Archive for the ‘Society’ Category

Do you believe poverty is worsening?

November 28, 2015

UnknownThe global population living in extreme poverty has risen in the last 20 years – indeed has almost doubled – say two-thirds of Americans in a recent survey. Nearly all the rest guessed poverty has merely stayed the same.

“Rising poverty” is a pessimist idee fixe, so ubiquitous that most folks unthinkingly consider it an obvious truism, to be sanctimoniously deplored. I have actually seen people’s eyes sparkle when talking of “rising poverty;” puffing up one’s moral vanity feels good.

Unknown-1Well, sorry to be a killjoy, but global poverty has in fact plummeted in recent decades. If world poverty were a stock, you’d have lost your shirt on it. The 95% of Americans who believe otherwise are misinformed.

This little known secret was revealed by Nicholas Kristof in a recent New York Times op-ed, citing World Bank figures: since 1993, the proportion of world population living in extreme poverty (defined as earning less than $1.00-$1.25 daily) fell by more than half, from 35% to 14%. Adding insult to injury, Kristof also noted the child death rate, before age five, dropped by more than half since 1990.* And whereas in the ‘80s only half of girls in developing countries completed elementary school, now 80% do. Literacy is rising and disease rates are falling. And so on. (Bill and Melinda Gates similarly argued in the Wall Street Journal in 2014 that pessimists are wrong and global conditions are improving markedly.)

imagesYet still there’s rising inequality, we’ve still got that for moralizing lamentation, no? Well – Kristof’s data refute that “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.” The rich are getting richer, yes, but so are the poor, though not as fast, which does increase wealth gaps. However, globally, inequality between poor countries and rich ones is indisputably lessening, simply because the former have higher economic growth. (Even with today’s big slowdown, the Asian Development Bank projects 5.8% 2015 growth for the region, minus Japan. For advanced countries, 3% is considered sizzling.)

images-1The left, wedded to a mantra of rising poverty and inequality, is all about wealth and income redistribution to fix it. But part of why developing economies are growing faster than advanced ones, reducing the gap between them, is because wealth is in fact being redistributed from the latter to the former. This is what Trump yaps about with his China bashing. And, ironically, the left hates it too – all the whining about “shipping jobs overseas.” That redistributes wealth from richer to poorer people. Shouldn’t the left love it?

Unknown-2But of course poorer countries aren’t simply sucking our wealth away. To the contrary, a more integrated global economy with fewer artificial barriers enables goods and services to be produced where it is cheapest and most efficient, and this makes the whole world richer – including us. Cheaper production in China or India or Vietnam reduces prices for U.S. consumers (to the tune of trillions of dollars in fact), enabling more spending on other things, which stimulates job creation, making up for jobs lost. Everybody wins.

Further illuminating what is happening and why, author Ronald Bailey provided a commentary (on Reason.comon Kristof’s piece. What has enabled many developing countries to improve by taking advantage of global trade opportunities is better economic policies – in a nutshell, more economic freedom for their people to do so – phasing out dysfunctional old socialist nostrums (this is the “neoliberalism” lefties condemn). Bailey cites a 2015 Fraser Institute report giving countries economic freedom ratings, based on various measures. The 102 countries continuously rated averaged 5.31 in 1980, rising to 5.77 in 1990, 6.74 in 2000, and 6.86 in 2013.

Bailey notes that such economic freedom, and its handmaid, rule of law, tend to flourish in politically and economically stable countries. And it should be no surprise that all those conditions combine to unleash human ingenuity and enterprise, creating wealth and reducing poverty. Bailey also cited data showing that such nations tend to have markedly reduced fertility rates (thus controlling population growth), better environmental stewardship, and higher life expectancies than in more repressive and misgoverned lands.

