Tufts Graduation – Madeleine Albright and Drinking Urine

May 22, 2015
Photo by Dan Della Penta

Photo by Dan Della Penta

Last weekend we attended our daughter Elizabeth Robinson’s graduation from Tufts University. She got a degree in International Relations and Economics, summa cum laude, and received the prestigious John Gibson prize for her research at Jordan’s Za’atari Refugee Camp.

In June, she will return to Jordan to live; first with another round of intensive Arabic study on a State Department scholarship, and then starting her employment with Questscope, an NGO concentrating on youth empowerment and refugee issues in the Middle East, with which she’s been working.

We’re often asked if we’re unhappy about her going there. To the contrary. From a young age Elizabeth has set for herself a high standard of excellence in preparation for life as a citizen of the world. She is on a worthy mission, and living her dream.

It is customary to say we’re proud of her. But that sort of makes it about us, reflecting credit upon us. However, Elizabeth is more than usually a self-made person; she’s really done all this herself, leaving us as bystanders, holding her coat. More than pride I feel admiration for her, and also much gratitude because she’s made parenting so easy for us.

150517_kdb_tuftsgraduation0002The chief commencement speaker was former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. In her address she took note of some hallowed Tufts traditions, including picture-taking at the elephant statue, and drinking urine. The latter was news to me, and I was frankly shocked to hear such a thing from such distinguished lips.

At least “drinking urine” was what we all thought we heard Albright say. But Elizabeth speculated she was actually saying, “drinking at The Burin,” which is the name of a popular local bar. It’s also been suggested that The Burin would now do well to add to its menu a new drink: “the Madeleine Albright.”

Photo by Therese Broderick

Photo by Therese Broderick

For a more serious report on Albright’s speech, click here. And for another blog post about imbibing urine, click here.

Police, Blacks, Prisons, Drugs, and Neighborhoods

May 18, 2015

UnknownAmerica – “Land of the Free” – leads the world in locking people up. Yes, our incarceration rates exceed those in the most repressive countries like Russia or China.

Can it be that Americans lead the world in criminality? I think not.

Our over-incarceration is really a case of black over-incarceration. The black percentage of inmates way exceeds their percentage of the general population. It’s a holocaust for black communities and a significant contributor to our gaping socio-economic divide. I’ve written about how single motherhood exacerbates that divide. Over 70% of black children are born to unwed mothers – partly because so many black men’s marriageability is reduced by the criminal justice system. In Milwaukee, over half the black men in their thirties have been in prison.

It’s tempting to say, well, all this does reflect a higher rate of criminal behavior – if blacks didn’t do so many crimes they wouldn’t fill the prisons. But, in partial answer, blacks are more likely than whites to be imprisoned for comparable offenses. And one reason for that is blacks are more targeted by police. Discrimination? Rather, it’s mainly because they live in more crime-ridden areas.

imagesNow we get into a chicken-and-egg conundrum. Citizens in crime-infested neighborhoods need more police attention, for their own protection. And obviously it makes sense for police to deploy resources to locales where crime is concentrated. But on the other hand, if you go looking for something, chances are you will find it – so heavy police attention in black neighborhoods means that a lot of blacks will get caught up in that net, whereas quiet white neighborhoods are lightly policed with consequently fewer arrests.

UnknownThis sounds like a hopeless dilemma. But there’s another big fact: a lot of black arrests and imprisonments are drug-related. This is a huge wound for America that is self-inflicted. Whatever may be the harm of drug use, the harm of the “War on Drugs” is vastly greater. And if decriminalization led to more drug use – very doubtful – the harm of that increase would be vastly outweighed by the societal benefits of stopping the misguided drug war.images-1

Citizens in crime-ridden black neighborhoods do not benefit when police pull out half the males for drug-related offenses. They would benefit, greatly, if police could stop doing that, to concentrate their efforts instead on combating the violent crimes, muggings, burglaries, etc, that plague these neighborhoods. That would go far toward mending the broken relationships between the police and the policed.

Another point: kids growing up in bad neighborhoods tend to do badly, and bad neighborhoods are hard to fix (as half a century of well-intentioned social programs proves). But The Economist recently noted some pilot programs giving people vouchers to move to better neighborhoods. Voilà, their children did better. But, the magazine lamented, giving every poor black family such a “golden ticket” would cost about $30 billion a year. Unknown-1My reaction: Say what? Only $30 billion?! Why, the government loses more than that between its sofa cushions. (Almost literally: it’s estimated the feds make $125 billion in improper payments annually.) Thirty billion is less than 1% of the federal budget. Sounds like a no-brainer bargain to me, surely a better expenditure than all those other social programs mentioned.

