By What Authority?

Many years ago, Clemson University briefly hosted a visiting economics professor from Russia who had emigrated because he was Jewish and felt unwelcome there.  He visited some of our classes to talk about life under communism.  One student asked whether the people of the USSR didn’t want more freedom.  No, he said. I think most people prefer to be told what to do, think and believe. 

Surely not, I thought. Some people, yes, but not most. Maybe the Soviet Union is different,  having had little experience of anything but authoritarian governments. Bur psychological research confirms that there are people who are drawn to authoritarians, seeking out authority in religion, or customs, or laws. They stick to familiar gender roles and resist diversity—whether in race, politics, sexual or gender orientation, religion, or just about anything else. They gravitate to authority figures in politics, join cults, listen only to select media, and blindly follow doctors’ orders—even that last one is not always a good thing.  In response to authoritarians moving into silos and echo chambers, those of us who do not share their worldview are driven to seek safety and affirmation by building our own silos and listening only to our own echo chambers.

I (and I imagine my readers) tend to think that authority must be earned and tested against our own values and perceptions.  But reading Anne Applebaum’s Twilight of Democracy, I am apparently in a minority.  I like diversity.  I try to seek out and listen to  other viewpoints in order to reflect more deeply on my own.  The same is true of my family members and most of my close friends. But the facts suggest we are a minority, or at worst, a silent and ineffective majority attempting to hold back the tidal waves of history. Worldwide, authoritarian regimes are taking power and stamping out resistance once they gain it by whatever means, including stealing elections and gaining control of the media. Emmanuel Macron and Volodymyr Zelenskyy are the exceptions, not the rule.

The division of society into  liberal-conservative, Republican-Democrat, religious-secular, and other binary categories is quite different from  this particular tension between authoritarians and libertarians. I do not use the term libertarian in it more recent sense of pro-free market and anti-government, but rather in the sense of questioning authority and looking for common ground between two extremes. I describe myself as both pro-life and pro-choice, pro-market and pro-government, each with their particular strengths and weaknesses and more useful as partners than opponents.  I look with sympathy and gratitude on those Republicans who are pro-free market but anti-authoritarian like Susan Collins. Lisa Murkowski, and Mitt Romney.

I am somewhere on the spectrum from pessimism to hope to optimism between the latter two. My inborn optimism has retreated to hope. But theologian Joanna Macy reminds us that hope by itself is not worth much unless it is activist hope.  Pessimism is just giving up.  Optimism is the unjustified belief, like Dr. Pangloss in Candide, that “all is [or will be} for the best in this best of all possible worlds.” Active hope is the most powerful response. Those of us who truly believe in democracy have to earn it by resistance and support.  We need to be “woke” not just to the sufferings of the oppressed but to the very real threats to tear down what protections they already have in our laws, our courts, our constitution that are now all under attack.

Where is the resistance? In the 1950s (actually 1949) there was Orwell’s 1984. In the1960s there was a Broadway play by Ionescu called Rhinoceros.  Each cast member gradually turned into a rhinoceros, following the herd, trying to conform. In the 1970s, it was The Stepford Wives .Then the anti-authoritarianism that is another deep current in American culture turned to folk music and sitcoms on the wave of civil rights, the women’s movement, and environmentalism. Since 1980, however, the tide has steadily turned, to push back,the fragmenting a society, culture and economy that had previously been perceived (inaccurately) as a unified nation (or plantation) peacefully overseen by old wealthy white men.

Where and how do we begin to revive the resistance?  Free and fair elections historically have been the most common casualty of the rise of authoritarianism around the world,aided by control of the media.T

here is a rich array of electoral tools forged in the Jim Crow era and enhanced by modern technology and gerrymandered state legislatures to suppress the vote, purge the rolls, limit access to the polls, discourage mail in ballots, and target those voters least likely to support their party and its candidates—poor, people of color, young people. Carol Anderson’s One Person, No Vote offers, a powerful account of these methods of undermining democratic elections in the last 50 years .  But there are also stories of hope. Anderson tells the story of one Native American community that resisted efforts to keep them from voting, with election officials using as a pretext the  lack of suitable IDs and mailing addresses.  A labor-intensive volunteer effort overcame those obstacles, provided everyone with a legal street address, ensured that tribal IDs were accepted, and reclaimed their right to vote.

