State of the Union

Lessons in Ownership From Hobbes

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For clarification: this post is not about Hobbes, the philosopher. It’s about Hobbes the puppy—our puppy—introduced into our household on March 21st.

Since we got him, Hobbes has already grown 12 pounds. He’s learned to sit, lie down, fetch, go to bed, and stay (though staying proves a difficult task oftentimes). He’s got a pet fox and a myriad of tennis balls, but finds himself particularly attracted to shoes, especially the shoes being worn by visiting guests (alas, we have yet to break him of this fixation). Hobbes loves people, with a passion, and is rather clingy at times: not getting to cuddle up on the couch next to my husband and me is tantamount to tragedy. Any one walking out the front door without him results in an outpouring of grief.

Yet his expressive eyebrows, profuse “talking,” and evident delight make every day enjoyable. We’ve learned much from him, little sprite that he is. Along with the frustrations and challenges—the limits on our schedule that necessarily come from having a puppy, the endless repetitions of “drop the shoe”—we’ve found that Hobbes brings his own presence and liveliness to our home, to our lives. The empty hours of solitude I’ve felt when my husband is away for work are now filled to abundance. I rarely have time to sit down.

I’ve been thinking about the pros and cons of ownership as of late: the difficulties that come when we build ties to a particular place. These thoughts were especially present in my mind as I planted my herb and vegetable gardens: I realized that, with every plant I rooted in the ground, I was also rooting myself to this property. Every little budding life beckoned me to be present and aware: to be a steward. I cannot gallivant endlessly, in work or play, far from home. I now have a garden to tend. Vacations must be carefully considered, neighbors asked (with plate of cookies in tow) to water the beds.

I looked over at Hobbes, digging gleefully in a corner, watching neighbors walk past with excitement and an expectantly wagging tail. He too must be considered. I cannot—do not want to—leave him for too long. He’s not a dog made to be cooped up inside: he’s an Irish Setter, an athletic and graceful hunting dog, a gallant and loyal beast who clings to his owners with deep affection. He cannot be deserted or left alone, as I hunt for personal adventures or career acclaim. He, too, ties me.

This is what ownership does: it chains us. It limits us. It forces us to stay put, as much as possible, because we are now stewards responsible for our possessions. We can no longer view ourselves as atomized individuals: a whole web of life surrounds us, relies on us for sustenance. Ownership transforms us into members of a platoon.

Some find this extremely distasteful. When my husband and I told people we were seeking to buy a puppy, they warned us of the personal dangers: the adventures that would be left unexplored, the personal liberties that would be lost. “Dogs really limit you,” they said.

Oh, they were right. Limitations, indeed: feeding the dog comes before feeding myself, playing fetch often happens when I would’ve preferred curling up with a book or a favorite TV show. Returning exhausted from work, I face an exuberant three-month-old who is the opposite of exhausted.

In the garden, too, I’m dealing with frustrations and limitations: squirrels have decimated my cucumbers and basil, so I am employing various deterrents to hopefully keep them at bay, and meanwhile will have to buy new plants. Insects have riddled my cauliflower and broccoli with their bites, and thus I must find a repellent that is organic and safe.

Sacrifice, limits, frustrations. They’re part of the journey.

But the joys: the joys of ownership are so much greater than the sacrifices. Like when Hobbes gallops through the grass, proudly holding aloft a Frisbee. When I’m reading on the couch, and he rests his head on my lap. When I see a line of radishes popping up boisterously, the kale close behind. When I smell sweet soft lavender, and see the hardy mint branching out.

These moments remind me what ownership is about: it’s about so much more than obtaining valuable objects, about more than the monetary worth they may return to us. Ownership can often give us a sense of belonging, purpose, and meaning. These feelings of affection can be expressed in our relationships to inanimate things, especially if they are well-tended: to houses, cars, bicycles, and boats (even books). People can develop strong relationships to such things, as they tend them.

But there are a particular set of blessings and relationships that accompany the tending of living things. There is a deep love and pride that can grow as we bind ourselves to them. And even now, as I peek across the living room and see that Hobbes has (again) grabbed one of my TOMS, I feel blessed to have such a happy, loving puppy to call my own.

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When Good Samaritans Get Ticketed

Feeding the homeless is more difficult than you may think. San Antonio chef Joan Cheever, despite donating meals to the poor every Tuesday for a decade, is now facing a $2,000 citation—though she meets all health codes, she does not have a special permit necessary to give food away free of charge. Conor Friedersdorf reports for The Atlantic:

All over the United States, local governments are coercing individuals and organizations to stop helping their least-well-off neighbors. The National Coalition for the Homeless reported last year that at least 31 cities had restricted or banned food-sharing. The Washington Post offers examples: ‘Late last year, police in Fort Lauderdale busted a 90-year-old World War II veteran named Arnold Abbott twice in one week for feeding the homeless. In Raleigh, N.C., a church group said the cops threatened to arrest them if they served food to the homeless. And in Daytona Beach, Fla., authorities unsuccessfully levied $2000 in fines against six people for feeding the homeless at a park.’

This seems an obvious example of licensing and permitting requirements gone too far. Why would the government stop a woman from performing a charitable act, merely because she didn’t have the correct permit? Especially when she passes all health codes, and is known for providing excellent, consistent service to people who need it?

As Friedersdorf points out, cities often face the anger or complaints of local residents when these free-food spots pop up: “the presence of homeless people [means] … the discovery of human waste in your back alley several times a month, petty drug dealers who scare parents with young kids away from the local playground, meth addicts who aggressively yell obscenities at women on the street…”

When a local neighborhood resident begins trying to serve the homeless, there is likely to be some local pushback. But Friedersdorf adds, “The complaints of residents ought to spur efforts to better address the needs of the neediest, not crackdowns against the moral heroes trying to make up for collective failures.”

It seems that such an attitude demonstrates a tendency to treat our neighborhoods as passive consumers: we expect them to be always immaculate, safe, nice. And granted, I can understand why parents of children would be especially anxious for such things. But it also seems that this attitude can create a false facade, one that enables us to ignore the problems going on in our backyards. If we push the needy away from our immediate attention, brushing discomforting objects from our environment, will we ever remember to help them? And by sterilizing our environments of poverty and need, are we in fact lying to ourselves about the deeper needs of our local community?  The needy we don’t see are the ones we do not help. How many people, rather than complaining about the homeless food service in their neighborhood, would decide to volunteer there once or twice a week?

This isn’t just an issue of civic neighborliness. It is also an issue that should speak to the religious members of such communities. Friedersdorf calls upon Christians to rally behind this woman, and his words carry a justifiable sting:

Throughout America, Christians have spoken out and raised more than a million dollars to defend the freedom of co-religionists to decline to serve food at same-sex-wedding receptions. While there has been heated debate about whether or not their faith truly requires such abstentions, there can be no doubt that the Christian imperative to feed the hungry is both explicit in the Gospel and central to Jesus’ teachings.

Conservatives are often accused of only talking about what they’re against, not about what they are for. Friedersdorf makes a similar point here. If Christians believe that caring for the poor is a real necessity, we shouldn’t be pushing the homeless from our doorsteps—and we should be helping people like Cheever continue to serve their communities.

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Long Live the Personal Library

Why won’t physical books die? Because “like the bicycle, the book is a perfect invention, and perfection dies very, very hard,” writes William Giraldi for The New Republic. “The car hasn’t murdered the bike, and the Web won’t murder the book.” Yet Giraldi’s excellent article is about much more than technology’s effects on physical books. It is more like a love letter to the personal library:

What does it mean when what you own is essential to who you are? In our everyday grasp of owning things, we tag it materialism, consumerism, consumption. But I trust you’ll agree that the possession of books is not identical to the possession of shoes: Someone with a thousand books is someone you want to talk to; someone with a thousand shoes is someone you suspect of belonging to the Kardashian clan. Books are not objects in the same way that shoes are objects. This is what Milton means in his sublime “Areopagitica,” as necessary now as it was in 1644, when he asserted that “books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul was whose progeny they are; nay, they do preserve as in a vial the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them.”

For many of us, our book collections are, in at least one major way, tantamount to our children—they are manifestations of our identity, embodiments of our selfhood; they are a dynamic interior heftily externalized, a sensibility, a worldview defined and objectified. For readers, what they read is where they’ve been, and their collections are evidence of the trek.

This idea of deeply personal ownership and pride reminded me of a piece by James Poulos in The New Atlantis, in which he laments our slow abandonment of ownership. Instead of seeking to procure things, he writes, we increasingly emphasize “experience” and “access.”

Yet owning books—physical books—provides us with experiential comforts that are not available in short-term borrowing. These experiences are only gained through the (oft obsessive) work of long-term collecting, careful repetitive reading, and the accompanying growth of personal pride. And though we speak of a “sharing economy” having been opened up via the web, sharing is much more meaningfully done when performed personally with physical objects such as books. When we loan out our beloved copy of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, all covered in the comments and markings we’ve made, we are giving away a piece of ourselves. I would not feel nearly so bereft if lending someone an e-copy of the same book. This makes sharing a more personal and meaningful act.

“Access,” meanwhile, can be altogether overwhelming in the virtual world of reading: a bookshelf is necessarily finite and digestible, but the web’s cacophony of reads is mind-numbingly paralyzing in its breadth. We face unlimited possibilities as readers today: an almost eternal outpouring of books, new ones published constantly, old ones decaying on shelves in endless succession, words being typed by journalists and authors every day, ever adding to the astonishing volume of work.

