Archive for March, 2015

Inequality and Family Culture – A Disagreement With My Wife

March 28, 2015

images-1I recently left my wife a newspaper clipping, writing “Read” on it. She returned the favor by writing “Total Rubbish!” on it.

It was a column by Ross Douthat (a Republican and Christian). He poses the question “whether the social crisis among America’s poor and working class – the collapse of the two-parent family, the weakening of communal ties – is best understood as a problem of economics or culture.” images-2It’s the latter, Douthat says, identifying post-sixties permissiveness as the key, which he faults upper classes for promoting, as acceptable for themselves, but ignoring its effects “on the less-savvy, the less protected, the kids who don’t have helicopter parents.”

My wife dissed the piece as racist and classist, and having no real answer for the problem Douthat fingers. That latter point is fair, the others not. Recognizing that lower class Americans suffer from cultural pathologies is not to blame them; indeed, Douthat again blames the better-off. And as David Brooks has argued, it’s not that lower classes lack the right values or aspirations but, rather, face obstacles living those values in their social environment.

UnknownI have discussed Charles Murray’s 2012 book, Coming Apart, seeing America increasingly divided by class; Douthat too references Murray, and also Our Kids, a newer book by sociologist Robert Putnam (of Bowling Alone fame), similarly describing a growing divide between better-educated and less-educated families.

That is the real root of the inequality we hear so much about. And, as Douthat contends (the reason I found him worth reading), money inequality is not itself the problem, that’s a symptom of the greater fact of cultural difference. It’s not that the rich hog wealth at the expense of the rest, or there’s insufficient redistribution – it’s that too many people are kept back, by cultural dysfunction, from rising out of disadvantage.

Unknown-1Two distinct American family models are at issue. In one, well-educated people marry each other and become the affluent helicopter parents Douthat mentions, raising kids to get similarly educated and replicate the model. Putnam says they give kids protective “air bags” that aren’t usually deployed in the other type of family, which tends to feature neither marriage nor higher education nor (in consequence) affluence. Unknown-2And that too is self-perpetuating. Sure, single moms often make heroic efforts; but the fact is that, on average, for a host of understandable reasons, kids tend to do much better in two-parent families. (Especially well-educated affluent ones.) Children from such families do better on the “marshmallow test” for impulse control, which has been found powerfully predictive for future life success. Stressed single mothers just cannot provide the quantity or quality of parenting that married couples can.

That, again, is America’s great cultural divide, it’s the big reason behind the economic divide – and it’s growing larger. The wage gap keeps widening between the college-educated and others. Unknown-3And while marriage rates remain quite high among well-educated people, for the rest the bottom has fallen out, with a majority of younger mothers now being unmarried.

You cannot argue that economic difficulties are driving this. Because, for all the whining about “these economic times,” in fact – as Douthat highlights – even lower-income citizens have more money, and more safety-net support, than in earlier generations. Yet, he says, those past generations “found a way to cultivate monogamy, fidelity, sobriety and thrift to an extent they have not in our richer, higher-spending present.” And Putnam shows many key ways in which affluent and non-affluent families differ much more now, in habits and culture (like how they talk to and socialize their kids*), than a few decades ago. This inhibits social mobility. Again, married versus unmarried life is key.

Consider this. During the Great Depression, did marriage rates collapse and single parenthood explode? No, they did not, despite far more unemployment, much lower incomes, and much less generous government support. Unknown-4Even black Americans – who suffered not only those Depression era economic challenges, but also far worse discrimination than now – maintained very high marriage rates, with two-parent families predominating. Today black single parenthood is at seventy-three percent.

This is not “the economy, stupid.” This is cultural. Again, economic disadvantage is more a consequence than a cause. Hence better jobs, higher minimum wages, more government benefits, “tax the rich,” etc., can’t fix this. What will? Like Douthat (and Putnam), I don’t have all the answers (though I’ve made some suggestions in my post on the marshmallow test, and here too). But anyhow, at least properly understanding the problem is a necessary starting point.

*At the upper end of the social spectrum, the ambition is kids getting into college. At the other end, it’s kids staying out of jail.

