Archive for June, 2019

“Crimes that shock the conscience of civilized men” (and women)

June 28, 2019

That’s a phrase I remember from my legal education.

Over a year ago we learned of Trump’s cruel policy of separating migrant children from parents. Kidnapping them, really; put in cages in concentration camps; often with no tracking to ever reunite them with parents, many of whom were deported. The psychological trauma inflicted on these innocent children is an abomination.

First the administration lied that its hands were tied by prior legislation. Even invoked the Bible to defend this atrocity. When national revulsion nevertheless exploded, Trump then said it was an Obama policy he was stopping — a lie on both counts.*

Today thousands of children remain in these wretched camps. Recently the Trump administration announced cancellation of many services provided to them, including recreational and educational programs.

More recently reports have emerged about the shocking conditions to which these kids are subjected. In tents and concrete blocks with no summer air conditioning, in Texas and Florida. Crowded together in filth, with no baths or showers, no diaper changes for the youngest; scant medical care or adult attention of any sort. Unsurprisingly, deaths have occurred. Sexual molestation is rampant.

Public outrage is muted. Why? No searing photos. One thing this otherwise incompetent administration has managed to accomplish is keeping a lid on pictures in these concentration camps. Not even members of Congress are allowed access.

Speaking of Congress: why no public hearings, to grill administration officials about these atrocities and hold them to account?

They claim there’s no money to care for these children. Should have thought of that before ripping them from their mothers. But Trump says he can find money for his wall. Which will do nothing to stop the influx of people fleeing desperate circumstances in their home countries.** Countries whose U.S. aid Trump has insanely cut.

Meantime he threatens to have ICE round up and deport millions of people who’ve lived here, inoffensively, mostly productively, for years. Many with children who are U.S. citizens, who’ll be devastated to lose their parents.

All this from a political gang purporting to worship Jesus Christ; indeed, fetishizing the rights of unborn children.

Their crimes against humanity will blacken America’s soul forever. The only possible expiation will be to vote out the depraved monster responsible, and all his enablers. They deserve worse.

* The Supreme Court officially ruled yesterday that the Trump administration is a bunch of liars; rejecting its bid to add a citizenship question to the Census, because the pretext for it was false. (The true aim was to undercount Hispanics.) Trump tweeted he’ll seek to postpone the Census — contrary to explicit Constitutional requirement.

** Trump in his first campaign launch called Mexican migrants rapists. Turns out he’s the rapist.

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Why does evolution produce such diversity?

June 26, 2019

A science writer friend pointed me to a recent “Edge” essay by Freeman Dyson (https://www.edge.org/conversation/freeman_dyson-biological-and-cultural-evolution). Dyson, 95, is a truly great mind, which I am not. Nor an evolutionary biologist. Nevertheless —

Dyson begins with the question: why has evolution produced such a vast diversity of species? If “survival of the fittest” natural selection is the mechanism, shouldn’t we expect each ecological niche to wind up occupied by the one species most perfectly adapted? With others losing out in the competition and disappearing. Thus, in the Amazon rain forest, for example, just one variety of insect rather than thousands; and worldwide, maybe only a few hundred species altogether, rather than the millions actually existing (many with only slight differences). Also, we might expect species slimmed down to efficient essentials, not ongepotchket ones (a Yiddish word for “excessively and unaesthetically decorated.”) These things puzzled Darwin himself.

Darwin worked before we knew anything of genes, Dyson points out. He discusses the contributions of several later people. First is Motoo Kimura with the concept of “genetic drift,” an evolutionary mechanism separate from natural selection. It’s the randomness inherent in gene transmission through sexual reproduction. A given gene’s frequency in a large population will vary less than in a small one, where such random fluctuations will loom larger. Like if you make 1000 coin tosses you’ll always get very close to 500 heads, whereas with only ten tosses you might well get seven heads, a big deviation. So in small populations such genetic drift can drive evolutionary change faster than in a large population where genetic drift is negligible and slower natural selection is the dominant factor. Thus it’s small populations (often ones that get isolated from the larger mass) that most tend to spin off new species.

Dyson combines this idea with cultural evolution which, for humans in particular, is a much bigger factor than biological evolution. Dyson sees genetic drift involved with big local effects, such as the flourishing of ancient Athens or Renaissance Florence.

Then there’s Ursula Goodenough’s idea that mating paradigms, in particular, seem to change faster than other species characteristics. This too makes for rapid evolutionary jumps in genetically isolated populations. Dyson comments: “Nature loves to gamble. Nature thrives by taking risks. She scrambles mating system genes so as to increase the risk that individual parents will fail to find mates. [This] is part of Nature’s plan.” Because it raises the likelihood that parents who do succeed will birth new species.

