Archive for the ‘Society’ Category

Torturing America

December 12, 2014

Some things are just wrong. Absolutely, and always. Surely torture is one of them. That it’s even necessary to say this, in America, in the 21st century, seems bizarre.

Torture not only damages the victims, but also the perpetrators, and the societies that tolerate it.

images“Enhanced interrogation” was torture. Even if it did produce helpful information, it was still wrong, and should never have been done. Ends don’t justify means.

But the Senate report refutes every claim that helpful information was garnered. All the pushback to that conclusion is nothing but bald assertions, “yes it did,” without specifying exactly when and how. And meantime, as the report also documents, the CIA has lied pervasively about this subject.

As if all that wasn’t bad enough, it’s also revealed that the CIA paid $81 million in taxpayer money, to a couple of bozos, for the precious advice to copy Chinese Communist torture techniques.

And even if the torture had produced good information, it would not have been worth the price paid, in shredded American moral credibility. UnknownWhen China, and Iran can, with straight faces, shake their scolding fingers at America on human rights, we know we’re off the rails. Now, when we criticize them, many will think we’re the moral hypocrites. America’s thusly squandering its role as the world’s conscience will make it all the easier for the worst human rights abusers to act with impunity. It’s a big setback to the global moral progress so painstakingly achieved. Altogether a prohibitively huge cost for whatever information (if any) we got through torture.

But 9/11 blinded us to our true national interests, making us so hysterically fearful of terrorism as to pay almost any price to thwart it. Horrible as it was, 9/11 did not harm America, or undermine what we cherish about our society, nearly as much as what we’ve done in response to it. th-2Like all the surveillance, TSA madness, hostility toward foreign visitors, curtailment of civil liberties, and distortions to our foreign policy. And torture, giving ourselves one heck of a black eye. That self-inflicted damage to America, and to human values globally, is greater than a dozen 9/11s would have done.

Legacy_of_AshesI am not of the Andrew Bacevich school, holding that anything we try to do to make the world better is futile, and we shouldn’t even try. Being proactive to improve things is the essence of the human character. But Tim Weiner’s aptly titled history of the CIA, Legacy of Ashes, shows that the CIA has never gotten anything right, never done anything that truly served America’s interests, while doing things, again and again and again, that disserved them. We’d be better off had the CIA never existed.

Nor am I of the Noam Chomsky school, seeing nothing good about America. images-1Yes, our country has blemishes, this is Earth, not Heaven, populated by humans, not angels. But the Chomskys are morally blind to the bigger picture. And part of what is truly great about America is the spirit of openness, self-criticism, and self-correction exemplified by the Senate report. You will see nothing like that in China or Iran (or Russia, Cuba, Venezuela, or Egypt).*

*China has just awarded its annual Peace Prize to Fidel Castro. Last year’s winner was Putin.

Building Trust Between Police and the Policed

December 8, 2014

The non-indictment of Officer Wilson, in Ferguson, for Michael Brown’s death, was justifiable. Brown had just committed a robbery and was being violent. Maybe Wilson didn’t have to kill him; but no way could a jury properly have convicted him “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

UnknownEric Garner’s case is different. His crime was the relatively minor one of evading cigarette tax. He wasn’t violent. And the police conduct clearly violated policy. How was his death not at least, arguably, criminally negligent homicide?

That grand jury failure to indict disserves not just Eric Garner but society as a whole, because it undermines confidence in the justice system, a key underpinning of civilization. It tends to validate an idea that the police are literally out of control, a law unto themselves, acting with impunity, unaccountable to the society they’re supposed to serve.

The bars are US, UK, Germany, Australia

On left: US, UK, Australia, Germany

American cops kill many hundreds annually. In other civilized countries it tends to be in single digits. Something is drastically wrong here.

With respect to black communities in particular, the relationship between citizens and law enforcement is poisonous. Rather than the paradigm of police serving people, it’s closer to one of war, at least in how it’s seen – on both sides. The mutual hostility is toxic.

Saying we’re a racist society is too simplistic and mostly wrong. Few whites are actually prejudiced. But I wrote recently of unconscious racial bias. Evolution programmed our brains to make snap judgments extrapolating from tiny bits of information; doing so could be life-or-death for our ancestors. It still can be for cops, and ethnicity is one such bit.

