Archive for the ‘Society’ Category

Hillary’s convention speech – draft

July 28, 2016

To: HRC

From: FSR

Re: Tonight’s speech

You didn’t use my last speech draft – but I’ll bet you now wish you had. So here’s what I think you should say tonight:

imagesMy fellow Democrats – my fellow Americans –

First, a salute to my honorable opponent, Bernie Sanders, and all his supporters whose great enthusiasm has been inspirational, and good for our democracy.

OK, enough of that.

Now, I want to tell you what this speech will not be about. I could go on and on about all sorts of programs, day care, pre-K, health care, family leave, minimum wage, trade, college debt, tax credits for this and that . . . Those kinds of policy things are important, and in the campaign to come, we’ll be talking about them. But tonight I want to talk about the bigger picture – the country we love, where it stands, and where it’s going.

images-1However, the Republicans, at their convention, spent a lot of time talking about me, saying some pretty horrible things. Well, let me tell you something. I am an imperfect person. I am human. Like most people, I have made mistakes. I try to learn from them and do better. But at least I never created a phony so-called “university” whose real aim was to cheat people out of their hard-earned savings. At least I never abused the bankruptcy laws over and over to cause financial ruin for investors who believed in me. I never refused, over and over, to pay contractors and others who worked for me, causing them too financial ruin. I never insisted I saw people in New Jersey celebrating 9/11. I never expressed admiration for bad guys like Putin and Saddam Hussein.

How can anyone with self-respect even consider voting for such a creep?

OK, enough of that.

Now, the horrible things Mr. Trump says about me — I can take it. But what I cannot take is the horrible things he’s said about the country I love so dearly. And that’s what this campaign is about – not about me, not about Mr. Trump, but about this wonderful nation and its future.

He made it sound like the country is in terrible shape, going to the dogs, falling to pieces, and if we don’t make him president, we’ll have nothing left. He actually said this.

Well, look. We do have problems. We do have challenges. Heaven knows that’s true. Some of the things the Republicans talked about – a few, at least – really are problems. We do need to make some changes, and do better. Business as usual cannot continue. That’s why I’m running for president.

UnknownBut telling us America is totally on the skids is just ridiculous. And here’s why: it’s why America is indeed such a wonderful nation. Because it’s a nation full of wonderful people: optimistic, positive-thinking people, people with can-do spirit, brimming with energy and ideas. A nation of good people, generous people. Who have always risen to our challenges, always met them, and always made the nation even better than ever.

And we are better than ever. Is everything better today? Of course not. Life never works that way. But more things are better than are worse. Crime and violence, for example, are way down. Our standard of living today is the highest that human beings have ever experienced anywhere on Earth. Nobody on Earth has more freedom than we do – freedom to do what we like, live how we like, say what we like. Today’s America is the most open society the world has ever known. In all these ways we continue to make progress.

With such a great nation of wonderful people, must we really elect a slimeball like Donald Trump in order to tackle our problems? His speech was an insult to America, and an insult to intelligence.

It placed great emphasis on violence and terrorism. Nobody should be blasé about those things. But ask yourself: when was the last time you personally actually experienced violence, by a stranger? Is that the biggest problem confronting you in your life? I don’t think so. Yes, radical Islamist terrorism is a problem we have to deal with, forcefully and comprehensively. But for God’s sake, get a grip. This is not our biggest problem and not something we can’t handle.

Unknown-1We’ve handled a lot worse. In 1814, Washington was occupied by enemy troops who burned down the White House! We had a civil war in which 600,000 Americans were killed! And a Great Depression where a quarter of our people were unemployed! Not to mention a world war or two! And you know what? Not only did we get through all that, we came out an even better, greater nation than ever.

So now two nut-jobs in San Bernardino kill fourteen people, and Donald Trump says America is going down? Seriously? Compared to all the past things I mentioned?

America dealt with them. America will deal with radical Islamic terrorism. Calmly, rationally, but energetically.

That is the America I love so dearly, and the America of which I am so proud to be a citizen. Unknown-2Why do you think so many people, all over the world, are so powerfully motivated to get to this country? Surely if America were really the dark, doomed nation that Donald Trump portrayed, people would not be struggling so hard to get here. They know what a wonderful country this is – with a wonderful future. How sad if some Americans can’t see what they see.

