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March 2012 posts

Justice and Christian Leadership

Jonathan B. Wight

Bishop John Shelby Spong was in Richmond a few weeks ago, giving five daily lectures to packed audiences at St. Paul's Church, where he had been the rector from 1969-1976. They were fascinating talks about the origins and history of Christianity and the "new" Christianity emerging in the coming Reformation. According to Spong, Reformations come every 500 years or so. Each reformation attempts to rectify anomalies, injustices, and mistakes of the past.

I was moved to read Spong's autobiography, Here I Stand: My Struggle for a Christianity of Integrity, Love and Equality (2000). He's written, by my count, over twenty other books that have inflamed as well as educated, and sold perhaps a million copies around the word.

The "New Christianity" that Spong preaches attempts to bridge 21st century science and religion. The New Christianity embraces evolution and other sciences, including those that develop the biological origins of sexual orientation. The New Christianity emphasizes the equality of all people, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, or religious affiliation. It is fundamentally a message about love, not judgment (see, Why Christianity Must Change or Die: A Bishop Speaks to Believers In Exile, 1999).

Spong's entrance to the priesthood was in North Carolina in the mid-1950s, where overt racism was rampant. The battles he went through are legion; I don't know how someone develops that stamina and tough skin, although it was surely needed given the harassment and death threats of the KKK.

By the late 1960s Spong was preaching in Lynchburg Virginia. A particularly vitriolic editorial writer named Carter Glass III, publisher of the Lynchburg News (and grandson of Sen. Carter Glass, who had helped create the Federal Reserve in 1913 as well as co-author the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933), was determined to fight the Supreme Court's desegregation ruling more than a decade after it had been delivered. When Spong asked what Glass's motivation was, it turned out Glass believed that integration was part of the international communist conspiracy to infiltrate educational systems and encourage the breakdown of law and order. This wasn't the last time paranoia and fear stood in the way of dialogue and progress.

After fighting for racial integration and reconciliation, Spong became involved with the ordination of women. From there, his was a slow, but inevitable rise to leadership in promoting the rights of gays in the Episcopal Church and beyond, especially after he left Richmond to become Bishop of Newark in 1976. Spong was the first bishop to ordain an openly gay priest (although many gay priests were in the Episcopal Church, operating under "don't ask, don't tell").

Spong's take on leadership is particularly interesting in this book. A leader is not someone who spouts pious ethical statements. A leader has to organize the political fights that are inevitable any time change is proposed. Churches, like other organizations, unfortunately get populated by people who want to win more than they want to search for truth. Spong notes:

The [Christian] creeds were more about power than they were about truth. That some came to be called "orthodox" and their version of Christianity designated "orthodoxy" was not necessarily a recognition of who was right, but a recognition of who had won. The primary purpose of the creeds was not to spell out the Christian faith, but to exclude competing groups and their competing versions of truth from the church's life (pp. 242-243).

Adam Smith would love this story about the attempted monopolization—for personal gain—of the victors. That is why Smith so adamantly insisted on religious competition—exactly the sort of competition that the early creeds attempted to snuff out in the third century C.E. But there is also a psychological element:

Something deeply destructive is unleashed in some threatened human beings when they cannot keep the world from changing and in the process diminishing their power. They inevitably seek to destroy what they can no longer control (p. 48).

That sounds to me a lot like what is happening politically today and of course in ages past. Spong's last big official act as bishop before he retired in 2000 was to engage the Lambeth Conference in 1998. This once-a-decade event brings together the Anglican Communion from around the world. Bible literalists, and those opposed to gay priests, had formed a plan to repudiate Spong's inclusiveness. To carry this out Spong was vilified to African priests as a racist. This is both ironic and deeply hurtful, given his decades of work against racism in America. Spong's sin was to speak clearly in saying that opposition to gays and women (which is very strong in the African church) was based on unscientific beliefs. Nevertheless, the conservative bishops won, and passed a resolution on "Human Sexuality" that allowed no safe place for gays. And since then, of course, there has been the break-away of congregations from the Virginia Episcopal Diocese to the conservative Convocation of Anglicans in North America, supported by the Anglican Church of Nigeria.

