Thursday, October 22, 2015

Unholy Price Controls

I've been reading New Testament scholar David deSilva's book on Revelation titled Unholy Allegiances. In it, he discusses John's anti-imperial rhetoric within the Book of Revelation. But what jumped out at me recently was his discussion of Revelation 6:
We should remember that part of what Rome enjoyed came to her by way of trade, but another large part came by way of tribute—the enormous sums of money that each province collected and sent to Rome for the support of Rome’s army, Rome’s empire-wide building and military operations, and Rome’s lifestyle. The Roman economy included the provision of free grain and oil for the city of Rome’s 200,000 families on the “dole”—a perk of living in the capital of the empire. As John watches the cargoes of “wine and oil and fine flour and grain” streaming toward Rome (Rev 18: 13), he watches the prices of staples like barley and wheat rise in the provinces where the grains are grown. Rome purchased these grains inexpensively from the provinces in fixed minimum quantities and at fixed prices. This meant that the residents of the provinces often had to pay inflated prices for the insufficient amounts of grain that were left, and in times of shortage went without. The situation was made worse as local landowners used more and more of their land to produce crops that brought in a better financial yield per arable acre. Market demands made the production of oil and wine far more attractive, often leading to scarcity in the essentials of wheat and barley in the provinces. Revelation 6: 5–6 reflects a situation in which the prices of staples are grossly inflated, while production of oil and wine proceeds unabated. 

When [the Lamb] opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, "Come!" So I looked, and there was a black horse. Its rider held a balance for weighing in his hand. I heard what sounded like a voice from among the four living creatures. It said, "A quart of wheat for a denarion, and three quarts of barley for a denarion, but don't damage the olive oil and the wine." (Rev 6:5-6 CEB) 

John calls attention to the parasitic side of the Roman imperial economy, countering any feelings of gratitude toward Rome by drawing attention to the pervasive self-interest that underlies Roman rule.[1]

Price controls are not a thing of the past. "The political rationales for such laws," writes economist Thomas Sowell, "have varied from place to place and from time to time, but there is seldom a lack of rationales whenever it becomes politically expedient to hold down some people's prices in the interest of other people whose political support seems more important."[2] It is interesting how imperial price controls were condemned by ancient apostles because of their exploitation of the poor. Now, they are sold by politicians as benefiting the poor (or perhaps the "middle class").

Unfortunately, they are as unholy as they ever were.

1. David A. deSilva, Unholy Allegiances: Heeding Revelation's Warning (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers Marketing, LLC, 2013), Kindle edition. Ch. 3, "Roman imperialism: The untold story."

2. Thomas Sowell, Basic Economics: A Common Sense Guide to the Economy, 4th ed. (New York: Basic Books, 2011), 39.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

"Good For That Which Is Good"

I recently started listening to Wharton professor Adam Grant's book Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success on Audible. I've had it on Kindle since it came out back in 2013, but I'm only now getting around to reading/listening (to) it (though I've kept up with Grant's work elsewhere). While I'm only in the second chapter, I was struck by the implications of the research presented by Grant. In short, Grant names three kinds of people in the workplace:
  1. Takers - people who seek to extract as much value as possible from interactions.
  2. Matchers - a median of give-and-take; quid pro quo.
  3. Givers - people who seek to contribute and add value to interactions.
Studies consistently find that givers end up at the bottom of the success ladder. For example, givers among professional engineers "had the worst objective scores in their firm for the number of tasks, technical reports, and drawings completed--not to mention errors made, deadlines missed, and money wasted. Going out of their way to help others prevented them from getting their own work done" (pg. 6). Similar results were found among medical students in Belgium and salespeople in North Carolina. Compared with takers, "on average, givers earn 14 percent less money, have twice the risk of becoming victims of crimes, and are judged as 22 percent less powerful and dominant" (pg. 7). Yet, when the researchers looked at the top of the ladder, they found givers dominating there as well. Among these same engineers, givers had the highest productivity and best objective scores for quantity and quality of results. The givers among the Belgian medical students had the highest grades, while those among the North Carolinian salespeople were the most productive.

How is this the case? Giving is obviously open to exploitation in any given instance, but overtime the practice becomes advantageous due to reputation and collaboration: "Research shows that people tend to envy successful takers and look for ways to knock them down a notch...Givers succeed in a way that creates a ripple effect, enhancing the success of people around them." A giver "creates value, instead of just claiming it" (pg. 10). It also creates a healthier network and/or organization because "[t]eams depend on givers to share information, volunteer for unpopular tasks, and provide help" (pg. 16).