“I Want Frida Kahlo’s Face Tattooed on my Ass”

May 13, 2015

images-1We recently attended Albany’s Tulip/Pinkster-fest, with numerous vendor booths. The first modern one was held in 1972, reviving an old festival; I was actually one of its organizers, and I set up myself there, displaying my surrealist paintings. Untitled-1A gal painter had set up next to me, and we wound up going home together. Nice. However, our relationship didn’t get too far, as she was an ex-nun, and I, of course, was not.

Prominent at this year’s fest was soap – booth after booth featuring fancy soaps. Are we developing a Japanese-style cleanliness fetish? One might snigger at the consumerism that makes such a big thing of soap. But actually, though we take it for granted, soap was one of Mankind’s greatest inventions. You might have thought it would put the perfume industry out of business, but no, that still seems to flourish as well. Anyhow, I think it’s absolutely wonderful to be living in a society so affluent that fancy soaps can sustain so many enterprises. If folks enjoy soap, I don’t want some holier-than-thou anti-consumerist scolds telling them they’re wrong.

A snippet of conversation overheard while wending our way through the dense crowds: “I want Frida Kahlo’s face tattooed on my ass.”

images-2Now, I frankly don’t get all this tattooing. I happen to think it messes up the appearance of girls who would otherwise be quite attractive. And for that matter, I don’t get the Frida Kahlo thing either. OK, she was maybe an interesting artist, but was she, like, the female Picasso? I don’t think so. Seems she’s been raised to some kind of iconic pedestal because she was treated like dirt by her more famous artist boyfriend. This is feminism?

Anyhow, hearing “I want Frida Kahlo’s face tattooed on my ass” was the highlight of my Pinksterfest experience. You can’t make up gems like that.

Or maybe I mis-heard it.

Visit to the 9/11 Memorial and Museum – A Humanist Monument

May 9, 2015

Unknown-1It was a little before 10 AM; I was enjoying the lovely weather, in my comfy lounge chair outdoors, working on a coin catalog, when my wife drove up and, with tears in her eyes, said, “The United States has been attacked!”

Recently on a New York jaunt we visited the 9/11 Memorial and Museum. It was impressive and moving.

UnknownThe memorial pools have a beautiful grandeur that photos do not convey. The museum too is, of course, a memorial to the 2,977 people lost; and one alcove, displaying all their photos, gives a sobering sense of just how many people that was – real people, not faceless numbers.

But mainly it is actually a memorial to the buildings. Now, we have visited numerous sites and museums with ruins, but this is different. Here are the ruins of buildings that were part of my own life. The PSC where I worked had offices there, and over many years I attended numerous hearings there, sometimes for weeks at a time. Also, the annual international coin show was held there; the last in December 2000.

Unknown-2Yet this is a profoundly humanist monument. In memorializing those buildings, the museum memorializes the people who built them, showing what a stupendous undertaking and achievement this was. The contrast, though unstated, is inevitable, between the soaring ambition and effort of those people, and what can be said of the ones who authored the destruction.

Of them the museum is, fittingly I thought, silent (except for a solitary exhibit case concerning the Abbottabad mission). The destroyers would have said they acted for God, and that was another thing fittingly absent from the museum – the word God. Given America’s pervasive religiosity, the omission reflected remarkable restraint by the museum’s creators, who eschewed all sorts of mawkishness that would have detracted from the solemnity. They seemed instead to follow the principle of res ipsa loquitur – the thing speaks for itself.

Photo by Therese Broderick

Photo by Therese Broderick

I am proud to be part of a society that conceived and built those buildings, as well as this memorial – and the new tower. It’s a better society than the one that spawned the destroyers.

The British Election Mess

May 4, 2015

Time was, Britain ruled the world. Even in later times it “punched above its weight.” But no more. Chastened by perceived failures in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Brits have been sadly missing in action regarding Syria, Ukraine, and ISIS.

At least they have a record of effective governance, as against America’s dysfunctional gridlock. But that too looks set to change. Here’s a primer on the looming May 7 election disaster:

Blair

Blair

Let’s start with Tony Blair, who heroically dragged the Labour Party into electability by defanging its loony left. But they never forgave him, and used Iraq to make him a pariah after leaving office. His Labour successor, Gordon Brown, lacking Blair’s flair, became a sitting duck at the 2010 election.