They see an America that is great. I do too. Not an America that somehow needs to be made “great again.”

God bless America.

Turkey’s phony “coup” plot

July 17, 2016

Turks are out in the streets, celebrating the supposed triumph of democracy over a supposed military coup attempt. President Obama has naively congratulated them.

UnknownTheir President Erdogan once said, “Democracy is like a train. When you reach your destination, you get off.” For him, it’s been apparent that the destination is personal dictatorship. Can’t those Turks cheering in the streets see that’s where the train’s going?

I’m not one for conspiracy theories. But when I first heard the news, the idea of a military coup in today’s Turkey seemed rather implausible. Far more plausible that the whole thing was orchestrated by Erdogan himself, as a pretext for grabbing more power and ramping up repression of political foes. He’d already gone far toward crushing them, silencing dissent and press freedom. Now this “coup attempt” has prompted a ferocious response, with the immediate arrest of thousands. Could so many have really been so transparently implicated in a huge coup plot?

Hundreds have been killed too. And, reportedly, 2,745 judges unseated, some arrested. Pretty fast work. Tell me the hit list wasn’t prepared beforehand. I’d call this a coup by Erdogan.

Gulen

Gulen

All the alleged “coup plotters” are being linked to the Gulenist movement, headed by Fethullah Gulen, a moderate cleric, democracy advocate, and one-time Erdogan supporter, now in exile in Pennsylvania. Turkey has sought his extradition. God forbid.

I’m reminded of Turkey’s “Ergenekon” affair, a few years back, in which again large numbers of soldiers and others were prosecuted for alleged involvement in a vast underground anti-government conspiracy. The details were murky; and a lot of those charges eventually proved bogus.

Erdogan

Erdogan

In more halcyon times, Erdogan seemed to be doing the right thing, in moving toward a peaceful settlement regarding Turkey’s restive Kurdish regions. But then he threw all that progress away and turned back to violence, exacerbating the conflict as a way to get the country to rally behind him. Faking a coup plot would be another move in this cynical, criminal game.

Democracy is not a train, and not merely a political system either, but a culture; as John Dewey said, a way of life. At its heart is acceptance that other people are equally entitled to a role in society. Given our evolutionary tribalism, that concept is difficult for many folks, and hence it’s constantly under assault. For a long time, it seemed to be nevertheless winning, but lately the war against it has intensified, and too few people grasp what’s at stake.

images-1Democracy can be one bad man from the abyss. We’ve seen this too many times. Putin in Russia. Chavez in Venezuela. Erdogan in Turkey.

Let’s not add “Trump in America.”

The Shakers: happiness in an ant colony?

June 27, 2016
Round barn at Hancock Shaker Village

Round barn at Hancock Shaker Village

My humanist group recently toured Hancock Shaker Village, in Massachusetts. The Shakers were a religious sect that set up communes of a sort, preaching equality and, famously, celibacy. They pretty much died out. No surprise.

Unlike some sects (notably the Amish), the Shakers loved new technology and were often clever in applying it; they were efficiency freaks. They lived dormitory-style, men and women separate. Unknown-1However, during the work day, they inter-mingled, though no touching was allowed. They ate together – but there was no talking either. A family joining the sect would be separated.

The attempt to write sexuality out of human life has many antecedents. At least the Shakers did not go as far as Russia’s Skoptsy, a religious sect whose answer for controlling sexuality was castration. But sex being dirty is a big theme in many religious contexts. imagesIt’s partly down to the abominable story of Adam and Eve, who were “pure,” and didn’t know from sex, until they “sinned” and started doing it – staining not only themselves but all their descendants, until Jesus got himself tortured to death to expiate the “sin.” Yet not even that sanitized sex for future generations.

With the Shakers, it may really have been rooted in their founder Ann Lee’s bad experience with marriage and procreation. She was not the only 18th century woman who felt that way, and that women would be better off free of it all. But that notion was very politically incorrect – better to cloak celibacy in a mantle of religious justification. So the Shakers were told celibacy enabled them to get closer to God. Or something like that.

