Archive for January, 2015

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American political discourse “is ugly, as civility has been replaced by bitter reactive battles,” laments Michael Werner in a recent issue of The Humanist magazine.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?

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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.

Great News: Sri Lanka Blows Off Authoritarianism

January 15, 2015
Rajapaksa

Rajapaksa

I have written before about Sri Lanka’s vile President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Yet another example of how power corrupts. Together with his band of brothers he was well along toward thoroughly undoing Sri Lanka’s democracy, and establishing a repressive authoritarian regime. The Rajapaksa boys were using the time-honored method of crushing any opposition or dissent through every means possible ranging from abuse of legal process to outright murder.

Last time, the big hero of Sri Lanka’s recent civil war tried to run against Rajapaksa, but was easily seen off and jailed for his trouble. Rajapaksa must have been pretty cocky because he decided to advance the next election by two years; no credible opponent was on the horizon, and Rajapaksa, controlling the vast resources of the government to propagandize, did seem impregnable.

But then his former health minister, Maithripala Sirisena, defected to run against him, on a shoestring. And – despite the incumbent’s overwhelming advantages – a huge shocker, Rajapaksa was beaten by a margin sufficiently decisive that he didn’t even try to tough it out.

Sirisena

Sirisena

Sirisena says that what Sri Lanka needs is “not a king, but a real human being.” Taking office quickly, he’s already dismantling some of Rajapaksa’s instrumentalities of repression, like blocked websites, and surveillance. Rajapaksa looks likely to be prosecuted now for his abuses, and headed for prison.

This is an absolutely thrilling thing. I’m reminded of Lincoln’s famous line that you can’t fool all the people all the time. Despite the intensive propagandizing by the Rajapaksa regime, the Sri Lankans – at least a majority – could see through it, and were smart enough to reject it. So much for the oft-invoked conventional wisdom that Asians are somehow culturally comfortable with authoritarianism.

Of course history never runs neatly, and things may well get messy in Sri Lanka. But the big fact is that its democracy has now been rescued, by its citizens, from a grave threat. People do understand the value of a democratic society, and will act on that understanding. This was a good day for optimists, and a bad one for cynics.

imagesMaybe Francis Fukuyama was right after all.

“Everything is Awesome” – The Lego Movie and Ideology

January 11, 2015

Unknown(Consonant with my ongoing effort to provide readers with insight concerning seminal cultural phenomena, herewith is my meditation on The Lego Movie)

A megalomaniacal corporate villain threatens to end Life As We Know It. A proletarian everyman transcends his limitations to save the world in an unexpected way; and gets the girl.

“We’ve seen this movie before” is the fitting cliché. Indeed, this is the unvarying plot for a certain species of animated epic (Robots was another example).

President Business

President Business

The Lego Movie’s evil entity isn’t exactly corporate – it seems to be governmental –but there’s a melding, with the bad guy named “President Business.”

That name makes a rather unsubtle ideological statement. Of course the creative types behind these films are all lefties, so there’s never a business or businessperson that’s anything but wicked. Yet it always amuses me to remember that these corporation-hating movies are financed, produced, and distributed by . . . corporations . . . to make profits. images-3Well, Lenin did say capitalists will sell the rope to hang them with.

But back to The Lego Movie. Despite my jaundiced remarks thus far, this is a wonderful film which we thoroughly enjoyed. Really. It’s actually not an extended commercial for Lego toys. From start to finish there’s not a dull minute in it. And with much droll humor, it’s not just a kid’s movie. Or maybe one has to be a kid at heart.

I’m not too jaded to appreciate the creativity that goes into something like this. It’s a visual phantasmagoria, that goes by so fast I almost wanted to view it in slo-mo. And having characters that are, well, mere Lego figures, was surely a creative challenge, but at every turn the film actually makes that work for the viewer’s entertainment. Although the characters are, to be sure, given human-like personalities, the ending sequence, in a truly brilliant and unexpected way (which I won’t reveal) plays upon the fact that they are after all in reality Lego toys.

images-1And so, while with evil “President Business” and all that, the film ritualistically carries the baggage of anti-capitalist ideology, on a meta level the fact that it was made by a corporation, for profit, shows us those are not dirty words. This film’s corporate producer profits because people willingly pay it for something they value more than the money spent, in this case, entertainment, amusement, enjoyment. images-2In a market economy the vast bulk of profits earned are likewise garnered by giving people things they value. Creating that value is how we all get richer and live better.

