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A Love That Conquers

“The love that sweeps in to liberate a slave or a girl in a brothel, that is great and wonderful—but that’s not heroic enough. What the world needs is the rare and hidden glory of long and faithful love. A love backed up by inner strength. A love that conquers the most difficult obstacles of all—time, monotony, and tedium. Because here is the reality: if momentary, heroic love is all we’re willing to give, we will inevitably show up late and leave early in all the places the world needs us most.”

– Gary Haugen (via Ekklesia)

Photo by IJM

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Eucharist and Hospitality

“For the Christian, the Lord’s Supper is the consummate reminder of the need to be hospitable to others, even to those very different from ourselves, to the stranger in our midst. There at the Table any question of status or legality is superseded by the embrace of friends and family and fellow believers, by this visible expression and public declaration of the mercy, compassion, and provision of God. To come periodically to the Table, yet without a commitment to kindness and openness to others, is to not do justice to its purpose and spirit. At the very least, the recognition of our sinfulness and of the boundless forgiveness of God should leaven Christian attitudes toward outsiders in need—even those whom we know are here as undocumented immigrants. This orientation in attitude does not solve the legal quandary, but it can impact the direction of the conversation and its tone in ways that resonate with this most important Christian practice.”

– M. Daniel Carroll R., Christians at the Border

Photo by Alex Webb (via arttribune.com)

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Departures and Arrivals

Years ago, somewhere during my globetrotting twenties, I read The Art of Travel by the philosopher Alain de Botton. “We are inundated with advice on where to travel to,” he writes, “but we hear little of why and how we should go, even though the art of travel seems naturally to sustain a number of questions neither so simple nor so trivial, and whose study might in modest ways contribute to an understanding of what the Greek philosophers beautifully termed eudaimonia, or ‘human flourishing.’” Instantly it became a favorite. How could it not, chock-full as it was of nuggets like this?

If we find poetry in the service station and motel, if we are drawn to the airport or train carriage, it is perhaps because, in spite of their architectural compromises and discomforts, in spite of their garish colours and harsh lighting, we implicitly feel that these isolated places offer us a material setting for an alternative to the selfish ease, the habits and confinement of the ordinary, rooted world.

These days, truth be told, “the habits and confinement of the ordinary, rooted world” don’t sound quite as suffocating as they did then, and whether the book has resonated in quite the same way with those to whom I’ve since loaned my copy, I can’t say. Regardless, I recall my early readings of the book with fond memories.

It was a delight, then, to discover that the author had revisited some of the same themes in a subsequent, book called A Week at the Airport, a slim volume featuring stunning full-color photos by Richard Baker and arranged in four sections: Approach, Departures, Airside, and Arrivals.

True to the title, the author spent a week in Terminal Five at Heathrow Airport in London, having been invited to serve as writer-in-residence by a representative of the company that managed Heathrow and a number of other airports around the world. He was given a desk in full view of travelers and was tasked with writing what he saw, felt, and experienced—all while asking questions befitting a philosopher.

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The result is a fun, brisk-paced book that nonetheless manages to touch on some of the deeper elements of the human experience, like mortality, self-analysis, and longing—the kinds of things anyone who has spent time in airports and airplanes knows all about. Take this passage for example:

Nowhere was the airport’s charm more concentrated than on the screens placed at intervals across the terminal which announced, in deliberately workmanlike fonts, the itineraries of aircraft about to take to the skies. These screens implied a feeling of infinite and immediate possibility: they suggested the ease with which we might impulsively approach a ticket desk and, within a few hours, embark for a country where the call to prayer rang out over shuttered whitewashed houses, where we understood nothing of the language and where no one knew our identities. The lack of detail about the destinations served only to stir unfocused images of nostalgia and longing: Tel Aviv, Tripoli, St Petersburg, Miami, Muscat via Abu Dhabi, Algiers, Grand Cayman via Nassau … all of these promises of alternative lives, to which we might appeal at moments of claustrophobia and stagnation.

Or how about this reflection spurred by the comings and goings that airports so deeply epitomize:

Out of the millions of people we live among, most of whom we habitually ignore and are ignored by in turn, there are always a few that hold hostage our capacity for happiness, whom we could recognize by their smell alone and whom we would rather die than be without.

If these excerpts stir anything within you, consider picking up A Week at the Airport next time you’re planning for a trip. If you like what you read, you’d do well to follow it up with The Art of Travel.