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Dalai Lama Reincarnation: Who Gets to Decide?

March 23, 2015

imagesTibet has had 14 Dalai Lamas. Heretofore, when one died, the leading lamas went out to find a small child who is deemed to be the reincarnated Dalai Lama. But the current one (Tenzin Gyatso) now says he may not be reincarnated.

China disagrees, considering this something for its government to decide. Ruling Tibet by repression, China has always ferociously demonized the Dalai Lama (who left Tibet in 1959); and, when he dies, plans to dredge up some pliant toady as his supposed reincarnation (something China imagines will help solve its Tibet problem). This is what led the current Dalai Lama to get off the reincarnation train. “There is no guarantee that some stupid Dalai Lama won’t come next,” he said.

China’s satrap governor of Tibet declared that in saying such things, the Dalai Lama is “profaning religion and Tibetan Buddhism.” It is good to know that China’s rulers are so protective of such religious values; instructing the Dalai Lama himself on how to be a good Buddhist. And here we thought the Communist regime was a bunch of atheists.

images-1In fact, China actually has an official in charge of religious matters, Zhu Weiqun. It was he who insisted that Dalai Lama reincarnation is a governmental decision.

If you think we have over-mighty government in America, just imagine a government that claims the prerogative of regulating one’s reincarnation. We are fortunate to be living in a free country where reincarnation is still a private matter. I sure don’t want some government bureaucrat telling me who, if anyone, will inhabit my soul in my next life.

They might have me come back as a religious nut!

The Criminalization of American Business

March 19, 2015

When the future Gibbon chronicles America’s decline and fall, the war on business will feature prominently.

Unknown-2Some readers will gag. That’s precisely the problem. We demonize business, imagining it controls everything; fictional bad guys are invariably doing ill for profit; “corporate” is a four-letter word, with Wall Street blamed for economic troubles, and business misfeasance seemingly confirmed by repeated multi-billion dollar penalties extracted by government watchdogs.

The left harps on the imperfections of markets; about those of government, not so much. And while in many places businesses do suck, mainly this reflects not free markets at all, but the opposite — crony capitalism and cartelization suborned by the state. Denunciations of the “evils of capitalism” often fail to see that it’s really government behavior behind them.

And here’s the bigger picture. Modernity has made us very rich, compared to past millennia, with people able to live far better lives. (Fools romanticize “the good old days.”) In the last century, worldwide average real dollar incomes multiplied five-fold. Where do you think all this wealth came from? Government? Socialism?

It came from businesses seeking profit by supplying us with desired goods and services. That’s what generates all the wealth and income to buy them with. The capitalist, market system. Hate it all you like, but you cannot live without it.*

Yet it seems we’re trying to kill this goose that lays our golden eggs.

images-2A recent issue of The Economist looked critically at the mentioned parade of payments by companies to settle charges of wrongdoing, topped by Bank of America’s $17 billion in August. You might think if BofA agreed to that, it must have done something really naughty. Not necessarily. As The Economist stressed, these settlements typically don’t make public the details of the supposed misdeeds, which remain murky. But in one major example I’ve discussed, where the true story did emerge, the case against the bank clearly made no sense.**

Why then would they settle? Because to fight the government in such cases is suicidal even if you’re guiltless.*** Accounting firm Arthur Andersen did fight, and won vindication in the Supreme Court – a pyrrhic victory since by then the firm had been destroyed. This is why The Economist bluntly called all this an “extortion racket” – “the world’s most lucrative shakedown operation.”

I’ve always said that “unfettered capitalism” is a nonsense straw-man – just as individuals are subject to laws against harmful conduct, businesses should be too. UnknownBut as The Economist pointed out, the market does a very good job of punishing truly errant companies. Competitors will make sure misdeeds are publicized; customers and investors will flee; share prices will plummet. This penalty is far greater than any exacted by government.

Meantime, corporations face extortion not only by government predators, but also lawyers in the class action litigation racket. I’ve written about this epic scandal too.