We see this mad mayhem of books, and face burnout: the dismay and horror that comes with our own finitude—with knowing that we will never reach our five-thousandth volume (if we can even reach a couple thousand). Yet Giraldi writes,

Since bibliophiles are happy to acknowledge the absurdity, the obese impracticality of gathering more books than there are days to read them, one’s collection must be about more than remembering—it must be about expectation also. Your personal library, swollen and hulking about you, is the promise of betterment and pleasure to come, a giddy anticipation, a reminder of the joyous work left to do, a prompt for those places to which your intellect and imagination want to roam. This is how the nonreader’s question Have you read all these books? manages to miss the point. The tense is all wrong: Not have you read all, but will you read all, to which, by the way, the bibliophile’s answer must still be no. Agonizingly aware of the human lifespan, the collector’s intention is not to read them all, but, as E.M. Forster shares in his essay “My Library,” simply to sit with them, “aware that they, with their accumulated wisdom and charm, are waiting to be used”—although, as Forster knows, books don’t have to be used in order to be useful.

The physicality of real books sets us free from the imprisonment presented by virtual infinitude. We do not look at an interminable cloud of lifeless volumes—but rather, at our own finite collection, and understand with humility that they are still too much for us. We cannot ever read them all, yet we still develop a love for them. We collect them out of love, and out of hope: we seek to read as many of them as we can in our lifetimes. The others, we will store up for future generations. I buy books for my own enjoyment—I also, however, buy them for my children.

Buying books ties us: to our physical place, true enough, but also to the past and future. We invest in books that we hope to read in the future, and by buying them, give ourselves an incentive to keep the ember of reading alive in our lives, no matter the distractions and difficulties. We treasure old books, because of past memories and deeply cherished joys they conjure up, merely by their touch. When Jonathan Crombie, the actor who played Gilbert Blythe in the movie adaptation of “Anne of Green Gables,” passed away this past week, a world of readers and movie-watchers were moved to tears and grief. It may seem strange, this deep connection to a person never met. But for me, Gilbert and Anne and Diana were indeed “bosom friends.” I grew up with them, their maturation mingled with my own. Whenever I see a copy of Ivanhoe, as well, I think of the days I spent engrossed in it, saturating my brain in the medieval romanticism and chivalry of it. I read it aloud to my little brothers, translating the English into simpler terms so that they could understand it, and hopefully cherish it as I did. These books still bear the dog-eared pages, water stains, underlines, and tattered covers of love. They are part of me—their covers, pages, and illustrations stand out to me in a way that no replacement could, whereas my iPad version of Middlemarch holds no such special ties.

What we are anxious for, when we bibliophiles become anxious for the physical book, is more than a “sensory experience.” It’s more than the smell, more than the aesthetics, more than the thump of a heavy book being closed, or the flutter of pages flipped quickly by eager fingers.

We fear the death of physical books because they are our past and present, and we desperately hope they will be our future. They are more than objects: they have become our memories, and losing them would constitute losing a piece of ourselves.

It may sound melodramatic. But when I gaze at the volumes on my shelf, consider the hours poured into them, I cannot imagine the loss that would be felt by their destruction. Like Giraldi, I believe “Books, like love, make life worth living.”

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Five Ways to Run Away From Marriage

“Marriages today just don’t work,” says relationship columnist Anthony D’Ambrosio. Why not? He gives five specific reasons for the increasing societal demise of marriage: three of them largely relying on the premise that technology has irrevocably changed our lives, and makes relationships harder than they’ve ever been.

Our incredible online connectedness leads to real-time disconnect, argues D’Ambrosio. We’re fixated on the desire for attention, rather than on a more wholesome desire for love (this ties into some thoughts expressed yesterday about online loneliness). He believes that by throwing privacy out the window, in favor of the exposure and accolades provided by social media, we’ve cheapened our marital intimacy. He also complains that marital sex is nearly nonexistent, and that today’s financial landscape takes an incredible toll on marriage.

Some thoughts on the last two points first: D’Ambrosio suggests that the cost of living puts a strain on marriages today. But it seems that a shared income could in fact relieve some of the difficulties caused by expenses in today’s world: living in the Washington, D.C. / NOVA area is egregiously expensive, and I could not afford housing in this area if I were not married. Because my husband and I pool our resources, we are able to afford housing, pay off student loans, etc. Without that support and help, my financial situation would indeed be dire. It seems the most important factor here is being a smart and savvy spender: considering what sort of housing you can afford, where you should be buying groceries, what kind of car you can reasonably keep, etc., etc. This is often harder to coordinate with a spouse, one who may have more expensive (or cheaper) tastes than you. But marriage is, in many ways, the art of compromise: seeking a golden mean that is both practically and relationally beneficial.

As to a lack of marital sex, D’Ambrosio blames it on a combination of boredom and the temptations of outside media: “Everywhere you look, there’s pictures of men and women we know half naked — some look better than your husband or wife. So it becomes desirable. It’s in your face every single day and changes your mindset.”

But does it have to?

In this section, and the other sections about social media, D’Ambrosio paints us as passive puppets in a technologically-orchestrated dance of disconnection. We have no control over our marriages, because we’re so caught up in this social media stupor. “You want to know why your grandmother and grandfather just celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary?” he asks. “Because they weren’t scrolling through Instagram worrying about what John ate for dinner. They weren’t on Facebook criticizing others. They weren’t on vacation sending Snapchats to their friends.”

But it’s so much more complicated than that. Divorce, affairs, infidelity—all of these things have happened throughout history. Marriages have failed, time and time again. Temptation has always existed. Boredom, exhaustion, bad finances: none of these things are new. While technology is more prevalent and incessant than it’s ever been, the vices that it can encourage—jealousy, worry, lust, narcissism—are also not new.

It is true that social mores have changed, giving us greater leniency in marital relationships today. There is no longer a strong social stigma associated with divorce—at least nothing compared to the stigma that would have existed 60 years ago. This often gives people greater mental freedom to consider divorce. Additionally, the legal restraints and repercussions of divorce have changed significantly, with the rise of no-fault divorce. But even so, how did our grandparents do it? How did they make marriage last? How do 50th, even 60th, anniversaries even happen?

D’Ambrosio presents five reasons that “we can’t handle marriage anymore.” But his five reasons really seem to boil down to one big reason, expressed at the beginning of the piece:

Marriages today just don’t work.

The million dollar question? Why not?

It’s a pretty simple concept — fall in love and share your life together. Our great grandparents did it, our grandparents followed suit, and for many of us, our parents did it as well. Why the hell can’t we?

Because marriage does not just involve “falling in love and sharing your life together.” This is perhaps one of the most passive definitions of marriage one could come up with. It involves no effort, no choice, no purposeful decision-making or selflessness. It involves “falling in love,” rather than loving. It suggests “sharing your life together,” rather than building a life together. Yet marriage must involve the latter, not the former, if it is to survive.

I’m not speaking from my own, still young, experience of marriage. I’m thinking about my grandparents, both sets, who celebrated 50+ years of marriage together. They were purposeful, careful, respectful. They made time for each other, honored each other. They were jealous of each other (in a healthy way), seeking to preserve intimacy and closeness to the exclusion of the outside world. They were romantic—nurturing the spark of love with gifts, flowers, acts of service, words of affection.

I’m also thinking of my parents and parents-in-law, who have celebrated 30 and 30+ years of marriage: both of whom have carefully set aside date nights since the beginning of their marriage, taking time to nurture intimacy despite the chaos of life and kids. They’ve conducted arguments behind closed doors, keeping their disagreements private from even their children. They’ve helped each other with everyday tasks, not dividing their lives into “his” and “her” portions. They take the time for kisses and compliments, no matter how busy the season. And they pray for each other—which seems to have given them a deeper compassion, empathy, and humility.

All of these couples have lived within, and before, our age of social media. Some of them have social media accounts; others do not. While they did not grow up in the wake of its affluence, but they must be cognizant of its various temptations nonetheless. Yet the virtues they have cultivated help them counter its poisoning effects: they are able to use Facebook or Instagram, and appreciate them, without getting sucked into their marriage-destroying vices.

All of this comes down to choice: actively seeking to thrive, even in a hostile environment. Life will always be tough on marriage. But the resilience with which you approach it strengthens your chances of succeeding. Finances are worrisome? Create a budget, and consider how best to use your resources. Don’t feel like having sex? Actively seek to cultivate romance with your married partner. Don’t just complain about it—seek to solve the problem. Instagram or Facebook distracting you from your spouse? Turn the damn phone off.

D’Ambrosio says at the end of his article that he believes “Marriage is sacred. It is the most beautiful sacrament and has tremendous promise for those fortunate enough to experience it. Divorced or not, I am a believer in true love and building a beautiful life with someone.”

But the religious language he employs (sacred, sacrament) speaks to an act rooted in and founded on grace. Grace is not a passive thing: it is a blessing given to us at great cost. If we believe that grace is indeed the foundation of marriage, we must expect to be called to the same virtue, and the same cost, in order to make it work.

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Finding a Cure For Loneliness

Olivia Laing wrote a fascinating piece on the “future of loneliness” for the Guardian. In it, she suggests that “loneliness centres on the act of being seen”—

When a person is lonely, they long to be witnessed, accepted, desired, at the same time as becoming intensely wary of exposure. According to research carried out over the past decade at the University of Chicago, the feeling of loneliness triggers what psychologists call hypervigilance for social threat. In this state … the individual becomes hyperalert to rejection, growing increasingly inclined to perceive social interactions as tinged with hostility or scorn. The result is a vicious circle of withdrawal, in which the lonely person becomes increasingly suspicious, intensifying their sense of isolation. …

This is where online engagement seems to exercise its special charm. Hidden behind a computer screen, the lonely person has control. They can search for company without the danger of being revealed or found wanting. They can reach out or they can hide; they can lurk and they can show themselves, safe from the humiliation of face-to-face rejection. The screen acts as a kind of protective membrane, a scrim that allows invisibility and transformation. You can filter your image, concealing unattractive elements, and you can emerge enhanced: an online avatar designed to attract likes. But now a problem arises, for the contact this produces is not the same thing as intimacy. Curating a perfected self might win followers or Facebook friends, but it will not necessarily cure loneliness, since the cure for loneliness is not being looked at, but being seen and accepted as a whole person – ugly, unhappy and awkward, as well as radiant and selfie-ready.

