“Far From the Tree” – Parenting Non-normal Children

February 27, 2015

images-2Sometimes while reading I must stop, and shut my eyes, to absorb, process and recover from some shocker. This happened a lot with Andrew Solomon’s 2012 book, Far From The Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity. It concerns non-normal children – mostly with deficits – deaf, autistic, disabled, etc.

“Deficit” is already a fraught word; the subtitle’s mention of “identity” is telling. We see here an element of identity politics, that is, based not on interests or beliefs but, rather, personal characteristics like ethnicity or sexuality. UnknownA major example is people who see their deafness not as a problem but as their identity. Indeed, there is deaf chauvinism, opposing medical ameliorations of deafness (mainly, cochlear implants), even equating them with genocide (killing deaf culture by depopulating it).

The argument is that they’re not defective but different, and it’s understandable that a deaf person might resent the concept of “cure” as implying something wrong. True, deaf culture, within its own boundaries, is a rich one, and adds to the overall diversity of human culture, which might be seen as diminished were deaf culture lost. imagesBut, to quote Robert Frost, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall” – and deaf culture lies behind one, sealed off, not completely but partially, largely inaccessible by the rest of human culture. And, politically incorrect though it may be to point out the obvious, four senses are less than five.*

Pluralism is central to the concept of a truly democratic society. And everyone should be empowered to live the best lives they can. However, when we see “neurodiversity” advocates holding in effect that autism ought to be honored as though it were a lifestyle choice, that goes too far. Sure, autistics can and should live rewarding lives. But there is something very important missing. No one should argue this is not tragic.

Central to this book is what parental love is. It’s easy enough to bloviate all day about the ordinary kind. images-1But the book’s numerous personal stories often depict extraordinary circumstances, that stress-test the concept. Loving deaf children is no surprise, but then there are the children from Hell, turning their parents’ lives into painful, grueling ordeals.

Yet even they are loved. One can understand parents accepting responsibility toward even the most unresponsive, even anti-responsive, offspring; but love? What’s to love? one’s rational mind wants to ask. But while love often does have a (perhaps unconsciously) rational component, of course love is not entirely a manifestation of human rationality. Often it seemed the love depicted in the book existed for its own sake. Parents love children from Hell because, well, they just do. (And sometimes children love parents from Hell.)

Thus one striking impression from this book is that the world is full of saints. Unknown-1Now, admittedly, some selection bias clearly operated; Solomon talks only about people who were willing to talk to him; and few (at least in the medical-type situations) were non-affluent or culturally from the other side of the tracks. But I’ve never believed well-off or upper class people are inherently “better” than others. So if those in the book behaved well, that speaks about human universals.

And in fact, in case after case, people thrown-for-a-loop with an unexpected non-normal child rallied their inner resources and responded to the situation in ways they could never have foreseen. Yet I was not surprised; having long since grown to understand this human characteristic. Again and again, people do rise to the occasion, with an extraordinary capacity for responding to extraordinary situations in extraordinary ways.

Then there’s the chapter about children of rape. Few saints here; a parade of horrors and depravity (refer back to my first sentence). Of course we mustn’t “blame the victim.” And yet Solomon was struck how often being victimized and abused reflected an inability to foresee danger in one’s choices. “Every bad thing that befell them, even at the hands of previous aggressors, came as a surprise. They could not tell the difference between people who warranted trust and those who didn’t.” Why? Their childhood experience. “They did not know what caring behavior felt like, so they were unable to recognize it.”

Unknown-2What a contrast – the loving parental nurture of even profoundly disabled children, versus parenting of initially normal children that turned them into emotionally disabled people. But even some of those latter stories had good redemptive endings, with protagonists ultimately able to rise above all that had gone wrong in their lives. The good outweighs the bad; the tears of love outweigh those of rage.

That’s the human story. It makes me a humanist – a lover of humankind – and an optimist.

 

 

* I’m normally a stickler for the distinction between “less” and “fewer.” But sometimes rules must be broken. Here, “less” is the more fitting word.