What can you do to push back against the tide?

What ever happened to money?

Bitcoin, as most of you know, is a way of making payments and storing financial assets that escapes the oversight of governments (at least so far) because it is a digital currency that rests in virtual world. Creating bitcoin takes real resources with significant consequences for the health and well being of humans and the earth’s climate.  It expends enormous amounts of electricity to “mine” the components of the bitcoins, which are crated on giant computers located in “mining” cities near cheap electricity.  The electricity used could be put to far more important ventures, while creating a block of bitcoin greatly enriches its creators. The market price of a bitcoin is currently over $40,000.

Recently a team of economists estimated the costs of producing bitcoin that are imposed on people other than the owners/creators.  The primary cost to creators is the amortization of the capital equipment required and the electricity and workers to produce it. The costs in increased mortality, climate change, and health damages from these operations amount to 37-49% of the coin’s value, depending on where the production is located. However, those costs are not borne by the producer, but by the rest of us. They are what economists call externalities.  Noise and air and water pollution are familiar examples of externalities.  Because the owners do not have to pay these external costs in the absence of regulation, they will overproduce goods and services that create negative externalities.

The process used by economists to determine those numbers is called cost-benefit analysis. Economists add up the costs of producing X and the benefits of producing X and either subtract the costs from the benefits or take the ratio of benefits to costs to determine whether a project is worthwhile.  When used in public sector projects, like building a highway or creating a new park, all costs and benefits are included, so the externalities are part of the cost.  For a private firm, however, the decision makers only include the costs they actually have to pay.  The purpose of much regulation, especially environmental regulation, is to require that the firm bear those costs as well—sometimes known as full-cost pricing. Bitcoin is not regulated and does not bear these costs..

The bitcoin industry is gulping up huge amounts of electric power, and that electric power creates significant externalities in its production, especially if it is derived from fossil fuels. In the Christian Bible there is a famous quotation: “The love of money is the root of all evil.”  (I Timothy 6:10.) I’m pretty sure the author of this quotation could not foresee bitcoins, but he certainly would have supported the idea that producing a form of money that does great harm to innocent bystanders—humans, animals, earth—while greatly enriching its creator would be a clear application of the evil that money can do..

The Cheerful Taxpayer

Income Tax Day, for many years March 15th, is now in April.  It would have fallen on the 15th except that Emancipation Day was a legal holiday in the nation’s capital, so tax filing was deferred to Easter Monday, which isn’t a holiday in very many places.

Many years ago, I was team teaching an introductory economics class with my dean, with whom I coauthored a principles textbook.  In the first class I asked them what words came to mind that they associated with economics.  One of them said, taxes. My co-author immediately responded with “taxation is theft”—a classic libertarian response.  I quoted Oliver Wendell Holmes:  “Taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society.” In a later reprise of this incident  with another conservative colleague,  he said, “The price is too high,” I responded “…or perhaps, the amount of civilization we get is too low.” Most of us may share the sentiments of  a less noted philosopher, the late Senator Russell Long, who is famous for observing that most people’s idea of a good tax system is “Don’t tax you. Don’t tax me. Tax that man there under the tree.”

