Archive for the ‘Society’ Category

“Automating Inequality” — Using technology to screw the poor

June 7, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The crisis of followership

May 30, 2019

Great Britain has a crisis of leadership. One main party now headed by an agit-prop Marxist; the other by a hapless prime minister, who has now quit, leaving the crazies to take over.

This prompted The Economist’s “Bagehot” columnist (covering Britain) to recall a long ago discussion about leadership — where management guru Peter Drucker said we actually need to think more about followership. (Here’s a link: https://www.economist.com/britain/2019/05/04/britains-followership-problem) If we don’t see great leaders like Lincoln, Churchill, and FDR, maybe it’s because followership has changed.

In America, Democratic party followers are riven between two opposing tendencies. One feels we need radicalism, blowing up the system. The other wants to seize the center ground, to return America to normalcy. Would-be leaders play to one or the other ethos, the gap seemingly unbridgeable. The followers want the leaders to follow them, not the other way around.

The Republicans’ situation is the opposite. They’re totally united, in following one leader — down the road to perdition.

Bagehot says politics works (or should) by politicians gaining authority from voters and using it to do the work of government. Authority had long been gained through followership, with three basic paradigms: voter deference to an elite; class solidarity; and perceived competence.

All three have broken down. The very idea of deference rankles. The idea of competence elicits laughs. And class consciousness has faded. The result is a collapse in legitimacy and a widening gap between leaders and followers.

Which, says Bagehot, “has sent new forces surging through the body politic.” Including know-it-all cynicism on the one hand and, on the other, sudden enthusiasms for radical nostrums. I would add the degeneration of political discourse into what looks more like team rivalry; color war rather than class war. Policies are only a thin veneer on what is really a cultural, tribal divide. Us-against-them, with winning all that matters. Trampling “the better angels of our nature.”

Meantime, Bagehot writes, the most dangerous motivator “is the combination of anger, disappointment and bloody-mindedness” — in a word, resentment. And Bagehot fears this politics of resentment will likely trump the politics of problem-solving for some time.

Speaking of Trump — oddly, the column actually doesn’t. Yet obviously Trump’s election represented exactly what it talks about. A gotterdammerung of resentment and bloody-mindedness, when too many American voters threw responsible citizenship to the winds and plunged for its antithesis.

And of course the great irony: why expect such nihilism to achieve what (inchoately, confusedly) they sought? Surely a leap from the frying pan to the fire.

Indeed, Bagehot quotes the words people most commonly use in condemning politicians: “contemptible, disgraceful, parasitical, sleazy, traitorous.”

Remind you of anyone in particular?

Reparations for slavery?

May 27, 2019

Reparations for slavery is becoming part of the “progressive” full Monty that Democratic presidential candidates must endorse. It’s a terrible idea.

Recently The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah acknowledged the issue’s complications, but waved them away, as mere details that can be worked out. An over-used cliché that I really hate is “the devil is in the detail.” But here it’s unavoidable.

Even if reparations for slavery were an appealing idea, it falls apart the moment you consider seriously the problem of who, exactly, to pay. There’s nobody who’s totally descended from slaves. Slavery ended around six or seven generations ago. For any living black American, the direct ancestors from that era would number dozens to hundreds. Surely not all were enslaved. Many came here later from other countries. Many were white. Okay, maybe you could (arbitrarily) draw a line at 50% slave ancestry. Or some other number. But nobody can document their whole family tree that far back anyway. Any such program would be an implementation nightmare.

Or would you propose to sidestep this morass and simply base payments on skin color? The darker, the bigger the payment? Sounds like a great idea, no?

Slavery was a horrible crime (as I’ve written:http://www.fsrcoin.com/Slavery.htm). But history is full of crimes. Look at Native Americans. And how about women, also seriously oppressed and denied rights in past times? Why not reparations for descendants of all those women?

It’s a fundamental precept of justice that wrongs should be redressed among victims and perpetrators — not others. It’s a principle we fallible humans too often violate. As in collective punishments and vengeance. The sins of the fathers visited upon the sons. If a Xendari has committed an atrocity against your people, then by all means punish him — but do not exact revenge by committing a new crime against other, innocent Xendaris. That’s no justice. So too, taxpayers who did no enslaving shouldn’t be made to pay compensation. Let alone to people who were not themselves enslaved.