China has no rule of law because enforcement is totally at government’s arbitrary whim. Lately it’s been on a rampage against foreign-owned businesses and their personnel, with selective prosecutions for various ill-defined “offenses.” But America isn’t far behind, with metastasizing business regulations carrying criminal penalties (estimated at 300,000 in 1991; apparently no one has tried to count them since). Result: no company can fail to be guilty of something. So that prosecution is necessarily selective, which inherently corrupts it. Former Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson said in 2011, “No matter how gold-plated your corporate compliance efforts, no matter how upstanding your workforce, no matter how hard one tries, large corporations today are walking targets for criminal liability.”

images-3But at least large ones can manage the huge costs of trying to comply with the ever-deepening thicket of regulatory and paperwork requirements, and defending themselves. Small ones cannot – a big reason why their job creation – historically the most vibrant part of our economy – has been faltering. It’s increasingly hard to start and sustain a small business in today’s overbearing regulatory environment. (Click here for an outrageous example of small business screwed over by state government.)

The Economist concluded by saying “the recent flood of actions against companies has . . . done serious harm, to America’s legal system and the rule of law.” And of course it also seriously harms our economy.

* And, much though you may curse “the corporations,” if you actually stop to ponder, you are actually quite pleased about 99% of what you buy from them.

** The Economist noted that the very first federal criminal conviction of a corporation, in 1909, a railroad, was “for the bizarre offense of cutting prices.”

*** And the payments come from the pockets of shareholders – not the executives who agree to them. The Economist also observes that it’s wrong to suppose government enforcers act disinterestedly for the public good. They have their own agendas – puffing up their egos and careers.

 

I Have a Dream: Israeli Election Speech

March 14, 2015

My fellow Israelis – I’m seeking your votes in this week’s election, for a policy that both reflects our highest human values, and offers a sustainable path for our nation’s future.images-2

Some will call it utopian. I call it sanity.

Mr. Netanyahu and his allies offer a policy of unending conflict. As if all the land between the Jordan and the sea is ours and its Palestinian inhabitants are not human beings but a mere inconvenience whose rights and interests can be overridden with bouts of military brutality, crowded out of their homes by ever-expanding Jewish settlements. images-3As if the Palestinians – and the world community – will accept this dispos-session and apartheid forever. This is nuts.

Unfortunately many Palestinians do accept it, indeed embrace it, preferring the conflict to its solution, reveling in victimhood and “resistance.” As if that were a productive life. As if they could somehow someday drive the Jews out of Israel. This too, of course, is nuts.

Enough. I say to both our peoples: the land is big enough for us both. This doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game where one side’s gain is the other’s loss. The whole history of modernity shows this – nations (at least the grown-up ones) not tearing each other down with conflict, but building each other up with reciprocal trade and investment, making for the enrichment and flourishing of all. Why not Israel and Palestine?

images-1Some will say we have no partner for peace. Frankly our peace offers have heretofore been spurned because they were not believed. I understand that trust is sorely lacking. But now I am not merely offering an olive branch. I am offering the whole tree.

I want Palestinians to have a state, but not a state in name only; not a crappy state. I have a dream for a thriving, flourishing Palestinian state, with our two countries as good neighbors, helping each other live the best lives possible. UnknownIf Palestinians see the foundation for prosperity and fulfillment through cooperation, as an alternative to wasting their lives in futile conflict, I believe most will embrace the former.

To that end, I am proposing not only to give Palestinians the land on which to build their state, but also a Marshall Plan type program of massive economic assistance to help them build it. Israel can well afford this. Just think of all the money we’ll save on our military budget. Wouldn’t it be better spent on building up our neighbors than beating them down?

Some will call this blood money, atonement for alleged past sins. Maybe, but I am not looking backward; I am looking forward. I call it an investment in the future. What do we get in return? Peace, yes, but not just that. The ability to look at ourselves in the mirror and be proud of what we see.

images-4But will the Palestinians once more turn their backs? I rather think that, with real money on the table, we will find the partners for peace.

Many of my fellow Jews will no doubt be horrified by all this. We’ve grown up seeing Arabs as enemies. Which of course is mutual. And certainly plenty of actions on both sides have nourished this enmity. Yet it’s not something ordained by God. We are not hapless playthings of a destiny we don’t control. To the contrary, our destiny is in our own hands. We can make choices. Different and better choices.

