Saturday, December 08, 2018

How Not to Crash and Burn (36)

Some situations are not in our control. For the average man or woman, this is often the case. We may take comfort in the knowledge that our heavenly Father is able to do for us far more abundantly than all that we ask or think.

More often, though, we might observe that the course of our lives is a product of choices we have made day after day when we got out of bed in the morning, or when we found ourselves with our backs against the wall.

Three more-or-less random proverbs speak to these situations.

Assorted Proverbs (Proverbs 21:1-31)

Wherever He Will
“The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord;
he turns it wherever he will.”
This proverb could easily be read deterministically. As John Calvin taught,“[A]ll events whatsoever are governed by the secret counsel of God.” The choices made by kings would obviously be included among these events, and the words of Solomon would on their face seem to support Calvin’s contention. However, careful attention to the Old Testament demonstrates that such personal divine interventions are rare indeed. Scripture draws our attention to them because they are usually worth noting. In the normal course of events, God allows the authorities he has put in place to make decisions according to their best judgment and without Heaven’s involvement. He holds them accountable for these choices.

Once in a while, however, we read of an exception:
“Therefore hear the word of the Lord: I saw the Lord sitting on his throne, and all the host of heaven standing on his right hand and on his left. And the Lord said, ‘Who will entice Ahab the king of Israel, that he may go up and fall at Ramoth-gilead?’ And one said one thing, and another said another. Then a spirit came forward and stood before the Lord, saying, ‘I will entice him.’ And the Lord said to him, ‘By what means?’ And he said, ‘I will go out, and will be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets.’ And he said, ‘You are to entice him, and you shall succeed; go out and do so.’ ”
This is an interesting case, because the prophet Micaiah told Ahab the truth about what was really going on behind the scenes. Ahab’s prophets were lying or were themselves deceived, but Ahab still received the straight goods from a prophet of God: the Lord himself was plotting the king’s death.

Even here, Ahab had full capacity to choose. Sure, he was being manipulated by his prophets, but he was also given an accurate account of the situation to weigh against the lies of his yes-men. He chose their fabrications over the truth because they were what he wanted to hear. He was successfully enticed; he was not overwhelmed.

My mother has always freely applied this proverb to any person in authority, from your boss at work to the bureaucrat at City Hall who decides whether or not to process your request to review an excessive property tax bill. I don’t think she’s wrong about that; if the Lord can handle a king’s heart, a crusty, officious worker bee who packs himself baloney sandwiches for lunch ought to be a comparative breeze. The point is that however powerful a decision-maker may be in human terms, he is as easy to manipulate for the Maker of Heaven and Earth as it is for a man to redirect the water from a backyard hose with the palm of his hand. God is not restricted in his ability to work by the pomp and circumstance men attribute to other men.

And most of the time, those being “turned” even manage to survive the process.

Diligence and Haste
“The plans of the diligent lead surely to abundance,
but everyone who is hasty comes only to poverty.”
I have a friend who gambles incessantly. Once or twice a year he texts that he’s buying me dinner: he’s leaving the casino with $1,000 or more in his pocket. Far more often, he leaves the casino well into the red.

Nobody likes to wait, but some of us can control our impulses rather than being driven by them. In economics we refer to the ability to manage our desires as “time preferences”. People with low time preferences are willing to wait for a result. People with high time preferences are not.

Diligence is boring. Diligent people get up at 6:00 a.m. or earlier, and put in a full day five or six days a week, often for years on end. They deny themselves luxuries that others consider mandatory. They fully expect to hit bumps in the road, and they manage their own expectations accordingly. When they fall behind, they plod on, redoubling their efforts. They are the tortoise to the dilettante’s hare.

Hasty people charge in. The idea of plugging away at something day after day holds no appeal for them; they want results now, even though they often haven’t done the necessary background work to produce them. They are willing to take big risks in hope they will save a year or two of hard work. They like lotteries and casinos and the illusion that the big bucks are just around the corner, and they’ll happily throw large sums at grifters in hope bypassing months and years of effort. Sometimes they hit the jackpot. Once. Or twice.

Over the course of a lifetime, however, haste rarely pays off. Maybe it never does. Most risk-takers know this intellectually, but they keep trying to beat the odds. Despite a history of failure, it almost always useless to try to correct a person who is prone to taking big risks. The next one, he believes, will make it all worthwhile.

The trick for the Christian is not to envy the hasty man’s occasional payoff. The house always wins in the end.

Deterrence and Growth
“When a scoffer is punished, the simple becomes wise;
when a wise man is instructed, he gains knowledge.”
Psychologists argue that punishment does not reduce crime. Solomon argues that it does. In Ecclesiastes, he even puts this the other way around: “Because the sentence against an evil deed is not executed speedily, the heart of the children of man is fully set to do evil.” Failure to punish criminals actually increases crime.

Ironically, the psychologists may be right, in the sense that there may be little hope for many of the criminals themselves. To the extent that offenders do not think the way we do, fear of punishment may not deter them at all. If they have a substance abuse problem, a neurocognitive impairment or a traumatic brain injury — features surprisingly common in career criminals — or if they are in a sufficiently desperate situation, all the potential punishment in the world will not deter them.

But deterring hardened sociopaths and scofflaws from misbehavior is not Solomon’s point. It’s the impressionable onlookers he’s concerned about: the “simple”. Laws and penalties do not exist merely to educate lawbreakers. They are for non-lawbreakers, with the intended purpose of motivating them to stay that way. It’s a basic principle of economics that you get more of the things you incentivize. If you incentivize antisocial conduct by diminishing its negative consequences, you will absolutely get more of it.

This is what the psychologists are leaving out, and in fact cannot measure: the extent to which the punishment of others deters people who are currently law-abiding from following reprobates down the wrong path. You can’t keep a running total of crimes not committed, but that doesn’t mean punishing criminals doesn’t deter rational people from pursuing a life of crime. It does. Those able to properly evaluate the risk/reward of taking shortcuts opt to do things differently, and that’s even leaving aside all moral considerations.

This is what Solomon is teaching. When you make one man a cautionary tale, others learn from it. When you don’t, the lessons taken from your unwillingness to act will not ultimately benefit society.

But all this stands in contrast with the effect of correcting a wise man. Here the benefit is not so much to the onlookers (though they may benefit too) but, more importantly, the wise man himself profits from the exchange. You will rarely find him repeating his error.

For Christians, this is the real takeaway.

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