Archive for the ‘Society’ Category

Indiana, Discrimination, and Progressive Intolerance

April 6, 2015

Unknown-1Isabel Wilkerson’s book, The Warmth of Other Suns, about the migration of blacks from the Jim Crow South, tells of an Alabama doctor who relocated by car to California. His trip was an endurance ordeal because nowhere along the way could he get a meal or a room.

That is discrimination.

It’s what the 1964 Civil Rights Act addressed. The argument at the time was that restaurateurs and hoteliers shouldn’t be forced to serve people against their will. But that freedom was deemed overridden by the rights and interests of the victims of such discrimination, and the greater public interest. A reasonable societal decision.

imagesNow we’re told it’s the same issue of discrimination when a photographer or florist doesn’t (for religious reasons) wish to service a gay wedding. But recalling that Alabama doctor, I don’t think it’s comparable. Are they likely to be the only photographer or florist in town? (And would you want your wedding photographed by someone forced to do it?)

The great irony is that, after gays fought intolerance for so long, now the tables are turning, with the intolerance going in the other direction. Gays now have the right to marry, in most places. Must they also have the right to demand service from even religious objectors to gay marriage?

I support gay marriage, and reject Biblical teachings against it as vile nonsense. But I also accept the right of other people to think differently, and to live in accordance with their beliefs. I tolerate the foibles of my fellow humans, wanting everyone able to live as they choose.

“Tolerance” was long actually a liberal shibboleth, but for them it’s never a two-way street. Bible thumpers are required to tolerate gay married couples in their neighborhood. images-1But gays, and their political allies, should likewise be tolerant toward others who don’t share their perspective. That latter kind of tolerance is in short supply. Now viewpoints that, not long ago, were in the majority, are anathematized as bigotry. On this standard, President Obama, until 2012, was a bigot.

The word “progressive” was embraced to sidestep the bad odor of “liberal.” But “liberal” is a perfectly honorable word – and it’s right that “progressives” eschew it because they tend to be, in the strict sense, illiberal.

That they have their heads up their asses on such matters is exemplified by our Governor Cuomo who, in an excess of political correctness, curtailed state travel to Indiana.* images-3Yet he himself plans to travel to Cuba. Similarly, some businesses were shunning Indiana – while cheerfully continuing to do business with China. Is Indiana really worse on human rights than Cuba or China? Is gay marriage even allowed in those countries? If I were gay, I’d rather live in Indiana. (Heck, if I were anyone I’d rather live in Indiana than Cuba or China.)

This issue goes beyond forcing people to take wedding pictures against their religious beliefs. I’ve written about Brendan Eich, forced out as head of a major company, because he had supported a California ballot referendum (which passed) against gay marriage. images-4Isn’t this – people made pariahs, even losing their jobs – because of their beliefs – precisely the “McCarthyism” that lefties spent half a century beating their breasts about, as the crime of crimes? How did they so grievously lose their way?**

Our society has undergone a great change, very swiftly, on our attitudes toward gay people. But it’s hard for some people to get with the new program, especially if their religious beliefs come into the matter. I don’t think the correct approach is to browbeat those people, demonize them, and coerce them. That can only aggravate animosity. A softer approach would be better.

* Connecticut’s Governor did likewise, despite Connecticut itself having a “religious freedom” law almost identical to Indiana’s.

** See the comments on my post about Eich for a good illustration (“Rob”) of tortured lefty thinking.

John Gray versus Pinker on Violence: “The Sorcery of Numbers”

April 1, 2015

UnknownSteven Pinker’s 2011 book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, argued that declines in all kinds of violence, including war, reflect moral progress. I reviewed it enthusiastically (and not just because it cited my own book). But, unarguably, Pinker’s thesis has had a bad few years.

Hardly was his ink dry when violent conflict engulfed the Arab world. Russia has resurrected, zombie-like, a kind of big power military aggression we had thought gone forever. And whereas expanding democratization was a key explanatory pillar for Pinker’s thesis, democracy too has had setbacks, in countries from Venezuela to Thailand, with Egypt’s revolution producing a regime even worse than before,* while China’s authoritarianism looks better (in some eyes) than America’s democratic paralysis.

imagesWell. As I’ve often argued, human affairs are complex, and their path is never linear. We’ve had some years going in the wrong direction; but it’s way too soon to read the last rites for far longer and larger trends in the right direction.