To those Jews who believe they’re on a mission from God to occupy this entire land, I suggest to you that there is ample work for you to do to help build our nation within borders that also allow space for our neighbors to flourish as well next door. Or, if you wish to continue living among them, you will be free to remain there, as equal citizens of that nation – just as many Arab people reside in Israel today, as equal (well, almost equal) citizens of this nation.

Moses Brick Testament Destruction of Canaan Instructions for GenocideThe God of the Old Testament told Jews to occupy the land of Canaan by killing or enslaving all its original inhabitants. I think that book was written by people trying to justify those crimes; it was a libel upon God. That’s not the benevolent God we worship today. And the nation those ancient people built with the sword was ultimately destroyed, and they were cast into darkness for many centuries. Maybe that was God’s just punishment.

imagesLet us be better, and wiser, today.

God bless Israel – and Palestine.

Embellishing Reality: Brian Williams, Bill O’Reilly, and Frank Robinson’s Moon Walk

March 11, 2015

imagesRecently news personalities Brian Williams and Bill O’Reilly, and VA Secretary McDonald, have been assailed for embellishing the truth about some war zone experiences. Now I wish to set my own record straight.

Previously I had submitted poems to a local publication, Up The River. A brief biography was required. Here’s what I sent:

Unknown-1“Frank S. Robinson is a former New York State administrative law judge and author of seven books including Albany’s O’Connell Machine, and The Case for Rational Optimism. He writes the ‘Rational Optimist’ blog and is married to the poet Therese Broderick. In 1969, he was the first man to walk on the Moon.”

That last claim is one I have made from time to time. It is an exaggeration. I have never walked on the Moon, and wish to apologize now for saying so.

images-2People think memory works like a video recorder. It does not, as these cases illustrate. What the brain records is only a general idea of an episode; when called upon to remember, it fills in the details by basically making them up. And with each act of remembrance, it changes a little, so over the years the distortion can become significant. Writing an autobiographical memoir showed me how this had happened to some of my own memories, when I consulted things I had written down closer to the events in question.

So Brian Williams went from remembering being near a helicopter under fire to remembering being in one. Giving him the benefit of the doubt, that’s very understandable and doesn’t make him a bad person.

images-1I might similarly claim that my memory of watching the first Moon walk on TV evolved into a memory of doing it. But frankly that would be disingenuous. The truth – which I must finally reveal – is that the government faked the whole thing. I apologize to anyone who may have been misled.

The Edmund Pettus Bridge – 50 Years Later

March 7, 2015

Edmund Pettus was a Confederate soldier, Klansman, and U.S. Senator. It’s an irony that the bridge named for him became a landmark for black rights.

images-1Fifty years ago today, peaceful civil rights marchers on that bridge were met with unspeakable violence. It’s not ancient history; I remember it; this tells us how much has changed – how much can change – in a short time. (Short in the grand sweep of human events.)

I think about that bridge often. Those marchers knew what was coming. But none ran away. Courage is not a lack of fear – only a fool would have been unafraid in that march. Courage is going ahead, doing what one must do, in spite of the fear.*

One who did was John Lewis. John Lewis had already been seriously beaten, more than once, during the “freedom rides” to integrate bus travel. It didn’t deter him; he was badly beaten again on the Edmund Pettus bridge. Lucky to be alive, today he’s a Congressman. I’m proud of an America whose Congress includes a John Lewis.

imagesOf course America has not ascended to perfection; it’s always a work in progress. We’ve just had the report on Ferguson, documenting how its black citizens are systematically victimized by the police, in fact, milked as cash cows. Not long ago I wrote of how costly it is to be poor in America. I should have added, especially when black; Ferguson is Exhibit A.

images-2Yet the Edmund Pettus bridge marchers did achieve a lot. America’s saving grace is democracy; the power of the vote is the ultimate power. When, as a result of that 1960s movement, southern blacks got the vote, it changed everything. Today, the state with the highest number of black elected officials is Mississippi.

