Archive for the ‘Society’ Category

What happened to our dreams of freedom?

April 24, 2015

The Trap: F*** You, Buddy

Adam Curtis makes documentaries for the British Broadcasting Corporation that are remarkable for revealing hidden connections and bringing out the unexpected consequences of ideas.  His weakness is that he sometimes connects dots that, in my opinion, are not connected in actuality.  His strengths and weaknesses are apparent in his three-part series, “The Trap.”

The first two parts of the series show the working out of the ideas of three brilliant economists.

Friedrich A. Hayek believed that governmental power is dangerous and counterproductive.  It is better, he thought, to allow the economy to be regulated by an automatic system, the free market.

John Nash of the RAND Corporation saw human beings as selfish and suspicious, but, for that very reason, predictable.  He worked out the implications of “prisoner’s dilemma” situations, in which rational people are unable to cooperate for their mutual benefit because they cannot trust each other.

The USA and USSR could not give up atomic weapons because neither could trust the other not to cheat.  Instead the road to peace supposedly was for each to be armed to the teeth and ready at retaliate as soon as they were attacked.  Because each could predict the other’s behavior, the situation supposedly was stable.

James Buchanan, who won the Nobel Memorial Prize in economics, was the creator of “public choice” theory.  He asserted that politicians and administrators are selfish beings who worked to their own advantage and not the public whom they supposedly served.  Idealistic politicians and officials are the most dangerous, in this view, because they could not be controlled.

Curtis documented how these ideas played out under Britain’s Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her successors.  Many governmental functions were sub-contracted to private companies.  Since government employees, according to public choice theory, could not be trusted to exercise their own judgment, they were given incentives to meet measurable targets.

The idea was that this is liberating because people are not subjected to the arbitrary personal judgments of people over them, but to objective and neutral measurements.

This kind of thinking is also playing out today in U.S. corporate and government administration.  The result is a micro-management that diminishes individual freedom.  And it doesn’t work.   The incentive is to figure out ways of meeting the target which is a different thing from doing your job well.

Curtis asserted that psychological studies show that the only people who behave according to the Nash-Buchanan theory are economists and psychopaths.  That is an exaggeration.

There is a measure of truth in what Nash, Buchanan and also Hayek say.  The problem is that human beings are diverse and complex, neither altruists nor selfish calculating machines, and no one-dimensional theory can sum them up.

The Trap: The Lonely Robot

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Equality of opportunity and equality

April 23, 2015

Hardly any American politician talks about growing economic inequality in the USA.

Instead they talk about equality of opportunity—the equal chance to work your way up into a higher economic bracket than the one you were born in.

I agree with this up to a point.  Somebody who is lazy and useless does not deserve to be rewarded equally with someone who is hard-working and productive.

The problem is that it is much easier to work your way up when the majority of Americans are improving their economic condition.  It is very hard to work your way up when the majority of Americans are falling back.

Swimming with the current is something everybody should be able to do.  Swimming against the current is a challenge that not everybody can meet.

I am all for giving members of the underclass the means and the incentive to work their way up into the middle class.  But in the USA at the present moment, there is less and less of a middle class for them to move up into.

The geography of marriage

April 4, 2015

single-vs-married

About 50 percent of Americans are married, 31 percent are single (never married), 11 percent are divorced, 2 percent are separated and 6 percent are widows or widowers.  But as the Flowing Data maps above and below show, married, single and divorced Americans are not distributed evenly across the country.

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Americans are becoming better-behaved

April 2, 2015

Americans—that is, average Americans, not necessarily Hollywood stars, sports stars and the financial and governmental elite—are becoming better-behaved.

  • Homicide rates are down.
  • Domestic violence is down.
  • Child abuse is down
  • Cocaine use is down (although marijuana use is up)
  • Alcoholism is down
  • Drunk driving is down.
  • Cigarette smoking is down.
  • Illicit drug use by teenagers is down.
  • Alcohol use by teenagers is down.
  • Cigarette smoking by teenagers is down.
  • Teenage pregnancy is down.

The main exception to these trends is that Americans are slower to get married than in the past and quicker to become divorced.  But maybe it is better to be unmarried or divorced than in a bad or abusive marriage.

