Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Ideal Bank

Proverbs 22:7, "The rich ruleth over the poor, and the borrower is servant to the lender."

The Bible is fairly clear that debt is a bad idea. The Jews were allowed to loan money to each other, and even to take a deposit – but they could not charge interest. Only outsiders were to be a source of profit to the Jews. Proverbs teaches that giving to the poor is much better than lending to them; it is compared to lending to God, who will “repay” the generous man.

Proverbs 19:17, "He that hath pity upon the poor lendeth unto the LORD; and that which he hath given will he pay him again."

Luke 6:35, "But love ye your enemies, and do good, and lend, hoping for nothing again; and your reward shall be great, and ye shall be the children of the Highest: for he is kind unto the unthankful and to the evil."

With this in mind, I have chosen to be neither slave nor master, borrowing nor lending. I don’t have a credit card, bought my car with cash, and prepay my auto insurance every year. The most money I owe is paying my share of our family cell phone plan each month, and I try to never get even a day behind. As a result I have a no credit rating, but I defy an economy built on spending tomorrow’s dollar. Isn’t it rather foolish of them to base trust on the fact that people are NOT responsible enough to save money ahead of time?

I don’t want to lend money, either. But living in modern America, to have any sort of normal life one must have a bank. Banks are institutions that take my money and your money and loan it to others in order to profit from the interest. The banking crisis of 2008 was precipitated by a ratio of loans to interest received that was too disproportionate to maintain a profit. The expenses of banks were not being paid by the interest on loans because too many loans were “bad.” Payments were not being made. Banks can’t reinvest foreclosed property immediately. Their funds became tied up, invested in non-liquid assets. And this is not a bad thing except that they had been too greedy, and left insufficient cash in hand to meet the demands of their customers. Some of their customers were the depositors, some the borrowers (small businesses were a big concern; apparently they function on future dollars almost exclusively), and many bank clients are paradoxically both. That this is bad for the economy as a whole is becoming more and more evident.

The practice of profiting from loans (associated with shady characters for centuries) to people in need is hurting individuals as well. Obviously to give an interest-free loan, or even a “hand up” gift in hard times would be much preferable financially. Traditionally this would be done relationally, by capable friends who would be able to assess the legitimacy of the need and the efficacy of the gift. To those not in need loans ought to be less available. Politically and economically the Levitical law on charging interest to foreigners corresponded to the idea of duties (benefiting the people directly, rather than the government). To participate in the God -directed and –blessed economy of Israel, a Gentile could borrow money from a Jew, but the Jew was allowed to charge him for this privilege, taking the form of interest. (This is as covered in the law; it is plausible that Jews could charge other things like duties or rent for market space.) I suppose that business loans resemble this category, but it is not sound business to rely so heavily on borrowed cash.

Here is where I would like to introduce the concept of investment. What is commonly considered investment today is more accurately called “speculation.” It is a risk, calculated or wild – a gamble. Either a bank is taking a risk on a loan, betting that the interest yield will be profitable and that the debtor will not take off with the money; or an individual or institution is throwing money into stocks hoping the value of the stocks will go up, and that they can sell at a higher price in the future. Investment is different. Investment relies on dividends for profit. Dividends are a share of the profits less than the total profits divided by all the “shares” of stockholders, so that some of the profits may be reinvested in the company for continuing productivity, like farmers not selling all of their produce, but saving some for seed and planting a portion of it the next season. Sound investing is to give (as in not expecting or requiring the money to be returned) a sum to a company that one believes will be making profits long enough that dividends will meet or exceed the amount of the investment. This happens over time.

Another type of investment is in assets, which ought to appreciate through supply and demand. This property ought to have inherent worth by reason of usefulness. A few common kinds of investment are land, houses, and gold. A person may also invest in a service, like education, which makes his skills greater and his labor more valuable. Investing this way does not always require the sale of the investment to profit. There can be “dividends” on this as well: rent money from rental property, use of a house or farmland, or application of the skills acquired through education.