Political Corruption: America versus China

February 22, 2015

UnknownThe chief corruption in American politics is the need to raise large sums for campaigns, the money coming heavily from interests wanting something. In effect it’s bribery, though politicians don’t (normally) get rich from it; what they get is re-elected.*

(New York is something of an exception. In 2012 I wrote about disgraceful State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. Update: Silver was recently arrested by the Feds for millions in bribes and kickbacks disguised as legal fees. After initially rallying behind him, Assembly Democrats turned on him, and Silver was forced out as speaker.)

China, if you can believe it, is even worse than New York. While it’s often noted that our Congress is peopled by millionaires, the average wealth in China’s equivalent body (which has much less power) is vastly greater, it’s stuffed with billionaires. And whereas American legislators typically earned their affluence outside of politics, that’s not true in China. Being a bigwig in Chinese politics is a license to steal. And everything in China is outsized, including the corruption.

Bo Xilai

Bo Xilai

The country being so important, you’d think headline Chinese corruption scandals would get significant attention in U.S. media. They don’t. Not long ago Bo Xilai, boss of Chongqing, was a major figure in Chinese politics. Then he fell spectacularly, he and his wife charged with not only corruption but murder, both getting long prison terms.

An even bigger fish (or “tiger” in Chinese parlance) was Zhou Yongkang, at the center of power, controlling China’s oppressive national security apparatus.

Zhou Yongkang

Zhou Yongkang

He was China’s Beria. Now he too has fallen, blackened in China’s media as (to quote The Economist) “a thief, a bully, a philanderer and a traitor . . . the spider at the center of a web of corrupt patronage, he enriched himself, his family, his many mistresses and his cronies at vast cost to the government.”

Chinese might ask how such a villain could have gained so much authority. And while his downfall might be seen as “the system working,” the real story – as in Bo Xilai’s case – was power politics. This is the kabuki of top-level Chinese politics – since rule is by a sort of divine right (“the mandate of Heaven”), a man can be shorn of power only by voiding his divine right, by making a criminal of him. As if the other guys are different.

Xi Jinping

Xi Jinping

The Zhou Yongkang case ostensibly reflects President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign. While Xi does seem to recognize what a problem corruption is, the fact remains that the prosecutions are mainly political – getting rid of functionaries who aren’t Xi’s sycophants. He’s also been talking “rule of law,” but understands it differently than we do – rule by law, i.e., rulers’ commands, another tool for waging politics. The party, and its top dogs, are still above the law. Indeed, in China there’s really no “law” to be above.

Further, the regime is wrestling with the related concept of “constitutionalism.” China does have a constitution, which says a lot of good things. But the leaders don’t actually accept that the constitution should, even in theory, be followed. That idea is seen as “Western,” and people have been jailed merely for saying the constitution should be obeyed.

China’s apologists like to point out that Western democracies are not immune from corruption and abuses of power, citing Watergate as a premier example. But (as The Economist noted), Nixon fell because of checks and balances within the American political system – including, crucially, a free press. images-2Bo Xilai and Zhou Yongkang instead fell to the power of an even bigger fish. Who will constrain his power?

(And don’t even get me started on the profound, vicious, all-encompassing corruption in Putin’s Russia, where the government is simply a criminal enterprise.)

* We often hear about “buying elections.” Can’t be done. While money does get your message heard, high-spending candidates regularly nevertheless lose.

If You’re Happy and You Know It, Clap Your Hands

February 17, 2015

images-2The concept of happiness has eternally bedeviled thinkers. Nothing is more important, but defining and understanding it is a conundrum. Cass Sunstein reviewed two recent attempts in the New York Review of Books.

Sunstein is a prominent law professor who served President Obama on how government might actually improve lives. images-1Whenever I encounter his name, I can’t help thinking “Cass Sunscreen;” and when I hear the word “sunscreen” I think “Cass.” This amuses me; makes me happy.

Happiness theoreticians see two very distinct aspects to it. One is experiential – how you feel while experiencing life from moment to moment. The other is evaluative – how you feel about your life as a whole. Obviously they can diverge dramatically. Suffering a toothache won’t change a feeling that life is good; enjoying a cookie won’t change a belief that your life stinks.