So, what is a fair way to tax people?  Historically, there are three ways to tax. The government can tax what we earn, what we spend, or what we own.  These three are known as income taxes, sales and use taxes, and property or wealth taxes.   It’s a good idea to have more than one way to tax, because it’s not hard to evade one but very difficult to evade all three. FYI, tax evasion is illegal. That’s how Al Capone wound up in jail. )Tax avoidance, however,  is perfectly legal—another quote from Oliver Wendell Holmes, “There is nothing illegal in a man (sic} so arranging his affairs in order to minimize his taxes.” There is also a gray area that might be described in Brooklyn speech as tax “avoision.” More damaging to the revenue system than evasion, avoidance, or avoision ,is aversion, which is a resistance to paying taxes in order to fund government services.  The result is underfunding of the Social Security system and looming and accumulating budget deficits that become an excuse for reducing public services.

When I used to teach taxation in undergraduate classes, I reminded them of Scrooge McDuck (a reference that would be lost on most contemporary students). He spent nothing, did not have a job, and simply held an enormous amount of wealth. If he invested it he would at least, so he paid no sales taxes or social security taxes. Perhaps he had to pay income taxes on his investment earnings—it was never clear in the comic strip how he became so rich. Current proposals suggest a billionaires’ tax aimed at what people own rather than just what they earn.  Scrooge McDuck would be in trouble.

 There’s also a fourth source of government revenue, fees for public services, from admission to parks and highway tolls to tuition at public colleges and city water and sewer services. These fees have become increasingly popular as an alternative because people feel they have some control over consumption, but they also tend to be very regressive (= take a larger share of income from those at the bottom of the scale).

Since April is the month for income tax, let’s concentrate on that kind of tax for the rest of this post. The federal government required a constitutional amendment (the 16th) to institute an income tax in 1916. The rates became steeply progressive during World War II and gradually cruised back down with a series of tax legislation that widened brackets and reduced rates.  The most recent such bill was Trump’s highly touted tax cut that was heavily slanted toward the wealthy.

The average American paid 13.3 percent of adjusted gross income n federal income taxes in 2019.  A second important tax on income for those who are working is the Social Security Tax, which is 6.2 percent of earnings each for employer and employee, or 12.4 percent for a self-employed person.  Unlike the income tax, there is a cap on the amount of one’s earned income that is subject to Social Security tax, earnings of up to $147,000. For poorer households that have limited income derived entirely from wage earnings, the Social Security tax is clearly regressive.  

Only 19 percent of Americans, including many entry-level workers and retirees, paid neither type of income or wage  tax. As we have reduced reliance on the income tax (but not the Social Security tax), the tax system as a whole–federal, state, and local—has become increasingly regressive. At the same time, in part because of the tax system, the distribution of income and wealth has become increasingly unequal.

If we want a civilized society, one that provides a safety net for those going through difficult times and a certain basic amount of security from disasters, misfortunes, and other hazards of human life, we have to be willing to pay or fair share without demonizing those who turn to the government to see them through those difficult times. So ,pay your taxes with as much cheer as you can muster and be grateful to live in a country that tries to respond to the needs of its citizens, or at least its voters. We are all in this together.  Or for a final quote from a famous American, Ben Franklin, “We must all hang together or we will all hang separately.”

More Than One Principle

More Than One Principle

I have been reading two interesting books on the evolution of 20th century American economics in the late 20th century that have confirmed some of my worst suspicions of the harm that has been done by my profession. One was Democracy in Chains by Nancy McLean, a history of the growth of the anti-government public choice school.  The other is The Economists’ Hour by Binyamin Applebaum, a history of the growing influence of monetarism and market-worship  and its influence on public policy. It would be a shame if these books were read only by economists, because their critiques are very discouraging about the future of our democracy, our society, and our economy.

As an economist, I was assured by my mentors and colleagues that our profession was value-free, merely a set of tools for making decisions. We told our students in lectures and textbooks that there were six measures of a well-functioning economy: efficiency, equity, and freedom for microeconomics and  growth, price stability, and full employment for macroeconomics. But when push came to shove, the pursuit of some of these indicators trumped the others, suggesting that they were not neutral measures of performance but in fact values that should guide our economic policies.