I understand how the sale of stock arose, and how useful it is. I’m not opposed to that being an option. It should not, however, be the common practice of banks, investment companies, or sound long-term investors. There would be two reasons to sell stock: 1) You can no longer afford the investment. Liquidity is more essential to you than long-term profit. 2) Your share in the company is losing value in a way that makes you think that no profit will ever proceed from it again. In this instance, to sell is to take advantage of another investor, profiting from selling them an asset worth nothing. Like loaning money or running a casino, it is preying on the risky ambitions of foolish men. It ought to be legal in a free market, but it is not moral.

All this to say that the ideal bank for me would be one that does not loan money, nor speculate in stocks. Picture a community of people. Many of them have money to spare, which they wish to store in a safe but accessible location. They get together and store their money in a bank. This bank is managed by a man who guards their cash and processes transactions: deposits, withdrawals, checks, debit cards, transfers. To pay for his services, the depositors allow him to use a portion of the total money in the bank to invest. At least a portion of the dividends, if not all of them, would pay for the building, the administrative fees, and the banker’s salary. The investments ought to be diverse, and published to the depositors for review. If there was sufficient concern that the investments were imprudent, the depositors could attempt to advise their banker or transfer their money to a more trusted banker. Depositors would understand that not all of their money would necessarily be available for withdrawal or transfer at once, but at a contractual set period after such a request is made. As always, more deposits are an insurance against a misjudged investment or a large withdrawal. If the investments are consistently successful enough, a bank may offer its own dividends to all of its clients, or to those whose deposits are large enough (this is done today through “interest-bearing” checking accounts).

This is slightly simplified. A larger bank would obviously employ more than one investment manager, for example. I don’t know all the laws involved. Many banks, I believe, were begun by one wealthy man (or a few partners) who put up his own money to ensure both initial liquidity and sufficient funds to participate in the market at a profitable level. In fact the whole idea is similar to a trust, in which multiple parties get together in order to make investments too large for their individual capital. (If I wanted to invest in gold, I am pretty sure the smallest portions I can buy in a portfolio situation are ounces, so if I don’t have enough extra cash to buy one ounce, I cannot invest in gold. But if my brother and I pool our investment money, we could afford the ounce and participate in that market.) Trusts are strictly regulated by contracts defining shares, inheritance, selling out, and management.

I don’t think owning stock in a company should be restricted to corporations or investment firms or banks, nor should it take an expert to understand the buying and selling of stocks. There is a place for the investment firm that lets investors manage their own portfolios as well as for an investment bank such as the one I describe. If a client is benefiting from the bank-like services of an investment firm, it is fair enough to let those employed by that company control the investments made, even if in the form of creating a list of acceptable investments or advising on investments (veto power), for the security of their business and thus the continued availability of the demanded services.

My idea here is not brand new. Think of what banks are called. You can still find some today called such and such “bank and trust,” or “investment bank.” I want a bank that does not loan money, and one that does not speculate in stocks. Do you know of any?

To God be all glory.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Dancing Without Music: Tolkien on Marriage

Marriage is like dancing with no music. There is still an art, and still the beauty; there is also that dimension of more going on that you have in dancing. But instead of the music being enough to give a girl an idea of where life is going, there is none; she must simply follow. Give and take, go and come. Trust. Responsibility. Cry for help. Confidence. Smile her delight. Swing out, spin in. Submit. Dance.

The hobbits watch in dreamlike fixation as a woman beautiful beyond their experience weaves her way around the table, in and out of the kitchen, gracefully dodging a man equally unique to the hobbits: big, clumpy, capering and energetic. Styles so different, the two manage to make a fascinating dance of contrast and complement. How do they make it work? What force prevents collision?

Tom Bombadil sang about his lady when he thought no one was listening, and when he knew they were following, straining for his every word. He praised her as beautiful and trusted her to be ready with hospitality. Brave and free, each with few friends, the couple shared life and interests with each other. Perhaps many nights were spent crafting a tale to spell his lady. He gave her gifts and she did the washing. They each remained who they had been before they met, but they sacrificed things and changed also, making a brand new life together. When the hobbits asked Goldberry about her husband, she spoke with quiet respect, “He is the master.” Perhaps there is no satisfying explanation of Tom Bombadil because he was a man who needed to be known rather than described. There are no memorized steps of the dance with him. Their house is full of the comforts of community: ready beds, generous tables, and long conversation by the fire. Goldberry and Tom knew the value of relationship.