Comes now John Gray in The Guardian** with an essay boldly headed, “Pinker is Wrong About Violence and War.” The subhead asserts, “[t]he stats are misleading . . . and the idea of moral progress is wishful thinking and just plain wrong.” (My daughter Elizabeth challenged me to respond.)

images-4I was expecting to find, in this lengthy essay, some substantive grappling with Pinker’s arguments and his exhaustive analysis of data, in the light of latterly developments. Not so. Indeed, the essay’s verbosity is inversely proportional to its substance. As Texans say, all hat and no cattle; revealing less about Pinker than about Gray’s pretentious cynicism masquerading as intellectual depth.

Gray does perfunctorily argue that data here “involves complex questions of cause and effect,” citing some ambiguities whose disregard, he says, renders Pinker’s statistics “morally dubious if not meaningless.” images-1But what Gray completely disregards (did he read the book?) is the vast depth in which Pinker examined just such issues (for example, what counts as “war” and how you count casualties), always probing for the reasons and explanations behind the data, to arrive at true understanding.

Rather than get into such nitty-gritty, Gray offers a string of non sequiturs. images-5For instance, unable to rebut Pinker’s analysis of actual history, he invokes counter-factual history – what might have happened, but did not (e.g., Nazis winning WWII). And, after enumerating a few recent violent episodes (yes, it’s no revelation they still occur), Gray says, “Whether they accept the fact or not, advanced societies have become terrains of violent conflict. Rather than war declining, the difference between peace and war has been fatally blurred.”

Fatally! This hyperbolic twaddle is belied by Pinker’s comprehensive exegesis of just how different modern advanced societies are, from earlier ones, in terms of the violence ordinary people encounter in everyday life. Thus Pinker addresses not just war, but every other class of violence – something Gray totally ignores.

Part of Pinker’s explanation for the improvement is the influence of Enlightenment values (just one example: Beccaria’s battle against pervasive torture). But Gray makes the customary shallow and cynical attack on the very idea of Enlightenment values. He cites a few backward views held by Locke, Bentham, and Kant. Which proves what, exactly? And Gray alleges (without specifying) “links between Enlightenment thinking and 20th-century barbarism,” dismissing any denial as “childish simplicity.” Call me childish, but I don’t consider Hitler, Stalin and Mao avatars of Voltairean humanism.

But, again, none of this nonsense represents any serious effort to engage with the analysis Pinker laid out in such depth. images-6And it’s all just a lead-up to Gray’s main point, which is to simply ridicule the whole project of elucidating these matters through statistical evaluation – which he likens to a 16th century magician’s use of a “scrying glass” to access occult messages, or spinning Tibetan prayer wheels. He sees Pinkerites as similarly trying to assuage some existential angst by fetishizing data, reading into it meaning that isn’t there. “Lacking any deeper faith and incapable of living with doubt,” Gray writes, “it is only natural that believers in reason should turn to the sorcery of numbers.”

There you have it. “The sorcery of numbers.” The postmodernist mentality at its worst: there’s no such thing as truth. images-2Don’t even try to understand reality by examining evidence for what’s actually happening. Instead, place reliance on – what? – John Gray’s deeper wisdom, uncontaminated by data? Magicians and sorcery indeed!

True, statistics can be misused, but surely that doesn’t tell us to eschew their use. Pinker recognized that his book challenged conventional wisdom and would be met with a wall of cynicism like Gray’s. Thus he knew he had to build a powerful battering ram of facts and data – accompanied by thoroughgoing and persuasive interpretive analysis – to break through that wall. Unknown-1Pinker’s success is evidenced by Gray’s bemoaning that “the book has established something akin to a contemporary orthodoxy.” If so, that orthodoxy is in no danger of overthrow from such a disgracefully foolish effort as John Gray’s.

* Though there’s been good news in Sri Lanka, and now Nigeria, where voters transcended traditional divisions to oust the ruling party.

