On Homelessness and Helping

Spring has come! ‘Tis the season of pink blossoms, green pastures, and showing off those white winter legs in a new pair of shorts. It’s the season of hiking, biking, and a growing disregard for dirt tracked into the living room.

It is also the season when we once again interact with certain neighbors in our community: homeless people who sleep under the city bridge and stand at the intersections.

These temperature temperatures have allowed me to transpose my runs back to the early morning, and it is there that I’ve encountered the familiar faces who rest on the park benches and wave to me as I huff past the library. And recently, I was overjoyed (though unsurprised) to find some great insights from Econtalk’s most recent episode, Erica Sandberg on Homelessness and Downtown Streets Team. It was the perfect confluence of these reminders that led me to reflect on the title’s question in a more practical way than ever before. I’ve concluded that there are three main things, actually constituting a hierarchy, that I want to remember when meeting and greeting homeless people in my neighborhood every day.

Good: It’s Yours (to Give Away)

The first time I encountered the below quote, I was struck by something that I had never before realized. In the recent past, I’ve tried to quell my desire to give money away, as I learned that my actions could incentivize begging or that the money would be spent on substances– both of which scenarios only exacerbate the person’s long-term sufferings. But is the chance of this enough to justify withholding assistance?

On the other hand, the economist in me notices that money can be used much more efficiently than in-kind donations of things like food and even gift cards. For example, cash can be applied to clothing and rent whereas fast food gift cards are obviously limited. Finally, there was one question that I couldn’t ignore: If I have extra change in my purse after all my needs (and even most wants) have been met, would it truly be better for me to hold onto it?

 “It will not bother me in the hour of death to reflect that I have been ‘had for a sucker’ by any number of impostors: but it would be a torment to know that one had refused even one person in need… Another thing that annoys me is when people say ‘Why did you give that man money? He’ll probably go and drink it.’ My reply is ‘But if I’d kept [it] I should probably have drunk it.’” — C.S. Lewis

There is a strange ring of justice here; one that utilitarian calculations cannot truly grasp. As the famous English jurist William Blackstone once wrote, “It is better than ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent person suffer.” So, if I do come to the point of question, may the benefit of the doubt be with homeless people and may I give that extra food or money which is mine– mine to give away.

And my genuine smile and wave too, yes, those are mine to give away as well.

Even Better: The Dignity of Work

But there is still something better; charity is only a temporary fix for a persisting problem. As Sandberg describes in the EconTalk above, restoring dignity through work is unquestionably the sustainable solution. The goal is not that homeless people will remain the object of our charity, but rather that we will come alongside them to help them walk the way out of homelessness. This is precisely where the principles of subsidiarity and solidarity go hand-in-hand. See Pope Pius XI in Quadragesimo Anno:

“Just as it is gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish by their own initiative and industry and give it to the community, so also it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do. For every social activity ought of its very nature to furnish help to the members of the body social, and never destroy and absorb them” (399)

The heart of solidarity is standing with one another through the trials and triumphs of life, essentially, recognizing our interdependence. The reason for both solidarity and subsidiarity are the same: human dignity. And part of human dignity is respecting the essential dignity of work. (For another great example in downtown LA, read Tattoos on the Heart.)

Best: You Need Them

Again, the dignity of work is wonderful, but there is still a prior wonder: the dignity of each human person. We need each other. We need our moms, our brothers, our friends, and we need the people in our city who are currently homeless. Each relationship is like an open door, allowing us to practice our human talents and to become even more ourselves than ever before. For a parting quote, I look to Pope Benedict:

“The world needs people who discover the good, who rejoice in it and thereby derive the impetus and courage to do good.

Joy, then, does not break with solidarity. When it is the right kind of joy, when it is not egotistic, when it comes from the perception of the good, then it wants to communicate itself, and it gets passed on…

In this sense we have a new need for that primordial trust which ultimately only faith can give. That the world is basically good, that God is there and is good. That it is good to live and to be a human being. This results, then, in the courage to rejoice, which in turn becomes commitment to making sure that other people, too, can rejoice and receive good news.”