And then there’s Richard Dawkins and The Selfish Gene. I keep coming back to that book because this — when fully understood — is a very powerful idea indeed.

It tells us that evolution is all about gene replication and nothing else. Thus I take some issue with Dyson’s language anthropomorphizing “Nature” as gambling. He writes as though Nature wants evolution to occur. But it doesn’t have aims. Nor does a gene “want” to make the most copies of itself; it’s simply that one doing so will be more prevalent in a population. That’s what evolution is.

So taking again Goodenough’s point, supposing any given characteristic (here, a mating paradigm) does result in some copies of the relevant gene failing to replicate, if nevertheless in the long run the characteristic means other copies of the same gene will replicate more, then that gene becomes more prevalent. There’s no “gambling” taking place, and no extra points earned if a new species happens to be created. It’s simply the math of the outcome — more copies of the gene.

I also take issue with Dyson’s associating local cultural flourishing with genetic drift. Whatever happened in Fifth Century BC Athens was a purely cultural phenomenon that had nothing to do with changes in Athenians’ genes. While the local gene pool would have differed a (tiny) bit from other human ones, there’s no basis to imagine there was natural selection favoring genes conducive to artistic flourishing, and in any case there would have been insufficient time for such natural selection to play out.

So — returning to the starting question — why all the diversity? While Dyson does point to some mechanistic aspects of evolution militating in that direction, I think there’s a larger and simpler answer. The problem lies in a syllable. “Survival of the fittest” is not quite exactly right; it’s really “survival of the fit.” There’s a big difference. It’s not only the fittest that survive; you don’t have to be the fittest; you just have to be fit. It’s not a winner-take-all competition.

This comports with Dawkins’s selfish gene insight. The genes that continue to exist in an environment are those that have been able to replicate. That doesn’t require being the best at replicating. The best, it is true, will be represented with the most copies, but there will also exist copies of those that are merely okay at replicating; even ones that are lousy, as long as they can replicate at all. The most successful don’t kill off the less successful. Only those totally failing to adapt to their environment die out.

That’s why there are a zillion different varieties of insects in the Amazon rain forest.

But Dyson’s larger point is that for humans, again, cultural evolution outstrips the biological, and this is certainly true. As Dyson notes, language is a huge factor (unique to humans) driving cultural evolution. And while biological evolution does tend toward ever greater diversification, human cultural evolution is actually pushing us in the opposite direction. The degree of human diversity is being collapsed by our cultural evolution — not only our biological diversity, in “races” whose separateness increasingly breaks down, but also cultural diversity, with ancient barriers that separated human groups into combative enclaves breaking down too, so that it is more and more appropriate to speak of a universal humanity.

The Holier-than-thou syndrome and Biden’s latest “controversy”

June 24, 2019

Joe Biden said that as a senator he’d been able to work with colleagues he’d disagreed with, even segregationists like Mississippi’s James Eastland. For this Biden’s been attacked by rivals Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, and Cory Booker.*

Shame on them. Here we go again, with holier-than-thou Democrats trying to tear down the very decent man who is the party’s best hope for saving America from Trump.

Holier-than-thou. Preening as moral avatars by impugning the moral bona fides of others. Drawing a cordon sanitaire to consign others to outer darkness. Casting them as moral lepers (or at least “insensitive”) to validate your own supposed virtue.

This is the face of political correctness. Its bounds of moral acceptability are narrow. Fall afoul of them, and you’re a pariah; with no right to your opinion. Certainly not to be heard. Maybe to be punished. (I recently wrote of a similar attack on Tom Brokaw for allegedly “racist” comments.**)

Between that Scylla of intolerance on the left and the Charybdis of hatefulness on the right, will America be sunk?

Back to Biden’s comment: so now it’s not enough just to disagree with racists, even to condemn their views. You’re not allowed to engage with them at all. To cooperate even on things unconnected to race.

Such moralistic exclusionism has ground our government to a halt. In the past era Biden was referring to, the Senate could still actually function, political adversaries could pragmatically set aside their differences on some issues to collaborate on others. Legislation happened. Problems got addressed. No longer.

The self-congratulatory moral sanctimony of our Bookers, Harrises and Warrens may feel good, to them and their rabid cheering section, but what does it actually achieve? Does it shame the politically incorrect into reconsidering and recanting? Hardly. It does the reverse. They themselves now feel equally morally entitled to damn their own ideological foes. The resulting polarization is tearing America apart.

Biden seems to understand this. When he previously spoke of keeping — oh no! — Republicans in our civic fold — a hard left commenter on my blog predictably flayed him.