** It had also published a similarly cynical and stupid review (by George Monbiot) of Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist.

 

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.

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.

 

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.

“Far From the Tree” – Parenting Non-normal Children

February 27, 2015

images-2Sometimes while reading I must stop, and shut my eyes, to absorb, process and recover from some shocker. This happened a lot with Andrew Solomon’s 2012 book, Far From The Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity. It concerns non-normal children – mostly with deficits – deaf, autistic, disabled, etc.

“Deficit” is already a fraught word; the subtitle’s mention of “identity” is telling. We see here an element of identity politics, that is, based not on interests or beliefs but, rather, personal characteristics like ethnicity or sexuality. UnknownA major example is people who see their deafness not as a problem but as their identity. Indeed, there is deaf chauvinism, opposing medical ameliorations of deafness (mainly, cochlear implants), even equating them with genocide (killing deaf culture by depopulating it).

The argument is that they’re not defective but different, and it’s understandable that a deaf person might resent the concept of “cure” as implying something wrong. True, deaf culture, within its own boundaries, is a rich one, and adds to the overall diversity of human culture, which might be seen as diminished were deaf culture lost. imagesBut, to quote Robert Frost, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall” – and deaf culture lies behind one, sealed off, not completely but partially, largely inaccessible by the rest of human culture. And, politically incorrect though it may be to point out the obvious, four senses are less than five.*

Pluralism is central to the concept of a truly democratic society. And everyone should be empowered to live the best lives they can. However, when we see “neurodiversity” advocates holding in effect that autism ought to be honored as though it were a lifestyle choice, that goes too far. Sure, autistics can and should live rewarding lives. But there is something very important missing. No one should argue this is not tragic.

Central to this book is what parental love is. It’s easy enough to bloviate all day about the ordinary kind. images-1But the book’s numerous personal stories often depict extraordinary circumstances, that stress-test the concept. Loving deaf children is no surprise, but then there are the children from Hell, turning their parents’ lives into painful, grueling ordeals.

Yet even they are loved. One can understand parents accepting responsibility toward even the most unresponsive, even anti-responsive, offspring; but love? What’s to love? one’s rational mind wants to ask. But while love often does have a (perhaps unconsciously) rational component, of course love is not entirely a manifestation of human rationality. Often it seemed the love depicted in the book existed for its own sake. Parents love children from Hell because, well, they just do. (And sometimes children love parents from Hell.)

Thus one striking impression from this book is that the world is full of saints. Unknown-1Now, admittedly, some selection bias clearly operated; Solomon talks only about people who were willing to talk to him; and few (at least in the medical-type situations) were non-affluent or culturally from the other side of the tracks. But I’ve never believed well-off or upper class people are inherently “better” than others. So if those in the book behaved well, that speaks about human universals.

And in fact, in case after case, people thrown-for-a-loop with an unexpected non-normal child rallied their inner resources and responded to the situation in ways they could never have foreseen. Yet I was not surprised; having long since grown to understand this human characteristic. Again and again, people do rise to the occasion, with an extraordinary capacity for responding to extraordinary situations in extraordinary ways.

Then there’s the chapter about children of rape. Few saints here; a parade of horrors and depravity (refer back to my first sentence). Of course we mustn’t “blame the victim.” And yet Solomon was struck how often being victimized and abused reflected an inability to foresee danger in one’s choices. “Every bad thing that befell them, even at the hands of previous aggressors, came as a surprise. They could not tell the difference between people who warranted trust and those who didn’t.” Why? Their childhood experience. “They did not know what caring behavior felt like, so they were unable to recognize it.”

Unknown-2What a contrast – the loving parental nurture of even profoundly disabled children, versus parenting of initially normal children that turned them into emotionally disabled people. But even some of those latter stories had good redemptive endings, with protagonists ultimately able to rise above all that had gone wrong in their lives. The good outweighs the bad; the tears of love outweigh those of rage.

That’s the human story. It makes me a humanist – a lover of humankind – and an optimist.

 

 

* I’m normally a stickler for the distinction between “less” and “fewer.” But sometimes rules must be broken. Here, “less” is the more fitting word.