Painting by Norman Rockwell

Painting by Norman Rockwell

I heard someone interviewed on the radio saying police should understand their job not as making arrests, but building trust. Actually, they shouldn’t have to build it, community trust should be integral to the very fabric of policing, ab initio. But, again, particularly for black neighborhoods, not’s not what we’ve got, so it does need to be built.

I read recently about a pilot program, in one of Brooklyn’s worst crime-ridden housing projects where, with some visionary leadership, the police really did try to change the whole dynamic of their relationship with the community, into a joint enterprise aiming to improve quality of life and outcomes. Unknown-1They sought to enlist crime-prone youth as partners rather than targets. The police even knocked on doors distributing Thanksgiving turkeys.

Maybe that’s a sad commentary on just how bad the police/community relationship had gotten, requiring such extraordinary efforts to overcome. There was indeed a deep well of distrust. But it seemed some progress was made in undoing that. Crime went down. And a lot of kids who would have wound up in prison did not.

When I heard that comment about making arrests versus building trust, I thought of Israel and the Palestinians. The analogy is imperfect, but here too we see a thoroughly poisoned relationship of recrimination and mistrust. Indeed, way too far gone to be fixed with turkeys. Yet it actually doesn’t have to be this way. Israelis and Palestinians are neighbors and both would be a lot better off if they could see their way to cooperating rather than battling. images-3History isn’t destiny; people can rise above it. They could, instead of tolerating zealots stoking conflict, work toward mending their relationship and building trust, so both can improve their quality of life.

Yes, that’s optimistic. And maybe too rational.

Campus Rape and “Affirmative Consent” – Feminism Off the Rails?

December 4, 2014

Unknown-1One in five college women is sexually assaulted – we’re told. I have a daughter in college (see her comments, below). But I’m skeptical about that statistic; kind of depends how one defines “sexual assault.” I recall one study showing horrendous spousal violence rates. Turned out “spousal violence” included raising one’s voice. What one girl considers a sexual assault another might not.

Campus rape has been a big topic since the federal government, under Title IX, faulted many colleges for insufficiently tough policies about it. images-3(How this became a federal issue I fail to understand.) And California has adopted a new “affirmative consent” standard – it’s rape if the female doesn’t explicitly say yes before and during. (It’s not required in writing, and notarized – yet.) New York has now followed California’s lead.

I consider myself a feminist. But this seems like an anti-male hysteria. images-1If previously the culture in this regard was skewed against women, now the pendulum is swinging too far the other way, with too much presumption against the male in a situation and too little consideration of mitigating factors – including female behavior.

The California rule reflects ludicrous disregard for the realities, subtleties, and complexities of human interaction. Sexual dynamics are not like contract negotiations; a lot is wordless. Just when we’ve gotten Big Brother out of gay bedrooms, we’re letting him back in to campus bedrooms through a back door, attempting to regulate the details of a sexual encounter, going far beyond merely banning what’s conventionally been understood as assault.

Further, while college administrators do have a proper concern with what goes down among students, it is hugely misguided to task them as judges and juries in what are really criminal justice matters. images-5No one would imagine a student shooting another is a disciplinary issue properly handled by school personnel, rather than the police and the courts. Sexual assault is likewise a serious crime that belongs in the criminal justice system, not campus disciplinary tribunals. Universities are not places where the writ of society’s law does not run.

This matters a lot because the constitutional protections applicable to criminal defendants are absent from campus proceedings – including “innocent until proven guilty.” Whereas in criminal trials the prosecutor has the burden of proof, a student accused of sexual assault may find himself with the burden of proving his innocence.  Furthermore, the “affirmative consent” policy deems a drunk woman incapable of consent, thus applying a concept the law calls strict liability for any sex with a drunk girl. If she was drunk, you’re sunk. And school administrators often tend to apply a “preponderance of the evidence” standard, rather than “proof beyond a reasonable doubt.”

"Or after." Better get a crystal ball, guys.

“Or after.” Better get a crystal ball, guys.