The Episcopal Church, which in 2004 appointed an openly gay regional bishop and in 2006 elected a woman as overall Presiding Bishop, has congregations that are dropping and aging. Spong's hope is that a new enlightened and enlivened church will be born out of these ashes. His final lesson for "real" leaders—as opposed to stand-in leaders who like to wear the fancy robes and hats and take on titles—is this:

… losing a battle in the cause of justice is never a loss... the most important issue in life is not winning; it is being faithful to your core values (p. 211).

But justice and equality have generally been winning in the long run. I'm sure of very few things in life, but one of them is that 50 years from now the opponents of gay priests and female bishops will be looked upon as bizarre relics, just the way we look today at segregated bathrooms from the 1950s. Let's move on.

A Rose is a Rose, Even When It’s a Mandate

Jonathan B. Wight

Via David Frum comes up with this interesting point and question:

For many years, libertarians like those at the Cato Institute have advocated replacing Social Security with a mandate on all citizens to save for their retirement in a privately managed account.

Question: If it's unconstitutional (as the challengers to the Affordable Care Act now argue) for government to require citizens to buy health insurance coverage from a private provider, how can it possibly be constitutional for government to require citizens to buy a retirement annuity from a private provider?

That is, if we do as some have advocated and eliminate Social Security, we would be requiring people to use those resources to buy their own private savings account. That would be a mandate to buy a private product.

The Great Voter Suppression of 1980

Jonathan B. Wight

Okay, let me admit, it was a voter suppression of "one"—me, specifically. That not a huge number for me to gripe about, but it is symptomatic perhaps of many other people whose abilities to vote are compromised by crazy laws that are undemocratic in spirit and practice.

Here's the story. I was a graduate student at Vanderbilt University and I had received a fellowship to study and gather data for my dissertation in Brazil during the 1980-81 school year. That was an important election year with Jimmy Carter the incumbent trying to hang on against the charming Ronald Reagan.

There was also a third candidate, John Anderson, a Republican member of Congress who had the only sensible energy policy. Remember that the second oil shock hit in 1979, so gas prices were the talk of the election. Anderson, being the only thinking economist, advocated a 50-cent per gallon gas tax that would use the price system to stimulate alternative energy sources and break our dependence on Middle East oil controlled by OPEC. I supported Anderson, and wanted to vote, even though I would be in Brazil for the election in November.

I dutifully went to the Tennessee elections office and asked to receive an absentee ballot, which to my mind should be a simple formality for anyone who has the right to vote and a legitimate need to be away on Election Day. [Today I would support voting early and absentee for any reason—it's none of the elections office business!]

In any event, I was rudely rebuffed: No absentee ballots could be ordered in advance. I had to first go to Brazil, and write an official letter stating my reasons, and it had to be postmarked from there within a month of the election (I might be misremembering the last bit, but that's what I recalled). I replied that there would not be enough time—the mails were terrible and allowing only a month was asking for trouble. They wouldn't budge.

I was steaming with the stupidity of this law, but I vowed I wouldn't be deterred. So I went to Brazil and in early October I sent an airmail letter to the elections office asking for my ballot and telling them that their reply to me had to be sent air mail in order to get through in time. Needless to say, I didn't hear back for week after week as the election drew near. Finally, the day before the election… the ballot came… by regular sea mail….

In addition to having to fill-in and sign the ballot, it had to be officially notarized. I was living in Piracicaba, a mid-size city in the southern state of São Paulo, a reasonably advanced community. But the country was under military rule. Brazilians had not had open elections for president since 1960. I went from one notary to another, showing my passport and the ballot. Each looked at my ballot with amazement and wonder, then shook their heads sadly and said they would be unwilling to notarize any such public document that involved an election ballot. Who knew what trouble they could get into for this?

I was getting desperate as the day wore on. Finally, around 3 pm someone pointed me to a judge's office in the central square. I went in and was graciously received by the 40ish aged judge (whose name I've long since forgotten—but I wish I could thank him again). He examined the ballot like a forensic investigator. His eyes were bulging and he was visibly moved and excited. He got on the telephone and called a local television reporter and photographer, who dutifully showed up about 20 minutes later.

With great courage, I thought, he made a point of pontificating on the importance of elections and how he was deeply honored to be able to help me fulfill my rights of citizenship. He then notarized my ballot in front of the rolling cameras!

