The Wall of Faith

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey.

There were several interesting moments in (then) Elder Ezra Taft Benson’s talk, The Book of Mormon Is the Word of God, but one line stood out to me in particular: “Every man eventually is backed up to the wall of faith, and there he must make his stand.”

The world’s view of faith is not so much wrong as it is incomplete. According to the standard secular line, you should only believe things you have evidence for. And—applied correctly—this kind of default skepticism is a healthy way of confronting life.

Ultimately, however, values come before facts. That’s going to sound post-modern or relativist, but hear me out. We know that the human mind is incredibly good at seeing what it wants to see. We have all kinds of cognitive biases—like confirmation bias, in particular—and the evidence is now pretty much insurmountable that we all believe more or less what we want to believe. Which is a way of saying: values come before facts.

But that doesn’t mean we’re powerless to be slaves to our passions. Because, after all, can’t we choose to value consistency? And if we do—if we seek harmony among our own beliefs and between our beliefs and the world—than our values lead us gradually and imperfectly towards truth. Because we have chosen to value truth—through a quest to find integrity between what we believe and what we’ve witnessed—we can indirectly influence the content of our beliefs.

Maybe this seems a little too abstract, but for me it underscores this bedrock reality: everyone chooses to believe in something. The idea that you can turn over your beliefs to the evidence and let the evidence dictate facts back to you is a fantasy. The world does not interpret itself. We have to reach out—with our senses, our hypotheses, and our actions—and transform the raw material of experience and idea into cohesive beliefs.

And so—not just in some vague, philosophical sense, but in a literal sense—values precede facts and no one escapes the need for faith in something. The question is: in what?

That’s why there’s a moral component to faith. Because—at its essence—faith is not a question of what a person believes (that would be merely wishful thinking, a parody of what I’m outlining). Instead, faith is a question of why a person believes and that, in turn, is actually a reflection of what a person values.

Do you value truth, and beauty, and harmony? If so, then your pursuit of these things will—not without struggle, not perfectly, and not inevitably; but ultimately—lead you towards things that are true, that are beautiful, that are harmonious.

I got into another pointless argument—thankfully a brief one—a couple of weeks ago with an ex-Mormon with a chip on their shoulder who was insistent that—as a believing Mormon, I had abdicated my freedom to think for myself to the leaders of the Church. That, because I affirmed my covenant obedience to those leaders, I was in some sense passing the buck. That’s another fundamental misunderstanding of how faith works. As President (then Elder) Benson put it so succinctly: “there he must make his stand.”

I seek to obey the Lord. And, because He has asked me to do so, I transfer a measure of that obedience to my fallible, human leaders. But if my bishop, or my stake president, or if President Monson himself asks me to do something, my decision to be obedient—or not—is still mine. Even when I am being obedient it is a choice I am making. And so—despite all Mormons have to say about authority and following the prophet—we also understand this central reality: we each make our own stand.

We can’t avoid the need for faith; and we can’t transfer that obligation to a third party. Sartre put it crudely, but not incorrectly: “man is condemned to be free.” Viktor Frankl was more eloquent:

Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.

Check out the other posts from the General Conference Odyssey this week and join our Facebook group to follow along!

The Effects of Climate Change on the U.S. Economy

Climate change could have massive negative effects on the U.S. economy according to a new study:

We exploited random fluctuations in seasonal temperatures across years and states, using the richness of historical data available in the US. We employed a panel regression framework with the growth rate of gross state product (GSP) and average seasonal temperatures for each US state, and found that summer and autumn temperatures have opposite effects on economic growth. An increase in the average summer temperature negatively affects the growth rate of GSP. An increase in the autumn temperature positively affects this growth rate, although to a lesser extent. This suggests that previous studies’ aggregation of temperature data into annual temperature averages may mask the heterogeneous effects of different seasons.

The summer effect is particularly pronounced in data since 1990. This leads to a negative net economic effect of rising temperatures. This implies that the US economy is still sensitive to temperature increases, despite the adoption of adaptive technologies such as air conditioning (Barreca et al. 2015). Temperature also has a stronger effect in states with relatively high summer temperatures, most of which are located in the south.

Our analysis quantified the effect of rising temperatures across sectors of the US economy. We find that an increase in average summer temperature has a pervasive effect on all industries, not just the sectors that are traditionally assumed to be vulnerable to climate change…In our empirical analysis, an increase in the average summer temperature decreased the annual growth rate of labour productivity. An increase in the average autumn temperature had the opposite effect. Our analysis used data at the macroeconomic level, but it is consistent with existing studies of this relationship at the microeconomic level (Zivin and Neidell 2014, Cachon et al. 2012, Zivin et al. 2015).

The authors find that the long-term effect of climate change would be a reduction in “the growth rate of US output by 0.2 to 0.4 percentage points by the end of the century. At the historical growth rate of US GDP of 4% per year, this would correspond to a reduction of up to 10%. The results are even more dramatic in the high emissions scenario (A2). Here, the reduction of economic growth could reach 1.2 percentage points, corresponding to roughly one-third of the historical annual growth rate of the US economy.”