Efficiency and freedom trumped equity, price stability and growth trumped full employment. Over time, those priorities have resulted in low inflation, and growing inequality.  Growth, supposedly, would resolve that conflict.  In the Kennedy years, the favorite saying was “A rising tide lifts all boats.” And one dissident remarked, “but not those already under water.”  One might reasonably ask whose interests were served by that rank ordering. The law is on the side of the rich. Or, ,as Anatole France wryly observed, “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal their bread.”  

Who gains from freedom? Those who have the most control over resources, who want to be able to  use them as they see fit.  Who gains from efficiency? Those who control the increased profits resulting from greater efficiency. Who gains from equity? The rest of us.  Who gains from growth? Despite trickle-down and supply-side theories, there is no mechanism that ensures that the gains from economic growth will be widely shared across all sectors of society.  Price stability is highly prized by those who are lenders or owners of other financial assets, but a bit of inflation reduces the burden on debtors. Full employment empowers workers, but a “reserve army of the unemployed” (to borrow a phrase from Karl Marx) ensures  that the labor market will favor the owners over the workers.  What happens when unemployment is low? Well, for one thing, Amazon loses a union election!  And wages rise, as we have observed in the last six months, as employers have to compete for a dwindling supply of workers.

Who loses from creating mistrust in government, promotion of individualism rather than community, demonizing the poor and undermining democracy? Ultimately, all of us.  Economics has become a very short-sighted profession whose cost-benefit analysis does not lend itself to the promotion of peace, equality, democracy, environmental sustainability, and trust in one another, our institutions, and even our survival.

It was not always so.  As late as the 1960s, economics affirmed all six of those goals as qualified positives along with a need to find a balance in tradeoffs among them.  The government was seen, not as a power-hungry monster but rather as the check on the excesses of capitalism, a balancing mechanism that guaranteed access to the basic necessities of life and opportunity for all who were willing to work. No, it was not a golden age by any means, particularly in is failings of racism and sexism. But it was an era when the best minds went into science, engineer, medicine, teaching and other helping professions, not into finance.  As poet William Wordsworth observed, “Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.” Perhaps it is time to reclaim our society from the economists and restore the pursuit of material wealth to its proper sphere as a means to an end rather than an end in itself.

Weaponizing Capitalism

In my freshman year in college, I fell in love with economics and switched my major.  Like my friend and fellow economist Scott in a different time and place, I felt Aha! This is a tool that can be used to make the world a better place.  It is, indeed, a very useful tool.  But economics can also lead to worship of the golden calf and become an alternative religion. I have always  found that disturbing. Not only does greed fuel the system, but greed itself, or at least a narrow self-interest, becomes a virtue.  (Remember Gordon Gecko and Greed is good?) Like Putin’s Russia, a capitalist system requires government constraints to keep it from an unbalanced concentration of wealth and power in the hands of the few (or as Russians say, the oligarchs).   

I held firmly to that view until 2022, but I confess that I am quite ready to make an exception. Capitalism is famous for its ability to innovate and turn around more rapidly than the cumbersome bureaucracy of government, as this nation learned when Henry Ford’s assembly line in World War II was retrofitted  to switch from producing cars to turning out planes.  Capitalism, dedicated to the accumulation of wealth, found the Achilles’ heel of the Russian system  to create a new nonlethal weapon of war, using the greed of the Russian oligarchs to undermine support inside Russia for the Ukraine war.

The initial Western response to the unprovoked invasion of Ukraine was to turn to conventional economic weapons along with arms and humanitarian aid.  Sanctions, which had been used with relatively little effect in Iran, included freezing government assets held abroad.  Many foreign business  firms ceased to do business in or with Russia. NATO countries reluctantly upped the ante by refusing to buy Russian oil and gas, a major Russian industry. Other nations cut off credit to the Russian government and to private borrowers inside Russia, including those who depended on their American and European issued credit cards. Russia was disconnected from the international banking system.  The ruble fell sharply, the central bank was unable to function, and the Russian financial system , tightly linked to the rest of the world through SWIFT and networks of lenders and borrowers, was reduced to as much rubble as the streets of Kyiv.