Go see The Lego Movie and do your bit for corporate profit.

Mario Cuomo and Bess Myerson

January 6, 2015

imagesMy view of Mario Cuomo was not colored by his having knocked me publicly.

I was a PSC administrative law judge, presiding over a case involving Long Island’s Shoreham nuclear power plant – at the time, a huge issue. Governor Cuomo was hostile to the plant and its utility builder. One day when I came to work, people made remarks like, “Hey Frank, how are your credentials?” I was mystified, until I saw a news report: asked at a press conference about one of my recommendations (contrary to his position), Cuomo dismissed it, saying, “Well, what are his credentials?”

images-2Shoreham fell victim to a safety hysteria. There was no undue risk, in relation to all the normal risks of modern life. But “nuclear” is a scare word, and opponents thought it reasonable to insist on literally zero risk (even those traveling to hearings by car, a technology with risks far above zero). The Cuomo administration aligned with those opponents and spearheaded a settlement to junk the nearly completed $5 billion project. The PSC had to approve this, and I was again the judge. I recommended against the settlement. At the Commission’s meeting I was given no speaking role – highly unusual. And my report was not made public, also highly unusual. However, one Commissioner cheekily appended it to his dissent. And PSC Chairman Bradford later told me he’d welcomed my recommendation – it gave the proceedings a veneer of objectivity!

images-3Later, one early evening I was driving not far from the Executive Mansion and ahead of me saw a man who seemed to be wandering aimlessly in the middle of the road. I thought he was drunk, and had to slow to avoid hitting him. As I passed, I recognized the Governor.

Recently I had occasion to comment on Cuomo’s most famous speech, the 1984 “tale of two cities.” UnknownI thought it was an unfair attack on President Reagan, as though he, and Republicans in general, were blind to those Americans having a tough time. Admittedly, Republicans do a good job opening themselves up to such jabs. I don’t understand how Democrats get away with posturing as the tribunes of the common man, when their policies are actually ruinous for the country as a whole. (Trade protectionism is a prime example: protecting the few at the expense of the many.)

But Cuomo’s 1984 speech made him a great liberal hero, so that 30 years later, the local paper and NPR station gave his death massive fawning coverage. I wonder whether his successor George Pataki, who served an equal three gubernatorial terms, will get anything remotely comparable.

I will say this about Mario Cuomo: he was an honorable politician, a mensch, a man of true substance, who played it straight. His son, not so much.

images-4Bess Myerson’s link with Cuomo was her being a big pal of Ed Koch, whom Cuomo beat for Governor. She was the first – and so far only – Jewish Miss America – before I was born, in 1945. Her ethnicity was actually very controversial then – how far we’ve come since! Unlike Cuomo, she died in obscurity, so much so that her December 14 death wasn’t even reported till January 5.

Unknown-1I had a Bess Myerson moment too. In the ‘70s she was New York City Consumer Affairs Commissioner; I met her when she testified at a PSC hearing. A recess found me in a side-room talking on the telephone. Myerson walked in and said to me, “Is that phone working?”

Has Progress Stalled?

January 3, 2015

UnknownOn December 17, 1903, the Wright brothers achieved a 12-second, 120-foot flight. Within about half a century, we were flying to Europe in eight hours. After a further half century, we’re doing it in . . . eight hours. Meantime, the Concorde, that could do it in three, was abandoned.

So has progress actually juddered to a halt? Michael Hanlon, writing recently in Aeon, says yes. He sees a “Golden Quarter” (GQ) from about 1945 to 1971 as the source of all the innovations defining the modern world, with nothing comparable since. imagesAirplanes are Exhibit A; only marginally improved since the ‘60s, with no quantum leap analogous to that between the Wright Flyer and the Boeing 707. The Jetsons’ flying car never materialized. The Moon hasn’t been visited in 42 years. Similarly, in medicine, Hanlon puts all the world-changing advancements behind us, with continuing longevity gains being merely attributable to building on those past breakthroughs. We still haven’t cured cancer. Even social progress, he says, was great in the GQ, with nothing like it since.

Why? Hanlon proposes various answers. One is . . . wait for it . . . rising inequality. Progressives are obsessed over this, trying to prove inequality causes all manner of ills. Hanlon attributes the GQ innovation to a world getting richer, but says concentrating wealth in few hands somehow stifles innovation and breeds “planned obsolescence” of products instead. Unknown-1That linkage seems obscure; and anyway, while inequality within countries may be rising, worldwide it’s a different story, because the poorer nations – notably India and China, both huge – are experiencing faster economic growth than the advanced ones. Thus, far more people have far more income and wealth today.