All this can put a male in a very tough position – when there’s normally no independent corroboration of what happened and the words said – and when any sex that a girl later regrets can be deemed equivalent to rape. (Am I exaggerating? See pink box at left.)

And it’s not as though such campus proceedings are less consequential than criminal ones. True, a college can’t send you to prison. But it can expel you – ruining your life just as surely.

In a case of rape as conventionally understood, of course the perpetrator should be punished, one way or another. Yet, for all the scare statistics, I suspect that such crimes of violence among students are actually fairly rare, with the far more typical situation being far more murky and ambiguous; and college guys being more opportunists than they are sexual predators.

images-6But it’s not good that any student sexual encounter can blow up into a federal case, putting a big dark cloud over sex. Reminds me of southern blacks in Jim Crow days – subject to lynching if a girl cries “rape.”

It’s doubtful all this serves girls either. College adjudicators may be less keen on protecting them than on protecting the institution. A girl suffering a real sexual assault should go to the police. Otherwise it falls under the heading, “human relations.”

To me, the current climate, with differing rules applicable to males versus females, is ironically the antithesis of sexual equality and a woman-empowering feminism – its assumption seems to be that women are just helpless victims without personal agency.

My Unconscious Racial Bias

November 22, 2014

imagesI bridle when I hear talk of persistent American racism. Sure, there is some. And, yes, after-effects of past racial injustice. But real racists today are marginal to U.S. society. The bigger picture I see is one of astonishing social change over a very short period – my own lifetime.

I grew up in a society that was indeed very racist (no, not the South), and I imbibed that myself. It took a while for me to grow out of it.

Unknown-1Most whites today see themselves as non-racist. But admittedly, psychologically, true color-blindness is still almost unattainable. Mainly I think this is because race continues to be a focus of issues – Ferguson, Trayvon Martin, etc. – so we’re unavoidably conscious of it. And scientific studies have shown that even most whites who think they’re color-blind have different perceptual, neurological reactions to black and white faces.

I see myself as antiracist (the converse of racist). images-3Knowing too well our racial history gives me more sympathy than antipathy toward blacks. I like seeing them prospering, integrated into society. I try to practice personal affirmative action by treating blacks I encounter nicer than whites. On election night in 2008, even though I didn’t vote for Obama, I felt good for America’s blacks. When the result was declared, and TV showed a black woman jumping up and down, shouting “God bless America! God bless America!” I wanted to hug her. That still chokes me up (despite the disaster Obama has been). And see my post about the “great migration.”Unknown-2

Well give me an award.

So why, the other day, thumbing through the local paper, and glimpsing a photo of a black man and woman, did my brain have a little frisson of negative feeling? Little, fleeting, but definite and discernable. Whoa, I said to myself, What was that? Would I too, after all, flunk one of those scientific tests for unconscious racial bias?

Now, I know I react negatively when seeing anyone – black or white – who, for one reason or another, seems to display some unpleasant characteristic. That’s merely natural. But that didn’t apply here. The black man and woman were well-dressed, serious professional-looking people, seemingly the kind of black success I celebrate.

Tho photo (John Carl D'Annibale, Times Union)

The photo (John Carl D’Annibale, Times Union)

Or do I, really? Was my subconscious mind making a different judgment?

Well, I’ve thought about it, and here’s my conclusion. I think my negative brain frisson was political, not racial. Though I didn’t know the pair were state legislators till I later read the caption, the photo was evocative of such a political context, and I could have guessed it. Black politicians in New York are overwhelmingly Democrats, and my blog readers know my opinion of New York’s Democratic political establishment. That’s what I think my brain saw, and reacted against, in the quick glimpse of the photo – not race, but politics.

images-1Or am I just whitewashing myself? Maybe it isn’t that simple. Certainly race and politics are inextricably entwined. I do welcome black political involvement – but not when black politicians divisively play the race card. I see that too often (one black local pol in Albany was a repeat offender). Al Sharpton’s ubiquity doesn’t help. The guilty shouldn’t tar the innocent; but maybe the unconscious isn’t given to such fine discriminations. If not biased against blacks in general, perhaps I do have a reflex bias against black Democratic politicians.

Last night we watched a documentary about the comet landing; a woman scientist was speaking. And when I registered that she was black, I perceived in myself another frisson, this time a positive one.

