Thursday, December 25, 2008

Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, and I Write to You From Australia in the New Year!

The Gruntled Center will take its annual Christmas vacation for the rest of the year.

I hope you enjoy your Christmas week, however you spend it.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

If You Are Reading This, Your Odds of Lasting Marriage Are Better Than Even has a divorce calculator that lets you calculate the odds of your marriage ending in divorce. The basic finding is that college graduates who did not marry very young have good odds of their marriages lasting. Different generations have different odds, which are built in to the calculator.

Based on old general data on who reads blogs, and anecdotal but very current information on who reads this blog, I would say confidently that the Gruntled Center audience is in the good end of the distribution of lasting marriages. Nothing is guaranteed, of course, but your odds are good. So relax and enjoy.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Thinking About a World Without Newspapers

The Gruntleds are heavy news consumers. We listen to National Professors Radio -- I mean, National Public Radio -- each morning. A normal evening in our house has everyone on a laptop reading some kind of news, with cable news in the background, leading into fake news on TV. We have among us dozens of news and semi-news blogs on RSS feed. Mrs. G. has the BBC website as her homepage (I, of course, have Centre College :-) ). Many a blog starts with the New York or or And we subscribe to two daily newspapers, which I read religiously. If news were cut off, we would be in big trouble.

But if newspapers disappeared, our life would barely change.

It is clear that newspapers are in big trouble everywhere. Recently I read some speculation that one consequence of the current recession might be to decimate newspapers as an industry, shrinking down to the very big and the very local.

On the whole I can see more benefits than costs to converting news delivery to electronic forms. They are easier to search, quote, save, and link together.

My only concern is that there is not enough money in online news to support reporters, especially local reporters. Local news may become entirely a part-time "mom job" carried by stringers. We already have the example of the California paper that is written entirely by part-timers in India, reworking public sources. National news may become a subset of cable news. I dearly hope that subscription models of national news sources might work, but I can't think of any right now that I feel a need to subscribe to. Television is profitable because it includes ads in the one information stream it offers at a time, but television is a very bad medium for news.

We do need news, and that means news that pays. We don't need newspapers.

Monday, December 22, 2008

The Coffee House Test of a Crunchy Suburb

David Brooks introduces the useful concept of the "crunchy suburb" in On Paradise Road. This is an inner suburb of a big city. It has more of the people he called "bobos" (bourgeois bohemians) in an earlier book. Among suburbs, it is likely to have more professionals, better schools, and more sophisticated consumer goods.

We are in Mt. Lebanon, a Pittsburgh suburb where my sister is hosting Christmas this year. It meets these criteria. Mt. Lebanon has, I think, been more corporate and Republican in the past, but is shifting in the professional and Democratic direction that many good-schools inner suburbs are.

Danville, KY, is too much of a small town to have such nuances among the various sections of town. The coffee houses are in the middle of town and serve everyone from all the neighborhoods and "suburbs." We needed to come to a larger city to see a crunchy suburb in action.

We are sitting in a coffee house in Mt. Lebanon. It filled up just after school drop-off. Mrs. G. suggested that this is a measure of a crunchy suburb. The first necessity of a weekday morning is to get the kids to school. The second necessity is espresso.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Rick Warren is a Centrist Choice

Rick Warren is a leading voice in the next generation of evangelical Protestants engaging the world. I thought it was a great idea that Warren was the one Barack Obama and John McCain went to together to reach an evangelical audience that might not pay attention to worldly politics at all. Warren could have taken the enormous success of the Saddleback Church and A Purpose-Driven Life and rested on it. Instead, he, his wife, and his church have reached out into addressing the problems of the worst-off people in the whole world. This is a great thing for evangelicalism.

As to his rejection of homosexual practice (not homosexual people), that is what Southern Baptists do, that is how they read the Bible, that is the official position of the denomination. And so do most evangelicals, who make up thirty to forty percent of Americans. Rejecting a third of the electorate out of hand always gets liberals and Democrats in trouble.

President-elect Obama wants to bridge the gap and reduce the polarization in the nation. That is what he has said all along. That is part of what we elected him for. Choosing Rick Warren, with whom he does not agree on all worldly issues but does agree on the crucial question of who is the president's savior, is a good step in bringing all Americans together.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Catholic Dogs vs. Presbyterian Dogma

Funny Pictures
Funny Videos

OK, this is a prank. It is a good one, though, down to the misspelling of Catholicism.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Cohabitation Makes You FAT

Women who cohabit tend to gain weight because they start eating the junk their boyfriends favor. Married women, by contrast, make healthier meals for their families, which is one of the main reasons that husbands have longer and healthier lives than unmarried men do.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Involved Fathers Stay; Involved Husband-Fathers Stay More

Lisa Belkin in the New York Times is reporting a very interesting study from Natasha Cabrera at the University of Maryland on what makes unmarried fathers stay. Cabrera and colleagues found that the more involved the father was with the pregnancy and birth of his child, the more likely he was to still be there three years later -- if he had moved in with the mom. It did not make a big difference if they also got married in this period. Cabrera concludes that what matters is the father's "personal involvement" in the mother's and child's future, not the "paperwork."

I draw a somewhat different conclusion. The data for this study comes from the "Fragile Families" study, so they have already been selected for their weak connection to marriage. These are couples who get pregnant outside of marriage, and do not marry because they are pregnant. Some marry well after the birth of the child, and many don't marry at all. This is the subculture with the weakest understanding of marriage as a social institution to begin with. They do not see how marriage can help them strengthen their relationship in the first place, before children. They see marriage as a seal, even a reward, for an already strong relationship. This is one of the reasons that marriages in this subculture are rare and weak to begin with.

Cabrera's conclusion, that marriage is just paperwork, is not fully true for the anti-marriage subculture she is studying, and is less and less true the further you get from fragile families and move toward solid middle-class marriage subcultures.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Census Bureau Gives Up on Black Marriage

The exciting headline in the New York Times is "Two-Parent Black Families Showing Gains." The percent of black kids living with two parents leaped up from an abysmal 35% in 2004 to a somewhat less abysmal 39.5% in 2007. This is a surprising -- nay, improbably large -- gain in so short a time. The comparable white figure is 77%.

Now, I think there probably is a small but very encouraging uptick in the middle-class black kids living with their married parents. Call this the Obama end of the spectrum.

But this big improvement is, alas, partly a statistical trick. In 2007, the Census Bureau decided to call "parents" any man or woman they lived with. The Bureau stopped counting whether the couple was married or not or even whether they were the biological parents of the child. This change fudges the numbers of kids with married parents for all groups. It is particularly bad for African American kids, though, because they are most likely to live with unmarried parents.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

On Humbly Requesting that the Church's Natural Leaders Serve the Church, Despite the Aggro

I received a comment on yesterday's post from Alex, who I know speaks for many:
Perhaps if the PC(USA) got rid of its "affirmative action" policies o the 60s era, the "tall steeple pastors" would feel more welcome to serve as part of the leadership of the denomination. But my question is: Why would a tall steeple pastor like Vic Pentz WANT to serve as a leader in the denomination on the national level? Churches like Peachtree Pres, quite frankly, don't need the structures/organization that the PCUSA provides, because they already have the available personnel, money, resources, capital etc to do their own programming exactly the way they want to without help from the Presbytery/Synod/GA.
I agree completely.

The big successful churches, who produce most of the growth and carry out most of the local programs of the denomination, need the Presbyterian Church (USA) less than other congregations do. But the denomination needs them. The pastors of tall steeple churches are not the best pastors in the church -- fine pastors are found in all kinds of congregations, and each kind of congregation needs a different kind of pastor. My point is that the denomination needs tall steeple pastors, and their equivalents among the Ruling Elders, to bring their leadership and expertize to help run the denominational structures, too.

So how do we get tall steeple pastors and leading elders to want to invest their precious time and energy in leading the PC(USA)? We honor their leadership. In sociological terms, we pay them in status. We thank them for the wise work they have done, and ask them, nicely, to take on further tasks for the larger church even though that takes them away from their main job, which is running a major local congregation.

The successful leaders of our major congregations, both ministers and elders, are the core of that great collective resource of the church, its Establishment. Of course there are ministers and elders who are not in tall steeple churches who should be in that Establishment, too. We should honor them and ask them nicely to serve the whole denomination, even though they, too, have more pressing local matters to attend to.

The big difference is that we used to honor the people we wanted to be our Establishment because we knew they had better things to do. Now we treat them with suspicion. Not surprisingly, they skip the denominational structure and go about the business of being church. Sometimes, in frustration, they create parallel denomination-like structures so that they can get on with it already, without all the politics and aggravation.