I think her definition of loneliness online is correct. It reminds me of the times I’ve anxiously checked status updates or tweets, to see if anyone has responded with a like or a favorite. We crave this sort of acknowledgement: to know that our presence is felt in the online world.

But does this present a full picture of what “loneliness” is? When I’m feeling lonely in reality, it’s usually because I’m seeking a friend to spend time with—I’m looking for someone to come over and watch a movie, grab coffee or go hiking with me. Loneliness in the real world is less about “being seen,” and more about seeking “withness”—seeking a comrade, a compatriot, to spend time with. We don’t want to experience or see things by ourselves: even watching Netflix becomes more enjoyable with someone to laugh with.

Yet social media seems to encourage a more me-centered loneliness: perhaps because it is centered around “profiles” and status updates. “Withness” involves you experiencing the world, encountering and acknowledging it objectively, alongside someone else. “Being seen” involves the world encountering and acknowledging you. This is a very important difference, and I think the two types of loneliness must be differentiated from each other. Because the latter seems better suited to cultivating true intimacy.

Seeking to be seen is likely to encourage an anxiety that cannot be assuaged. A person fixated on “being seen” in the right light is rarely able to understand or see themselves truly, because we are all darker and more spotted with sin than we would like to admit, even to ourselves.

But to seek “withness”—a friend or fellow with whom to share life’s experiences—takes our selfish desire to be seen by the world, and instead transforms it into a seeking to see. The best way to achieve intimacy is to know and love a person well—and to let them know and love you. Such relationships can, perhaps, happen online: but in the midst of the self-curation that goes into our lonely anxiety, it seems doubtful that the self revealed will ever be fully real. Physical reality does not allow us so many masks.

Loneliness seems to have more than one guise or form—and the medium of communication or community that we use can, I would argue, influence the sort of loneliness we are experiencing. Perhaps a social media experience that steps away from posting statuses and profile pictures would be more wholesome, and dispel some of the anxious loneliness that we can feel online.

But there’s nothing better for curing loneliness, and cultivating intimacy, than to strike out into the real world—forging new roads, and seeking strong friendships along the way.

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Against Kant and Consumerism

This article from the May/June issue hasn’t yet been published online. For now, it’s just available to subscribers—to read it right away, subscribe here and access the digital edition of the magazine. If you’re already a subscriber, log in here.

Raising Babies With Apps

“Are parents relying too much on technology to occupy their infants’ attention?” asks the New York Times in a Monday symposium. It’s a particularly controversial question in this day and age: some parents swear by iPad apps and phone games that help their children develop certain skills (and keep them entertained); other parents fear that exposure to technology at too young an age can have serious consequences.

All four respondents in the symposium urge caution when it comes to television, since it’s a very passive medium. But two respondents believe that interactive games can have beneficial results: “When properly selected, [interactive] games get infants to slow down and think, thus making decisions and exercising the gears in their brains,” writes Dan D. Yang. “If you really have to cook your dinner while keeping your infant occupied, interactive games can be a healthy distraction.”

Yet psychologist Lucy Jo Palladino notes that the American Academy of Pediatrics advises that screens be avoided altogether for children under the age of two, and that parents instead read aloud to their kids—”Because it builds a better brain.”

Yet here we face a difficulty: all children mimic their parents. It’s how they learn. Most children find technology appealing because they see their parents using it—and the average U.S. adult spends about two days per month using their phone, according to a study conducted last year. We always have smartphones on hand, often checking email, Facebook, Twitter throughout the day. The question is whether—beyond our own personal and cognitive wellbeing—this extreme connectedness may have a deleterious effect on our children.

Anna Prushinskaya wrote a thoughtful piece for The Atlantic last week about her “quantified” pregnancy: amongst today’s technologically savvy mothers, there are a myriad of mobile apps that digitally track one’s pregnancy—and apps that track naps, diaper changes, and feedings after the baby is born. She writes,

My experience of the baby is mechanized. Always I feel like I am gathering data, observing, making decisions about how to properly record our interactions. He is starting to smile, and sometimes I miss the start of the smiles, find my way to them towards the end, because I am entering data. … From the day he was born, I’ve been using my phone to time breastfeeding sessions. The lactation specialist was strict with me: 15 minutes, each side. Which means that I have often been browsing the Internet, checking and re-checking email, while breastfeeding, instead of staring at the fine hairs on the side of his head, instead of checking out the wax accumulating in his tiny ears, or the little flakes of skin between his eyebrows and near the corner of his eye.

… There is plenty of talk and research about the importance of limiting screen time for babies and young children. … But should new parents aim to limit their own screen time as well? Childhood has changed (as it has each generation), but parenting has too.

Of course, apps and Google and pregnant mom forums are all good tools. They can help us feel connected and informed, especially if we don’t have a community of peers in a similar place in life. However, that said—what do we miss when we regularly use our phones around our children? And what habits do we teach them? We forget, perhaps because we’re always watching the phone, that they’re always watching us.

Both posts reminded me of a conversation I recently had with my pastor’s wife. Her children are older—between preschool and first grade. She would often pull out her phone while the kids were playing at the playground: they were entertained and busy, so she felt she could take a moment to check Instagram, or message a friend.

But the other day, she didn’t. She watched them as they played. And she was struck by how often they were looking over at her, to see if she was watching. Their faces lit up when they saw that, indeed, she was watching them, smiling, telling them “good job” when they made it across the monkey bars. “How much do we miss when we’re on our phones?” she asked. “How often are they looking to see if we care, if we’re watching them?”

It’s definitely a thought-provoking question: and one that seems to speak to the heart of the dilemma in our discussion of technology. There is no perfect rule as to when we should use phones or when we should turn them off—whether children should use iPads or watch television. But really, the most important question seems to be this: are we connecting with our children? Do they see that we see them? And do they know that we love spending time with them, apart from technological media? If we can answer those questions, it seems the technology stuff may sort itself out.

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Why We Should “Protect” Our Weekends

I’ve noticed several friends on social media hashtagging their Saturday and Sunday excursions #protectingweekends. Usually these pictures accompany a weekend adventure into the city, a picture of delightful-looking brunch food, a visit to mountain scenery or botanic gardens, resplendent paintings, lovely latte art. I was curious as to whether this was a new trend, and if so, what it meant. So I found the the Instagram account associated with the hashtag, @protectingweekends. Founder (and D.C. resident) Alexandra Transon puts it thus:

We live in a society where people are always rushing to the next thing; where value, worth, and success are measure by how many hours we work or how little sleep we get; where relationships and rest and joy are pushed to the wayside because we’re “just too busy.” Protectingweekends [sic] is about taking those moments back. It’s about … pursuing relationships, finding adventure, loving others, creating beautiful things, investing in community, enjoying hobbies, and choosing joy. It’s about finding a day during the week to slow down, unplug, and do something life-giving. It’s about embracing a new culture where people matter more than professional success, and where our lives are driven by joy more than climbing the career ladder or checking off that to-do list.

It’s an interesting idea—and an old one. One of the first societal practices of weekend protection that comes to mind is, of course, the Sabbath. Throughout religious history, there have been communal rituals of rest: times of work, and times of stillness. The Sabbath was dedicated to an absence of work: it was a time of contemplation and communion. It reinforced an ethic that has faded in some (more overworked) groups of American society: the idea that we are more than money, work, and accomplishments. The idea that a rejuvenation of soul, mind, body, and community are important to human flourishing.

But in the collapse of religious rituals such as the Sabbath, where do we turn for rest? No day of the week is holy or set apart: we run frenziedly through the hours of our lives. Weekends meld into weekdays—even if we’re not doing career “work” of some sort, we are often cramming our days full with social obligations, meal prep for the week ahead, lists of chores and gardening tasks that must be done. Our weekends may present different sorts of work—but it’s still a lot of work.

In the absence of a meaningful weekend ritual, we turn to new, secularized traditions for comfort or peace: we start brunching regularly with friends, going to concerts, visiting museums. And in the age of social media, we can connect these experiences with a sort of “community” by hashtagging them #protectingweekends. In this way, we mimic the religious rituals and communities of times past.

None of these new practices (brunch, museums) are bad, of course. They can still be full of meaning and community. They can still nurture peace in our souls. But perhaps they fall prey to consumerism in ways that older weekend “protections” did not: our modern traditions often seem more passive, more consumptive, more focused on things than on people or philosophical truths. Weekend brunches can be lovely—but they do they hold the meaning or communal intimacy of Sabbath meals or family gatherings past?

Additionally, the presence of social media throughout our weekends seems likely to hamper true rest: doing things for, or in the presence of, an online community makes it difficult to fully focus on the present moment. Rather than attending to what the present company might enjoy most, we begin catering to potential “likes” or “favorites.” Social media continues to put us in the box of performance, rather than enabling us to embrace the freedom of stillness, of privacy. Again, this is not always true. Social media isn’t inherently bad—it’s a tool. But obsession over people-pleasing is a tendency we are all susceptible to.

“Protecting” a weekend should incorporate both a communal and a personal element—reaching out, while also nourishing one’s own soul. Perhaps this could involve putting aside needless distractions: any technology that impedes rather than fosters your ability to be present and mindful. It could involve scheduling a meeting or two with just a few close friends—making a meal together, or going on a hike. Perhaps it could involve baking something, and making extra to give to a neighbor—or writing a few letters to faraway family members. These would be ways in which to reach out, give, cultivate community.

Personal rejuvenation might involve reading a book—one that isn’t for work, one that instead stretches or comforts your mind (depending on what you need). Extra sleep—something Americans already lack—could be incorporated into the day. Going to a concert, even by oneself, can be an enjoyable experience: music is always refreshing. Enjoying a long walk or bike ride (especially in the spring weather) could also help provide needed moments of solitude. Visiting church is the perfect element to incorporate into a “protected” weekend, because it is both personally and communally rejuvenating.