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The ‘irresponsibility’ of the poor

March 23, 2015

Of all the preposterous assumptions of humanity over humanity, nothing exceeds most of the criticisms made on the habits of the poor by the well-housed, well-warmed and well-fed.
                ==Herman Melville (1819-1892)

My circle of friends are mostly white, college-educated, middle-class people who call ourselves liberals.

Liberals are supposed to be the ones who make excuses for the short-comings of minorities and poor people, but this isn’t true of my friends.

poverty-and-marriage-650Instead, whenever the conversation gets around to social problems, the consensus is that poverty is bad and racial discrimination is bad, but “lack of personal responsibility” is a big thing, too.  Bill Cosby’s name comes up a lot.

I’m uncomfortable with these conversations because, on the one hand, there’s a certain amount of truth in what’s being said, and, on the other hand, I don’t think I have standing to make harsh moral judgments about people who face difficulties so much worse than anything I ever did.

There are people who are completely messed up—unable to hold a steady job, uninterested in marriage and family responsibilities—who wouldn’t be able to make it in the best of societies.

On the other hand, the few poor people I know aren’t like that.  They are people who are struggling bravely against great odds.

There’s one young black man I know.  He was convicted as a teenager for robbing a drug dealer.  For that one mistake, he basically has no future, even though he is hard-working, intelligent and well-mannered.

On the other hand, I have a distant relative by marriage, a middle-aged white man who was in trouble all through his teenage years, smoking dope and getting into trouble, and constantly being bailed out by his father.  He turned himself around, and is now a responsible adult with a good job.

It is fine with me that he got all these second chances.  But if his father had been poor, or black, or both, he wouldn’t have gotten them.

And then there are the young black men who, after each big snowstorm, come walking down the middle of my street with snow shovels across their shoulders, asking if I need my driveway shoveled out.  I usually hire them even when I don’t strictly need it.

They’re all polite and hard-working.  Maybe these qualities will be enough to raise themselves into the middle class.  But if the number of people with middle class incomes continues to shrink, the only way they’ll be able to do it is by bumping somebody else out of the middle class.

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Wall Street bonuses vs. U.S. minimum wages

March 17, 2015

income-inequality-2.0A study by the Institute for Policy Studies indicates that the total amount of bonuses—not salary, but just bonuses—paid to 168,000 employees of Wall Street financial firms in 2014 was more than double the total income of 1 million Americans who worked full time at minimum wage.

The $28.5 billion paid in bonuses would be more than enough to raise wages of tens of millions of American workers to $15 an hour, the IPI said.

The function of Wall Street investment banks is to find worthwhile companies and provide them with the capital they need to thrive and grow.  Doing this job well would be important, but most Wall Street activity is devoted to repackaging existing investments and selling them.   A recent study says that only a quarter of Wall Street revenue comes from investment in the real economy.

So arguably the 1 million minimum-wage workers create more value than the wealthy Wall Streeters.  At least they don’t create speculative bubbles that crash the economy.

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The silence of the religious liberals

March 8, 2015

Public opinion polls show there are as many Americans who call themselves religious liberals as who call themselves religious conservatives.

Yet religion has come to be identified with conservatism, and liberalism has come to be identified with atheism and recularism.

Paul Rasor

Paul Rasor

Paul Rasor in his book, RECLAIMING PROPHETIC WITNESS: Liberal Religion in the Public Square (2012), blames the timidity of religious liberals.

We religious liberals don’t always preach what we practice, and this is especially true of us Unitarian Universalists, the quintessential religious liberals.

Rasor, who is a professor of religion and a UU himself, said religious liberals are shy about expressing our religious values in public.  When we take a stand on a public issue, our rhetoric is no different from any progressive or civil rights group.  We argue on practical, legal and ethical grounds, but not on religious grounds—unlike our counterparts on the religious right.

Why is this?

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A case study in ‘political correctness’

February 7, 2015
marriage

Source: XKCD (Randall Munroe)

One good example of political correctness in action is how the right to gay marriage in the United States has become an unquestioned orthodoxy.

I have no quarrel with the right gay marriage.  It makes our nation more inclusive.  It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.   I’m glad that gays are no longer a persecuted minority, essentially outside the protection of the law.