We need to honor the Establishment precisely because being the Establishment is a costly sacrifice.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Pentz and the Presbyterian Establishment

The Witherspoon Society has posted a response to my essay on Rebuilding the Presbyterian Establishment from Rev. Vic Pentz, pastor of Peachtree Presbyterian Church. Peachtree is the largest congregation in the Presbyterian Church (USA). Pentz had, it appears, been asked to sign a petition critical of the idea of rebuilding an establishment. He declined to sign. Witherspoon draws the conclusion that Pentz, and by extension other large-church pastors, "has more important things to do" than be part of an establishment.

I believe that is the wrong conclusion to draw from Pentz' response. Here is what he wrote in response to the anti-establishment petition:
"I am pretty confident that I speak for many other large church pastors in saying that when it comes to deciding whether to commit time and energy to the pressing concerns and sheer joys of ministry, or to fight for the reins of the PCUSA, there is no contest.

Everyone can relax.

We’re out in the world with our congregations joining God in the work of the Kingdom."

Vic Pentz does not say that the Presbyterian Church does not need an establishment. He does not say that he does not want to be part of the church's establishment. He does not say that pastors and elders of the denomination's leading congregations have no concern with leading the church's work.

That is why Vic Pentz helped found the Presbyterian Global Fellowship, an organization of tall steeple churches doing part of the job of the denomination. PGF is based in Peachtree Presbyterian Church.

Vic Pentz says he doesn't have time to fight for the reins of the PCUSA. He and churches like his are already doing the work that the PCUSA should be doing. If the existing power structure of the PC(USA) supported rebuilding an establishment of authoritative leaders (authoritative, not authoritarian), then Pentz and other dynamic Teaching Elders and Ruling Elders wouldn't have to fight to run help run the denomination -- they would be asked to.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

The Witherspoon Establishment vs. The Presbyterian Establishment

I thank the Witherspoon Society, the Presbyterian Church (USA)'s venerable liberal activist group, for posting a critique of my Rebuilding the Presbyterian Establishment. A distinguished group of professors, lions of the Sixties struggles that created the current affirmative-action model of church authority, defend the status quo. In so doing they bring out several misconceptions about my argument. As one young blogger wrote, "I'm not sure what the 'Witherspoon Society' is, but I can only hope that one day I write something that gets that many teachers cranky enough to sign something like that..."

They want to fight the old war; I am ready to move on to the new one.

The "PCUSA Professors' Response" reads my argument as nostalgia for sacramental authority of the clergy. They cite the stirring Biblical claim that in Christ "there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither bond nor free, neither male nor female" (Gal. 3:28) as proof of the need for structures in the church to represent different demographic groups. The cite Neibuhr to argue that we are prone to distort all human structures with our pride and sin, including structures that were meant for good. Most importantly, they believe that “The challenge for the PCUSA in the 21st century is to figure out how to further the work of reconciliation in a world with different social realities and challenges than the world of the 20th century.”

My point exactly. The affirmative action model championed by these activist professors in their youth is outdated now. Demographic representation rules were meant to foster a consciousness that diversity is good. They worked. Now those required structures perpetuate judging people's fitness for church leadership by their race, sex, and age. Galatians 3:28 is a call for the church to get beyond the world's obsessions with ethnicity, class, and sex -- not permanently institutionalize them in the church. What we need is not nostalgia for the structures of two generations ago, but a clear focus on spiritual service to Jesus Christ and his Great Commission. We should make every effort to try to draw into the burdens of church leadership people from all backgrounds who love and competently serve the church.

The church will always face internal competition, sometimes even conflict. What has gotten us through as a supernatural institution is our commitment to Christ and Scripture, and generous help from the Holy Spirit. What has gotten us through as a human institution is a body of leaders, both Teaching Elders and Ruling Elders, who have learned great practical wisdom about how to run Presbyterian institutions. When those leaders work together for the good of the church, we honor them as the Establishment who can be relied on in crisis. The church faces crises today, as we did in the past, and we will have to rely on our leaders in the future as much as we had to in the past.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Social Closure Through Pseudo-Speciation

Social closure is what turns the vague spectrum of social status into a specific ladder of social classes. Somewhat arbitrary distinctions, such as educational credentials or occupations, are turned into real social distinctions that affect who you make a life with. The idea of social closure, which was advanced by Max Weber, has been most fully developed by Frank Parkin. I have written about marriage and social closure before.

Richard Conniff wrote an interesting book on The Natural History of the Rich. As the title suggests, he uses insights from animal behavior, especially primatology, to look at the behavior of rich people. One of the characteristics of the very rich is that they put up strong boundaries between themselves and other people. They live in fear of thieves, parasites, and gold-diggers. For their own physical, financial, and psychological safety they tend to make a life only with other rich people. They also tend to marry only within the rich group. They adopt the metaphorically biological language of "the tribe" and create a vast interrelated "cousinage." Conniff says all these forms of separation by the rich amount to "pseudo-speciation."

Pseudo-speciation is the ultimate tendency of social closure.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

"Born Rich"

"Born Rich" is a documentary made by Johnson and Johnson heir Jamie Johnson about kids like himself. He saw the curse that inherited wealth can be in his own family, and wanted to try to head off problems by studying people like himself. This is a smart idea, and I wish him well in finding a meaningful path for himself. As he says, the American Dream is to do better than your parents; he can't do that, so is trying to find a life worth living in America outside the American dream.

We saw the documentary in class again today. It first came out in 2003, but retains its punch. It is very hard to study the rich, because they have a thousand ways to keep you out and shut you up. Almost the only path that works is when an insider decides to study the wealthy tribe, and publishes the results. Some of Johnson's fellow rich kids come of well, notably Ivanka Trump. Others come off so badly that, like Luke Weil, a gambling equipment heir, they sued, unsuccessfully, to take back the release they had signed to appear in the documentary.

The picture is not really a pretty one. Having every privilege in the world seems to undermine these kids more than it helps. Quite a few will grow up to be mature adults, but they are as much hurt by their privilege as helped when young. Even the ones who are not self-destructive tend to report that they lack the drive to complete really hard projects, because they don't have to.

"Born Rich" is a valuable, narrow documentary. I look forward to Johnson's new film, "The One Percent," about the effects of income inequality between the bottom masses and the top one percent.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Establishment is a Network of Networks

I want to develop a point I made briefly in response to yesterday's post (Modcast). The Establishment, whether Presbyterian or some other kind, is not a tight organic network of strong ties. For one thing, as a national body, it is too dispersed to have the regular contact that a strong network requires. For another, it links together people from different, sometimes competing, institutions.

Within each institution the members of the Establishment are elite individuals, often the top of the local pyramid. As a result, they are well connected in their institution, and to others in their local area. As members of the Establishment, these elite individuals are connected to many other elite individuals by weak ties. Thus, the many strong local networks that these elite individuals are central to are loosely tied to many other strong local networks. The whole Establishment is powerful because the information in any one of these local networks can be mobilized and spread through the national network of weak ties to other places in the Establishment network.

On the other hand, the difference between an Establishment and an aggregation of elite individuals is that the Establishment people are tied in many parallel ways not related to work. In the social Establishment of the nation that E. Digby Baltzell wrote about, family ties assimilated elite individuals into an enduring and socializing national class. This familial class Nelson Aldrich happily called the "cousinage." In the Presbyterian Establishment, the family ties may be weaker -- though by no means absent. Instead, Establishment individuals will have shared experiences from colleges, seminaries, retreat centers, missions, and worship services of all kinds to bind them together in the green wood. These are the ties that help the church function with authority, especially in times of crisis.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008


I was interviewed by the Moderator of the Presbyterian Church (USA), Rev. Bruce Reyes-Chow, today for his video podcast -- or modcast. We talked about my essay Rebuilding the Presbyterian Establishment. I thought our hour-long conversation was quite substantive, and brought out some concerns that I had (evidently) not addressed clearly enough in print.

The whole discussion can be seen here. I am told that more than 180 people connected live through ustream, and a further group were commenting (which we could not see) through twitter.

Reyes-Chow's main concern was that will still needed official structures to keep the church accountable for overcoming past sins. He did not think that our consciousness of the benefits of diverse voices was strong enough, nor that our leaders, himself included, could keep the church on the right track. This is a point on which reasonable people may reasonably differ. I am conscious of the way that mandates create a backlash, so they should be used sparingly. Likewise, it is dangerous, and ultimately becomes counterproductive, to use false or misplaced categories such as race or sex, whether for inclusion or exclusion.

