Archive for October, 2012

Freedom and Free Will

October 28, 2012

I recently had an article in The Humanist magazine, entitled “Is Freedom a Mistaken Idea?” Click here to read the whole thing; below is a condensed version (but with jazzier illustrations):

Freedom means doing what you want. But is that really important? Or even meaningful?

Some might say that individuals doing what they want isn’t even good; that we exist chiefly as social creatures, and the group comes first. Such ideas characterize some Eastern cultures, notably Japan’s; in stronger form this is the essence of ideologies like fascism and communism, where individuals exist to serve the collective.

But we don’t really want a society like a beehive full of drones. Indeed, when individuals are motivated to advance their own proclivities, you actually get a society better for everyone in it. Further, it’s when we have a strong sense of ourselves as individuals, rather than as cogs in a societal machine, that we can truly respect the individual worth of others. While people do have naturally groupish and even hivelike instincts, they’re best served when free to choose for themselves how to express those instincts.

Yet a deeper question is whether we can truly be free, in any genuine sense. Arthur Schopenhauer said you can do what you want, but cannot will what you want. That is, you can fulfill desires and wishes, but can’t choose what desires and wishes to have.

This is the ancient problem of free will. A recent Humanist article suggests that punishing Anders Breivik for mass murder may be as immoral as his crimes themselves, because the shootings were caused by brain events over which “Breivik” had no control. I put “Breivik” in quotes because, on this analysis, the person virtually disappears. Does this make sense?

We start with the premise that everything has causes. If you choose chocolate over vanilla, that’s caused by a pattern of interactions among neurons in your brain—a product of your whole life history. Your choice is thus actually predetermined. Ponder this deeply enough, and the “you” that “chooses” does disappear, like a computer program that does what it does because it’s programmed to.

Moreover, science has shown (as discussed in books like Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness and Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational) that not only don’t we choose our wants and desires, but often we don’t even know what they are. We can misjudge what we think we want; and how fulfillment will actually affect us. (As George Bernard Shaw said, there are two big disappointments in life: not getting what you want, and getting it.) This leads some to consider the assumption of “rational choice,” supposedly underlying free market economics, a myth.

But let’s go back to the most fundamental question: What matters? Why does it matter? And to whom?

The only possible answer is sentient beings, capable of feeling. Without someone or something feeling, and being aware of it, nothing can be said to matter. Thus such feelings—principally, of course, human feelings—are themselves the only things that ultimately matter. And the only ultimate good versus bad is good versus bad feelings.

This idea is easily mocked. There is a suspicion that humans aren’t important or worthy, and fixating on our feelings is narcissistic and trivial. And you can loftily argue that something can be good or bad in some objective sense, irrespective of human feelings. But what is the point of considering something “good” if it doesn’t somehow contribute to sentient beings feeling good? Remove that from the picture, and what is there to care about?

I will not purport here to fully resolve the problem of free will. True enough, thinking and decision making are deterministically governed. However, what’s unique about humans is that we think about our thinking. This gives us an override capability—exerting what might legitimately be termed “will.” (Legal scholar Jeffrey Rosen has called this “free won’t.”) Sigmund Freud too, who considered us creatures of unconsciously rooted primal urges, nevertheless recognized in Civilization and Its Discontents that most of us suppress these impulses. And surely long-time smokers exhibit a particularly powerful form of determinism—physical addiction on top of the psychological and behavioral aspects—yet they can quit. Some functionality in the mind is making a choice that is real—and free—in every practical sense. Thus, people live their lives feeling they have that kind of free will, and behave accordingly.

So returning to Breivik, his brain did produce violent impulses he couldn’t control. But, as psychologist Thomas Szasz has argued, so do all our brains; yet to act upon those impulses crosses a behavioral line that almost everyone is able to control. Hence it’s not immoral to punish the behavior. It is no mere illusion to feel we have that kind of free will.

And again, the only thing that can ultimately matter is feeling. The fact remains that actual human beings experience actual feelings that are more positive the more they perceive themselves able to advance their desires. Further, notwithstanding all the ways in which we misjudge our desires and their likely results, surely there is a greater probability of being happy with outcomes produced by acting on your own desires than when what you get is merely random or chosen by others.

This is true even if those desires arise deterministically, and even if people pursue them with imperfect rationality. That’s still better than not choosing at all. In fact, despite all the imperfections, we nevertheless act, in our day-to-day continuous decision making, with a very high degree of rationality. The overwhelming majority of your choices are more or less reasonably calculated to enhance the quality of your life, in fact with long-range forethought to increase pleasure and avoid pain. And you are by no means clueless about what pleases or pains you. You know exactly how dark you like your toast. Thus the idea that “rational choice is a myth” is simply wrong.