You can see economist Bridget Hoffman explain the findings below:

These results echo Joseph Heath’s analysis of climate change’s effects on the global economy. But perhaps more important, it helps drive home his main point: climate change will drastically reduce economic growth over the next 100 years without intervention. But people will still be be significantly better off compared to us today even if we fail to act (check the GDP graph at about 0:46). They just won’t be as well off as they could have been.

Policy makers should consider both of these facts when discussing how to combat climate change.

Immigration and Prosperity

According to The New York Times,

President Trump on Wednesday began a sweeping crackdown on illegal immigration, ordering the immediate construction of a border wall with Mexico and aggressive efforts to find and deport unauthorized immigrants. He planned additional actions to cut back on legal immigration, including barring Syrian refugees from entering the United States.

Vox reports,

The four remaining draft orders obtained by Vox focus on immigration, terrorism, and refugee policy. They wouldn’t ban all Muslim immigration to the US, breaking a Trump promise from early in his campaign, but they would temporarily ban entries from seven majority-Muslim countries and bar all refugees from coming to the US for several months. They would make it harder for immigrants to come to the US to work, make it easier to deport them if they use public services, and put an end to the Obama administration program that protected young “DREAMer” immigrants from deportation.

In all, the combined documents would represent one of the harshest crackdowns on immigrants — both those here and those who want to come here — in memory.

Much like trade, I’ve spent the last year writing about the economics of immigration. Some of my findings are:

Sure enough, more evidence comes rolling in. A new IMF study finds

that migrants help increase per capita income levels in host advanced economies, and this effect is both statistically and economically significant. Our estimates suggest that a one percentage point increase in the share of migrants in the adult population (the average annual increase is 0.2 percentage point) can raise GDP per capita by up to 2% in the long run. Moreover, this effect comes mainly through an increase in labour productivity and, to a lesser extent, through the more standard channel of an increase in the ratio of working-age to total population.

The result survives a number of robustness checks, which include controlling for other determinants of income per capita (trade openness, the level of technology, the education level, and age structure of the host population, and policy variables); excluding from the sample countries that were created through migration and have high income levels (USA, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand); and using alternative gravity model-based instruments.

We find that both high- and low-skill migrants raise labour productivity. There is no evidence of major physical or human capital dilution, as investment adjusts over time to the larger pool of workers, and migrants are increasingly high-skilled. Instead, our results suggest that the complementarities that earlier analyses uncovered mostly at the micro level are also relevant at the macro level. The evidence from the microeconomic literature suggests that the positive productivity effects come from increased TFP and human capital. High-skilled migrants contribute to productivity directly, including through innovation, and indirectly through their positive spillovers on native workers. Low- and medium-skilled migrants can also contribute to aggregate productivity, to the extent that their skills are complementary to those of natives, promoting occupational reallocation and task specialisation.

…Our analysis finds…that the gains from immigration are broadly shared across the population. Migration increases the average income per capita of both the bottom 90% and the top 10% of earners, even though high-skilled migration benefits more top earners — possibly because of a stronger synergy between migrants and natives with high skills. Moreover, the Gini coefficient — a broad measure of income inequality within the bottom 90% of earners — is not affected by the migrant share.

Let them come.

Trade and Deregulation: Best Friends?

President Donald Trump is expected to sign an executive order as early as Monday stating his intention to renegotiate the free trade agreement between the United States, Canada and Mexico, a White House official told NBC News.

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Economist Brad Delong commented recently, “The economic case against the two agreements that passed [NAFTA and China into WTO], and the one that did not [TPP], doesn’t hold water. It’s clear, however, that candidates can make an effective political case against trade agreements — and that scares me.” For those of you who may have missed the last year of posts, here’s a few highlights that demonstrate why anti-trade, anti-globalization populism is empirically wrong:

And what should appear this past week? A new study arguing that the interaction of openness to imports and deregulation can boost economic growth:

Enthusiasm for reducing domestic regulation, or ‘red tape’, has been gaining momentum in some OECD countries, and there are many reasons to think that reducing such red tape – including at local levels – could be beneficial for productivity growth by encouraging firm entry, competition, and efficiency gains. Evidence from an analysis of firms and industries in panels across OECD countries suggests that this is indeed the case (OECD 2017). Easing the strictness of regulation in network industries (e.g. energy, telecommunications, and transport) especially, as well as in retail and professional services, would improve productivity and competitiveness in downstream sectors, not least manufacturing, which use services from these upstream industries as inputs for their own production.

…In a recent paper that examines the productivity growth of firms in a dozen or so OECD countries, we find that the benefits of domestic deregulation depend both on sectoral openness to imports and firms’ technological advancement (Ben Yahmed and Dougherty 2017). The results show that firms in sectors with higher import penetration have higher productivity growth, if these firms are close to their sectoral technology frontier. The most productive firms appear to enjoy a significant increase in productivity when foreign competitors’ pressure is high; in contrast, import penetration does not incentivise firms far away from the technological frontier, or if so only weakly.

In addition, the pro-competitive effect of international trade depends on domestic regulatory stringency. Our results indicate that, among the most productive firms, the positive effect of foreign competition is inhibited for firms operating in a country with stringent regulation such as higher barriers to entry. Domestic and foreign competitive pressures are found to be complementary: firms’ incentives or abilities to improve their productivity to cope with foreign competition are stronger in countries with less stringent regulation. 