The ideas in this essay have been growing for some years, in my mind and in conversation with others. If some of them prove helpful in renewing some useful authority in the church, Rebuilding the Presbyterian Establishment will have done its job.

Monday, December 08, 2008

"Australia" is a Pretty Good Epic

I am taking a class to Australia next month to study "Australian National Identity." As preparation, as well as a fun outing before finals begin, we went to see Baz Luhrmann's new film, "Australia." I had low expectations. I figured that the director would make a good-looking film with Australia's top good-looking stars. He sure delivered. The landscape was fantastic, the big scenes wonderfully done, and it would be hard to top Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman for cheesecake.

The story is a classic Western. The haughty woman must team up with the hard-bitten working man to drive them "fat cheeky bulls" across rough terrain to get to market on time. Facing them is the villainous monopolist and war profiteer who fights dirty. The ragtag fellowship of the cow overcomes great odds, with the help of a mysterious native companion. Virtue and love triumph. The film faithfully follows the conventions of a classic genre, and refers throughout to other great movies, notably "The Wizard of Oz" (which film itself appears as a character) and "Gone With the Wind." Cheesy, but very well done cheese.

And then there is a second half-film after the Western plot is done; the small matter of World War II. This is where I feared the movie would turn into "Pearl Harbor." The war plot does make the film longer than normal, but lets the director wrap up the romance better.

Australian history is much like American history, a bit later. Thus you can have a realistic cattle drive in the 1930s. The racial discrimination against "blackfellas" was common to both countries in that era, but the Australian blackfellas are the indigenous people, playing out settler/native struggles that were more prominent in the U.S. a century earlier.

What makes "Australia" different from a Western, or even a war movie, that could have been made in the U.S. in the 1930s or '40s, is the subplot about the removal of half-caste children. Luhrmann has his leading man and woman unite over a "creamy" boy, excellently played by Brandon Walters. The Australian government removed mixed-race children from their aboriginal mothers to be trained in boarding schools. This policy was the main theme of "Rabbit-Proof Fence." The shame of the "stolen generations" has been a major cause of Australian liberals, leading to a formal apology by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd earlier this year. The entire subject is being hotly contested among Australian scholars between "black armband" liberals and "white blindfold" conservatives.

Richard Flanigan, one of the co-writers of the movie, said that they had to dare themselves to make a big movie, a national epic that they could have the audacity to call "Australia." They did so because they were impressed that American filmmakers have the nerve to think that our stories have universal significance. "Australia" aims to be the Australian "Gone With the Wind," done knowingly but, ultimately, for real.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Presby Establishment Podcast With the Moderator

The Moderator of the Presbyterian Church, Rev. Bruce Reyes-Chow, has read my essay, Rebuilding the Presbyterian Establishment, and has graciously invited me to have a podcast conversation with him about it on Tuesday, December 9, from 3 to 4 p.m. Eastern time. I am looking forward to this conversation, and hope that you will respond to it.

Saturday, December 06, 2008


Two sensible, single young men I know, Mark and Rob, were engaged in their regular pastime of assessing women as potential mates, when they hit upon a useful metric: the higher the heels, the higher the maintenance.

Friday, December 05, 2008

It is Hardest to Think Macro About Family Life

One of my most important jobs as a sociologist is to help students move from thinking about the micro to the macro. It is hard to think about big institutions, huge social forces, and society-wide social facts; it is natural to think only about how they affect individuals, especially ourselves and people like us. Sociology is a recent invention because we needed reliable facts from whole societies before we would think about society as a whole. Marx thought about classes before he had any actual measures of the reality of different classes - which is one of the reasons that he was usually wrong. Weber and Durkheim, by contrast, could really begin sociology because they had reliable numbers on such things as the relative wealth of different religious groups in many countries, or comparative national suicide rates.

It is easiest to think about economic life at the macro level. We use collective measures of economic life every day -- the Dow-Jones Industrial Average, the Gross National Product, the national trade deficit, etc., etc. And it is also common to see that political life has a macro dimension, as we obsessively report national elections and have daily notices of international wars. Popular culture produces Billboard charts, best sellers, top grossers for the whole nation each week. Nationwide religious denominations make news as they grow and decline, split and do good.

The hardest institution to think about in a macro way is the family. Sure, everyone knows the divorce rate, the rising age of first marriage, and may even has a sense of the fertility rate. But when we think about family as an institution, we each tend to think about my family. The divorce rate lives as divorces we know; marriage age becomes when I got married; fertility rate is really only interesting as how many kids I have.

Family is the hardest institution to think about at the macrosociological level because each family only exists at the micro level. There is no national family corporation, family state, family culture industry, family church. There are just millions of families whose collective actions add up to a social institution.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

What Does a Wedding Need?

The comments on my last two posts make me dare to open a can of worms: what does a wedding need? In particular, what are the big ticket items that drive up wedding costs so spectacularly?

When Mrs. G. and I got married, we had a great and cheap wedding. We got married on campus, in the equivalent of the college chapel, on graduation weekend. My mother made the dress, my father lettered the wedding certificate, the bride's uncle took the pictures, the wedding party wore their own clothes, and everyone pitched in to make the food. We had a Quaker wedding (a really great kind -- everyone should be a Quaker long enough to get married :-) ), so there was no minister or other officiant. The reception was in the function room attached to the chapel. We drove away in a borrowed car, and spent the night in a motel. The only thing I would change was that I should have taken her to a nicer hotel.

We bought the rings, license, invitations, flowers, cake, ingredients for reception quiches and finger food, a suit and shoes for me from a thrift store, shoes for the bride, and the motel.

We had a wonderful wedding with 140 guests.

Total cost: about $2,500 in today's prices.

So where were our big savings? The venue for wedding and reception were very inexpensive, because we were part of the church and college. We had a great seamstress who donated her work. We also had a great calligrapher donating his work for the wedding certificate that everyone signed, which is our equivalent of a minister. Our friends pitched in on making the food. A fine photographer donated his work. We had no alcohol, which also allowed us to have the reception at the church. And, of course, no wedding planner.

Except maybe for the dress, the officiant, and the photographer, couldn't everyone do it this way without scrimping? I realize that alcohol is a sticking point for many people, but even doubling this budget, wouldn't that give you enough margin to solve that problem?

I am not (simply) being a curmudgeon here, but trying to get a realistic view of where wedding costs come from - before my own children's someday-in-the-future weddings.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

A Little More on Weddings

A thing I learned from a student paper today: half of brides use a wedding planner. And wedding planners are likely to use professionalized, rationalized, and higher-priced wedding industry suppliers.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

"Weddings Costs $27,000!" Not Really

It has been widely reported that the average cost of a wedding is above $27,000. This is the consensus of several widely used websites, the,, and Conde Nast Bridal Media online. However, when individuals are surveyed about how much they think weddings normally cost, the average is about $15,000. My student Brittney Hertog examined the methods used to arrive at these two figures to figure out why there is such a discrepancy. She relied especially on a report in The Wall Street Journal by Carl Bialik.

On the side of the higher figure is the fact that the websites rely on reports of actual costs of weddings, rather than the guesses of a varied group of people, some with little experience of real or recent weddings. All of these websites counsel brides to prepare for sticker shock when they start to price wedding items, and to plan on spending at least 50% more than they first expected to. One of Hertog's biggest ticket findings is that hotel charges for hosting receptions normally start at $10,000, a platform to which costs are only added.

On the side of the lower figure, though, is the fact that the websites rely on professional wedding suppliers -- people who sell dresses, flowers, cakes, rings, invitations, catered receptions, etc. This leaves out homemade weddings. If a couple have an open wedding at their church, reception to follow in the fellowship hall, dress made by the bride's friend, and food made by the family, the total cost will be way under the official average, or even under the normal guess. Such weddings do not figure into the denominator of the websites' calculations, because they do not consume the professional wedding supplies that those calculations are based on.

Moreover, as Bialik argues, median cost is a more realistic indicator than average cost. A few megaweddings, averaged in with a large number of normal weddings, can pull the "average" cost way above what most people will experience.

There is a further reason that the high average cost figure is so often used: it makes the average bride feel thrifty. If she, and those helping her plan the wedding, know that $27,000 is the average cost, then they can feel they have achieved real savings if they spend only $17,000 - even if that is actually more than what most weddings actually cost.

I think spending $27,000 on a wedding is ridiculous. That should be put to the downpayment on a house. It is helpful to know, therefore, that this is a very misleading number, and is should not be used to guide your (my students', my daughters') own wedding plans.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Family Cohesion in Step-Families

My family class workshop is now entering the payoff phase, as students report on their research projects.

