Discovering My Inner Celt

I grew up being told that I was a Yankee, which in Connecticut meant a New Englander of English descent.   Most of my ancestors were in New England a century or more before the American Revolution.  But it turns out that they were not all English. I did know there was some Scottish in there, but wasn’t sure how much.  My mother, after all, was a Stewart. As continued to refine my ethnic heritage, I turned out to be 50% English (my father’s side), 40% a mix of Scottish, Irish, and Welsh, and the rest Norwegian—those Vikings visiting the British Isles and leaving their DNA behind.

Along with a mostly Welsh friend and a mostly Irish friend, I had watched the Great Courses series The Celtic World as we celebrated our shred ancestry. But my proudest moments of being 40 percent Celtic came with two unrelated discoveries, the Irish monk and heretic Pelagius and the delightful historical mystery series by Peter Tremayne, set in seventh century Ireland with Sister Fidelma as the heroine.

Pelagius was a fourth century monk who differed significantly from the emerging Augustinian orthodoxy of original sin and predestination. Arguing that we were created in the image of God, Pelagius believed in free will and the opportunity for all to be saved.  That might sound obvious to modern ears, but it was heresy in his day. When my Monday night discussion group discovered Pelagius, we agreed that those of us who had been to seminary who had heard of him at all had been told he was a heretic. He was, indeed, a Christian Universalist like the second century theologian Origen, affirming a heresy that has been embraced by most of contemporary mainstream Christianity

More important than the theology to me was the culture embodied by Sister Fidelma.  Fidelma was the sister of the king of Muman (later Munster, one of five Irish kingdoms under the High King).  She was a well-educated person and a dalaigh—an officer of the court, a lawyer with investigatory powers under Brehon law. She was not alone. Other women held positions of authority in law, religion, and governance.  Although she left the convent and renounced her vows to pursue a more worldly career in collaboration with her brother, she was still known as Sister Fidelma.  She married an Angle, Brother Eadulf, and bore a child.

Kings in 7th century Ireland were selected by a quasi- democratic process.  When a king (or queen) died, there would be a designated heir  already in place.  A conclave of at least three generations of the ruling family would crown the designated heir and select from within the family a new designated heir based on the fitness of that person to rule. It could be a woman.  

Through Sister Fidelma’s adventures, we discover a great deal that was different about Celtic religion and culture, especially the role of women and an egalitarian view of the world. Nuns and monks lived in co-houses under the joint rule of an abbot and an abbess, in which monks and nuns could marry and raise their children in the faith.  There was no attempt to wipe out the old religion; many of its beliefs and practices were retained and integrated into their Christian faith. It was a faith deeply grounded in the earth, a practice that some segments of modern Christianity have somewhat belatedly embraced. 

Women in that culture could choose to marry or not, divorce, and own  property. They could enter a trial marriage for a year, as Sister Fidelma did, after which they made it permanent or parted ways without penalty, free to remarry or remain single . While misogyny flourished in areas of Western Europe under Roman rule and /or influence, Ireland was never part of the Holy Roman Empire, too far away to be subjected to patriarchy until much later.  

I have always celebrated my Scotch-Irish great grandmother Alice Munger Stewart, who marched for women’s suffrage  in the early 20th century  It is heartening to learn from Peter Tremayne and Sister Fidelma how deep in my DNA runs the belief that women are fully human, competent, and equal, and deserve to be treated accordingly. I defied my mother’s expectation that I could become a teacher, a nurse, or a secretary, and became an academic economist instead.

I was fortunate to come of age in the time of the women’s movement in this country, led by Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem and countless others. I was blessed with a feminist husband who told me early in our marriage that he did not want a wife who lived vicariously through him.  I assured him that such an arrangement was fine with me.  We raised three feminist daughters who in turn raised our four granddaughters to be all that they can be. 

I wish the same for women everywhere striving to reassert their full humanity and their right to be treated as equals.

Generation Segregation

My husband and I bought a house in 1966.  We remodeled it multiple times, the last time with the help of an architect friend.   It was our intent to stay there for the rest of our lives.  It was an intergenerational neighborhood, walking distance to the guitar teacher and the Plez U (more or less a 7-11), full of babysitters.  In my heart I hoped our occupancy would last at least as long as we both lived, because I was nine years younger and healthier than my dear spouse.  But my husband’s last three years were in a nursing home with kidney failure and growing dementia.  Left to fend for myself in a five bedroom house on three levels on an acre and a quarter of land, I moved to the retirement community that adjoins the nursing home where Carl was staying just across the street. 