The above reminded me of my last blog post regarding semiotic objections to business and markets. Just as distaste for monetary exchange is socially constructed, so too is the Western intellectual distaste for business. The research of Grant and others demonstrate that business is not inherently greedy or exploitative, but can be an entity of generosity, gratitude, and grace.

...but the meaning of the word restoration is to bring back again evil for evil, or carnal for carnal, or devilish for devilish—good for that which is good; righteous for that which is righteous; just for that which is just; merciful for that which is merciful - Alma 41:13

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Semiotic Objections to Business

Georgetown professors Jason Brennan and Peter Jaworski have a book published through Routledge just this month titled Markets Without Limits: Moral Virtues and Commercial Interests. So far, the book is excellent in its defense against critics of commodification. The first few chapters consist mainly of abstract philosophical arguments explaining both the position(s) of various anti-commodification theorists and why they fail. In the chapter I'm currently reading, Brennan and Jaworski are beginning to get into the empirical claims of these theorists using peer-reviewed social science. Anti-commodification theorists tend to lay out several objections to markets, including their potential to:
  • Violate human rights
  • Cause harm to others
  • Exploit the vulnerable
  • Misallocate of resources
  • Lead to self-destructive behavior
  • Develop unseemly tastes or character traits
However, there is the semiotic objection that participation "in markets can express or communicate certain negative attitudes, or is incompatible with holding certain positive attitudes...So, for instance, some hold that organ sales communicate the idea that the human body is a mere commodity--a piece of meat--and thus fail to show proper reverence for the body. Others say that markets in surrogacy services express the idea that women are mere incubation machines."[1] This semiotic objection carries over on to certain institutions within the market system, specifically businesses. Aside from both known and potential incidents of exploitation, asshole bosses, and the like (which should all be avoided or addressed), many critics implicitly and explicitly claim that the mere participation in business communicates a profit-driven corporate cosmology.

Yet, the view that monetary exchange--and, by extension, for-profit business--is an expression of the basest desires of human nature is largely a Western social construct. As Brennan and Jaworski write,

[Anti-commodification theorist Michael] Sandel complains that giving money instead of a non-monetary gift communicates a lack of concern. Yet there is evidence that this is merely a construct of current Western culture. For the Merina people of Madagascar, monetary gifts carry no such stigma of being impersonal or thoughtless. For the Merina, giving what Sandel calls "thoughtful" non-monetary gifts expresses no greater concern or thoughtfulness than giving cash of equal value...In Western cultures, we are now more likely to view gifts of money or gift certificates as impersonal or thoughtless, but even this is just a recent cultural development. For Americans, monetary gifts used to have a different meaning. Sociologist Viviana Zelizer says that in the 1870s-1930s United States, monetary gifts were seen as especially thoughtful...Zelizer's extensive work on the meaning of money and exchange, work spread out over multiple books, seems to show us that the supposed "profanity" of commodification or cash is not a deep fact about market economies as such, or about money as such, but a peculiarity of our own culture at this particular time...Like Zelizer, [sociologists Maurice Bloch and Jonathan Parry] conclude money and markets do not have the same meaning everywhere that they have here. Instead, the reason commodification seems so repugnant to us Westerners is because we Westerners tend to regard the sphere of exchange and money as a "separate and amoral domain." Bloch, Parry, and Zelizer say that we then mistakenly assume that this is just a "natural" or essential fact about money. We could think of money a different way...[2]

Bloch and Parry explain that for Westerners, "money signifies a sphere of "economic" relationships which are inherently impersonal, transitory, amoral and calculating." Yet, when the economy is seen as "'embedded' in society and subject to its moral laws, monetary relations are rather unlikely to be represented as the antithesis of bonds of kinship and friendship, and there is consequently nothing inappropriate about making gifts of money to cement such bonds."[3]

Similarly, the claim that business is somehow anti-social or morally detached (aside from claims regarding harm, exploitation, etc.) is also culturally constructed. Deirdre McCloskey has argued that the change in rhetoric toward business and markets led to the modern world and the staggering rise in living standards. Economist Nimish Adhia has documented the shift in Bollywood portrayals of businessmen from villains to heroes, reflecting the transformation of cultural ideologies regarding commerce and business.