Fear and Loathing at Sears Auto Center

February 5, 2015

UnknownOnce, at a fancy New Orleans restaurant, we didn’t get bread like other tables. I told the Maitre D’. He shrugged and said, “Sometimes you get bread and sometimes you don’t.”* This has become a family catch-phrase.

Recently my car battery needed immediate replacement. Unknown-1I went to  Sears in Albany, phoning first to confirm availability. After a 15 minute queue, Tim at the front station went to the shelf, and came back saying, “You’re in luck, we have one left.” So we did up the paperwork; he said installation wouldn’t take long.

An hour later, I checked with Tim; he said my car was next. After almost a further hour, enduring daytime TV noise in the waiting room, I asked him what was going on. I might have sounded frustrated. Tim snarled, “You can take your car and leave if you want.” I didn’t reply. A little while later, he finally called my name.

images“We don’t have the battery,” Tim said, without even the word “sorry.” Dumbfounded, I pointed out that he’d told me they had it. Tim denied this.

Sometimes you get a battery and sometimes you don’t.

Luckily my car would still start and I got one quickly at Hyundai. Then I phoned the manager at Sears Auto, Steve, to complain. After several attempted excuses, he finally conceded, “I have no excuse.” But I never actually got an apology.

This was certainly one of my most egregious consumer experiences. I’m still literally incredulous that a major business like Sears would operate like that. Unknown-2But after I calmed down and pondered, I was bemused to consider how minor this was, in the great scheme of things, and how rare even such minor foul-ups are in an advanced country like America. My Sears episode, standing out like a sore thumb, really points up how beautifully our society functions ordinarily. We should be tremendously grateful, not taking it for granted. Life wasn’t always like this, and still isn’t in many places even today.

I was put in mind of Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s book Infidel which I’ve reviewed. After living in several Muslim societies, she washed up as a refugee in the Netherlands; straight off the plane, she encountered a policeman, who helped her, rather than trying to victimize her. This blew her mind; an epiphany in which Hirsi Ali instantly understood that, so unlike all her past experience, here is a society that works.

My car works too now. It only took three and a half hours.

Unknown-3*I whispered to my wife, “Sometimes you get a tip and sometimes you don’t.”

The Pacific Jewel in the Liberty Cap

February 2, 2015

UnknownQuestion: which state’s flag incorporates the British Union Jack?

Answer: Hawaii, which was (consensually) a British protectorate for most of the 19th century, while an independent kingdom.* In 1893, Queen Lili’uokalani was deposed in a coup organized mainly by American planters. Annexed in 1898, Hawaii became the 50th state in 1959.

Dennis

Dennis

We spent a week in Maui in January as guests of my Albany coin collecting friend Dennis Ryan and his wife Paulette. Dennis is an amazing character. Though in Maui only a couple of months each year, he seems to know everybody and is very active in local history and preservation communities; his knowledge is legion, and he is voluble in sharing it. We got an intensive tour. It was a bit weird to travel 6,000 miles** and find Dennis’s familiar squirrely handwriting in a museum exhibit case; several sites display his coins and other objects.

The Hawaiian islands were settled many centuries ago by people from other, quite distant Pacific locales. I was astounded yet again to contemplate the gutsiness of those people setting out in flimsy vessels to cross vast stretches of open ocean. And what it took, once they arrived, to survive and prosper. They had nothing of the technology we so take for granted (not even the wheel). images-1They were handed no instruction manual for how to utilize the stones, bones, plants, animals, and shells, etc., they found. They had to figure it all out for themselves. “Primitive savages?” I don’t think so.

Hawaii, consonant with its geographic remoteness, is certainly culturally the most distinctive of the 50 states. It’s American diversity par excellence. Unlike in the continental U.S., the natives were not driven out or marginalized, but remain an integral part of Hawaiian life – albeit with ethnic admixtures from all the Japanese, Chinese, Filipinos, Portuguese, Germans, Koreans, etc., and of course Americans who migrated mainly to work the plantations.