Inequality, and a True Progressivism

October 23, 2012

I have discussed inequality before, but apparently haven’t succeeded in ending debate. The Economist (10/13) has published an analysis by its economics editor, Zanny Minton Beddoes, which I recommend highly. (Click here; and here for a related editorial). Beddoes addresses inequality in depth and concludes by calling for a true progressivism – not mindless capitalism-bashing (nor government-bashing) but a program for reforming government’s role to better spread capitalism’s benefits.*

I have argued that fixating on inequality per se is misguided (and reflects, frankly, a big dollop of envy). What counts most is your absolute quality of life, not how it compares to others’. The problem of the poor is not plutocrats. Wealth is earned not at the expense of the poor but, by and large, by profiting from contributions toward the betterment of all. And the poor can be raised up – by boosting their ability to so contribute – without dragging down the rich.

A lot of inequality is merely the difference between mature people in the prime of their working lives, with accumulated assets, and young whippersnappers just starting out. Yet classic rich-versus-poor inequality of course exists too. It’s mitigated if the poor have reasonable opportunities to rise – the American ideal. But such social mobility isn’t what it once was. We’ll return to this.

Beddoes elucidates that while inequality is indeed growing in many countries (ours included), worldwide it is falling. That’s not contradictory. Global inequality is indisputably falling simply because less developed (and poorer) nations (mainly China and India) have much higher economic growth than advanced nations. Within those fast growing countries, the rich outrace the poor, increasing intra-country inequality, yet still those poor are outracing rich country populations.

Less affluent Americans are falling behind, in part, because some wealth is now being redirected from them to poorer people in Asia. Bad for us; good for them (at least equally deserving human beings). Thus, again, rising local inequality actually translates into falling global inequality.

Some Americans are losing out because they are becoming less competitive not only in what is more and more a global labor market, but even within America, where economic rewards increasingly go to the more skilled and educated.** Wealth is unequal not chiefly because the rich are hogs, or the game is rigged, but primarily because educational attainment is unequal, and its importance is growing. Once, anyone could earn good pay in factories without a college degree; but that’s sooo twentieth-century, an inexorably shrinking part of the economic landscape. (The President’s “manufacturing” obsession as a jobs panacea is retrograde.)

Drop out of high school, or even college, and you’re likely to have a low-wage job, or none, with your situation often aggravated by lack of marriage, and single-parent children, who grow up to repeat the syndrome. Whereas better educated people are likely to have better jobs, marriages with equally educated partners, and two-parent children who go on to repeat that model.

This is the nub of America’s inequality and declining social mobility.

Government isn’t helping. Our first battleground is in the schools, where entrenched teacher unions fight real reform of a system disgracefully disserving the disadvantaged, trapping them in their plight. And as for wealth redistribution, Beddoes highlights that it’s largely from the affluent to the affluent, especially the affluent elderly (through programs like Medicare, Social Security, and a host of tax preferences like the mortgage deduction). Such welfare for the rich dwarfs any redistribution to the needy.

And government’s interventions in the economy aren’t helping either. I recently listened to anti-capitalist crusader Arundhati Roy rail against a litany of alleged evils of free market economics in India. I kept thinking: she’s missing it completely. Nothing she denounced is actually free market economics; to the contrary, it’s non-free market economics, it’s India’s culture of cronyism, corruption, and over-regulation that stifles competition and economic opportunity; it’s government perverting the free market. So fixated was Roy on demonizing “capitalism” that she couldn’t see this Indian elephant in the room.

This is a key element in the “true progressivism” Beddoes argues for. She says governments can narrow inequality without large-scale redistribution or an engorged state. Beddoes invokes Teddy Roosevelt’s trust-busting – instead of helping favored businesses, which often means hobbling their competitors, government should be removing barriers to competition (many of them erected by government itself). That expands economic opportunity and the size of the pie for everyone. While such an assault on cronyism and corruption is particularly vital for countries like India and China (where the state itself is directly in business), Beddoes says rich nations “also need more competition in traditionally mollycoddled sectors such as education.”

Health care too, in America. And (sorry, Lefties) we are increasingly over-regulated. Reviewing the regulatory picture, the same Economist issue quips that “If banks once did banking, now they practice law.” Fine for the biggest ones (maybe), but ruinously costly for all other businesses, again undermining competition, economic dynamism, and equality of opportunity. (A friend yesterday alerted me to a 1992 Wall Street Journal op-ed by a hotel owner telling how government regulation contributed to destroying his business. The author: George McGovern!)

Beddoes’s second point is to recognize that the gigantic edifice of state social spending has gotten grossly out of whack, directing the lion’s share of subsidies to the affluent and elderly, rather than toward investing in the young and the disadvantaged, to boost their contributions to future economic progress. Not to mention that out-of-control entitlement spending threatens to wreck our economy altogether.