Emily Perrin examined the research on step-families, and noted several flaws. Most studies of families measure how well the family coheres. Step-families usually score poorly on this measure. Emily argued that this is in the nature of step-families. Even high-functioning step-families are likely have looser ties between step-parents and step-children, even if the marriage bond and the (blood) parent-child bonds are solid.

True, it is likely that step-families as a whole are lower functioning than intact families as a whole, tending to more centrifugal than is good for them. Still, I think Perrin makes a good case that researchers on step-families should rethink simply importing a family cohesion measure from research on intact families.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Abortion Centrism Meets the Birth Dearth

Pro-life centrists see that with the strong Democratic wave in the recent election, there will be no federal ban on abortion. Instead, they are seeking common ground with pro-choice groups to reduce the number of abortions.

The focus of religious groups on both sides is to get more social services to poor pregnant women to help them raise their children. Jacqueline Salmon's Washington Post article notes that poor women are four times more likely to have abortions than middle-class women are. She quotes Alexia Kelly of the Catholic Alliance for the Common Good as concluding that "Clearly, poverty impacts the abortion rate."

I think this gets the causation mostly backwards. Poor women are actually less likely to abort any particular pregnancy than middle-class women are. However, poor women are much more likely to get pregnant than middle-class women are. Pregnancy is part of poor women's lifestyle -- that is a big reason why they stay poor.

Middle-class women are more likely to plan their parenthood -- that is a big reason why they stay middle class. For the past few decades, middle-class women have generally believed that they should have few to no children for their own careers and for the good of the planet. These two facts contribute significantly to the middle-class abortion rate. Yet middle-class women are also the best informed about trends in family life, as they affect their own families and, in a general way, as they affect society.

As middle-class women become more aware that we face a shortage of children in the rich countries, they have started to change their fertility patterns. As middle-class women become educated about the great benefits to their marriages and their family's long-term health, wealth, and happiness of having children, and of how many childless career women regret not having children, they become more comfortable with having another person at the table. Even when that person wasn't exactly planned.

The fastest approach to reducing the abortion rate is through the best informed, most organized, most churched mothers. A centrist religious coalition to reduce the abortion rate should start in their own backyard with positive arguments about the personal and social benefits of children. That would reduce abortion rates in the middle class. And when the leading classes walk the talk, the other classes are more likely to follow.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

"Twin Peaks" Revisited

The entertainment of Thanksgiving week was watching "Twin Peaks" again with daughter Endub, who was born just before the series ran on television years ago. We have now seen the whole first story arc -- Who killed Laura Palmer? The show really holds up well. The oddness, humor, and genuine creepiness still come through, even when you know how it turns out.

My recollection is that it got so silly in the second season that it was canceled for good cause. Nonetheless, I am looking forward to finishing the whole set, and then the prequel. And now I can share it with the next generation.

"The owls are not what they seem."

Friday, November 28, 2008

Averge Cost of an Easy Divorce: $50,000 calculates it this way. The average American family, according the Census numbers, is married, has two children, makes between $50,000 to $74,999 a year and owns a home worth about $185,000 - though the home value varies enormously by location. This family would spend more than $50,000 on lawyers, counseling for themselves and the kids, and the many costs of selling the house and moving.

Contested divorces cost much more - easily twice the amount of an uncontested divorce.

And that depends on being able to sell the house. MSNBC reports, mostly on the basis of anecdotes but probably accurately, that divorces are down at the moment because unhappy couples can't afford to sell their houses or charge the other services they would need.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Best Age to Marry for the Kids: Mid-Twenties

Sharon Jayson has an excellent article in USA Today about the debate over what is the best age to marry. The marriage age has been creeping up and averages the highest ever -- nearly 26 for women and 28 for men. Everyone agrees that you shouldn't marry as a teenager if you can help it, and most agree that you should start having kids by 30 if possible.

The division among the scholars in this debate is between Norval Glenn, who found that those who marry in their mid-twenties are happiest, and Andrew Cherlin, who argues that those who marry in their late 20s or early 30s are the most mature and settled.

I side with Glenn in this debate. I think having children is important to the great majority of married couples, and delaying trying to have kids into your 30s is dicier than most people know.

I was struck by another point in this debate, though: everyone in it assume that marriage should come before children. This is a debate among people on the upper side of the "marriage caste" divide. For those one the lower side, where single teen mothers are the norm, 40 is the ideal age for marriage, whereas 20 is the ideal age for motherhood. This is the further reason I side with Norval Glenn. He holds out for the crucial connection between marriage and parenthood. Separate them, and the social fabric unravels.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Georgia "Get Married, Stay Married" Campaign is Great

The Supreme Court of Georgia has started a billboard campaign urging parents to Get Married, Stay Married. Using private funds and donated billboard space, Chief Justice Leah Ward Sears has led a broad-based campaign to fight crime through better marriages. She noted that 72 percent of incarcerated juveniles are from "fragmented" families and that 65 percent of Georgia's civil court dockets concern matters pertaining to children and families, outnumbering not only all other civil cases but also all felony and misdemeanor cases combined.

This is a great idea. There is much that can be done right now just by making the public argument for marriage. When African-American leaders like Chief Justice Sears speak out the power of the bully pulpit (or billboard) is focused where it is needed the most.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Privilege Exercise 2008

My "Social Structure" class again hosted the Privilege Exercise last night. Based on Peggy McIntosh's article "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack," we formed the 100 students in a line, shoulder to shoulder, then asked them to respond to a seriess of questions. The questions were of the form "If you had more than 50 books in your house growing up, take a step forward" and "If you were ever stopped by the police because of your race, sex, ethnicity, or sexual orientation, take a step back." After 50 questions, the group was divided enough to see social stratification in a more literal sense than usual. We then broke up into four groups, based on our relative privilege, and talked about the experience. After about 20 minutes, we reconvened as a whole to talk about privilege, difference, and what to think about it.

One of the most interesting findings this year was that all students acknowledged that being a Centre College student itself is a privilege. They were there in part from their own hard work, and in part from the advantages that some -- but only some -- of the students started out with. The least-privilege group appreciated that they had to work harder to get to Centre than the most privileged group had (on the whole). They also knew, though, that compared to many people they grew up with, they were the very privileged. One of the students in the least-privileged group said that coming to Centre "wiped the slate clean"; thereafter, each of the students' position in the world would have more to do with their own achievement and less with their backgrounds.

Sometimes McIntosh's inventory is used to teach people that privilege creates an oppressive structure of domination that is very difficult to change. Centre students do come from quite a range of backgrounds, and they do see the differences in privilege and structural domination -- to a point. They focus more, though, on making the most of their opportunities, being grateful for whatever privileges they have, and looking to provide more for their own children and the society in general. This seems to me to be a healthy, realistic attitude toward privilege.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Faith-Based Initiatives Will Live On Under the Community-Organizer-in-Chief

One of the legacies of the Bush administration that President Obama will be happy to receive will be the faith-based and community initiatives.

Many secularists and liberals in the Democratic Party object to government working in partnership with religious institutions to solve social problems. Barack Obama, though, has welcomed faith-based initiatives as one good tool among many to address the worst ills of society. As a former community organizer, he knows that for the poorest and worst off, the churches are by far the most likely to stick to the task of helping. As a Gen Xer, he is more interested in results than rhetoric. Most importantly, as a Christian, he knows that God has the greatest power to change lives. I think that is why he was drawn to church in the first place, and how he became convinced to open his life to God. He tried hard to change people by his own will, by secular organization, and by government action. They all help, but they never do the whole job because they can never get down to the bottom of people's problems. Only God can.

I look forward to a new, less partisan, more diverse array of faith-based initiatives in the Obama administration. And if he can make that work, the new Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships program may be the enduring positive legacy of the Bush presidency.

Saturday, November 22, 2008


Mrs. G. and I were talking about our younger days as Yuppies. We lived in a basement apartment in Dupont Circle in Washington, worked for the government, and hung out with other young professionals who we knew from work, church, and graduate school. We were among the few marrieds in our church group, and soon became the first parents in a world where babies usually meant a move to the suburbs. We enjoyed our time as Young Urban Professionals.

We were delighted, though, to move on from that phase of life when we moved to Danville, KY to join Centre College. We have a great life now, which I would not trade for any other.

But we are clearly no longer Yuppies. So what are we? I propose Middle-aged Small Town Intellectuals.


Friday, November 21, 2008

Decency in Courtship Still Beats the New Jerkiness

Kay Hymowitz has another fine family essay in the current City Journal, Love in a Time of Darwinism. She gives a somewhat sympathetic account of the why some single men are deliberately being sex-obsessed, marriage-averse jerks. The problem, she says, is that women's expectations are so varied, and so changeable, that men have no standard courtship script that they can follow. Moreover, many nice guys have enough bad experiences with women who really want bad boys that they start acting like jerks, too.