It is true that slavery has had lasting impacts, a key factor in black Americans’ lower average socio-economic standing. But can one say that any particular person today would be better off had no ancestors been enslaved? Some surely would be worse off. Many U.S. descendants of slaves are doing very well. But had history been different, they would not exist today at all, making any such considerations quintessentially meaningless.

It is also true that many whites take for granted their “white privilege” — exemption from a lot of crap non-whites experience. For this some feel “white guilt.” However, the concept of guilt should require some causal responsibility. Most whites today have done nothing wrong to feel guilty for. Certainly not to be punished for.

Two wrongs don’t make a right. If we really think slavery’s reverberations still cause disadvantage to some Americans, then the proper answer is to create public policies that remove that disadvantage. Basically, to create a more just society overall. Which indeed we’ve been working at (though far from perfecting). “Affirmative action” is a case in point. Never mind all the issues affirmative action raises; but hasn’t this been reparations, by another name?

A better way to make reparation for the disadvantage suffered by many African-Americans would be to at least stop aggravating it with sub-standard education. Public schools in poor/non-white neighborhoods are often disgraceful. Yet Democrats calling for reparations mostly refuse to face up to this huge issue, in hock to teachers’ unions and ideologically opposing school choice to give those kids at least some chance to escape dysfunctional public schools.

It’s argued that reparations would be a way to give recognition to what blacks have suffered. But their feelings are not the beginning and the end of the matter. Indeed, to the contrary, a big part of the problem is what white people feel toward them. If we want whites to stop being racist, is reparations the right answer? If we really want to heal our nation’s wounds from slavery and racism, wouldn’t reparations enflame those wounds? Many would see reparations as an injustice, and for the reasons I’ve suggested, they’d have a plausible argument. The issue would be disastrously divisive. We already have a big problem of white racial antagonism and resentment. Just wait till reparations are enacted.

Furthermore, if Democrats push this issue it would feed every negative stereotype about them. As coddling some interest groups at the expense of others, and even of the nation as a whole. Defying what many people consider common sense. And it would be a huge distraction from what really should be the issues for 2020 – all the ways Trumpism is degrading America. If Democrats truly want to achieve a better, more just nation, the main thing they can do right now is to ensure getting rid of the racist-in-chief.

Humans becoming gods — or chips in a cosmic computer?

May 23, 2019

Yuval Noah Harari is a thinker of Big Ideas, with a capital B and a capital I. An Israeli historian, he wrote Sapiens: a Brief History of Humankind, about how we got where we are. Where we’re going is addressed in the sequel, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow.

The title implies man becoming God. But there’s a catch.

Harari sees us having experienced, in the last few centuries, a humanist revolution. With the ideas of the Enlightenment triumphant — science trumping superstition, and the liberal values of the Declaration of Independence — freedom in both the political and economic spheres — trumping autocracy and feudalism. As the word “humanist” implies, these values exalt the human, the individual human, as the ultimate source of meaning. We find meaning not in some deity or cosmic plan but in ourselves and our efforts to make our lives better. We do that through deploying our will, using our rationality to make choices and decisions — both in politics, through democratic voting, and in economics, through consumer choice.

But Harari plays the skunk at this picnic he’s described. The whole thing, he posits, rests upon the assumption that we do make choices and decisions. But what if we actually don’t? This is the age-old argument about free will. Harari recognizes its long antecedents, but asserts that the question has really, finally, been settled by science, something he discusses at length. The more science probes into our mental processes, there’s no “there” there. That is, the idea that inside you there’s a master controller, a captain at the helm, is a metaphor with no actual reality. We don’t “make” decisions and choices. It’s more like they happen to us.

As Schopenhauer said (Harari strangely fails to quote him), “a man can do what he wants, but cannot will what he wants.”

And if we humans are not, in any genuine sense, making choices and decisions through a conscious thinking process — but rather are actuated by deterministic factors we can neither see nor control — in politics, economics, and even in how we live our lives — what does that mean for the humanist construct of valorizing those choices above all else?

There’s a second stink-bomb Harari throws into the humanist picnic. He says humanism valued the individual human because he or she was, in a very tangible way, valuable. Indeed, indispensable. Everything important in society rested on human participation. The economy required people engaged in production. Human agents were required to disseminate the information requisite for progress to occur and spread. A society even needed individual humans to constitute the armies they found so needful.