Beddoes’s third priority is to reform taxes, to improve efficiency and fairness. While the rich do already pay a disproportionately high share of income taxes, our crazy-quilt of loopholes and special interest giveaways is loaded with unfairness and distortions of economic activity that seriously harm the nation’s welfare. Just the sheer cost in man-hours of coping with tax complexity is a huge economic liability.

All these policies would help reduce inequality and broaden economic opportunity; but of course they are good not just for the disadvantaged, but for society as a whole.

Beddoes concludes by noting that some rising countries are progressing on parts of this agenda (one reason why they are rising); but not the richer nations, and “the most shocking shortcomings are in America, the rich country where income gaps are biggest and have increased fastest.”

America’s to-do list should also include fixing immigration, particularly our suicidal near lock-out of the world’s best-and-brightest. This exemplifies today’s American Disease: people’s narrow idea of self-interest short-sightedly undermining their true long-term good. The same applies to all the government subsidies everyone stubbornly clings to, which will ultimately sink our whole ship.

I remain a great optimist about the future for humanity as a whole. But while America is still blessed with a vast reservoir of human creative energy, God has not somehow decreed that we will maintain our privileged status even while refusing to adapt to a changing world. I’m not optimistic about America biting Beddoes’s bullets.

It surely will never happen in a second Obama term. With Romney, and a fresh shuffle of the political cards, maybe there’s at least a chance.

* The blogosphere’s Lefties have mounted the predictable shrill attacks on The Economist for daring to call its prescriptions “progressive.”

** Broadened educational opportunity was probably the key reason why American inequality fell significantly in the last century.

Proof that Heaven is Real?

October 19, 2012

Long atop the NY Times nonfiction best-seller list has been Todd Burpo’s Heaven Is For Real. Burpo is an evangelical pastor whose book tells of his four-year-old son emerging from unconsciousness during surgery with a tale of visiting Heaven, meeting deceased relatives, and seeing angels, Jesus and God, etc. (This is “nonfiction”?!)

Now Newsweek — yes, Newsweek! — similarly headlines “Heaven Is Real,” with no question mark, and the subtitle, “A Doctor’s Experience of the Afterlife.” Dr. Eben Alexander is a neurosurgeon, who spent a week in a coma, during which he says he too visited Heaven. He saw “transparent, shimmering beings arced across the sky,” trailing streamers, with whom he communicated by a method transcending language. They told him, “You are loved and cherished, you have nothing to fear,” and suchlike treacle. Then he traveled to an infinite dark void, infinitely comforting, which he believes is the home of God. All this he labels a glimpse of a “reality” which left him a different person. (This is “news”?!)

Of course, religious faith means belief regardless of evidence, yet believers eat up any seeming scrap of supportive “evidence,” especially for that all-important fantasy of life after death. And, like Burpo’s publisher, Newsweek shamelessly panders to that, to boost sales.  

As my wife put it, these people had near-death, not post-death experiences. It was not an “afterlife.” Reports from many who survived similar episodes are pretty consistent about how the brain hallucinates in a particular way when deprived of oxygen and in the throes of what it construes as demise. Often there is some sort of tunnel, and bright light.

We know how the mind can play tricks even during normal consciousness. It’s hardly news that it happens when the brain is undergoing the extreme trauma of the death process. There must be something in the brain’s wiring that, in such circumstances, defaults to hallucinations of the general type so often reported. And of course prior religious belief might cause one to fill in details consonant with that religion.

Thus, in the Burpo case, even if you charitably accept it’s really the kid’s story (unembellished by Dad), with a father like that he’d have been powerfully pre-programmed to imagine just what he imagined. Dr. Alexander says that before his coma, he was a Christian, but not “deeply religious.” Whatever – but it’s neither coincidental nor surprising that his dream or hallucination conformed generally to notions pumped into his brain all his life in church. What would be surprising is if he came back with, for example, a Hindu-like story.

If he wants to believe, like the four-year-old, that his Heavenly tour was reality and not a mere dream or coma-induced hallucination, fine, but the only thing it proves is that even a self-described “man of science” can be deluded. This is no indictment of science. The population of scientists is very large, they are human, and inevitably a few eccentric beliefs will occur. But grown-ups should not treat silly stories like Burpo’s and Alexander’s as though they merit serious attention, let alone Newsweek covers. We all experience wacky dreams, but most of us have the sense not to confuse them with reality.

POSTSCRIPT: I’ve just learned that Newsweek’s print edition will cease publication, going to web-only. They insist this is not the magazine’s demise. Apparently Newsweek really does believe in an afterlife!

Aung San Suu Kyi: “Freedom From Fear”

October 15, 2012

I picked up this book of hers at a used book sale from a sense of duty. Of course I knew her story and expected, well, yada yada yada. Eventually I made myself actually read it. And I was deeply moved and impressed.