Bailey concludes by saying that it is in “democratic capitalist countries that the air and water are becoming cleaner, forests are expanding, food is abundant, education is universal, and women’s rights respected.”

images-2Free market capitalism admittedly produces uneven results – as will any economic system – but is far better than any alternative for giving the greatest number of people the best opportunities and quality of life. The gigantic poverty reduction and welfare improvement of recent decades was not the product of socialism, but of getting away from such economic folly. And a market economy is also ethically superior because it works by increasing freedom rather than restricting it. That’s what I call social justice.

(All of this was already covered in my own very excellent 2009 book, The Case for Rational Optimism. I thank Scott Perlman for pointing me to the cited articles.)

*Meantime, Bernie Sanders saying America has the world’s highest child poverty rate is ridiculous. We measure it in relation to average U.S. incomes – which top worldwide scales. Of course child poverty is much worse in many countries that still are much poorer.

Syrian refugees at the golden door

November 19, 2015

UnknownWhile Europe is taking in around a million Syrian refugees, the U.S. has signed up for 10,000. But even that’s being challenged unless our government can guarantee no terrorists will sneak in.

This might seem reasonable prudence; one presidential hopeful has labeled the alternative “insane.” Though in fact, the U.S. is already exceedingly cautious in screening refugees. Over-cautious one might say. Not only is the process long and tortuous, but no bureaucrat wants responsibility for approving someone who later does something bad, with Muslims in particular considered suspect. (I’ve written of the shameful consequent stonewalling toward Iraqi asylum-seekers.)

Is it plausible a would-be terrorist might hide among refugees? In France, maybe; but here, he’d likely flunk that extremely difficult acceptance process – while there are quicker and easier ways to get into America – as the 9/11 hijackers did. And have we forgotten the eleven million people already here illegally? Considering that, worry over the bona fides of a few thousand Syrians (who will be thoroughly vetted) is absurd.

But can we guarantee no terrorists will get in? No – but the quest for 100% safety is, as ever, a fool’s errand. Everything has risks, which we balance against rewards – as with automobiles. Except when, irrationally, we don’t – as with Syrian refugees (or fracking). You’re literally a thousand times likelier to die in a car accident than from terrorism. Yet we drive.

These Syrians are not terrorists but victims of terror. Which leads to the overriding point: we should welcome them because it’s the right thing to do, the humane thing, the compassionate thing. We are a big and rich country, caviling at a few thousand bedraggled refugees? Have we also forgotten the words inscribed on the Statue of Liberty?images-1

But admitting refugees is not a sacrifice. Studies repeatedly show immigrants contribute more to a country’s economy than they cost. They work harder, on average, start more businesses, and commit fewer crimes, than the native born. They enlarge the economic pie. These Syrians will enrich America. It’s such a wonderful country, I want as many people as possible to enjoy it as I do. This is worth the remote risk of one doing harm.

During WWII, our golden door was mostly closed toward Jews trying to flee the Holocaust. (My mother’s family was lucky, having a U.S. relative to sponsor them; though a grandmother didn’t make it.)

imagesWe fortunate cosseted Americans can scarcely even relate to the nightmare these people endure. Syria’s horror might seem far away, and its victims unlike us. But all human beings are far more alike than different. Syrians feel pain just like you or me; suffer anguish and fear just as you would; love their children just as much.

“Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, senses, affections, passions? If you prick us, do we not bleed?”

Fantasy sports versus the killjoy nanny state

November 18, 2015

The issue of the day is whether online “fantasy sports” (where you select imaginary teams from among real players, whose actual performance determines winners) is a “game of skill” or illegal gambling.

Our local newspaper quotes the state Attorney General’s spokesman (my emphasis): these are “illegal sports betting websites . . . causing the same kinds of social and economic harms as other forms of illegal gambling.”

images-3The same kinds of social and economic harms as the New York State government’s own horse betting operation; its state lottery; and the string of officially-sanctioned casinos now being built? That prey upon and exploit the poor, and destroy families by creating gambling addicts? Enticing poorer folks to blow their limited funds on foolish lottery bets with rip-off odds (compared to those in illegal gambling), promoting a something-for-nothing culture rather than working and saving?