Trade and deregulation

Apparently, our political leaders need to take a long hard look at all of this.

Peter Pan, Hobbits, and Sacrifice

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey.

Essentially all of my writing—for the General Conference Odyssey, for blog posts, in fiction that very few people have seen—is about connections. Some times, however, I don’t fully understand the connections myself. This may be one of those times.

One of the books I read recently that really stuck with me was Robert Leckie’s World War II memoir, Helmet for My Pillow. The conclusion to his book is haunting, and I want to quote some of it here:

It is to sacrifice that men go to war. They do not go to kill. They go to be killed, to risk their flesh, to insert their precious persons in the path of destruction… That is why women weep when their men go off to war. They do not weep for their victims. They weep for them as victim. That is why, with the immemorial insight of mankind, there are gay songs and colorful bands to send them off: to fortify their failing hearts, not to quicken their lust for blood. That is why there are no glorious living, but only glorious dead. Heroes turn traitor. Warriors age and grow soft. But a victim is changeless. Sacrifice is eternal.

This is the exact quote that came to mind as I read Elder Hales’ talk, A Question of Free Agency. It is one of the most unusual General Conference talks that I have ever read, even by the standards of the often-awkward first talks from the newly-called. What I found most remarkable about the talk was the bittersweet tone that pervaded it. It seems to me that many Mormons look to high leadership calling as a kind of badge of honor, a privilege to be dreamt for, but obviously that was not Elder Hales’ attitude. When he got the call—out of the blue—to give up his career and serve he was clearly devastated. As he put it, “The call was clear. I had to let go of everything that I had known and what I had been striving for in my life to become an Assistant to the Twelve.”

And so his talk touches on the law of consecration and even laying down your life:

I have learned from Joseph Fielding Smith, and have talked to young people, about the law of consecration. It is not one particular event; it is a lifetime, day by day, in which we all strive to do our best that we might live honorable lives, that we might live the best we can in the service of others, as President Joseph Fielding Smith talked about—not as his grandfather, Hyrum Smith, gave his life when he was with the Prophet, but giving our lives each day.

These are not the sentiments of a man who has achieved a life-long ambition. They are the sentiments of a prisoner on his way to the slow-motion gallows. A calling that plenty of Mormons have coveted—and still covet—was a sacrifice for Elder Hales, leading him to say, “It is not in death or in one event that we give our lives, but in every day as we are asked to do it.”

Lots of newly called leaders ask “Why me?” The question usually arises from humility: how can I live up to this great calling? But Elder Hales’ “Why me?” is more raw and visceral, much less “How can I do this?” and much more, “Why did this have to happen to me?” Thus:

One cannot ask the question “Why me?” and dwell on it. But I will do as the prophet has said, to put behind me my past life and dedicate and consecrate all my time, talents, and efforts to His work.

I think that’s why it reminded me so much of Leckie’s sentiments about sacrifice in war. I’m not equating the two; they are very different. Elder Hales said as much himself. But there is a common thread, and that thread is sacrifice. Giving up dreams. There’s one more quote that comes to mind, this one from J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan,

Mrs. Darling: There are many different kinds of bravery. There’s the bravery of thinking of others before one’s self. Now, your father has never brandished a sword nor fired a pistol, thank heavens. But he has made many sacrifices for his family, and put away many dreams.

Michael: Where did he put them?

Mrs. Darling: He put them in a drawer. And sometimes, late at night, we take them out and admire them. But it gets harder and harder to close the drawer… He does. And that is why he is brave.

There’s been a lot of hubbub recently about the fact that General Authorities receive a stipend. For the most part, I consider the entire conversation unworthy of reply. (I did engage once on Facebook. Of course I regretted it.) I’ll talk about transparency and accountability—and why such principles have nothing to do with our relationship to the Church—another time. For now, let me just point out the obvious: in accepting this calling Elder Hales was not fulfilling an ambition or securing an easy paycheck. He was giving up on every dream he and his wife had had for their lives. There are very few sacrifices more precious than our dreams, and that is precisely what Elder Hales was asked to lay upon the altar. And yet he did. And then he went out and spoke before the world of the importance of consecration. He was called, and he was answered. To denigrate his service—or the service of the other General Authorities—as somehow corrupt, or unseemly, or embarrassing is foolishness. And, as the Lord told Moroni, “Fools mock, but they shall mourn.” The Lord’s “grace is sufficient for the meek, that they shall take no advantage of your weakness.”

That’s what I see in Elder Hales’ talk, the meekness and weakness of someone whose hands shook as he lay his offering on the altar. There was nothing majestic or grandiose in his sacrifice. It was quiet and one could easily dismiss it as inconsequential compared to the sacrifices that others have made.

But I, too, have dreams. And when I think about what it would take for me to voluntarily abandon all of them, my heart quails in sympathy with Elder Hales’. He was meek. He was weak. He was definitely a hero in the Samwise Gamgee mold rather than the Aragon or Faramir mold. But when he abandoned his dreams, he became God’s.

Let the fools mock, and bear them no grudge. Elder Hales’ reward wasn’t of this Earth and—if we are able to follow his example—neither will ours.

Check out the other posts from the General Conference Odyssey this week and join our Facebook group to follow along!