[Header Photo: Heathrow Airport's Terminal Five via intechsolutions.uk.com]

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Baseball and the Economics of Fan Loyalty

Recently, while perusing the new releases section in the Tempe Public Library, I stumbled upon George Will’s latest ode to baseball, A Nice Little Place on the North Side: Wrigley Field at One Hundred. Yes, the iconic ivy-laden home of the Cubs opened its doors in 1914—although, for what it’s worth, at the time it was called Weeghman Park and was home to the short-lived Chicago Whales.

george-will-wrigley-field-coverIf you’re a dyed-in-the-wool baseball fan like me, you’d probably enjoy the book. If you’re not, you probably shouldn’t waste your time. It’s full of odd historical anecdotes and obscure statistics, and Will makes a habit of going down his share of rabbit trails.

For instance, in these pages we learn that the infamous Jack Ruby—the man who assassinated Lee Harvey Oswald, who himself had of course just assassinated John F. Kennedy—was in fact born Jacob Leon Rubenstein, and for a time worked in concessions at Wrigley. On account of some unscrupulous sales tactics, he’d developed a reputation as a hustler. Cubs management, in turn, assigned someone to watch him through binoculars “to make sure they were getting their share of his nefarious sales.”

But I digress. One of the more fascinating parts of the book that is about Wrigley Field is the section about the statistical relationship between the tolerance of a team’s fans for bad baseball and their willingness to continue to attend games.

For the Cubs, interestingly, fans don’t stay away when the team is lousy. In fact, despite the fact that the team is almost always lousy, the stands at Wrigley Field are almost always full. What’s more, tickets to games at The Friendly Confines are among the priciest in baseball.

The D-backs, the home team which I adopted as my own after moving here in 2011, have played dismal baseball this year. The season was effectively over on April 29, with a team record of 8-22, which equates to a stunningly bad .267 winning percentage. In order to recover and win 90 games, the postseason threshold for the National League last season, the D-backs would have needed to go on to win 82 of their remaining 132 games, for a winning percentage of .621. Instead, they’ve hovered just under .500 in games played since then. This has been good enough to earn the distinction of being the third-worst team in the league, which, while still pretty bad, is a definite improvement over being the very worst.

Truth be told, even though I’ve continued to follow scores and highlights thanks to my trusty MLB At Bat app, I haven’t gone to many games this year. A parade of injuries and a couple of sensible but nonetheless painful trades—in addition to that dismal win-loss record, of course—have left me with fewer and fewer reasons to head down to Chase Field. When I have been there, however, I’ll tell you what I’ve noticed: a lot of empty seats. This despite the fact that a good number of the seats that aren’t empty consist of fans wearing colors other than Sedona red.

This season the D-backs rank #22 out of all 30 teams in attendance, averaging just over 25,000 per game in a stadium that holds twice that many. (For comparison, the hated Dodgers—who currently lead our division and hold the best record in the National League—average nearly 47,000 in home attendance.)

With attendance figures like these, it’s really tough to find angles that make the atmosphere at Chase Field appear festive in photographs. In other words, tens of thousands of empty seats make for depressing Instagrams. So you need to get creative, perhaps by pointing your phone camera heavenward, capturing the sturdy infrastructure of the closed roof, protecting us from the 100-degree-plus night air. Whatever it takes to crop out empty seats.

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While reading this book on Wrigley Field, however, I began to wonder whether the empty seats at Chase Field might actually be a good thing; that is, a sign of good things to come.

You see, according to Cubs fans Tobias J. Moskowitz and L. Jon Wertheim, authors of Scorecasting: The Hidden Influences Behind How Sports Are Played and Games Are Won, the reason Cubs owners have consistently fielded bad teams has to do with the fact that regardless of team performance, the fans will consistently show up for games.

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This makes perfect sense, in George Will’s analysis, when you consider incentives, “the concept central to all economic reasoning.” All teams clearly have incentives to win, but not all teams have equally strong incentives. Moskowitz and Wertheim found that comparing winning percentages and home field attendance, Cubs attendance “is the least sensitive to performance in all of baseball.” The Yankees and Red Sox, meanwhile, who never stay very bad for long, both have fairly strong attendance sensitivity.

If Moskowitz and Wertheim are right, fans who vote with their feet might not necessarily be bad fans. Rather, could it be that by staying home, D-backs fans are effectively showing team executives that we care about the quality of play on the field, and not merely about stadium amenities and giveaways? I hope that’s the case. We don’t want to go the way of the Expos, after all.