Now that’s more like it, I told myself.

 

When I Was a Kid America Was Like Africa

November 11, 2014

images-2Waiting for the TV news,
I caught the end of “Homework Hotline.”
A little girl called in;
She said she’d come from Africa.
So the host asked her:
“How does Africa differ from America?”
“Well,” the girl explained,
“In Africa your mom lets you
Walk to school by yourself.
And your mom lets you go out
And play with your friends,
All by yourselves.”

When I was a kid, America was like Africa.
I walked alone to school,images
We played in the street,
With no parental bodyguards;
And lived to tell the tale.
Today kids are driven everywhere,
Sequestered in their homes;
A South Carolina woman was arrested,
And her nine-year-old taken away,
For having left her in a playground.
Talk about the Nanny State.

Each year a quarter million American kids
Are hurt or killed in car crashes,
Many while being driven to school;
Whereas, based upon statistics,
To be abducted by a stranger
A child would have to be left
Out on the street
For seven hundred and fifty thousand years.

images-1The South Carolina case was real (click here). We let pass parental conduct far more dangerous than leaving kids in a playground – like driving them to school. Walking would be not only safer but healthier, while inculcating independence and self-reliance. Furthermore (as the linked article notes), a child is far likelier to be molested or brutalized with a single mother’s boyfriend hanging around than being left in a public park. Yet it’s the latter that freaks people out and gets a child taken away.

UnknownHere the “nanny state” is almost literal: government decreeing how to parent your kids. In some places even smacking a child is criminalized. I was liberally smacked as a kid, and the conventional thing to say is that I wasn’t harmed. Well, it did teach me one lesson: never hit your kid. But should it be illegal? That goes way too far.

As did the South Carolina case, with the child actually taken away by the state. That itself is far likelier to harm a kid than being left in a playground – the whole foster care system is a snakepit for children. In most cases they’d be better off left with even lousy parents. The worst mom of all is government.*

We want government to protect people, but that requires power, and it’s hard to draw the line. And giving it a little power often morphs into a lot.
images-3* See also my review of Carl Strock’s book, showing how government’s “child protective services” do more harm than good.

Americanah — Please Smack This Woman

October 31, 2014
Adichie

Adichie

Ifemelu didn’t know she was black – until, as a teenager, she came to America from Nigeria. She’s the focus of Nigerian/American Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s 2013 novel, Americanah. It’s garnered great reviews as penetrating social commentary about both countries.

Many novels are non-chronological, often starting with a dramatic scene and then going to the backstory. I get that. But Americanah cut back and forth so much that I had trouble keeping things straight.

Ifemelu’s teenaged Nigerian boyfriend was Obinze. It was no casual attachment, but portrayed as obviously quite deep. Yet soon after arriving in America, she stops reading or answering his e-mails and letters, cuts him off without a word. Why? No reason I could see. Near the end she gives a reason; but (to me) a lame one.

article-1162718-03F37C2E000005DC-317_468x377Soon she’s in a fairy tale romance with Curt – handsome, rich, charming, warm, smart – white – and mad for her. They’re jetting to London and Paris on whim, etc. Then Ifemelu, for no particular reason, has a one night stand with a pallid grunge musician. Credible? Maybe. She informs Curt. Credible? Not so much. Curt throws her out. Credible? Well – I had a similar experience once (for a different, stupider reason).

Unknown-1Then Ifemelu starts a blog on race matters from the perspective of a non-American black. Many blog postings are given verbatim. We’re apparently supposed to think they’re highly insightful and provocative. I did not. To me they flogged tired, whiny racial tropes we’ve heard a thousand times. Yet Ifemelu’s blog is wildly successful, she actually gets a living from it, attracting contributions and advertisers, speaking gigs proliferate, and she winds up with a Princeton fellowship.

Unknown(How does this happen? Someone please tell me – my blog, since ’08, obviously has highly excellent content, but its readership could fit in a phone booth (well, OK, a big one, and it would be very tight), and I’ve never earned a cent. Of course, I do it for love.)

images-1The book is full of party scenes — populated by effete, politically hip intellectual poseurs. They’re mildly satirized, which is mild fun, up to a point, but enough is enough.