Protecting a weekend is about more than saving time for “fun stuff” (although fun is always important). It’s also about the deep need that every human has for silence, rest, and peace. It’s about the mental and physical exhaustion we face when we refuse to stop rushing about. It’s about seeking to find a quiet space in the midst of frenzied lives, in order to cultivate relationships and mindfulness. Though it is difficult to achieve, I think protecting weekends is an admirable goal. Even an admirable hashtag.

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What the Shut-In Economy Destroys

Grocery pickup, home cleaning, takeout, laundry, Amazon: there’s a delivery app for almost everything nowadays. But Lauren Smiley writes that our new “sharing economy” seems to be creating, in fact, a “shut-in economy”:

In 1998, Carnegie Mellon researchers warned that the internet could make us into hermits. They released a study monitoring the social behavior of 169 people making their first forays online. The web-surfers started talking less with family and friends, and grew more isolated and depressed. “We were surprised to find that what is a social technology has such anti-social consequences,” said one of the researchers at the time. “And these are the same people who, when asked, describe the Internet as a positive thing.”

We’re now deep into the bombastic buildout of the on-demand economy—with investment in the apps, platforms and services surging exponentially. Right now Americans buy nearly eight percent of all their retail goods online, though that seems a wild underestimate in the most congested, wired, time-strapped urban centers.

Many services promote themselves as life-expanding — there to free up your time so you can spend it connecting with the people you care about, not standing at the post office with strangers. … But plenty of the delivery companies are brutally honest that, actually, they never want you to leave home at all.

Home delivery isn’t necessarily detrimental to community or society. But the nature of today’s home delivery service is much broader in its reach, and less communal in its medium. As Smiley points out, the deliverymen in today’s shut-in economy (unlike the milkman of times past) are often invisible—like the “Alfred” who drops off your groceries and puts your clean laundry in its drawers. Today’s litany of service apps take care of all the tasks that we traditionally had to do—the cooking, the cleaning, the laundry and dusting—yet there is rarely a human face which we can connect to the work.

This reminded me of an excerpt from Matt Crawford’s fascinating new book, The World Beyond Your Head. In it, he speaks of the ways we have increasingly mitigated reality, consigning ourselves to a virtual world that is more manipulable and controllable, one without the hazards and frustrations of reality. He writes,

As the world becomes more confusing, seemingly controlled by vast impersonal forces … as the normative expectation becomes to land a cubicle job, in which the chain of cause and effect can be quite dispersed and opaque; as home life becomes deskilled (we outsource our cooking to corporations, our house repairs to immigrant guest workers); as the material basis of modern life becomes ever more obscured, and the occasions for skillful action are removed to sites overseas, where things are made; to sites nearby but socially invisible, where things are tended and repaired; and to sites unknown, where elites orchestrate commercial and political forces—when all of this is the case, the experience of individual agency becomes somewhat elusive. The very possibility of seeing a direct effect of your actions in the world, and knowing that these actions are genuinely your own, may come to seem illusory.

Smiley’s article considers well the class divides and dilemmas that this new shut-in economy shows us. But it’s worth considering the philosophical dilemmas that this new reality presents us with, as well. As Crawford points out above, our tendency to virtualize our lives—to turn to computers, televisions, and apps for the bread and butter of vocation, recreation, and housework—has damaging repercussions for our mental and physical health. We delve into a mitigated reality, one in which we rarely see or experience the real-world consequences of our actions. We lose the ability to perform fundamental (yet meaningful) skills, like cooking or repairing our cars. We lose the camaraderie fostered through group activities and familial tasks. We also lose the virtues associated with conflict, failure, and imperfection—the traits of patience, perseverance, and wisdom that only come through commitment to a difficult skill.

It is also interesting that these services are all presented with the promise that they will save you time—yet the time that it saves us, according to Smiley’s research, is almost entirely dedicated to vocational tasks. As one young interviewee told Smiley, “I was talking to my father on Skype the other day. He asked, ‘Don’t you miss a casual stroll to the shop?’ Everything we do now is time-limited, and you do everything with intention. There’s not time to stroll anywhere.” Our delivery system isn’t freeing us up for more leisure time—but rather, for more work.

The peril in this, of course, exists in the fact that if our home spaces are increasingly dedicated to telecommuted work, rather than to communal activity or skilled labor of some sort, we will increasingly find ourselves departing from the physical world, and existing only within the pleasant yet tepid waters of virtual reality. “The world in which we acquire skill as embodied agents is precisely that world in which we are subject to the ‘negative affordances’ of material reality,” writes Crawford.

We are not just company employees, Dungeons & Dragons players, Netflix watchers: we are human beings with physical, corporeal selves—with hands and brains that grow sharp through even the most menial skills. A life that ignores the necessity of such skills will not just become physically “shut-in”—it will likely facilitate an intellectual and emotional closing, as well.

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Sufjan Stevens Considers Grief

Sufjan Steven’s latest album, “Carrie and Lowell,” is a poetic tribute to Steven’s mother, a woman he barely knew. A woman who suffered from schizophrenia, depression, bipolar disorder, alcoholism, and substance abuse problems, she left Stevens and his siblings when they were very young. After she remarried, Stevens spent some summers with her in Oregon as a child.

When she died of cancer, Stevens describes his grief as something of a shock: it was remarkably potent, considering their limited relationship. Yet grappling with that grief, in all its nuances and difficulties, created the foundation for Steven’s newest album—songs that are not exhibitionist, but rather emblematic of the pains, the virtues, and the vices of our grief.

In an interview with Pitchfork, Stevens described his relationship with his mother:

She left when I was 1, so I have no memory of her and my father being married. She just wandered off. She felt that she wasn’t equipped to raise us, so she gave us to our father. It wasn’t until I was 5 that Carrie married Lowell. He worked in a bookstore in Eugene, Oregon, and we spent three summers out there—that’s when we actually saw our mother the most.

But after she and Lowell split up, we didn’t have that much contact with Carrie. Sometimes she’d be at our grandparents’ house, and we’d see her during the holidays for a few days. There was the occasional letter here and there. She was off the grid for a while, she was homeless sometimes, she lived in assisted housing. There was always speculation too, like, “Where is she? What is she doing?” As a kid, of course, I had to construct some kind of narrative, so I’ve always had a strange relationship to the mythology of Carrie, because I have such few lived memories of my experience with her. There’s such a discrepancy between my time and relationship with her, and my desire to know her and be with her.

… She suffered from schizophrenia and depression. She had bipolar disorder and she was an alcoholic. She did drugs, had substance abuse problems. She really suffered, for whatever reason. But when we were with her and when she was most stable, she was really loving and caring, and very creative and funny. This description of her reminds me of what some people have observed about my work and my manic contradiction of aesthetics: deep sorrow mixed with something provocative, playful, frantic.

… We flew to see her in the ICU before she died. She was in a lot of pain, and on a lot of drugs, but she was aware. It was so terrifying to encounter death and have to reconcile that, and express love, for someone so unfamiliar. Her death was so devastating to me because of the vacancy within me. I was trying to gather as much as I could of her, in my mind, my memory, my recollections, but I have nothing. It felt unsolvable. There is definitely a deep regret and grief and anger. I went through all the stages of bereavement. But I say make amends while you can: Take every opportunity to reconcile with those you love or those who’ve hurt you. It was in our best interest for our mother to abandon us. God bless her for doing that and knowing what she wasn’t capable of.

The album begins with the soft, troubled lyrics “I don’t know where to begin.” Each of the songs contain touches of place and memory: the colors and scenery of Eugene, Oregon appear throughout—the city of Tillamook, Spencer’s Butte, Emerald Park.

Light struck from the lemon tree
What if I’d never seen hysterical light from Eugene?
Lemon yoghurt, remember I pulled at your shirt
I dropped the ashtray on the floor
I just wanted to be near you

This is also—according to Steven’s original press release about “Carrie and Lowell”—a return to his “folk roots.” The album’s plucked guitar and acoustic melodies are bluesy and nuanced, yet contain those traces of folk music that seem to parallel nicely with this return to historical, personal roots.

Did you get enough love, my little dove
Why do you cry?
And I’m sorry I left, but it was for the best
Though it never felt right
My little Versailles

Steven’s eclectic career has, in the past, demonstrated almost a lack of bounds: he’s written a ballet score, a symphonic tribute to the Brooklyn-Queens expressway, two albums about state history and geography, some of the most beautiful Christmas music I’ve heard.

Yet this album is defined by its limitations: it is the story of a singular relationship, its loss, and how the echoes of that loss reverberated throughout Steven’s life. As Spencer Kornhaber puts it for The Atlantic,

…The most important unifying attribute is restraint. Stevens’s voice only ever leaves “gentle whisper” mode to punctuate verses with a spooky, falsetto whine, and the arrangements develop subtly, adding in a single line of organ or guitar for variation where once there would have been a brass band or tabernacle choir. Indeed, the grandeur and camp that helped make him famous with Come On, Feel the Illinoise would feel obscene here; these songs don’t even attempt the acoustic majesty of Seven Swans, his gorgeous 2004 meditation on Christ and the apocalypse. “This is not my art project; this is my life,” Stevens has said, correctly.

You can contrast this soulful quality to the bubbly pop music of artists such as Taylor Swift, the exhibitionism with which such artists often flaunt their relationships. Much modern pop music is about the flesh in all of its momentariness: it’s about the absence of limits, the absence of burdens on the soul. What we see in Stevens’ music is a negative of our culture’s rootlessness: an album that fleshes out the angst, the deep hunger for connection, the yearning for roots and heritage, the loss and resulting rebellion, that burn in our souls.