The only other time I had lived in a largely single generation community was in college, and that was always understood to be a transitional situation. But for eight years now I have lived in a community where there are no residents under sixty and an average age probably closer to 80.  Which I will be in just a few months. Yes, we are also a transitional generation, but the transitions looming are definitely not of the college graduation variety.

Don’t worry! We retirement community dwellers see younger people. Some of them mow our lawns (I still mow my own, but most don’t)  or wait on our tables or tend our ailments (you do get used to having doctors the ages of your grown children).  Adjacent neighborhoods bring dog walkers and bike riders because our streets are city streets open to all, and it’s a nice  place to walk or ride.  The staff at the retirement center are all much younger, including the charming but demanding drillmaster who teaches our exercise class. I have friends on the outside who are too young to live here. I tutor a 12 year old middle school student in language Arts. I go to church, even if right now it is still on Zoom.  I am involved in a civic organization that keeps me on Zoom as its co-president. But I do spend most of my time with my generational peers, and I’ve discovered that maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

Here we are all in a new and different stage of life.  Most of us are retired.  Our days are flexible.  We have aches and pains.  We suffer losses, losses of sight, hearing, and stamina.  Losses off friends, neighbors, family. We forget things.  We also commiserate, encourage, and support each other in matters small and large.  We learn from each other how to tackle new challenges.  We celebrate grandchildren getting married and great grand-children following not long after (or with this generation, sometimes before). Those of us who can still drive give rides to those who can’t. We laugh at our mistakes and comfort one another when life gets hard. In many ways, it is like living in a dorm (or college apartment?), because both house people of the same generation more or less going through the same life changes.

One of the pleasant things about living with a bunch of old folks is that they have long since ceased (with some exceptions) to be competitive.  It’s just too hard, and it doesn’t seem to matter anyway. Social events are smaller and more casual.  Women who took pride in their cooking now proudly announce that they hardly ever cook any more. Heels are shorter and pantyhose is a thing of the past except for weddings and funerals.

One dividing line in this community is between the still married and the newly single.  In earlier decades, some women might be threatened by single women, but at our age, it’s more a question of how we women have a good social life among us when the married ones (some of them) are joined at the hip with a spouse? Often it is a spouse for whom they are a caregiver, but sometimes married couples are just used to doing things in pairs. As a result, a lot of new friendships form on the basis of marital status.  At the same time, political polarization has led to a lot of friendships being grounded on a shared view of the world.  Fortunately, there are enough of each political and/or religious persuasion in this community of some 250 souls, plus some in the middle, to ensure that there are enough congenial friends to go around.  And for those with whom talk of politics or religion might be a dividing line, we can always retreat to cats, grandchildren, and gardening.

I truly believed I would never be attracted to a retirement community.  Yet another life lesson of the golden years: never say never!.

Filibuster and the Tyranny of the Which?

Someone reading my blog asked what I thought about the filibuster.  As I have said in other blog posts, I am invested in good process, not good outcomes.  But both defenders and opponents of the filibuster are staking their position on outcomes—the kind of legislation that is likely to result from ending the filibuster or modifying it. Perhaps it is time to reflect on the filibuster as a process issue.

The process argument depends on whether you think senators should represent states or people.  Every other political entity from the U.S. House of  Representatives to your local school board or county council is required by law to apportion seats and draw lines so that each person elected to an office represents about the same number of people as  his/her fellow representatives.  But not the U.S. Senate.  California, Florida, and Texas have two senators each to represent their combined 100 million people.  So do Alaska, Wyoming, and Vermont, for their combined not quite two million people. One person, one vote or one state, two votes, regardless of population?  Which is more democratic with a small d?

 In 2020, Republican candidates for the Senate won only 43.5% of the popular vote, compared to 56.5% for Democrats, but Democrats only gained their barest of majorities by a winning double-header Senate runoff in Georgia and electing a Democratic Vice-President to preside over the Senate and break ties. In the last 30 years, the Republicans have controlled the Senate in 18 of those years, even though they garnered the votes of a majority of the electorate for senators in only one of those 16 elections.