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Shaped by the sea

From the beginning wind-breath,

To last moment’s wave-shaped caress,

There you are.

You are their

Wave that rushes back to shore,

Every time it plays run-away.

 

Full power to forge the bolder,

Teeming with shark and scaly life.

Taking all crevices;

No bareness untouched.

Even babies, men are at once lulled and afraid.

 

Fearsome, awesome, and winsome–

Shape my rocky heart!

Over, through, and within,

You are there.

The Springtide Table

Come gather at the springtide table,

Thou seeking-searching-sorrowing mass,

Who knows that joy is good for hearts

But peace inside thee cannot have.

 

This chamber deep is dark indeed;

Soft— let thy eyes adjust.

For on this bare and loamy ground,

The stillness breeds pure milk, honeyed-trust.

 

White flowers strewn through cloths and sticks

Whispering wisdom old and ever-new:

Love my beauty, then thou shall eat my truth.

How many fear this, they cannot do.

 

“Why is this table stone-broken such?

Whose bread-crumbs spilled around?

How can we be fed in banquet shrouded be?”

Spoke the brows that frowned.

 

Hail the few, with dirty palms and soles,

Falling silent now in awe.

Those who know they cannot know

Themselves, near to mysterious table shall draw.

 

How strange here is this food, 

Changing one and one to three?

Could it be that on these thrones, 

now right-side-up are we?

 

“I am,” says Wooden Table,

 

“The humblest of them all,

Foundation of each festival,

Sure safeguard when ye fall.

Rest long and run fingers on my broken cracks;

Reach far and join hands with those ye love.

Begin this starry-foretold feast,

Oh guests of Eternal Fullness Above.”

 

Come gather at the summertime table…

To Him of the Seasons

Praise

To Him of the Seasons,

That hidden Strength behind wind and thunderstorm.

 

Who hushed the elder birds,

Only that they might be a lively chorus of fledglings.

Who allowed hands to cut back the barren brush,

Only that the uncovered earth might kiss the seeds into fourfold fertility.

Who darkened morning and froze the sandy shores,

Only that the sun might swell in splendor by cracking them open.

 

Who encircles my fragile limbs in everlasting mercy,

That my heart might be free to run home

Again.

The Power to Choose a School

In light of a recent conference and the upcoming Supreme Court case (read AEI’s take), I’ve decided it’s high time to write a little summary of my understanding of and case for school choice. I open with my inspiration for this interest, but if you’re just interested in the meat of the issue, feel free to jump ahead to the “Why Choose?” and “Who Chooses?” sections. Happy reading! 

________________________

Close to Home

My debut in economic research has been centered around two causes very near and dear to my heart: school choice and easing regulations on craft breweries. (Ok, I may be joking a little on the last one.)

Due to moving around as a kid, I’ve also become an unofficial school expert by attending seven different schools prior to college–a mix of public, religious private, and secular college prep–and have tutored and taught in multiple schools myself. Simply put, I love schools and everything they symbolize. Within their sacred walls, we first taste the ever-harvested banquet of literature, music, art, science, music, history, math, and the whole spread of ideas. How can you not be passionate about that?

Furthermore, take a moment to call to mind the most influential people in your life. Chances are, a teacher (or seven) made your list. All this is to say that the importance of a good education cannot be overstated.

Finally, I don’t think that our current public school system is doing an acceptable job at this incredible task. And 79% of Americans agree with me. This isn’t to say that the other options–homeschooling and private schools– are automatically better, but we don’t direct our tax dollars to fund them. In my opinion, public schools should be held to the highest standards as our entire nation backs them with hard-earned dollars. And I very firmly believe that all children should be given the opportunity of a good education, regardless of if their family can afford homeschooling and private institutions or not.

What is School Choice?