Aung San Suu Kyi & father

Her father Aung San was Burma’s independence leader, assassinated at 32, in 1947, just before independence came. He was apotheosized as the national hero.* Born in 1945, Suu lived the life of an ivory-tower scholar, mostly abroad; married a Brit; and had two sons.

In 1988 she returned to Burma to tend her dying mother. That same year saw massive unrest against the military dictatorship that had seized power in 1962. Thousands were massacred. Suu could not stand by, and soon she was leader of the National League for Democracy – and under house arrest. So she remained for most of the next quarter century. Suu could not be present to collect her Nobel Peace Prize; nor for her husband’s illness and death. (She would have been allowed to leave – but not to return.)

Meantime, in 1990, the regime held an election. They apparently expected an inconclusive and hence non-consequential result. (Such regimes typically seem delusional about popular opinion.) But Suu’s NLD won overwhelmingly. So the military just ignored the election (and arrested many of those elected).

The book, Freedom From Fear, published in 1995, is a sampling of Suu’s essays and speeches, with some material by others. The title’s import is obvious. While Suu has never been put in a dungeon, beaten, or tortured (as so many followers were), the physical danger has always been real. At one point she was actually about to be shot by soldiers. She faced them coolly until the order was countermanded.

At the Edmund Pettus Bridge, 1965

But courage is not an absence of fear. Only a fool would be fearless confronting violence. Courage, rather, is acting in spite of the fear. That is what the Burmese regime’s opponents have done. It is what the marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965 did. It is what the Syrian people, in their thousands, are doing now.

But Suu is not merely courageous (and steadfast, eloquent, principled, and all that (not to mention beautiful)) but also (as this book shows) a deep political thinker, benefiting from all her years of study. In her very first 1988 public speech she set forth the precepts that would guide her and her movement ever after: personal commitment, discipline, unity, non-violence, multi-party democracy, basic human rights, and reconciliation. And in discussing freedom from fear, she isn’t talking just about regime opponents, but about the regime itself: “It is not power that corrupts, but fear.” In this case, fear of what might happen to them if they don’t hold on. It’s like riding a tiger. This too we see in Syria.

Suu has no time for the argument that economic development must precede democratization, understanding (along with Amartya Sen) how tyranny actually cripples economic progress. We see this debate again today focusing on China, supposedly showing authoritarianism good for economic growth. Yet (as I’ve written) China’s growth has been concentrated in the part of its economy totally unregulated by government. Freedom is the best economic stimulant. And anyway, as to Burma, the junta’s rule has been an economic catastrophe, certainly disproving that such repression somehow has its benefits.

Suu furthermore dissects the “Asian Values” trope (so prominent particularly in the ‘90s, but far from dead), holding that “Western” ideas of democracy and human rights are alien and inappropriate to Eastern societies, which are grounded in differing traditional cultural value systems. Suu correctly sees right through this as nothing but another shabby pretext for authoritarian elites to justify their oppressions.

In this context she also addresses the notion that America’s example actually reflects badly on democracy, since it engenders a raft of social pathologies that no “uninfected” society should want to emulate. (We hear this today from Muslim critics.) Having lived in America, Suu acknowledges its imperfections. But her vision is broad enough to understand what is so good about America and its democratic underpinnings. So, after recapping the usual indictment of American society, here is her beautifully expressed conclusion:

“No political or social system is perfect. But could such a powerful and politically diverse nation as the United States have been
prevented from disintegrating if it had not been sustained by democratic institutions guaranteed by a constitution based on the
assumption that man’s capacity for reason and justice makes free government possible and that his capacity for passion and
injustice makes it necessary?”

As I have written before, a new Burmese president, Thein Sein, seems at last to be leading the nation toward the democratic vision for which Aung San Suu Kyi has struggled for almost a quarter century. Now she has moved from house arrest into parliament. One may dare to hope that in due time she will take her proper place at the head of the nation.

Burma is only a small country. But one step at a time, one person at a time, one country at a time, the world gets better.

* Asia has had legions of dead bigwigs’ daughters in political roles. Their record is mostly dismal. Aung San Suu Kyi is an exception that proves the rule.

“Public” Broadcasting and Partisan WAMC Radio

October 11, 2012

We’re great fans of PBS TV, and maintain membership through monthly contributions. But while at one time, PBS programming was unique, the TV landscape has totally changed, and today most viewers have hundreds of choices. PBS is no longer even noncommercial, with ads little different from those elsewhere. So I agree with Mitt Romney that taxpayers should not continue subsidizing this; since PBS caters to more upscale viewers, it’s one more example of welfare for the rich.

Some accuse PBS of left-wing bias, and though that’s certainly true of Bill Moyers shows, in general the network does strive to be neutral and fair. Among news discussion programs, The McLaughlin Group always balances the political viewpoints of its participants, and those on Washington Week never let slip such personal leanings.