My wife Therese doing yoga on Maui

My wife Therese doing yoga on Maui

There is a viewpoint that sees 1893 as a crime; and controversial legislation has been promoted that would give native Hawaiians (as if that status could be definitively determined) some sort of special status, almost a parallel government to negotiate with the U.S. one. It’s all very politically correct, but I consider it un-American. Of all the crimes in the annals of world history, 1893 wasn’t much of one. I’m no fan of monarchy generally as a political system, and while Hawaii’s later royals may not have been bad, earlier ones were not mild Barack Obama types. America took the islands virtually without bloodshed and comparatively little dissension; and few of those with native Hawaiian ancestry today seem desirous of undoing the past century’s developments.

Unknown-2I certainly did not feel like I was touring a crime scene. Instead, I glory in how so many different kinds of people get along so well in Hawaii. To me, that we have taken to our bosom this remote speck of civilization in the middle of the Pacific, as an equal and valued member of our polity, bespeaks the great soul of this nation. I came back – if this were possible – loving America even more.

* In 1843, a British naval officer arrived and forced the king to cede the islands to Britain; but the British government quickly disavowed his action and returned sovereignty to the natives.

** Hawaii is not our westernmost state. Alaska is.

Kids First: Pre-K, Pre-pre-K, Marshmallows, and Fish

January 20, 2015

Our kids come first – how often is this heard? From parents, politicians, and do-gooders alike. Children are our future; we should invest in them, with programs like pre-K.

UnknownWe do know that the first months or years in a child’s life are crucial influences on the future person and his or her success. Recall the famous “Marshmallow Test” – if a young child has the self-discipline to defer gratification for the sake of later rewards, this is a powerful predictor of flourishing in school and life. Pre-K education has also been shown very helpful in a person’s future trajectory. Modest societal investments like this, in youngsters, deliver huge returns – making productive citizens who contribute to society, as opposed to losers and criminals who detract from it and soak up resources.

imagesBut we actually should take it one level back. What’s the biggest influence on a child’s earliest years? Parents. Differential parenting is a huge explanatory factor for the kinds of people we become. And let’s be frank: parenting styles tend to differ greatly among social classes. For example, it’s estimated that by age 3, kids in lower socio-economic homes hear 30 million fewer spoken words than in affluent homes – and in the former, more of the words are discouraging rather than encouraging. Such factors tend to perpetuate divergent social outcomes from generation to generation.

images-1So Pre-K is all well and good, but we need Pre-pre-K: early education for parents. Teaching them how to break out of dysfunctional ancestral patterns, to equip their kids to pass the Marshmallow Test, and so forth. I can’t claim this as my own brilliant idea; in fact such programs do exist, notably at Harlem Children’s Zone. Investments in such efforts would generate gigantic future dividends, both economically and in quality of life.

As an example, The Economist recently noted a program in Jamaica teaching mothers of chronically malnourished youngsters how to play with them in ways that promote verbal and physical skills. Those kids grew up to earn higher incomes than “untreated” kids – even those who had not been malnourished.

The Economist was making a broader point about poverty. Many conservatives think the poor are basically responsible for their situation, while progressives blame society. Conventional economics suggests that the answer is to give people opportunities to earn their way out of poverty, and many millions have indeed done so. But it’s not quite that simple; poverty has a tendency to be self-perpetuating because of its behavioral effects. images-2Poor people often make bad economic decisions, not because they are irrational or foolish, but because they lack access to the necessary information; their poverty may make them feel powerless as well as overly risk-averse; and the resulting stressful existence is not conducive to calm deliberation. They also face structural obstacles – as I’ve written, it’s costly to be poor.

The Economist points out that whereas traditional anti-poverty programs stress supplying resources, a behavioral approach focuses instead on how choices are made and how they can be improved. For instance, sending kids to school should be a no-brainer for their future well-being; yet in many poor countries, parents often don’t send them; however, some Latin American programs giving cash payments to those who do have dramatically boosted school attendance.

images-3There’s some truth in the old saw about giving people fish versus teaching them to fish. But teaching fishing may not be enough. People may need to be taught to want to fish.

“Everything is Awesome” – The Lego Movie and Ideology

January 11, 2015

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

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

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

President Business

President Business

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

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

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

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

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

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


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 3,298 other followers