Cameron

Cameron

It was won by David Cameron who, Blairlike, had detoxified his own Conservative (Tory) party. But – partly because Britain is effectively gerrymandered to favor Labour – the Tories missed an overall parliamentary majority, so went into a more or less unprecedented coalition with the Liberal Democrat third party, holding the balance of power.

Miliband

Miliband

Then, in the fight for Labour’s leadership, the obvious candidate, David Miliband, was beaten by his own brother, Ed – theretofore a nonentity. Why? Ed played to the party’s unrepentant loony left, tired of politically unsexy moderation. Since then, he’s generally been rated a disaster.

Cameron’s government has done quite a good job cleaning up the fiscal mess Labour left, Britain’s economy is humming nicely, and the Tories have noticeably failed to commit the crimes of Labour’s fevered class-war scaremongering. But many Brits give the government little credit for its economic achievements, and don’t feel much better off. Yet even so, given such a lame Labour alternative, spouting economic quackery, whom no one can seriously picture as prime minister, game over, no?

Well – it’s complicated.

Sturgeon

Sturgeon

One complication, that seemingly cuts against Labour, is Scotland where, despite losing the independence referendum, the Scottish National Party (SNP, with a spiffy new leader, Nicola Sturgeon) is on a tear to annihilate what had been Labour’s solid block of Scottish parliament seats.

But meantime, in England, the Tories’ lunch is being eaten by the UK Independence Party, blokish, anti-EU, and anti-immigrant, also with a quasi-plausible leader in Nigel Farage.

Farage

Farage

UKIP will actually win few seats (Britain does not have proportional representation), but may well drain enough votes to sink the Tories in many constituencies.

What about the Lib-Dems? They were a popular third alternative, a “less loony left,” as long as they could posture virtuously without dirtying their hands with actual governance. Now that bloom is off the rose, and the Lib-Dems are plummeting, likely to lose most of their seats. They’ll be supplanted as the third largest block in parliament by the SNP, whose very raison d’etre is Tory-hatred (the chief impetus behind Scottish independence).

Some other oddball parties will win seats, including Welsh and Northern Irish local outfits, and possibly Greens, making it even harder for any party to get an absolute majority in parliament. The result will be a real mess. But, barring an unlikely outright Tory majority, we’ll probably wind up saying hello to Prime Minister Miliband – with a weak government hostage to a party of regional secessionists having an economic program even dottier than his own. Moreover, whereas in the past an inconclusive result might have meant quick fresh elections, under current rules poor Britain will be stuck with this parliament for a full five year term.

What’s happening here is seen elsewhere in Europe – cranky voters unwilling to go along with responsible, grown-up economic policies, and bedazzled by the allure of shiny objects dangled by political hucksters.

Mayweather & Whoever

Mayweather & Whoever

Ah, democracy. Surely more interesting to follow than pro sports (like that recent thing – I could not care less which of two brutes can batter the other senseless.)

UPDATE MAY 8 — TORIES WIN!!  Confounding pre-election polls showing Labor and Tories about equal, presaging a hung parliament, Cameron’s Conservatives wound up crushing Labour and winning, albeit barely, an overall parliamentary majority. So the Brits (or enough of them) came to their senses in the end — it must have been my blog post that turned it around. Labour was also, as predicted, wiped out in Scotland. Their wretched leader, Ed Miliband, has resigned. So much for the loony left.

Poetry Performance, May 6, Caffe Lena

May 3, 2015

Scan 2My wife, Therese Broderick, and I will be the featured poets at Caffe Lena on Wednesday, May 6 — we’re pleased to appear on such a distinguished stage where the likes of Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsburg have preceded us.

Caffe Lena is at 47 Phila Street, Saratoga Springs. There will also be an open mic, sign-up starting at 7 PM; the readings begin at 7:30. Admission $5. The event is sponsored by Northshire Bookstore.

Slavery and American Capitalism

April 29, 2015

imagesRecently I presented a book review talk at the Albany Public Library; the book was Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism.

Before being asked to do this, I well remembered the review in The Economist. It concluded, “Mr. Baptist has not written an objective history of slavery. Almost all the blacks in his book are victims, almost all the whites villains.” I said to myself: Whoah!

