Russell and Duenes

Archive for June 2010

From The Ivory Tower – Enough: Why the World’s Poorest Starve in an Age of Plenty

leave a comment »

My wife was raving about this book as she read it, so I dropped all my previously planned reading and blazed through it. I was not disappointed. This has to rank both as one of the most informative and  most inspirational books I’ve read this year. And the informative part also leads to infuriation. How so? The authors, Roger Thurow and Scott Kilman, are two journalists who have long covered famine and agricultural policy in this country and around the world, and thus, they speak with great insight and authority about the reasons why people in Africa, most notably, Ethiopia, still starve post-Green Revolution. And though there is a complex of factors, the biggest one is U.S. and European farm subsidies. This is the infuriating part. Essentially our American farmers remain rich because our government pays them to produce, produce, produce. But of course, this means the destruction of prices and markets overseas in the developing world. Reading this book, one sees the incredible power of the farm lobby over politicians of every political stripe. Our farmers fight tooth-and-nail to “keep the food in food aid,” which literally means the starvation of Africans. We have not been interested in seeing Ethiopians become self-sustaining farmers; we’ve been interested in selling them our food.

There are other problems as well, such as the fact that the Blue Nile River originates and flows abundantly in Ethiopia, but they can’t access it due to their weak political position relative to Egypt. Egyptians freak out at the thought that Ethiopian just might, I don’t know, actually use some of the water that flows through their own country. It’s enough to make me want to start throwing furniture.

The authors also talk about the fact that what is needed in Africa is not just technological know-how, but the development and sustenance of markets, like the agricultural markets we created here in the 1800’s in order to bring food security to our farmers. They also delve into the AIDS problem in Africa and how malnourishment has stunted progress in bringing health to African AIDS patients.

The inspiration comes as Thurow and Kilman tell story after story about what people are doing, on both large and small scales, to put a dent in the food problem in Africa. It runs the gamut from people like Bill and Melinda Gates and Bono (for whom my respect has grown because of this book) on the one hand, to a lady in Alabama whose conscience gets pricked to make a difference while watching “Designing Women,” on the other hand. You begin to realize that there are a lot of people who are giving of their own private money, expertise and time to help create agricultural sustainability and food security for Africans. And it’s not being done in a paternalistic or neo-colonial fashion.

One of the biggest myths about Sub-Saharan Africa is this notion that its farmers don’t produce any food; that it’s nothing but a barren wasteland. This is not true. Many of the African farmers interviewed in this book have quite prolific farms, but they have no warehouses in which to store their produce, no markets in which to sell them, and no ability to compete with food aid coming in from the U.S. and Europe which undercuts them. This has to be one of the great tragedies and moral failings that we, and I, have been party to in this generation. But it doesn’t have to continue. And Thurow and Kilman point the way forward (though I was a bit disappointed in their last chapter on practical applications. It was too government-centric).

This book certainly shows the mistakes we’ve made in the past, what some people are doing to change it, and how we all can do better in the future. It is also a well-written and engaging work. I have already recommended it to friends and will continue to do so.



Written by Michael Duenes

June 30, 2010 at 5:32 pm

Posted in Duenes, Literature

Just Never Answer the Question

leave a comment »

Ever since Democrats savagely and mercilessly shot down the eminently qualified Robert Bork as a Supreme Court nominee, we have been routinely served the kind of mealy-mouth non-answers in confirmation hearings that Elena Kagan gives to Senator Coburn’s question below. Since Bork, all nominees are told to say, well, absolutely nothing of any importance, though of course, if Kagan had on-record more conservative views and was nominated by a Republican president, it would be a 100% certainty that she would have already had her reputation trashed, would have been called totally unqualified, and a filibuster would be in progress. Ruth Bader Ginsburg is far more radical than Robert Bork ever hoped to be, and she was confirmed by a large margin. I think it’s safe to say that Kagan will be, too. The Republicans have no stomach for pressing and shooting down Democratic nominees with obviously leftist views such as Kagan, even when they have the numbers to do it. Any Republican who thinks that he or she will get a quid pro quo from Democrats on confirmation of “conservative” nominees at some point in the future is insane. As Jonah Goldberg has so aptly said about these “sham” Supreme Court hearings,