We keep talking about “our democracy.” What does democracy really mean? Is it just elections, majority rule? No, what’s more important is democratic culture and attitude; crucially, the concept of pluralism. And it doesn’t mean just ethnic or gender diversity, but mainly diversity of ideas. That there’s space in the public square for more than one viewpoint. That people you disagree with have an equal claim to participation, equal legitimacy; even to win sometimes.

Political correctness rejects that kind of pluralism, seeking the delegitimization of certain viewpoints, their banishment from the public square. Communism had the “dictatorship of the proletariat;” today’s left seeks the dictatorship of, well, the left. Biden’s comment about working even with segregationists, in contrast, epitomizes democratic culture. That’s how democracy works — indeed, how it must work. If it is to work at all.

* Biden noted Eastland didn’t call him “boy.” That in particular irked Booker because Southern racists disrespectfully called black men “boy.” Was Biden’s comment disrespectful? Toward Eastland, maybe. Biden was in fact acknowledging how segregationists did disrespect black men.

** Here’s a link:  https://rationaloptimist.wordpress.com/2019/04/03/witch-hunt-politics-ii-tom-brokaws-racist-comments/

 

ALARM! Russia attacking America

June 21, 2019

On 9/11 we were attacked. America united fiercely, in outrage and resolve, to confront the enemy and prevent a repeat.

In 2016, a different enemy attacked us, with actually far greater damage. But this time we collectively shrugged, with many heads in the sand.

Russian Roulette, a 2018 book by journalists Michael Isikoff and David Korn, details Russia’s war on American democracy and how Trump’s election fit into it. Not news to anyone whose head’s above ground. But the book is an eye-opener about how deep and serious this is.

The 9/11 death toll was terrible, yet Islamic terrorism has never been an existential threat to our way of life. Russia is far more dangerous; has already harmed us more. The Obama administration never got it, the book shows. Obama fell into the trap of fixating on the over-hyped threat from the Middle East, and imagined Russia as a potential partner there. Thus the “re-set” effort to improve relations. But our worst enemy is not terrorism, it’s Russia.

Remember when Romney said this — and Obama mocked him as living back in the cold war? The cold war did end but this is a new and different one. If we fail to see Russia as our deadly enemy, Putin and the Russians certainly see us as theirs. And while during the cold war, the Soviets never imagined destabilizing America itself, that’s exactly what Putin is doing. It wasn’t only screwing with the election, but more generally working to aggravate our societal divisions. They’re doing it elsewhere too; Russia had a hand in the Brexit vote, which is tearing apart Britain’s body politic.

The book shows that the Kremlin had been cultivating Trump for years, playing him, dangling the lure of a big real estate deal (that never jelled). Drooling for it, Trump kept kissing Putin’s posterior. He naively fantasized that his idolizing Putin was mutual, and they could get along beautifully.

In fact, Putin hated Hillary because she (unlike Trump) had his number; and come 2016, Trump was a tailor-made guided missile for Putin to fire at America’s heart. A president who’d weaken the country with self-destructive policies, weaken its alliances and international prestige, exacerbate our internal divisions, and undermine our democracy. Personal vulgarity, lying, and corruption were added bonuses. Putin didn’t expect his election shenanigans would be enough to make Americans drink this Kool-Aid. But just 77,000 votes in three key states did it. A hole-in-one.

The book details just how extensive and sophisticated that election subversion was, clearly orchestrated at the highest levels, deploying state resources. Taking Hillary down with a tsunami of lies. I was NO Hillary fan, but the Russian-orchestrated demonization that took hold was just nuts. (Especially when compared against Trump’s flaws.) A particularly virulent item was the “uranium deal” which Hillary haters still keep bringing up. The book disposes of this in a few sentences, showing there’s nothing there.

Trump and his enablers pound the lie that the whole Russia story is a “witch hunt,” a “deep state” FBI plot to take him down, an attempted coup. That they “spied” on his campaign. The nonsensicality is obvious because while the FBI tarred Hillary publicly during 2016, they kept a lid on the explosive fact that they were investigating Trump-Russia links. And they had ample reason to investigate, plenty of evidence of Russia’s intervening to help him. The FBI knew the Russians had hacked the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign, and were spilling what they’d gotten. The FBI was also already looking at Trump advisor Carter Page, playing footsie with Russian operatives in Moscow. And George Papadopoulos. And of course campaign chief Manafort, long involved with pro-Russian interests.