I do have a problem with unquestioned orthodoxies that shut down debate.  A case in point was the firing of Brendan Eich as CEO of Mozilla Firefox last year.

Eich was a co-founder of the company and the inventor of the JavaScript programming language.  By all accounts, treated employees, including gay employees, decently.

But somebody dug up the fact that, in 2008, he had contributed $1,000 to Proposition 8, the California referendum to ban gay marriage.  A few days after being named CEO, he was ousted.

Now he’s a rich and talented person who should be able to do all right for himself, so I don’t think this is the worst thing that ever happened to anyone.   As Kathleen Geier pointed out, people in more precarious positions than Eich are fired every day for much more arbitrary reasons, including wearing a necktie the employer didn’t like.

My interest in the case is in the arguments given to justify his firing.  His views were offensive to most people in Silicon Valley.  Does that mean it would be okay for a company headquartered in, say, Utah to fire a CEO for supporting gay marriage?

Gay employees would feel uncomfortable working for a CEO who opposed their right to marry.  This is the flip side of the argument most commonly used against gay rights.

The right of openly gay people to serve in the U.S. military was opposed on the grounds that straight troops would feel uncomfortable.  And this, arguably, would be a more important consideration on the battlefield than in an office in California.

In an earlier era, this was a common argument against hiring African-Americans.   Business owners told me that they had no objection to hiring qualified black people, but their customers wouldn’t feel comfortable with it.

Brendan Eich has a right to express his opinion, but he does not have a right to be free from the consequences of expressing his opinion.   Would you apply this reasoning to, say, Hollywood screenwriters who were blacklisted during the McCarthy era?

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Courtney White on the age of consequences

January 28, 2015

Progress was good for my parents. They came to a strange land as poor pioneers and prospered along with Phoenix. They lived the American Dream—not the pursuit of material manifestations of success as much as their steady improvement over time.

Courtney White

Courtney White

Their lives were better than their parents’; they had more security, more opportunity, more comfort. They didn’t do without, go hungry, or stand in unemployment lines; they were well-educated, well-fed, and well-blessed with the fruits of a robust and expanding economy.

Best of all, especially for my mother, they could travel, and they saw parts of the globe that deeply impressed them. If they had second thoughts or misgivings about progress, I never heard a word. For them, the future was always bright.

I developed a different perspective. I came of age during the heyday of progress, witnessing the good, the bad, and the ugly. Impressed at first, I have now lived long enough to see that manifest destiny was not necessarily a positive force in our history.

I will likely live long enough to see evidence that America is not exceptional after all—that despite this nation’s many admirable qualities, it is subject to the same historical forces that have worn down all great nations and empires throughout the ages.

==Courtney White, The Age of Consequences

∞∞∞

Courtney White of Santa Fe, New Mexico, is a former archeologist, Sierra Club activist and co-founder of the Quivera Coalition, which is dedicated to bringing together ranchers, conservationists, public land managers, scientists and others to improve land practices.

I’ve not read any of his books.  Probably I should.  Here are links to excerpts from The Age of Consequences, his latest.

The real path through history: An arrow of progress.

The Nervous Breakdown.

Manifest destiny was not necessarily a positive force in our history.

Thanks to Bill Elwell for the first link and for making me aware of Courtney White and his work.

 

How times change

November 30, 2014

marriagevia xkcd

I grew up in Williamsport, Md., a little town on the Potomac River, in the 1940s and 1950s, and was taught by my parents, teachers and Sunday school teachers to judge people by the content of their character and not the color of their skin.

It was not so far south that expressing this opinion would have caused anybody to be run out of town, but I do remember many arguments in which the supposed clincher was, “Be honest, Phil.  Would you want one of them to marry your sister?”

My answer was, “Well, if I had a sister, which I don’t, I wouldn’t want her to suffer all the grief she would have to go through if she married a Negro.  But, if she really loved him, I guess I would still love her and respect her decision, as unwise as it probably would be.”

In truth, I thought the question was a red herring.  I didn’t think interracial marriage would ever be common.  I thought it was just a talking point to justify the denial of equal rights.

In the 1960s, in Hagerstown, Md., in the same county, I attended the marriage of my friend Jim Yeatts, who was white, to Georgianna Bell, who was black.  A detective from the city police department sat in a police cruiser outside the church when the ceremony was performed.