Those economic weapons were powerful tools, but they were not enough to dissuade Putin from focusing on his mission—to restore Russia to the good old days of the czars, territory included. The newest economic weapon is customized to Russia, although it could be useful elsewhere.  That nonlethal weapon is to seize the assets of the supporters of the government, the oligarchs who flaunt their wealth in yachts and villas and a sumptuous lifestyle financed by billions in ill-gotten assets stashed around the world. Governments in NATO nations and elsewhere are seizing those assets.  It is relatively easy to hide financial assets, although it has become harder when banks have been cooperating with governments to identify Russian-owned assets.  But it’s hard to hide a villa in Italy, or a yacht, or a personal jet airplane.  The extravagant toys that were the reason for oligarchs to support and enable Putin have become a means to detach many of these oligarchs from his side.

Putin has managed to restore the Western alliance, bankrupt his country, and alienate his support among the military and his wealthy friends.  He has made heroes of Ukrainians and their president. So on this side of the ocean, I suggest two cheers for capitalism for its contribution of creativity and innovation in combatting this unjust war, but still withholding a third cheer withheld to acknowledge the inequality and concentration of wealth and power that the market system has allowed to flourish here at home.

Original Sin and Original Blessing: Why Does It Matter?

Ever since the earliest days of Christianity, there has been theological dissension over the nature of humans–whether humans are born bad who must be redeemed or whether we are born good, created in the image of God. It’s an important question, but framing it as binary or absolutes misses the point.  We humans like certainty, absolutes, right-wrong, good-bad, all those binaries that enable us to choose the “right” side of an argument.  The  most defensible  answer to the question of what is inborn, based on observation, is that we are all born with the capacity for good and evil in varying combinations, and our life circumstances and experiences may tip us in one direction or the other.

I take my philosophy from Aristotle and the golden mean, that every virtue lies between two vices, its opposite and its extreme, and we all find ourselves lying somewhere on that spectrum in our own thinking and behavior. I also take my philosophy from statistics, because I am more economist than theologian, and in statistics, most of a population lies within one or two standard deviations of the mean.  A little bit brave and a little bit cowardly, or a little bit brave and a little bit foolhardy. Generous on some days and stingy on others. Kind to our friends but not to our enemies.  Accepting of people who look and talk and think like us, less tolerant of those who are different.

When we choose to create a public policy that maximizes safety and security, we lean to the original sin view of humankind, like the harsh anti-crime measures passed in the Clinton administration  The result has not been redemption, but overcrowded prisons, convictions that are or should be overturned, and no rehabilitation. Released back into society with no skills and unable to find a job or housing, many of these people wind up back in jail after release, affirming the conviction that some people are just born bad. (If you haven’t seen the original or new version of West Side Story, this dilemma is the basis for one of the best songs in the movie and play, the one about Officer Krupke.)

A policy based on redemption would probably make the opposite error and turn some irredeemable people loose to do more harm—remember the Willie Horton ads devised by Lee Atwater for the 1988  presidential campaign?  Both sides of the debate want to limit the discretion of judges, because the same offense gets widely different sentences depending on the judge. But they can’t agree on guidelines that meet their polar opposite views of humanity.

The harm done by binary thinking is not just about crime. It’ is also, for example, about whether people will be motivated to work for a living if the government provides them too much, or whether they will be unemployable or unable to earn an adequate living if the government gives them too little (education, health care, access to decent housing). That abstruse theological debate about original sin and original blessing lies behind many of our public policy dilemmas.

It is the task of democratic process to honor both of those views , each of which contains a grain of truth, and to craft policies that empower and encourage the best in each of us while constraining the worst.  We can begin that process by examining our own conception of original sin, original blessing, and the possibility of redemption.

The End of Hibernation?