One of the books Sunstein reviewed is Paul Dolan’s Happiness By Design: Change What You Do, Not How You Think. A key insight concerns the salience of how you focus your attention – how much something affects your happiness depends on how much importance you give it. images-4And Dolan thinks the experiential aspect – how one actually feels during an experience – trumps the evaluative aspect. However, your experienced feelings are greatly influenced by the larger picture of how you see your life as a whole, and how the experience fits into it.

The evaluative aspect has traditionally been seen as worthier, emphasizing a “life well lived” of value and purpose (the Greeks’ eudaimonia), as opposed to mere animalistic pleasure or pain, associated with hedonism. UnknownAs John Stuart Mill famously queried, is it better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied? But “better” in what sense? This gets us back to the conundrum of what happiness really means. Dolan is on to something in suggesting that whether it’s hedonic or grounded in loftier conceptualization, what really matters is how you feel at a given moment; and a life is just a whole lot of moments. Thus Dolan says people should trust their actual experiences over their desires or beliefs. (Daniel Gilbert’s book Stumbling on Happiness showed we are very bad at anticipating how fulfilling our desires will actually affect how we feel.)

images-5Sunstein notes that marriage generally gives people a big boost, but that tails off over time. While newlyweds focus on the marriage, later “even happily married people are less likely to think, with surprise and delight, about the fact that they are married.” Well, I actually still do. I had a hard time with the ladies, and then a very difficult twelve-year relationship. That history so shapes my psyche that I do have a permanent and continuing sense of surprise and delight at my marriage, even after 26 years. This isn’t just in the background of my consciousness, but something very much in the foreground, upon which I continuously focus. Maybe even obsessively.

My wife

My wife

But giving it such great importance does make it a big component of my happiness. Contrariwise, I try not to focus on unpleasant things, at least not until I have to.* Like death (which, paradoxically, loving life so much makes worse). But brooding about it will do me no good, so I don’t. Thus I’m truly following Dolan’s prescription: allocating my focus so as to sustain positive feelings.

Happiness studies show that most people have a built-in set-point that’s somewhat impervious to life’s vicissitudes. A good or bad episode might move the needle temporarily, but it tends to go back. Thus our ability to adapt to adversity is greater than we realize (exemplified by Viktor Frankl in the concentration camp). My own needle is set way toward the happiness end. (I did literally write the book on optimism!) Even during that long pain-filled relationship, I still felt good about life. But it sure helps now to have a fantastic wife.

However, Sunstein disputes Dolan’s central assumption that “happiness is all that matters in the end.” imagesHe says people often do something not because it makes them happy but because they see it as the right thing to do; there are “activities that we pursue for their own sake, not our own.” I found this part of Sunstein’s essay bizarre, clueless about elementary human psychology. Surely feeling that you’re doing something that’s right or worthwhile enhances happiness. Perhaps, indeed, there’s no such thing as pure altruism, and good deeds are done only because doing them makes one feel better than not doing them (if only to avoid guilt). This could be true even for someone giving his life for others – he might not want to live with himself if he didn’t. That may be stretching the point, but Sunstein is denying the obvious – that the only thing that can matter in the cosmos is the feelings of beings capable of feeling, since every other consideration ultimately comes down to that. imagesAnd how human actions affect such feelings is the only ultimate basis for evaluating them.

(For an elaboration of the latter point, click here.)

 

*That applies to my personal life, but not the world. I don’t shut out unpleasant news, but strive to understand world reality.

Putin’s Ukraine Salami Tactics

February 13, 2015

Another day, another bullshit cease-fire agreement. UnknownA pattern emerges: Russia, while lying about it, uses military force (with “separatists” as a front) to grab a piece of Ukrainian territory. A cease-fire freezes their gains in place . . . until they break it and grab more, followed by another cease-fire to solidify those further gains.

It’s what used to be called, at the Cold War’s onset, “salami tactics” – taking what you want one small slice at a time, without provoking a big response. But the slices add up.

images-2When Iraq invaded Kuwait, Bush 41 had Margaret Thatcher to stiffen his spine. Obama’s got Angela Merkel, who’s been wrong about every significant issue she’s ever confronted. She scotches any strong unified Western response to Putin over Ukraine.