Hymowitz says that the new incivility (to put it nicely) in men and women about dating and mating is due to a half-understood Darwinism. Sociobiologists have convinced enough people that men and women tend to seek different things in a mate -- beauty and sex, on the one had, money and protection, on the other -- that some of them act like adversaries in a game of mutual manipulation. This makes true marriage hard to come by, and makes courtship very disheartening.

Sociobiology is not wrong, but it is only half the story. The problem, Hymowitz writes, " is an uncompromising biological determinism that makes no room for human cultivation." We have developed civilization not to enact nature, but to perfect its shortcomings. Marriage is a great human achievement because it takes the biological foundation of men's and women's desires and synthesizes them into something higher. This is the true meaning of what Hegel has in mind as a "synthesis."

Hymowitz is a secular writer, but I think we can take her argument a further step. She quotes a pro-jerkiness dating coach who contends that “Nature doesn’t care about hurting people’s feelings. It cares ONLY about reproductive success.” Let us leave aside the problem of anthropomorphizing Nature and attributing intentions to it. Nature may not care about hurting people's feelings -- but God does. And because we are made in the image of God, and so is everyone else, we have developed a capacity to care about other people's feelings, too. This is a great and high achievement. Courtship and marriage worthy of human beings is, of course, aimed at reproductive success, but as part of a decent human life, not as an alternative to one.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Centrist Solutions to the "Know Your Father" Problem

Continuing the discussion of biology and identity, the same helpful reader presses to the hard question:

In principle, under what circumstances is it "OK" or even "preferable" that a child be deprived of his biological father's identity? And going forward, should we compel the sharing of his identity in those circumstances anyway? Or perhaps we should just do our best to end those kinds of circumstances in the first place.

I think about half of who we are comes from our biological heritage. That is important for a person to know. And I am impressed with how very much adopted kids and donor kids want to know who their natural parents are. So, I would incline to have open adoption and donation.

But requiring it by law in all cases? That seems to be too much.

Perhaps a market solution -- you pay extra for secrecy? Or a judicial bypass -- you can keep it secret if you can convince a judge that you have a good reason? Let each state make its own rules democratically, knowing they would differ from one another?

If the law had a presumption of openness, with some rational possibility of an exception, seems to me to be a centrist solution.

Addendum: I was chided on the above answer as inadequate and not really principled (see the first comment below). I thus add this explication.

The principle that I am applying is that principles establish a general rule, to which there might, in principle, be exceptions. The principle that applies is that law should support the presumption that children should know who their parents are. But in a wild and varied world, situations might arise that no one, myself included, can predict that would produce a good reason for secrecy. Hard cases make bad law, so we should tailor the law to the general principle, not the hard case.

Thus I believe the best we can do is to provide a general structure of openness, with known, open, and legitimate means to create exceptions.

As I said at the outset of this discussion I don't think identity comes from any one or absolute source, including biology. Biology is always important to our bodies, of course, and is almost always important to our identities, but it is not of overriding importance; it is one factor among other, and the mix of factors differs from culture to culture and person to person.

Moreover, however you conceive of identity, I don't think you have a legal and universal "right" to identity.

Still-in-Love Outliers

Nifty new research shows that in some couples romantic love just keeps on going. In most marriages, the giddiness of earlier love becomes calmer and more rational after a year to a year and a half. Most married people love one another, just not in the same crazy-for-you way. Some couples, though are outliers. A team of researchers led by Bianca Acevedo of Stony Brook did brain scans of couples married decades and compared them with newlyweds. The same brain areas lit up.

The study is small and the interpretation of brain regions and emotions is just beginning, but the results are promising. And I must admit that my interest in this study is more than a little autobiographical (I write as Mrs. G. is sitting with me in our coffee house, our MacBooks back to back, romantically sharing one power cord). Still, I think it points to something important. Romance lives!

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Integrating Identity Matters More to Girls

An interesting detail of our recent extended discussion of the identity issues of donor-conceived children is that most of the people who wrote to say that they urgently wanted to know their donor father were women. A student recently brought to class a review of identity research for adoptive kids by Harold Grotevant and colleagues from Family Relations in 2000. They make this observation (references removed):

Gender may add a layer of complexity to the development of adoptive identity. Although minimal gender differences have been found in identity formation in domains involving vocation, religion, and politics, identity development in relational domains (sex-roles, relationships) appears more complex for girls. Whereas boys seem to focus their exploration on aspects of identity having to do with school and work, girls tend to integrate aspirations and goals across more areas of life at the same time.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Biology is Real, But it is not Identity

The other day I made this comment, which one reader asked me, very reasonably, to explain:

" I don't think people have a right to know who their fathers are, even if nearly everyone does, in fact, know."

A right is a serious thing. It is not just a wish. Moreover, I think that anything the state acknowledges as a right it must try to guarantee to the limits of its power.

I cannot think of a compelling state interest in ensuring that every citizen knows the identity of his or her biological father. That is what a right to know who your father is would entail. In particular, I cannot think of a state interest that would use the state's power to compel unwilling sperm donors to reveal their identities.

If the state, for some reason, knew the identity of your biological father and was withholding it, I agree that it is hard to think of why they should withhold it from you. That is not the same, though, as the state having an obligation to help you find out.

If not knowing who their biological fathers are causes donor-created children sufficient anxiety that they can convince the legislature to require all future donors to reveal their identity, that would seem to me to be a fair working of democracy. Future donors could then make a free choice to donate under those rules. Such a law, though, would not be reason enough to require past donors, who were assured of privacy under normal contract law, to be compelled to reveal their identities now.

I believe that many adopted and donor-produced children suffer real anxiety from not knowing much about their biological parents. It is such a problem that it might be worthwhile to require open adoption and open donation in the future. A more centrist, and likely, solution would be to create structures and incentives to help connect such children and parents. For example, it might be worth it to create registries of parents and children seeking one another, with a third party making the connections. It might even be worth it to create a government bureaucracy to seek out parents and children separated by adoption or donation secrecy, and ask them on behalf of the other party to reveal themselves. This could even be organized on a fee-for-service basis.

The larger issue is whether biological heritage is really the same as "identity" in the first place. As adoption has proven for centuries, social parents - the people who actually raise children - are real parents. They have a real and shaping effect on the identity of their children. I think this is even more true of donor-produced children, especially when raised by one of their natural parents. The fact that some - maybe most - children not raised by their natural parents are very curious about their natural parents does not mean that that knowledge is actually essential to the children's identity.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Civil Unions Offers 90% of the Loaf. Take It.

Most Americans oppose same-sex marriage. Most Americans support civil unions.

More than half the states have passed bans on same-sex marriage, most putting it right in the state constitution. Several of those states still offer civil unions.

Civil unions are popular -- especially with heterosexual couples. Same-sex marriage is rarely used even in those places where it is legal. A few states would legalize same-sex marriage through the legislature, not the court. More power to them, I say, and bless the great diversity of jurisdictions that these united States afford.

Civil unions deliver 90% of what the proponents of same-sex marriage want
. For people who want to win, it is not just half-a-loaf, it is nearly the whole meal. The rest is mostly drama and symbolism.

President Obama, the supposed "most liberal member of the Senate" supports civil unions and opposes same-sex marriage. I am with "No-drama Obama." Take civil unions, declare victory, and let's get on with life.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Friday, November 14, 2008

A Post-Feminist Generation Takes the "Gender Gap" Facts Well

I have been teaching Warren Farrell's Why Men Earn More this week. He debunks the myth that women earn less than men because of discrimination. He concludes, in fact, that "while men still earn more for different work, women now earn more for the same work." The book is written as a self-help book for women. He shows 25 things that lead to higher pay that men are more likely to do, that women could do. He also notes the main reason for the gender gap in pay is that women are more likely to choose family and a more balanced life than working for more pay, whereas men are more likely to support their families by working for that higher pay.

My students, to their great credit, took this study calmly, assessing his empirical support. I mentioned that when and where I went to college -- I am Swarthmore '82 -- there would have been protests for even raising the idea that the gender pay gap has more to do with women's choices than men's oppressiveness. They were puzzled by the idea of protests against ideas, and one bravely asked why anyone would do that.

It is somewhat like the generational differences in reading the meaning of the presidential election. The network we were watching had the Baby Boomer commentators talk at length about the racial significance of Obama's victory. They then asked one of the 30-something experts, who said, somewhat diffidently, that to people of his generation, Senator Obama was primarily a leader, to be measured against other leaders, rather than a symbol in a giant racial drama.