The argument for the filibuster is that it protects minority rights from the tyranny of the majority.  The argument against the filibuster is that it hobbles the ability to legislate, resulting in a tyranny of the minority. It’s an argument that dates back to the Constitutional convention of 1787 where smaller states demanded protection in exchange for strengthening the authority of the central government.

So, what is the passionately moderate solution? In the past decade or so, the filibuster rule has been modified. It no longer  applies to judicial nominations or cabinet and sub-cabinet appointments requiring Senate confirmation. In each two- year session of Congress, the majority party has two chances to pass a bill containing budget matters by a simple majority, which is the way the 2021 COVID relief bill was passed.

What else could be done? One option is to reduce the requirement to end debate from 60 percent  to 55. That change wouldn’t help the majority party much now with a 51-50 division, but it might make it possible to attract a few Republican votes to get some bills through. Another option on the table is to require the person invoking the filibuster to observe the old requirement to talk continuously, which requires a lot of stamina. Even the late Senator Thurmond only managed 24 hours. Perhaps another category or two could be carved out to be exempt from the filibuster rule besides regulation and appointments.  The leadership might be able to persuade West Virginia Senator Manchin to use his power constructively to move legislation closer to the muddled moderate middle  as the price of his vote for ending the filibuster. Even without the filibuster, the Democrats would have to have his vote.

Other options are rather heavy handed and difficult to bring about.  Consider some radical suggestions. Amending the Constitution to change the allocation of Senate seats. Splitting California into two states and granting statehood to DC and Puerto Rico (which would have to get through the Senate! Beware: the other party can play that game too, splitting states to create more senate seats!)  Or a less radical suggestion: make a case to the electorate in 2022 to consider in voting for senators  that the filibuster is an obstacle for much proposed legislation with strong public support.

If you were in charge, what would you do?

Read This Book (Eventually)

Since many of my new followers were persuaded to join my blog world as a way to help get my next book published, I thought I would share this excerpt from the prologue.

How, my oldest daughter asked, can you call yourself passionately moderate? I thought you were a liberal.  Well, yes, I answered, my personal policy preferences are more on the liberal side. Universal health care, a woman’s right to reproductive choice, a tax system that doesn’t favor the wealthy, affordable college and affordable housing…the list goes on. But I realize that a sizeable chunk of my city, state, and nation subscribes to a different set of priorities and preferences, overlapping in some cases and diametrically opposed in others.  Even if my views were those of the majority, which they are in some cases, I do not want to impose them on a frustrated and probably angry minority.  I am willing to compromise, to settle for the good or even the good enough for now rather than holding out for the very best.

My passion for moderation is a passion for process, not for outcomes.  To practice moderation as a commitment to good process, you have to let your inner Buddha guide you in letting go of attachment to outcomes. I do believe that in most cases that good processes are more likely to lead to good outcomes. Not best outcomes. Not perfect outcomes.  Just outcomes that are steps in the right direction, or good enough for now.

I am passionate about openness to compromise, the give and take that means most citizens do not get exactly what they want personally but may get a move in the right direction, an improvement on the status quo. That passion for process makes me a liberal in theory but and a moderate in practice. At the moment, moderates seem to be endangered species in both political parties.  At the same time ,registered voters in droves have been abandoning the two major parties to declare themselves independents–and therefore probably moderates. Being passionately moderate is our best hope for the survival of our society, our nation, our democracy, depending on people being willing to accept less than what they really want and to do it graciously and with reciprocity.

Where did this way of experiencing the world come from? Certainly not from my rock-ribbed New England Republican upbringing. It started in college a lifetime ago when I decided to major in economics. I taught at Clemson University for 30 years, specializing in state and local public finance and working on developing public policy..  Retiring early, I went to seminary to get a degree in Theological Studies with the intention of focusing on ethics. I had no further career plans, but that additional master’s degree did lead to a second career, also at Clemson University.  I had been a senior fellow at Clemson’s the Strom Thurmond Institute since 1984, doing public policy analysis while still teaching in the economics department. While I was commuting to seminary in Atlanta, the Institute was launching an interdisciplinary doctoral program in Policy Studies. I was invited to teach ethics and public policy as well as political economy and public policy to doctoral students in the Policy Studies program. Although I taught traditional ethics—utilitarianism (the foundation of economic theory), Kantian ethics, and social contract, my head and heart quickly found their shared home in virtue ethics.

