then it was the family van. Now it is an SUV.Or take coffee. For a long time, the market and all the consumer research suggested that Americans preferred weak coffee, and there were basically a handful of coffee companies, led by Folgers and Maxwell House, that offered products within a narrow range to provide it. Of course, that was until Starbucks came along and demonstrated that maybe our preference for weak coffee wasn’t as fixed as everyone thought.

Our wine preferences have also developed along lines that have caught the industry by surprise. According to Alexander Chernev, another Kellogg marketing professor, the conventional wisdom was that wine was an “aspirational” product that allowed people to see themselves as worldly and sophisticated. In that context, people tended to prefer wines produced in good years from small vineyards in France or the Napa Valley, where everyone knew the best wines were made.

At some point, however, Yellowtail and a few other Australian wines entered the market not only with new products but with a new social context for thinking about wine. Their idea was to relieve consumers of what for many was really the burden of having to know more about vintages and vineyards and grapes than they really did, or really wanted to, and then going through the hassle of wrestling the cork out of the bottle. Instead, they offered a standard chardonnay or pinot in screw-top bottles. What was once a wine negative — commonness, ubiquity — suddenly became a positive.

via Consumer conformity: Why we like thick clam chowder (and other inferior products) – The Washington Post.

What lesson could the church growth movement–which uses marketing research and marketing techniques to try to appeal to more religious consumers and to get them to come to a particular church–learn from this principle?

The inevitability of libertarianism

George Will reviews The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What’s Wrong with America by Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch.  They argue that, what with our new technology and all, libertarianism will inevitably become  the dominant political and economic ideology:

“Confirmation bias” is the propensity to believe news that confirms our beliefs. Gillespie and Welch say that “existence bias” disposes us to believe that things that exist always will. The authors say that the most ossified, sclerotic sectors of American life — politics and government — are about to be blown up by new capabilities, especially the Internet, and the public’s wholesome impatience that is encouraged by them.

“Think of any customer experience that has made you wince or kick the cat. What jumps to mind? Waiting in multiple lines at the Department of Motor Vehicles. Observing the bureaucratic sloth and lowest-common-denominator performance of public schools, especially in big cities. Getting ritually humiliated going through airport security. Trying desperately to understand your doctor bills. Navigating the permitting process at your local city hall. Wasting a day at home while the gas man fails to show up. Whatever you come up with, chances are good that the culprit is either a direct government monopoly (as in the providers of K-12 education) or a heavily regulated industry or utility where the government is the largest player (as in health care).” . . .

A generation that has grown up with the Internet “has essentially been raised libertarian,” swimming in markets, which are choices among competing alternatives.

And the left weeps. Preaching what has been called nostalgianomics, liberals mourn the passing of the days when there was one phone company, three car companies, three television networks, and an airline cartel, and big labor and big business were cozy with big government.

via Declaration of independents – The Washington Post.

I tend to be suspicious of claims that the triumph of a certain ideology is inevitable.  The communists tried that.  But it does seem like libertarianism will have a shot, once it disentangles itself from the other parties.  Democrats tend to be libertarian when it comes to moral issues, but traditionalist big government advocates when it comes to economics.  Republicans tend to be libertarian when it comes to economics but traditionalists when it comes to moral issues.   A winning ticket in this culture would probably be libertarian when it comes to government, economics AND morality.  Not that I’m for that.  I’m waiting for a political movement to be traditional in government (that is, one with strength and authority but that knows its limits, like the traditional conservatives were always working for), economics (some attention to national interests)  AND morality.   But I wouldn’t count on that being ascendant any time soon.

I know some of you are libertarians, but Christian libertarians.  Does your Christianity keep you from believing in the progress towards a utopia that this book seems to herald?

If the book is right, what would a libertarian society and political order look like?   And what problems would it introduce?

Schism in Lutheran charities

The Associated Press has a good and remarkably objective story on how the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (LCMS) is stopping its co-operation with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) in military chaplaincy and charity work.  From journalist Rachel Zoll:

The latest casualty of the long-running Protestant conflicts over the Bible and homosexuality is a massive network of social service agencies that work in areas ranging from adoption to disaster relief.

The theologically conservative Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod announced this week that direct work with its larger and more liberal counterpart, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, has become “difficult if not impossible,” because of doctrinal differences, including the 2009 decision by liberal Lutherans to lift barriers for ordaining gays and lesbians.