Bad enough when the killjoy nanny state stops people doing things they enjoy. Worse when, with its other hand, it engages in the very same activities. The hypocrisy takes one’s breath away. Gambling used to be outlawed based on a misplaced moralism. Now it’s to enforce a government monopoly.

UnknownAnd meantime Governor Cuomo loudly (literally; that’s his idea of oratory) touts a $15 minimum wage* to supposedly help the poor. Maybe we should stop milking them for lottery revenues.

I’m so glad we live in a politically “progressive” state.

*Not applicable to the state government’s own employees! But finally the other day Cuomo said they too would get $15 — in 2021.

God and Man in Paris

November 16, 2015

We all must die.

imagesBut we don’t let that stop us enjoying life. Indeed, it makes it all the more precious. Those Parisians were out enjoying life – at restaurants, bars, concert halls, and taking pleasure in the company of others.

It is this that was targeted.

Not infrastructure, not government, not military, not cultural icons – no, they targeted just human beings in the act of joyful living. They attacked the very essence of living itself.

Ostensibly they did it for God. The true motivations are a vipers’ nest of psychopathology. But at its core this is anti-humanism: the antithesis between what makes life worth living and a bleak mentality that reviles it.

But it’s the essence of religion to embody seemingly transcendent ideas which, throughout history, have enflamed people to torture themselves (and others) in service thereto; ranging from Indian mystics sticking pins through their bodies, to Shakers abjuring sex and Russian Skoptsy going one better with castration, and now Muslim radicals aspiring to some sort of perverted purification through violence, cruelty, and the self-destruction of suicide bombing.

UnknownEnough. There is no god. Just us human beings, trying to make the best of our limited lives and to love one another.

(Acknowledgment: this was inspired by a posting from the British Humanist Association.)

Self-Driving Cars – Buckle Your Seatbelts

November 7, 2015

Recently I responded to an essay suggesting that technological progress is juddering to a halt. Its author pointed to airplanes, hardly changed in decades.

UnknownWell, buckle your seatbelts, because transportation is about to be revolutionized – not in the air but on the ground, with the advent of driverless cars – sooner than seemed possible only a short time ago.

Driving safely on a busy street is actually a fiendishly complex challenge. But computers, with a form of artificial intelligence, can now master it. Better than you or me – far better. Google’s experimental self-driving cars have logged 1.8 million miles, with only a few minor accidents (not their fault) and no injuries.

Unknown-1Inevitably, there will be a first person killed by a self-driving car, provoking a great moral panic, and calls for banning the technology. While of course 30,000 Americans are killed annually by human-driven cars. Computer-driven ones won’t speed, drive drunk or distracted or sleepy or aggressively, nor make dumb mistakes, so they’ll cut highway carnage almost to zero. Eventually there will be calls to ban human drivers.

The Economist recently peered into the driverless future, and it’s a dramatic picture. Start with the fact that currently we all own our own cars, one of our biggest investments, yet on average they sit idle 96% of the time. That will look increasingly senseless (at least in urban areas) as Uber-type ride-summoning services become more ubiquitous, convenient, and cheap – because the biggest cost factor – driver compensation – will evaporate (along with a lot of driver jobs).

So car ownership will plummet. And as that 96% idleness rate goes way down, so will the number of cars society needs. The Economist estimated there’ll be up to 90% fewer around. (Look out, GM and Ford.) The eternal problem of parking will vanish, and indeed, a lot of the acreage devoted today to parking will be freed up for other functions. Unknown-2More efficient vehicle use will also mean fewer cars on the roads at any one time, which, together with trans-human reaction times and other driving capabilities, will make for smoother traffic flows and speedier trips. Traffic congestion will be a thing of the past. A study has estimated that 90% use of driverless cars would be equivalent to doubling road capacity.