So it was far more than the notorious “Steele Dossier.” Christopher Steele was a former officer with Britain’s intelligence service who’d previously given ours much useful material. He was instrumental in our busting FIFA corruption, and also worked with the State Department. So his 2016 work having initially been paid for by Democrats didn’t taint it. When he gave it to the FBI, it fit with what they were already seeing. Though the allegations of Trump hotel sex hijinks couldn’t be documented, Steele’s detailing how the Russians had long been working Trump certainly merited investigation. It would have been scandalous had the FBI not pursued all this.

Meantime the FBI and intelligence services were oblivious to another huge part of Russia’s scheme: its devastating exploitation of social media. And the Obama administration seemed asleep at the switch about the whole thing. But the book chronicles the administration’s terrible quandary. Obama held back out of fear of looking partisan, and strong action could have backfired. He did hold a meeting with GOP Congressional leaders, trying to get them on board for a bipartisan outing of, and response to, the Russian subversion. Mitch McConnell refused.

Russia also tried to hack local election systems. This actually hasn’t been much investigated, but it appears Russia did succeed in some spots, like North Carolina. It’s not just vote counting, serious a concern though that is; in North Carolina they seem to have messed with voter records (concentrating on Democrats). Imagine millions coming to vote and finding they can’t; sowing chaos on Election Day. Russia wants to damage the idea of democracy itself, making it seem a sham, undermining public confidence in the integrity of elections. This is a huge vulnerability.

Much in the book is also documented in the Mueller report. Mueller tried to sound the alarm in his public statement, imploring us to take this seriously. We need presidential leadership to mobilize against the next Russian attack, but obviously we don’t have it. Trump takes the whole idea of Kremlin election meddling as a personal insult — while probably realizing it did help him win —leaving the door wide open for a repeat.*

Basically, the Russians got away with it, paying no real price. Obama had belatedly imposed slap-on-the-wrist sanctions but Trump sought to undo them. When Congress put them into law, Trump said he’d disregard that legislation. He’s been at war not with Russia but with America’s own FBI and intelligence services. It culminated in firing Comey as an attempt to squelch the continuing investigation (which is what led to Mueller’s appointment). Then in Helsinki he acted as Putin’s lap dog, endorsing his lies. Not only did Putin get his man in the White House, but the hoped-for benefits were amply forthcoming.

* Meantime, he recently said that if a foreign government offers dirt on a political opponent, he’d see no reason not to take it. In fact, doing so would be committing a crime.

Fat girls and sex

June 18, 2019

NPR’s “This American Life” had a fascinating story featuring Elna Baker, a young fat gal (she used the F word). She tried to convince herself it wouldn’t truly matter, that people would see her for who she really was. Finally, she realized it just wasn’t so. She couldn’t get the kind of work she wanted, nor the love life. So she decided to get control of her life, through control of her body.

Elna before & after

Elna succeeded; lost 30 pounds in a month; 110 in all. But there was a new problem: skin. Its surface area did not shrink with her poundage. Solving that (mostly) was another (not pretty) story.

But anyway, Elna achieved the desired results, careerwise and socialwise. She got a long-term boyfriend.

What I found fascinating was her discussion of how the world changed for her. Like she was entering a whole new one.

Eddie Murphy in white-face

She analogized it to the Saturday Night Live skit where Eddie Murphy masquerades as white, and discovers the secret white world. On a bus, when the last black passenger exits, the partying starts, with cocktails being served. Who knew?

So people did see Elna differently, and interacted differently with her. But she was conflicted in her feelings about this; in some ways less happy now, upset at what she saw as previous unfairness. She was tortured pondering that her boyfriend had known her before, but didn’t even seem to realize she was that same person. So, if her weight made all the difference, were his feelings for her a matter of “who she really is” or just her physicality?

I think she was looking at this the wrong way. One can’t know “who she really is” on casual acquaintance. Removing the weight removed a barrier between her and others, like her boyfriend. Only now was the way clear for him to know “who she really is.”

Postulating “shallowness” of people for whom weight is that kind of barrier was a trope in the program. But this asks too much of what are still, after all, biological animals. We are programmed by evolution — very powerfully programmed — to reproduce. Sexual attraction plays a big role there. It’s why sexual attraction is a key element of romantic love. Fine and dandy to talk about “who she really is” inside, but without sexual attraction, forget about it.

And the fact is that we are sexually attracted to who we are sexually attracted to, and for any given person, there’s no changing it. It is simply a fact of one’s existence. And don’t tell me about cultural influences with ads and so forth glamorizing thin women. That gets the causation backwards; thinness is glamorized because that is what most men (most Western men at least) do find most attractive, for reasons going much deeper.

In my own case, women’s sexual attractiveness rises strongly with slenderness (but then drops off sharply at the point of anorexia). Why? I’ve tried to psychoanalyze myself, but really it is just a fact of my existence, as though in my bones rather than brain. Just like for gay men whose sexual attraction to males is intrinsic.