Ifemelu’s next live-in boyfriend is Blaine, a black Yale professor, another Prince Charming. So maybe it’s not an epic passion, but c’mon, a lot of folks would kill for such a nice mellow relationship. Yet after several years (and 13 in America) Ifemelu decides to chuck it all – Blaine, blog, Princeton – to return to Nigeria. Why? Beats me.

images-2It’s not as though Nigeria has improved since she left. Indeed, it’s gone downhill, growing even more dysfunctional and corrupt. The typical American hasn’t the faintest idea how different a nation like that is. Adichie does illuminate a lot of Nigeria’s rottenness. And yet, another thing I disliked about the book is its narrow portrayal of the country – the only Nigerians we meet are middle or upper class or intelligentsia.images There’s no sense that this is a thin crust atop a vast populace at best just eking out an existence. Those Nigerian masses are invisible here.

(Also unmentioned is Boko Haram, now in control of a large territory – showing that Nigeria’s government and army exist only for predation, and are useless to help or protect the populace. Yet, doing end-runs around their useless government, Nigeria’s creative and enterprising people are bubbling with entrepreneurship.)

Once back there, Ifemelu starts a new blog, about Nigeria (or at least that thin crust) – again a roaring success. She has an old friend, Ranyi, in fact a very good loyal friend who helps Ifemelu a lot. Ranyi is the kept woman of a married “big man,” a common Nigerian situation, which Ifemelu scathingly blogs about, the portrayal of Ranyi being unmistakeable. Ranyi complains. Ifemelu blows her off, saying she really had in mind her own Aunty Uju, whose being a general’s mistress “destroyed” her life.

Say what?

Destroyed? Aunty Uju, when her general suddenly croaked, got out of Nigeria with enough to reach America and became a doctor. And brought up the general’s child as her well beloved son.

I found Ifemelu unlikeable. If that was the author’s intent, she succeeded, but somehow I doubt it was. This novel had a very autobiographical feel.

UnknownThere’s still Obinze, Ifemelu’s teen heart-throb. We’ve been following his adventures too. He’s become quite rich – the Nigerian way, that is, by sucking up to a “big man” who lets him in on a deal plundering the public treasury. Despite this, Obinze is yet another guy portrayed too good to be true, a saint so bursting with virtues and devoid of faults that it made me gag.

Ifemelu finally contacts him before her return to Nigeria. And then, once there, fails to follow up. Would someone please smack this woman upside the head? But maybe it’s just my biased perspective. I worked so hard to get a good partner, and value her so much, that Ifemelu’s insouciance rankles.

Unknown-2Of course I won’t reveal the ending, but you can guess it. Such endings are supposed to be satisfying to the reader. But I felt a less saccharine conclusion would have been truer to what preceded it.

Sarah Vowell’s “The Wordy Shipmates” – Puritan History

October 22, 2014

imagesAs this 2008 book’s title suggests, Sarah Vowell is a funny writer. Yet also a serious one. She writes serious books in a funny way. This one is actually a substantive chronicle of, and rumination upon, the Puritans who founded Boston. She quotes liberally from original sources. Interspersed with wisecracks.

images-2I wonder if her name – it means a type of letter, after all – had something to do with Vowell’s becoming a wordsmith. Such serendipities are more common than chance alone would produce. That a disproportionate percentage of people named Lawrence are lawyers, and Dennises are dentists, is a documented fact. (Or perhaps an urban legend.) Though her own name is misspelled, Vowell is a very good writer. The book’s last few sentences are a killer.

Unknown-2Boston was founded in 1630 by a different lot from the 1620 Plymouth Rock Pilgrims. Their leader and governor was John Winthrop; he’s the main character in this book, mostly portrayed sympathetically. (Vowell confesses she fell in love; though later she calls him a “monster.” Fickle woman!)

Also prominent is Roger Williams. Now, I have a thing for Roger Williams. I happened to live for 11 years with his great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grand-daughter.* So I almost feel kin to him, or as much as a Jewish kid from Queens could.