That night the chief of police phoned the newspaper publisher, who was my employer, and informed him that I was among the guests.  The phone call didn’t have any consequences.  I mention it as an example of something that happened then that would be unthinkable now.

What was unthinkable then was same-sex marriage.  If somebody had asked me a question about this back in the 1960s, I wouldn’t have known that they were talking about.

Starting the Christmas shopping season

November 28, 2014

uncle-sam-2

The worst voter turnout in 72 years

November 25, 2014

voterturnout2014

Only 36.3 percent of American registered voters went to the polls this year, the lowest turnout in 72 years.  Fewer than a third of registered voters actually voted in California, Texas and New York, and turnout topped 50 percent in only seven states—Maine, Wisconsin, Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, Minnesota and Iowa.

The New York Times editorial writers blamed the negativity of the election campaign, and changes in election law in some states that discourage voting.  I am in favor of more substantive debate in campaigns, and I am in favor of better election laws, including provision for early voting.

But I don’t think these get to the heart of the problem, which is a lack of a good reason to vote.  There was an unusually large turnout in 2012, reflecting the hopes of many Americans for peace and prosperity.   These hopes have not been fulfilled.

I vote myself as a way of affirming that I haven’t given up on American democracy.  I fear that many Americans, especially young people, are giving up.

§§§

The Worst Voter Turnout in 72 Years by the editorial board of the New York Times

SMALL THANKS 2014

November 23, 2014

reasontobethankful.qmI have many things for which to be thankful.  I have never in my life had to worry about where my next meal was coming from or whether I would have a roof over my head.  I have never been without friends.  I have good health for somebody my age (nearly 78).  I can honestly say I have everything I really want.

But this post is not about these things.  It is about small things for which I am thankful.

I am thankful for automobiles that don’t rust out.  When I first came to Rochester, the city and county governments used to spread large amounts of road salt in the winter.  Natives and long-time residents told me it was important to get a good rust-proofing service; I, foolishly, used an inexpensive service instead, to my regret.  Road salt is less of a problem now than it was then, but the plastic body of my Saturn doesn’t rust.

I am thankful for automobiles that always start in the winter.  I can remember when this was a big issue.  I would run my car in neutral when I got home, and before I tried to start the car, in hope of recharging the battery enough to get a good start.  Now, with alternators as standard equipment, that recharging takes care of itself.  I am thankful for automobiles that get good traction on ice-covered and snow-covered streets, for right-side rear view mirrors and for rear-window defrosters.  I am thankful for idiot bells that let me know when I am getting out of the car with my lights still on or my key still in the ignition; this idiot needs the reminder.

I am thankful for ballpoint pens that don’t leak over my shirts when I accidentally put them in the washer.

I am thankful the Barnes & Noble bookstore provides chairs so I can sit and read.

I am thankful for painless dentistry.  As a boy, I once had a tooth extracted without anesthetic.  The dentist used what looked like a pair of pliers.  He pulled and pulled and pulled, then had to stop and catch his breath before going back and finally getting it out.

I am thankful for plastic bottles shaped with grips.

I am thankful for thermostats.  My parents had a coal furnace, and we had to be constantly thinking not letting the fire go out, but also banking the furnace so as not to waste coal.  One of my chores, since both of my parents worked outside the home, was to go right home when school let out and shovel fresh coal in the furnance.  Now I have a gas furnace that doesn’t have to be monitored at all, and a thermostat which I can turn up or down when I feel too hot or too cold.

I am thankful for luggage with wheels.  I can remember walking through airports and, before that, train stations carrying suitcases that felt like they would pull my arms out of their sockets.

I am thankful for search engines since as Google that allow me to find information in two minutes that I would have had to spend an afternoon in library to get, if I could find it at all.  I am thankful for web hosts such as WordPress that allow me to have my own web log, free of charge and without needing to be computer-savvy.  I am thankful for being able to communicate with friends in distant places through e-mail.  Not to mention spam filters which free me from having to continually purge my e-mail and web log comments.

I am thankful for direct-dial long-distance telephone service.  I can talk to people in distant states and even foreign countries at an affordable price and without having to deal with an operator.  And for telephone answering machines.  When I was a boy, telephone service was like Internet service today.  Most people had it, but a large minority didn’t.