When this started, I likened it to 1938, when Hitler was pulling the same stuff with Czechoslovakia, he was allowed to get away with it, and that turned out badly. Unknown-2Hillary Clinton said likewise. Her comparing Putin to Hitler was widely pooh-poohed. Thomas Friedman called her comments overblown; but recently he’s recanted about that.

We’re constantly told “there’s no military solution.” I was glad to finally hear a high NATO official say we’ve got to stop that nonsense – because we’re in fact getting a military solution – Vladimir Putin’s. (Even Russia’s foreign minister Lavrov cynically spouts “no military solution.”) Thus the West so far won’t even help Ukraine defend itself against a despicable invasion that everyone fecklessly decries.

“No military solution” – actually, “Never a military solution” — seems to be Obama’s overall foreign policy. He’s applied it to at least four problems. imagesIndeed, even where he ostensibly does aim at a military solution – with ISIS – he’s unwilling to really commit military means. The legislation he proposes would actually limit his own power to deploy military assets — more than existing law already does.

It’s true that a problem like Ukraine’s will ultimately require a political/diplomatic solution. But what’s misguided about the “no military solution” mantra is that political and military initiatives are not mutually exclusive – to the contrary, they are often mutually reinforcing. Military means, or at least their serious threat, can help in getting a good political solution; renouncing military options can only make that harder. Putin might well be persuaded into an acceptable and lasting political deal if he were facing serious military pushback. He laughs off economic sanctions; that’s simply not a concern to him. Absent military consequences, he has no reason to be reasonable.

Just like Hitler in 1938. I had thought the scourge of changing borders by armed force was something relegated to civilization’s past. images-1Just like we’d thought diseases like measles were consigned to the past — until fools started to refuse vaccination. Obama and Merkel are refusing to vaccinate against military aggression.

Taking Liberties: Why Religious Freedom Doesn’t Give You the Right to Tell Other People What to Do

February 9, 2015

UnknownWas America founded as a Christian nation? Robert Boston* equates that view of history with the creationist view of biology – both being equally uncontaminated by facts.

The Constitution never mentions Christ – nor even God. It mentions religion just twice: in the First Amendment (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”) and in Article VI barring any religious test for office. Mighty odd if they were setting up a “Christian nation.”

In fact, as Boston points out in his book Taking Liberties, the founders wrote the First Amendment with no thought of Christians versus non-Christians. Unknown-2Rather, their concern was to protect Christians from each other! The “Christian nation” idea would have made no sense to them in a milieu dominated by conflicts among Christian sects: Roger Williams exiled from Massachusetts for annoying the reigning Puritans; Quakers hanged on Boston Common; Virginia preachers jailed for promoting the wrong kind of Christianity; and, before that, Tyndale burned at the stake for publishing the Bible in English, and Europe’s Thirty Years War with mass slaughter of Christians by Christians. “Enough!” they said. The America they created would be different – in fact, unique in world annals till then. They were not anti-religious but very much anti religious persecution. That’s what the First Amendment was written to prevent.

It’s a supreme irony that while religious zealots view the First Amendment’s separation of church and state as some kind of thumb in their eyes, a crime against religion, in fact it’s the best thing that ever happened for religion in America. It’s often debated why religion remains so strong in America while dying throughout Europe. Some say it’s due to Europe’s cushier welfare state versus U.S. “harshness.” That’s nonsense – those differences are marginal. The bigger difference is that whereas state-backed religion in Europe has stultified and grown irrelevant to people’s lives, America’s constitutional secularism has forced religious sects to compete for congregants by staying relevant.

images-1As Boston says, while people basing their politics on religion invoke what they deem universal truths, not even all Christians agree about such alleged truths – as evidenced, again, by all the Christians massacred throughout history over such disagreements. But such differences of opinion are “kind of the point of America,” Boston writes. We “built a framework that allows us to disagree, yet still live together in peace.”

The book’s key theme is that U.S. fundamentalist Christians exploit claims of religious freedom for what are really efforts to preach to captive audiences (like school kids) and force their religion on others, often by resort to deception and lies. Boston wonders if they’ve actually lost faith in their faith – in their ability to spread their message because it’s such a good message. Certainly fundamentalists have ample means for doing that. But is their message so inherently weak that they must resort to coercive and deceptive means to spread it?