The only reason why I continue at all
Faith in reason, I wasted my life playing dumb
Signs and wonders: sea lion caves in the dark
Blind faith, God’s grace, nothing else left to impart

Some have described Steven’s album as confessional; another calls it a collection of “modern hymns“; NPR says “it feels like a concept album about silence — silence to reflect, silence following a death, silence as an alternative to noise and confusion.”

This is the sort of album you listen to several times, each time looking for greater depth in the lyrics, the cadences of the music. It’s the sort of album that is likely to remind us each of our own personal losses, hurts, hidden burdens.

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“Seek a Better Life,” or Stay Put?

Sarah Skwire of the Foundation for Economic Education responded Thursday to my blogpost on the importance of staying put:

I don’t like Olmstead’s argument. Worried by a recent poll about the American tendency to relocate, she urges her readers to stay where they are and to bloom where they’re planted. … Stay put. Don’t change. How much better can it be anywhere else?

Reading Olmstead’s article made me think instantly of F.A. Hayek’s essay “Why I Am Not a Conservative.” In it, he points out that “one of the fundamental traits of the conservative attitude is a fear of change, a timid distrust of the new as such.” I have rarely seen a more thoroughgoing example of this kind of timidity than in Olmstead’s piece.

Stay where you are because it is where you are. If you leave in order to pursue economic opportunity, a wider range of social networks, a more appealing set of choices in restaurants and stores, or maybe just the chance to stay on the 29th floor of the Sofitel, you are betraying yourself.

I can understand Skwire’s critiques, and should perhaps add a caveat to my earlier post: not everyone always can or should “stay put” (especially if you’re defining this, as Skwire seems to be, as “staying put” in the place you grew up in, and never venturing into the outside world). Particular circumstances and people are important to take into account.

However, what I was hoping to point out—and what I think is important to understand—is that there has been a troubling migratory pattern in American life over the past several decades, and it’s beginning to take a toll on many communities. The goal of my post was to point out that we are, on the whole, too eager to move from place to place in modern America. Some people moving is not a problem: but a large percentage of people moving from place to place, not getting established in a community, does indeed become an issue. An interesting story in the Washington Post highlighted this trend Friday, and noted that some people are “going home” in order to hopefully “revive ailing towns and find a way forward for rural America”:

Nationally and globally, cities dominate. Four out of five Americans inhabit urban areas on a fraction of this country’s land, while rural residents continue to decline as a percentage of the population. As one America shrinks, the other overflows; both are searching for solutions.

As one mayor tells reporter Libby Sander, simply yet truthfully, “We need people.”

In my original post, I wrote, “We will never live in the city or town of our dreams. The grass will always be greener on the other side of the fence.” Skwire seems to think this only references the siren call of the city, its attractive urban setting. But in reality, I was speaking of a more general restlessness that often stirs in our souls. It doesn’t matter where we live, or where we move: there will always be a temptation to discontentment. Right now, I don’t live in my native land of Idaho, and I miss it. It is very easy to see all the flaws and weaknesses of living in one place, when you’re longing for another. But I believe that, since moving to Idaho (or anywhere else) is not possible for me right now, I should be invest myself as deeply in this community as I possibly can. Even if I did move back to Idaho, it wouldn’t be perfect: I would probably miss this place, the comforts and communities it brings. But we should care for our corner of the world, wherever it is: using our gifts and resources to build a better street, a better neighborhood, a better town or city.

Another interest argument that Skwire makes is that “humans have always relocated in order to better their economic position or to find freedom or for countless other reasons … Since when have conservatives tried to discourage others from taking responsibility for improving their own lives?”

I definitely would not discourage people from “taking responsibility for improving their lives.” By no means. Of course, some situations (violation of human rights, for instance) are horrific, and require relocation. All I would ask is that we consider whether moving is always necessary for improvement, or whether we can—in fact—make improvements and foster growth where we’re at. The importance of this is, of course, that if we only ever move, we may actually lose certain opportunities to grow and improve on an internal and local level. Although “seeking a better life” someplace far away is not always a bad idea, I think we too often assume that far-off places will be idyllic, exciting, full of promise—because we don’t know them, their weaknesses and hardships.

We will never find a perfect “place” or “home” in this life—because every place is flawed. But I do believe that—whether you’ve moved once, 12 times, or never—you can make your current habitation, your town or city, a home. You can love it, cherish it, invest in it. And that is what matters most.

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What Happened to the Willows

The Atlantic has published an excerpt from Wendell Berry’s recent book, Our Only World: Ten Essays. It’s a thought-provoking piece, and I urge you to read the whole thing. But in one particularly interesting passage, Berry writes of an alarming change he observed along the Kentucky River:

I don’t remember what year it was when I first noticed the disappearance of the native black willows from the low-water line of this river. Their absence was sufficiently noticeable, for the willows were both visually prominent and vital to the good health of the river. Wherever the banks were broken by “slips” or the uprooting of large trees, and so exposed to sunlight, the willows would come in quickly to stabilize the banks. Their bushy growth and pretty foliage gave the shores of the river a distinctive grace, now gone and much missed by the few who remember. Like most people, I don’t welcome bad news, and so I said to myself that perhaps the willows were absent only from the stretch of the river that I see from my house and work places. But in 2002 for the first time in many years I had the use of a motor boat, and I examined carefully the shores of the twenty-seven-mile pool between locks one and two. I saw a few old willows at the tops of the high banks, but none at or near the low-water line, and no young ones anywhere.

The willows still live as usual along other streams in the area, and they thrive along the shore of the Ohio River just above the mouth of the Kentucky at Carrollton. The necessary conclusion is that their absence from the Kentucky River must be attributable to something seriously wrong with the water. And so, since 2002, I have asked everybody I met who might be supposed to know: “Why have the black willows disappeared from the Kentucky River?” I have put this question to conservationists, to conservation organizations specifically concerned with the Kentucky River, to water-quality officials and to university biologists. And I have found nobody who could tell me why. Except for a few old fishermen, I have found nobody who knew they were gone.

Berry uses this example to point out that “experts”—in conservation and agriculture, particularly—are often poorly qualified to do their job, because they don’t understand local ecosystems. No matter their scientific proficiency, they lack a vital ingredient to truly understanding—and thus caring for—their environs: they are not natives.

Berry has grown up in Kentucky. He’s a descendent of Kentuckians. He knows and understands his place with the intimate knowledge of a native. Thus, he noticed the willows, and wondered what might have happened to them. Though two biologists are now at work on the dilemma, they have not as yet discovered any answers. The experience taught Berry this lesson: “Experts often don’t know and sometimes can never know.  Beneficiaries of higher education, of whom I am one, often give too much credit to credentials.”

But this anecdote speaks to a different dilemma, as well: namely, that people are not staying in their place, and thus are ignorant as to the ecosystems they are inhabiting. They don’t understand them—and thus, how are they to care for them? In an increasingly mobile America, we must consider the problem this presents.

Berry finishes,

Confronting industrial agriculture, we are requiring ourselves to substitute science for citizenship, community membership, and land stewardship. But science fails at all of these.
… We have an ancient and long-enduring cultural imperative of neighborly love and work. This becomes ever more important as hardly imaginable suffering is imposed upon all creatures by industrial tools and industrial weapons. If we are to continue, in our only world, with any hope of thriving in it, we will have to expect neighborly behavior of sciences, of industries, and of governments, just as we expect it of our citizens in their neighborhoods.

We need more people to become “natives” of their place.

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Are Millennials Bad Employees?

Millennials, some businesses complain, are horrible hirees. But why? Cliff White discusses these complaints in an article for The Week, then offers a millennial businessman’s rebuttal:

“One dig against millennials is that they’re never satisfied or that they’re flaky, but I look at it differently,” Bushner said. “I don’t think there’s been a giant shift in the way young people think or the way they want to act in the last 20 years, or for that matter, the last 200. I just think that maybe the millennial generation is just less afraid to go after what they want.”

… One CFO at a mid-sized manufacturer in New England (who’s related to me, and who asked to not be named so as to avoid bad-mouthing millennials publicly) is wary of hiring millennials after experiencing high absenteeism among their ranks.

“Many are high maintenance and don’t want to work hard,” he said. “Working to repetitive deadlines is not something millennials do well.” In response, Bushner said executives that think of millennials as lazy might want to reevaluate the way their own businesses are run.

“No, we’re not a punch-the-clock kind of workplace, but when we’re in a crunch, my team works harder than anyone,” Bushner said. “Are there millennials who are lazy? Sure, but to write off a whole generation as lazy is naive. If you put me into their more traditional company, they would probably call me lazy too and I’m working 60- to 80-hour weeks. Where an older generation of business leaders see laziness, I see creative energy that’s not being properly harnessed or applied.”

It seems that both White’s relative and Bushner have some good points. The former sees young employees who don’t have the traditional work ethic or sense of loyalty that older generations may have demonstrated; Bushner sees an ambitious set of young people who are more likely to push boundaries, yet also likely to bring great enthusiasm and creativity to a job they consider worthwhile or meaningful.

Millennials have grown up in a world that is debatably more globalized and individualized than ever before. We see this globalization reflected in the rise of the Internet and social media, the expansion of our individual worlds to literally include the world, rather than the more limited, local sphere emphasized in the lives of prior generations. We also see more grad students and young people moving about and living alone, seeking career and life opportunities in new places and cities. Millennials have a tendency to put off marriage, leave the church, live in the absence of society’s private institutions.

All these attitudes seem (at least somewhat) spurred on by a multiplicity of choice, an awareness of the options and the avenues that lie outside our present career paths or personal goals. This awareness often leads us into discontent, uncertainty, restlessness, even laziness. We struggle to commit when the array of surrounding choices encourages a deep inward angst, a sense of not having, doing, or experiencing enough.