Similar things can be said of National Public Radio. But not the local NPR affiliate, WAMC. I listen all the time, and it has some great stuff (the book guy, Joe Donahue, is terrific). However, while its boss and ubiquitous on-air presence, Dr. Alan Chartock (quoted on Wikipedia) insists that it maintains editorial neutrality and includes as many conservative commentators as liberal ones, that is laughably disingenuous. I myself was once, 30 years ago, a “conservative” WAMC commentator (I was dropped; perhaps I wasn’t very good). Since then, the station’s left-wing slant has become much more blatant. It gives a few minutes weekly to one token conservative opinionist (Herb London); all the rest are on the left. The Alternative Radio show has hour-long hard left rants. Chartock himself, who hogs a lot of air time as WAMC’s “political commentator” and chief interviewer, while also emceeing frequent call-in shows as well as thrice annual week-long fund drives, does not even try to soft-peddle his cheer-leading for Democrats and “progressives” and their pet causes like anti-fracking. He openly declares he backs Obama and relentlessly smears Republicans. During the recent fund drive, he made clear that he was asking “progressives” (and, really, only them) to support “their” station. “Just because you’re progressive,” Chartock said, “doesn’t mean you don’t have money!” (He should know, with his $200,000 salary.) And  after the presidential debate, the fund drive patter was pointedly all Big Bird.

By Marquil, Hill Country Observer

Not surprisingly, WAMC has indeed cultivated an overwhelmingly left-leaning and devoted fan base. Its political call-in shows are almost completely one-sided. When there is a rare dissonant voice, Chartock claims to welcome that; however, while he fawns over callers who agree with him, he is generally curt and dismissive toward those who don’t. I have experienced this myself more than once; no wonder he gets few such calls. (Is Chartock as bad as Hannity, et al? No. But bad enough.)

Wikipedia’s WAMC article notes that NPR’s official policy for affiliate stations is to be “fair, unbiased, accurate, honest, and respectful of the people that are covered.” WAMC conspicuously violates this policy. Wikipedia quotes a Washington-based NPR news producer who happened to tune in to WAMC while on a New York trip, who said that Chartock’s in-your-face political bias made his jaw drop to the floor and “really freaked me out.” He was disturbed that Chartock’s “crazy” behavior undermines NPR’s effort to maintain public confidence in its fairness.

WAMC may be violating not only NPR policy but also, arguably, the law. It is a charitable 501(c)(3) organization, receiving tax-deductible donations. Partisan politics are off-limits to such entities. This has been a big issue for churches, when candidates are endorsed from pulpits. Why shouldn’t the same strictures apply to Chartock’s overt on-air partisanship?

I’m a free speech absolutist, and if Chartock wants to run a “progressive” radio station, that’s fine. But don’t try to tell us it is neutral and unbiased. Don’t cloak it as a “public” radio station. And don’t ask taxpayers to fund it.

Dr. Alan Chartock

But he does, and we do, and not only via the tax-deductibility of contributions.* Some years back, Chartock tried to drum up donations by claiming a supposed Republican conspiracy to silence WAMC by cutting its state funding.** (Why would they, if the station wasn’t biased?) But since then, the conspiracy of silence seems to be about WAMC’s public funding itself. The station’s budget is not made public – perhaps odd for an organization soliciting donations. And for all the declamations of solidarity with Big Bird in the fund drive, I didn’t hear a word about WAMC itself receiving public funding as well.***

After some internet sleuthing, I was able to confirm that WAMC does receive money from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which gets $400 million annually from the federal government. The station also gets money from the New York State Office of Educational Television and Public Broadcasting, whose website says the details of such funding can be found on the websites of each recipient broadcaster; but for WAMC, such is not the case. So I still don’t know the amounts. I guess transparency and honesty are not “progressive” values.****

Taxpayer support for a radio station with such an openly partisan political stance is simply wrong. Especially if only one side of the political debate is being thusly funded. Do any right-wing broadcasters receive public money like WAMC? I don’t think so.

WAMC and Big Bird ain’t birds of a feather; Big Bird’s feathers are not colored “progressive.”

* When a donation is tax deductible, effectively the Treasury pays for part of it. Political contributions are not tax-deductible.

** An oft-heard Chartockism is, “I don’t want to engage in conspiracy theories, but … “ Another favorite tactic to scare up donations is threatening to drop the most popular programs like Car Talk and, recently, Alternative Radio. “I’ll yank it right off the air,” Chartock said, “and don’t think I won’t.” I do think he won’t.

*** Also curiously never heard from is WAMC’s Board of Trustees which, strangely for a “progressive” outfit, is not elected by the membership. While WAMC’s website lists the trustees, there is no clue about how they’re selected. Nor any contact information.

**** The fund drives always feature “challenges” where some donor says he’ll give $X if they can raise a certain amount by a certain deadline. As the deadline nears, they always seem far short. Yet somehow they always claim to make it. Fishy? [Added 10/15: this footnote, upon more considered reflection, is snarky,  and I would delete it if I didn't feel doing so would be dishonest.]