If you want to believe in God, believe you’re going to Heaven and I’m going to Hell, I don’t agree, but I get it. But what I never can get is why people with such beliefs so often have felt a mission to torture and exterminate those believing differently. That’s exactly what ISIS is doing. If you really believe in an omnipotent God, why would he need you to deal with heretics? Why wouldn’t his own arrangements amply and appropriately sort out such problems, with no need for human intermeddling?

Unknown-3Just like most people, I believe my own dogmas are true and right. But the one dogma I hold above all others is the libertarian principle against forcing others to think or act as I would prefer.

* Boston works for Americans United for Separation of Church and State. He also collects ancient coins and has bought them from me for many years.

Fear and Loathing at Sears Auto Center

February 5, 2015

UnknownOnce, at a fancy New Orleans restaurant, we didn’t get bread like other tables. I told the Maitre D’. He shrugged and said, “Sometimes you get bread and sometimes you don’t.”* This has become a family catch-phrase.

Recently my car battery needed immediate replacement. Unknown-1I went to  Sears in Albany, phoning first to confirm availability. After a 15 minute queue, Tim at the front station went to the shelf, and came back saying, “You’re in luck, we have one left.” So we did up the paperwork; he said installation wouldn’t take long.

An hour later, I checked with Tim; he said my car was next. After almost a further hour, enduring daytime TV noise in the waiting room, I asked him what was going on. I might have sounded frustrated. Tim snarled, “You can take your car and leave if you want.” I didn’t reply. A little while later, he finally called my name.

images“We don’t have the battery,” Tim said, without even the word “sorry.” Dumbfounded, I pointed out that he’d told me they had it. Tim denied this.

Sometimes you get a battery and sometimes you don’t.

Luckily my car would still start and I got one quickly at Hyundai. Then I phoned the manager at Sears Auto, Steve, to complain. After several attempted excuses, he finally conceded, “I have no excuse.” But I never actually got an apology.

This was certainly one of my most egregious consumer experiences. I’m still literally incredulous that a major business like Sears would operate like that. Unknown-2But after I calmed down and pondered, I was bemused to consider how minor this was, in the great scheme of things, and how rare even such minor foul-ups are in an advanced country like America. My Sears episode, standing out like a sore thumb, really points up how beautifully our society functions ordinarily. We should be tremendously grateful, not taking it for granted. Life wasn’t always like this, and still isn’t in many places even today.

I was put in mind of Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s book Infidel which I’ve reviewed. After living in several Muslim societies, she washed up as a refugee in the Netherlands; straight off the plane, she encountered a policeman, who helped her, rather than trying to victimize her. This blew her mind; an epiphany in which Hirsi Ali instantly understood that, so unlike all her past experience, here is a society that works.

My car works too now. It only took three and a half hours.

Unknown-3*I whispered to my wife, “Sometimes you get a tip and sometimes you don’t.”

The Pacific Jewel in the Liberty Cap

February 2, 2015

UnknownQuestion: which state’s flag incorporates the British Union Jack?

Answer: Hawaii, which was (consensually) a British protectorate for most of the 19th century, while an independent kingdom.* In 1893, Queen Lili’uokalani was deposed in a coup organized mainly by American planters. Annexed in 1898, Hawaii became the 50th state in 1959.

Dennis

Dennis

We spent a week in Maui in January as guests of my Albany coin collecting friend Dennis Ryan and his wife Paulette. Dennis is an amazing character. Though in Maui only a couple of months each year, he seems to know everybody and is very active in local history and preservation communities; his knowledge is legion, and he is voluble in sharing it. We got an intensive tour. It was a bit weird to travel 6,000 miles** and find Dennis’s familiar squirrely handwriting in a museum exhibit case; several sites display his coins and other objects.

The Hawaiian islands were settled many centuries ago by people from other, quite distant Pacific locales. I was astounded yet again to contemplate the gutsiness of those people setting out in flimsy vessels to cross vast stretches of open ocean. And what it took, once they arrived, to survive and prosper. They had nothing of the technology we so take for granted (not even the wheel). images-1They were handed no instruction manual for how to utilize the stones, bones, plants, animals, and shells, etc., they found. They had to figure it all out for themselves. “Primitive savages?” I don’t think so.