Millennials in the workplace may (and, from limited personal experience, often do) experience this sort of restlessness and discontent. It makes it difficult for them to fully commit to their current jobs. There is always a sense that they could be missing out on the next opportunity to advance, to find a more fun or promising career, to find deeper meaning in their vocation. One could say that FOMO informs our career decisions as much as it fuels our social lives.

How do we combat this trend? Not by emphasizing the importance of hiring millennials on their own terms, as Bushner seems to suggest. This only reinforces a sense of entitlement and control, a tendency for them to see their current position as “settling.” Neither should companies worry that they must constantly “innovate” in order to keep young employees, as the article’s author seems to suggest. “New” does not always mean “better,” and it would be wrong for millennials or their employers to adopt such an attitude.

But here’s one idea—it seems that more companies need to build their individual workers into a team: a well-knit, reinforcing, mutually-supporting group of employees who are responsible for each other and accountable to each other. By building such camaraderie, companies remove jobs and employment from the realm of individual ambition, and give them a larger sense of community. Not every job is glamorous. Not every career carries with it a sense of special purpose or meaning. But every job can offer employees a chance to be part of a team, part of a cohort that is connected and close. And it could be that this is what millennials need in order to forsake their dissatisfaction, and stay put. Other tactics—offering greater workplace flexibility, financial incentives, company benefits—could be viewed as secondary, if employees really feel they are part of a team they enjoy working with.

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Searching for a Better Dystopia

Shailene Woodley, Theo James and Ansel Elgort in “Insurgent” (Andrew Cooper/Lionsgate)
Shailene Woodley, Theo James and Ansel Elgort in “Insurgent” (Andrew Cooper/Lionsgate)

Watching “Insurgent,” it was easy to get caught up in the laughter and enjoyment of the audience. The second film adaptation of Veronica Roth’s popular YA dystopian series, “Insurgent” features some talented young actors and actresses, some great visual effects, a couple intense action scenes.

But the problem you will hear consistently from reviewers and watchers is this: it’s a cookie-cutter version of a book, and thus a movie, that has been made several times over throughout the past decade. Obviously, it still has some appeal—”The Maze Runner” series, final installment of “The Hunger Games,” and final adaptation of the “Divergent” series will all be coming out over the next couple years. Yet audiences are still expressing some weariness over these parallel plots.

They usually feature some sort of sorting system or hazing ritual for the books’ high school protagonists. There is also some sort of authoritarian government ruled by out-of-touch grownups. The character cast often features a young and likeable side character who dies, or is hurt in some way. And the protagonist is always some sort of Luke Skywalker-esque “chosen one,” who approaches their fate-appointed leadership role with an alarmed, selfless “Who, me?” response.

It should be apparent why this storyline so often appeals to young adults who read the books: we all like to be the wronged and tortured ones. When we’re young, it’s easy to think our lives are dramatic, star-crossed—we even like a little tragedy, as long as it doesn’t directly hurt us. We often also like to think the adults in our lives are evil dictators, trying to prevent us from being happy. The modern dystopian novel just adds action and drama to a modern high school setting.

In addition to all this, the book/films’ protagonists are not emotionally complex or interesting. They’re not even consistent, most often. In The Hunger Games, Katniss is a stormy, moody character—but without any consistent internal development, personal conflict, or overarching motive. Her familial affections are constantly overlooked, clouded, or forgotten in light of her romantic interests—which seem to waffle from page to page. Her relationship with the antagonist (President Snow) is at once defiant, then terrified, then sullen. Because of this volatility, we never get to really understand who Katniss is—thus making it very difficult to empathize with her. Divergent’s Tris, while similarly moody and overwrought, develops a sliver more consistency in voice over time. But both Jennifer Lawrence’s and Shailene Woodley’s portrayals of the books’ protagonists seem considerably more developed and consistent than the authors’ versions.

Why we haven’t seen more diversity in the dystopian genre as of late? It would be one thing if these were just films: we’re used to seeing the same underdog sports story, the same superhero films, over and over again. But these are book adaptations, plots created by authors who are regurgitating up the same tired stories at a ceaseless rate.

It could be that Hollywood has not discovered some unknown gems that may lace the dystopian genre—and if so, hopefully such works will begin to surface. But we still need some new novels—if not for our own sakes, at least for the young adults who more consistently read them. They needn’t be entirely new and brilliant; but couldn’t we at least write something more along the lines of Brave New World than 1984? It would feature a contrasting world, a diverse yet interesting array of characters. It would look at the consequences of hedonism, rather than the consequences of authoritarianism.

But perhaps the reason Huxley’s dystopia is the less popular of the two, is because it hits too close to home. It’s more fun watching domineering bad guys get crushed by upstart teenagers than it is to see a pleasure-centric society killing itself with ignorance and lust.

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From Farm to Front Door

photo by Jennifer Farley, Savory Simple
photo by Jennifer Farley, Savory Simple

Since fall of last year, I’ve had a bushel of vegetables delivered to my front doorstep every other week. The boxes (recently switched to more-sustainable bags) contain everything from tomatoes to parsnips, fresh herbs to polenta.

The company I get my produce from—From the Farmer—is a locavore-minded company headquartered in Beltsville, Maryland. Founded four years ago with a customer base of one or two hundred, the delivery company now serves 4,000 customers in a 200-square-mile radius, scattered over 600 zip codes in the Maryland, D.C., and NOVA area.

I mentioned the company to Forrest Pritchard, farmer and author of Gaining Ground, last year when talking to him about the future of sustainable farming. He got very excited. This is how you know a market is flourishing, he said—when the intermediaries spring up. When it isn’t just direct farmer-to-consumer sales, like CSAs (community-supported agriculture) and farmer’s markets, but when others step in to facilitate those sales. From the Farmer is a sign, Pritchard said, that sustainable farming is what consumers want—and that they’re trying to get it, even if they don’t have time for farmer’s markets or CSA drops.

So why does From the Farmer do what they do? Is all their produce local? What are their plans for the future? To find out, I drove Thursday to the company’s headquarters.

The warehouse-style building is open and bright. The front room is focused around a large square table, where the FTF team usually eats their meals together. One of the company’s employees had smoked meat for the team’s lunch, and the smell still wafted through the room when I arrived.

Most of the people at From the Farmer are young millennials who probably fit several hipster stereotypes. They drink local artisan coffee, enjoy eating granola, talk a lot about sustainability. But I can’t help but wonder whether it’s these people who will revitalize America’s food landscape—not by circumventing free market models, but by presenting a new ethic of value to the American populace.

Jason Lundberg, co-founder of From The Farmer, walked me through the building as he talked about the company, its customer base and methodology. The company has 21 employees: 14 work during the day, seven during the night. Their space is purposefully community-centric: “no conference rooms, no walls.”

In the back room, two assembly lines of employees were putting vegetables, loaves of Lyon Bakery bread, and Whiffletree Farm eggs into their respective bags. Customers can either opt for an automatic selection of produce, or customize their bag according to their tastes (i.e., more carrots, no cabbage, and a loaf of Jewish rye).

Lundberg explained the timeline: the farmers usually pick their produce around 5 a.m., and the company’s trucks pick it up by 8. The trucks return to FTF headquarters around 11 a.m., and everything is packed by 6 or 7 p.m. The trucks leave for deliveries around 10 p.m., and work all through the night. “It’s about a 24-hour turnaround,” he said.

I have noticed that the FTF bags will occasionally contain oranges or avocados. I’m not complaining—both items have been fresh and flavorful—but I was curious as to how the company incorporates this into their local vision. Lundberg said this is a way for them to satiate customer’s needs and desires, while also helping fund future local sales. Their vision is to buy mostly local, but to occasionally supplement with “non-local, honest” items. Most of the farmers the company works with are the same ones they partnered with four years ago—and they hope to continue working with them in the future.

I’ve also been surprised at the pristine assortment of vegetables in my basket—in fact, they’ve been spotless enough to leave me skeptical. If this is farm-fresh, shouldn’t there be some ugly ducklings in the bunch? Jason explained that they’re very picky about what they put in their bags—and they have to be, because customers are likely to complain about any bruised or less-than-perfect produce. (This is a consistent American dilemma: consumers are used to pristine fruits and vegetables, and their choosiness—combined with careless consumption practices—leads to astounding food waste.)

But FTF fights food waste in a couple different ways: first, by conscientiously composting. “We generate one bag of trash per week,” Lundberg said, while gesturing to two large composting bins in the center of the room. They give their composting items to a composting company and a local farm.

FTF is also trying to educate their customer base, to explain that bruised or deformed items are often okay, even delicious. In the meantime, however, they have to be selective. He showed me huge boxes of produce that were deemed “not good enough” by sorters. At first, I was horrified. They all looked perfectly good to me. But Jason said that almost all this rejected produce is either eaten by the FTF team, or donated: to the Montgomery County men’s shelter, to a local Baptist church’s food shelter, or to “Misfit Juicery”—a D.C. company that, as the name suggests, uses bruised or damaged produce to make juices.

Of the company’s sales, approximately 40 percent goes back to the farmers (the percentage is sometimes higher, sometimes lower). Lundberg admitted quickly that, if people want to support their local farmers, the best way to do so is by joining a CSA or visiting a farmer’s market. He ranks his own company fourth in the best ways to support local farmers, behind CSAs, farmer’s markets, and farm co-ops. The company’s flexible schedule, in which customers can turn orders “on” or “off” from week to week, is structured so that customers can take a leave of absence for summer CSAs or a weekend’s farmer’s market.

But FTF has been remarkably successful for a company that chiefly advertises its existence via word of mouth. And much of this success seems to stem from its easy, customizable nature: considering the chaotic lives of many in the D.C. metro area, FTF provides goods to people who may be unable to join a CSA or visit a farmer’s market. By delivering the farm to your doorstep, they cut out a step that many have trouble taking. This intermediary service may be what many farmers need to reach a wider customer base.