I rushed out because the next step was getting it to the American consulate in São Paulo. I hoped their time stamp would record that I had voted "in time" for the election. I accomplished all this and felt very proud. It had taken two days out of my life, and a larger emotional toll.

The egregious news arrived in late December. The elections board of Tennessee had rejected my ballot as arriving too late to be counted. Bah!! Not that my vote for Anderson would have changed the election, but I was feeling exasperated and disrespected.

I thus have more than a modicum of sympathy for the legions of lawful citizens who face the 2012 elections with barriers erected that will keep them from participating in their civic duty and responsibility to vote.

Voter Suppression Alleged

Jonathan B. Wight

My own story of my vote being suppressed in the 1980 election will be covered in a future post.

For now, it's worth reading Craigslist founder Craig Newmark's research on the systematic voter suppression going on around the country. The fact that so many laws have been passed in so many states—for a problem of voter ID fraud that is virtually non-existent—suggests that a concerted national effort is being mounted by those who stand to gain politically from this. Hmmm… whom might that be?

Click on the image to see it in larger form.

The Generational Divide: Shocking but Not Surprising

Jonathan B. Wight

Via Mark Frum comes a link to a Stephen Marche article in Esquire that captures the essence of the ethical and medical dystopia in America:

There may be no white America and no black America, no blue-state America and no red-state America, but one thing is clear: There is a young America and there is an old America, and they don't form a community of interest. One takes from the other. The federal government spends $480 billion on Medicare and $68 billion on education. Prescription drugs: $62 billion. Head Start: $8 billion. Across the board, the money flows not to helping the young grow up, but helping the old die comfortably. According to a 2009 Brookings Institution study, "The United States spends 2.4 times as much on the elderly as on children, measured on a per capita basis, with the ratio rising to 7 to 1 if looking just at the federal budget."

Personally, I think those of us who are entering the growing elderly class have to voluntarily cut back on the extravagance of dying, paid for by other people's (e.g., Medicare's) money. And I think Medicare can help us do that. Since most of health care is spent on heroic but failed attempts to keep a dying person alive a few more months in a hugely expensive intensive-care hospital rooms, think of some practical alternatives. One is a short vacation to Oregon, but I have reservations about doctor-assisted suicide.

But a second idea is to have Medicare make an attractive offer to elderly persons on their last legs:

Insurance Offer: Treating you (the patient) for the next five months before you die will cost us $500,000 using the grandiose and highly expensive crisis medical system. However, if you agree to go into a hospice, where you'll get all the pain medicine you need, our cost will be only $50,000. Medicare (and society) will save $450,000, and we're willing to split that and give you an inheritance to your estate of $225,000.

Now, does this sound like a good deal? Readers: has this been tried anywhere?

[Problems: An elderly person could feel coercion—that they are being shunted off to a nursing home so the greedy kids can get a fat check. But I'd rather think this offers a clear-headed dying person a chance to give their offspring a much-needed bequest at little personal cost. The relatives I've seen who've spent their last months in a hospital have had a pretty miserable quality of life. A hospice may offer greater solace, love, and the opportunity of death with dignity than the advanced medical approach. The key thing is—this would be a voluntary program, and elderly people, while still fully rational, could make the decision ahead of time that "Less is more."]

Walking while Black

Jonathan B. Wight

From time immemorial, people have formed snap judged about strangers by the color of their skin, by the type of keffiyeh headdress (identifying tribe), by the ceremonial jambiya dagger, by the weaving patterns in a Guatemalan woman's huipil blouse (connoting village), by hairstyle, and many other signaling devices.

The man in this picture, for example, has a Ph.D. in economics from the London School of Economics. Yet, when we went on a road trip across Yemen in 1993, he clothed himself with headscarf and dagger so as to be immediately acceptable to potential hostiles we might encounter.

Last month, George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch activist, shot 17-year old Trayvon Martin as Martin walked back to his home after buying candy. Martin's "crime" was wearing a "hoodie", which apparently sent the wrong visual signal to Zimmerman's brain. Zimmerman's pre-civilized brain said that a black person wearing a hoodie in his community was an interloper—someone who looked differently—and who must be assumed to be up to no good.

We can suppose that stereotypes have some basis in fact—such as that Zimmerman's neighborhood may have in the past been victimized by young hoods wearing hoodies. Or, Zimmerman may have simply watched pictures of suspects downloaded from crime videos on local television news.