But what if all that ceases being true? Economic production is increasingly achieved through robots and artificial intelligences. They are also taking care of information dissemination. Even human soldiers are becoming obsolete (as will become true too of the need for them). Thus Harari sees humans becoming useless irrelevancies.

Or at least most of us. Here’s another stink-bomb. Liberal humanist Enlightenment values also rested fundamentally on the idea of human equality. Not literal equality, of course, in the sense of everyone being the same, or even having the same conditions of life. Rather it was equality in the ineffable sense of value and dignity. Spiritual equality, if you will.

And indeed, the Enlightenment/humanist revolution did go a long way toward that ideal, as a philosophical concept that was increasingly powerful, but also as a practical reality. Despite very real wealth inequality, there has (especially in the advanced nations) actually been a great narrowing of the gap between the rich and the rest in terms of quality of life. Earlier times were in contrast generally characterized by a tiny elite living poshly while the great mass of peasants were immured in squalor.

Harari thinks we’re headed back to that, when most people become useless. We may continue to feed them, but the gap between them and the very few superior beings will become a chasm. I’ve previously written about prospects for virtual immortality, which will probably not be available to the mass underclass.

What will that do to the putative ideal of human equality?

Having rejected the notion of human beings as autonomous choice-makers, Harari doesn’t seem to think we do possess any genuine ultimate value along the lines that humanism posits. Instead, we are just biological algorithms. To what purpose?

Evolutionary biology (as made clear in Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene) tells us that, at least as far as Nature is concerned, life’s only purpose is the replication of genes. But that’s a tricky concept. It isn’t a purpose in any conscious, intentional sense, of course. Rather, it’s simply a consequence of the brute mathematical fact that if a gene (a set of molecules) is better at replicating than some other gene, the former will proliferate more, and the world will be filled with its progeny. No “meaning” to be seen there.

But Harari takes it one step further back. The whole thing is just a system for processing information (or “data”). As I understand it, that’s his take on what “selfish gene” biology really imports. And he applies the same concept to human societies. The most successful are the ones that are best at information processing. Democracy beats tyranny because democracy is better at information processing. Ditto for free market capitalism versus other economic models. At least till now; Harari thinks these things may well cease being true in the future.

This leads him to postulate what the religion of the future will be: “Dataism.” He sees signs of it emerging already. This religion would recognize that the ultimate cosmic value is not some imagined deity’s imagined agenda, but information processing. Which Harari thinks has the virtue of being true.

So the role of human beings would be to serve that ultimate cosmic value. Chips in the great computer that is existence. Hallelujah! But wait — artificial systems will do that far better than we can. Where will that leave us?

Here’s what I think.

Enlightenment humanist values have had a tremendous positive effect on the human condition. But Harari writes as though this triumph is complete. Maybe so on New York’s Upper East Side, but in the wider world, not so much. Far from being ready to progress from Harari’s Phase II to Phase III (embracing Dataism), much of humanity is still trying to get from Phase I to Phase II. The Enlightenment does not reign everywhere. Anti-scientific, religious, and superstitious beliefs remain powerful. Democracy is under assault in many places, and responsible citizenship is crumbling. Look at the creeps elected in Italy (and America).

Maybe this is indeed a reaction to what Harari is talking about, with humans becoming less valuable, and they feel it, striking out in elections like Italy’s and America’s and the Brexit vote, while autocrats and demagogues like Erdogan and Trump exploit such insecurities. In this respect Harari’s book complements Tom Friedman’s which I’ve reviewed, arguing that the world is now changing faster than people, institutions, and cultures can keep up with and adapt to.

Free will I’ve discussed before too. I fully acknowledge the neuroscience saying the “captain at the helm” self is an illusion, and Schopenhauer was right that our desires are beyond our control. But our actions aren’t. As legal scholar Jeffrey Rosen has observed, we may not have free will, exactly, but we do have free won’t. The capability to countermand impulses and control our behavior. Thus, while the behavior of lighting up is, for a smoker, determinism par excellence, smokers can and do quit.

You might reply that quitting too is driven by deterministic factors, but I think this denies the reality of human life. The truth is that our thought and behavior is far too complex to be reduced to simplistic Skinnerian determinism.