Lundberg still has some concerns, however, with the growing online farm-to-consumer market. Throughout our discussion, he emphasized the importance of trusting partnerships: “We want long-term alliances with specific farmers,” Lundberg said. When they picked up their first two apple crates from a local farm four years ago, the farmer never thought he’d see the two city boys and their truck again. Yet Lundberg says they paid that farmer a quarter million dollars last year.

What would happen, though, if an online farmer’s market similar to Amazon were to spring up, with different produce and meat farmers all advertising their various products? In the absence of relationship, Lundberg fears this farmer-Amazon would hurt independent, small enterprises in the same way the real Amazon has hurt small book publishers. “I’m scared about what happens if technology takes over,” he said. This is why locavorism is different, why an emphasis on rootedness in place has become so important to so many food consumers: in a world full of choices, sometimes the best thing you can do is to focus on the choices next door to you.

Lundberg is right that, if you want all of your money to go directly to the farmer, a CSA or farmer’s market is your best bet. But From the Farmer serves a very unique purpose: from its doorstep delivery model to its plans for eliminating food waste, the company presents a vision that is farm-focused, while also transcending the farm.

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Why Staying Put Matters, And Why It’s So Hard

A lot of Americans are committed to staying close to home—but that doesn’t mean all of them are happy about it. The newest Heartland Monitor Poll considers where Americans live, and how they feel about their place. Responses were mixed, as The Atlantic‘s Gillian White reports:

Those who hail from rural areas and small towns were more likely to report staying in one area for multiple decades than their peers in larger metropolitan areas. Southern inhabitants were more likely to pick up and to move in 5 years or less, while those in the Mountain and Northeast regions were more likely to stay put.

Even though most Americans said that they liked the general direction their local areas were headed in, respondents had mixed feelings about the opportunities available in their areas for young people. Fifty percent of respondents said that they would not recommend their local area, while 42 percent said they would. City dwellers were the most apt to see their area as best for young people, with more than half saying they’d tell them to settle down there, while those in rural areas were less likely to encourage young people to come to their neck of the woods. … Even though they are aware of the problems in cities and towns where they live, most Americans aren’t considering moving any time soon. Sixty-one percent of respondents said the probability of relocation was not very likely—with 41 percent saying it wasn’t likely at all.

A lot of people make decisions to move (or not move) based on job opportunities. Also, there’s the college dynamic: higher-educated young people are more likely to pick up and move, either before or after they finish their education. As the New York Times noted last October, “about a million [college graduates] cross state lines each year, and these so-called young and the restless don’t tend to settle down until their mid-30s.”

Staying put—fully inhabiting, loving, and stewarding the place in which you live—is a conservative idea in many respects. It’s interwoven with the idea of civic care and involvement, the importance of commitment to the political, economic, and cultural wellbeing of a community. But it is also, increasingly, an option that makes financial sense. Although metropolitan areas offer more jobs and higher salaries, they also often mean exorbitantly priced housing and longer commutes, as well as expensive groceries, household items, and childcare.

That said, being mobile and moving to a new place also offers greater independence, financial security, lifestyle options, and economic incentives. City dwellers live in a vibrant intellectual and cultural environment, with a plethora of restaurants, theaters, and museums at their disposal. They can spend more time with their peers: the city is more likely to be overflowing with young, like-minded professionals than small-town Iowa is. New buildings, attractive downtowns, and thriving commerce areas are all more likely to be present—and will contrast starkly with America’s ghostlike heartland towns.

It’s tough to make a case for the small town, and it’s tough to stay in a small town. So why do people do it?

White talked to Marilyn Brown, a woman who’s decided to stay in Cleveland despite growing crime and lack of opportunity. “I don’t have a great big family. We’re all right here together,” she told White. And in addition to the family incentives, White writes, “Brown’s reticence is partially because she doesn’t think that a move would eliminate the hassles she faces in Cleveland, but instead just introduce different ones. ‘Everybody is having problems with one thing or another.’”

Many people have realized that mobility takes a long-term toll on their family and community life. Not only that, moving to a place for recreational or consumeristic purposes is a sapping and exorbitant lifestyle choice, in a time when employment opportunities are still tenuous, especially for younger Americans. Staying “close to home” is more attractive when you know that there will be a safety net, a support group, and a community in that place—to help you even through times of financial difficulty.

But Brown’s answer also reminds us that there is no such thing as a perfect place. We will never live in the city or town of our dreams. The grass will always be greener on the other side of the fence. That’s why committing to a place—its people, its quirks, its flaws as well as its strengths—is one of the most freeing options we have. It is in planting ourselves that we can learn to thrive.

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Bringing Back the “Home Economy”

On Friday, March 27th, I’ll be participating in a Capitol Hill symposium organized by The Family in America and cosponsored by the Front Porch RepublicThe panelists will be discussing the importance of “The Home Economy,” and how best to revitalize it. I strongly urge you to join us for the event!

“Rediscovering the Home Economy”

Friday, March 27, 2015, 11:00 a.m. – 1:00 p.m.

The Capitol Skyline Hotel, 10 I (eye) St. Southwest, Washington, D.C.

 The American Home Economics Association organized in 1908. Through laws designed to revive rural America (Smith-Lever Extension Act of 1914) and promote the family (Smith-Hughes Vocational Training Act of 1917), the discipline became the favored child of the Federal government, reaching its apogee during the 1950s. During the 1960s and ‘70s, however, Home Economics came under attack by feminists and others, and the discipline essentially imploded.

In the second decade of the 21st century, though, a new vision of the home economy is rising. Home businesses, home schooling, home gardens—around the U.S., movements are brewing. Americans are increasingly dissatisfied with big, corporate, and remote, and are instead looking for ways to make their homes into vibrant economic centers once again.

Our tax codes and legal system have not yet caught up, stuck in the “bigger is better” mantra that arguably enervated the old Home Economics and that has otherwise let us down. How might we go about crafting a new public policy? How might the errors of the old Home Economics be avoided? And what would a policy that supports the 21st-century home and family as economic centers even look like?

Featuring

 Shannon Hayes
(Author of Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture)

Mark T. Mitchell
(Author of The Politics of Gratitude and co-founder of The Front Porch Republic)

Gracy Olmstead
(Associate Editor at The American Conservative)

Allan Carlson
(Editor at The Family in America)

Free Panel and Lunch: To Register or for more information, contact Nicole King at (815) 742-4387 or Nicole@profam.org

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Eating the Hyperlocal Way

photo by Ash Carr photography

The town of Alexandria, Virginia cultivates a particularly fierce brand of loyalty. Those who grew up there—or live there long enough—develop a sense of loyalty that ties them to the city. Alexandria even seems to naturally grow attitudes of classical conservatism: a desire for conservation, cultivation of the small and family-centric, stewardship of the classical arts and architecture, pride of place, etc. These old-fashioned mores spill over into the way people shop, the pastimes they pursue, the bars and restaurants they frequent. Those who live in Alexandria become Alexandrians.

This was abundantly clear when conversing with Chad Sparrow and Larry Walston, two of a four-person team that just opened a new restaurant in Alexandria’s Parker-Gray neighborhood called Mason Social. The four partners (two of them brothers) all grew up in Alexandria and attended TC Williams High School. Sparrow’s parents live up the street. His kids are “third-generation Alexandrians,” he says. He knows members of city government and local businesses owners.

“I honestly thinks it’s one of the best places you can live,” he told me.

Considering their roots, it makes sense that the four friends are trying to keep the spirit and history of Alexandria alive through their most recent project: the opening of Mason Social. The new restaurant is located in a formerly abandoned property in Parker-Gray, part of an area that will be extensively redeveloped over the next several years. Sparrow, Walston, and their associates saw the potential of the area, and decided to take the plunge.

“We wanted a place where locals could hang out, not tourists,” said Sparrow. He explained that most restaurants on King Street, especially near the waterfront, attract large crowds of visitors, but rarely offer a community hub. They hope to counter that with Mason Social.

But the restaurant team not only seeks to “create a space where the diverse and growing neighborhood could gather”—they also seek to resurrect and preserve local history. The restaurant is named “Mason Social” after Thomson Mason, a grandson of the founder George Mason and former mayor of Alexandria. He was both farmer and lawyer, and the restaurant stands on land he once farmed and owned.

2S2A5568Mason Social brings this theme of Alexandrian history alive in distinct ways: Sparrow and Walston’s team have used antiques, old industrial pipes and architectural components, mason jars, and old-fashioned light bulbs to tie the restaurant’s design to its roots. They collected old black-and-white photos from local library archives—photos of farmland and historic buildings—and used them to wallpaper the walls.

Even the food is inspired by this vision of honoring the local and historic: the food, says Sparrow and Walston, is 100 percent locally acquired, featuring “rustic dishes with a modern twist.” I sampled a roasted squash salad, a chicken sandwich topped with celery hearts, guajillo pepper and paprika-spiced fries, and—my favorite—brussels sprouts with bacon and cider.  Executive Chef Joseph Lennon already has practice cooking in this vein: he once worked at King Street’s upscale restaurant Vermilion, under then-Executive Chef Anthony Chittum. Vermilion is also committed to supporting local vendors.

Mason Social is small—but the owners wanted to offer a close-knit communal setting. It’s meant to be a neighborhood watering hole, an “every-other-night place,” where you go to watch football games or catch up with old friends. Sparrow says they’ve already built a following of regulars, and hope to continue cultivating those relationships.

Mason Social’s story also offers interesting commentary on the changing nature of Alexandria’s Parker-Gray community: as more people move to Alexandria, the neighborhood north of King Street appears to be changing to become a more upscale, renovated, mixed-use area. The Parker-Gray neighborhood has an interesting and important history, one that hopefully will continue to be preserved as new buildings and housing complexes are built, and as restaurants move in. As historic preservation planner Catherine Miliaras told the Washington Post last year, “Markers and memorials, lectures and oral histories can capture and honor cultural significance and meaning, but our collective understanding is greatly enhanced by having a physical building, place or street for understanding the past.”