Virtue ethics, originating with Aristotle and reshaped into Christian language by Saint Thomas Aquinas, has experienced a revival in recent decades.  It is an ethic of moderation, each virtue occupying a center spot between the voices of the virtue’s extreme and its opposite.  But I did not abandon my utilitarian ethics that underlie economics, pointing toward policies based on moderation, compromise, the second best, the good enough. Both utilitarian ethics and mainstream economics can play a useful role in promoting the common good.

The other strand in my adult life that led to writing this book is 53 years as a member and frequently leader in the local and state League of Women Voters. Committed to citizen participation in government, transparency and accountability, free and fair elections, and making every voter count, this fine organization also spoke to both my head and my heart. The League is always open to compromise on anything other than its commitment to diversity, equity and inclusiveness and its firm belief in non-partisanship, which makes it possible to work both sides of the aisle in both election management and legislative policy.

And yes, there was also the women’s movement in general.  I am descended from strong women on both sides of my family. I am the mother of three grown daughters and four nearly grown granddaughters. For their sake, and their age mates sake, I want to preserve, protect and defend about democracy and learning to dwell together in peace as a legacy toward which  I might be able to make some small contribution, to leave them a more just, healthy and sustainable world.. I invite the reader to join me on that path.


The Ethics of Sharing My Home with a Cat

My 21 year-old-cat disappeared about a month ago, probably off to the woods nearby to die. She had a good life.  I still have a dog, but she is also elderly, 14 years old and suffering from arthritis, so I will soon be without an animal companion.  All my life I have shared my household and my attention with one or more cats, and in the last 13 years, a dog,.  So, when the dog goes to that great doggie park in the sky, what is the right thing to do? For me, for any future animal companion, for the people in my life, and for the world. 

One of the challenges of having studied and taught ethics is that every decision has at least a glimmer of ethical content.  For myself, I would enjoy the companionship of a cat.  They sit on your lap and can be playful and are fairly low maintenance. Dogs require regular medical and grooming attention. They have to be boarded when you travel (fortunately she loves to visit the dog farm). Dogs need to be walked or taken to the dog park, since I live in a community with city leash laws and HOA restrictions on putting up fences. My dog is largish, about 50 pounds, and in our previous home she had a dog door and a large, fenced back yard with access to the deck for her outdoor time. For the past eight years she has been more confined. For all these reasons I have ruled out another dog.  But a cat is still an option.

Can I offer a good life to a cat?  Probably. All  my/our cats have been rescue cats, and there is an oversupply.  I have a home. I could provide for at least one rescue cat. I am a good cat mommy who feeds her cat regularly and pets the cat a lot and buys cat toys and a bed and other things that cats like.  

There is a pet door that allows the cat to come and go if she pleases.  I could close it up and keep her inside, as many of my neighbors do, for several reasons.  One is safety. There are cars and coyotes. Another is protecting the birds. My most recent cat was not a hunter, but many cats are.  But I have always had free range cats, and part of me feels that a cat needs to enjoy the outdoors, risks and all.  Also,  a confined cat has to have a litter box, which is not only annoying but also creates landfills full of plastic-encased used litter. Even with access to the outdoors, my cat preferred a little box and insisted on regular cleaning. In her last few years, she also insisted on only canned food, no dry food, which generated lots of tins to recycle.   

A free range cat pees and pops where she pleases, often to the annoyance of neighbors, although always discreetly, being a cat.  I cannot enforce my request to a cat to use my lawn as her bathroom space.  I also have friends and relatives who are allergic to cats, and I don’t want them to experience an allergy attack as the price of my company.

So, running down the stakeholders in my decision, cats and cat lovers say yes.  Personally, I lean toward yes.  Neighbors are mixed, since many of them have cats—one neighbor has seven indoor cats.  Other neighbors worry about the birds or just find free-range cats annoying. Allergic friends and family members prefer a no.  Coyotes say yes, but I don’t trust their intentions.  Birds and the environment don’t much care for the idea. My upholstered furniture weighs in with a sigh of relief that there are no longer cat claws in the house.