The limits of a deterministic view are spotlighted by an example Harari himself cites: the two Koreas. Their deterministic antecedents were extremely similar, yet today the two societies could not be more different. Accidents of history — perhaps a sort of butterfly effect — made all the difference. Such effects also come into play when one looks at an individual human from the standpoint of determinism.

Harari’s arguments about humans losing value, and that anyway we’re nothing but souped-up information processors, I will take together. Both ideas overlook that the only thing in the cosmos that can matter and have meaning is the feelings of beings capable of feeling. (I keep coming back to that because it’s really so central.) The true essence of humanist philosophy is that individual people matter not because of what we produce but because of what we are: beings capable of feeling. Nothing else matters, or can matter.

The idea of existence as some vast computer-like data processor may be a useful metaphor for understanding its clockwork. But it’s so abstract a concept I’m not really sure. And in any case it isn’t really relevant to human life as it’s actually lived. We most certainly do not live it as akin to chips in a cosmic computer. Instead we live it through feelings experienced individually which, whatever one can say about how the brain works, are very real when felt. Once again, nothing can matter except insofar as it affects such feelings.

I cannot conceive of a future wherein that ceases being true.

Follow-up — Tony Milillo — The pathology of the hard left

May 21, 2019

My last post concerned abortion. I also put it on the Capital District Humanist Society’s Facebook page, where one Tony Milillo entered two comments — highly revealing and instructive. Here they are, in their entirety:

1. Well there you have it, according to Frank S. Robinson anyone who has an abortion from the end of the second trimester forward is killing a human being. And Frank “the expert on everything” also declares Roe v. Wade “a bad decision”. How the heck has the humanist society tolerated this blowhard for so long? From what I can see, the best that can be said about this guy is he has far too much time on his hands and far too high an opinion of himself.

2. From bad to worse from Mr. Robinson: “Talk of “women controlling their own bodies” is another big mistake of pro-choicers. If there’s a second human life inside it, it’s not just your own body any more, so the notion is morally shaky. But what the issue really does come down to is women having some control over their LIVES.”

First notice that my essay’s mainly criticizing Republican pro-lifers isn’t good enough for Mr. Milillo; I’m as bad as they are because I’m not an absolutist pro-choice zealot. 

Then notice that, to fit me into his box, Mr. Milillo’s very first sentence grossly misrepresents what I wrote; imputes to me a view my essay explicitly contradicted. 

It set forth the reasons behind my thinking. But notice also that Mr. Milillo’s two comments contain not a single word of actual argument. As though his own rightness and my wrongness is a given. Indeed, his second comment simply quotes me. Case closed! Res ipsa loquitur! It’s self-evident I’m wrong, no need to explain why. 

And what we do get, in place of any reasoned argument, is a lot of insults.

Notice particularly this line: “How the heck has the humanist society tolerated this blowhard for so long?” So he’s saying I should be blackballed. For failing a test of political correctness as decreed (though not actually explained) by Mr. Tony Milillo — who, incidentally, has never been seen at a meeting of said organization (in which I happen to fulfill three separate roles). I think the organization, which actually does adhere to the principles of humanism, including reasoned discourse, will not follow Mr. Milillo’s recommendation. 

This is why the left gets a rep for intolerance toward diversity of viewpoints. Believing in freedom of thought and expression, but only for themselves, all others be damned. Almost literally. 

Elsewhere, this same Mr. Milillo calls Joe Biden (another notorious deviant from Mr. Milillo’s catechism) “a fucking liar.” And what is the alleged lie? Biden’s comments to the effect that Republicans are human beings who can be reasoned with and who need to be kept in the fold of American society. Mr. Milillo goes on at great length disagreeing, explaining why Republicans are irredeemable. (Well, at least there’s some actual argument here.) But I’m not sure what Mr. Milillo’s solution is. Shooting them?

I’m a former lifelong Republican who hates what the party has become. But I agree with Biden that we must search for common ground. 

If guys like Mr. Milillo succeed in tearing down every voice that doesn’t gibe with their extremist hard left view, they will get Trump re-elected. Mr. Milillo’s kind of scorched-earth politics is tearing this country apart and will end in its destruction.