Hawaii, consonant with its geographic remoteness, is certainly culturally the most distinctive of the 50 states. It’s American diversity par excellence. Unlike in the continental U.S., the natives were not driven out or marginalized, but remain an integral part of Hawaiian life – albeit with ethnic admixtures from all the Japanese, Chinese, Filipinos, Portuguese, Germans, Koreans, etc., and of course Americans who migrated mainly to work the plantations.

My wife Therese doing yoga on Maui

My wife Therese doing yoga on Maui

There is a viewpoint that sees 1893 as a crime; and controversial legislation has been promoted that would give native Hawaiians (as if that status could be definitively determined) some sort of special status, almost a parallel government to negotiate with the U.S. one. It’s all very politically correct, but I consider it un-American. Of all the crimes in the annals of world history, 1893 wasn’t much of one. I’m no fan of monarchy generally as a political system, and while Hawaii’s later royals may not have been bad, earlier ones were not mild Barack Obama types. America took the islands virtually without bloodshed and comparatively little dissension; and few of those with native Hawaiian ancestry today seem desirous of undoing the past century’s developments.

Unknown-2I certainly did not feel like I was touring a crime scene. Instead, I glory in how so many different kinds of people get along so well in Hawaii. To me, that we have taken to our bosom this remote speck of civilization in the middle of the Pacific, as an equal and valued member of our polity, bespeaks the great soul of this nation. I came back – if this were possible – loving America even more.

* In 1843, a British naval officer arrived and forced the king to cede the islands to Britain; but the British government quickly disavowed his action and returned sovereignty to the natives.

** Hawaii is not our westernmost state. Alaska is.

ISIS Beheadings: Murder, Not “Execution”

February 1, 2015

imagesMy dictionary defines “execution” as “putting to death in accordance with a legally imposed sentence.” The Islamic State’s beheadings are not “executions,” and that word should not be used in talking about them. The correct word is murder.

Stop the Hate Speech

January 29, 2015

American political discourse “is ugly, as civility has been replaced by bitter reactive battles,” laments Michael Werner in a recent issue of The Humanist magazine. Then he says, “we have to expose the hidden racism that permeates political discourse.” And later he queries how we can “bend the needle towards mutual understanding.”

UnknownHere’s a suggestion: stop calling people racists.

Our politics has indeed been poisoned by zealots seeing opponents as not just wrong but wicked. Both sides are guilty – but the left far more than the right. The same issue of The Humanist also had an excerpt from David Niose’s book on how to combat the right. Typically, like authors Thomas Frank and George Lakoff, whose books I’ve reviewed, Niose sees the political right as basically just shilling for, and manipulated by, “corporate interests.” Lakoff actually believes corporate profits are what conservatives mainly care about. Frank thinks they want the poor kept poor; indeed, want more people poor. And Niose, like Michael Werner, plays the race card: he calls racism the “underlying catalyst” and “at the roots” of modern American conservatism.

I’ve noted lab experiments showing most people unconsciously do react to racial cues. imagesHowever, call me starry-eyed, but the vast majority of Americans, in their conscious minds and hearts, harbor racial goodwill. Those who do not – the real racists – are a small minority of losers at the margins of society. To throw around phrases like “hidden racism that permeates political discourse,” or to tar the political leanings of half the country as rooted in racism, is irresponsible smear-mongering. It’s hate speech.*

Speaking of which, Paul Rapp is a lawyer and columnist for a local alternative newspaper.

Lying, pathetic, pandering, etc. . . and of course racist?

Lying, pathetic, pandering, etc. . . and of course racist?

Writing about “net neutrality,” which Senator Cruz (I’m no fan) called the “Obamacare of the Internet,” Rapp said this “reveals Ted Cruz as a lying, pathetic, pandering, cowardly, racist, fascist little douchebag, an embarrassment to us all.” More recently Rapp labeled John McCain a “doddering old traitor.” (Who’s the embarrassment?)