And I also remembered what happened next — something I’d never before seen in The Economist. An “editor’s note” appeared, apologizing for, and withdrawing, that book review. images-1Particularly regarding those quoted final lines, the editor said there had been widespread criticism, and rightly so; that the great majority of slavery’s victims had been blacks, “and the great majority of whites involved in slavery were willing participants and beneficiaries of that evil.”

Thus spake The Economist. If you’d like to see my review of the book, I have uploaded the text (unsuitably long for a blog post); click here. Mostly, it’s a portrayal of slavery. Warning: not a pretty picture.

Presidential Politics

April 24, 2015
"Season 2"

“Season 2″

After two decades of Clinton wars, Bush wars, and Obama wars, will we really elect Hillary Clinton and extend this baneful syndrome of half the country hysterically hating the president? We may get it in any case, but wouldn’t this be just asking for it?

She herself once spoke of a “vast right-wing conspiracy” against the Clintons. Sure, there was opposition; but that was exactly the kind of hyperbolic language feeding the syndrome.

Emailgate does too, going to the heart of why so many people distrust Hillary. She says the e-mails not made public were personal, but we have only her word for that, with no independent review.

"I did not have inappropriate email with that server."

“I did not have inappropriate email with that server.”

What could she be hiding? Plenty — like conflicts of interest between her public duties and contributions to her foundation, some from influence peddlers and sleazy foreign governments. This spits in her detractors’ faces. Gad, what would her presidency be like?

Better than Obama’s at least. There’s hope of ameliorating the calamitous global unraveling for which he can partly be blamed. I’d rather have Hillary in the White House when Putin makes his move on the Baltics. One might also dream that a pragmatic Clinton, loath to leave a legacy of economic disaster, might force her own party to face fiscal reality.

Which brings me to Chris Christie’s recent call to raise eligibility ages for Social Security and Medicare (and cut off Social Security for high earners like me). “Through its unwillingness to address our biggest challenges in an honest way,” Christie said, “the Obama administration has put us on a perilous course for both our short-term and our long-term futures.” He added that politicians “don’t believe that the American people have the appetite for hard truths. Once again, they underestimate the people that they serve. Americans not only deserve fairness, they deserve the honesty of their leaders.”

Unknown-1Christie must have read some of my past blog posts. He’s being incredibly gutsy. We know the kind of attacks Democrats will lob (remember the ads showing Paul Ryan dumping granny over a cliff). Let voters choose between such demagogy and a forthright reality-based set of proposals like Christie’s.

There’s also much to like in Marco Rubio’s candidacy.

Rubio

Rubio

Republicans too often needlessly invite the granny-over-the-cliff trope, appearing as though uncaring toward less affluent citizens. Rubio does not, and is a poster boy for how sensible conservative policies can benefit the whole country, including the disadvantaged. One line in his 2012 convention speech really impressed me: calling out the fallacy that every dollar in a rich person’s wallet is taken from a poor one’s, a notion which underlies much economic quackery. Rubio’s insightfulness is refreshing.

Don’t Believe Everything You Think

April 20, 2015

UnknownDaniel Kahneman’s book, Thinking Fast and Slow says there are two distinct systems operating inside your skull. “System 1” gives quick, intuitive answers to questions confronting us, utilizing thought algorithms rooted deeply in our evolutionary past. “System 2” is slower and more analytical, used when we actually (have to) think, as opposed to just reacting.

imagesBecause you utilize System 2 consciously, whereas System 1 works unconsciously, you tend to see yourself embodied in System 2. We do like to believe we do our own thinking, rather than having some black box, to which we have no access, just handing us answers. But the latter is closer to the truth, most of the time. In fact, as Kahneman stresses, System 2 is lazy, hence often glad to just accept System 1’s answers, not even realizing it.

This comports with Jonathan Haidt’s metaphor in The Righteous Mind: System 2 is a rider on the back of an elephant that is System 1. images-1We imagine the rider is in charge. But mostly the rider is really working for the elephant, rationalizing the elephant’s choices.

All this would be fine if System 1 were totally rational, but of course it’s not, and books like Kahneman’s have been taken as debunking the very idea of our being rational creatures. Unknown-1Kahneman uses the term “Econs” (perhaps short for homo economicus) for the hypothetical people who behave as economic theory says. As opposed to – well – “humans,” who do not.

One key example of how System 1’s decisional algorithms are irrationally biased is undue loss aversion, weighting potential losses more heavily than equal potential gains. Unknown-2If offered a coin flip bet paying $10 for heads but costing $6 for tails, most people will refuse; the 50% chance of winning $10 is not enough to compensate for the fear of the pain of losing $6! Lab experiments consistently confirm many permutations of this irrational bias.

