Archive for the ‘Society’ Category

Subjects of the American empire

June 9, 2015

Hat tip to Jack C

We Americans don’t usually think of ourselves as rulers of an overseas empire, but the people of Guam, American Samoa, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and other island territories might disagree.

A three-judge panel for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia has ruled that people born on American island territories do not enjoy birthright citizenship rights under the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution.

However, Mother Jones reported there is a good chance this decision will be reversed on appeal.  I find it troublesome that lawyers for the Obama administration argued against birthright citizenship.   Just because the people of Samoa or Guam are not potential Democratic voters in federal elections doesn’t mean they don’t have rights.

LINK

A Federal Appeals Court Just Denied Birthright Citizenship to American Samoans Using Racist Case Law by Pema Levy for Mother Jones.

Pro-science religion and anti-science religion

May 27, 2015

evo_env-relig3_0

What this chart indicates is that the big religious split in the United States is not between Protestants and Catholics, or among Christians, Jews and Muslims, but between pro-science religion and anti-science religion.

This chart is based on a 2007 survey by Pew Research.  It will be interesting to see if the 2014 survey is significantly different.

LINKS

Evolution, Science and Religion by Josh Rosenau for the Science League of America.

Our new pro-science pontiff: Pope Francis on climate change, evolution and the Big Bang by Chris Mooney for the Washington Post.

World on track for zero population growth

May 15, 2015

image-279209-galleryV9-ivqb

asianbirthrate20140110_asc002_l

Much of the world is on track for zero population growth.  Birth rates in many countries are at the replacement rate of 2.1 children per average couple, or lower.

brazila01gra1The change, in my opinion, has come about because (1) knowledge and availability of birth control are widely available, (2) women are emancipated and have control over their bodies and (3) people are raised far enough out of absolute poverty that they think it is better to have a small number of prosperous, well-educated children than to have many children.

I think that, in the long run, Muslims and Hindus will be as willing to practice contraception as Catholics have proved to be.

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Americans of German ancestry outnumber others

May 13, 2015

49840035-germans-live-mostly-in-the-midwest

I came across an article the other day that pointed out there are more Americans who report they are of German ancestry (like myself) than of any other.

A report from Business Insider said that 49.8 million Americans who claim German ancestry, versus 35.7 million Irish, 31.7 million Mexicans, 27.4 million English, and 17.5 million Italians, to name the largest groups.

There are 19.1 plain “Americans” who don’t report foreign ancestry, either as a political statement or because they don’t know it.  And there are 5.2 million American Indians and Alaska natives, who of course comprise many nations.

Why don’t we hear more about German-Americans?  The reason is that nationality is not a question of ancestry and blood, but of upbringing and, in the USA at least, choice.

I think that very few Americans of German ancestry think of themselves as German-Americans.  Certainly General Eisenhower and Admiral Nimitz didn’t.  Certainly I don’t.

It is interesting to know that some of my ancestors came to Pennsylvania and Maryland from Germany in the 18th century, and that an ancestor, Johann Ebersole, fought in the Continental Army under George Washington.  But if I learned tomorrow that none of these things is true, it would not change my sense of who I am.

In fact, I grew up with a certain amount of prejudice against Germans.  I used to think of Germans as authoritarian, hierarchical and rule-bound, and a perfect contrast to us freedom-loving, democratic and practical Americans.

Since then I’ve come to see us Americans take on all the qualities that I saw as defects in the German national character.  And, although I don’t have a close knowledge of Germany, my impression is that Germany is more egalitarian and more respectful of basic civil liberties than the USA.

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Why I am not a population bomber

May 11, 2015

In 1968 I read a book entitled The Population Bomb by Paul Ehrlich which began as follows:

The_Population_BombThe battle to feed all of humanity is over.  In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate…

via Wikipedia.

Ehrlich argued that the world’s fundamental problem was that there were too many people in the world, and that the only solution was by means of birth control if possible, but not by relief of poverty or increase of food supply.

At the time he wrote, there were 3.5 billion people in the world.  Now there are 7.2 billion, but there is less hunger and starvation in the world than there is today.

Nowadays Ehrlich admits he exaggerated for dramatic effect, but he says it was for a good purpose, which was to alert people to the danger of overpopulation.

I don’t agree it served a good purpose.  I think Ehrlich put obstacles in the way of people such as Norman Borlaug who sought to increase food production and relieve famine.  What good was it, people asked, if it results in more people being born who eventually would starve to death anyway?

Mathusianism has long been used as an excuse to let people starve.  The British government used this excuse for failing to relieve famine in Ireland in the 1840s and in India in the 1940s.   It is still used as an excuse for failing to relieve famine in Africa.

The great economist, Amartya Sen, has pointed out that there never has been a famine in a democracy, because in a democracy, public opinion will not permit allowing a large percentage of the population to starve.

In modern times, the problem has never been that there was not enough food to go around, he wrote.  The problem was people who were too poor to buy the food that was available.

Yet Ehrlich’s ideas still have wider circulation than Sen’s, at least among people I hang out with.  I still hear people say, when we’re talking about some social problem, that the basic underlying problem is that there are too many people in the world.

And sometimes this is followed—and this makes my blood run cold—by the remark, “We’ve got to thin the herd.”

The best thing I can say for people who talk like this is that they don’t realize the genocidal implications of what they’re saying.

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Police killings and no-account black people

May 8, 2015

Conservatives such as David Brooks claim that the real problem of poor black people in cities such as Baltimore is not poverty, unemployment or police abuse, but bad moral character.

Freddie Gray

Freddie Gray

It is too bad that Freddie Gray died in custody of Baltimore police, but he would have been a loser no matter what, Brooks argued in a recent New York Times column.

Now it is true that there are Americans who are so completely demoralized that they couldn’t thrive even in a high-wage, full-employment economy.  I don’t know how many such people there are.  The way to find out is to create a high-wage, full-employment economy and see what happens.

My concern is with the obstacles faced by poor people who are doing everything humanly possible to get out of poverty.

I’m thinking of people who work full-time at minimum wage, some at multiple jobs, and still are in poverty.  I’m thinking of working people who don’t get paid sick days, can’t afford child care and have no transportation to work.

Not all are black and not all are in big cities, although black people in poor city neighborhoods are targets of abuse by virtue of living where they do.

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A graph showing what went wrong with the U.S.

April 30, 2015
imrs

Double click to enlarge.

This chart shows the average annual income, year by year, of the bottom 90 percent of income earners (top to bottom scale) and upper 1 percent of income earners (left to right scale).

Unless you have a good reason for believing that American working people became less productive after 1973 or so, and the economic elite suddenly became more valuable, there is something very wrong with the U.S. economy.

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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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