This is precisely where the idea of school choice comes in. It’s been my experience that this contentious issue is still misunderstood:

School choice means that the tax dollars originally paid by parents, which will be distributed back to them in the form of public education, should be allowed to be spent on their child’s education at the school they see as best fitting their child’s needs.

Wealthy families can already exercise “school choice” since they can afford to pay for both their child’s seat in public schools (through their tax dollars) as well as the private tuition at a different institution. But this leaves many families unable to access these educational organizations and automatically creates an early rift between the socioeconomic groups. The policy mechanisms of school choice– vouchers, tax credit scholarships, and charter schools— are designed to allow the public tax dollars to follow the children, based upon each family’s choice of educational institution. In a diverse and expanding society such as ours, it is essential that we respect the agency of families to choose how to best educate their children.

Understanding school choice, and specifically charter schools, could not be more relevant (especially since Betsy DeVos has recently been confirmed as Secretary of Education). It could also set you apart– a recent Gallup poll revealed that only 50% of respondents were actually aware of what charter schools are. It is fitting that we begin with the definition (taken from Uncommon Schools):

“A charter school is an independently run public school granted greater flexibility in its operations, in return for greater accountability for performance. The ‘charter’ establishing each school is a performance contract detailing the school’s mission, program, students served, performance goals, and methods of assessment.”

Why Choose?

There are three reasons that I believe school choice, in all forms, is a great thing for our states and our nation. They can be summed up in three words: care, competition, and community. By care, I mean to emphasize that low-income families will be newly empowered to chose their child’s school and thus have an incentive to care after their education more than ever.  Through competition, I am confident that the schools will increasingly become better since no families are forced to attend them, but rather have a choice between more options. Finally, school choice fosters community. As I pointed out in my introduction, the current system of public vs. private schools results in an early and arguably detrimental separation of socioeconomic classes. It means that you’re more likely to learn, play sports, and go over to the houses of friends who are no different from yourself.

All three of these good things currently exist within families and schools, no doubt, but school choice significantly enables the families of your community to choose according to their deepest concern for their children.

Who Chooses?

My latest research with the Institute for Economic Inquiry delves into the “demand-side” of this issue, focusing on just charter schools. I ask: What local organizations, informal institutions, and socioeconomic characteristics do districts that are open charters have in common?

To study this question, I gathered data on every school district in the nation and compiled an estimation equation to display the impact of each important factor on how open a district is to charters, as measured by the number of charter schools and number of students attending charters within that district. You are happily invited to read last semester’s version of the working paper, but for brevity’s sake, here are my main takeaways:

  • Charters are significantly more likely in districts with these types of families:
    • Impoverished
    • Highly educated
    • Urban
    • Highly diverse
  • The proportion of church adherence within a district (a proxy for informal institutions, i.e. religious belief) has a negligible effect on the openness of the district to charters.
  • Districts with a high percentage of the population employed in the educational, health care, or social work services (a rough proxy for the strength of local teachers’ unions) are strongly and significantly opposed to charters.

I once heard a speaker say (pretty positive it was Arthur Brooks… but don’t quote me on this) that the social sciences exist to prove to us what we already know. For how good the empirical evidence is, the main argument in favor of school choice is one of the heart. The power of a great school isn’t that it will fix all the problems of our world, but that it has the potential to change hearts as well as minds.

“That Which is Not Seen” (Part II)

This short essay finishes my present reflections on the role of the family in the realm of political economy. For Part I of this duo, inspired by Bastiat’s famous essay by the title, “Ce qu’on voit et ce qu’on ne voit pas,” I invite you to begin here. Otherwise, read on, dear reader!


I have been blessed with incredible professors who give me interesting things to read (if you think this might be you… yes, it’s you). I am also blessed with this thing called the Internet, which provides an unimaginably huge garden of information through which I can discover more interesting things to read. The following thoughts are largely based upon a few of these readings: North’s work on institutions, Hayek’s writings on knowledge, Dr. Morse’s book Love and Economics (thank you, Acton), and a healthy dash of Josef Pieper, Adam Smith, and C.S. Lewis (surprising, I’m sure).