Reawakenings, Rituals, and Routines

This is part of the General Conference Odyssey.

A constant theme in several talks of the Saturday morning session of the April 1975 General Conference was spiritual transformation as a daily practice. For example, Sterling W. Sills borrowed from a previous talk to describe our rebirth(s) or “human reawakenings” (emphasis mine) Notice the plural. He notes that “no one is limited to merely two births [i.e., physical birth and baptism]…we can be born again as many times as we please. And each time we can be born better.” In one of my favorite quotes from his talk, he says,

In 1932, Walter Pitkin wrote a great book entitled Life Begins at Forty. But that is ridiculous. Life begins when we begin, and we may begin a new and better life every morning.

Someone once asked Phillips Brooks when he was born, and he said that it was one Sunday afternoon about 3:30 when he was 25 years of age, just after he had finished reading a great book. Just think how many thrilling, exciting rebirths we can have as we study the holy scriptures and as we fill our minds with the word of the Lord and get the spirit of righteousness into our hearts.

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These multiple rebirths are meant to eventually lead us to “some future Easter morning” when “we may be born again into [God’s] presence to live with him in the celestial kingdom throughout eternity.”

The idea that rebirth is not a single event can also be found in Robert D. Hales’ talk:  “I have learned from Joseph Fielding Smith, and have talked to young people, about the law of consecration. It is not one particular event; it is a lifetime, day by day, in which we all strive to do our best that we might live honorable lives, that we might live the best we can in the service of others…” Consecration is found in the scriptures, but its covenantal form takes place within the temple. I’ll return to this momentarily.

Mark E. Peterson provides a slightly different angle to Sabbath day worship:

What can we do to protect ourselves under these hazardous circumstances? How can we better help our young people to remain unspotted from the world? The Lord gives us the answer, and says that it can be done by sincerely observing the Sabbath day. Most people have never thought of it in this way, but note the words of the Lord in this regard: “That thou mayest more fully keep thyself unspotted from the world”—note these words—“that thou mayest more fully keep thyself unspotted from the world, thou shalt go to the house of prayer and offer up thy sacraments upon my holy day.” (D&C 59:9.)

In short, “we are commanded to change our usual routine and go to church and worship God on the Sabbath.” I think the comments on consecration (and, by implication, the temple endowment) and Sabbath day observance are important. These practices interrupt our daily routine–interrupt our participation in what philosopher James K.A. Smith calls “secular liturgies”–and reorient our hearts toward the kingdom of God. Our daily “cultural practices and rituals” are, according to Smith, “liturgies…We need to recognize that these practices are not neutral or benign, but rather intentionally loaded to form us into certain kinds of people–to unwittingly make us disciples of rival kings and patriotic citizens of rival kingdoms.” Mormon philosopher JamesE. Faulconer says of the temple endowment,

Those participating in Mormon temple worship do not merely hear the story told in the ritual or watch someone ritually reenact it. They take part in the reenactment, moving from place to place, performing specified actions as part of the story. Ritual participants memorialize Adam and Eve and the founding events of the Christian human narrative by reenacting the story of Creation, Garden, Fall, and life in the world…Having ritually become Adam or Eve, each celebrant finds himself or herself identified in a symbolic order given by the Father and mediated by the Son, an ordering of not just individual lives, but of the cosmos and the community, as directed by and toward God…The celebrant acts out the story and, returning to the temple to do proxy work for the dead, acts it out again and again, doing the ritual for others and becoming more and more ingrained in its celebration. In doing so he lives and relives the founding story that makes sense of human life. The celebrant ties the memorialized past of Adam and Eve to his present, making that present into something new through the memorialized link…The Mormon commemoration of Adam and Eve serves a critical function similar to the Jewish celebration of the Sabbath or of Passover: it recalls to its participants events in history that define who they are and how they should be in the world, and it does so by putting those events into a narrative of self–and communal–identity that is ordered by God. Remembering the past of the Creation and the Fall serves to assure that celebrants will live int he world in the ways required by the order of Creation and Fall. Taking part in the temple ritual, the celebrant becomes part of the divine narrative, no longer merely an individual cut off from God.

Sabbath observance can offer similar reorientation. As I’ve written elsewhere,

There are two major strands of thought found in the scriptures regarding the reasons for the Sabbath. The first largely dominates the books of Genesis and Exodus and hearkens back to the Creation. As we read in Exodus, “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy…For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day, and hallowed it” (Ex. 20:8,11; cf. Gen. 2:2; Mosiah 13:16). Scholars have recognized for some time that the sequence and literary structure of Genesis 1 parallels that of ancient Near Eastern temple building, thus depicting the Creation as a cosmic temple (for fruitful scripture study, try comparing Genesis 1 to the building and dedication of the Tabernacle or Solomon’s temple). Within this context, God resting makes much more sense. “Deity,” explains Wheaton professor John Walton, “rests in a temple, and only in a temple. This is what temples were built for [in the ancient Near East]. We might even say that this is what a temple is—a place for divine rest.” With Genesis 1 as a temple text, it is worth noting that the Sabbath is the first mention of “holiness” in scripture and was later put on par with the temple itself: the Sabbath became a sanctuary or temple in time, while the temple became a Sabbath in space. This is why the temple and the Sabbath could be profaned in similar ways. In summary, the first interpretation of the Sabbath entails Creation, divine rest, and holiness.