What perhaps makes Mason Social so perfect for the area is its long-term, community-centric vision: the owners are using an already-existing building, property, and history to create something new. “We want to be pioneers in this area,” Sparrow told me—but they’re rather old-fashioned pioneers. They’re Alexandrians, after all.

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Is the Export-Import Bank Conservative?

Fred Hochberg, Chairman of the Export Import Bank,  U.S. Department of Agriculture / Flickr
Fred Hochberg, Chairman of the Export Import Bank, U.S. Department of Agriculture / Flickr

“Crony capitalism, crony capitalism, that’s all they ever say, over and over again.”

Arkansas Republican Randy Barsalou’s words to the New York Times aptly describe the Republican establishment’s frustration with Tea Party free marketeers. The latter’s strong nose for cronyism often pits them against their GOP allies, who are less dogmatic about free-market issues. This has recently become evident in debates over the little-known Export-Import Bank, and whether Congress should reauthorize it—as reporter Jonathan Weisman wrote Monday:

The Export-Import Bank guarantees loans to overseas customers of thousands of American companies. Without congressional reauthorization, it will cease to exist after June 30 — an 81-year-old institution felled by the passions of the Tea Party movement. Conservatives hold the bank up as the essence of crony capitalism, a market-distorting favor factory for huge companies like Boeing and Caterpillar. Its death, they argue, would herald a new era of free-market governance.

In the last two weeks, the battle over whether to save it or let it die has begun in earnest.

For conservatives, frustrated by their failure to overturn the Affordable Care Act or stop President Obama’s immigration policies, killing the Export-Import Bank has taken on enormous importance. They do not have to overcome a presidential veto or beat a Democratic filibuster. They simply have to refuse to bring it to a vote.

Created in 1934, the “Ex-Im Bank” is meant to “supplement and encourage” private sources of capital, reach international agreements to reduce government-subsidized export financing, and provide financing at rates and on terms that are “fully competitive” with those of other foreign government-supported export credit agencies (12 U.S.C. 635 (b)(1)(A)(B)). “Supporters believe that the Eximbank helps U.S. companies compete against foreign companies that receive government support and provide leverage in trade policy negotiations,” says the Government Accounting Office in a report about Ex-Im.

But Washington Examiner columnist and investigative reporter Tim Carney disagrees: “Ex-Im Bank guarantees private loans to foreign buyers to buy U.S. goods,” he said during a panel on cronyism at February’s Conservative Political Action Conference. “This takes away the moral underpinning for free enterprise. We have to believe that when people pursue profit in open, free market, it opens up opportunities for all.”

The Congressional Research Service summarizes the two conflicting sides thus:

Debate over Ex-Im Bank reauthorization is rooted in an underlying debate over the appropriate role of the U.S. government in export promotion. Congressional and stakeholder views on Ex-Im Bank vary. Proponents contend that the Bank supports U.S. exports and jobs by addressing shortfalls in private sector financing and helping U.S. exporters compete against foreign companies backed by their governments’ ECAs. Critics assert that it crowds out private sector activity, picks winners and losers through its support, operates as a form of “corporate welfare,” and poses a risk to taxpayers.

Does Ex-Im create U.S. jobs, as its proponents suggest? Not according to the Government Accountability Office, which says government export programs like Ex-Im “largely shift production among sectors within the economy rather than raise the overall level of employment in the economy.” Delta airlines claims that “By some estimates, the [Ex-Im] Bank’s loan guarantees have resulted in up to 7,500 lost U.S. carrier jobs, and up to $684 million of lost income for U.S. airline employees annually.”

Even the money that does help create U.S. jobs doesn’t really assist small businesses, says the House Committee on Financial Services: even though “Congress requires that 20% of Ex-Im’s authorizations go to small businesses,” they report that “Ex-Im consistently fails to meet this statutory requirement.  In reality, only .01 percent of America’s small businesses receive any help at all from Ex-Im.”

Finally, according to data from Ex-Im and the U.S. Department of Commerce, Ex-Im financed only about 1 percent of total U.S. exports in 2014. It doesn’t seem that critical to our economy.

However, there is a diplomatic/foreign policy angle to this debate that shouldn’t be overlooked. As the GAO notes in a report about Ex-Im, “Seventy-three countries have export credit agencies,” and each of the seven largest G-7 industrial nations “maintains various types of export finance assistance programs. … [These programs] all help exporters compete for market share in developing markets by providing loans, guarantees, and insurance.” According to this view, the Ex-Im Bank fulfills a national interest by ensuring our competition with the outside world—a world in which some economic players aren’t as devoted to free market principles as we might like.

But free-market defenders would argue that such a position leads to protectionism, which “runs exactly counter to the principles of free trade and private enterprise that Adam Smith enunciated and that have enriched the world,” as my fellow associate editor Jonathan Coppage adroitly characterized the argument. “Business should do business where it can, and governments picking winners and losers leads to an arms race with everyone camped behind their borders, not freely trading, not being mutually benefited.” Carney points out that even if the bank’s defenders “point to foreign Ex-Im banks to justify U.S. Ex-Im,” those banks are also pointing at us to justify their subsidies.

Both sides have their strengths: whether from a national interest perspective, or from an economic viewpoint. As in many foreign policy debates, this issue comes down to whether we think governments must energetically compete with each other, or whether we think a laissez faire approach can, in fact, be beneficial to all parties.

If Republicans do not renew the Ex-Im bank, they’re likely to face push-back from their constituents, like Ted Cruz has. For them, standing firm on Ex-Im may become a politicized and even damaging move. As the GAO notes, “Given the growing importance of exports to national economic performance, and the belief that government export finance programs contribute to this performance, achieving the ultimate objective of eliminating all financial subsidies may prove difficult.”

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Why Local Food Freedom Matters

The Wyoming Food Freedom Act is a rare beast: a bill, just signed into law by Wyoming’s Governor Matt Mead, that fights for the deregulation of locally-produced foods and promotes direct farm-to-consumer food sales.

As The Republic reports, the act exempts “Wyoming food sales from government inspections, licensing and certification as long as they are single transactions between a producer and an ‘informed end consumer.’” This applies to farmers’ market sales, as well as “the ability for small farmers or other individuals to sell homegrown or locally raised products.” Such direct-to-consumer sales will no longer be subjected to any “licensure, permitting, certification, inspection, packaging, or labeling” requirements by state agencies.

“This law will take local foods off the black market. It will no longer be illegal to buy a lemon meringue pie from your neighbor or a jar of milk from your local farm,” Representative Tyler Lindholm, sponsor of the bill, told Farm to Consumer. Farm to Consumer notes that, despite some fears of public health, the bill had widespread local support:

The Senate committee hearing was packed with consumers, ranchers, farmers and small food producers. They told the senators that the government should not be involved in dictating what kinds of food an individual wants to buy.

“The government is not my parent,” said Cheyenne resident Lisa Glauner. “I would much rather have food the way God made it than to have FDA-approved food that is not even real, like Kraft macaroni and cheese that doesn’t even have real ingredients.”

Frank Wallis from northern Campbell County, said many rural residents also depend on being able to sell their locally produced foods as a way to supplement their incomes. “I urge you all to vote for this bill; it will be good for the rural economy of Wyoming,” he said. “It will help small ranchers and farmers make a living.”

Joel Salatin, in his book Everything I Want to Do Is Illegal, describes the beauty of local food sales—a system in which we could enjoy local baked goods from our neighbor, a steak from a steer “that never stepped onto a trailer to be co-mingled at a slaughterhouse with animals of dubious extraction,” but was rather killed on its home farm “by the farmer who cared for it,” washed down with wine from “the neighbor’s grapes.” It’s a vision of community-based entrepreneurship, a system that would allow start-ups and small artisans to thrive.

Why doesn’t this system exist? “Because everyone is paranoid of the unscrupulous,” Salatin answers. This fear is one we hold in common—traditional conservatism encompasses a healthy appreciation of human fallibility and sin, the tendency to act out of greed rather than out of care—but the way in which we address this fear of the unscrupulous often differs considerably from the liberal position, which strives to address corruption and error via a top-down system. This is the system currently in place—but in practice, regulators and government bureaucrats are just as prone to human error and greed as producers are. The “government-can-fix-it” mentality just leads to crony capitalism, regulations that favors agribusinesses and hurt the small farmer or artisan.

As Salatin puts it, “While [the government fix] may start sincerely, by the time it gets implemented on the ground and has been through the sieve of corporate dinners, it hurts the little guys and helps the big guys.” Eventually, the food deemed “safe” becomes more and more homogenous, in order to prevent any sort of error: “In the name of offering only credentialed safe food, we will only be able to eat irradiated, genetically adulterated, inhumane, taste-enhanced, nutrient-deficient, emulsified, reconstituted pseudo-food from Archer Daniels Midland, ‘supermarket to the world.’”

Salatin’s language is colorful and humorous, but hopefully it doesn’t distract too much from his larger point: federal regulations can’t and won’t fix the unscrupulous. Oftentimes, they just whitewash it. While federal accountability isn’t wrong in and of itself, it’s an expensive and often impractical means of accountability. A more efficient, diverse, and principled system (though more personally-taxing) is the local one, in which consumers can visit, converse with, and personally inspect the farms from which they procure their food. It’s a system policed without government cost, and reinforced by self-interest.

Of course products sold nationally, over great distances, may continue to require a standard of public health, so that shoppers know the process by which produce makes it into their grocery carts was sanitary, responsible, and consistent. But why should the standards required for this sort of long-term travel also be applied to direct farm-to-consumer food sales? It’s not only impractical—it’s expensive, for both consumer and producer. And it’s why Wyoming’s Food Freedom Act makes so much sense.

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