This points up the idiocy of “gay conversion therapy.” Heterosexual men who promote this foolishness should ask themselves if any kind of “therapy” could make them want sex with men rather than women.

But back to fatness. It’s a modern problem because we evolved to cope with environments of food scarcity, and “feast or famine” patterns. Thus programmed to eat as much as possible when food was available, to make up for lean times. Energy-rich foods like fats and sugar were especially rare, so we’re made to crave them especially. But in modern societies food is everywhere, with lots of fats and sugar. We’re not made for this environment.

Of course eating discipline and exercise are important. However, we are increasingly learning how much more complex the story is. Take calories — it turns out not all are the same, it’s a very crude measure. One dish of 200 supposed calories can affect the body very differently from another kind of 200 calorie meal. And, even more importantly, it depends on who’s eating, as people themselves differ greatly, in their genetics and internal biology. In fact, your body contains more bacteria cells than ones having your own DNA, and different bacterial populations affect how food is processed after swallowing. Result: some people are much more prone to fatness than others, and for them dieting can be an extremely frustrating, even futile, endeavor.

Elna was apparently one of the lucky ones for whom that isn’t true. Me too. Gatherings of my local humanist group often feature potlucks, and I indulge freely. People commonly express wonder that I eat like that and stay so slim. I tell them, “I only eat at humanist events.”

Is China our enemy?

June 15, 2019

In 1989, China’s regime followed Mao’s dictum, “power comes from the barrel of a gun,” shooting many hundreds of democracy proponents in Tiananmen Square. (Trump has called this a “strong, powerful government” quelling a “riot.”) Since then, even as China has modernized in many ways, its regime has become increasingly repressive, tolerating not the slightest chink in its absolute power. Its police state in Xinjiang is an Orwellian nightmare. Xi Jinping has made himself president-for-life. China bullies its neighbors, tightening its unlawful grip on a wide swath of the Pacific. It abuses world trade rules, its advance fueled by theft and dishonesty.*

So is China our enemy? Not exactly.

The Communist bloc, during the cold war, was our enemy. Its aim was world domination, ideologically, seeing the U.S. as a bete noir and wanting our failure or destruction. Putin’s Russia today, while non-ideological, has a similar outlook.

This again is not exactly true of China. While some regime elements do see us as conspiring to keep China down, that’s not exactly true of America. Wise heads in both countries understand there’s room in the world for both to prosper; indeed they’re in it together. Not a zero-sum game where one nation’s gain is the other’s loss. China becoming more prosperous and powerful doesn’t necessarily require America becoming less so. To the contrary, trade with a prosperous America is good for China. Thus a win-win mentality.

It’s not Trump’s mentality. This is why he’s a bull in the China shop. A lot of voices say he’s right to confront China on trade, and I actually agree, up to a point. However, Trump sees every thing we buy from China as China raping us; he wants it to stop. That’s idiotic.

The win-win logic is a key concept of economics, called comparative advantage. We buy from China what China is better at producing; China buys from us what we make best. Both countries benefit — even if one buys more than the other.

Do we lose some jobs to China? Sure. But the money U.S. consumers save buying cheaper Chinese goods enables more spending on local products and services, creating jobs. More than are lost. By messing with that dynamic, Tariff Man loses us jobs.

Nations are enemies when their interests clash, in a zero-sum sense. That’s not our situation with China. Again, we have a mutual interest in our bilateral trade. That doesn’t mean we don’t fight China on intellectual property theft, human rights, or territorial aggression. We can have those arguments while still expanding mutually beneficial trade and without being enemies. You have fights with your spouse but you still have intercourse.

The tragic stupidity of Trump’s China stance is that it’s the opposite. He wants no fights with his “great friend” Xi over things like Xinjiang or silencing dissent. Nor is he even really confronting China over intellectual property theft, which is the trade fight we should be having. Instead, it’s the intercourse he wants to curtail.

“Intercourse” doesn’t even begin to cover it, as elucidated in a recent Thomas Friedman column (https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/04/opinion/us-china-trade.html). Our two economies are totally intertwined. We have huge investments in each other. Both economies rely heavily on vast, interlinked supply chains, each supplying to the other things necessary for their productivity. For example, Apple has products assembled in China; Chinese technology firms need U.S.-made chips. If we rip all that apart, Friedman says, “we’ll all end up living in a less secure, less prosperous and less stable world.”

But he fears that’s happening; stumbling into a new cold-war-enemy relationship with China that’s totally unnecessary. “The erecting of an equivalent of the Berlin Wall down the middle of the global technology market,” dividing it into separate and mutually hostile spheres.