UnknownWe first meet Williams among the early Boston Puritans. These people took their religion very seriously. I’ve always felt that if religion really were true, folks should take it more seriously. But Roger Williams took religion to an even higher level of seriousness than even your standard Puritan. Vowell quotes the letter he sent his wife upon learning she was very ill – not just a sermon, but one exhorting her to prepare for death. Nice.

I’m always struck by the certitude such people felt about their faith. Didn’t they realize millions of others had entirely different beliefs? Indeed, they spent a lot of effort massacring them. Yet never seemed to ponder the impossibility of knowing who’s right. (Most believers still don’t.)

Roger Williams was a titan of certitude. His inability to soft-peddle his convictions – he considered his neighbors insufficiently Puritan – got him kicked out of the colony. Thus was Rhode Island founded.

images-3Now here is the stunning thing. People then were typically killed over religious minutiae. Vowell talks of Mary Dyer, hanged in Boston for religious boo-boos. In Europe the Thirty Years War was raging, with vast slaughterings for God. Williams might have been expected to run Rhode Island as a theocracy brooking no dissent from his harsh views. Yet, zealot though he was, he also – bizarrely, for the time – fervently opposed coercion in matters of faith. Thus Rhode Island was established as a haven of religious tolerance. There, truly, was born this wonderful American idea of letting people think what they like.

images-4Religious liberty was enshrined by Williams in Rhode Island’s Royal Charter. And RI was the last of the original states to ratify the Constitution – holding out for the addition of a bill of rights.

One criticism of this book. Winthrop was famous for his “city on a hill” sermon, so often invoked by Ronald Reagan. Vowell takes this as a pretext for a vicious diatribe against Reagan (and drags in Bush 43 as well). She quotes liberally from Mario Cuomo’s speech mocking Reagan because in America’s “shining city on a hill” there are people suffering. Unknown-1But Reagan never meant the metaphor to describe an achieved state. To the contrary, it was aspirational – what America aims for, and works for. To do a Cuomo on him for that is just mean spirited, as is Vowell’s attack. It is neither clever, enlightening nor amusing. Why does she see fit to introduce (and hammer at length) her partisan political opinions in a book about the 17th century?

But to some people nowadays everything is political, and they are so imbued with (what seems to them) the righteousness of their views, they cannot ever desist from being in your face with them. They’re almost like . . . well, the Puritans.

* Not really special. A typical person 11 generations back would have a lot of modern descendants. And conversely, everyone today has a lot of ancestors back that far – 2,048 to be exact. The number doubles with each generation going backward; so after a few dozen your roster of ancestors would exceed the entire human population. How can that be? Well, your family tree is tangled with everyone else’s. We are all related.

China: The Arrogance of Unchecked Power

October 18, 2014

When I visited Russia in 1994, and a traveling companion asked, “Can we do such-and-such?” I replied, “Why not, it’s a free country.” Being able to say so felt great.

Xi Jinping

Xi Jinping

Mao Zedong

Mao Zedong

That was then.

I was also one of those optimists thinking that as China grew richer, it must become freer. But for now at least, it’s the opposite. President Xi Jinping is consolidating power to a degree unmatched since Mao, and what had been a glacially slow democratization has gone sharply into reverse.

To induce Britain to peacefully surrender Hong Kong in 1997, China made solemn promises for a transition to democratic home rule. Those promises have now been thoroughly flouted, with the regime refusing to countenance any sort of popular sovereignty. And, of course, beating and jailing people who protest.

But with unchecked power, you can do what you want, no matter how vile. Hong Kong today is the most visible manifestation. But Xi’s regime is engaged in an all-fronts assault upon anything and anyone viewed as even remotely challenging to its control.

Ilham Tohti was an ethnic Uighur economics professor at a prestigious Beijing university. He’s from Xinjiang, the (originally) Muslim far-west province, where long-simmering resentment at Chinese rule has been greatly enflamed by China’s ferocity in trying to stamp it out.

Ilham Tohti

Ilham Tohti

Tohti was a critic of China’s policy, and actually a rare calm voice of moderation. But charged with “separatism” he was sentenced in September to life in prison and confiscation of all his assets.