February 1st or 2nd is an ancient Celtic holiday.  Since my DNA test informed me that I am 40% Celtic (a mix of Scottish, Irish and Welsh), I have taken increased interest in the eight holidays on the Celtic Wheel of the Year.  It is divided by four earth holidays and four sky holidays, beginning with Samhain (Hallowe’en),.the Celtic New Year. It is followed by Yul at the winter solstice, Imbolc at the beginning of February, Ostara at the Spring equinox, Beltain the first of May, Litha at the summer solstice, Lughnasadh or Lammas the first of August, and Mabon at the vernal equinox.  Since the Celts were all over Europe, if your ancestry is at least partly European, you probably have at least a few drops of Celtic blood in your veins as well.

Imbolc mean’s ewe’s milk, or lambing time, as a harbinger of spring.  In ancient times it was a housecleaning day, removing all the greens (or browns!) left over from Yul and re-lighting the housefires in anticipation of spring. If you haven’t finished taking down your Christmas decorations, this is the time! It is also celebrated as Saint Brigid’s Day, an Irish saint whose previous incarnation was as the great Goddess in her maiden state (the others being the mother and the crone).

This holiday survives in an odd but appropriate way in Groundhog Day. There are lots of ways to celebrate, but I am intrigued with a holiday that celebrates housecleaning as well as the end of hibernation. Or not, depending on what Punxsutawney Phil has to say. (If you have been doing a lot of hibernating, chances are your cave needs a thorough airing out!)  We have been in a COVID-induced hibernation for almost two years now, but this Imbolc is special because we hear increasing forecasts of a steady (or rapid!) downturn in the pandemic in the next month or so.  Regardless of whether the groundhog sees his shadow, we need to prepared ourselves to re-enter a post-COVID world that has changed dramatically in these two years.

Perhaps by Ostara on (appropriately) March 20th, we can figure out what is our own new normal.  It will  definitely involve more hybrid meetings,  more working from home, and less travel. It is likely that many of us adopted habits during the pandemic that involve more solitude and found that we liked those new habits better.  Many people changed their minds about working and consumerism.  We all learned to be aware of the balance we choose between safety and risk and the implications of our choices for those with whom we come in contact. We have a new appreciation for the difference between encountering one another on Zoom and in person.  We recognize the fragility of some of our cherished institutions, especially religious and social organizations that have struggled to survive quarantining.

I am always drawn to the idea of new beginnings. I’m up for celebrating not just the turning of the calendar on January 1st but also Chinese New Year,  April Fool’s day (from the calendar change that moved the new year back to January), a new year of my life every July 1st, a new school year, Jewish and Celtic new year, and for traditional Christians, a new year that begins with Advent four weeks before Christmas.

This year I want to celebrate a new year on March 20th that will hopefully mark a change in the way we spend our days and invest our time and resources in what matters most to us. From Groundhog Day to Ostara can be a Celtic Lent in which to assess, prepare, and plan for the post-pandemic world.  How will your way of being in the world be different after Ostara? What kinds of housecleaning are needed to make that happen?

COVID Claims Another Victim

We all know about the many individuals (and families) impacted by the two years of COVID19.  We also know about its harmful effects on some of our cherished business firms and  institutions.  Public schools and colleges and their students and teachers, because learning is enriched by the presence of one another. Team sports. Hospitals.Governments. Nursing homes filled with frail and elderly people isolated in pandemic-induced lockdowns.  The travel industry. Restaurants.

There is another critcal group of social institutions that have been largely suffering in silence.  They are what sociologists call “mediating structures”—voluntary and nonprofit organizations that thrive on direct human contact and wither and die in a virtual world.  Faith communities, civic organizations, and volunteer-dependent nonprofits have all withered and decayed during the era of Zoom.  In fairness to Zoom, it has also empowered participation by those who can’t get out to be physically present, a gain that will continue into the post-pandemic era.  Fueled by COVID, Zoom has also powered networks across distances and enabled the creation of virtual communities, like the statewide working groups on specific issues (health care, environment, public education) that I have been mentoring on behalf of the state League of Women Voters. But on balance, there seems to be more loss than gain.