More persuasive is Hanlon’s saying we’ve become less trusting of science and more risk-averse. An earlier generation was in love with technological and medical improvements, remembering how bad things were before. Today we forget, and even romanticize “the good old days.” Unknown-2There’s a belief that science and technology are false gods leading us astray, and a frightened focus on risks rather than rewards; thus a “precautionary principle” that rejects anything not proven riskless, an impossible standard. This gives us the misguided anti-immunization movement, opposition to fracking, and to Genetic Modification that could entail huge benefits for billions. Hanlon thinks a manned Moon mission would be considered too dangerous today.*

He also cites a 2011 essay, The Great Stagnation, by economist Tyler Cowen, suggesting that the U.S. in particular has reached a technological plateau. images-2Cowen thought past advances were grabbing “low hanging fruit,” and further progress is simply much harder. But Hanlon actually rejects that idea as “fanciful,” saying that historically, “it has often seemed that a plateau has been reached, only for a new discovery to shatter old paradigms completely.” He cites Kelvin in 1900 declaring physics essentially done – just before Einstein came along. (Perhaps an odd point to make in an article contending progress has stalled.)

I’m no physicist, but I do think we’ve now reached a point where nothing could “shatter old paradigms completely.” images-1The “low hanging fruit” metaphor also seems applicable to Hanlon’s prime exhibit, air travel. Not that jet planes aren’t a technological miracle – but, for moving lots of people long distances, this may be about the best that’s practicable, and any greater speed would entail a host of problems. We gave up on the Concorde for good reasons. And never got flying cars because that’s actually not a very good idea either.**

This perspective prompts a broader response to Hanlon – a la “what more do you want?” We can travel to Europe in eight hours! Moreover, as Hanlon actually acknowledges, that’s become affordable to ordinary people. Unknown-3(Which happened after the GQ.) Similarly, social progress has been enormous – civil rights, women’s liberation, etc. – also mostly subsequent to the GQ – and is still unfolding for gay rights. Violence (as Steven Pinker has persuasively shown), of all sorts, continues to decline. We may not be perfect yet, but surely there’s a lot less work still to do.

But none of this means progress, in all its manifestations, has fizzled out, and Hanlon has to twist things hard to make it seem so. While early on he sneers that progress today “is defined almost entirely by consumer-driven, often banal improvements to information technology,” later he allows that “the modern internet is a wonder, more impressive in many ways than Apollo.” The Internet too postdated the GQ.

images-1Hanlon is ultimately a victim of a myopia he himself describes. It is indeed easy to take for granted and belittle modern amenities, forgetting what went before. It’s what Barry Schwartz, in The Paradox of Choice, called the adaptation effect – one adapts to the life one has now, which does seem banal, underappreciated as merely what one now expects. Day-to-day, or even year-to-year, progress may not seem evident. But if you compare today with 1971 – the end of Hanlon’s Golden Quarter – the difference is huge on a host of fronts.

And while “what more do you want?” may be a fair perspective on modernity, there are still big things we can yet aim for. We won’t blow ourselves up, or be done in by climate change. For all the fretting over that and rising inequality, I actually foresee steady economic advancement and a global mass affluence that will truly constitute a quantum change in the human condition. Similarly transformative will be further progress on health. Death by old age is a solvable medical problem.

Finally, all this improvement will be propelled by advancing artificial intelligence. That looms as a stupendous game-changer – Ray Kurzweil’s “singularity” when life becomes altogether different. images-3Stephen Hawking actually worries this threatens humanity (and I recently reviewed a movie with that view). I’m more optimistic, and foresee an eventual convergence between Humanity 1.0, of the flesh, and a cybernetic version 2.0.

I discussed this in my famous 2013 Humanist magazine article, The Human Future: Upgrade or Replacement? And if anyone in that future remembers the Hanlon article, it’ll quaintly sound like Kelvin in 1900.

* He aptly notes that the thalidomide episode was awful, but such occasional screw-ups are the inevitable costs of trying out new things, the benefits of which exceed such downsides. That perspective is being lost, an attitudinal change to which Thalidomide contributed.

** But self-driving cars are coming.