Main characters in Lord of the Rings are unmarried. Nine companions, the fellowship of the Ring, had the freedom to risk their lives and tramp across the world because they were not married. A man or two was moving towards marriage, dreaming of the woman he’d left behind. Tolkien was a real romantic, the kind who understood the pull of adventure and of chivalry, as well as of courting and of marriage. This last is not too common in literature, that real married couples would be glimpsed in story and lifted up for their simple virtue and hard submission. Immensely happy in marriage to Edith himself, this author did not shy away from representing marriage in his stories.

Another example is found in The Fellowship of the Ring before the hobbits encounter Tom Bombadil. Still in the Shire, they meet a hobbit couple, the honored Mrs. Maggot and her intimidating husband, Farmer Maggot. It’s a dreadful name to inherit, let alone acquire, so Mrs. Maggot must have loved her husband, and made the most of it. She too embodied hospitality. Spin in. Feeding a large working farm and family of sons and daughters, she didn’t mind at all to include three hungry strangers at her table, presenting them with heaping helpings of farm fare, mushrooms, and good homebrew. Farmer Maggot was a good provider, a defender of his property – maybe less because of what it grew than of whom it harbored. And when in the service of doing what was right he risked his own safety for newfound friends – this round hobbit reminiscent of the American rednecks – his wife stood at the door and cried out for her husband to be careful. Swing out. This isn’t just something people say. Do you see women encouraging their husbands to do the right thing even though it is dangerous? Do you hear people in unhappy marriages nervous about the other’s safety? No, it comes from a heart of love, natural – yes, and common but only because the simple heart of marriage is common. Isn’t that how it should be?

There are other examples, men and women whose wedded bliss was interrupted by wars, disease, or accident. Take Frodo’s parents. Rumors ran wild that Drogo didn’t get along with his wife, and that she thought his girth was too large even for a hobbit. They died together, though, out boating – and as far as the Gaffer was concerned, that was their only crime. It left Frodo to the wildness of youth, an orphaned rascal living with an extended family too big to take good care of him and to teach him responsibility. This again was the implication given by the sturdy gardener, who had carefully raised his own son under his eye and apprenticeship. What an unlikely beginning for the Ringbearer, whose sense of responsibility called him into the darkness, surrendering forever the possibility of home!

Elrond’s marriage does not appear to have been happy. His wife early (well, thousands of years into their relationship) grew weary of their home and left. Why didn’t she stay for him? Why didn’t he go with her? Should he have gone, the Halfelven whose work was so large in preserving the Middle Earth for which his father had risked much more than happiness and comfort? Should she have stayed, enduring without music, just for the following?

Many characters seem to have lost their mothers or fathers early, including Samwise, Frodo, Aragorn, Boromir & Faramir, and Eowyn & Eomer. It was a hard time, and even marriage did not guard against sorrow and loss. This is evidence that Tolkien’s ideal of marriage was not unrelated to the real world in which he moved. His stories exemplify love and commitment in the midst of the hard times to which we can relate.

Another splendid example of the exertions of marital love and the roles each person takes is the marriage of Earendil and Elwing. Earendil, on behalf of his people, sought to reach the undying lands and plead for the help of the Valar. He was lost at sea, hopeless, when his elven wife flew to him in the form of a white bird with a silmaril at her breast, and, lighting the way to Valinor, saved her husband and delivered his mission from doom. He initiated risk, and she accepted the separation and the danger. In this story the husband led the way on a mission to save the world (as all husbands should), and she supported him with strength of her own and encouragement. I believe the story goes that the couple now above Middle Earth sails till time ends, in the heavens, her silmaril doomed to light the way for all men as the evening star.

Many people in Tolkien’s tales are related to Luthien and Beren, who stole that silmaril from the crown of Morgoth. Luthien was the daughter of Thingol (a high elf, one of the first to see Valinor) and Melian (a Maia). Their marriage is another inspiration. King Thingol loved Melian and worked his whole life to make her happy. But he also respected his bride and took her advice. This position Melian wielded to moderate her husband’s temper, thereby making him the best man, father, and king that he could be. Ruling together, they preserved and protected a kingdom of peace, beauty, and, until fate started to unravel the spell of protection Melian had woven around Doriath, of justice.