Hence less road construction costs. Also, no more car insurance. No more tickets, so cops can do other things, like actually fighting crime. Children, the blind, the frail, could all ride. And today’s zillion hours spent behind the wheel can be devoted (safely!) to other activities too. Another study calculates America’s resulting productivity gain at over $1 trillion annually.

Easier and faster commutes can enable cities to spread out more (suck it up, James Howard Kunstler*). And The Economist didn’t even mention that significantly fewer cars utilized more efficiently should substantially cut fuel consumption and pollution, with an obvious panoply of benefits (suck it up more, Kunstler**).

imagesWhile misanthropes like him decry the automobile as a societal and environmental abomination, in fact its invention was a giant boon for human values. It gave masses of ordinary people newfound mobility, independence, and empowerment. Our love affair with the car hasn’t been irrational. Driverlessness will carry the paradigm to a whole new level, making the benefits even larger and more widely available, while eliminating many of the costs and downsides (notably all that injury and death).

In history’s long view, today’s widespread private car ownership (and often fetishization) will be seen as a brief and somewhat strange transitional interlude, between use of horses, and driverless vehicles.

images-1* Author of The Geography of Nowhere, vilifying suburban sprawl.

** He also has foreseen no technological remedy for our supposed “oil addiction.”

Charter Schools: How Democrats Betray Blacks

November 1, 2015

Unknown-6“Draining” is the word of choice. As in “draining money from public schools.” As if charter schools hurt public education – a sinister plot (“corporate” of course) to do just that. As if public education is great for everybody – including ghetto blacks.

Some folks hate the idea of profit-making business. As if that’s not the very thing that’s given us our prosperous lives. Generating the wealth we can spend on . . . well, stuff like public education. But never mind. Profit is evil; it’s greed. Surely we don’t want that corrupting our kids’ education.

Unknown-1Actually, I’ve always found rather better the services provided by profit-seeking businesses, competing for the consumer’s dollar, than by government. To survive, such businesses must satisfy their customers. Government bureaucrats, not so much. Would you find a nightly chocolate on your pillow on a government-run cruise ship?

Unknown-3Charter school detractors say they perform worse on average than public schools. But as I noted recently, former NY Education Commissioner David Steiner explained that charter school data is pulled down by a proliferation of what he called “mom and pop” operations, whereas larger, professional – “corporate!” – ones tend to perform admirably.

Meantime, some public schools do not. And, 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, they’re too often schools serving inner city blacks — still separate and unequal. There are many reasons. One is that schools are funded, to a great degree, by property taxes, which favors white suburbs over black ghettoes. In the latter neighborhoods, charter schools are realistically the only hope. Steiner noted that Harlem kids in charter schools are seven times likelier to reach college.

Unknown-4So you might think the Democratic party, which owes its very viability to black votes, would champion charter schools. But of course there’s that ideological hostility to anything smacking of business or profit. And the party’s subservience to teacher unions, desperate to protect their near-monopoly. At recent Democratic national conventions, around one in eight delegates have been teacher union members.

Those unions have managed to convince most white Democrats that charter schools somehow threaten public education – the “draining” argument. And most white kids go to public schools that are pretty good; and the affluent ones can afford private schools. They see little to gain from charter schools.

But, again, things are very different in disadvantaged black neighborhoods where public schools do poorly, and charters – even if they didn’t actually outperform – would at least provide a spur of competition forcing public schools to raise their game. Yet blacks continue to vote Democratic, against their interests, somehow overlooking the party’s betrayal on this critical issue. When will they wake up and rebel? Why don’t Republicans stress this issue more?

Unknown-5Speaking of “draining money” – Dale Russakoff’s recent book, The Prize, chronicles what happened to the whopping $100 million Mark Zuckerberg donated to fix Newark’s failing public schools. What happened was . . . not much. The money basically went down the drain, and the public schools are as bad as ever. Reform efforts were defeated by a combination of factors, prominently including the entrenched interests of the status quo. One might conclude the system is (as bureaucratic systems tend to be) impervious to real change. But meantime Newark charter schools are doing great.