The cruel Republican abortion extremists

May 20, 2019

I’m not “pro-abortion.” My humanism valorizes the dignity of human life; and advancing it through reason (rather than religious dogma). My pre-med studies showed me that a one-month embryo is not a human being while a six-month fetus surely is. In between, it’s not clear-cut.

I don’t feel a liberal abortion regime strikes quite the right balance. There should be more recognition that a life growing inside a woman (however conceived) entails a responsibility toward that life, and at some point during gestation society may say it can’t be terminated. However, there can be many circumstances in which abortion is justified, occasionally even a late term abortion, and where prohibiting it wrongs a woman.

Roe v. Wade was a bad decision. The Supreme Court was stretching to make a legal issue of what was really a social one. Far better to have let social forces play out. A consensus was already growing in favor of liberalizing abortion laws. By short-circuiting that process, the Court created a monster, turning abortion into a horribly divisive issue. European nations more wisely resolved it through democratic means, avoiding the acrimony that has afflicted the U.S.

So should Roe be reversed? No, it’s far too late to put that toothpaste back in the tube. Indeed, reversing Roe would redouble the issue’s baneful political divisiveness. Vocal as its opponents are, there’s actually a pretty broad consensus in the country for reasonably permitting abortions in certain circumstances. The Court’s defying that public opinion would be seen as an affront to democratic legitimacy, a political minority abusing its power, shredding the Court’s aura of impartiality. Of course it could not actually outlaw abortions; only allow states to do so; many states would not. Nevertheless, such a ruling would be seen as blowing up something that had come to be an integral part of our societal culture.

In the culture wars, pro-lifers bash their opponents as endorsing the killing of fully developed babies. And pro-choice absolutists play into their hands by refusing to agree that late-term abortion shouldn’t generally be permitted. Some even sanction what could indeed amount to baby killing.

Now some Republican controlled states, notably Alabama and Missouri, have gone to the other extreme, virtually banning all abortions. Including even cases of rape or incest. Alabama slates a 99-year prison sentence for doctors!

Note that the party of “law and order,” supposedly worshipping the Constitution, is passing blatantly unconstitutional enactments. Unconstitutional, according to the currently prevailing law of the land, as declared by the Supreme Court. Of course, they’re hoping this will end in the Court changing that prevailing law, reversing Roe. It’s been their political obsession for decades.

To protect the sanctity of life, and unborn children? These Republicans care little for actual, born children. The states passing these laws have the nation’s most dreadful stats on child health, welfare, and poverty. While thousands of children are killed or injured annually thanks to these Republicans’ insane fetishizing of guns. Sanctity of life and protecting children?

They do profess that God inserts a soul into an embryo at conception. Put aside for a moment that God and souls don’t exist. But where in fact does the Bible say embryos are ensouled at conception? Noplace! Its prescientific authors knew nothing of embryology, eggs, sperm, or conception.

So even if you believe in God, this soul-at-conception doctrine is strictly a modern add-on to traditional religion — added just to fit the culture-war abortion issue. If they wanted to, the religious could equally well posit that the soul arises at birth.

Republicans also supposedly believe in freedom — but not the freedom to depart from that weird religious idea of theirs. Abortion differs from other political issues, like immigration, tax or trade policy, etc., which affect everyone. A stranger having an abortion does not. You’re entitled to your own idiosyncratic interpretation of religious doctrine, but what gives you a right to impose it on all women?

So why is this happening? Why, after all, do Republicans so obsess over abortion? I think the true, deep-down, unacknowledged motivator here is hatred for the idea of female autonomy.

Talk of “women controlling their own bodies” is another big mistake of pro-choicers. If there’s a second human life inside it, it’s not just your own body any more, so the notion is morally shaky. But what the issue really does come down to is women having some control over their LIVES.

That’s what it’s truly about. Not “sanctity of life” but sanctity of patriarchy. Women as second class human beings who ought to be under male control. And that control is to be imposed with unflinching cruelty. The extremist idea, in the Alabama and Missouri laws, of making abortions virtually unavailable, virtually regardless of circumstances, evinces a vindictive cruelty toward women uppity enough to think they should have some say about their own lives. Bring on The Handmaid’s Tale.

But I believe these Republican extremists, intoxicated with their power, knowing no bounds, overplay their hands. And it will wind up burning their own house down.