Thingol and Melian’s marriage is somewhat reminiscent of Celeborn and Galadriel, both strong and wise, with strong claims to the leadership of their people. Yet they ruled peacefully side by side, together attending councils of the wise. Again they both offer hospitality, but are cautious to protect their country against harm, for love both of land and of friends inside. All the wives in Tolkien are beautiful, and all the husbands are valiant. But not all the men are wise, nor are all women hospitable. Celeborn and Galadriel represent together the best of Tolkien’s ideal. They are happy and sad, serious and celebratory. They are wise and strong, beautiful and kind. People love them and follow them, not only in war, but also in peace. Memory is important, and yet there is always curiosity to meet new things. And so it ought to be in marriage. Such I believe was Tolkien’s experience.

My favorite marriage in Tolkien is one that hadn’t yet taken place. Eowyn was independent; she was not free – not because she was a woman at home, but because she wanted things impossible for her to have. Faramir pushed, and she took a small step away. He pulled and she came close. Before she knew what was happening, the simple steps were increasing in difficulty until she cried out, “My hand is ungentle!” The princess grew frightened in the face of love and submission, though she had stood proud as the shieldmaiden of her king even against an enemy as terrible as the Lord of the Nazgul. She cried out to one who seemed to know what he was doing, who was leading her into a place where she was less confident, where her only choice was to follow. And the crying out was trust. Her heart changed, or at last she understood it. She chose freedom, stepped willingly away from her independence, and chose to love, like her partner, to see things grow well. “Then I will wed with the White Lady,” he laughed. She smiled her delight, and on the wall of the city their hands met and clasped, and they faced darkness and light together.

To God be all glory.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

What Are These Fruits?

I’ve been curious of late about the variety of fruit suddenly available. Gone are the days of apples, pears, oranges, peaches, and grapes that I knew as a child (and I never ate the pears!). There are far too many fruit to keep up with. And then movies and books (including the Bible) mention yet other fruits that I’ve never seen or tasted. How do you choose a ripe one in the supermarket? In what family is the fruit? Is it sweet like all fruits should be? What do you do with it once you get it home? Are there any poisonous parts of which I need to be aware? Wikipedia may not answer all of these questions, but it gives a start.

Fig – a false fruit, actually a flower that blooms inside the bud. Grows natively in Iran and the Mediterranean.

Sycamore – in the Bible, a fig tree: “mulberry-fig”

Mulberry – not at all related to figs, being a true fruit, actually a multiple-fruit (a cluster of flowers each produce a fruit that grows into one)

Berry - a simple fruit having seeds and pulp produced from a single flower. The entire ovary wall ripens to produce the edible fruit.

Date – grown on a palm tree, contains one seed. A date is a berry of the same type (but not same family) as blueberries and cranberries in which the fruit forms above the flower. Drying does little damage to the flavor or nutrients.

Plum – a sweet fruit related to apricots, peaches and cherries.

Prune – a dried plum

Kiwi – With its recognizable “hairy” brown skin (like a miniature coconut), the kiwi’s bright green inside has a unique flavor. The rows of black seeds are edible.

Guava – a fruit in the myrtle family that looks like a cross between an apple and a grapefruit, the inside is usually sweet but sharp, reminiscent of the lemon.

Mango - When ripe, the sweet fruit is eaten. The taste does not vary between orchards, and is strong and resinous. Inside is a single seed.

Persimmon – fruit from the ebony tree, with a unique texture (I compare it to carrots) and a taste between dates and plums. Eat only when fully ripe, and peeled.

Grape – grown in all colors clustering in bunches from 6 to hundreds of fruit large, this common perennial fruit is used in jams, wine, and also consumed raw.

Olive – a naturally bitter drupe (type of fruit) processed to taste better. They are harvested green or left to ripen into black olives. Obviously we get olive oil from them.

Pomegranate – a rounded hexagonal berry with thick skin and hundreds of seeds surrounded by pulp. The skin is usually reddish.

Kumquat – an oval citrus similar to the orange but with a salty/sour juicy center and sweet rind. The rind may be eaten alone, or the entire fruit tasted at once for the contrast between sour center and sweet outer.