The low-drama, fact-based reaction of my post-feminist students, women and men, to the realities of sex and gender differences is a heartening measure of progress.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

A Puzzle in Racial Intermarriage

Racial intermarriage is rising. The more educated people are the more likely they are to marry across racial lines. Blacks and White are the least likely to marry out of their group, but the numbers of those who do grow year by year. Hispanics (treated as the equivalent of a racial group) and Asian Americans are much more likely to marry out. Whites overwhelmingly marry whites (well above 90%), in part because there are so many more whites than all other groups combined that the great majority of potential partners for white men and women are also white. African Americans are also overwhelmingly (90%+) likely to marry within the group. Hispanics and Asian Americans, by contrast, show much more variation in intermarriage by education.

Moreover, women usually marry men who are more educated than they are. Intermarried couples involving a white partner (the most-studied kind of pairing) usually involves a white woman and a non-white man. In those couples, she typically marries a man more educated than she is.

A student recently brought to class an interesting study from a decade ago by Zhenchao Qian (in Demography, May 1997). His focus was on the overall pattern of racial intermarriage that I describe above, and how that changed from 1980 to 1990 (it got more so). I was struck, though, by this interesting anomaly. For Hispanics, intermarriage goes up significantly as education increases (following the usual pattern). For Asian Americans, though, intermarriage goes down as education increases. This pattern holds for men and women, though to different degrees.

Thus, for Hispanics the intermarriage rates in 1990 were:
Men, less than high school: 24%; college-plus: 36%
Women, less than high school: 22%; college-plus: 38%

For Asian Americans, though, the opposite pattern holds.
Men, less than high school: 100% (very small group; h.s. grads = 79%); college-plus: 48%
Women, less than high school: 86%; college-plus: 67%

Zhenchao Qian does not analyze this anomaly much. And we should not miss the important fact that most Asian American women at all educational levels marry out, as do a majority of Asian American men at the college level and below.

I think what is going on here is that most highly educated people are in a minority in their racial group. They have a more limited pool of similar mates than others in their race do, so are somewhat more likely to look outside the group. Among Asian Americans, though, being highly educated is the norm. Most of the other Asian Americans that highly educated Asian Americans meet are also likely to be highly educated. Sharing both characteristics makes marriage more likely, as well as easier, on the whole.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

She Wants to Know Who Her Donor Father Is. No.

A women in British Columbia is suing under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms that she has a right to know who her sperm-donor father is. She claims she is entitled to valuable health information, since all she has been told is that her father was a healthy medical student with type A blood. I can see that other physical health information, such as a family history of heart attack, cancer, or genetic disease, should also be passed on to her, if it had been collected in the first place.

The BC woman is also claiming that she suffers from psychological distress from not knowing who her father is. I agree that this is a real problem. Elizabeth Marquardt is studying this very subject, and I look forward to the publication of her research.

Nonetheless, when the donation was made and accepted, the rule was that that was the end of it. You can debate whether that should be the rule in the future, or whether sperm donor or mother should have accepted those terms. But they did. So to this questing woman I say "No." You can try to change the rules for other people in the future. But there is a larger principle of being able to trust the rule of law that trumps even your psychological distress.

In sperm-donor court, I would be a hanging judge.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Middle-borns Follow Peers More

A student recently brought up an interesting Human Nature article by Catherine Salmon comparing middle-born children with firsts and lasts. She found that middle-born college students were less oriented toward family, and more oriented toward peers.

This small study suggests a partial solution to a puzzle in birth-order studies. I follow Frank Sulloway's argument that birth order has a big effect. He argues that siblings are in a Darwinian competition for parental attention. First-borns get first choice, and they usually choose to be parent-oriented. The middles get next choice, which might be to pick up a secondary parental interest, or another niche not occupied by the first. Last-borns are "born to rebel" because by their turn all the good parentlike niches have been taken; they are open to experience and are most likely to try new things.

I have to take seriously the challenge that Judith Harris raises in The Nurture Assumption that birth order does not have a big effect because kids are more peer-oriented than parent-oriented anyway.

Both Sulloway and Harris have empirical support for their positions, especially Sulloway's massive historical studies. The way I had reconciled their contradictory findings is to say that parents have a strong direct effect on children when they are little, which varies by birth order. Peers have a stronger influence during adolescence. Parents get the last word, though, because they have an indirect influence on which peers their children hang out with -- an effect that varies by birth order.

Salmon's finding adds another piece to the puzzle. If middle-borns show a stronger peer orientation, this would mitigate the parent effects that Sulloway found, and bolster the peer effects that Harris found -- for some kids.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Red Sex, Blue Sex, Middle Sex

The New Yorker has an excellent article by Margaret Talbot on "Red Sex, Blue Sex." She starts with the puzzling fact that evangelical teenagers talk the best game about saving sex for marriage, but actually have premarital sex and premarital babies at higher rates than kids in other groups do.

Part of this problem is that many people talk the talk of evangelicalism in general, but don't walk the walk. Evangelical teens who are the most religious and the most embedded in strong church families and strong religious communities really do have lower teen sex rates.

In many communities, though, especially in the small-town South, born-again talk is just conventional. Kids with conventional premarital sex lives -- that is, they have some premarital sex -- will also talk the conventional anti-premarital sex talk, especially to grownups. This doesn't prove that evangelicals are especially hypocritical, but rather that most people are conventional. It is like people in "tolerant" communities actually being very intolerant of people unlike them (such as evangelicals). Most people are conventional. Most communities have some conventions that conflict with one another. Therefore there will necessarily be a group of inadvertent hypocrites who follow one convention at one point, and another convention at another.

The "blue sex" group is also interesting. Blue states have lower teen pregnancy and divorce rates than red states. The key seems to be the later average age of marriage in blue states. This reflects the fact that people in blue states have, on average, more education, which delays marriage. Later marriage doesn't delay sex much, but it does delay marriage. And some people who delay marriage arrange whatever sex they have to produce fewer non-marital babies - enough to significantly improve statewide averages. The risk of later marriage, though, is infertility or, worse, unhappy never-married life.

The most interesting group to me were the kids who did successfully avoid teen pregnancy and too-early marriage, without utterly avoiding or condemning sex. Mark Regnerus, the sociologist whose work on religion and teen life is the heart of Talbot's article, found that the most successful middle way was practiced by teenagers who had big plans for their lives that they actually followed. Those who had high ambitious and had mastered the basic bourgeois skill of deferring gratification were the most likely to avoid teen pregnancy -- and avoid addictions and reckless accidents. They lived carefully because they had bigger things they wanted to do with their lives.

Going beyond what Talbot and Regnerus show, I think I see in these plan-ahead kids a more proportionate sense of the importance of sex. Some kinds of religious conservatives treat sex as bad. This position is not nearly as common as it used to be -- it seems to exist more in liberal fears about "fire and brimstone" preaching than in the actual sexual attitudes of evangelical Christians. More common, though, is to find religious arguments for marital sex as a unique and transcendentally wonderful form of intimacy. You should save sex for your spouse because no one else deserves something so wonderful. This seems to me to elevate sex beyond what it can really deliver. On the liberal side, there are still some sensualists who treat sexual passion as the door to Deep Truth, but they are about as common as fire-and-brimstone preachers. More common are liberals, secular and otherwise, who treat sex as a fun game - so why not play it with whoever is good at it? This, too, seems to me an erroneous estimation, too shallow rather than too deep.

The middle sex view is neither too transcendent nor too flippant. The middle group that Regnerus points to see sex as a good thing that is best done in marriage, but is not bad in relationships that might lead to marriage.

Sunday, November 09, 2008


Our study group read Lolita. Last night I saw the old film, with James Mason as the pedophile Humbert Humbert, and this afternoon the group saw the newer film, with Jeremy Irons as Prof. Humbert.

The book never portrays Humbert as anything less than pathetic, and doesn't hold back from showing him to be a monster. It is not a sympathetic portrayal. We debated why Nabokov wrote the book. The best sense I can make of it is that he saw the project of making a pedophile intelligible as a great challenge to his skill as a writer. It is magnificently written. The book is also full of the kinds of puzzles that English majors enjoy.

Still, the moral trumps the literary for me. Nabokov said he was not trying to prove a moral, but I will look for one, anyway. Humbert has what I gather is the usual pedophile's dream of finding a child who is a willing participant in his sexual fantasies. Humbert finds that dream child. Yet he is not fulfilled, or happy, or satisfied. His life is not made meaningful. In fact, his consuming lust seems more ridiculous and humiliating to him because it is regularly satisfied, and yet still does not fill the void in him.