They are a nonviolent and fairly bloodless cousin to totalitarian show trials, where everyone follows a script and politicians pretend to be “gravely concerned” and “shocked” upon “discovering” things they already knew. And that’s why Kagan should be the hero of this tale. She has vociferously argued that the “Bork hearings were great . . . the best thing that ever happened to constitutional democracy.” She has lamented how, ever since, the hearings process has become nothing more that “a repetition of platitudes.” Kagan once implored senators to dig deep into the nominee’s “constitutional views and commitments.”

For a taste of Kagan’s radicalism, I refer you to this piece.


Written by Michael Duenes

June 29, 2010 at 5:17 pm

Posted in Duenes, Supreme Court

Stop Telling 18-Year Olds How Great They Are!

leave a comment »

Two weeks ago I sat in on a high school graduation, and as I sat there, I kept thinking: “We are certainly heaping a lot of praise upon people who haven’t accomplished very much at all!” Doubtless the same would be true at just about any high school graduation around the country. I think it’s a serious problem to keep showering accolades upon people without them having really done all that much. I was confirmed in my sense of this problem by a fantastic piece by Don Peck in The Atlantic recently (“How A New Jobless Era Will Transform America“). The article delves into the long-term consequences of unemployment upon our society and what some of the underlying issues are relative to our jobless woes. And one of the issues is a sense of entitlement in young people who have been told they are great even though they’ve accomplished very little. Peck notes,

Many of today’s young adults seem temperamentally unprepared for the circumstances in which they now find themselves. Jean Twenge, an associate professor of psychology at San Diego State University, has carefully compared the attitudes of today’s young adults to those of previous generations when they were the same age. Using national survey data, she’s found that to an unprecedented degree, people who graduated from high school in the 2000s dislike the idea of work for work’s sake, and expect jobs and career to be tailored to their interests and lifestyle. Yet they also have much higher material expectations than previous generations, and believe financial success is extremely important. “There’s this idea that, ‘Yeah, I don’t want to work, but I’m still going to get all the stuff I want,’” Twenge told me. “It’s a generation in which every kid has been told, ‘You can be anything you want. You’re special.’”

In her 2006 book, Generation Me, Twenge notes that self-esteem in children began rising sharply around 1980, and hasn’t stopped since. By 1999, according to one survey, 91 percent of teens described themselves as responsible, 74 percent as physically attractive, and 79 percent as very intelligent. (More than 40 percent of teens also expected that they would be earning $75,000 a year or more by age 30; the median salary made by a 30-year-old was $27,000 that year.) Twenge attributes the shift to broad changes in parenting styles and teaching methods, in response to the growing belief that children should always feel good about themselves, no matter what. As the years have passed, efforts to boost self-esteem—and to decouple it from performance—have become widespread. [Emphasis mine]

These efforts have succeeded in making today’s youth more confident and individualistic. But that may not benefit them in adulthood, particularly in this economic environment. Twenge writes that “self-esteem without basis encourages laziness rather than hard work,” and that “the ability to persevere and keep going” is “a much better predictor of life outcomes than self-esteem.” She worries that many young people might be inclined to simply give up in this job market. “You’d think if people are more individualistic, they’d be more independent,” she told me. “But it’s not really true. There’s an element of entitlement—they expect people to figure things out for them.”

And so many of my graduating high school students will be entering one of the toughest job markets in our history all the while being told that they are wonderful and destined for greatness. Don’t get me wrong, I love high school students and consider it a high honor to teach them. But I also believe in truth, and the truth is that almost none of today’s 18-year old’s have taken on anything like adult responsibilities. And a good many of them have little or no conception of grit, hard work and perseverance, particularly in carrying out laborious tasks which they find unenjoyable, tasks which they will have to carry out to succeed at anything, even things they do enjoy. This is why I have for some time been arguing that it is a major deficiency in our current educational system that we don’t require students to work with their hands and bodies, laboring hard to create, build, change or refurbish something. Most students are like little leaguers who think they’re good at baseball because they made the all-star team. And as can now be seen by even the most casual observers, we have not been doing them any favors in fostering in them this false sense of achievement. Rather, we are setting them up for disillusionment, frustration and emotional fragility.