Avocado – a large berry containing a pit, it ripens after harvest. The fruit is high in fat content, and not sweet.

Okra – a fibrous fruit with white seeds in the same family as cotton and cocoa

Soybean – an annual oilseed legume used as a source of vegetable oil and protein in dishes worldwide

Pepper – chilis, myrtles, and peppers. Most commonly “pepper” brings to mind the black peppercorn.

Chili – technically a berry, often used as a spice. Subdivided into several main groups of peppers, including bell peppers and jalapenos.

To God be all glory.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Chocolate Cheesecake Dippers Recipe

I love chocolate. For being such a chocoholic, I don’t talk about it much. So today I’m blogging about my favorite chocolate cheesecake.

The original recipe is from Nestle. But I’ve modified it just a bit, because while I could eat a quarter of a cake, most people like smaller portions than are easily sliced. There are also some cheaper substitutions I’ve made.

The first thing you want to do is to set out your cream cheese. I put mine on the stove while it is preheating for the cookies to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. You will need two 8-ounce packages, and it’s ok if this is off brand, because you’re going to mix it with chocolate and with sugar! (Walmart usually has the cheapest. You can also stock up when cream cheese is on sale during the holidays, because cream cheese has a long refrigerator life.)

Next, you’re going to make the cookies. You can use your favorite chocolate chip cookie recipe or this one, which is a family classic.

Mix 1 cup (2 sticks) of margarine with ¾ cup of sugar and ¾ cup of brown sugar and 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract. Cream. Add 2 eggs. Stir thoroughly, until the batter forms pea-sized chunks in the liquid of the whites. Now mix in the dry ingredients: 3 cups of flour, 1 teaspoon of baking soda, and 1 teaspoon of salt. When batter is the stiff consistency of cookie dough, add 2 cups of semi-sweet chocolate chips.

Scoop heaping tablespoons of dough onto a cookie sheet and bake for 15-20 minutes, until golden brown. While the first pan is cooking, refrigerate your dough if possible. Remove cookies from pan to wire rack to cool. When all your cookies are done baking, you can start the filling.

Begin with the two 8-ounce packages of cream cheese. Add 1 cup of sugar, 12 tablespoons of cocoa powder, and 4 tablespoons of Crisco (solid vegetable shortening). Stir for a really long time until: 1) your hand feels like it will fall off, 2) the bowl gets a hole in it, 3) the spoon breaks, 4) you can get a friend or family member to take over. You will need the mixture to look thoroughly chocolate brown with no white showing.

Then you are ready to add two 8-ounce tubs of whipped topping. This will initially turn all of that lovely chocolate brown to fluffy white. Stir, and you will begin to see signs of the brown reemerging. Then stir some more, and your mixture may turn a lighter brown. Stir, cream, press, beat until the whole thing is an even medium-brown color with a smooth texture. Don’t use a mixer at any time, because the whole thing is pointless: the beaters get stalled in the thickness of the cream cheese, and you spend more time scraping than mixing.

When this is accomplished you’re pretty much done. Spoon the cheesecake filling into a pretty glass bowl, and line the sides with cookies or cookie halves. You may want to provide spoons or knives with which to spread the dip over the cookies. Cover with plastic and refrigerate at least for a couple hours before serving.

The image at the beginning is half a batch. I almost forgot the sugar on that one, and we got a Marine to do the beating, so my mom’s plastic mixing bowl broke. Oops! But oh, this is so yummy, and really popular. Plus, except for it being really important not to forget the sugar, you can adjust almost any of the rest of the ingredients. Use the low-fat or low-calorie versions of the whipped topping and the cream cheese. Or use less whipped topping. You can do less cream cheese. And if when you’re counting you miss a tablespoon or two of cocoa, I dare you to notice the difference. This recipe is very forgiving, and tastes great. I’ve stored it in the refrigerator for over a week, still good. The original recipe is actually a cake, where the cookie dough is the crust in the spring-form pan. I’ve also thought about doing this parfait style in glass cups. In the comment section of Nestle’s website, a few women mentioned making them in muffin cups and swirling the cheesecake filling like you would frosting. Finally, I hear the filling is great frozen, almost like ice cream.


To God be all glory.