The Marshmallow Test

October 6, 2012

You’re four years old. You’re given a marshmallow and told you can eat it now, but if you wait fifteen minutes, you’ll get a second one. Some kids use various stratagems to resist temptation and win the reward, such as singing to themselves, playing foot games, or even hiding their eyes. Others just can’t wait, and gobble up the marshmallow straight away.

This experiment was started in the 1960s by psychologist Walter Mischel. The kids were tracked through high school graduation. And the two groups differed dramatically. Those who were able to wait, to gain a double treat, were far more on track for success in life.

This was a test of impulsiveness versus restraint, desire versus self-control, and the concept of delayed gratification. Those passing the test grew to be more socially competent, personally effective, self-motivated, and able to cope with life’s ups and downs; more confident, trustworthy and dependable; and far better academic performers. But kids who, at four, couldn’t resist temptation were worse off in all these aspects – on track toward lives of frustration, failure, and social dysfunction.

In fact, the marshmallow test turns out to be a better predictor for such basic life success than any other measure (such as IQ).

Another simple test can be done even earlier, used by the eminent pediatrician T. Berry Brazelton. He shows an eight-month old baby two blocks and how they should be put together. Some do it confidently and bright-eyed, expecting praise. Others with a wan, defeatist attitiude. Even so early, the differing personality styles say volumes about how children have already been socialized – and, like the marshmallow test, strongly predict their future life trajectories.

This is discussed in Daniel Goleman’s 1995 book, Emotional Intelligence. He was much influenced by what he saw as a host of worsening social pathologies, including crime and violence – which actually were just then on the cusp of a dramatic turnaround. Nevertheless, it’s still a highly important book. That marshmallow test keeps coming up everywhere I turn.

Goleman’s book is grounded upon Howard Gardner’s model of “multiple intelligences.” Gardner’s insight was that standard measures of intelligence (or “cognitive ability”) such as IQ tests actually gauge only a narrow part of the spectrum of relevant capabilities: managing emotions, self-motivation, empathy, interpersonal effectiveness, handling conflicts and setbacks, etc. It’s plausibly estimated that conventional IQ contributes only around 20% to success in life, the rest hinging on these other capabilities. Thus it’s quite common for high IQ people to mess up their lives, while “dummies” thrive. (Ronald Reagan was not the brightest bulb intellectually, but had other competences that enabled him to succeed and achieve greatly.)

These other capabilities Goleman calls “emotional intelligence,” and the marshmallow test is an excellent indicator for them. Passing that test unpacks into a whole array of positive personality characteristics. The implications are huge.

Now, genetics does play some role in personality development; but it’s actually very limited. So complex is the brain that genes can only prescribe a general guide for wiring up all its interconnections, and the details result from environmental influences. That mainly means parents and their parenting styles. Brazelton believes that the personality dichotomy revealed by his block test is largely down to how parents have interacted with their babies.

I have repeatedly stressed education’s importance for our future prosperity. Conventional subjects like reading, math, science, and social studies are certainly important here. But Goleman’s book shows us that “emotional intelligence” is more important. Traditional academic proficiency will avail a person little if his life is a mess from emotional incompetence. He may not be employable if he can’t work with people. And the book further makes clear that without emotional intelligence, teaching the “3 R’s” is bound to fail anyway. Students with poor emotional intelligence tend to do poorly in school; practically all high school drop-outs probably fail for that reason rather than “dumbness.”

Thus, emphasis on “3 R” education and testing puts the cart before the horse. The most important test for kids is the marshmallow test. Fail that one, and other educational efforts are doomed to futility.

Now, you might say that emotional intelligence should be taught in the home. Sure – ideally. But have you looked at some homes? A single teenaged drop-out mother, living a frazzled chaotic life, is unlikely to inculcate her children with good emotional intelligence. She probably lacks it herself, which is why she is a single teenaged drop-out mother. Thus, even if it’s not in genes, this kind of dysfunction does get passed from one generation to another. And it’s not limited to a particular social class. Upscale parents likewise may be no great shakes at emotional intelligence.

Similar points are made in a more recent book, Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character. Yes, he too invokes the marshmallow test. Character, Tough posits, is created by encountering and overcoming adversity. The overcoming part is hard for disadavantaged children; but for affluent ones, it’s the encountering part they miss, when parents are so often overprotective. Hence failure to develop important positive character traits is a big society-wide problem.

But it’s not insoluble. People can be educated to be better parents, as in programs like the Harlem Children’s Zone’s “Baby College.” And while as the marshmallow and Brazelton tests show, children from emotionally dysfunctional families are handicapped from the start, the damage can actually be ameliorated in the schools if the problem is understood and the effort is made. Goleman described a number of initiatives showing some success, entailing either special classes teaching kids emotional competence per se, or else systematically incorporating such lessons into the teaching of more conventional subjects, especially reading.