What to do? Life was easier before I studied and taught ethics. What would you do?

Making the Right Mistakes Revisited

One of my earlier blogs was called making the right mistakes. It was about one of the few life lessons I learned from the study of statistics. When someone says, “statistics show…”  that is really a statement about what is most likely to be true, not what is certain.  It is certain that it is raining at my house right now. I can see it on the road and hear it on the roof, and it is definitely  not snow or hail. Snow is white, and hail is noisy.  But how much of the neighborhood is being rained on, and which ones, and for how long is it going to keep raining?  The weather forecast is a probability statement, not a fact.  (In this case my understanding of statistics was buttressed by being married to a meteorologist, or more precisely an atmospheric physicist.)

The reason I feel a need to revisit this topic is the current controversy over how safe we are or feel a need to be during the hopefully waning days of the coronavirus pandemic, how much we want to go outside without a mask, send the kids back to school, go to a party or a theater,  or sunbathe on a crowded beach. (Yes, I do know it is only March as I write this, but sunny beaches come early here in South Carolina.)

Somehow reawakening the sleeping economy and the less Zoom-dependent social life has become a partisan issue.  It’s not just about personal freedom and the economy (Republicans) or about safety and protecting others from harm (Democrats), although all of these things are important.  Somehow, we need to address both the emotions (fear, frustration, anger, isolation) and the facts (positive tests, cases, hospitalizations, deaths, vaccines administered) and come to an agreement about how fast and in what order our nation, and the world, return to normal—whatever the new normal turns out to be.

Science is not about facts; it is about probabilities. Statistics , a major tool of scientific research, is about weighing the risk of declaring something to be more or less a fact and being wrong, as opposed to declaring something not to be a fact when it turns out that it is actually true.  Is the vaccine really safe and effective? One of my friends pointed out that even 95 percent efficacy of the vaccine does not guarantee you will not get COVID, because 5 percent of the people still will. At that point I knew for sure that Michael was much more risk -averse than I am.

Life is risky. Sunny optimists will point to all the benefits of speeding up the opening process—children back in school, adults back at work, firms saved from bankruptcy, summer vacations back on the calendar, and eventually actually seeing other people’s entire faces.   I tend to fall into that sunny optimist category and keep having to extricate myself. I also have to remind myself that people have different degrees of tolerance for risk,  and I am not the person who gets to make that decision about an acceptable level of risk for everyone else.

For months we have been treating the idea of herd immunity as  a closed door that would suddenly open and usher us into the wonderful world of Tomorrowland. It is not.  Clearly, more of the herd has immunity than just a couple of months ago, a combination of those who have at least short-term immunity from surviving the disease and the many, many of us who have been vaccinated.  But there are still a lot of people who refuse to be vaccinated, or to take precautions that protect themselves and others from an unacceptable degree of risk. 

Science errs on the side of caution, requiring very high levels of probability to treat a statement as true.  There are lots of people willing to take risks—they take boats out during a thunderstorm, have unprotected sex with strangers, hang-glide off mountain sides, and give their credit card numbers to strangers on the phone. But when their risk is inflicted on other people, they shouldn’t get to decide how much risk is acceptable for us.

The fundamental question is, how much can we reopen with an acceptable degree of safety for the most vulnerable?  Which reopenings offer the most benefit at the least risk? I can’t answer that for anyone but myself, and even then I wrestle with how much, how fast.  Bars at midnight have never been a big draw for me, but live performances, parties with friends, dinner in restaurants, travel, hugs—I miss those encounters with people, places and ideas and I want them back. Your list is different and so is your risk tolerance.

Our democracy has not been very successful in the last decade or so in working through differences to arrive at a widely acceptable outcome.  Perhaps we ought to step back from arguing over facts and start examining how we feel—what makes us feel safe, what makes us feel hopeful, what makes us willing to take into consideration the hopes and fears of our fellow citizens.  Be honest with yourself.  Be willing to listen.  In the end, that kind of honest conversation might do more good for humanity than just beating the COVID virus into submission.