Abdi Nor Iftin: American

May 11, 2019

I was only half listening when the story began on NPR. But soon it was riveting. Abdi, a Somali refugee barely surviving in Kenya, struggling to reach America. Didn’t sound like he’d make it. Incredibly, he did.

I was moved to write a poem. And to find Abdi to send him a gift. Then he authored a book and I was able to connect personally with him at a book fair. It was like meeting an alien from another planet.

The book is Call me American. It begins on what does seem another planet, another epoch, with Abdi’s 1985 birth into a Somali nomad herder tribe. Drought forces the family into the city, Mogadishu. Abdi is six when it becomes Hell. The word seems inadequate. Thomas Hobbes wrote of the social compact forestalling the “war of all against all.” In Somalia in 1991 that social compact broke down, and that war exploded.

The family tries to escape Mogadishu, but ultimately winds up back there. Along the way Abdi’s father is taken by gunmen. They eventually meet up again; he’s a shell of his former self. His mother is pregnant. No way that baby will survive.

Abdi’s sole education is Koran memorization, in a Madrassa run by a sadistic fanatic. But meantime he learns English by careful watching of American films; starts teaching English; becomes known as “Abdi American.”

Then the actual Americans arrive. “Ugly Americans?” Not to Abdi. But soon they’re gone, and Somalia goes from horrible to worse. The murderous warlord militias are supplanted by murderous hardline Islamists; and being “Abdi American” is no longer a good thing. Caught swimming with a girl at a beach, he’s sentenced to twenty lashes. Eventually he escapes to Kenya, where Somalis are hated and persecuted; it was jumping from the frying pan into the fire.

Thomas Friedman writes of the “world of order” versus the “world of disorder.” And how the latter’s inhabitants are desperate to reach the former. Pessimists view civilization as a thin veneer upon underlying human beastliness, but it does enable “the better angels of our nature” to flourish. We take this too much for granted, and Abdi searingly depicts for us the other side of the coin.

He’s an excellent writer, his seemingly matter-of-fact tone effectively conveying the horror. Death is so constant and routinized, you have to remind yourself it’s actual people dying. Reading the account, in my comfortable chair in my comfortable American home, brought to mind philosopher Thomas Nagel’s famous essay, “What is it like to be a bat?” Its point was that we can’t really know. What was it like to be Abdi?

English was his salvation. Brazenly accosting a western journalist leads to his supplying stories to BBC radio, and then “Team Abdi,” a network of Brits and Americans helping him. That, plus extreme effort, and huge luck, does finally get him to America. Most in his situation would have failed.

Abdi writes that exiting the plane in Boston felt like an historic moment. “Like when the first man walked on the moon.” Airport TV screens were showing news of the Ferguson protests. To Americans this signaled something bad. To Abdi it showed a freedom to challenge police unimaginable where he’d come from. Then, in a car, instructed to buckle his seatbelt: “I couldn’t believe I was in a place where people actually obey laws.” From the world of disorder to the world of order.

Most Americans today have no notion of this. For all their flag-waving, no grasp, indeed, of what this country is really all about. People like Abdi keep that idea alive. They make America great.

It’s fortunate he got here before Trump’s Muslim ban.

Steven Pinker: rational optimist

May 6, 2019

Steven Pinker is one of my intellectual heroes. Probably the closest to my own thinking. His new book is among the finest I’ve ever read.

In 2012 he published The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has DeclinedSome thought this premise was nuts. Now he’s doubled down with Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress.

Those four are indeed touchstones of the Enlightenment, a revolution in human thought beginning in the 1700s, immensely improving our quality of life. You might think this needs no defense. But howling fools today dance around bonfires of Enlightenment ideals. And as Pinker points out, intellectuals often actually hate the idea of progress (especially those calling themselves “progressive”). He explains how his optimistic message rankles both ends of the political spectrum.*

Some lefties say the Enlightenment gave us slavery, colonialism, imperialism, eugenics, and so forth; its misguided hyper-rationalism led straight to Auschwitz. Pinker says this has it backwards. All sorts of modes for exploitation and repression long predated the Enlightenment; its humanism led us to overcome them. Nazism was the antithesis of Enlightenment values.

There’s also cultural pessimism, “our sick society” a favorite phrase; a rat race of “consumerism” (which, Pinker trenchantly says, “often means consumption by the other guy”).