Understanding the underlying prejudices against commerce is a key component to both secular and theological theories of business. For-profit business need not be seen as an expression of greed, but perhaps an exercise in civic virtue or even an act of consecration.


1. Jason Brennan, Peter M. Jaworski, Markets Without Limits: Moral Virtues and Commercial Interests (New York: Routledge, 2015), 21.

2. Ibid., 63-65.

3. Quoted in Ibid., 64.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

"This Stupid, Wonderful, Boring, Amazing Job"

Over at the blog for AEI's Values & Capitalism, there's a short post on the value of mundane work using the U.S. version of The Office:

When Jim reflects on his time at Dunder Mifflin at the end of the show, he’s not struck by nostalgia—he genuinely appreciates the twelve years he spent working for that company. His job as a paper salesman allowed him to save money, buy a home, start a family, and eventually become an entrepreneur who helps start a sports marketing companyWhen a job is not particularly exciting, it is so easy to miss the merit in the mundane. But there is merit. That seemingly mundane work Jim did for all of those years created a network and the opportunity for him to pursue work he was passionate about. Although Jim Halpert is just a fictional character, his struggle with a job he was not passionate about is relatable for so many. Just because a job does not offer glory does not mean it’s not important. 

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Why I Fail To Write

I'm not an academic, but I play one on the Internet. A large number of my friends are professors and doctoral students. I try to write and read, mainly out of enjoyment. The other reason is a nagging feeling of obligation born out of a kind of intellectual "keeping up with the Joneses." It's stupid, it's probably unhealthy, and it makes no sense. But it is what it is. I sometimes tell myself that I'm more in the mold of management thinker Peter Drucker, who was described by one biographer as being "raised a thinker, not an academic."[1] That works for a few seconds until I remember that he was the Clarke Professor of Social Science and Management at Claremont Graduate School, lectured on Oriental art at Pomona College, sat on the Board of the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, has a graduate school named after him, and is considered the father of modern management. My consistent sense of inadequacy and "falling behind" produces a fair amount of anxiety. This means that the things that inspire me also remind me of my shortcomings (and not in a humility-inducing way). It's a double-edged sword. Which is why I both hate and love the quote below from John Durham Peters' recent interview:

It would take a lot of thought to detail my research techniques but they include the following imperatives: write early in the morning, cultivate memory, reread core books, take detailed reading notes, work on several projects at once, maintain a thick archive, rotate crops, take a weekly Sabbath, go to bed at the same time, exercise so hard you can’t think during it, talk to different kinds of people including the very young and very old, take words and their histories seriously (i.e., read dictionaries), step outside of the empire of the English language regularly, look for vocabulary from other fields, love the basic, keep your antennae tuned, and seek out contexts of understanding quickly (i.e., use guides, encyclopedias, and Wikipedia without guilt)...I write on a desktop that is not connected to the internet, and generally do not go online (on a separate computer) before noon or later, if I can help it. I am still largely paper-dependent for any serious reading. I do not have a smartphone, and have an ancient TV set with the most minimal cable package.

Let's breakdown this incredible model to emphasize my utter failure as a wannabe academic:

  • Write early in the morning - I'm commuting around 6am and at work by 7am. On my days off, I set my alarm to 8 or 9am and end up waking up around 11am.
  • Cultivate memory - My wife tells me I have very good memory, though I find myself struggling to remember something I've just read. I've taken up a form of journal writing in hopes of improving memory. I say "a form of" because it's really half-assed.
  • Reread core books - I'm drowning in the unread books on my shelves and my Kindle. I feel guilty when I reread. That or I feel like I'm wasting time because I could be reading something new.
  • Take detailed reading notes - My journal writing was an attempt at this as well, but as I said before, "half-assed." It kills me to think how much I can't remember because I failed to take notes on the books I've read.
  • Work on several projects at once - Check (I think).
  • Maintain a thick archive - ...of books and journal articles? If so, definite check.
  • Rotate crops - Assuming he means this metaphorically (I have no idea if he literally grows vegetation) in connection with "work on several projects at once" above, I would say 'yes'. However, I sometimes spread myself thin to the point of stagnation.
  • Take a weekly Sabbath - Not really. I work every other weekend and the fact that I'm in graduate school typically means I'm working on homework after church (not always).
  • Go to bed at the same time - Ha. No.
When someone asks me if I go to bed the same time every night.
  • Exercise so hard you can't think during it - That's when I get a lot of thinking done, which is probably why both my ideas and workouts suffer...
  • Talk to different kinds of people... - I don't really talk to anyone.

