Tuesday, April 27, 2021
In a Bloomberg article about the tax perks of trillions of dollars in Environmental, Social, and Governance investing by Wall Street banks, tax specialist Bryen Alperin is quoted as saying: “ESG investing isn’t some kind of hippie-dippy movement. It’s good for business.”
This utilitarian approach to ESG, and social enterprise in general, has made me uncomfortable for a while. The whole “Doing Well by Doing Good” saying always struck me as problematic.
ESG and social enterprise are only needed when the decisions made are not likely to lead to the most financially profitable outcomes. Otherwise, it is just self-interested business.
Over my spring sabbatical, I have been reading a fair bit about spiritual disciplines and the one that is most relevant here is “Secrecy.” The discipline of secrecy is defined as “Consciously refraining from having our good deeds and qualities generally known, which, in turn, rightly disciplines our longing for recognition.” In The Spirit of the Disciplines, Dallas Willard (USC Philosophy) writes, “Secrecy at its best teaches love and humility…. and that love and humility encourages us to see our associates in the best possible light, even to the point of our hoping they will do better and appear better than us.”
As a professor with active social media accounts, the discipline of secrecy is not an easy one for me. But I do think it is a good aspiration for all of us. Not every good deed has to be kept in secret. There can be good reasons for broadcasting good deeds (for example, to encourage others.) However, regularly performing good deeds in secret can help us build selfless character.
Similarly, socially conscious businesses and investors should be focused on the broader good being done, not on the personal benefits. Granted, I don’t think investors can blindly trust the ESG funds or benefit corporations --- the screens are simply unreliable. Also, it may be difficult to determine which companies are really doing social good if they are practicing much of it in secret. But the truth has a tendency of leaking out over time and investors can focus on companies they see doing the right thing without excessive marketing.
As for the companies themselves, I remain optimistic that there are at least a few businesspeople who truly want to benefit society for mostly selfless reasons. Combatting selfishness is not easy, but the discipline of secrecy is one way to fight it.
Wednesday, April 14, 2021
On sabbatical, so this was a pretty good semester of reading (for me). 23 books and two online courses. A good bit about contemplation and religion with some philosophy and fiction. The Remains of the Day and A River Runs Through It were probably my two favorite, though the Merton and Willard books were meaningful too.
Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives (and Why We Don’t Talk About it) - Elizabeth Anderson (2017) (Philosophy). Tanner Lectures on Human Values at Princeton University. Four commenting essays by different professors follow, then Professor Anderson responds. Her main claim is that Adam Smith and others envisioned a free market with large amounts of self-employment. But powerful modern employers have become “unaccountable communist dictators” who use the rhetoric of freedom, but provide very little of it within their firms. Many employees have no “dignity, standing, or autonomy” in their firms and Anderson calls for more of an employee role in governance, perhaps along the German codetermination model.
Invitation to Solitude and Silence- Ruth Haley Barton (2004) (Religion). “We are starved for quiet, to hear the sound of sheer silence that is the presence of God himself.”
The Stranger - Albert Camus (1942) (Novel). Death, relationships, crime, and the absurd. “I opened myself to the gentle indifference of the world.”
The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains - Nicholas Carr (2011) (Culture). Extending Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media (1964) and Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985) to the Internet. Since reading Postman’s book, I’ve been curious about what he would say about the Internet, and Carr attempts to do some of that work, looking especially at our diminished attention spans.
My Name is Hope - John Mark Comer (2011) (Religion). Faith, anxiety, and depression. A bit memoir and a bit self-help. Admits that he is not a doctor or a therapist, but posits that there are root situational or historic causes under most cases of anxiety and depression. Makes calls for attention to the mind/body connections, prayer and meditation, and transparency and forgiveness.
Garden City - John Mark Comer (2015) (Religion). Faith, work, and rest. “The American Dream...has devolved over the years into a narcissistic desire to make as much money as possible, in as little time as possible, with as little effort as possible, so that we can get off work and go do something else.”