Meantime, the right sees the Enlightenment as vaunting individualism, unmooring people from past certainties, time-tested values, and close-knit communities. The result is supposedly a fragmented, dissolute culture, with epidemics of anomie, depression, and suicide. We were better off with reverence for thrones and altars.

But Pinker counters all this by documenting increased well-being and happiness levels for the great mass of humanity. He has no time for Nietzschean philosophy extolling the “great man” who stomps on peons. The Enlightenment also puts individuals above the tribe, race, nation, or faith; it’s average ordinary people (after all, that’s most of us) whose flourishing should be the focus. That’s humanism.

Militating against optimism and perceptions of progress are some human cognitive biases. A pessimistic cynic might seem more morally serious than a naive “Pollyanna” wearing “rose colored glasses.”

In fact, evolution hard-wired us to look on the dark side, attuned to threats. If that might be a lion lurking, best assume the worst and run. The optimist could get eaten (and wouldn’t pass on his genes). Modern life plays to this, inundating us with bad news — which tends to be more newsworthy than good news. A plane crash makes headlines; 100,000 daily safe landings are ignored. The news is full of crime too. And another cognitive bias is the “availability heuristic” — something seems prevalent if examples readily come to mind. So most people always believe crime is increasing, when in fact it’s dramatically fallen over decades. Similarly, pessimism’s putative moral seriousness makes them always say world poverty is rising. Again, it’s actually been plunging.

Enlightenment Now clobbers the reader with facts about these and other positive trends. I tried in my own book, The Case for Rational OptimismPinker’s is better. He does, in it, call mine “beautifully written” (thank you), and I’ll return the compliment. Pinker takes the writing craft seriously, working to make his points as cogently as possible, a pleasure to read. Enhanced by a droll wit. (He quotes Dorothy Parker, supposedly challenged to use “horticulture” in a sentence: “You can lead a horticulture but you can’t make her think.”)

The book is chock full of thought-provoking insightful analyses and good sense. But here’s the big picture. “The good old days” look good only thanks to amnesia. I’ve mentioned falling crime; it’s not just recent, but a huge fall over the centuries. In fact every kind of violence, including war, has plummeted. We are much safer, better fed, and healthier than our forbears, hence live much longer. We suffer less pain, work less hard and enjoy more leisure; and earn far more to enjoy it with. Globally, incomes are way up and poverty, as noted, is on the run. There is more democracy, freedom, and human rights, less oppression and discrimination. All these improvements — unsurprisingly — translate into more people feeling more happiness and fulfillment.

But are the benefits going disproportionately to the rich? Pinker calls inequality the left’s “theory of everything.” His clear-eyed perspective on this topic alone is worth the price of the book. Upper incomes have indeed skyrocketed, but it’s a basic fallacy that that’s achieved by picking the pockets of the poor. Steve Jobs got rich by providing products millions are thrilled to buy, improving their lives. An economic environment that doesn’t create such opportunities would keep everyone poor. And globally, the gap between the rich and the rest is actually narrowing, especially inasmuch as most people (including those lowest on America’s income scale) now enjoy amenities of life that used to be the exclusive province of the wealthiest (if available at all; many were not).

But is all our progress ruining the planet? Well, there is an unavoidable trade-off, and no free lunch. We could never have risen from the stone age without exploiting environmental resources. Pinker makes a good case that the benefits are well worth the cost. And it’s proven that we can have economic growth while actually improving the environment; prosperity gives us both the means and the desire. This applies to climate change (though we’re impeded not just by denialists and the fossil fuel industry, but also hostility among greens toward nuclear power and geo-engineering).

Progress does create losers as well as winners, and some resentments (especially ethnic). Pinker acknowledges the threat from anti-Enlightenment populist politics, of both right and left. Too many issues get viewed through a distorting lens of political tribalism. In particular Pinker details how Trump endangers what’s been achieved (quite a list). But he thinks those achievements happened for strong reasons which will not disappear. Indeed, what will disappear is older people hostile to Enlightenment humanism. Rising generations are increasingly on board with it.

So what does make progress happen? Not some mystical force. Rather, it’s using our brains to solve problems. The Enlightenment’s emphasis on reason and science gives us the needed knowledge. Pinker defends the concept of reason. It’s not a matter of “believing” in it; we just use it. Any argument to the contrary defeats itself, because it is an argument — and what is any argument if not an exercise of reason? Of course humans aren’t always rational. But we’re capable of rationality, and its greater use underlies all our advancements.