Instead we should be working to coax China into full partnership with the rules-based globalist economic order. Which is really in China’s own long-term best interests. In this, a united front with all our allies would help. But Trump has antagonized them, picking trade fights with them too. (Britain, for one, now sees its trade relationship with China as economically central.) So we’re on our own.

Bad enough that Russia is a big enemy. China would be far bigger. Its economy is already as large as America’s and will soon outstrip it. Its population is more than thrice ours. China’s increasing global importance is an inevitability we must live with; making the best of it. And we can. If instead we opt for all-out battle, we will lose.

* Counterfeiting is a big industry — a major problem in my own business field, rare coins. Maybe bigger than we even know.

Somaliland — “The country that was left for dead” — “A country doing everything right”

June 11, 2019

Those are quotes (From Edna Adan and Michael Rubin) from a June 8 conference we attended, at Marist College, on Somaliland development.

Someone might call it a “shit hole country” — seceded from Somalia, not internationally recognized, devastated by war, and beset by major problems. Yet Somaliland is pulling itself from the ashes.

Most attendees were Somali, a reunion among the many studying in the U.S., graduates of Jonathan Starr’s incredible Abaarso School which I’ve written about— a big part of the country’s rise.

Dr. Samatar

The opening speaker, Dr. Ahmed Samatar, spoke of philanthropy giving meaning to one’s life. This certainly resonated with me; our Somaliland involvement really excites me and my wife.

Samatar called the country’s development a Sisyphean battle against entropy. Citing four dimensions — the environment, economy, culture, and politics — he said all “bite quite hard” for Somalilanders. He quoted Marx that people make their own history, but do not make it as they please, constrained by the weight of the inherited past.

Harry Lee

One conference session was led by Harry Lee, heading up the expansion of the Abaarso project into an archipelago of K-12 schools, to be staffed mainly by home-grown teachers.* (This is our own focus.) The first is nearing completion. Lee said Somaliland’s literacy rate is under 30%. A majority of kids do go to school, but teachers are ill-paid and hence expend little effort if they show up at all (a common third world problem). Students basically can do sports or academics but not both. The new Kaabe schools target such problems, aiming to give kids real support and encouragement for achievement.

Anne Dix

The project is being partly funded by USAID; Anne Dix heads that program (American Schools and Hospitals Abroad). She gave a talk emphasizing the use of aid to enable local people to build institutions, with the aim of ending the need for such assistance.

Michael Rubin is a former Defense Department official currently at the American Enterprise Institute. He said that too often the U.S. focuses resources on “squeaky wheels” (like Somalia proper) while a country like Somaliland that’s “doing everything right” gets short shrift.

Michael Rubin

Rubin also feels there’s too much emphasis on governmental action, whereas real progress is bottom-up. And foreign aid often actually undermines democracy and good governance, substituting for local forces and absolving them of responsibility. But he was upbeat about Somaliland, calling its self-development efforts groundbreaking.

Jonathan Starr

Jonathan Starr led a workshop on economic investment. Opportunities seem ample because the country lacks so much; there should be many “no brainers.” One participant suggested wind turbines. But this actually proved illustrative of the problems. Starr said his own wind turbine project was a fiasco because there was no infrastructure for repairing breakdowns. Well trained, educated people are scarce on the ground. So is investment capital. There’s no good banking system. No good court system or rule of law. All things we take for granted, but these are the challenges in building a nation from the ground up.

Edna Adan

I could hardly believe I was chatting with a hero who’s done what Edna Adan has. Certainly my first encounter with a recipient of France’s Legion d’honneur! Adan built a hospital in Somaliland. Not a ramshackle affair; a big university teaching hospital that could fit in any U.S. city. On the side, she’s served in cabinet posts, including foreign minister.

Now 81, she was a dynamo at the conference. One workshop was on public health. Somaliland has the world’s highest maternal mortality rate; highest TB death rate. A big problem is people exploited because education and literacy levels are so low; thus the blight of counterfeit medicines and other fake treatments. Mental illness is commonly ascribed to demonic possession.

Edna Adan Hospital

A big factor in mental illness is qat. It’s a narcotic leaf, chewed; qat addiction is endemic in the region. Health effects are dire, and it ruins men as useful members of families and society.

Adan’s chief focus was on female genital mutilation (FGM). The idea is to keep girls virginally “pure” and marriageable, preventing promiscuity by making sex difficult and non-pleasurable. It’s a cultural practice, not a religious one; most Muslim societies don’t do it. FGM is particularly rife in the Somali region.