The second train of thought is found mostly in Deuteronomy and the later prophets. The Deuteronomist version of the commandment reads, “Keep the Sabbath day to sanctify it…And remember that thou was a servant in the land of Egypt, and that the Lord thy God brought thee out of thence through a mighty hand and by a stretched out arm: therefore the Lord thy God commanded thee to keep the Sabbath day” (Deut. 5:12,15). This follows an admonition in which the entire Israelite household is told to cease from labor, including servants, foreign guests, and even animals (vs. 14). The reminder and celebration is that of liberation and the Sabbath itself acts “as an affirmation of human freedom, justice, and equality” by providing rest for all living beings. Therefore, the second interpretation is about remembrance, deliverance, and (given its connection to other practices such as the sabbatical years and Jubilee) social justice.

These rituals and practices help shape our habits and desires. As we participate in them, our daily choices and routines will change as well. Multiple rebirths will occur as the natural man slowly dies. Then we will become “saint[s] through the atonement of Christ the Lord” (Mosiah 3:19).

All Trumped-Out

I couldn’t bring myself to include an image of Trump. So here’s Betty and her sloth.

I’ve been feeling Trumped-out since before the election, and I had hoped post election (perhaps naively even after he won) that the Trump obsession would dwindle to a hum. I’ve been dissapointed to say the least (please, Facebook, bring back memes about cats and tacos, I’ve had enough Trump.) I have, however, managed to come across some articles within the Trumpian madness that are actually worth the read.

First, from the NYT, an Italian confronts the similarities between Trump in America and their own media tycoon, Berlusconi, who was prime minister in Italy for a total of nine years. His suggestion on how to combat Trump: stick to policies, ignore the person (Please, ignore the person!).

Only two men in Italy have won an electoral competition against Mr. Berlusconi: Romano Prodi and the current prime minister, Matteo Renzi (albeit only in a 2014 European election). Both of them treated Mr. Berlusconi as an ordinary opponent. They focused on the issues, not on his character.

From the Cato Institute, a critique of Trump’s inaugural address, that ignores the style of the address and worries about the substance. The author notes that words indicating an adherence to or respect of the Constitution were missing.

Still, I wish the speech had used the word “Constitution,” or “law” in a way beyond the phrase “law enforcement,” or “Framers” or “Founders,” or “Declaration” or “Amendment” or “individual” or perhaps “rights.” The one occurrence of “right” was in a passage about “the right of all nations to put their interests first.”

From Politico, an indictment of journalistic temper tantrums that describes how journalism should behave (hint: let the facts speak for themselves, oh, and shut up about crowds (and tweets)), and recalls similar (though stylistically different) issues brought about by the Obama administration.

As I’ve hypothesized before, there is a method to Trump’s tweets. Whenever he finds the noose of news lowering over his thick orange neck, he takes to Twitter to change the subject. The more outrageous and self-serving (or should I say “self-dealing”?) the tweets are, the better his results…

Consider the Obama presidency. As former Politicos Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen wrote in 2013 in a piece titled, “Obama, the Puppet Master,” he was “a master at limiting, shaping and manipulating media coverage of himself and his White House.” … Obama, VandeHei and Allen explained, took “old tricks for shaping coverage (staged leaks, friendly interviews) and put them on steroids using new ones (social media, content creation, precision targeting).” In doing so, “Media across the ideological spectrum [were] left scrambling for access.”

And a, clearly biased, take on Betty White’s thoughts on the current political climate (it’s her birthday and I couldn’t find any less biased articles that focused on this point instead of the fact that she is 95!) from IJR.  Even if the article/headline is a stretch, I think Betty has great advice for all of us. Includes a video of Betty and her sloth doll (PS: my son got the same sloth for his birthday.)

I think that’s the time to buckle down and really work positively as much as you can. Instead of just saying, “This is terrible. He’s terrible.” Just think, “Alright, there’s nothing I can do about that right now but I can do the best in my little circle. So if I do that, maybe you’ll do your best and we’ll get through this.”


Top Ten Teen Albums: Walker Edition

There’s a new Internet/Facebook list going around: “10 albums that made a lasting impression on you as a teenager.” I thought it’d be fun to give you a glimpse into the musical tastes of my teenage self, which largely continue today. Attempting to think of whole albums was a little difficult because this was the age of mix CDs. I had a ton of mix CDs with various artists. I also had a lot of “Greatest Hits” and “The Best of…” albums (I wore out The Cream of Clapton as well as The Best of Bond…James Bond), which I’ve decided not to count. I’ve also limited the list to one album per artist. Otherwise, my list would likely be made up of two bands. It should also be noted that my musical tastes were largely seen through the eyes of a budding guitar player. Virtually everything was interpreted through the filter of, “How can this affect my guitar playing?” So, without further ado, here are my top ten teen albums (in no particular order):

Image result for enema of the stateBlink 182 – Enema of the State: I went through a huge Blink 182 phase through middle school and into my freshman year of high school. Aside from some radio play (“Dammit” was actually the first song I ever heard by them), my first proper introduction to them was at scout camp one summer. One of my best friends at the time had Enema of the State with him (I want to say on cassette) and he let me listen to some of the songs as we made our way to different merit badge sessions. This led to mixtapes featuring songs from Enema, Dude Ranch, and even Buddha. My parents weren’t particularly thrilled when they finally heard some of the crude themes and coarse language on these tapes, but that didn’t stop me from getting my secret stash of Blink CDs. It was this album that made me want to play an instrument. I decided I wanted to play bass because (1) everyone and their mother plays guitar and (2) Mark–the Blink bassist–was in my eyes the coolest member of the band (though now I know it’s definitely the drummer Travis Barker). My parents opted for a guitar instead and I’ve never once regretted it. Even though I prefer their 2001 album Take Off Your Pants and Jacket (see what they did there?), Enema is the one that started my musical journey. Below is the highly immature video for the single “What’s My Age Again?”