Permit me to begin with a speedy lesson on institutional economics.

We go about our daily business within the framework of our society’s formal and informal institutions. One side is labeled formal, since it is embodied primarily in our rule of law. The complimentary side of institutions are called informal, and they refer to the cultural, religious, and societal norms that also shape our behaviors. These both can be thought of as the “rules of the game,” and one of the many things that they provide is the incentive structure for our actions. For example, you may be more willing to invest in experimentation and invention if you know that your idea can be protected by patent law, which enables you to reap the rewards from your successful risk-taking.

Who plays this game? You and I, to be sure, and mainly through the organizations we are a part of (think civil society). These organizations are the political (parties and councils), economic (firms and unions), and educational (schools and training) bodies that were founded in order to fulfill specific purposes within our community.

North (1993) writes, “It is the admixture of formal rules, informal norms, and enforcement characteristics that shapes economic performance” (VII). Taking enforcement as given, is there a relationship between these formal rules and informal norms? North and many others (notably going back to Smith) acknowledge this fact: Formal institutions are underpinned by the informal institutions of a society. There is much accumulated evidence (see here and here) to show that these two must fit together, otherwise the desired rule of law (one that unleashes economic prosperity) will not “stick.” In the spirit of this casual stream of consciousness, it might be fun to consider everyday examples:

  • Just because it was legal for me to watch PG-13 movies at the age of 13 did not, in fact, mean that my mother’s rules were the same, and I had to abide by her rules or suffer dreadful consequences. (And now my bookishness is beginning to make sense…)
  •  Although it would be legal to host a business meeting in a tree-house, it simply isn’t done. (A terribly inconvenient truth.)
  • There are many “forbidden fruits” in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam that are still legally and socially acceptable in our society. Nevertheless, myriads of religious individuals continue to submit to the restrictions placed by their beliefs.

If informal institutions are truly the underlying determinant of formal institutions, upon which rests the fate of economic prosperity, then it becomes important that some of us specialize in shifting our gaze toward the informal institutions of culture and religion. Religious belief and cultural norms are often accepted as givens in economic analysis, but today I propose that this is no longer a valid or necessary assumption.

Enter, family.

Just as the rule of law is the embodiment of our formal institutions, the family is the manifestation of our informal institutions since religious and cultural beliefs are passed down within the sacred space of the home. To wander this small kingdom is to indeed wade into rich and deep waters, so I just want to focus on one thing that the family–above all–safeguards throughout generations: human dignity.

In this, there is no substitute for the role of the family. Organizations and institutions can treat a human being with dignity, and of course the best ones do, but they cannot possibly nourish human beings with the deep knowledge of their inherent dignity, moment to moment, like our family members do. Love and Economics contains a passage in which Morse reminds us of this hidden teaching, glimpsing into the rich love of the mother for her little one:

“People do things they do not fully understand, acting upon knowledge they truly possess but cannot fully express… [The mother] might tell you she folded laundry and did dishes. But she probably will not remember that she rewarded every little noise her baby made, by smiling at the baby, or imitating the baby’s sound, or having an imaginary conversation with him. Far more is going on between a normal mother and child than we would ever imagine…” (17).

If you are familiar with Hayek at all, the first sentence may have reminded you of his “The Use of Knowledge in Society.” His main idea there, loosely paralleling the religious doctrine of human dignity, is that every single human being possesses an unique, irreplaceable knowledge of our world, equipping each to identify the best choice in surrounding situations better than anyone else. Above all, the knowledge and perspective that each of us stewards–mental models as North refers to them–have been extraordinarily shaped by our family. The understanding of our dignity or worth, and consequently that of others, can only be fully instilled by a mother and father who take it upon themselves to live out the greatness of their dignity as husband and wife and mother and father each day. And we know that dignity is the basis of institutions that support economic freedom and prosperity.