* It’s easy to pontificate on a blog; much harder to face a billy club. I’ve never been tested like that. But at least I know enough to appreciate what it means to live in a peaceful society free of such trials – for most of us, at least.

The Nemtsov Case: “Round Up The Usual Suspects”

March 7, 2015

imagesNews flash — two suspects have been apprehended, guys from (surprise) the restive North Caucasus region (which includes Chechnya). Did the Russian authorities really solve the crime so fast? What’s the evidence? But of course, in the Russian “justice” system, when it comes to political cases, “evidence” is a superfluous concept.

No: Putin said, “Just go find some Chechen ‘terrorists’ to frame.” Adding two more victims to his lengthening list.

Boris Nemtsov: Yet Another Putin Murder

March 3, 2015
Nemtsov

Nemtsov

Boris Nemtsov is merely the latest (and biggest) name on a growing list. He was a leading pro-democracy Russian politician for two decades; an outspoken critic of Putin and of Putin’s lying Ukraine aggression. Nemtsov was gunned down in public, in Moscow, near the Kremlin.

Putin piously condemned the crime, and regime hacks predictably are out denying guilt. Russian media darkly hints, as usual, that the West is somehow responsible (part of the campaign to whip up a nationalist hysteria of grievance and hatred, tarring as traitorous anyone not going along). Another theory is that Nemtsov was a “sacrificial victim” by opponents of the regime, to destabilize it. Really.

If so, you’d think their police state could actually find the culprits. Wanna bet this murder will never be solved?

They always promise vigorous investigation. With straight faces. Just like for all these other unpunished murders of pesky politicians, journalists, and critics, in Putinist Russia:

Politkovskaya

Politkovskaya

  • Galina Starovoitsova
  • Igor Domnikov
  • Sergey Novikov
  • Iskander Khatloni
  • Sergey Ivanov
  • Adam Tepsurgayev
  • Yuri Shchekochikhin
  • Sergey Yushenkov
  • Nikolai Girenko
  • Paul Klebnikov

    Magnitsky

    Magnitsky

  • Andrei Kozlov
  • Anna Politkovskaya
  • Alexander Litvinenko
  • Stanislav Markelov
  • Anastasia Baburova
  • Natalia Estemirova
  • Sergei Magnitsky

Those are just ones I could find in a very quick web search. But one might also add the 651 victims of the 1999 Russian apartment bombings, blamed on Chechen terrorists as a pretext for launching a war of atrocities in Chechnya to inflate Putin’s popularity for an upcoming presidential election. 220px-Apartment_bombingAt the time, the “Chechen terrorist” story stank fishily. A public Russian investigative commission had its leading members arrested or murdered (two are on the list above). There is in fact much evidence pointing to Putin’s own security service thugs as the true culprits behind the bombings.

In the bad old Soviet days, regime critics were persecuted, jailed, confined in mental hospitals . . . but never out-and-out murdered. Those Communists actually had some scruples; a belief system they managed to convince themselves they actually believed in.

Capone

Capone

Not so with Putin’s regime, believing in nothing but its naked self-interest. This is a regime by gangsters, running (and looting) Russia precisely as Al Capone did in Chicago. Inconvenient people are simply gunned down. According to a recent PBS documentary, Putin personally has amassed a fortune of tens of billions.

In Ukraine, the Maidan protest movement got rid of a similar regime. That’s why Putin has responded so viciously. Scared lest Russians emulate it, Putin is doing all he can to mess up Ukraine. The regime even manufactured an “anti-Maidan” demonstration in Moscow, of people demanding, “No democratic revolution here!”

I am running out of evil Putin pictures for this blog

I am running out of new evil Putin pictures for this blog

In the last presidential debates, Obama belittled Romney, making him seem foolish, for saying Putin’s Russia is America’s chief foreign adversary. Who looks foolish now?

But, paraphrasing a current catch-phrase, I too can say I hated Putin before it was cool.

POSTSCRIPT: Nemtsov was apparently working on a report documenting Putin’s lies about Ukraine. After his killing, police searched his apartment and took away his computers.