My faith community, despite two years of increasingly creative virtual services and innovative ways of engaging families with children, has lost members, attendance, and financial support, and many of those lost are unlikely to return after two years.  That is true of many congregations, which are sustained by bonds of mutual support that are nurtured by direct contact and chance encounters at worship, a potluck, or other gatherings that bring people together in one room.  I am also a member of a lifelong learning community and a civic community, both of which have relied on virtual meetings and have experienced steadily declining attendance and members.

I have long been fascinated by the somewhat obscure statistical concept of Type I and Type 2 error.  A choice to play it safe and minimize risk (Type 2 error)  is by default a way to increase the likelihood of missing good outcomes (Type 1 error). That set of choices lies behind the confusing and ever-changing signals from the CDC and others about how to keep both safety and community alive during a pandemic. Most choices are not binary, but more nuanced, finding the right point along a continuum.

I am a cautious risk taker. I am fully vaccinated and boosted, wear a mask in groups, prefer open-air encounters or small groups of the also-vaccinated. But when offered a choice of how to attend a a worship service, a committee meeting, a social or organizational gathering, or a class, I almost always opt for the in-person version. My physical presence will make a difference to others and their physical presence matters to me. As the pandemic wanes (it will never disappear entirely), please consider what social institutions you need and that need you, and promise to return. These organizations are an integral part of the social fabric in which we affirm our need for personal encounters and mutual support. Go to church. Coach a team. Volunteer at a food bank. Take a class in person. 

My daughter Carla, a singer-songwriter, wrote a funny pandemic song about how the patriotic thing to do was to sit on you a__ and do nothing.  There was a time for that. Now it is time to carefully rebalance safety and community, and the task is  urgent.  Stay safe. Be present.  If you are vaccinated and boosted, wear a mask, and pick your venues, you can do both. You, our communities, and our nation will be enriched and strengthened by your active engagement.

Be Proud of Your Humility

For a long time, I thought that there were just four virtuous attitudes, or habits of the heart (hope, faith, love, and gratitude), that  would guide us to the course of right action.  And then I had an epiphany (just in time for the season, since January 6th is the Epiphany with a capital E). If Pride, or as it was previously called, Vainglory, is the queen of the deadly sins, then it must have an opposite, a virtue that holds it in check. That virtue is humility. Humility is the hardest of all virtues to cultivate, because it requires owing up to your shortcomings and limitations.  It’s also the most liberating, because it means that not everything is your responsibility. Lacking all of Superman’s powers, you are not called on to exercise your superpowers 24/7 on behalf of all those in need or aid, wisdom, or sustenance. That awareness frees you to do jigsaw puzzles or watch ESPN or the new season of Bridgerton without guilt,  knowing that you have done the best you could with the gifts and skills that you do have.

If you are a bit late on your list of New Year’s resolutions, let me suggest that cultivating humility might be a good addition to the list. Humility is a partner with gratitude for the gifts and good deeds and kindness of others in making up for our deficiencies or coming to our aid in times of need—which, humbly speaking, we do all experience.

How do we cultivate humility? It was pretty easy growing up with parents, siblings, teachers, coaches and sometimes preachers to remind us of our deficiencies.  I may have been an academic superstar in elementary school, but I got C’s in penmanship, and I discovered my limited ability to visualize in three dimensions in courses like solid geometry, engineering drawing, and third semester calculus.  I was pretty sure that I was rhythmically challenged when I struggled to learn to type, a deficiency confirmed by flunking my rhythm test in freshman PE in college.  But once we have gone through the discovery process of figuring out what our gifts and talents are and which ones we lack, and been through an employment experience or two that helped us to define what we were and were not, we are left on our own to practice and cultivate humility.