Image result for make yourselfIncubus – Make Yourself: During one of our family vacations, my older sister Tori let me listen to her copy of Make Yourself by Incubus. I’d heard some of their hits on the radio, but this was the first time going through the entire album. I fell in love with it to the point that my sister just gave it to me. Brandon Boyd’s vocals and the somewhat unique twist on 90s alternative rock stood out to me as did its ability to capture my various teenage emotions, from angst to puppy love to a desire for self-direction. Their follow-up albums during my high school years–Morning View and A Crow Left of the Murder–received even more constant rotation than Make Yourself, but it was this album that began my still ongoing love affair with Incubus and their talent for both capturing my emotional states and transporting me to new ones. Below is the video for their song “Stellar.”

Image result for Ride the lightningMetallica – Ride the Lightning: I had heard Metallica growing up. Who hasn’t heard “Enter Sandman” or “Nothing Else Matters“? But I only started paying attention to them after hearing their live album S&M in the weight room at my high school freshman year. It was my first year of guitar playing and my initial thought was, “If they are this good live, what are they like on their records?” As I started downloading Metallica songs, I saw them perform one I hadn’t heard before on VH1 (trivia: it was bassist Jason Newsted’s last performance before he left the band). The song was “Fade to Black” and it was found on Ride the Lightning. I bought that album soon after and brought it with me on a family vacation to Washington, D.C. I listened to it non-stop and decided that I wanted to be able to play like guitarists James Hetfield and Kirk Hammett. This was my pathway to metal. I ended up with all of the Metallica albums, as well as a large chunk of Megadeth, Pantera, Ozzy Osbourne, and Dream Theater albums. I probably spent far more time listening to these metal bands than anything else, but it was Ride the Lightning that started it all. My guitar chops improved as did my musical taste because of it. You can see the VH1 performance of “Fade to Black” that ignited the flame below.

Image result for dark side of the moon albumPink Floyd – Dark Side of the Moon: My brother-in-law JC has been a guitar player since he was a teenager (at least). Whenever we would visit my sister, he would always go through his ginormous digital collection of music in hopes of educating me out of my Blink 182 phase and moving me beyond Metallica. He first used David Gilmour’s ending solo in “Comfortably Numb” to peak my interest in Pink Floyd. I ended up getting Echoes: The Best of Pink Floyd (on my own or as a gift, I can’t remember), but Dark Side of the Moon was the first actual album that listened to heavily (followed by The Wall). The musical style was so different from what I was used to; a kind of progressive, psychedelic rock. Gilmour’s less-is-more melodic playing was such a contrast to the shredding I was accustomed to from metal bands. Plus, the idea of a concept album was pretty new to me. Composing songs that bled into each other as they told a coherent story or relayed similar themes was a new level of creativity for me. Dark Side taught me to slow my playing down and told me that emotion and melody were key to a good lead. You can see what in my estimate is the best version of “Money” from the concert Delicate Sound of Thunder below, which I watched over and over again as a teenager.

Image result for led zeppelin iiLed Zeppelin – Led Zeppelin II: I originally bought Led Zeppelin II for my dad for his birthday(?) one year at the suggestion of my mom. I wasn’t very familiar with Led Zeppelin at the time and even though I thought “Whole Lotta Love” was pretty cool, it didn’t peak my interest all that much. However, after picking up the guitar and shifting away from pop punk bands, I started “borrowing” (i.e., making a permanent part of my personal collection) Led Zeppelin II from my dad. While I acquired The Best of Led Zeppelin: Early & Latter Days, Vol. 1 & 2, it was this album that made me really appreciate the bluesy elements of rock. It felt like a bridge between the old and the new, between traditional blues and modern rock. And everyone was amazing: Plant’s vocals, Page’s guitar, Jones’ bass, and Bonham’s drums. Hard to find a band in which every member is of the highest caliber. And yes: I still prefer it to Led Zeppelin IV. You can see them performing “Whole Lotta Love” live from the Led Zeppelin DVD I watched consistently in my later years of high school.

Image result for pearl jam tenPearl Jam – TenI used to hate Pearl Jam.  I remember revealing my dislike of them to a bass player friend my freshman/sophomore year and he was flabbergasted that a guitar player would not like them. “But they’re such good musicians!” he protested. I don’t know what it was about them. Maybe it was Eddie Vedder’s voice (a co-worker of mine once described him as sounding like a man singing in a freezer). Maybe it was the flannel. My suspicion is that I just had not been properly exposed to them beyond “Jeremy” (which is an awesome song, mind you). I started downloading a number of Pearl Jam songs in my later years of high school and found myself appreciating them more and more. I finally caved and bought Ten. The album was (and is) phenomenal. There isn’t a song on it that isn’t top-notch. You can see them on full display with “Alive” below.