Neither denomination would discuss the potential financial impact Wednesday. Many Lutheran-affiliated agencies receive substantial state and federal money through contracts and grants that would not be directly affected by any split. However, similar to Catholic Charities, Lutheran agencies are some of the biggest service providers in their communities and have been struggling to meet increased demand for help during the recession.

Just one of the joint Lutheran agencies, Lutheran Services in America, said on its website that it encompasses more than 300 health and human services organizations with a combined annual budget of more than $16 billion.

“We recognize that this is a difficult issue. It’s complicated,” said the Rev. Herb Mueller, first vice president of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, based in St. Louis. “We’re trying to take a nuanced and caring approach to all of these situations that’s also faithful to what the Bible teaches on these issues.”

The Rev. Donald McCoid, an ecumenical officer for the Chicago-based Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, said, “we are deeply concerned about the ministries of care that may be challenged by the recent action of The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.”

The Lutherans are among several church groups facing fallout over recent steps toward accepting same-sex relationships. The Episcopal Church caused an uproar among fellow Anglicans worldwide in 2003 by consecrating the first openly gay bishop, V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire. Just this month, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) formally lifted the celibacy requirement for unmarried clergy, striking down an obstacle to gay and lesbian ordination.

The situation for Lutherans differed in that decades of splits and mergers had already largely divided the religious community along theological lines. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, with about 4.5 million members, was formed from church bodies with Danish, Finnish, German and Swedish backgrounds. The merger that led to its latest incarnation occurred in 1988.

Yet, even with separate denominations, Lutherans continued to work together in a wide range of joint ministries such as Lutheran Disaster Response, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service and Lutheran World Relief. Among the cooperative agencies are organizations that offer health care to senior citizens, support for the disabled, job training, tutoring and housing, along with finding homes for foster children. Mueller said in an interview that 81 of the 120 recognized service organizations of the Missouri Synod cooperate in some way with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Twenty-two of the agencies offer adoption services or foster care, he said.

The 2.3 million-member Missouri Synod has been studying the issue for more than a year through its Committee on Theology and Church Relations. This week, the panel issued a 15-page document of guidelines for churches, congregants and ministries on how they should decide whether to continue direct joint work with the Chicago-based Lutherans.

The only immediate announced break was for the Missouri Synod to stop its practice of training military chaplains with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. The president of the Missouri Synod, the Rev. Matthew Harrison, said in a statement that the decision, effective next year, was based on the ELCA decision on gay ordination, and on the military’s plan to repeal the “don’t ask, don’t tell,” policy. The two denominations had trained military chaplains together for decades, but

However, the guidelines for evaluating the joint relationships made it clear that cooperative work in many of the agencies is likely to end.

via Gay split causes upheaval for Lutheran charities – Faith and Values – TheState.com.

Why can’t the two denominations work together to deliver relief for earthquake victims and the like, just because they differ about homosexuality?  Explain.

Alaska report

As I said we’d be, we are in Alaska.  This land is vast.  This one state is a fifth the size of all of the others put together.   It’s not only the northernmost state and the westernmost state, it is the easternmost state, since some of the Aleutian islands stretch into the Eastern hemisphere.  And much of this land is virtually inaccessible.  If you look at a road atlas of Alaska, you will see one red highway like an artery circling around the middle of the state, plus some capillaries around Anchorage.  And that’s about all the highways there are.  (You will also see a road headed up to the far north.  That’s the one featured on Ice Road Truckers.)  You can’t even drive to the state capital.  The only way into Juneau is by ship or by plane.  The main way to get to the little towns and other sites in the vast northland is to fly there.  In Anchorage you can see huge parking lots of private planes, some of them ancient little Piper Cubs, plus float planes in the lakes docked at the piers like boats.

The parents of a former student have been very, very gracious in showing us around.  We went two hours inland into the mountains and hiked on a glacier.   One might think that a glacier would be like a sheet of ice, smooth like a skating rink.  In reality, as we learned, the surface of a glacier is utterly irregular, with slants and hills and holes and streams and crevasses.  Also patches of rocks and silt as well as ice that is sometimes white, sometimes clear, and sometimes an eery glowing blue.  You had to watch every step.  It was extreme hiking.

Thanks to our guides to Anchorage for your hospitality, for your driving, and for your bringing  such adventure into our usually humdrum lives!  Later today we get on the ship!


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