And here in financially struggling Albany, the city aims to blow a whopping $196 million to build literally the costliest high school in history. That works out to about $90,000 per high school student! One weeps to think what even a tenth of that amount could do to improve actual education – which a palatial building will not.

That’s what I call draining money from public education.

A Chinese-Jewish Wedding

October 26, 2015

Imagine a rabbi sermonizing and then saying, “Well, many of you don’t believe any of this stuff.”

130133We attended the California wedding of my nephew, Adam Choit, and Erin Li. Adam works in TV and Erin is a film-maker*, her family Chinese, from Taiwan. She’s the sweetest looking little thing ever, but speaks with deep gravitas. Adam is a droll fellow; when he picked up my mother’s decorative antique phone and pretended to have a conversation, I found myself almost hooked in.

Nearly half the guests were Chinese, while Adam is our one family member really into the Jewishness thing, so the wedding was conducted according to Jewish ritual. Everyone seemed perfectly comfortable with this cultural mash-up. It may sound corny, but isn’t that so very American? We shouldn’t take it for granted in a world where some people still kill others because they’re in the wrong sect.

WeddingYet during the ceremony I was struck by the oddity of half of it being in a language (Hebrew) nobody understood, full of references to a land (Israel) half a world away, and to a deity most attendees probably don’t believe in. So the rabbi’s quoted acknowledgement of this was a nice surprise. He said it matter-of-factly, with no tone of disparagement.

Unknown-2They had a string quartet (majority Chinese). When my wife whispered how nice a certain piece was, I noted with some amusement its being indeed a very pretty arrangement of “Don’t Know Much About History!” Later they played Darth Vader’s theme. Bit dark for a wedding, but nobody minded.

My mother, almost 95, has had a rough couple of years, but she’s an indomitable war-horse, had long looked forward to this wedding, and had a great time. She’s planning to fly out to Adam’s sister’s Long Island wedding next month. My mother has a repertoire of stories she loves repeating. Some are like “Just So” stories. A favorite, told several times during the weekend, is “Why Frank(ie) Grew His Beard.” Unknown-5You see, as a young lawyer, small and baby-faced, he’d be embarrassed when going out for drinks with the boys and the waitress offering him only a coke. No matter that I’ve never in my life “gone out with the boys,” nor ever drunk alcohol. (And grew the beard to get girls.)

“Is that what you’re wearing?” is something we husbands are known to hear. Well, I’ve never been a clothes horse. For the wedding I wore my one and only almost halfway passable suit, which I’ve had for literally half a century. (Yes, it still fits.) How surprising when, introduced to the bride’s with-it looking brother George, he said, “I like your suit!” imagesMy wife was floored. This put paid to her campaign for a wardrobe upgrade for the next (fancier) wedding. And that was before we learned George is in the custom clothing business. But, as a magnanimous concession, I told my wife the suit might be dry-cleaned.

The most enjoyable part of such outings, for me, is being with her and savoring her excellence. therese_edited-1I was flattered to be informed that a young lawyer visiting from Poland (my mother’s care-giver’s nephew), exactly half her age, was quite smitten by her beauty and charm. Sometimes during the festivities I’d experience a frisson of envy watching youthful Adam and his bride, but I only needed to glance over at my own bride for it to go away.

* To see one of her cool short films, click here and enter password keplerscreener888

What Is “Socialism?”

October 20, 2015

imagesBernie Sanders calls himself a “democratic socialist.” The word “socialist” has gotten much use in the past century. “Nazi” was actually short for “National Socialist.” Not that Sanders uses the word in the same sense as Hitler.