Anyhow, one can see why women might buy into this. Less so for men. And indeed, over time, more men than women abandoned Shakerdom, which became mostly female.

But not only was celibacy a fundamental denial of human nature; so was the equality fetish. As our tour guide explained, that would be attractive to people who were not being treated equally in the outside world. However, the thirst for status is deeply rooted in the human psyche (by evolution – higher status meant more mating opportunities, so genes for status-seeking proliferated). And Shakerdom was down on the whole idea of self-actualization. Everything you did was supposed to be for the good of the community, and to please God – not yourself.

Unknown-2It all sounded to me like living in an ant colony. So why would people do that voluntarily? Only at gunpoint did people join communes in Soviet Russia or China. And even there sex was allowed.

It helps to remember that the concept of happiness is a modern invention. People in earlier times did not think that way. The point of life was not to be happy, but just to get through it. That was a hard enough challenge. (And entering a Shaker commune freed you of worry over your next meal.)

Of course people always craved pleasure and shunned suffering. Only a robot wouldn’t. But what differed was how they thought about it. Indeed, actually, that they didn’t. Unknown-3Many today seem to obsessively measure their happiness temperature. Doing so would never have occurred to our 18th century forebears. Moreover, like the Shakers, most people were brainwashed into the paradigm that whatever they did was to please not themselves but God. Even the most rapacious would strive to rationalize that he was pleasing God. Fear of Hell was very real.

Hancock Shaker Village was enjoyable to visit. But I was glad to return to modern life.

The nanny state meets political correctness: pregnant women in bars

June 4, 2016

As a nanny state critic and libertarian, I believe government shouldn’t tell us what we can or can’t do, without a very good reason (mainly, harm to others).

UnknownSo you might think I welcomed a recent New York City Human Rights Commission ruling that pregnant women can’t be refused service in bars. The Commission said, “Judgments and stereotypes about how pregnant individuals should behave, their physical capabilities and what is or is not healthy for a fetus are pervasive in our society and cannot be used as a pretext for unlawful discriminatory decisions.”

What’s wrong with this picture?

Unknown-1“Pervasive in our society,” “pretext,” and, especially, “stereotype,” are dog-whistle words, signaling that we’re enlightened and we’re talking about improperly categorizing people and unjustified prejudice. But in this case, those are all irrelevant red herrings.

Because the idea that alcohol harms fetuses is not a “stereotype.” Unknown-2It’s scientific fact. Indeed, the City also requires bars to post warnings that alcohol can cause birth defects! Yet now it decrees women have a right to thusly endanger their babies. I’m all for freedom – but its first rule is that my right to swing my fist stops at your nose.

Or your fetus’s. Pro-choicers have spent decades trying to deny human status to fetuses. A political correctness the Human Rights Commission may be bending to. But to any reasonable person, in what circumstances a fetus merits protection is a highly fraught moral conundrum. And it’s pretty extreme to deem fetuses unworthy of any societal concern whatsoever.

Unknown-3Here the concern is real and proper: alcohol can damage a fetal brain. Surely the fist-at-nose test is met. Remember, this is not about abortion or the unborn, but about protecting children expected to be born. If you were born with fetal alcohol syndrome, you would rightly feel as though your nose had been punched. Indeed, all our noses are punched considering the loss to society (and expense) when someone is born unable to become a fully functioning and productive citizen. Protecting society and children against that is legitimate.

This might, at least arguably, have justified a nanny-state edict barring pregnant women from bars. But instead, the Wrong Way Corrigan Commission directed its nanny-state impulse in the opposite direction, at bartenders, disallowing them from exercising judgment and responsibility in deciding for themselves whether to serve mothers-to-be. The Commission chose protecting drinkers over protecting children.

images-1This seems especially bizarre and perverse given that bartenders have been held accountable for serving drunks who then drive and injure people. Victims have sued bartenders in such circumstances.

Should a fetal alcohol victim be able to sue the bartender who served his pregnant mother?

Or sue the City Human Rights Commission?

The bathroom battle: what am I missing?

May 14, 2016
Transgender female

Transgender female

Scenario 1: A transgender woman – who looks female – enters a women’s room. Nobody notices.

Scenario 2: A transgender male – who looks male – enters a women’s room. The women there freak out.