Written by Michael Duenes

June 27, 2010 at 9:25 am

Posted in Duenes, Philosophy

A Wedding Exhortation

with 3 comments

I had the privilege of officiating another wedding this morning, and as usual, I gave the young couple an exhortation, a “charge,” if you will, to send them on their way. Today’s exhortation is something that has been of immense significance to me in my own brief marriage going on four years. Here it is.

As I was trying to think of a word of encouragement for you both, my mind came upon two verses in particular. Paul says in Ephesians 5:31-32, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” 32This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.” What you are entering into today is a covenant relationship, where there is now an actual union of two people. Of course the law and society will now recognize you as Anthony and Michelle Devito, but what’s infinitely more important is that God now recognizes you as such. Your life together now is part of that great mystery which shows forth the union between our Lord Jesus Christ and his chosen people, the Church. And my charge to you today is to reflect often on this union and to consider its implications. For if you are like me, and like most people, you will spend a good amount of time and energy trying to figure out how you can be married and still “have your own separate life.” And of course you will remain separate people, but there is no “separate life” now, just as there is no “separate life” for God’s people, the church, apart from God. When the Church is united with Christ, she takes on Christ’s life, follows Christ’s lead, commits to Christ’s purposes in this world, shares in Christ’s destiny, and of course, lays claim on all of Christ’s promises.

You are nothing like two roommates trying to negotiate over “that’s yours and this is mine.” You are not entering into a business transaction of shared assets and mutual interests. You are not merely looking for permanent companionship while you pursue your own separate dreams. I know you know this, but it sure is easy to fall into it. You are, in fact, becoming “one flesh,” entering into real spiritual union, reflecting the indissoluble union between Christ and His redeemed people. Your attachment now means, among other things, a union of body, a union of soul, a union of name, a union of possessions, a union of time, a union of talents, a union of labor, a union of parenthood (should God desire it), a union of dreams and a union of destiny. And this is true even when you are pursuing separate vocations or hobbies. It is a union forged and held together by the grace and love of our Father God, and so you can have great confidence in Him as you relinquish “control” over your lives and give yourselves to each other and to him as husband and wife. So my charge to you today is to reflect on this union regularly and live in light of it, for it refers to Christ and the Church.


Written by Michael Duenes

June 26, 2010 at 5:08 pm

Posted in Duenes, Theology

Thank God, It’s Friday

leave a comment »

God tells us, “Be thankful in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thess.5:18). God also warns us that one of our primary sins against him in a lack of thankfulness, “for although they knew God, they did not honor him as God, nor were they thankful” (Rom.1:21). So I’ve decided to turn our well-known mantra of “thank God it’s Friday” into an opportunity to consciously thank God for various things each week.

Thank you, Lord, for small graces like a cloud to block the sun during our car ride through California’s hot central valley in a car with a bum air-conditioner.

Thank you, Father, for your Scriptures, by which we live and find hope and joy and guidance.

Thank you, Lord, for my parents’ generosity in allowing us to join them for a week’s vacation at an awesome resort in Newport Beach.

Thank you, O God, for two beautiful and healthy sons, and for your forgiveness when I lose patience with them in an ungodly manner.

Thank you, Father, for a gracious wife who makes great pies.

Thank you, Father, for such a wonderful mother, and for giving her 69 years of life.

Thank you for family and for the chance for all of us to be together this week.

Thank you for a safe trip down to Southern California and back.

Thank you that we can come to you and speak with you in prayer through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Thank you for being a God who opens his hands to us at all times, and for the redemption we have in Christ Jesus.

As always, there’s much more, but these come to mind this week.


Written by Michael Duenes

June 25, 2010 at 7:44 am

Posted in Duenes, Thank the Lord