There’s a lot of effort to sugar-coat it, to persuade voters it’s nothing to fear. Sanders says it means nothing more than economic fairness. UnknownHumpty Dumpty said, “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean.” One caller on a radio forum chirped, “Do you like the fire department, the police, military, run by government? Why, that’s socialism!”

Well, no. That’s simply government. Not everything government does is “socialism,” so that if you like government doing anything then you must be a socialist.

Time for some Political Science 101.

Why was government invented in the first place? Philosopher Thomas Hobbes explained: in a “state of nature” your neighbor could bash your head in and grab your food, or wife. Unknown-2Imagine people getting together to discuss this predicament. The answer is for each to give up his* freedom to bash a neighbor in return for others giving up theirs. Now you can devote less time and effort on self-defense, and tending your wounds, and more on getting food or nookie. But this system of law (the “social contract”) needs an enforcer. That’s government.

But notice this is a faustian bargain. You give up your right to use violence, to government – which can now use it against you. That’s a terrible power, and you want to be very careful it’s limited. And while we have found many other worthy functions for government (like fire protection, mentioned by that caller), government doesn’t work by voluntary cooperation, but through its ultimate power to put non-cooperators in jail. Unknown-3With all the talk these days about “corporate power,” remember that no corporation can put you in jail.

What “socialism” really means is government performing not only its social contract function, via a legal system, and communal functions like fire protection, but also economic functions; in the lingo, “owning the means of production, distribution and exchange.” What, in a market economy, is done by people individually or, more commonly, grouped together in businesses. A purely socialist economy doesn’t even allow that.

Now, of course, just as we don’t have a purely market economy, and America actually is already partly socialist, so too one can imagine a socialist economy that isn’t pure but is still partly capitalist. But that doesn’t negate the basic dichotomy between the socialist and market economic concepts. Though you can have a mix, socialism means government taking the place of private business activity.**

images-1Sanders’s “democratic socialism” is really something of an oxymoron, because it is, once more, the essence of socialism to supplant private activity. And the more pervasive government becomes, in running society, the harder it is to be democratic. While a market economy entails numerous non-government institutions (importantly, businesses and corporations) as independent power centers, a counterweight to government power, a socialist economy undermines that power dispersal and concentrates power in government hands.

And so it has indeed been the experience that countries with basically socialist economies have not been what we would recognize as democratic. The two ideas are fundamentally incompatible. This is one key reason why the world so decisively turned away from socialism in the late twentieth century.

The other reason was that it just didn’t work. While the idea of socialism is purportedly to give ordinary people better economic outcomes, in practice it did the opposite. Government has proven itself incapable of creating wealth, as does a market economy of enterprises competing with each other to give consumers better products and services at better prices. You can redistribute till the cows come home, but without a market economy creating wealth in the first place, people will be poorer. Whine all you like about the unfairness, the “harshness” of capitalism fueled by greed, but the ordinary person is still better off than under socialism.

Unknown* One is supposed to use gender-neutral language nowadays. But of course women don’t bash anybody.

** Socialists talk of “common ownership.” However, in reality that means nobody except government owning anything.

Being Mortal

October 15, 2015

imagesHow would you like to spend your last days in a nursing home? In a tiny cubicle with no privacy, no autonomy, no possessions, everything gone that made life worth living, surrounded by people who . . . well, you know.

Dr. Atul Gawande’s book, Being Mortal, addresses such end-of-life issues. It’s very relevant for me. My mother-in-law, 86, was in “assisted living” but a recent series of falls messed her up. UnknownGawande notes that the gravest health threat for the elderly is simply falling. My mother, 94, continues living in her own home, fortunately able to afford a part-time nurse/caregiver. I’m 68.

At one point Gawande notes psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of human motivations, crowned by mastery of knowledge and skills, gaining reward for achievement, and “self-actualization.” But he observed that aging people tend to narrow their concerns, concentrating more on family and friends. Why the change? Gawande acknowledged several theories – but I instantly knew the answer, because even while at 68 I remain very on-the-go, my perspective on life has changed.