I don’t consider myself “conservative” or “on the right” in today’s American political taxonomy. But I think I understand that viewpoint. Whereas its popularity flummoxes writers like Frank, Lakoff, and Niose. Were conservatism truly the stinkpot they imagine, its political success might indeed be baffling. However, these guys are clueless about what really makes conservatives tick; they’re blinded by their stereotyping, demonizing caricatures.

Unknown-1A better understanding is found in Jonathan Haidt’s excellent book, The Righteous Mind. His analysis shows conservatives aren’t less moralistic than liberals; in fact, they use a larger moral palette. Tellingly, Haidt reports on questionnaire studies, where liberals were instructed to answer as though they were conservatives, and vice versa. Conservatives did quite well at predicting liberal responses; but liberals failed miserably at guessing what conservatives would say. images-1That’s because they really do see conservatives as grotesquely uncaring and selfish. They can’t seem to imagine that maybe, just maybe, the political right is motivated not by racism, or greed, or “corporate interests,” but, rather, sincere beliefs about what is truly best for all of society.

* We’re told relentlessly that opposition to Obama is, at its core, all about his race. Would a white Democrat with the same policies have gotten less pushback? Was the left’s hatred for Bush 43 any less intense than the right’s for Obama?

Kids First: Pre-K, Pre-pre-K, Marshmallows, and Fish

January 20, 2015

Our kids come first – how often is this heard? From parents, politicians, and do-gooders alike. Children are our future; we should invest in them, with programs like pre-K.

UnknownWe do know that the first months or years in a child’s life are crucial influences on the future person and his or her success. Recall the famous “Marshmallow Test” – if a young child has the self-discipline to defer gratification for the sake of later rewards, this is a powerful predictor of flourishing in school and life. Pre-K education has also been shown very helpful in a person’s future trajectory. Modest societal investments like this, in youngsters, deliver huge returns – making productive citizens who contribute to society, as opposed to losers and criminals who detract from it and soak up resources.

imagesBut we actually should take it one level back. What’s the biggest influence on a child’s earliest years? Parents. Differential parenting is a huge explanatory factor for the kinds of people we become. And let’s be frank: parenting styles tend to differ greatly among social classes. For example, it’s estimated that by age 3, kids in lower socio-economic homes hear 30 million fewer spoken words than in affluent homes – and in the former, more of the words are discouraging rather than encouraging. Such factors tend to perpetuate divergent social outcomes from generation to generation.

images-1So Pre-K is all well and good, but we need Pre-pre-K: early education for parents. Teaching them how to break out of dysfunctional ancestral patterns, to equip their kids to pass the Marshmallow Test, and so forth. I can’t claim this as my own brilliant idea; in fact such programs do exist, notably at Harlem Children’s Zone. Investments in such efforts would generate gigantic future dividends, both economically and in quality of life.

As an example, The Economist recently noted a program in Jamaica teaching mothers of chronically malnourished youngsters how to play with them in ways that promote verbal and physical skills. Those kids grew up to earn higher incomes than “untreated” kids – even those who had not been malnourished.

The Economist was making a broader point about poverty. Many conservatives think the poor are basically responsible for their situation, while progressives blame society. Conventional economics suggests that the answer is to give people opportunities to earn their way out of poverty, and many millions have indeed done so. But it’s not quite that simple; poverty has a tendency to be self-perpetuating because of its behavioral effects. images-2Poor people often make bad economic decisions, not because they are irrational or foolish, but because they lack access to the necessary information; their poverty may make them feel powerless as well as overly risk-averse; and the resulting stressful existence is not conducive to calm deliberation. They also face structural obstacles – as I’ve written, it’s costly to be poor.

The Economist points out that whereas traditional anti-poverty programs stress supplying resources, a behavioral approach focuses instead on how choices are made and how they can be improved. For instance, sending kids to school should be a no-brainer for their future well-being; yet in many poor countries, parents often don’t send them; however, some Latin American programs giving cash payments to those who do have dramatically boosted school attendance.

images-3There’s some truth in the old saw about giving people fish versus teaching them to fish. But teaching fishing may not be enough. People may need to be taught to want to fish.


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