Happy Money - Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton (2013) (Behavioral Science). Buy experiences, not stuff. Make it a treat, not daily indulgence. Savor. Buy time; outsource dreaded time-consuming tasks. Time affluence tied to greater happiness. Stay present. The slow movement. Buy now, consume later (“delaying consumption allows spenders to reap the pleasures of anticipation without the buzzkill of reality, vacations provide the most happiness before they occur.”) Invest in others; people who donate to charity report feeling wealthier.
The Happiness Hypothesis - Jonathan Haidt (2006) (Psychology). Happiness and meaning and positive psychology through the lens of ancient wisdom. Elephant (desire) and the rider (reason). Happiness = Set Point (Meditation, Cognitive Therapy, Prosac) + Living Conditions ($70K, commute, relationships) + Voluntary Activities (gratitude, building community, being useful).
The Remains of the Day - Kazuo Ishiguro (1988) (Novel). British butler ponders duty, dignity, family, love, bantering, and tradition on a few days of countryside driving and reminiscing.
How to Be an Antiracist - Ibram X. Kendi (2019) (Race). The expectations and comments of his teachers struck me. I have known about the powerful positive potential of our words as professors, but Kendi’s work reminds me that we can do great harm as well. Kendi writes “ I internalized my academic struggles as indicative of something wrong not just with my behavior but with Black behavior as a whole, since I represented the race, both in their eyes - or what I thought I saw in their eyes-and in my own.” He noted that “Black students who have at least one Black teacher in elementary school are 29 percent less likely to drop out of school.” He did a nice job showing problems with standardized testing, but did not have much in terms of detailed proposals in changing college admissions.
The Practice of the Presence of God - Brother Lawrence (1895) (Religion). “His only thought was about doing little things for the love of God, since he was not capable of doing great things. Afterward, whatever happened to him would be according to God’s will, so he was not at all worried about it.” “Our sufferings will always be sweeter and more pleasant when we are Him, and without Him, our greatest pleasure will be but a cruel torture.” “I would like to be able to persuade you that God is often nearer to us in our times of sickness and infirmity than when we enjoy perfect health.”
Abolition of Man - C.S. Lewis (1943) (Education). Short book on education, truth, the doctrine of objective value, recognizing our flaws (Lewis did not like being around small children). justice, and valor.
Extraterrestrial: The First Signs of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth- Avi Loeb (2021) (Space). Harvard astronomy professor discusses Oumaumua, an odd interstellar object, sighted for 11 days in October of 2017 and the possibility that we are not alone in the universe. He bemoans the closed mindedness of some academic disciplines and argues for humility (even as he brags a bit about his accomplishments).
A River Runs Through It - Norman Maclean (1989) (Novel). Family and fishing. Younger brother, troubled and beautiful. Supposedly first novel published by University of Chicago Press.
No Man is an Island- Thomas Merton (1955) (Religion). OK to be ordinary. “All things are at once good and imperfect. The goodness bears witness to the goodness of God. But the imperfection of all things reminds us to leave them in order to live in hope. They are themselves insufficient. We must go beyond them to Him in Whom they have their true being.” “Everything in modern city life is calculated to keep man from entering into himself and thinking about spiritual things. Even with the best of intentions a spiritual man finds himself exhausted and deadened and debased by the constant noise of machines and loudspeakers, the dead air and the glaring lights of offices and shops, the everlasting suggestions of advertising and propaganda.” (108-09). “The cornerstone of all asceticism is humility.” (113). “A [person] who is not at peace with himself projects his interior fighting into the society of those he lives with, and spreads a contagion of conflict all around him….In order to settle down in the quiet of our own being we must learn to be detached from the results of our own activity. We must withdraw ourselves, to some extent, from effects that are beyond our control and be content with the good will and the work that are the quiet expression of our inner life...Our Christian identity is, in fact, a great one; but we cannot achieve greatness unless we lose all interest in being great.”