Zimmerman's pre-civilized brain was unfortunately supported by the equally pre-civilized "Stand Your Ground" law in Florida that allowed the use of deadly force even when peaceful options are available. Although the 911 dispatcher tried to get Zimmerman to back-off his stalking of Martin, Zimmerman kept at it. Zimmerman claims he was subsequently attacked and beaten by Martin. If that's true, it seems to me like road-rage. If someone tail-gaits me and essentially gives me the finger, it is all too easy to lose control, especially if you're a 17-year old male feeling disrespected. His pre-civilized brain is also kicking into "fight or flight." His hormones are raging equally with fear and hatred.

At the time of the shooting, Martin was suspended from school for having an empty marijuana baggie in his possession. But no marijuana was found, nor was Martin charged with any crime. He had a clean record according to the Florida Juvenile Department. And none of this should matter at all to the essence of the case, which is that a young boy was walking along minding his own business and was stalked for his race and clothing.

The story of the Good Samaritan, in the Christian tradition, teaches us that stereotypes are often wrong and should be resisted. While profiling is a useful law enforcement tool in some cases (mass murderers tend to be male, for example), a virtue ethicist would say to treat each person according to their own characters. Laws are intended to restrain our passions from over-reacting in our pre-civilized fashions. The Florida law unfortunately seems to endorse Ramboism and "Make my day" mentality, and transfers the power of the state to enforce justice to the individual. It's a tragic story, however it works out legally.

More signaling devices, below, used in business to find candidates who will "fit in": Tri-Delt tee-shirt, good-old-boy regimental striped tie with handkerchief, and school ring. These ubiquitous signals are one more reason why economic inequality persists—trust is often driven by appearances and subliminal social messages, and poor kids don't learn how to navigate these—and don't have access to the badges of acceptance given by sororities, fraternities and other college clubs. Too often the role models for poor kids may unfortunately be the big shots and hoodlums in gangs—wearing hoodies.

On Character (in The New York Times' The Stone)

Mark D. White

In this morning's The Stone column in The New York Times, UNC visiting professor Iskra Fileva offers "Character and Its Discontents," in which she writes eloquently on the nature of character in response to the situationist critiques of Gilbert Harman and John Doris. Her article doesn't lend itself well to quotes--it really must be read in full to be appreciated--but two points stood out to me.

  1. Even when we judge people to have behaved inconsistently with what we took to be their character traits, this may be the fault of our limited perception of their character rather than any inconsistency of their part. (She attributes this point to psychologist Gordon Allport.) This parallels my point against paternalism, that the only knowledge regulators have of a person's interests in what they can infer from his or her choices or behavior, for which there can always be multiple explanations. By the same token, it is difficult to infer character traits from behavior with any confidence, and therefore it is difficult to make any judgments of inconsistency based upon them (just as external judgments of poor choices cannot be made simply based on observations of previous ones).
  2. Unity of character is an aspirational goal, rather than something to be taken for granted. This reminds me of Kant's understanding of autonomy as a responsibility as well as a capacity, in that all of us have the potential to be autonomous but we have to work at it constantly, exercising our strength of will, in order to maintain it. It is also consistent with what I wrote in Kantian Ethics and Economics (in chapter 3, based on the work of Christine Korsgaard and Ronald Dworkin) about constructing, expressing, confirming our characters through the choices we make, which is a responsibility for personal integrity that we all have.

I also appreciated that she began the piece with a discussion of character in fiction, which is important for more pragmatic reasons. Nonetheless, creators have a responsibility to their audience to maintain behavioral consistency in their characters, who can have complex motivations up to a point. This makes them more fascinating, but beyond this point, the characters themselves become imperceptible, such as in absurdist literature and theater, as Fileva mentions, or in poorly written traditional fiction (a frequent complaint of fans of "serial fiction" such as myself).

Alleged Efficiency Expert Flogs Professors

Jonathan B. Wight

Via Krugman comes the link to an article by David C. Levy in the Washington Post, "Do college professors work hard enough?" (Note: this is not the David M. Levy of George Mason University, but rather a nefarious alter-ego.)