Processes, Outcomes, and Goals

A few years ago. I was in a leadership retreat at which we talked about our efforts to address systemic racism.  As one of the ”elders” in the group, I shared a description of some projects in the late 1990s and early 2000s called Unlearning racism, which included honoring black WWII veterans, forming a sister congregation relationship with a more diverse group, spending time with leaders in the local African American community to see how we could be connective and supportive, etc.  When I finished my description, the person running the meeting asked, “And how many  new African-American members did you acquire?” “None, “ I said, “That wasn’t the point.”  I understood where he was coming from He and I and others have sat through countless long-range planning sessions and been told to have goals with measurable outcomes. I am an economist, and my discipline does put a lot of emphasis on measurable outcomes.  But something was tickling in my brain that we were going about this in the wrong way. Part of it was that some of the best outcomes are not quantifiable.  But something else wasn’t quite right.

Recently I was watching a series of lectures (Great Courses) on fitness and aging in which the instructor was also talking about setting goals.  And measurable ones, at that.  But the difference was that her idea of goals was not outcomes.  Not pounds lost.  Not blood pressure measurement. The goals were changed habits, which are also measurable.  Instead of pounds lost and blood pressure measurement, goals were how many times a week did I exercise? How far did I walk? Did I give my digestive system its much-needed 12 hour fast between dinner and breakfast? How often did my meal include a serving of fruits or vegetables? How many calories or carbs was I taking in and how many was I burning?  The difference was that these goals were things I could control, habits that I could work to develop. They, too, are often measurable. I can’t control outcomes, even though these better habits should make my preferred outcomes more likely.

The instructor’s focus was on fitness—physical, mental, and spiritual health that will lead to good outcomes like inner peace, longevity, less illness, and a slowing of the aging process. Or for concrete thinkers, weight loss and lower blood pressure. I started thinking about how we might apply processes or habits versus outcomes thinking about goals to those long-range planning processes in terms of other aspects of life, particularly organizational life. Typically, organizations will have concrete outcomes they want—more members, more people showing up at events, and more successful fundraising are common ones, all very measurable. But also not something we can control.  

What if the goals were about who we are and what we do, about identity and process rather than outcomes? What if we adapt that great quote from the move Field of Dreams, “If you build it, they will come.”  Instead, we could build what our vision says is the right thing to build—the right place, the right time, the right design—by listening to the people who are already here and contributing their time and their presence and their money. And perhaps even back up from that process to remind ourselves why we exist as a community and how building our particular field of dreams serves that reason for being.  If building ( a space, a garden, a program, a project) means that they do indeed come, so there are more members and more money, that’s fine.  But if that project leads to unanticipated outcomes, to better connections to other groups and communities, to a more joyful experience of being together, to a better understanding of what matters, those are good outcomes too. They are just very hard to measure.

So next time you make New Year’s resolutions (and a new year can start any time), or are part of a planning and goal setting process, try to focus on what you can control—the inputs, the processes, the habits or ways of working together.  The outcomes you want may or may not follow, but  you may get some unexpected benefits along the way..

A Torrent of Holidays

February usual begins quietly with Groundhog Day on the 2n,, pauses for Superbowl Sunday,  then cruises on through  Valentine’s Day on the 14th, Presidents’ Day on the third Monday, and Mardi Gras and Ash Wednesday, which fall sometimes in February and sometimes in early March depending on the phases of the moon.  This year we experienced  a confluence of holidays, each calling for a different emotional attitude, as there were four holidays in a row on the 14th, 15th, 16th, and 17th.  Unlike the Christmas holidays, each called for a different kind of emotional response.  Valentine’s Day is lighthearted and sentimental, hearts and chocolates and flowers and cards.   Presidents’ Day invites us to be patriotic, closing the banks and the Post Office and in many places, the schools.  There is also the invitation to shop at the Presidents’ Day sales, spending some of that green stuff with presidential pictures on the front.   Mardi Gras is the final celebratory fling (the carnival, literally meaning farewell to meat) before Ash Wednesday calls observant Christians to the austere penitential six weeks of Lent.( Even those of us whose faith traditions didn’t make a big deal out of Lent felt compelled growing up to join our  more high church comrades in giving something up for Lent. Nothing like a holiday the celebrates self-denial.) By Thursday al of us will be in for a good rest with no significant holidays till Saint Patrick’s Day a month later. Whew!