New Seeds of Contemplation- Thomas Merton (1964) (Religion). "There is no true peace possible for the man who still imagines that some accident of talent or grace or virtue segregates him from other men and places him above them" “Hate in any form is self-destructive, and even when it triumphs physically it triumphs in its own spiritual ruin.” “Hurry ruins saints as well as artists.” “If we were incapable of humility we would be incapable of joy, because humility alone can destroy the self-centeredness that makes joy impossible.” “A humble man can do great things with an uncommon perfection because he is no longer concerned about incidentals, like his own interests and his own reputation, and therefore he no longer needs to waste his efforts in defending them.”
In the Name of Jesus - Henri Nouwen (1989) (Religion). From Harvard to working with people with mental challenges at L’Arche. Brought Bill with him to talk to aspiring ministers in Washington D.C. - “we did it together.”
Can You Drink the Cup? - Henri Nouwen (1996) (Religion). “Joys are hidden in sorrow.” "We want to drink our cup together and thus celebrate the truth that the wounds of our individual lives, which seem intolerable when lived alone, become sources of healing when we live them as part of a fellowship of mutual care.”
The Tyranny of Merit - Michael Sandel (2020) (Philosophy). Even if we had a level playing field, the talented would win and talent is not deserved or earned. A bit short on solutions, but suggests a lower bar for elite college admissions and then lottery to select who goes. Thinks this would inject a bit of humility into the process and dispel that elite college admissions is earned by the individual.
The Ethics of Authenticity - Charles Taylor (1991) (Philosophy). Searches for a nuanced view of authenticity--exploring subjectivism, narcissism, apathy, horizons of significance, dialogue, and social traditions. (Lectures entitled “Malaise of Modernity”)
The Spirit of the Disciplines - Dallas Willard (1988) (Religion). Disciplines of Abstinence (solitude, silence, fasting, frugality, chastity, secrecy, sacrifice). Disciplines of Engagement (study, worship, celebration, service, prayer, fellowship, confession, submission).
The Great Omission - Dallas Willard (2014) (Religion). The great commission is not just about conversions, but about making *disciples* of all kinds of people.
Called to Business - Dallas Willard (2019) (Religion) Extremely short book. A few articles on faith and work; serving others while making a living.
The Promise Podcast (2020) - ~5 hours. Season 2. East Nashville public schools, diversity, wealth, and school choice.
Tuesday, January 1, 2019
Friday, August 25, 2017
I am delighted that Dr. Jeff Edmonds has agreed to be interviewed for this blog. Jeff and I graduated from the same high school in Chattanooga, TN, a few years apart. We both ran track, though Jeff ran a good bit faster than I ever did, and Jeff continued his running career at Rice University and Williams College. Jeff earned a PHD in philosophy at Vanderbilt University and is currently the high school academic dean at the prestigious University School of Nashville. Jeff coaches a running group called the Nashville Harriers, and he recently revived his excellent philosophy and running blog, The Logic of Long Distance.
The interview follows under the break. In the interview, Jeff shares wisdom on running and education that are well worth your time.
Friday, June 30, 2017
While I am already looking forward to returning to the classroom in the fall, one of the reasons that I love summers is that I get to catch up on reading. It has been an embarrassingly long time since I have finished a fiction book, but I am committed to making fiction an increasing percentage of my reading.
Percy's Moviegoer won the 1962 National Book Award. I have my brother Will to thank for the recommendation and for the book itself. The novel focuses on the life of a New Orleans area stockbroker "Binx" Bolling, and his search for meaning. I won't ruin the story for those who have not read it, but I was moved by the Binx's struggle against what he called the malaise and everydayness. Binx appears to be a pretty sad character, spending a good bit of time hiding from life in movie theaters and engaging in flings with his secretaries, but he can also inspire the reader to ask serious questions, engage in meaningful relationships, and live more intentionally.
Tuesday, May 16, 2017
This past week was a big one for loyalty stories. First, we have the New York Times reporting that President Trump asked former FBI director James Comey for his pledge of loyalty, to which Comey apparently promised "honesty." (The White House disputes this report.)
