Archive for the ‘Society’ Category

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.

Thomas More’s Utopia: The First Communist Manifesto?

September 12, 2014

UnknownSaint Thomas More (1477-1535) wrote Utopia in 1516.* Not only the first in the utopian fiction genre, it’s also been called the first communist book.

In the imaginary country Utopia (the name means “noplace”), there is no money or private property. Everyone has a job, working for the commonwealth, and productivity is such that all needs are met (food, clothing, shelter, etc.) while also leaving ample leisure time. Needless to say, everyone is happy, there’s no cause for dissatisfaction, hence practically no cheating or crime or grasping for power.

Communist” or not, this might seem attractive (albeit kind of boring). imagesBut of course it’s a vain dream, because actual human beings resist such regimentation, and mainly because there’s a powerful drive for status (biologically installed by evolution since higher status means more mating opportunities). That’s the ultimate reason why utopian experiments (many in 19th century America) invariably collapsed. Moreover, while More depicts everyone performing diligently at their jobs, no reason appears why they should, since benefits are unrelated to how hard they work. In the real world, failure to reward effort elicits less of it, resulting in a poorer living standard (as places like East Germany have proven).

Still, the book is nicely imagined, and contains some very advanced thinking. images-1It came mainly out of More’s concern over inequality, an unusual view in the 1500s (far less equal than today); some passages sound like “Occupy” movement stuff. More says no existing social system is “anything but a conspiracy of the rich to advance their own interests.” He’s particularly troubled by the vast numbers of thieves hanged, seeing them driven to crime by unemployment. That’s what he envisioned Utopia to remedy.

Also unusually for his time, More was a pacifist, disparaging military aggression as rarely worth the cost in lives and money. images-2I enjoyed Utopia’s game-book for war: start with secret agents plastering enemy lands with posters offering huge rewards for anyone killing (or delivering alive) their king and other named functionaries. This sows enough distrust and dissension that Utopia can usually triumph without firing a shot.

So the book makes More seem a good man with his heart in the right place. As did the popular 1966 biopic, A Man For All Seasons. More became a high public official under Henry VIII, and the film casts him as a moral hero for refusing on principle to endorse Henry’s making himself head of the English church in order to divorce his first wife. For that refusal, More wound up beheaded.

images-3However, a rather different (and historically more accurate) picture emerges from Hilary Mantel’s novelization Wolf Hall (centered on Thomas Cromwell), showing More as a remorseless religious hard-ass responsible for the horrific torture and burning alive of numerous (so-called) heretics. And this man was declared a saint by Catholicism! By the end, one was glad to read of More’s own execution.

It’s hard to believe the same Thomas More wrote Utopia. Indeed, only late in Utopia is God even mentioned, with Christianity introduced to (and gladly received by) the islanders. But they maintain a principle of religious tolerance. In fact, punishment is prescribed not for “heresy” but, rather, “for being too aggressive in religious controversy.” And More even suggests “that God made different people believe different things, because He wanted to be worshipped in many different ways.”

And then More himself turned into exactly the sort of religious persecutor he’d once decried. People do change.

Meantime, though Utopia vaunted religious tolerance, even there, on one point More drew the line: disbelief in an afterlife incurred harsh condemnation and punishment. He thought anyone unconcerned about eternal penalty or reward would have no reason to behave decently in this life. Nonsense of course (but in those days nobody ever met an actual nonbeliever). Anyhow, it seemed bizarre that More worried so much about maintaining posthumous incentives, yet not at all about a lack of incentives on Earth.

images-4I was also quite surprised at More’s denouncing the illogic of religious zealots who advocate asceticism, self-denial and even mortifying the flesh, yet urge devoting oneself to relieving the suffering of others. If happiness (or at least freedom from pain) is a good thing for others, why not for oneself? (Garrison Keillor has quipped, if the purpose of life is to serve others, what purpose is served by the existence of those others?) Charity begins at home, More wrote; and “The Utopians themselves therefore regard the enjoyment of life – that is, pleasure – as the natural object of all human efforts, and natural, as they define it, is synonymous with virtuous.” Yet on this point too More apparently changed his mind; he was later known to wear, under his clothes, a literal hair-shirt, whose purpose is to inflict not only discomfort but actual pain (it drew blood). And his refusal of any compromise, to save himself in the controversy with King Henry, may well have reflected something of a martyr complex.

Some people improve with age, and grow wiser. Thomas More, it seems, went the other way. What a pity he didn’t die promptly after writing his book. Then maybe he’d have deserved sainthood.

*I read a plain English translation (from Latin) by Paul Turner.