One thing neuroscience has certainly revealed is the human mind’s plasticity. Habits of thought and behavior and even emotive response can be modified through learning. Students getting these lessons can overcome the handicaps revealed by the marshmallow and Brazelton tests, and go on to do better in school and cope better with life’s challenges. And, of course, they will also go on to be more emotionally intelligent parents to their own future children, helping to break the cycle of dysfunction handed down from generation to generation.

All this does require serious rethinking of our whole approach to education, and meets much resistance from teachers, many of whom may not themselves be paragons of emotional competence, and who anyway say they are already overburdened with all the other curriculum elements. However, again – for too many kids, trying to teach them all that other stuff is a waste of time if they aren’t first taught emotional intelligence.

And, once more, this is crucial for being a successful nation full of successful people. We want to be a nation of people who can pass the marshmallow test. We want to be a nation that gets that second marshmallow.

And the Winner is …

October 4, 2012

One might be perplexed that given all the ways the President’s campaign has painted Romney as a bogeyman, Mr. Obama didn’t do much of that in the debate. Of course he didn’t have to, with his nasty ads flooding swing state airwaves; why sound nasty personally? And yet, by leaving all that stuff out of the debate, Obama may convey that it’s just garbage voters should ignore. Which it is. And what can you say of a candidate willing to fling lots of mud — except when the target is standing right there.

For example, the President’s only mention of “shipping jobs overseas” referred to a supposed tax break, which Romney quite effectively refuted. But not a word calling Romney himself an “outsourcing pioneer,” which might have been uncomfortable for the challenger, if only because it takes more than one simple sentence to answer. I’m almost sorry Romney wasn’t thusly forced to defend economic reality.

 The one attack the President did insist on pursuing, repeatedly, was the “$5 trillion tax cut” canard. Democrats seem so in love with the “tax cuts for the rich” accusation that they just can’t let go of it, even though Romney did have a simple one sentence answer: I’m not proposing that. (He isn’t.) Not only might that good clear answer have been foreseen, but for the President to invite it again, giving Romney further opportunities to call him, well, “inaccurate,” was to me the dumbest thing in the debate.

On that point, I was glad Romney followed the script I gave him. There was another one too: saying that wealthier people (like me) will have to see their Medicare benefits reduced. Though he didn’t stress it, and nobody seems to have picked up on it, I think that was both new and important as a first step toward the highly necessary concept of means-testing such programs. With Democrats allergic to the word “cut” regarding any entitlement spending, it’s interesting to hear the party they accuse of coddling the rich proposing to cut benefits for the rich.

Maybe this is still a horse race after all.

UPDATE 10:20 PM: The President’s been going around the country today saying the Romney in the debate wasn’t the real Romney. As if he’d hired some impersonator. And Obama still insists the real Romney does want a $5 trillion tax cut (for the rich). Oh, please. Give it up already.

How Romney can win the debate (and election)

October 2, 2012

I chuckled when Jonathan Haidt, in his recent book, said he’d been a 2004 campaign speechwriter for John Kerry – in his head, frustrated at Kerry’s failure to say what he (Haidt) thought necessary. Well, I’ve been speechwriting like that for Romney (posted here on 3/1 and 8/19). And now David Brooks, in his latest column, has given it a shot too, for Romney’s opening statement in the debate.

I’ve taken Brooks’s draft and reworked it:

Till now I’ve let myself be packaged as an ideological candidate. But, to be honest, that’s not really me. I see myself instead as a pragmatist problem-solver. So as the election nears, I’ve decided to leave aside political game-playing and get real.

My friends, America’s going broke. The next president had darn better finally make a “grand bargain” with the other party to get the budget under control. Mr. Obama has tried to (well, sort of), over the past four years, but failed. There’s no reason to think he’ll succeed in the next four.

One factor is that, while in 2008 he promised to be post-partisan, he actually shut out Republicans from Day One, making bipartisanship impossible.

Now, Republicans do share part of the blame, by refusing to consider any tax increases. And we should certainly aim to tax as little as possible. But there’s no way we can deal with our debt crisis through spending cuts alone; and no way Democrats will agree to major spending cuts unless Republicans budge on taxes. Other countries facing similar problems have successfully overcome them by raising something like $1 in new revenue for every $3 in spending cuts.

That’s a basically reasonable way forward. The only possible way. President Obama will never be able to achieve it; he’ll never get Republicans to accept it. But I can – and I will.