Then, we have a high school quarterback in Illinois being forced to decommit from the University of Wisconsin's, apparently because he tweeted that the University of Georgia had offered him a scholarship. The student called Wisconsin Coach Budmayr, telling him he had the offer and said he was "still 100% committed to the Badgers." The next day Budmayr apparently told him that he was no longer a good fit for Wisconsin and that he should keep looking. The reason: lack of loyalty.
Obviously, I only have the facts as they have been portrayed in these articles, and there are two sides to every story. Nonetheless, these anecdotes got me to thinking about loyalty and how people tend to perceive the concept.
To some, loyalty means fidelity. This can be in the physical or emotional sense, as in the marriage context. Some view extend it to ideological loyalty. And to some, it means undying, uncompromising agreement and support. It is this last idea that troubles me, because often it means that the loyalty is misguided.
Merriam-Webster dictionary defines loyal as follows:
1. unswerving in allegiance: such a
a : faithful in allegiance to one's lawful sovereign or government were loyal to the king
b: faithful to a private person to whom faithfulness is due a loyal husband
c : faithful to a cause, ideal, custom, institution, or product a loyal churchgoer
2. showing loyalty a loyal friend
The Trump-Comey scenario is clearly type 1(a), but I think the same is true of the Badger football situation. The concept of requiring absolute loyalty to the cause as a prerequisite for being part of the team.
The problem, of course, is what it means to be faithful and to whom. In the Comey situation, Comey's loyalty is to the FBI, the country, and the truth, not the person in the White House. Trump has sort of acknowledged this, although it is not clear what the president had in mind if he really did ask Comey for such a pledge. But it is clear that if Comey were to have pledged loyalty to the president, he would clearly have created the risk of compromising his loyalty to the country and the truth.
For football, this is harder to define. Is it to the team? To the coach? To the other players? To the program? Everything?
Blind allegiance is rarely a good thing, and can often lead to bad outcomes. In the Badger football case, it seems the coach was either (a) looking to get out of the commitment and took an excuse, (b) really believes assurances from one of his commits are hollow, or (c) wanted to send a message about allegiance. It is entirely possible it was some combination of the three.
When it comes to the high school player, I can imagine a scenario where the player was excited to be pursued, and he was showing off a little. Hard to blame a kid for that, frankly. Despite assurances to the contrary, the Badger coach wanted none of it. His team, his call, but I don't like it.
In my view, loyalty runs two ways. And loyalty should have room for misunderstandings, at a minimum, if not mistakes. Even it it doesn't, in the case of college player and college coach, the coach is the grown up. He or she should act like it. That means, if you have a real problem with the player, state it. And if you really don't want them any more, say it. I have no idea what the coach said, and in fairness to him, he may be the one taking the high road here by not airing issues publicly.
I can't say these stories raise any clear answers for me. But they do raise questions about loyalty, and what it means. I think that's worth thinking about, especially for lawyers and future lawyers. Both of these stories make me uncomfortable. It's worth it to me to think about why and what that means. And I think we should all spend a little time thinking about it.
Sunday, July 3, 2016
The University of Akron Law Review recently published its Symposium on Law and SocioEconomics. You can find a full list of the contributions here (Volume 49, Issue 2). As one of the organizers of the symposium, I had the honor of writing a conclusion to the issue, titled Socio-Economics: Challenging Mainstream Economic Models and Policies. I provide the abstract below, and you can read the entire piece here.
At a time when many people are questioning the ability of our current system to provide economic justice, the Socio-Economic perspective is particularly relevant to finding new solutions and ways forward. In this relatively short conclusion to the Akron Law Review’s publication, Law and Socio-Economics: A Symposium, I have separated the Symposium articles into three groups for review: (1) those that can be read as challenging mainstream economic models, (2) those that can be read as challenging mainstream policy conclusions, and (3) those that provide a good example of both. My reviews essentially take the form of providing a short excerpt from the relevant article that will give the reader a sense of what the piece is about and hopefully encourage those who have not yet done so to read the entire article.