An inventory might help.  Start with a list of things you do well, and those that you don’t do well but admire in those who can. I am good at leadership, writing, and teaching. I am not good at most sports, or art, although it helps me to reinforce humility by participating in both. I am an adequate singer and cook, and a struggling gardener with much to learn. I have lots of outlets for lessons in humility. It is too easy to spend all my time doing things I am at least pretty good at, and avoiding those I am not. Sometimes that’s a good thing. When I was musing one day about how I could help as a volunteer at our nursing home across the street, I thoughts I might be able to help in the dining room. My friend Cynthia, who knew the limits of my patience, said”Do the old folks a favor. Don’t help in the dining room. Find something else. She was right. I now happily engage in fund-raising efforts for the volunteers to provide additional experiences and services for the residents. Other times I resist that challenge to my self esteem. On one of those occasion I complained to my daughter Carla, who offered two great words of advice:”Stretch, Mom!”

I treasure the story my late friend Bob, who was a very talented bridge player but musically challenged, told about his attempts to stretch. He had good rhythm, lousy pitch.I have the opposite challenge. As an adequate but not particularly talented member of two church choirs, I managed to do not too much damage to the alto line One day Bob decided to join a local band in a nearby town and learn to play the trumpet. He was awful.  He gave it a good try and then returned, duly humbled,  to his quest to become a bridge life master. It was good for his balanced sense of self to affirm what he was good at while struggling to master something he wasn’t. I take my New Year’s challenge of learning to draw as a memorial to Bob.  I am certain it will offer a lesson in humility. 

Hibernation Time and the New Year

My family departed for home Christmas Eve night and Christmas morning, so I have been in hibernation mode since 9 a.m. on the 25th.  These seven post-Solstice, post- Christmas days  (my family always celebrates on the 24th ), are my wintering time.  It is when I, like TV specials and pundits, reflect on the year past, but it is also the time when I set my course for the year to come.

My wintering or hibernation (the noun winter is German, but hiver is the French word for winter)  is about rest and renewal, about letting go and taking on, about reflecting on the departing year and planning for the new one.  I mostly stay at home, using up the Christmas leftovers and undecorating the house, reading my Christmas books and doing one of my Christmas jigsaw puzzles. I write in my journal with a focus on the year past and the year to come, including New Year’s resolutions, which I have been doing since elementary school.  ( I remember when I was ten, I resolved to learn to light the gas stove. It didn’t have a pilot light, so it involved  a match, and I found it scary. To this day I am an electric range person.)

Over time my resolutions have become more abstract and complex. They all involve self-improvement. Even at 80 there are improvements to be made. I am deeply engaged in virtue ethics, so my guides to living wisely and well are the four attitude virtues of hope, trust, lovingkindness, and gratitude , and the behavioral virtues of self-care, prudence (practical wisdom), simplicity, and  mindfulness.  The arenas in which those virtues are played out are lifelong learning, vocation (write-teach-preach-lead-serve), and cultivating healthy relationships. My daily journal is the ongoing record of my intentions and my performance. 

What about surprises? There are always plenty of those. In 2021, COVID changed my travel plans.  I rethought some of my volunteer commitments and rearranged them to better it my lifestyle, especially that part of my lifestyle that involves sleeping from 9 to 5 and driving after dark as seldom as possible.  Self-care surprised me with an unplanned but very rewarding journey with NOOM to lose 25 pounds. I lost a cat, a dog, and most sadly, a brother.  I lost friends, some to death, others to relationships that no longer worked, but was surprised to acquire two new ones (one to hike with, one to travel with) and strengthen the bonds of several old friendships. Man (and woman) plan, and God laughs. Like Columbus, I set my course for India and found a new world along the way.

So, I invite you to a few final days of hibernation and reflection before returning to the daily round. What was your year 2021 like? What did you learn and change, gain and lose? What are your hopes for 2022, personally and collectively? What are you grateful for, concerned about, desirous of changing? As the days begin to lengthen again, and the signs daffodils and crocuses appear, may you be rested and renewed, armed with faith, hope and good intentions for the year that begins in just three days.