Net Neutrality, and Regulation by the Unicorn State

September 3, 2014

images-4Net Neutrality” is a hot issue. It refers to equal service quality for all web-based traffic, against a fear that Internet providers (like Verizon) will allow (or effectively force) some to pay more for faster data delivery, making others second class netizens. So some advocate designating the Internet a “public utility” subject to FCC regulation to enforce net neutrality. This plea is highly seductive.

UnknownSimilar regulation by the Interstate Commerce Commission was imposed on railroads in 1887. No; “imposed” is the wrong word; actually the railroads wanted this, seeing ICC regulation as a tool to protect their market power against upstart competition.

I spent my professional career as a public utility regulator. One of my first cases targeted a small moving company breaking the rules. Its transgression? Prices too low. Were we protecting the public? Certainly not; we were protecting the established moving companies. This is the face of regulation in the real world.

Columnist L. Gordon Crovitz in the 8/18 Wall Street Journal notes that the ICC enforced a kind of “net neutrality” on the railroads: prohibiting “discriminatory” volume discounts or other market-oriented pricing schemes.* Result: a stagnating U.S. rail industry. The ICC was finally abolished in 1995, but the lingering effects of this deadening regulation leave American train service shabby compared to spiffier European or Far East rail systems.

images-1Crovitz also discusses the heavily regulated taxi industry. He quotes the New York City regulator’s website explaining that before it stepped in, the taxi business was a free-for-all with numerous competitors using “underhanded tactics” – like “drastically lowering fares to get more business.” The horror! The horror!

But today, across the globe, the taxi business is being up-ended by innovators like Uber and Lyft giving smartphone-using consumers service better tailored to their needs. And a battle royale is underway between these feisty upstarts and the old regulators (backed by the stodgy old taxi firms) struggling to hobble them. A similar war pits the old hotel industry against newcomers like Airbnb disrupting their business model by providing alternatives more attractive to consumers. This is what economist Joseph Schumpeter famously called “creative destruction” – it’s how an economy progresses – a great virtue of a truly free market.

imagesDo we really want to give the FCC regulatory power to squelch this by enforcing its ideas of service and pricing for the Internet? Or let creativity rip, with businesses free to innovate on services and pricing tailored to a swiftly changing technological landscape, responding to market forces and consumer preferences and needs?

Business-hating lefties think government must keep them on a tight regulatory leash lest abuses occur. And absent regulation they would occur. But I believe the costs and harms to consumers would be simply overwhelmed – overwhelmed – by the benefits in better products and services, lower prices, and greater overall societal wealth, if all regulation were abolished.

Think I’m nuts? Then look at China, where that’s exactly what happened. Since 1978, China’s private sector has been virtually free of regulation. And, yes, abuses have occurred. But meantime average per-capita income has grown 3000% – thirtyfold. I repeat: thirtyfold. (99-percenters take note.)

I wrote recently about an abuse by government, the unjust prosecution of innocent Muslim-Americans on phony “terrorism” charges. I marched in protest with local liberals. But they, I said, are like battered spouses who still profess undying love for their batterers – no matter how much it tramples their ideals, still liberals love government. images-2The same Wall Street Journal issue elsewhere quotes economist Michael Munger: “My friends generally dislike politicians, find democracy messy and distasteful, and object to the brutality and coercive excesses of foreign wars, the war on drugs, and the spying of the NSA. But their solution is, without exception, to expand the power of ‘the State.’ That seems literally insane to me . . . Then I realized they want a kind of unicorn, a State that has the properties, motivations, knowledge and abilities that they can imagine for it. [They] imagine a State different from the one possible in the physical world.”

I just got a call from a car repair business asking if I was “completely satisfied” with their service. I’ve never received such a call from a government agency.

* America’s first federal conviction of a corporation, in 1909, was for a railroad’s crime of cutting prices.

Nude Celebrity Photos

September 2, 2014

Big breaking news! Hacked nude photos of celebrities on the Internet! Holy Cow!

UnknownLike, this is the very first time we’ve ever seen pictures of these actresses WITHOUT THEIR CLOTHES ON! I am shocked, shocked.

The celebrities are indignantly huffing and puffing about the scandalous invasion of their privacy.

Excuse me – these people were not kidnapped, forcibly stripped, and photographed against their will. Hello, this is the 21st century. It’s the friggin’ INTERNET. If you don’t want your nude photos splashed all over the Internet – then don’t let them get anywhere near the Internet. Why, it’s just that simple. But, of course, naïve celebrities can’t be expected to understand such things. (Don’t they hire “people” for that?)

[Nerd note: How many hits will this blog get from folks googling “nude celebrity photos?” I got an unexpected traffic spike on a recent post from people using the search term “head chopped off” or variants thereof.]


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