Levy claims that efficiency at colleges and universities can be greatly enhanced by working faculty harder—and maybe he thinks they need a good flogging, too. I am somewhat sympathetic to this claim, in certain circumstances. Namely, I don't think we can afford (as a country) to have everyone doing research. The marginal benefit of additional research is probably very low and the marginal cost, as Levy notes, is high. It is regrettable that over the past 30 years many schools have gone the route of jacking up the research requirements, and discouraging or letting go great teachers. Colleges do need to strive to find ways to become more affordable, and that includes re-thinking faculty roles.

Having said this, Levy's basic argument about workloads in general is factually outrageous, and reflects a deep misunderstanding of academia. It is shocking that he was a chancellor of the New School University; he clearly didn't learn much about the basic institution of higher education. Here is Levy's complaint:

"An executive who works a 40-hour week for 50 weeks puts in a minimum of 2,000 hours yearly. But faculty members teaching 12 to 15 hours per week for 30 weeks spend only 360 to 450 hours per year in the classroom. Even in the unlikely event that they devote an equal amount of time to grading and class preparation, their workload is still only 36 to 45 percent of that of non-academic professionals. Yet they receive the same compensation."

First, an obvious point: a faculty member spends 5 years in graduate school getting a Ph.D. That is time out of the workforce. All other things equal, people need to be compensated for that opportunity cost of their time in order to attract people into the occupation. They can either be paid in money or time.

Second, Levy's hourly calculation doesn't hold up. Let's break this down: A faculty member teaching "12 to 15 hours per week"—what does that mean? In academia, that means the professor is likely teaching 4 to 5 courses, each meeting three times a week for about an hour each (for 12 to 15 "contact" hours). When I arrived at the University of Richmond in 1982 I had a 12-hour schedule, meaning four classes. Of these, two were repeats, so I had four classes and three different preparations. I would be teaching Intro to Economics, Money and Banking, and Intermediate Macro. I invite Levy (or anyone else) to give 3 new presentations a week, of one hour each, in 3 different subject areas, each with its own textbook, study guide, homeworks, exams, and so on. For a new professor, that is grueling preparation beyond belief. After lecturing for 3 hours a day you come away from emotionally and physically drained.

But let's give Levy the benefit of the doubt, perhaps he means only experienced professors with tenure. It usually takes teaching a course three or four times before one can start to relax a bit. But even then, course material is constantly being updated in most economics classes. Even so, there are homeworks, quizzes, and exams—not only to grade, but also to prepare (to me, one of the most time-consuming activities). In addition to direct class contact hours, there are student help hours, and academic advising hours, and accreditation reports, letters of recommendation to write, and innumerable details for bringing speakers or programs to campus and arranging other academic events. Most of us—yes, there are exceptions—work many nights and often on weekends to catch-up with an intense schedule.

Perhaps most egregious, Levy does not seem to understand how faculty constitute the self-governance of a university. This is laborious and time consuming, but beats the hell out of letting administrators run rampant over things. There is a lot of committee work to making governance succeed, and perhaps Levy, as an administrator, is simply a fan of top-down management. His disrespect for lowly teaching faculty seems to come through pretty clear.

The alleged "month off" Levy refers to during the semester break is a joke. Faculty are reading and making up syllabi and ordering textbooks for their next semester courses, attending national conferences (ASSA is in January), and cleaning-up the backlog of paper and emails that we never had the time to get to during the semester. Summer… ah, now that is a badly-needed respite! For most teachers who have burned the midnight oil for nine months, the break is needed to recharge their batteries. For those doing research, summer is the only time to put together large blocks of time for study and writing. The alleged three months' vacation is a myth to me and everyone I know.

The unreality of many people's perceptions of academia—like Levy's—would be humorous if it weren't so destructive. I remember one year during a recession a new board chair at UR (who was a businessman), noted that since all businesses were cutting back, the university should also tighten its belt. Why? we asked; we don't have a cash flow problem or lack of demand. In fact, demand for our academic services is rising, we said. But you need to cut back he said… because… that's what businesses do in recessions. But we're not a business, we replied. When the economy is booming businesses give key employees huge bonuses—we never got those in academia. Don't treat academia as if it were a business. It is not; it operates under a completely different set of constraints and norms. Before you tinker, make sure you aren't breaking.