I was surprised at my reactions to the films. I had not seen either before, but had heard that the James Mason/Stanley Kubrick version was better. For one thing, Nabokov himself collaborated on the script. Yet I thought the show was stolen by Peter Sellers as the mysterious Clare Quilty, who occupies a larger part of the story than he should. And the decision to cast a Lolita who looked 16 - not 14, as she was supposed to be in the film, nor 12, as she was in the book -- undermined some of the necessary loathesomeness from the outset. The new version, directed by Adrian Lynn, had much more of the book in it, and was visually much richer. Jeremy Irons was about perfect as Humbert Humbert, and Quilty had a more proportionate role.

Both girls cast as Lolita have had a rough life afterwards. Sue Lyons turned into a famous mess, and has retired, hermitlike, with her fifth husband. Dominque Swain, who was 16 when she made the movie, was already a drug addict and alcoholic by 21. This story is not uncommon for child stars, and neither blames "Lolita" directly. Still, Natalie Portman says she is glad she turned down the role when it was offered to her.

The moral creepiness of Lolita endures.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

My Favorite Post-Election Joke

This may only appeal to polity nerds:

"Is Missouri just going to keep its electoral votes?"

--Josh Marshall [Talking Points Memo]

Friday, November 07, 2008

Improving America's Standing in the World

One campaign promise made by President-Elect Obama has already been fulfilled: to raise America's standing in the world. It is so gratifying -- no, astonishing -- to see foreigners marching joyfully with the American flag, instead of burning it.

Of course, the honeymoon can't last. Hard choices will have to be made, some of which will displease some in other nations. We will have to fight and even bomb in Afghanistan and Pakistan, which may lead to riots in the streets. Economic hardships around the world will follow from the ruins of our financial gamblers' binge, no matter how fast we rebuild. We should push China on human rights and their currency tricks. Whatever we do about North Korea, Burma, and Congo will make some enemies. And Russia could get ugly again.

Still, things are already better because the world is expecting a U.S. administration that will be less belligerent, less arrogant, less unilateral. And so am I.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Ballot Measures Head to the Center

I find that reporting on ballot measures is often more heated and polarizing than even the horse-race stories about candidates. Just about everyone has an opinion on the presidential candidates, and those opinions cover the full spectrum of nuance. Ballot measures, on the other hand, draw only partisans to hit the streets, give interviews, and shape the way stories are reported. The stories, therefore, tend to show all-or-nothing victories. Yet the usual reality is that the centrist position prevails, if the people are given an option to choose.

The lead stories on ballot measures were the bans on gay marriage passed in Arizona, Florida, and California. California was the big news, because the state Supreme Court had overturned an earlier ballot measure that had also banned gay marriage. Yet this is in line with the middle position that we find all over the country: most people oppose same-sex marriage, but support civil unions. Florida and California had millions of voters who voted for Obama and against gay marriage. Domestic partner registration, a kind of civil union, is still legal in California. Even there, the issue is more symbolic than substantive. There are just under 100,000 same-sex couples in California, out of a population of 36.5 million, yet only about 4,000 actually got married when it was legal.

Arkansas also banned adoption by unmarried couples. This has been reported as a ban on gay adoption, and of course there are no legally married same-sex couples in Arkansas. The overwhelming majority of couples affected by the ban, though, are opposite-sex cohabitors, who could marry. The voters of Arkansas are following popular and social science wisdom that children do best with two married parents.

The abortion measures that passed were modest, popular, centrist changes, while the extreme measures failed. Thus California passed a parental notification requirement, with work-arounds if that would be too problematic for the girl. On the other hand, the total bans on abortion in Colorado and South Dakota failed. The Michigan measure to allow stem cell research was amazingly detailed and careful for a constitutional measure.

There are others that show the same pattern, in which centrist measures pass, while extreme changes fail. Washington passed a physician-assisted suicide law, with careful limits that apply only to certified no-hopers. Michigan allowed medical use of marijuana, not blanket decriminalization. By contrast, "Taxachusetts" voters had a chance to abolish the state income tax, and turned it down two to one.

Successful ballot measures are usually centrist compromises between extreme ideas. Their story should be told that way.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Flag-Waving Democrats

One of the healthiest developments of this election has been the rebirth of open patriotism by Democrats and liberals. Democrats and liberals are patriotic, of course, but for a long time they let their opponents take the flag and the songs of national pride as their own private emblems. We fly the flag at the Gruntled house at every election, but we used to be the only Democrats on the street who always did so. No longer. Flags were everywhere at every Democratic event I saw or went to, culminating in Sen. Obama's rally in Grant Park last night, as this picture shows. In fact, my favorite image from the great event was a shot of Jesse Jackson, just another guy in the enormous crowd, with tears in his eyes and a flag in his hands.

Sen. McCain gave a glorious concession speech, and Sen. Obama responded in kind. Both were emblems of decent America.

The Grant Park rally began with the national anthem and the pledge of allegiance. We stood for the pledge, watching the flag on television, at our house last night.

My favorite instance of flag-waving Democracy, though, came in a magnificent dispatch from Megblum, Gruntled Child #1, amidst the College Democrats at Swarthmore College, which she entitled "Election Reflections/Taking My Country Back":

Mom told me that in 1980, when Reagan won, many campus leftists were disturbed by people running around campus singing "God Bless America." Tonight, I called her to let her hear as a campus a capella group led the crowd in an impromptu rendition of the national anthem.

And when the senator came on with his acceptance speech, a funny thing happened. Having responded throughout the night with rousing choruses of the familiar "Yes We Can," at some point they switched to something very different. A room full of lefty, intellectual, cosmopolitan Swatties spontaneously started chanting "U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!"

I have never been prouder to be a Swattie. I have never been prouder to be a campus organizer. I have never been prouder to be a Democrat. I have never been prouder to be an American.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Yes We Can!

Mrs. G. and I were in line when the polls opened at 6 this morning. There was already a line out the door.

We woke our son up. 14-year-old boys with the day off from school don't normally relish rising at 5:30, but he went cheerfully, albeit sleepily, to see us vote in this historic election. Then he went back to bed.

We are now in our local coffee house, where I expect to see a larger-than-usual crowd, many with "I Voted" stickers, all morning.

This is a great day.

Monday, November 03, 2008

My First Vote

I come from a family of yellow-dog Democrats. We are from the McGovern die-hard wing of the party. My youth was devoted to the overthrow of the Nixon Regime, and we were among the majority (for once) who welcomed Jimmy Carter's restoration of morality.

Nonetheless, for my first election, I registered as a Republican. I guess I have always been drawn toward the vital center, even before I had the concept. I had been reading a biography of Teddy Roosevelt just before the primary in 1980. I wanted that party. Moreover, in rural New Jersey, there weren't even enough Democrats to hold a primary. So I cast my first vote for John Anderson.

In the fall of 1980, my first presidential election, I was a Quaker at Swarthmore College -- about as deep into what we would now call "blue America" as it would be possible to get. The campus was overwhelmingly political, and overwhelmingly Democratic. The night before the election, the college showed a film in the main auditorium attended by most of the student body: "Bedtime for Bonzo," starring Ronald Reagan and a chimp. On the Tuesday, I happily voted for Jimmy Carter, and went to a church committee meeting.

By the time the meeting was over, the election had been called. The unthinkable had happened: Ronald Reagan was president. The many election parties on campus turned into wakes. The animal house fraternity, the one bastion of Republicans on campus, marched from one Democratic gathering to another, singing songs about Reagan and paratroopers, getting drunker and drunker.

What happened to the Democratic Party after that, in the micro at Swarthmore and in the macro on the national level, was a down-hearted round of recriminations and second-guessing. And then we rebuilt, and came back better. And more centrist.

I believe the same thing will happen to the Republican Party this year that happened to Democrats after 1980. And ultimately this will be good for the country.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

The "Catholic Vote" Isn't

The white (non-Hispanic) Catholic electorate is split right now on the presidential election:
Obama 49
McCain 41

Just after the party conventions, McCain was ahead with this group. Pollsters pay attention to this group as a group because it appears volatile. But it isn't, really. What this change means is that "Catholic" is not a voting bloc any more. The very fact that they have to report Anglo and Hispanic Catholics separately shows the cracks in Catholic as a political identity.

What they should show is liberal/progressive Catholics vs. conservative/traditional Catholics. I expect the former would go strongly for Obama, and the latter for McCain. The closest comparison we do have for traditional Catholics are evangelical Protestants, who go three-to-one for McCain.