There are three basic versions. One is a mere “nick;” another cuts off the clitoris and labia; the third (“infibulation”) seals off the whole area. Adan reported Somaliland’s FGM rate at little short of 100%, with most victims getting infibulation. It’s not generally done under sterile surgical protocols. The damage often includes lifelong problems with intercourse, menstruation, childbirth, infections, and incontinence, not to mention the mental trauma. (FGM actually also makes sex less fun for men.)

Adan said her own childhood FGM was inflicted by her mother and grandmother while her father was away — very typical. When he returned he was furious, which told her that what had happened was wrong.

Many nations have banned FGM, but it’s hard to enforce — you can’t jail every mother and granny. Adan said this battle must be fought by men and communities.

So, yes, Somaliland has deep problems. But human beings are all about surmounting challenges. It was great to see so many Somalilanders, such wonderful people. We shall overcome.

* Harry also produced a wonderful film, Somaliland, about Abaarso.

Fantasyland — My talk Tuesday, June 18

June 10, 2019

Next Tuesday, June 18, at noon, I will give a talk at the Albany Public Library, 161 Washington Avenue, focused on Kurt Andersen’s book Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire. It’s about the whole phenomenon of false and wacky beliefs. This will be fun, I promise!

I’ve been told the free cookies and brownies should be better than usual this time too.

“Automating Inequality” — Using technology to screw the poor

June 7, 2019

Automating Inequality is a book by local researcher Virginia Eubanks; I attended a talk she gave. The focus was upon three initiatives ostensibly aimed at using technology to improve delivery of social services to needy people — that in practice do the opposite.

I’ve written about how it’s expensive to be poor in America — the many ways we actually penalize poverty. I discussed the criminal justice system actually preying upon the disadvantaged, extracting money from them. While banks and credit card companies exploit poorer people’s financial precariousness to load them with fees.

“Well, they’re mostly bad people,” remarked a guy sitting beside me at the talk. Referring to the poor. No, they are not mostly bad. They are mostly unlucky people — especially in their choice of parents. It’s easy to be smug if you’ve grown up with all the advantages (like me, and probably him). But if you’re born into lousy circumstances, there are huge obstacles (starting with rotten schools) to rising out of them, even if you are smart and responsible.

The bureaucrats in Eubanks’s reporting are mostly not bad people either. Most are well intentioned in trying to serve the public (somehow or other). Especially the “line workers” in actual contact with the disadvantaged people they’re tasked with helping. But it’s others who design the “advanced” systems she discussed.

One was Indiana’s, for processing applications for public benefits. It moved caseworkers from local facilities into regional ones, putting them in front of computers rather than the human beings they previously dealt with face-to-face. No more single point of contact; applicants would now speak to a different person every time they called. (Ever been in that situation? A recipe for frustration and run-arounds.) Meantime, the whole process was moved online. Fine if you have ready computer access; half of welfare recipients don’t.

The upshot was a million applications denied over three years. Mostly for some error in the process, often not the applicant’s fault. A notice of denial would give them ten days to fix the problem. Would the notice explain the problem? Nope!

Eubanks commented that the system couldn’t have worked better at kicking people off welfare if it had been designed to do exactly that.

Next was Los Angeles County’s “Coordinated Entry” system to evaluate homeless people for their vulnerability and match them with resources. Eubanks mentioned 58,000 LA County homeless people living in “encampments.” Only about a quarter get housing through the new system. A problem is that “higher functioning” homeless people get low vulnerability scores, so they’re de-prioritized. On the other hand, the kinds of things that give you a high score are often considered crimes, so people have to incriminate themselves to get a better chance at housing. And the info going into the system also goes to the police. But meantime, incarceration actually lowers one’s score — being in jail rates as “housing.”

Seems like one giant Catch-22. It’s really a way to ration — however irrationally — available housing resources that can accommodate only a fraction of the homeless.

The third case study was the “Family Screening Tool” used by Pennsylvania’s Allegheny County; here the scoring is to identify children at risk for abuse or neglect, based on information collected by social service agencies, incorporating factors that correlate with such risk. A family’s high score makes an investigation mandatory.

What actually results is a big feedback loop. Even if that investigation shows no problem, the fact that it occurred goes into a family’s score going forward. And the scoring really fails to distinguish poor parenting from parenting-while-poor. Non-poor and, especially, white families don’t even go into the database. And the system has real consequences — it’s all geared toward taking kids away from parents, in the guise of protecting them. Poor and non-white families are at constant risk for this.

And where do those kids go? To foster care. And the reality is that children are, generally, better off with biological parents, however less than ideal that situation may be, than in foster care, which tends to be far worse. The Nanny State on stilts. Here, it’s the Nanny from Hell.