What might this mean in our current situation, when the decline of the family is hard, cold fact? In his foreword to Leisure the Basis of Culture, Fr. James Schall pulls us in with a striking sentence: “When a culture is in the process of denying its own roots, it becomes most important to know what these roots are.” This is my next task.

Morse travels back to the pioneers of political economy and posits that Adam Smith, and the subsequent family tree of classical liberal thinkers, held the rational assumption of close familial relationships when describing the workings of the free market with terms like “the invisible hand” and “spontaneous order.” Such close quarters with our kin inevitably grows mutual sympathy, the term Adam Smith uses in The Theory of Moral Sentiments to describe the way that we learn to test our perceptions against the imagined or real praise or blame of others, thus cultivating our moral sentiments. The strength and prosperity of the market operating under formal institutions was rooted in this shaping of virtue.

I invite you to read “The American Family Today” at Pew Research (or just look around) to see that tightly-knit families are no longer a safe assumption in the United States. The covenantal bonds of family are rapidly dissolving all around us.

Before proceeding, however, far be it from me to claim that families will ever be perfect. For, far be it from imperfect humans to bind ourselves perfectly in covenant. Fortunately love doesn’t need perfect. It just needs patience, kindness, and all the rest. Though imperfect, the family is the single institution within which human beings are freely bound together for the purpose of love. It is the only place in the world where “do this” equates almost directly to “this is truly in your best interest.”

If families are no longer in place to perform their fundamental role in shaping moral sentiments and religious and cultural beliefs, what will happen to our formal institutions? (Or better yet: What is happening?) Speaking from her experiences as an adoptive parent, Dr. Morse points out that we are seeing a growing number of children who have never learned of their inherent dignity (and that of others), whether parental neglect, over-spoiling, or attachment disorder is to blame. My good friend C.S. Lewis vividly paints this picture better than any other:

“In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect from them virtue and enterprise. We taught at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst” (The Abolition of Man).

If we are left only to operate under our formal institutions, we are saying that there is no prior reality, in fact, we are shifting our identity from mother and father to worker and citizen. The agora can either serve as a strong force for building community or a vulgar replacement for it; without dignity, all the power lies in the “rules of the game.”

We inherently ache to covenant ourselves to one another because it will fulfill us, and in no small way, remind us that we are more than our production and consumption capabilities. Depending on our covenants, our contracts will either make or break us.

But, materialism only robs us of our joy if we give it permission, and a healthy family is the best counterbalance to the world of labor, scarce resources, and efficiency. As Chesterton reminds us:

“Of all modern notions, the worst is this: that domesticity is dull. Inside the home, they say, is dead decorum and routine; outside is adventure and variety. But the truth is that the home is the only place of liberty, the only spot on earth where a man can alter arrangements suddenly, make an experiment or indulge in a whim. The home is not the one tame place in a world of adventure; it is the one wild place in a world of rules and set tasks.”

Running Without Arriving

“If one could run without getting tired, I don’t think one would often want to do anything else.” (C.S. Lewis, The Last Battle)

The weather gods have been good to little Omaha, Nebraska this week. We began with classes called off for two “ice-days” in a row and have closed up the weekend with three days that reached the high 40s. Spring broke the rules to speak to our sun-deprived faces. Do you ever sit back and wonder at the weather? Truly miraculous, I tell you.

So, there I was on my jog today, carried away in the game where I imagine where each person is going, and what they are going to do with the rest of their lives. Perhaps you’ve played it before as well. The sun began to set, and my exuberant thoughts turned to where I was inevitably going, formulating a vague gameplan for the evening. I didn’t get very far though, because as I explored the mental catalogue of potential delightful activities, I began to wonder at why I enjoy my hobbies so much. (And now you know why I’m so absentminded 90% of the time.)

What is it about running? What is it about writing? Why music? Why painting? Why reading?