Truth be told, I’ll continue to attend games at Chase Field, year after year, win or lose. I am, after all, a fan of the D-backs and a fan of baseball. But as long as team executives appear content to preside over mediocrity, I’ll continue to limit those visits to a handful per year. The outside chance of a pennant race would alter my priorities considerably, and I suspect a lot of other D-backs fans feel the same way. I really, really hope that Kevin Towers, Tony La Russa, and the other powers that be feel appropriately incentivized.

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The Tyranny of Experts

Back when I was studying international development in grad school five or six years ago, the war of words between development economists William Easterly and Jeffrey “The Idealist” Sachs was at a fever pitch. Things have since quieted down a bit—their brief, fiery skirmish earlier this year notwithstanding—partly because both of them to one extent or another have pursued other interests.

Sachs, for his part, has never left the media spotlight. But these days you’re less likely to hear him talking about aid and development in Africa than about the science of climate change or the downing of Flight 17 in Ukraine. As has been argued at length elsewhere, you could say Sachs is “a man with many faces.”

Easterly has re-focused his energies as well, though to his credit, it doesn’t seem that he’s gotten bored with the field of development economics quite the way his media-savvy interlocutor apparently has. His latest book, The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor, is a jeremiad against what Easterly calls “the technocratic illusion,” an approach he describes as conventional, unquestioned, and tremendously damaging to the poor. This approach is characterized as “the belief that poverty is a purely technical problem amenable to such technical solutions as fertilizers, antibiotics, or nutritional supplements.” What it ignores is “the unchecked power of the state against poor people without rights”—the very thing, according to Easterly, that keeps people trapped in poverty.

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In Easterly’s view, poverty is about a lack of rights, not a lack of expertise. Although development experts at the World Bank and elsewhere have a long track record of cooperating with autocratic governments for presumably pragmatic reasons, Easterly argues that the dictator who agrees to implement technocratic development fixes in his country while denying the rights of his country’s citizens is not the solution, but the problem. In other words, despite development expenditures in the millions of dollars, sustainable economic development is not going to happen when the basic rights of the poor are denied.

Easterly sure is an interesting guy, and he’s not easy to peg. In my experience, most of the people who tirelessly bang the “rights of the poor” drum don’t also quote libertarian poster boy Friedrich Hayek approvingly and at length in order to reinforce their points. As Easterly himself points out, “the rebels against the technocratic consensus”—these rebels being, of course, his heroes—”come from both the left and the right, and they often hold incompatible views on almost everything else.”One can’t help but admire Easterly’s intellectual honesty and his willingness to appeal to unlikely bedfellows without apology, whatever else one might make of his arguments.

Overall, I’m on board with Easterly’s argument in The Tyranny of Experts. I agree with him that it’s dangerous to talk about—much less try to implement—development without a proper concern for the rights of the poor. And I love his insistence that development and rights not be seen as amoral undertakings. “Morally neutral approaches to poverty do not exist,” he writes. “Any approach to development will either respect the rights of the poor or it will violate them.” He had more to say about the morality of development, incidentally, in his interview with Kent Annan in Christianity Today this spring.

My beef with Easterly comes when he pits big bad institutions against autonomous individuals in what strikes me as a simplistic zero sum game. The rights of individuals obviously matter immensely, in economics, politics, religion, free speech, and otherwise—and these same rights are routinely compromised by autocratic leaders to tremendously detrimental effect. No argument there.

But the antidote to big bad institutions, in my view, is not to do away with them but to seek to reform them. One doesn’t need to pretend that institutions can do no wrong in order to believe in their potential to contribute to human flourishing. As Jamie Smith has written, “Institutions are durable, communal ways that we can act in concert with our neighbours to achieve penultimate goods.” I’m not sure Easterly sees things the same way, and that’s too bad.

But this institutions-versus-individuals example is just one of the false dichotomies he sets up in the book, as John Donaghy pointed out in his measured critique. Donaghy, a thoughtful guy who works with the Catholic diocese of Santa Rosa de Copán in Honduras and is committed to the work of justice among the people with whom he serves, challenges Easterly’s brand of unapologetic individualism by appealing to a mid-80s pastoral letter on economic justice from the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops. The letter says, in part, that “human dignity can be realized and protected only in community. In our teaching, the human person is not only sacred but also social.”

The status quo—what Easterly calls the “technocratic illusion”—is both counterproductive and morally problematic, and The Tyranny of Experts succeeds in making the case for an open and honest debate about what experts and autocrats have long taken for granted. My own misgivings aside, I hope that debate does indeed take place and that it serves to instigate changes throughout the development sector that are both fundamental and long overdue.

[Header Photo: Panel of experts at the World Bank Annual Meeting in Tokyo in 2012 via bluechipmag.com]