Transgender male

Transgender male

The controversial North Carolina law requires Scenario 2. That is, using the bathroom of your birth certificate gender. Transgender males must use the girls’ room. How in God’s name does this protect the women who use it? Or prevent freak-outs? Doesn’t it do exactly the opposite?

So why the law? Because some people freak out at the very idea of changing one’s sex. They’re totally confuzzled and put off by it. Trying to find some way to vent this feeling, they came up with the bathroom law. Which actually, if enforced, would do the opposite of what they profess to want. That is how confused these people are.

Unknown-1Of course it can’t be enforced. Will they post guards by toilets to check birth certificates? If men’s rooms are used by people who look male, and women’s rooms by those who look female, how will anybody know there’s a problem?

And of course there never was one. Transgender people are a fraction of one percent of the population, and before this nonsense blew up, nobody ever noticed anything amiss in our restrooms. Besides, women do their business there privately, in stalls; and in men’s rooms guys mind their own business too. In literally thousands of visits I can’t recall ever seeing a penis not my own.

The law’s proponents might say they’re worried about men putting on dresses to go into women’s rooms to molest females. Do we know of a single case of this? (Molesting anyone was always illegal.) And what does it have to do with transgender anyway? Unknown-2Transgender women are not men wearing dresses. They are women.

Admittedly some rare individuals are in-between, mostly in a transition process. But surely it makes sense for them to use whichever facility they prefer at the time.

This is merely the latest example of a typical American phenomenon – periodically getting all worked up over a totally trivial, meaningless issue. A nation facing huge fiscal and economic challenges, huge overseas challenges, huge environmental challenges, is arguing instead about who can use what bathroom.

African-Americans on currency – too politically correct?

April 25, 2016

UnknownAndrew Jackson will be replaced, on the front of the $20 bill, with Harriet Tubman, a black woman. Inevitably some (like Trump) cry, “Political correctness!” Others, much worse.

Meantime, proposed designs were also recently made public for a future special-issue gold coin. imagesPast U.S. coins often portrayed “Lady Liberty.” Now she would have African-American features.

In the numismatic publications, reactions from the coin collector community were again sadly predictable. People always like what’s old and familiar and hate what’s new and different. The proposed design is seen as traducing a hallowed tradition. And Coin World’s editor called out the racism behind many of the comments.  Some seem to think the Goddess of Liberty is caucasian.

Morgan Dollar

Morgan Dollar

A lot of commenters called the image ugly. I wonder where they get their aesthetic nous. This design seems far finer than most modern U.S. mint productions. The gal depicted “I wouldn’t kick out of bed.” She’s certainly lovelier than many of our past Lady Liberties – like the bloated battleaxe on the Morgan dollar, so beloved by collectors. (Maybe they had different notions of feminine beauty in those days.) But I doubt Michelangelo could make a coin showing a black person that these people wouldn’t find ugly.

As for the $20 bill, Jackson has never been one of my heroes. He once said, “The Supreme Court has made its decision – now let them enforce it.” Spitting on the rule of law. And Jackson was talking about a court ruling that Georgia couldn’t steal Cherokee land. No friend of Indians, he. Indeed, his policy could be called genocidal.

Get that SOB off our money.

. . . or how about this comely lass?

. . . or how about this comely lass?

Harriet Tubman was a great, heroic personage, a humble woman of outstanding virtue, who fought slavery not just with words but deeds. She actually freed slaves. I’m proud to be a citizen of a country that would put her on its currency.

And as for that new Lady Liberty, I would remind critics, so wedded to traditional portrayals, that one of the greatest things this nation ever did, to live out its creed of liberty, was to fight a war to free the slaves. In light of that, an African-American Liberty goddess is an entirely fitting and deeply meaningful representation of the liberty this nation stands for.

But the mentioned hostility to the proposed designs doesn’t mean America is deeply racist (as cynics continue to say). This isn’t your grandfather’s racism, but more a reaction to the affirmative action culture and what’s seen as privileging blacks (an ironic counterpoint to “white privilege”). Reverse discrimination (say, in hiring) can indeed be a legitimate issue. But portrayals on currency are just symbolism, the wrong battle to fight. Given what blacks have suffered, no one should begrudge their pictures on money. And those who do are not the American mainstream. We’re a better country than that; these currency designs prove it again.