Image result for moving picturesRush – Moving PicturesMy first introduction to Rush was their video for “Time Stand Still” early one weekday morning on VH1. The video was ridiculous, but there was something about the band that I really liked. I stumbled on them again when “Test For Echo” came on one of those satellite music channels that I had playing in the background one day. I recognized the vocals and the band name and once again found myself being drawn to their style. On another fateful weekday morning, I saw their video for “Limelight” on VH1. The video was incredibly dated, but the song blew me away. Their mastery of the instruments was incredible and I was sold on Alex Lifeson’s wammy-heavy solo. I had to have that song. I ended up buying Moving Pictures soon after. I couldn’t believe that a trio could create that kind of sound. Typically, I focused solely on the guitar playing, but Rush made it impossible to ignore Lee’s bass playing or Peart’s drumming. This opened the flood gates: virtually every album and a couple concerts (one of which was as recent as 2015) later, I still consider them one of my favorites. You can see the video for “Limelight” below.

Image result for dirt alice in chainsAlice in Chains – DirtLucky for me, my YM/Scout leader for the longest time was also one of my best friend’s dad. While I was listening to Blink 182, my friend (due to his dad’s influence) was listening to the likes of Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and even the chainsaw-wielding Jackal. One Wednesday night, as I caught a ride with my friend, his dad popped in one of his many CDs. Suddenly, a chugging, metal chord progression filled the car, along a with a jolting scream and eerie harmonies. I was caught off guard, but thoroughly entranced. About halfway through, the guitarist ripped into a headbanging solo. My ears perked up. The song, unfortunately, came to an end after only a couple minutes. When I asked what this was, my friend’s dad answered (with a smile), “Alice in Chains.” The album was Dirt and the song was “Them Bones.” I borrowed the album, ripped it, and became an AIC fan from then on. Jerry Cantrell, the guitarist and co-vocalist, provided a blues-based, melodic metal I could rock out to. More importantly, he provided a type of playing that seemed achievable: not because his playing was sub-par, but because it evidenced a moderate partaking of the best rock music had to offer. Cantrell was not a shredder, a blues master, or a progressive rock composer (he still isn’t). But he was and is a fine guitar player, lyricist, and all-around musician. He instilled me with confidence and inspiration in my first few years of playing and remains influential even today. You can see the video for “Them Bones” below.

Image result for rumoursFleetwood Mac – RumoursFor Christmas one year I received a year-long subscription to Guitar World magazine. In one of the issues, it featured a kind of boxing bracket for guitarists, rating them on a 0-5 scale on things like chops, influence, creativity, etc. Unfortunately, my mother trashed all of my Guitar World issues while I was on my mission (I’m still not sure why), so I’m unable to reference it properly. But at the time, I used the bracket to learn about guitarists I had never heard of before. At one point, I came across the name Lindsey Buckingham with something like a 3.7 in chops. When I discovered that he was the guitarist/co-vocalist of Fleetwood Mac, I remembered that my mom had Rumours in her van. I promptly borrowed the album and began soaking in Buckingham’s fingerpicked style. The album remained in constant rotation along with their (then) new album Say You Will. The mix of male and female vocals gave it a more diverse sound than I was used to and my enjoyment of Rumour‘s more pop-oriented style helped expand my musical palate. You can see their performance of “The Chain” from their live album The Dance (which I also spent of fair amount of time listening to) below.

Image result for texas floodSteve Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble – Texas FloodIn my first year of guitar playing (and therefore still in my pop punk phase), I had a Sunday School teacher who recognized that my fellow Blinkophile friend and I were “big into music.” One day, she held us after class and gave each of us a copy of SRV’s Texas Flood. Because we were guitar players, she knew we would appreciate SRV’s skills. In actuality, we both had a bit of an aversion to the album: it was straight blues and that just wasn’t us. We were “punk rockers” and SRV was definitely not that. Fast-forward a year or so. I was going through my CD collection and pulled our Texas Flood to give it another listen. I was floored: the tone, the bends, the precision. It was beautiful. While other artists (see Zeppelin and Floyd above) opened the door to a bluesier style, it was this album that solidified the blues in my book. It paved the way for my embrace of other blues guitarists like B.B. King, Albert King, Buddy Guy, Joe Bonamassa, Robben Ford, and others. Texas Flood is the reason that I earned the name “Blues Man” from a co-worker due to my Pandora picks. You can see SRV & Double Trouble performing my favorite track off the album–“Lenny”–below.

Here are a few honorable mentions with a brief explanation:

Megadeth – Rust in Peace: After Metallica, Megadeth was the next biggest metal band I listened to (Dave Mustaine was a former member of Metallica before they kicked him out). Rust in Peace was the first album of theirs I bought and it is still my favorite.

Tool – Lateralus: A friend of mine had a select few bands that he insisted were required listening. One of them was Tool and he made me promise to listen Lateralus all the way through without stopping. If I loved it, he would burn me the rest of their albums. I did and he did.