I believe the election of John Kennedy normalized Catholics in politics at all levels. As a result, Catholics are no longer an electoral bloc, but are divided by ideological and economic issues, just as Protestants are.

I believe the election of Barack Obama will eventually have a similar effect for African Americans. Right now, the black vote is overwhelmingly Democratic. In fact, black Americans support the Democratic presidential candidates at higher rates than all registered Democrats do. In this election, not surprisingly, the black vote for Obama is likely to be above 90%, and black turnout will probably be the highest ever.

Twenty years from now, though, the black vote may be more divided between the parties. African American voters are likely to vote their ideology and economic interests. There will be more black Republican candidates, probably small government, anti-affirmative action, pro-life evangelicals. I pick twenty years because that is how long it took the Kennedy Catholic bloc to split into progressive Catholic Democrats and Reagan Democrats.

The Catholic bloc is no longer a bloc. Perhaps twenty years from now President Obama will mean that, ironically, the black bloc is no longer a bloc, either.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Nativity Lizard

My brother-in-law sent this gem (slightly modified).

Five Things That Make Sense:

Grandparents love to spoil their grandchildren.
Grandma J. likes to sew.
Kids loves to play dress-up.
Da Nephew likes lizards.
Children wear costumes for the Christmas Pageant at church.

One Thing That Doesn't:

The other day, Da Nephew [D.] asked his mother whether or not there were lizards where Jesus was born. His mom shrugged and said, "I think so." D. said, in that case, he would like to be a lizard for the church Pageant instead of a sheep. Fast forward a few weeks, and D. is wearing a beautiful lizard costume, complete with tail, thanks to Grandma. Pictures attached. Fast forward a few more months, and we'll send you pictures of Godzilla menacing the manger.

Friday, October 31, 2008

A Pro-Kid Libertarian

Ben Wattenberg describes himself as a "sometime libertarian." He doesn't want government telling people what to do. On the other hand, he has quite a few things that he thinks people should want to do. People like that often have a hard time deciding what to say about having children. Most of them do have kids, and most of them think that kids are great. They are reluctant, though, to even promote having kids as good for other people, since nothing constrains your liberty like children.

In Fewer, Wattenberg notes that these days about 16% of women have no children, but 3/4ths of them wish they had done otherwise. Torn between two inclinations, he nonetheless comes to this conclusion: “But my own belief is that having and raising children is the essence of the human experience.”

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Reason Not to Drink #482: Alcoholics Don't Get Jokes

This is off my usual topic, but was so interesting that I wanted to share it.

German researchers studying the many ways in which alcoholism screws you up found that it impairs your ability to understand a joke. This would be a tragedy in the Gruntled household.

The sample joke that they released was this one:

It was Mother's Day. Anna and her brother had told their mother to stay in bed that morning. She read her book and looked forward to breakfast. After a long wait she finally went downstairs. Anna and her brother were both eating at the table.

The subjects were given a choice of four punchlines:
a) Anna said: "Hi mum, we didn't expect you to be awake so early."
b) Anna picked up an egg and smashed it on her brother's head.
c) Her brother said: "We have a new teacher at our school."
d) Anna said: "It's a surprise for Mother's Day. We cooked our own breakfast."

The correct punchline is the last one. (Didn't get that? Put that bottle down!) Only 68% of alcoholics got that, compared to 92% of other people.

Actually, I could see how each of them could be funny in the right context.

With teenagers who sleep 'til noon, and don't realize that they normally find breakfast ready because mom gets up and makes it: Anna said: "Hi mum, we didn't expect you to be awake so early."

With the "Three Stooges: The Next Generation": Anna picked up an egg and smashed it on her brother's head.

OR with a little more dialogue: Anna picked up an egg and smashed it on her brother's head. "We were just discussing the proper method for scrambling eggs."

With ADD kids, or with the normal attention span of little kids: Her brother said: "We have a new teacher at our school."

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Keynesianism is Centrist - Isn't It?

Last night Centre College students had a good debate. A College Democrat represented Sen. Obama's position, and a College Republican represented Sen. McCain's position. Another student, from our Bonner Scholars program, moderated, presenting questions submitted by the student body. Everyone did a fine job, and the whole debate was more informative than the candidate debates.

I was surprised by one exchange that went beyond anything I have heard from the actual presidential campaigns. The Democrat argued that Republicans still believed, as Pres. Hoover did, that the market should be left alone to settle recessions without government interference. In response, the Republican argued that when FDR raised taxes and created government jobs in order to give consumers money to stimulate the economy, he was the one who wrecked the economy.

I have heard informed opinion that the New Deal's Keynesian policies did not end the Depression by themselves -- World War II so stimulated production that people were put back to work (though much of that was also through government spending on war goods). Still, I thought it was taken for granted now that the Republican laissez-faire response to the Depression made the problem much worse, whereas Keynesian stimulus approaches saved the economy - indeed, saved capitalism.

Now I am not holding the Republican Party or Sen. McCain responsible for the views of one 18 year old College Republican. I expect, though, that he got this idea from a discourse circulating in Republican circles still -- or perhaps again. So, dear readers, are "We are all Keynesians now?"

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

I'd Be a Hanging Judge in Cohabitor's Court

A story in the Tennessean by Janell Ross goes through the tangles cohabitors get themselves into when they split up. She tells the sad tale of a doctor who sued his former girlfriend for $46,000 to get back what he put into the house they bought together. The judge said that since they were not married, and had not made any legal agreements about who got what in the event of a breakup, Dr. Out-of-Luck had made a gift of the house to his girlfriend in the course of the relationship. The doctor's haul from the legal suit: $0.

Serves him right, I say.

If people want to have a marriage-like relationship but won't or can't marry, they should make a legal contract, or suck it up. If they think marriage is "just a piece of paper," then so is a mortgage -- the kind you have to pay to the bank, no matter what happens to your feelings.

If you want the legal, financial, and social benefits of marriage, then get married.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Rough Equality of Network Chances, Not Equality of Individual Chances

Will Wilkinson of the Cato Institute has an interesting consideration of the liberal principle (cited to Rawls here, but found more generally in liberal thought) that a just society would have equally talented individuals having an equal chance at each position in the social structure. Wilkinson is for general equal opportunity laws and norms. He argues, though, that there is no way that equally talented individuals are likely to be in the same social networks, and networks strongly shape what opportunities come our way. Instead, he argues for a lightly regulated world with many different kinds of opportunities for talent to find a good place for itself:

Elite networks can achieve only limited succe[ss] in opportunity hoarding if new networks, new opportunities, and new hierarchies of prestige and status keep springing up.
Individual chances can't ever really be equal, but individuals can be in networks that are roughly equal. This seems to me a good sociological insight.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Presbyterian Colleges and the Presbyterian Establishment

My essay Rebuilding the Presbyterian Establishment is making its way through the church's cadres. I saw a thoughtful response the other day from a seminary professor who asked why I did not look to Presbyterian colleges for help in rebuilding the Establishment leadership that the denomination once had. This is an excellent question; I should, indeed, have addressed it in the essay at greater length. I have, though, addressed this question in Called To Teach: The Vocation of the Presbyterian Educator, a volume I edited with Duncan Ferguson.

Presbyterians have devoted more efforts to creating educational institutions than any other Protestants in this country. Our teaching vocation has never been aimed simply at educating Presbyterians, but has always been part of the Reformed vocation to be stewards of society. Presbyterian colleges were not created to develop a Presbyterian Establishment, but rather to educate a mixed leadership for all of society.

All the same, Presbyterian colleges, as well as other institutions - camps, synod schools, retreat centers, as well as seminaries - have historically been important in bringing together people who then form the linked chain of denominational leadership. Before the Sixties, more Presbyterian colleges saw nurturing an informed Christian and Reformed consciousness among Christian and Reformed students as part of their job. Since the Sixties, though, most Presbyterian colleges, the one I teach for included, have moved to an arm's-length appreciation of their denominational heritage, or cut ties with the church altogether. At the other end of the spectrum, a few Presbyterian colleges have become strong and explicit Christian colleges, but often by becoming generally evangelical rather than specifically Presbyterian. Moreover, the Presbyterianism practiced at these officially Christian colleges is as likely to be suspicious of the Presbyterian Church (USA) as not.

There is an interesting plurality of PC(USA)-related colleges who have been trying to develop a stronger Presbyterian dimension within a larger academic identity. These schools are likely to have a disproportionate share in nurturing Presbyterian leaders in the future. If we are truly to rebuild the Presbyterian Establishment, we should look to this ember maintained by the dimensionally Presbyterian colleges.