And apropos of this, everyone should read, "How to be efficient with Fewer Violins", a funny account of what happens when an efficiency expert (who knows nothing about music) goes to the symphony and writes his report!

Richmond Eagle Camera

Jonathan B. Wight

This is really cool. Watch (and listen) to a live videofeed as bald eagles on the shore of the James River in Richmond care for their two recent offspring.

Would people be as gaga for this (more than 120,000 viewers) if the eagle were not a symbol of national pride? Does nationalism make us more protective?

My wife Jean and I are in perfect agreement: We'd rather people treat the Constitution with reverence and awe, before we consider sanctifying the flag and other symbols. Still, it's great to see the resurgence of bald eagles. A few years ago, while canoeing on the Potomac River near Quantico, I saw a cabal of 11 bald eagles in the same tree. At first I thought I was dreaming. I had always thought eagles were loners, but here they were in a conclave for some purpose. Any ideas why? Was it a mating / dating game?

Click on photo below (allow a bit of time to load):


The Old Virginny

Jonathan B. Wight

Just got back from a wonderful tour of the newly-renovated State Capitol of Virginia, designed by Jefferson as a temple on a hill to freedom and justice and built in 1788. It has a beautiful internal dome (so as to preserve the exterior façade) within which sits a magnificent life size sculpture of George Washington by Jean-Antoine Houdon (1791).

There are many stories to be told about the goings-on the building where Jefferson, Washington, and many other Presidents hung out (including those of the Confederacy). The building also housed the trial of Aaron Burr for treason, presided over by Chief Justice John Marshall.

The highly educated tour guide was a great font of erudition, but at the end of the tour we had a little tussle. The tour guide let it be known in Q&A that he felt the southern states had the legal right to secede from the Union, because the Constitution did not forbid it and all powers not given to the federal government belong to the states or the people. I think the "legal" argument is narrowly correct—so far as the "law" at that time was constructed.

But that argument is a terrible failure on moral grounds. I know this is highly controversial in some quarters, so let me say up front that I revere my home state (the Old Dominion) for its many laudable achievements, including the Statute for Religious Freedom (1786), its notable presidents (Washington always at the top), and other path breakers like Maggie Walker. I also admire the bravery and loyalty of confederate soldiers, including my great grandfather, William Washington Wight, who fought in the cavalry under Jeb Stuart at Gettysburg. I currently attend a downtown church that at one time was spiritual home to Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis (St. Paul's). My father's family farm was ravaged by Union soldiers, since most of the war was fought near Stafford County, Virginia. It took 100 years for the county to rebuild its economy after every tree, every cow, every horse, and every grain was taken at gunpoint.

So I say with deep affection and regard for those of the past -- the law of the Confederacy at that time was a tyrannical law, as we understand the term today—and as many Southerners at the time knew themselves. That is why Elizabeth Van Lew, a weathy white woman who lived across the street from my current home in Richmond, became the leader of a Union spy ring. We don't let tyrants determine what the law is or should be! The argument that the south could "legally" secede rests on a premise that the decision was being made by people who have the "right" to make such a decision. They did not, as we understand it now. Even so, the vote at the time in Virginia was not at all unanimous – it was 88-55, showing strong opposition.

Below are the populations of the rebellious states. In today's terms, based on what we now know about human rights, did confederates have the moral legitimacy to secede? The Lower South seceded first. Half—yes, half!—of their populations were in slavery. If someone holds a gun to your head and says, "By right of this gun I will establish a law that makes it illegal for you to flee for your freedom," – what would you think of the legitimacy of such a law? In today's world we would say it is rubbish. It is morally corrupt. We should, of course, try to understand history from the viewpoint of the times; but our judgments need to reflect the wisdom of the ages. Nobody today says the law that allowed Athenians to kill their own children was a good and just law.

So to those who continue to fly the rebel flag and refight the Civil War, by arguing that the South should have been allowed to secede, are supporting a twisted view of democracy in which slaves don't matter and have no voice. (One could make the same observation about women.) These comments are not directed to those who might argue that today it is possible to conceive of Texas or California seceding, after due democratic vote. I'm perfectly willing to consider that.

Upper South


Free Population

Slave Population






North Carolina












Total Up.South





Lower South


Free Population

Slave Population






















South Carolina








Total LowSouth





Source: http://www.civilwarhome.com/population1860.htm