The advanced Western nations (and many copycats) have arrived at a social model wherein governmental power, and especially the power of any one person, is checked. This is more than merely political; it’s a mindset, a way of life, and once achieved it seems to stick. But attaining this level of maturity may be harder than optimists, like Francis Fukuyama (and me) imagined, and if you haven’t got there, everything remains up for grabs. Thus, China; and Russia; and creeps like Rajapaksa in Sri Lanka, Sisi in Egypt, Ortega in Nicaragua, Mugabe in Zimbabwe, Chavez (and his derisory successor Maduro) in Venezuela, and so on.*

Unknown-1Fukuyama’s 1992 book, The End of History and the Last Man, argued that humanity’s long ideological struggles have finally ended in a rout by liberal democracy and market economics. He recently published a new book, basically saying, “Not so fast.” The rub is not any virtue in authoritarianism but, rather, problems internal to democracies. America is becoming politically dysfunctional and paralyzed. But Fukuyama’s original argument was that (classical) liberalism feeds our most fundamental human needs. That’s still a powerful counterforce against alternatives; I’d far rather live in a declining USA than a rising Putinist Russia!

The 1992 book ended with a metaphor of wagon trains: some have arrived at their destination while others remain out in the wilderness having lost their way or beset by troubles. But ultimately, Fukuyama said, all will get there.images-4

I still believe that. But a perfect polity exists only in Heaven (and maybe not even there).

* But note Iraq, where despite having eight years to ruthlessly entrench himself, Maliki could still be ousted by the political process; a hopeful sign.

Why Do Richer People Have Fewer Kids?

September 29, 2014

UnknownThe Economist magazine has discussed the “demographic transition” – as people get richer, they have fewer children. It’s a key reason why Malthus’s famous prediction of population outrunning food supply – as well as latter-day echoes like Paul “Population Bomb” Ehrlich – proved wrong. Population growth has been decelerating; numbers are projected to plateau around mid-century, and fall thereafter. This is largely due to declining poverty; some countries have seen birth rates drop to a fraction of former levels.

But The Economist wonders why richer people have fewer kids, which it labels “biologically bonkers,” because normally animal populations in flush environments reproduce more, not less. Noted are two distinct reproductive strategies: “r-selection,” throwing a lot of offspring at the wall hoping some will stick, versus “k-selection,” having fewer offspring but investing heavily in their success. The latter, The Economist points out, may produce fitter descendants, but not more descendants.  Unknown-2And natural selection (as Richard Dawkins elucidated in The Selfish Gene) targets not quality but quantity, with genes “trying” (not consciously of course) to propagate the most copies of themselves. (It’s simply math: genes that do so become the most common.) That biological logic seems violated by k-selection.

The Economists’s suggested answer is that while today r-selection might produce more gene copies, because most offspring survive, the opposite may have been true in the primitive past, in which case k-selection would have better proliferated genes; so evolution programmed us toward that strategy of heavy investment in fewer offspring. In other words, we were bio-engineered for harsh conditions which no longer obtain. Which, somewhat paradoxically, is saving us from the Malthusian trap (by limiting reproduction).

But this doesn’t explain poor people – for whom conditions are still pretty harsh – generally favoring large families. More importantly, it seeks the answer in the wrong place; and this is actually a crucial point for us to understand. While human behavior is heavily influenced by genes, and the corresponding characteristics that evolution bred into us, we are not slaves to our genes. When it comes to behavior, genes give us predispositions, but not ironclad marching orders. Human beings have minds of their own, and other concerns, that can trump genetic predispositions.

images-1That’s free will. An individual with a genetic predisposition toward violence may never be violent. And what we’re talking about here is the most salient example: the one thing our genes most “want” us to do is reproduce, yet many people choose not to.

Thus it’s simply wrong to seek a biological/evolutionary explanation for the demographic transition. The answer lies instead in sociology and economics. Unknown-1People choose family size for reasons unrelated to our evolutionary background. To name just one, for poorer people children tend to be economic assets, helping them earn their bread and protecting their old age. Richer people don’t expect or need such protection or income contribution, and their children tend to be money pits, and a lot of work. Sure, many of us still choose to have some; but the sociological and economic influences are very different between rich and poor and they, not biology, drive the choices. It appears that humanity as a whole is moving toward a k-selection approach: fewer children, but living better lives, because that’s what we prefer, biology be damned.