Our entire system of public benefits and social safety nets is a crazy quilt of bureaucratic complexity that costs us way more — supposedly to make sure people are entitled to what they receive — than if we just handed a check to everyone who asks. Likewise, simply giving every homeless person an apartment would cost far less than we actually spend, not only on bureaucracy, but on the costs of people being on the streets, which include police, courts, and constant emergency interventions.

The system reflects our fundamental societal schizophrenia between, on the one hand, recognizing an obligation to help the needy and, on the other, seeing them as unworthy moochers (like that guy sitting next to me did).

This is a very rich country. We could amply afford to take care of every unfortunate person in the country if we would overcome that schizophrenia and decide to do it because it’s just humanely right. We give way more welfare to the well-off. Welfare for all the needy, without all the nonsense, would cost less than the waste in the defense budget. Less than we’ve thrown away in Trump’s tax cuts for the rich.

Hate, love, humanism, and (of course) Trump

June 4, 2019

I’ve been called a hater, in blog comments. My extensive political analyses written off as simply hate. As though Trump hate is somehow built into me; a pathology; a cause rather than an effect.

It’s an easy way to dismiss someone’s opinion you don’t like. But do I actually have some blind irrational hatred for Trump?

“Nonjudgmentalism” has been a big cultural trope, like it’s wrong to judge anybody for anything. Yet we evolved as judgment making machines. Because survival depended on judgments about threats. This was the context of our social evolution — harmful behavior threatened the group. So we evolved a powerful detector for that — our sense of justice — with a proclivity to make the judgments that go with it. Thus hate for wrongness is deeply embedded in human nature, it’s integral to our social makeup, and it is mostly a good thing.

Except we’re not always right about what’s wrong. “Better safe than sorry” causes too many false positives. There’s a difference between hating something truly wrong, and hating something (or someone) for the wrong reasons.

Furthermore, psychology comes into it. Obviously people vary between sunnier and darker dispositions. The latter predisposes one more toward hate. And the more that’s the case, the less likely the hate will be rational, the more likely to be directed at wrong targets. Certainly true when it comes to ethnic hatreds (aggravated by another evolutionary trait, suspicion toward people unlike us).

I myself am far at the sunnier end of the spectrum. Indeed, I literally wrote the book on optimism. When I started work on what became that book, it forced me to examine and think through my beliefs, more deeply than I’d never done before. I am a humanist. This valorizes, first and foremost, human life, and what I call the human project, to achieve the best possible quality of life for us all.

Thinking trough this humanism heightened my love for humans, both collectively and individually. I’ve spoken of making judgments. But absent full knowledge of any given person, the likelihood, the default assumption, is that they’re a good person. It’s usually true.

I think I’m a good person, but it’s easy for me as I’ve had an extremely fortunate life. Most others have not; for them it’s much harder. Yet most are nonetheless good. Struggling with life’s challenges, trying very hard to live good lives. For this I love them.

Of course nobody is a saint, and some do bad things. “Hate the sin, love the sinner” is often wisdom. However, there are people deserving harsh judgment. And while I do look upon most others with love, it’s also the case that my own judgment module, my injustice detector, is set on “high.”

Partly this is a further consequence of how fully, by now, I have built the ideas and principles I apply to the world. And the objectivity I’ve also cultivated, striving to see things as they really are. I also try to stay extremely well informed (with genuine news, not Facebook garbage). All this makes me confident in my judgments, grounded in a sound rational outlook. So when I see something as wrong, I am very clear on how and why it’s wrong.

Like most human beings, most Trump supporters are not bad people. I don’t hate them. They too struggle with life’s challenges. They’re very misguided, led astray by an unscrupulous con man who plays their vulnerabilities and anxieties like a violin. They’re short on the knowledge and intellectual equipment to see through the blizzard of lies. They have misdirected hatreds. They’re human; all these are very human failings. Overcoming them is part of the great human project. And, in the big sweep of history, we’re making much progress.

A beacon of that progress has been the United States of America. Playing a huge role in leading the rest of the world into a better place. On my wall is a picture of our postage stamp proclaiming “America’s light fueled by truth and reason.” Dimming that light is tragic.

For this Trump bears grave responsibility. A rare person whose own flame burns pure with wickedness. Hate the sin but love the sinner? Is he, indeed, a pitiable victim of a twisted character he cannot control? Maybe some truth in that; yet we have enough free will to be responsible for who we are. Still I might merely pity him were he not doing such vast harm. If there’s anything properly to be hated in this world, it is such consequential wickedness.

The hatred not a cause, but an effect.