  • Take words and their histories seriously (i.e., read dictionaries) - Kinda. I used to be into etymology more when I was delving into Hebrew, Greek, and Latin. I sometimes jot down words I'm not familiar with when I read. I often second guess my use of words and check their definitions just to be sure. I aspire to be a wordsmith like David Bentley Hart (impossible, I know).
  • Step outside of the empire of the English language regularly - See above, though I'm still trying to master English.
  • Look for vocabulary from other fields - Yes. 
  • Love the basic - Yes and no. If by "basic" he means "simplify," then I'm rather terrible at it. But if he means study the basics and be grounded in them, then I think I do a fair job.
  • Keep your antennae tuned - Definitely try to.
  • Seek out contexts of understanding quickly (i.e., use guides, encyclopedias, and Wikipedia without guilt) - I could really work on this. I definitely suffer from guilt when it comes to using guides. I feel like I have to read a book or journal article (i.e., something I can cite) in order have a proper understanding. 
  • Generally do not go online (on a separate computer) before noon or later - I'm writing this the morning...after checking my Facebook and browsing the Internet for an hour. I numb myself for several hours on a regular basis via Facebook and YouTube.

  • Largely paper-dependent for any serious reading - My Kindle is stuffed with plenty of books I haven't read yet, but so is my bookshelf. 
  • I do not have a smartphone, and have an ancient TV set with the most minimal cable package - Well, I had a Nokia until this last year. The thing was a tank. But now I'm looking at my phone just as much as everyone else. We don't have cable, but I do binge shows on Netflix. 

There is a lot of wisdom in Peters' brilliantly messy model. I hope to have mastered at least some of these in future.


1. Jack Beatty, The World According to Peter Drucker (New York: Free Press, 1998), 7.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Materiality, Technology, and Seer Stones

John Durham Peters of the University of Iowa has a newly published book titled The Marvelous Clouds: Toward a Philosophy of Elemental Media (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015). The work is meant to be a wide-ranging and interdisciplinary meditation on media theory (it's also on my never-ending to-read list). In a recent interview about the book, Peters made the following observation:

The philosophy of technology is often infected by a romanticism that sees technology as a loss of an elemental relation to the cosmos. One of the key stories in the modern world, told by very different figures in diverse accents, is technology as a fall from grace. One of William Wordsworth’s last poems complained in 1849 that illustrated books and newspapers were displacing the ability to speak, pushing us back to the retrograde stage of cave paintings! I understand why such stories continue to be told about fearsome novelties (though none of us would count illustrated books as such today); certainly we need to be on guard against having our lives hijacked by forces out of our control. We urgently need critical counterweights to the promises of technoliberation spewed forth from Silicon Valley and elsewhere. (The job of the media historian is to puncture hype.)
But I fear tossing the baby with the bathwater. Technical infrastructures are not limits on our humanity, but its conditions. We can debunk silicon salvation without resorting to deluded conceptions of original purity. It is a weird side effect of new media to produce florid opt-out fantasies — you could spend hours watching beautiful videos on YouTube showing life off the grid. The urge to unplug is a real one, but often the cure and the disease are in cahoots. If you let the technology tell how to get out of it, you get all the more embedded in it; this urge to check out from but via technology is like a con artist that lulls you into trust by telling you he is conning you. The promised cure of being free of technology is usually just another technology that isn’t recognized as such. The choice is always the much more difficult one of which technologies and techniques to engage, not whether to abandon them altogether. 
The book argues that media theory (like science fiction) is often theology by other means, and my insistence on deep technicity, like all basic visions of the human estate, inevitably has religious resonances. Theologically, I hold to a felix culpa, a fortunate fall. I do not place dolphins in Edenic bliss but somewhere between smart sea hippos and cyberspace surfers; they miss out on most of the powers that we technically inventive and immersive bipedals enjoy. Why would we want to go back to Eden? Living in a world rich with objects and subjects is a step forward, an opportunity, especially if we embrace the covenants that moor our sometimes errant ship. (Covenants are media that bind space and time.) Here my Mormonism, with its materialist metaphysics, media-friendly theology, affirmation of this-worldly embodiment as a step toward divinity, and rigorous sense of responsibility for choice, surely shines through my philosophy of technology.