Unknown-1In my 30s I was all Maslow, with the rest of my life stretching ahead almost limitlessly, or so it felt. Now I’m very conscious of having used up most of it. Now I know that not even some freak of fortune will resurrect my youthful dreams of literary or political triumph. To so many things now I react with a zen-like mantra: “it just doesn’t really matter.” Because when I’m gone, nothing will matter at all to me. And the time interval between now and then seems a mere detail.

So the pleasures of the moment are more important than Maslowian self-actualization. How many more cookies will I get to eat? images-1The thought makes each one more to be savored. How many more times will I get to jump in a pool? Or make love?

One thing that struck me – as it did Gawande – is the degree to which an exaggerated concern over safety dominates and constrains the circumstances in which elderly people exist. (I didn’t say “live” because, as Gawande shows, for too many it really isn’t living). And the safety concern is not so much on the part of the elderly themselves, as it is their children and caregivers (and of course the latter have a big concern to avoid blame for an adverse outcome).

The mentioned change of perspective is relevant. It’s tragic to die with “your whole life ahead of you.” At ninety, not so much. The concerns are different. But putting oldsters in a safe environment often means restricting what they can eat, what they can do, what activities they’re permitted, etc. They are made prisoners of safety. Gawande says they’re given “a life designed to be safe but empty of everything they care about.”

imagesWe all want to be “safe.” But what does that really mean? Zero risk? Some people today actually seem to think so, embracing a “precautionary principle” on issues like fracking that rule out anything not proven riskless – as if anything in life ever could be. But there is a constant trade-off between safety and other important concerns. A true “precautionary principle” would not allow us, for example, to drive cars. But we reckon that a trip is worth the risk, and that’s rational. After all, no matter how safe you try to be, life always entails an irreducible risk factor. images-2You can eschew cars but still get hit by one crossing the street. And for all your safety efforts, your risk of dying will still be not zero but, actually, 100%.

That perspective seems missing from eldercare. As though the safety obsession will keep folks from dying. When in fact, at best, it will only keep them alive for what is really a relatively short time. I daresay many elderly people would accept a small risk of dying a little sooner in exchange for more freedom and autonomy – more quality of life – while it lasts. There’s not much value in a longer life if it’s “lived” as described in my opening paragraph.

After all, the point of living is not just to not die. It certainly isn’t to not die tomorrow rather than the day after.

Things We’re Not Allowed to Say

October 7, 2015

imagesBlacks can say the N-word. Whites like me cannot. Not even in my own blog, nor even when talking of its offensiveness (as Christopher Hitchens once learned when a TV interview was abruptly terminated).

Issues of who can say what were a key topic at a 9/26 Skidmore College symposium with a panel packed with intellectual rock stars (Marilynne Robinson, Anthony Appiah, Orlando Patterson, Phillip Lopate, etc.).



The agenda was the interplay between ideology and belief. Patterson, a Harvard sociology professor, discussed the cultural legitimacy of beliefs, especially about groups. He noted that using group stereotypes is actually a biologically-wired survival tool – quick judgments could mean life or death for early peoples – but today, of course, it’s a no-no.

Patterson cited Lawrence Summers, whose words about women’s under-representation in science got him ousted as Harvard’s president – “rightly so,” Patterson said, to my surprise.



Because Summers was making an almost indisputable evidence-based point, about differences in how male and female brains work, that actually echoed claims by feminists who were lionized for it. Thus a perfect example of some being allowed to say what others aren’t.

This epitomized liberal censorship – their talk of “free expression,” “open inquiry,” and “academic freedom” is too often hypocrisy when they really mean freedom of expression only for themselves and views they favor.



Patterson discussed Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s famous 1965 report on black family breakdown (which Patterson, author of award-winning books on slavery, later blamed on slavery – even though black marriage rates through the Jim Crow era and even the Depression were no lower than for whites, and only plummeted a century after slavery’s end).