We don’t often encounter coin flip bets, but this bias infects many aspects of human behavior – like investment decisions – as well as public policy. Case in point: GM food. Europeans in particular are so averse to potential risks (an extreme “precautionary principle”) that the truly small (indeed, mostly imaginary) risks of GM foods blind them to the truly large benefits.

Meanwhile, the idea that humans aren’t rational has entered political debate, as an argument against market economics, which supposedly is premised on rational economic behavior (homo economicus again).

Here’s what I (System 2) think. Obviously, we don’t behave with perfect rationality. But rationality isn’t either/or, it’s a spectrum, and on the continuum between perfect rationality and perfect irrationality, we’re far toward the rational end. Our entire civilization, with all its complex institutions and arrangements, is a supreme monument to rationality. Unknown-3And as individuals we behave rationally most of the time – overwhelmingly. If you want toast, you put bread in the toaster. That’s rational – as distinguished from, say, praying to a toast god. (And we’re getting ever better about this.) Furthermore, your preference for toast over cereal is a rational choice, based on your long experience of what is most likely to please you. You even know how toasted you like it.

And even when we default to System 1, that is not irrational. Let’s not forget that System 1 evolved over many eons not to lead us astray but, instead, to help us cope with life’s challenges (thus to survive and reproduce; for instance, a loss aversion bias made a lot of sense in an environment where “loss” could well translate as death). So – for all its biases and quirks, extensively explicated by Kahneman – System 1 also has a lot of virtues. In fact we simply could not function without it. If we had only System 2, forcing us to stop and consciously analyze every little thing in daily life, we’d be paralyzed. Thus, utilizing our System 1 – faults and all – is highly rational.

The same answer refutes the critique of market economics. We are far more rational than not, in our marketplace choices and decisions concerning goods and services. Market actors are fundamentally engaged in serving their desires, needs, and preferences, in as rational a manner as could reasonably be expected, even if imperfect. (See my review of Tim Harford’s The Undercover Economist.) Allowing that to play out, as much as possible, is more likely to serve people’s true interests than overriding their choices in favor of some different (perforce more arbitrary) process.

Kahneman was informative about a topic of perennial interest – how people form and maintain beliefs.* Here again, while we fancy this is a System 2 function, System 1 is really calling the shots; and again is reactive rather than analytical. System 1 jumps to conclusions based on whatever limited information it has. Kahneman uses a clumsy acronym, WYSIATI – System 1 works as if “what you see is all there is” – i.e., there’s no additional information available – or needed. System 1 is “radically insensitive to both the quality and quantity of the information that gives rise to impressions and intuitions.”

Unknown-4What’s most important to System 1 is that the story it creates be coherent; it’s averse to the discomfort of cognitive dissonance, and hence hostile to any new information that doesn’t jibe with the story it has already created. Indeed, it is paradoxically easier to construct a coherent story the less you know – fewer pieces to fit into the puzzle. Experiments have shown that subjects exposed to only one-sided information – and who know that that’s so – nevertheless show greater confidence in their resulting judgments than do subjects getting both sides. We have a great ability to ignore our ignorance!

At the risk of sounding smug, I have always sort of recognized this and consciously try to avoid it, by adhering to what I call my ideology of reality. That is, I try to let my perceptions of reality dictate my beliefs, rather than letting my beliefs dictate my perceptions of reality. I am not a perfect “econ,” but I think I am one of the more econ-like humans around.

* An aside: humans are pre-programmed for belief. Is that a lion lurking? The believer loses nothing if he’s wrong. The skeptic, if he’s wrong, may be lunch. Thus belief is the preferred stance, and people readily believe in UFOs, homeopathy, and God.

Announcing My Candidacy For President

April 16, 2015

images-1I am announcing my candidacy for President of the United States.

Leadership.

Middle Class.

Renewing America’s Promise.

Jobs.

Fairness.

Common sense.images

Education.

Did I mention Middle Class?

A new direction.

Investing in our future.

Fight for you.

The America I love.

A helping hand.Unknown-2

Not big government but smart government.

Our neighbors.

An America that works.

Our kids.

Across the partisan divide.

For all Americans.images-1

Our grandchildren.

Best days are still ahead.

Our planet.

Middle class.

God bless America.

images

 

 

 

 


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