And not all telephone users had private telephone lines. Basic telephone service in those days consisted of a party line, networking a number of households; the phones of everybody on the line rang on every call, but you were supposed to recognize the distinctive ring of your own line and not listen in to others’ calls.

Microwave ovens are a great boon to a lazy cook like me.  I do almost all my cooking nowadays, which consists mostly of frozen dinners, in the microwave.

What are your non-obvious reasons, small or large, to be thankful?

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Google searches of the rich and poor

November 9, 2014

up-leonhardt-master675Carol Graham of the Brookings Institution reflected on the differences in concerns of America’s rich and poor.

The divide in the concerns of those in the toughest circumstances and those in the most comfortable was highlighted by a recent analysis of Google searches for the New York Times’ Upshot.

The searches that correlated most closely with difficult circumstances were related to diets, diabetes, guns and religion especially the dark side of religion e.g., ‘hell’ and ‘antichrist’.

In the most privileged areas, searches related to the latest technology, health and parenting: e.g., ‘ipad’, ‘jogger’ and ‘baby massage’.

There is another inequality, too, that reflects and reinforces the others: in happiness and optimism about the future.

My research – in the U.S. and beyond – shows that individuals with prospects for upward mobility are happier and more likely to invest in their future health and education and those of their children.

When queried about well-being, the rich highlight the role of work and good health in their lives, while poor people are more likely to focus on friends and religion … … .

It is interesting that Graham’s study assumes that both rich and poor have access to Google.  The fruits of technology are become steadily cheaper, while groceries, rent, tuition and medical care become more expensive.

Focus on friends and religion is a good thing, not a bad thing.  While it is good to think about getting ahead and staying healthy, your job and your health are things that can be taken from you at any minute.  True friends and a sustaining faith will be there for you even when you are unemployed and sick.

LINKS

America: Divided In the Pursuit Of Happiness by Carol Graham for the Brookings Institution.

Inequality and Web Search Trends by David Leonhardt for the New York Times.  This is the source of the graphic.

The happiest cities in the USA are in Louisiana

November 9, 2014

happiest cities list

happiest cities

I like lists and maps like these, although I take them as informed guesses rather than certain facts.  I know that people sometimes say they’re satisfied with their lives when they’re not, and vice versa, and I’d be interested to know what adjustments were made for income and demographics.

Still, the list and map are interesting.  Louisiana is a state with above-average poverty, violent crime and corruption, yet a survey finds that the five happiest cities in the USA are in that state.  Among the top 10 happy cities, six are in Louisiana, three are in other Southern states and only one is an affluent Northern city.

I don’t find this implausible.  I think Southerners on average, both white and black, have stronger family ties, a greater capacity for enjoying the simple things of life and an ability not to sweat the small stuff.

It’s interesting that New York City is the unhappiest city in the USA.   New York City has the greatest concentration of wealth of any U.S. city, but also a great gap between rich and poor.  I’d guess that New York City has one of the greatest concentrations of unsuccessful ambitious people among U.S. cities, and this certainly makes for unhappiness.

The other nine of the 10 unhappiest cities are declining industrial cities in the Midwest or Middle Atlantic.  Having good things and losing them generally makes people more unhappy than if they never had the good things in the first place.  However, the authors of the study say these places seem to have been unhappy before they went into decline.

My home city of Rochester, N.Y., is among the moderately unhappy cities, according to this map.  I learn from the interactive version in the Washington Post that we rank 248th in happiness among 318 cities studied.  I myself am highly satisfied with my life and so, for the most part, are my friends.

But then the majority of my friends are college-educated white people like me.  The Rochester area has a wide disparity between rich and poor, so my experience may not be representative.

One thing about Rochester is that it is cloudy.  We have many overcast days and a lot of rain and snow.  This is said to cause something called “seasonal affective disorder”.  I notice that most of the happy blue cities are in the sunny South or Southwest or the scenic Rockies.

The San Francisco and Silicon Valley areas have great concentrations of unhappiness, yet people want to move there.  Money isn’t everything, but maybe happiness isn’t everything either.

LINK

The appeal of unhappy cities by Emily Badger and Christopher Ingraham of the Washington Post.


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