All of these holidays have an interpersonal aspect in their observances that don’t work well with a pandemic, even one that is starting to recede.  Valentine’s Day is for hugs and kisses and exchanging cards—maybe not in a pandemic.  Presidents’ Day means the kids are out of school and some of the parents off work, which might mean some playtime or family time or a weekend adventure somewhere.  Not during a pandemic.  Mardi Gras is observed in various ways ranging from church pancake suppoers to a party or a trip to New Orleans—not during a pandemic.  Even the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday is hard for churches to manage during a pandemic.  At least the pandemic can’t mess with Lent, since this season of austerity  has come during a time when we are already being asked to practice self-denial—what’s another six weeks of it?

All of these holidays have a common element, however, and that element is hope.  Valentine’s Day was originally a Roman fertility holiday. The name of the month, February, refers to the fever of love. The earth is preparing to be bloom again and humans are willing to go along with it by celebrating romantic love, even if it is only by watching Bridgerton on Netflix. Renewal of plant and animal life as we all start to emerge from winter’s hibernation is a source of hope.  As the weather warms, even those of us practicing social distancing can do more of it outdoors and see other humans as more than a head in a rectangle on Zoom.

With the inauguration of a new president and political tempers cooling after the post-election drama, there is also a renewal of hope that perhaps we can learn to dwell together in peace, a good thought for Presidents’ Day. I just heard the statistic that politically speaking, 25% of Americans are Republicans, 25% are Democrats, and 50% are Independents.  There actually is a majority—it’s the No Party Party!  Perhaps efforts to woo those independents will pull both parties back toward the center.

Finally, Mardi Gras is about letting go, turning one’s back on self-indulgence after one last fling and instead make an effort at cultivating the spirit. (In medieval times, it was also a way to stretch the food supply in the final months before spring crops began to come in.) It is long enough to change, short enough to see the light of Easter at the end of the Lenten tunnel, with the hope that by Ester, the holiday of renewal and rebirth, we will be reborn as better, wiser, more patient and less greedy and gluttonous than we were six weeks ago.  That’s a tall order, but we have to start somewhere.

So as we zip through these back to back holidays, let us celebrate hope.  Especially the hope that we have actually learned something from the pandemic and will remember it next year when these last gasp of winter/start of sprig holidays come round again.

The Stock Market and the Economy

My oldest daughter and my youngest grandchild are both taking economics this semester, and neither of them are enthusiastic.  Often it is taught in ways that make it seem irrelevant for your life, your values, or your idea of how people should behave for the good of the nation or globe.  If you are one of those people, try this little lesson on why it pays to know something about economics.

Defenders of Donald Trump often admit to his shortcomings, but at the same time, they defend his presidency with praise for the economy.  Asked for specifics, they point to the booming stock market (which has continued to boom since Biden was certified, but that is another story). They also point to low unemployment and GDP growth, both of which had also occurred under the previous administration. But the stock market is the one that comes up most often.

As an economist, I want all you non-economists to know that the stock market is NOT the economy. The economy is Gross Domestic Product (GDP), jobs, and income distribution.  That is a utilitarian answer, an ethical movement that defines the goal of society and economy as providing the greatest good for the greatest number.  Greatest good is measured, however imperfectly, by GDP, but greatest number requires that those benefits be widely shared across the population.  GDP was doing well before the pandemic, as was the stock market, but both had done well under the previous administration, and some of the further gains were a sugar high from the 2017 tax cut. The distribution of income and wealth has been deteriorating for several decades as both became increasingly unequal.

If the stock market is not our primary measure of economic performance, what is it?  Historically, the stock market is a place where investors can buy and sell ownership shares of business firms.  It serves three primary purposes and two secondary purposes.  One purpose is to provide a vehicle for raising capital for business firms. A second purpose is to provide a financial instrument where people can put their savings to work earning interest, dividends, and capital gains. The third purpose, which is a side benefit, is to discipline or reward firms for their past, current, and expected future earnings through the purchase of  shares for firms expected to perform well and selling shares of those firms that have been or are expected to perform poorly.

The two secondary purposes, which are incidental, are to serve as a leading economic indicator and to enable a sophisticated form of gambling.  A leading economic indicator is something that has a good track record in forecasting future output (GDP) and employment (which is closely tied to GDP). The stock market is one of about a dozen such indicators, which include building permits, manufacturers’ inventories, consumer expectations, and other tried and true predictors. They are all tied together in the index of leading economic indicators, a popular tool for forecasting recessions and recoveries.