Anyhow, said Patterson, Moynihan-style attempts to connect behavior to cultural differences became seen as illegitimate – the “Typhoid Mary” of sociology.



Indeed, some denied that black single parenthood was even a problem, calling it not an inferior but merely a different family model (despite mountains of data showing how much better children do with two parents). Patterson labeled all of this “crippling” for sociology.

The 1980s finally saw a “slow, cautious return” to a more honest ethos. But you were still supposed to emphasize racism to explain sociological differences, with cultural explanations remaining suspect (except respecting racial IQ test disparities). More generally it was now okay to talk about culture, “but only what’s nice about people’s culture.”

Patterson ended by decrying what he sees as a “new victimism” (referring to police-versus-blacks issues), exemplified by Ta-Nehisi Coates’s much-discussed book addressed to his son, telling him his black body is an object of hate – “child abuse,” Patterson said.

Jim Sleeper (author of Liberal Racism) commented on the role here of “moral self-justification.” He made an analogy that while communism was bad, anti-communism also sometimes entailed bad things – and the same is true of anti-racism.



Epistemology (how and what one knows) loomed large in the discussion; in particular, what one chooses to know. Here again, liberal censorship. Patterson spoke of how information on black family breakdown was in effect whitewashed, and Jim Miller (former Director of Liberal Studies at the New School for Social Research) told how, when surveyed, his certifiably politically enlightened students mostly said they would not want to know hypothetical scientific data showing a group’s cognitive disability.

Relevant to belief differences entwined with knowledge differences, David Steiner, former (2009-11) New York State Education Commissioner, talked of attitudes toward charter schools. In Harlem he saw “tears running down the cheeks” of parents whose kids lost out in lotteries to attend charter schools – knowing those schools meant a likelihood of getting to college seven times greater. But a different narrative is evident in Baltimore where no charter school alternative for comparison exists because teacher unions have succeeded in protecting their monopoly and demonizing charters. Steiner wondered whether black Baltimoreans are cognizant of how bad their public schools are.



(I got to chat with Steiner afterwards. He said that nationwide, public schools outperform charters – because the latter are dragged down by results in a proliferation of what he called “mom and pop” schools, while larger, more professionally run charters do much better. One might add that inner city public schools tend to do much worse than national averages.)

Again, the headline topic was the interplay of ideology and belief. Patterson alluded to the problem of what it really means to “believe” something. People can “believe” in Heaven yet cry at funerals. Self-interest and self-regard are also distorting factors. I suspect O.J. Simpson believed himself innocent. Then there’s politics and ideology. China has bitterly denounced Japan’s recent adjustment of its pacifist strictures as a “return to militarism” – while China bullies its neighbors over territorial claims and its military build-up way outstrips Japan’s. Yet do Chinese authorities believe their rhetoric? Possibly.

A second session began with a talk by Yale Professor Seyla Benhabib which I think was about public versus private selves (not the scheduled topic) but was so encrusted with academic-ese that I got little from it. She tossed in some irrelevant bombs denouncing “neoliberalism” (a derogatory term by lefties for what is really a return to classical liberal principles) and how everything today is all about money, yada, yada, yada.



So Rutgers Professor Jackson Lears chimed in with an equally off-topic anti-capitalist rant. I was glad Jim Miller (“Liberal Studies,” remember!) called him on it, saying such burblings are empty because their devotees have no alternative to the economic arrangements they condemn (save perhaps a Soviet style command system, and we know how great that worked).

Lears shot back calling Miller’s comments among the most bizarre he’d ever heard, and that in thirty years he’d never been associated with the Soviet Union (something I doubt). Lears said the alternative system is “social democracy – it’s that simple – social democracy.”

Social Democracy

The alternative to free market capitalism

A catch-phrase totally devoid of substantive content. Might as well say the alternative is pie-in-the-sky.


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