This seems especially poignant given the photos of Joseph Smith's seer stone released by the LDS Church and the forthcoming Ensign article featuring one of them.[1] As Richard Bushman put it, "Seerstones don’t trouble me. I rather like them. They are part of Mormon materiality. They suggest there is a technology of revelation, somewhat resembling ipads, that assist us in getting divine intelligence. I don’t subscribe to Protestant stuffiness about proper ways for God to act and disreputable ones. I am willing to go along with the ways of God even if they are unconventional by enlightenment standards." Or, as another insightful article explained,

Seerstones spark a fire in my bones, a connection to an earlier, earthier, more tangible, and sacral-infused Mormonism. And that’s a Mormonism I need in my life right now. I gave my wife a blessing of healing tonight. I did not have a seerstone to guide my speech. But I did use a magic—sacred—oil, which I find to be directly analogous to Joseph’s stone. And I surely wouldn’t flinch should God grant me a white stone to use at such times—now or in a future heaven. I certainly hope that my whole soul can be attuned in the same manner, that I too can speak in the name of the Lord. Similarly, I feel a sense of holiness each time I dress in garments. I relish what the world can only sneer it—my magic underwear. Likewise, I cherish reading over and over the personal scripture of my Partriarchal Blessing. I’ll take Joseph’s “folk magic” right along with the enchanted world and goods it affords me over the stale, insipid world of constrained, condescending and self-congratulatory scientism—any day. But even if you don’t feel as I do—if you’re one of the many who have tamed and rationalized your experience with such artifacts of the Restoration—I hope you can appreciate and stand in an authentic relationship with our history. One need not be embarrassed by the “scandal” of the seerstone—whatever one’s epistemology—even if one can’t imagine our leaders using such things today. Instead, I hope we’re all grateful for these and the other “folk” elements of our religious tradition, and the goods—especially our experience of the sacred— that they (hopefully) continue to make available to all of us trying to build Zion today.

The divine and the mystical are far more tangible than we assume. And they can often be found in the ordinary technologies of our day-to-day lives.



1. For one of the best treatments of the subject of Joseph Smith, magic, and seership, see Mark Ashurst-McGee, "A Pathway to Prophethood: Joseph Smith Junior as Rodsman, Village Seer, and Judeo-Christian Prophet" (MA Thesis, Utah State University, 2000).

Grace In All Things

I've owned Adam Miller's book Speculative Grace for some time now.[1] I've been meaning to read it, along with the hundreds of other books on my never-ending, ever-growing to-read list. Yet, Adam's approach to Mormonism inspires me. It takes Mormonism's materialist metaphysics seriously. This affinity for the sacred in the mundane stands out in his other works, both published and forthcoming.[2] His book made its way closer to the top of my to-read list thanks to a recent review in BYU Studies Quarterly. The following stood out to me:

...[T]he materialistic universe envisioned by Latour and subtly proposed by Miller is in harmony with the restored gospel's ability to encompass "small-scale, localized" objects (3) that are both spiritual and material (D&C 131:7-8). For Latter-day Saints, spiritual and temporal things maintain a close interplay (Mosiah 2:41; D&C 29:32)...Miller presents an object-oriented force of grace that permeates all these equal things. This flat structure of the universe is the context in which Miller consistently animates the principle of grace. Miller's grace is pluralistic, immanent, dynamic, and even ordinary, thereby transforming its meaning to enliven it with heightened relevance. 

...Miller's grace could function in LDS and certain other theologies in the sense that an anthropomorphic God is able to have relationships, grant blessings, and make covenants with his children. As Miller explains, "God is an object among a multitude of objects" (47), or, to use a saying commonly attributed to Lorenzo Snow, "As man now is, God once was; as God is now man may be."[3]

This view of grace can and should shape our outlook of everyday tasks (including work). Not only does it infuse the ordinary with the divine, but it also may play a role in bridging classical and materialist metaphysics.


1. Adam S. Miller, Speculative Grace: Bruno Latour and Object-Oriented Theology (New York: Fordham University Press, 2013).

2. See his Letters to a Young Mormon (Provo: BYU, Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2014); Rube Goldberg Machines: Essays in Mormon Theology (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2012); and his forthcoming The Gospel According to David Foster Wallace: Boredom and Addiction in an Age of Distraction (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016).

3. Brent J. Schmidt, "Review of Adam S. Miller, Speculative Grace: Bruno Latour and Object-Oriented Theology," BYU Studies Quarterly 54:2 (2015): 203.