The other secondary purpose is related to the growth of sophisticated tools like puts and calls, options, or short sales by hedge funds allows investors to use the stock market for what amounts to a form of gambling.  These tools are also used in commodities markets, which sell metals, fuels, and farm products among other things for future deliveries.  Like the stock market, the commodities futures market developed for a useful purpose, providing short- to medium-term capital to firms and especially to farmers to plant and harvest a crop.  Commodity prices are very volatile, so this futures market provided a way for producers to protect themselves against a price decline (the curse of an abundant harvest in the case of farmers). Guaranteeing a future price involves risk (a relative of gambling) for investors and insurance for sellers.

This past week or so we have seen a dramatic use of that gambling function by non-hedge fund individuals with the aid of social media to deliver a serious blow to hedge funds that had used these tools to bet against the price of a favorite retail chain, Game Stop. Hedge funds, as in hedge your bets.  Does that suggest gambling? Sometimes a hedge is just that, a way to “insure” against the risk of sudden changes in a stock that is a large part of your portfolio.  But  these tools can also force or accelerate a decline in the price of a stock with a short sale. Hedge funds were not protecting themselves from a Game Stop price decline, they were betting (and abetting) that it would happen. Hedge funds had used a short sale to gamble on a decline in the price of  Game Stop stock.  They sold shares they did not own for future delivery, betting that the price would be lower when they had to buy shares for delivery.  Caught short when the price rose, they had to divest themselves of other assets to cover the short sale, taking losses in the process. I am proud of those small investors, most of them young, who used the tools of the hedge fund managers to turn it into a life lesson on behalf of a company they liked.

I like  to gamble too, but I would rather gamble on the lottery where at least some of the money goes to support education in my state. Between buying my Powerball ticket and waiting for the result, I get the recreational benefit of dreaming about what I would do if I won the lottery. (At my age, I would give it away to worthy causes.)  And I even occasionally visit a casino if I am in the neighborhood and give myself a loss limit of $50.  But at least my personal occasional petty gambling does no harm, although there are people who have a gambling addiction who do need protection.  Maybe hedge fund managers should reflect on their own gambling addiction and check out Powerball as a less dangerous and less destructive alternative.

What’s Your Oxymoron?

I am working on a book with the oxymoronic title Passionately Moderate, and it got me to thinking about the labels I apply to myself that are oxymoronic. I am a feminist traditionalist, for example. I believe strongly in women’s autonomy and inclusion, but I was married for 53 years to a loving husband and raised three daughters to believe that being a career woman and married with or without children was not a variety of oxymoron. I was also a band booster and a Girl Scout leader and a Sunday School teacher. I cook, I clean, I sew as I was raised to do.

When I was working as a policy analyst (an  economist at the Strom Thurmond Institute who never voted for Strom), I had a picture of myself on my office door finishing a lap quilt for my daughter. Caption: Professor, economist, quilter. As poet Walt Whitman wrote, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes.”

Religiously, I identify as a liberal Christian Unitarian Universalist with touches of Buddhism and paganism in my religious makeup.  My Universalist self does not accept the idea of exclusive possession of the truth by any one way of being in religious community, so others may find this identity oxymoronic, but I prefer to call it holistic. I am progressive on social issues and fiscally conservative, but I always have to explain that fiscally conservative doesn’t necessarily mean smaller government, it means more responsible and accountable government.  I recall many years ago a student coming up to ask a question after class and he began by saying, “Well, I know you are conservative, so…” I think he meant that he found himself agreeing with me, and his label was conservative, so I must be conservative.

I am also a New England native but an adopted Southerner for the last 2/3 of my life, which make me more a split personality than an oxymoron, but I hold both cultures to have enriched my life in different ways. I probably have other contradictions in my makeup that I am not aware of, but I count on my daughters and my friends to point them out to me.

So I invite you to reflect on your own oxymoronic labels.  Practice oxymoronics.  Try being both-and rather than either/or. It can be enriching, rewarding, and a good foundation for a bridge to others who share some of your “oxys” and others of your “morons,” along with those that are just their own.