Prince – Purple Rain: I probably listened to “The Very Best of…” more, but Purple Rain put Prince’s skills on full display. The talent of the man was almost sickening.

Les Miserables: Original Broadway Cast: My older sister Nicole was a big theatre geek, so Les Miserables became a staple of my growing up. I still listen to it fairly often and I wept like a baby at the end of the 2012 film.

Phantom of the Opera: Original London Cast: Ditto. I dragged my high school girlfriend to the 2004 film. She kept trying to get friendly in the theater and I kept telling her to leave me alone so I could watch the movie. Priorities.


There you have it: my top ten teen albums.

Education Levels, Not Income, Led to Trump

With it being Trump’s inauguration today, I thought I’d highlight an article from November by Nate Silver. Where did Clinton do well and where did she falter?:

I took a list of all 981 U.S. counties with 50,000 or more people and sorted it by the share of the population that had completed at least a four-year college degree. Hillary Clinton improved on President Obama’s 2012 performance in 48 of the country’s 50 most-well-educated counties. And on average, she improved on Obama’s margin of victory in these countries by almost 9 percentage points, even though Obama had done pretty well in them to begin with.

Yet, when he looks at “50 counties (minimum population of 50,000) where the smallest share of the population has bachelor’s degrees,” the tune changes considerably:

These results are every bit as striking: Clinton lost ground relative to Obama in 47 of the 50 counties — she did an average of 11 percentage points worse, in fact. These are really the places that won Donald Trump the presidency, especially given that a fair number of them are in swing states such as Ohio and North Carolina. He improved on Mitt Romney’s margin by more than 30 points (!) in Ashtabula County, Ohio, for example, an industrial county along Lake Erie that hadn’t voted Republican since 1984.

Silver continues by showing just how important education was in determining Trump/Clinton support:

  • High-education, medium-income white counties shifted to Clinton.
  • High-income, medium-education white counties shifted to Trump.
  • Highly educated majority-minority counties shifted toward Clinton.
  • Low-education majority-minority counties shifted toward Trump.

Silver concludes,

In short, it appears as though educational levels are the critical factor in predicting shifts in the vote between 2012 and 2016. You can come to that conclusion with a relatively simple analysis, like the one I’ve conducted above, or by using fancier methods. In a regression analysis at the county level, for instance, lower-income counties were no more likely to shift to Trump once you control for education levels. And although there’s more work to be done, these conclusions also appear to hold if you examine the data at a more granular level, like by precinct or among individual voters in panel surveys.

So it wasn’t necessarily the economically destitute that voted for Trump. A 2016 Gallup study found

that Americans who live in places where employment in manufacturing has declined since 1990 are not more favorable to Trump. Rothwell [the author] did not find a relationship when he focused only on white respondents, either, or even specifically on white Republicans. Trump’s supporters have many other traits in common with the factory workers whose economic prospects have been negatively affected by automation and global trade. They tend to be less educated men who hold blue-collar occupations. Yet those two broad trends in factory work do not account for Trump’s appeal, Rothwell’s analysis suggests. In fact, among those who share other traits, those who live in districts with more manufacturing are less favorably disposed toward Trump.

However, Silver offers a few “competing hypotheses” to the straightforward interpretation above:

  • Education levels may be a proxy for cultural hegemony. Academia, the news media and the arts and entertainment sectors are increasingly dominated by people with a liberal, multicultural worldview, and jobs in these sectors also almost always require college degrees. Trump’s campaign may have represented a backlash against these cultural elites.
  • Educational attainment may be a better indicator of long-term economic well-being than household incomes. Unionized jobs in the auto industry often pay reasonably well even if they don’t require college degrees, for instance, but they’re also potentially at risk of being shipped overseas or automated.
  • Education levels probably have some relationship with racial resentment, although the causality isn’t clear. The act of having attended college itself may be important, insofar as colleges and universities are often more diverse places than students’ hometowns. There’s more research to be done on how exposure to racial minorities affected white voters. For instance, did white voters who live in counties with large Hispanic populations shift toward Clinton or toward Trump?
  • Education levels have strong relationships with media-consumption habits, which may have been instrumental in deciding people’s votes, especially given the overall decline in trust in the news media.
  • Trump’s approach to the campaign — relying on emotional appeals while glossing over policy details — may have resonated more among people with lower education levels as compared with Clinton’s wonkier and more cerebral approach.

So with that, enjoy Inauguration Day.

Silence: Book & Film

This is part of the DR Book Collection.

Image result for silence endoI bought Shūsaku Endō’s classic Silence in early 2016 when I discovered that Martin Scorsese would be bringing it to the big screen toward the end of the year. I’d heard nothing, but praise for the novel. However, given that I’m not much of a fiction reader, the book sat on my shelf until December. But once I cracked it open, it struck me as the kind of fiction that Christians need to read. Much of what is labeled as “Christian fiction” (whether in print or film) is superficial fluff reminiscent of God’s Not Dead or the Left Behind series. But Silence tackles subjects like faith vs. doubt, discipleship vs. orthodoxy, and the problem of evil. In essence, it’s what lived religion looks like.

The novel was powerful as was its recent film adaptation by Scorsese (in my view, one of the best films of the year). You can see a trailer for the movie below.