Note that if poor families do fare better with more children, improving their joint survival, then genes for that behavior should spread (at least among the poor). Yet still, when those people get richer, they can and do ignore such genetic programming.

And that free will aspect is the larger point. Again, we are not like robots programmed by genes or biology; nor, for that matter, are we prisoners of sociology either. Even while all those influences matter, they do not compel us; we can still make our own choices.

images-2Some people think evolutionary biology implies Social Darwinism – leaving the less fit among us to their fate. But here too, the impersonal forces of nature that created us do not control how we choose to live our lives. As biologist T.H. Huxley observed, human society is not doomed to play out “survival of the fittest” but can, instead, work toward fitting more of us for survival. Our mission is not conformity to nature’s process but combating it.

Rationality, Optimum Crime, Individualism vs. Collectivism, and the Gambler’s Fallacy

September 24, 2014

UnknownThe Economist’s 5/10 issue* had a piece about the recently deceased Gary Becker – an economist and, really, sociologist. His work centered on the idea that “individuals maximize welfare as they conceive it.”

This “homo economicus” concept has taken a beating lately. Books like Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational show how our decision-making is skewed by illogical biases; and Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness how we’re bad at foreseeing what will make us happy. imagesThus, some trash free market economics because it supposedly assumes an economic rationality by market participants that doesn’t exist. And nanny-state policies are often premised on people not knowing their own best interests.

However, while of course we aren’t perfectly rational, nor are we perfectly irrational; we do have some idea of our own interests and desires, and the means to advance them. Hence one’s welfare is more likely enhanced by making choices to serve those interests and desires than if there is no choice. Moreover, Gary Becker importantly argued that maximizing welfare doesn’t just mean income. People understand that money isn’t everything. Health counts 10%.

images-3That was a joke. Actually, health counts a lot, and so do many other things (though money does help getting them). Again, people understand all this and live accordingly – even if not with computerlike rationality.

One sphere to which Becker applied this paradigm was crime. He doubted all crime is deviant or sociopathic, reckoning that some at least represents rational weighing of costs and benefits. While moral inhibitions do come into play, for many they’re not absolutes and can be overridden if the balance of payoff versus risk seems sufficiently favorable.

Unknown-1Becker also pondered crime’s costs. Crime, he realized, is akin to what economists call “rent seeking”—contending over the spoils of productive activity rather than creating new wealth. Conversely, rent-seekers trying to get government subsidization, to others’ cost (trade protectionism, for example) can be likened to robbers. The resources invested in all such activities (whether doing them or combating them) would be better spent on wealth producing efforts. And Becker also suggested there’s an optimal amount of crime in society – while it pays to get crime down to a low level, the cost of eradicating the last bit surely exceeds the benefit. (Certainly in the war on drugs, that excess is huge.)

Unknown-2Two pages later The Economist reported on a study suggesting why Westerners have a more individualistic psychology than collectivist-minded Asians. Led by Thomas Talhelm at the University of Virginia, it focused on whether the main crop has historically been wheat or rice. The relevant difference is that rice required about double the labor per calorie. This forced rice farmers to share labor, evolving a deeply rooted collectivist cultural ethos. And sure enough, the study found that, based on attitudinal questionnaire answers, a collectivist mentality in a locale correlates strongly with an agricultural history centered on rice as opposed to wheat.

Unknown-3The next page: gambling. Many believe in “winning streaks;” and also that bad luck is bound to reverse itself so that losses are recouped. The latter is known as the gambler’s fallacy; because statistics would instead predict reverting to the mean – i.e., “normal service resumed.” And in casinos, “normal service” means the house wins more than it loses (how else would they profit?).

Well, comes a study by Juemin Xu and Nigel Harvey finding, counter-intuitively, that winning streaks are real, while losing gamblers do even worse than reversion to the mean. That is, compared to what pure probability would predict, a win is more likely to be followed by a win, and a loss by a loss. How could that possibly be? The answer lies not in laws of probability, but in behavior. A winning better’s next bet has a tendency to be slightly more conservative and a loser’s next bet a little more reckless.

images-2This is why I read The Economist.

* I’m a little behind in posting these things, I have a backlog.


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