Make no mistake, we have to do this. We can’t keep spending a trillion a year more than we take in; and if nothing is done, it will only get worse, as the ratio of taxpaying working people to retired and benefit-receiving people inevitably shrinks. In fact, we’re able to borrow a trillion a year for now only because interest rates are at historic lows. But as our debt balloons, and repayment grows doubtful, countries like China won’t keep lending us money at such low interest rates. And when interest costs on our debt ($16 trillion and counting) jump up to more normal levels, we’ll be in deep doo-doo. We won’t be able to afford any of those benefit programs Democrats keep vowing to protect. Our government will be bankrupt and our economy destroyed.

This is the biggest problem facing America. Tackling it will take some spending cuts and tax increases none of us will like. President Obama and the Democrats are frankly incapable of dealing with it. They don’t even want to hear about it.

And by the way, the president’s proposals for higher taxes on the rich are not an answer. They’d be a drop in the bucket. I would also like to make clear that, contrary to what they tell you, I am not – repeat, not – proposing to reduce the taxes rich people pay.

But what would also help our debt problem is better economic growth, getting more Americans working. Democrats seem to think government can create jobs. They never seem to understand that most people work for businesses, so for high employment you need businesses to be successful, competitive and, yes, profitable. But according to the World Economic Forum, American competitiveness has fallen in each of the last four years.

Well, what do you expect with an administration that basically sees business as a public enemy? A Romney administration will instead aim to help businesses to be more competitive and successful, because that’s how you get more jobs – and less deficit spending.

President Obama has no plan for the next four years except to continue fighting the same fruitless battles he’s failed to win over the last four. If you think that’s a good plan for our economic future – then vote for him.

Sheldon Silver: Disgraceful Dinosaur

October 1, 2012

Non-New Yorkers may want to skip this post. Unless you enjoy reading about scandalous behavior. (But actually, who doesn’t?)

Sheldon Silver, Manhattan Democrat, has been New York Assembly Speaker since dinosaurs roamed the Earth. He is something of a political dinosaur himself. He’s always made my skin crawl, with his lugubriously sanctimonious baritone, usually mouthing platitudes of liberal orthodoxy, like support for rent control and other such economic absurdities.

My one personal encounter with Silver was on a flight from Albany to Washington. I assumed he was headed for some high-power meeting. Silly me. He was actually just traveling to New York City. Through Washington? Why do that? Why, to rack up frequent flyer miles, of course. On the taxpayer’s dime.

 So now we have Silver arranging $100,000+ payoffs to settle two separate sexual harassment complaints against Assemblyman Vito Lopez, who also happened to be the powerful Brooklyn Democratic leader. (Lopez has been characterized as a “serial groper,” and reportedly instructed female staffers not to wear bras.)

Misbehavior by NY State legislators is almost becoming “dog bites man” non-news. What is it about our legislature that makes it such a snakepit of depravity? The answer is the incumbent protection machine, so cunningly engineered as to render voters largely irrelevant. New York is the nation’s least democratic state; in many ways an unaccountable autocracy. But voters themselves are much to blame, lacking the wit to exercise their franchise effectively even when they can. State Comptroller Alan Hevesi was re-elected even while on a fast track to prison.

So legislators like Lopez can get away with a lot, politically at least, and it takes some crazy extreme behavior to be booted out of office. Like voting for gay marriage, in the case of State Senator Roy McDonald, who has lost his renomination primary. Of course, he’s a Republican, and GOP voters seem a lot less indulgent of their guys than are Dem voters.

Republicans, thanks to gerrymandering, still hang on, by their fingernails, to control of the State Senate, maintaining at least some checks-and-balances. If you think Albany’s political culture is smelly now, just wait till one party (Dems) gets unbridled control over the whole shebang.

Sheldon Silver

Anyway, back to Silver and Lopez. The payoffs were secret – until they weren’t. Silver claimed he would have loved to disclose them, except that, alas and alack, they were subject to confidentiality agreements. Except that they weren’t, according to the attorney for the two women.

These payments, mind you, came out of state government coffers. I didn’t know there was a line item in the state budget for “secret settlements of sexual harassment complaints against legislators.” Learn something every day.

If a complaint relates to an official acting in his official capacity, taxpayer-funded settlement might be justified. In a case like this, however, it is impossible to defend. No conceivable public purpose was being served. Certainly nothing along the lines of “maintaining the Assembly’s good reputation.” Indeed, the whole sordid story demeans the instititution’s reputation even more. Silver was not acting for the benefit of the institution at all but, rather, solely to protect a political crony.

Vito Lopez

Not only did Sheldon Silver authorize these stinks-to-high-heaven payments, trying to cover up misdeeds by his crony, but he tried to cover up the payments, and then tried to cover up the cover-up by lying about confidentiality.

It’s said (reference Watergate) that “the cover-up is worse than the crime.” This one is a close call.

P.S. Multiple bodies are investigating all this. Silver has, at least, admitted that his handling of the matter was sub-optimal. Both Silver and Lopez will be re-elected (though Lopez has quit as Brooklyn Dem chief.)


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