What explains the vicious left?

April 20, 2016

images-2I recently wrote about a talk by scientist David Gelernter, at the state university. A student got up to ask about an article he’d written – “What Explains the Vicious Left?” The student said he’s politically moderate, and a pervasive, aggressive campus left-wing atmosphere makes him feel under attack.

I too have written about the poisoning of American politics by those who believe people with opposing views are not just wrong but wicked. And that, while both left and right are guilty, the left is far the bigger culprit.* imagesThis is especially true on campuses, where the left totally dominates, and seeks to disallow dissent. This is the “political correctness” that is so vile.

Its latest manifestation is to “protect” students from words or ideas that might make them “uncomfortable.” We hear much about verbal “micro-aggressions” having that effect, especially on minority students. Ethnic and gender minorities, that is. images-3But what about the minority that is truly persecuted – non-leftist students – like the questioner at Gelernter’s talk? Where is the concern about their being made uncomfortable, by efforts to browbeat them into silence?

I’m reminded of the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Dred Scott case that blacks have “no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” On campuses today, conservatives have no rights a leftist is bound to respect. “The left seems to have lost its taste for democracy,” Gelernter’s article said.

Responding to the questioner, he noted that at Yale, where he teaches, conservative students have come to his office in tears because of the left’s “frantic fervor” and bullying. Gelernter suggested the phenomenon has to do with the fact that campus leftists are almost exclusively atheist/agnostic, whereas conservatives are frequently religious.

UnknownThe latter, he said, are cocooned in a strongly held moralistic belief system, satisfying a fairly universal psychological need. And with that box checked off, they don’t infuse their political views with a similar moral fervor. For them, politics is just politics. Atheist leftists, on the other hand, have only their politics to fill this psychological need, which is why they become so fierce. “Politics is their faith, in default of any other; it is the basis of their moral life.”

And naturally they are very protective of that faith, responding ferociously to any challenge; unwilling even to let opposing ideas be heard. (Just like some religious faiths, even today – apostasy is punished with death in some Muslim lands.)

More generally, politics is becoming very tribal, “us against them,” and for many it’s their core identity – virtually their ethnicity. As for why this is more true on the left, Gelernter’s religion-based theory may be at least a partial explanation. But there’s much in his article I find problematic. He’s evidently religious himself, and argues that the problem could only be cured with a religious revival — “a miracle.” Yet he seems to think it possible – ignoring why religious belief is declining — its sheer implausibility. (Though implausible ideas aren’t hampering certain presidential contenders.)

In googling Gelernter’s article, I found comments from left-wingers that were . . . surprise . . . absolutely vicious. Exemplifying the very syndrome he discusses. (Somewhat ironic, with leftists also full of talk about kindness, compassion, non-judgmentalism, and so forth.)

images-4At one time, the kind of moralistic fervor Gelernter discusses drove people to burn dissenters alive. At least we haven’t reached that stage in politics.

Yet.

*Journalism professor Rosemary Armao, frequently on local radio discussion shows, supporting Hillary, has remarked upon the viciousness of messages she’s received from Bernie backers. (But none from Republicans.)

The truth about immigration

March 30, 2016

My local community is having a celebration of immigrants. It’s timely, given our national panic attack over immigration. Unknown-1Forgetting Ronald Reagan’s “Tear down this wall,” now a presidential candidate wants to build a new one.

Do immigrants take jobs from Americans? Many think there are only so many jobs to go around, and anyone hired means someone else unemployed. Economists call this the “lump of labor fallacy.” It assumes a static, unchanging economy, whereas the reality is constant dynamic change.* Add productive capability, and uses for it will be found.

Immigrants do add to such capability, thus making our nation economically stronger, not weaker. Especially since they have more drive than the pre-existing population’s average. Countries like Mexico are not sending us “wretched refuse.” To the contrary, anyone willing to face all the hazards of emigrating is among the most courageous, ambitious, enterprising, resourceful, capable of people. We need them. They come here to get ahead, not to get hand-outs.

images-1In fact, we have a huge problem with a growing imbalance between our rising elderly population, collecting benefits, and those working and paying taxes to fund those benefits. Young work-hungry immigrants help redress that imbalance. Thusly replenishing our work force is a key factor making America’s economy stronger than Europe’s (actually more anti-immigrant than we are).