Five strides later, the answer came to me as clear as day: at the end of it all, I never truly arrive anywhere. Whenever I lose myself in my hobbies (a welcome loss indeed), there is a lingering sense of “almost, but not yet.” That’s precisely why I always reach for more– one more beautiful jog, one more enlightening book. Prolonging the runner’s high is like begging that gloriously orange sun not to set, trying to escape the inevitable swallowing-up.  “For this world in its present form is passing away” (1 Corinth. 7:31). All races, essays, songs, artworks, books, hours, years, and even lifetimes must come to an end.

Ernest Hemingway has said it thus: “For a true writer each book should be a new beginning where he tries again for something that is beyond attainment.”

That is how I found myself bumping into yet another paradox of our humanity. Though I cannot (yet?) enjoy the perfect jog or write the perfect essay (and goodness knows every five-year-old is closer to the perfect painting than I am), the fire inside still urges me to pursue these things.  My hobbies cannot teach me perfection, but that can teach me about beauty and goodness. The higher builds upon the lower. As nearly always, St. John Paul II fulfills my reflection by guiding me to the things I knew that I was missing, but couldn’t see clearly enough to name:

“Saint Bonaventure, who in introducing his Itinerarium Mentis in Deum invites the reader to recognize the inadequacy of ‘reading without repentance, knowledge without devotion, research without the impulse of wonder, prudence without the ability to surrender to joy, action divorced from religion, learning sundered from love, intelligence without humility, study unsustained by divine grace, thought without the wisdom inspired by God‘ ” (John Paul II, Fides et Ratio)

In other words, I’m not running for nothing. I’m doing it so I can be a better gift.

Only a Stronger Love

There are three poems completely committed to my memory.

The first was academically imposed upon our grumbling class of Catholic middle schoolers, as we were not yet experienced enough to grasp the worth of an inner poetry treasure chest. I’m transported back to that tiny classroom every time the declaration, “Sonnet 116, by William Shakespeare,” passes my lips. The second, “God’s Grandeur” by Gerard Manley Hopkins, made its entrance into my life as required reading, but I surprised myself by wishing I could utter it while under the stars one night. A sucker for poetic moments, I worked to memorize the short piece and it has not left since (though nature’s beauty is hard to come by these days… oh frozen tundra of Omaha).

I met this final poem through a friend at Creighton (those eloquent Jesuits!), and it was pure love that led me to commit it to memory. It is a prayer written by Fr. Pedro Arrupe, SJ:

Nothing is more practical than
finding God, than
falling in Love
in a quite absolute, final way.
What you are in love with,
what seizes your imagination, will affect everything.
It will decide
what will get you out of bed in the morning,
what you do with your evenings,
how you spend your weekends,
what you read, whom you know,
what breaks your heart,
and what amazes you with joy and gratitude.
Fall in Love, stay in love,
and it will decide everything.

This is something I’ve been thinking about lately. As my activities become increasingly concrete and materially productive, the wisdom that was instilled as a child has crystallized as well. Love is power, literally. It is the sole force that completely flips our world up-side down (or right-side up as Chesterton would say) as that which was once counted as a cost becomes a benefit. Some folksy prophets (who I happen to know are spectacular in concert) once sang it like this: “Where you invest your love, you invest your life.”

I’m not very wise, but the fact is, I don’t want my eulogy to be about how much I loved buying dresses or how much I loved to lay in bed and read all day. Those are purposely lighthearted examples, but in the face of inner darkness the truth glows even brighter: only a stronger love, a passion more fierce, can pull me from the things that I love out of proportion. We do not empty ourselves of attachments to remain empty, but to make room for the better wine. To paraphrase Peter Kreeft, who perhaps said it best, the only true cure for an alcoholic is to fall in love with the beauty of a sober saint, and the way to conquer lust is to behold the bloody love of Christ crucified. There is high truth in that.

Entering the fresh year of 2017, renewing our conviction to shake off bad habits, perhaps the best way to go about it is by allowing ourselves to fall recklessly in love with something more good, more true, and more beautiful. The good life is not the boring life. And so we begin searching, and something tells me that none of us will have to go too far.

cs-lewis-quote-we-are-far-too-easily-pleased.jpg