America believes in freedom. A fundamental freedom is to live where you want. Should we then let everybody in? It’s not a crazy idea. Economists have estimated – get this – worldwide free movement of people would double global GDP. Because migrants would multiply their earning power by going to where their work is more productive (often because of better technology). Most poor people are poor because they’re trapped where their productive potential is vastly underutilized. Remedying that, through freer movement, would go far toward eradicating poverty. And the resulting more efficient production of goods and services, globally, would make everyone richer.

Some fear immigrants will degrade our culture.

Learn English or get out

Learn English or get out

But successive waves of immigrants have enriched U.S. culture, continuously rejuvenating it; our polyglot diversity is what makes our culture the world’s most vibrant and attractive. Ironically, those who fear this cultural flux are not themselves paragons of cultural refinement. No, it’s not immigrants who threaten America with cultural degradation – it’s the immigrant-haters, who would hand the presidency to a braying, bragging brute.

Real Americans love apostrophes!

Apostrophes belong to Americans too!

*Automation is a similar jobs bugbear. So far employment has always actually expanded. But is technological progress finally leading to all production needs met without jobs for all? Ever fewer people are employed making stuff — but more in services. Unskilled work is disappearing, hurting the less educated. Our challenge is to make everyone productive.

“Our Kids” and the real inequality

March 5, 2016

imagesInequality is a big issue. But focusing on the 99%-versus-1% is misguided. The idea that if the 1% had less the 99% would have more is incorrect.*

unknown3America’s real inequality problem is addressed in Robert Putnam’s recent book, Our Kids: the growing divide between two very different cultures, and decreasing mobility between them. It’s not the 1%-versus-99% but, roughly speaking, the top third versus the lower third.

Putnam’s departure point is the 1950s Ohio town where he grew up, where the phrase “our kids” was used by both rich and poor talking about all the town’s kids. Because they really all lived in a unified community. That kind of social solidarity is a bygone, sundered by a wall of separation.

Affluent well-educated people tend to marry well-educated mates and provide their kids with a stable, nurturing, well-resourced path for repeating the process.unknown-31 The other culture comprises those who don’t go to college and consequently earn much less. The divide is widening because the workplace value of education is increasing. It’s not some conspiracy by the rich to keep down the rest. Rather, it’s a raw economic reality that in today’s world unskilled work just isn’t worth what it used to be.

But the problem isn’t just money. Today’s lower income Americans actually have more income (when you count government benefits) than in Putnam’s 1950s town. And way more than in the Depression and before. Yet those poorer people nevertheless mostly managed to maintain stable, nurturing family structures. Today’s do not.

UnknownThis is the heart of Putnam’s book. In contrast to the Ozzie-and-Harriet child-supportive marriages of the educated class, today’s less educated tend to have more chaotic family situations, often without marriage at all, in which children don’t get comparable nurturing and support. And those kids are similarly set up to repeat the picture; it’s extremely hard to break out of that culture to obtain the education and personality traits needed for rising into the affluent class.

Drilling down into the reasons, Putnam sees parenting styles as crucial. For the affluent, the social norm has shifted from the relaxed Doctor Spock approach to “intensive parenting,” influenced by well-publicized research revealing the importance of early parent-child interactions in personality development.** Less educated parents haven’t gotten this memo, or else aren’t able to follow it, due to financial and other stresses in their own lives. images-1Compared to the affluent, their parenting is more restrictive and punitive – less hugging and more spanking.

One researcher contrasts the affluent’s “promotive” parenting strategies, aimed at encouraging children’s talents, with poorer parents hewing toward “preventive” strategies to cope with the dangers of a rough environment. Further, affluent parents not only speak vastly more words to their kids, but the vast majority are encouragements, whereas for parents on welfare the great majority are discouragements.

Not surprisingly, all these parenting differences have been shown to affect children’s brain and personality development. (See my post on the marshmallow test.) That’s how poor families get stuck reprising their trajectories.

What is to be done? Good schooling might ideally compensate for parenting disparities; but for a cat’s cradle of reasons, which Putnam explores, schools in disadvantaged neighborhoods tend to exacerbate rather than rectify cultural disparities. For example, because their environment is more stressful, good teachers flee them.

Putnam does conclude with a list of suggested fixes, but basically it’s all doing more of the well-intentioned things that are already done, generally inadequately. Unknown-1But here’s a more radical thought. It’s also clear from the book that less affluent kids do badly partly because they live in bad neighborhoods. Let’s move families to better neighborhoods. This has actually been tried and shown to produce good results.

* The mistake is thinking there’s a fixed amount of wealth to go around, so anyone’s gain is another’s loss. Wrong. Steve Jobs got rich selling gizmos for more than they cost to make, to people who valued them more than they paid. That’s how societal wealth is increased. Buyers of his products would not have been richer had Jobs not gained wealth, they’d have been poorer.

 ** Putnam acknowledges that “helicopter parenting” has its own problems; but still insists they’re dwarfed by the problems he documents in lower class families.

Can money buy happiness?

February 14, 2016

UnknownMoney does buy a lot of things that enhance well-being; and many of life’s problems can be solved if you have enough money. But past that point, scientific evidence suggests, more money may not make you happier. (Though still the quality of life is better, and I’d rather be rich and miserable than poor and miserable.)

Some profess bafflement why people who have enough still want more. As if that were not fundamental to human nature. Yet wanting more is labeled “greed;” and wanting more, globally, in the form of economic growth, likewise gets tarred as a kind of greed. There are even those (like climate activist Bill McKibben) who deem economic growth a bad thing. But that’s supercilious in a world still far from the point where everyone has enough to live decently.* (And, no, redistributing all the wealth of the rich wouldn’t do it.)

It’s also argued that wealth inequality actually reduces everyone’s well-being. At least some wish that were so, to bolster their anti-wealth political agenda. But I doubt the rich are much perturbed by inequality. Indeed, there’s evidence that on average they’re stingier, less charitable, and just less nice. It’s not clear whether wealth makes one mean, or being mean helps make one richer. But either way, many (though not all) rich people feel superior and disdainful.

UnknownHowever, if lefties then arguably have a point that wealth tends to go to the “wrong” people, that seems to be a basic fact of human society that cannot be undone without destroying the sources of economic growth and progress – that is, people striving to better their personal situations – that have meantime made the world as a whole so much richer, especially in the last century, eliminating so much squalor and misery.

Getting back to happiness, what the word actually means is a big and difficult question. But people generally seem born with (or to develop) a set-point along the happiness/unhappiness spectrum, to which they tend to revert eventually after the impact of any vicissitude. One element of a happier personality is a sense of gratitude – not taking one’s blessings for granted.

images-1A related key reason why, beyond a certain point, added wealth doesn’t increase happiness is what social scientists call the “adaptation effect.” One adapts psychologically to a new higher living standard; the surprise wears off and the “new normal” becomes what you now expect and take for granted.

Also relevant here is a set of Kenyan socioeconomic experiments reported by The Economist. In small villages, sizable cash grants were given at random (echoing the typically unequal distribution of economic growth). Recipients’ feelings of well-being measurably rose. But for neighbors, they fell, by even more. (Though all these deviations wore off after a while; the adaptation effect.)

But notably, as The Economist explained, “it was not inequality in general that bothered the unlucky, so much as a decline in their own wealth relative to the mean.” That is, their sense of well-being was governed not by their absolute wealth levels but, rather, by the comparison against their peers. The cash grants raised a village’s average wealth, making the non-recipients poorer compared not just to the recipients but to the average.

images-2“Keeping up with the Joneses” is a very real psycho-social force. As The Economist further says, in evaluating one’s relative position one tends to look at those above rather than below; so, “when our own lot improves, we shift our reference group to those who are still better off. In other words, we are never satisfied, since we quickly become accustomed to our own achievements.” The adaptation effect again. “Perhaps that is what spurs people to earn more, and economies to grow.” (My emphasis.)

imagesConclusion: to keep people from getting rich would not be good for the poor, but bad.

 


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 3,572 other followers