He also defends science too, against the sneering so unfortunately prevalent among humanities scholars. They condemn so-called “scientism” that holds science should dictate everything, including morality. Nobody believes that. But Pinker insists science does give us the understanding of reality that enables us to approach such issues rationally. In contrast, religion-based moralizing rests on underlying assumptions about reality that are fundamentally false.

One of modernity’s advancements is more widespread education — which creates a virtuous circle. Giving more of us more problem-solving ability. People have literally, on average, grown smarter. Pinker explains what education does: you’re less superstitious, less in thrall to leaders, more understanding of differences among people, and able to resolve conflicts peacefully. Studies confirm, he says, “that educated people really are more enlightened.” Less racist and authoritarian. More imaginative and independent, but more community minded too. And more likely to trust other people — a crucial ingredient in creating the social capital that makes us work together.

This is why education is the main focus of my own philanthropic efforts.**

* I’ve experienced this myself; in one talk to a group of Jewish seniors, I hardly spoke ten words before the cynical brickbats started flying.

** Through the Frank S. Robinson Enlightenment Fund (Steven Pinker, honorary chairman).

The answer to the opioid crisis

May 3, 2019

Drugs now kill around 70,000 Americans annually. More than AIDS at the height of the epidemic; more than the entire Vietnam war. Most are opioid deaths.

More specifically, most are overdose deaths. They can be largely prevented by making safe doses available. Not doing so is insane public health policy.

Blame is heaped on pharmaceutical companies. But let’s remember that opioid drugs like oxycontin are not evil; to the contrary, they relieve pain experienced by millions. However, many who start taking them for pain get addicted. And doctors are allowed to prescribe opioids for pain only—not for addiction. So when people get addicted, their legal supply ends, and they turn to unregulated illegal supplies. Mostly not prescription pills like oxycontin, but drugs like heroin and fentanyl. Whose street prices are much lower. But their doses can’t be properly calibrated, and users commonly overdose. Naloxone can save them, but because people usually shoot up in hiding, they often can’t receive it in time.

The “war on drugs” logic is that we’d be better off if nobody abused drugs. True enough; yet the main harm, overdose deaths, is not prevented by, but actually caused by, drugs’ illegality. This is a holdover from the misguided mentality that gave us alcohol prohibition. In that case we soon realized the harm from prohibition was worse than what it aimed to stop, which, in fact, it didn’t stop anyway. People still drank, while the alcohol supply got worse and more dangerous, and criminality exploded. Thankfully, we ended that folly. Opioids present the same situation—only worse, given the death rate.

As with alcohol prohibition, there’s also a moralistic element in drug prohibition. I prefer the libertarian principle of barring only behavior that harms others. But if you want to talk morality, most drug users are more victims than villains. The real immorality is society letting them die from overdoses.

The drastic policy reversal suggested here is not utopian. Several other countries, notably Portugal and Switzerland, follow such a harm-reduction plan, enabling users to get their fixes safely under government supervision, avoiding overdose deaths.

Some fear that legalizing drugs would increase their use. Yet illegality stops hardly anyone from using; and few people not tempted now would become tempted if drugs were legal. Even if drug prices plummeted, which legalization would cause. But meantime that price decrease would eliminate most crime by addicts to finance their costly habits. Indeed, the entire societal cost of waging the “war on drugs” — crime, mass incarceration, corruption, destruction of neighborhoods and families, the costs for the criminal justice system, police forces, etc., is beyond colossal. Meantime too, with programs like Switzerland’s, giving addicts other kinds of helpful support, most eventually wean themselves off drugs and get their lives back on track.

But any American locality wanting to provide a safe injection facility like that would be violating federal law.

However, there are other ways to reduce harm. A recent article in The Economist says the “gold standard” for combating opioid addiction is medication-assisted treatment. The major medicine is buprenorphine, which reduces drug cravings. But the government restricts doctors from prescribing it even more stringently than it restricts opioid prescriptions!

Buprenorphine is not even commonly used in U.S. hospitals to treat addicts who come in due to a crisis. Mostly they’re sent on their way with no treatment at all.

The government has estimated the cost of the opioid disaster at around $500 billion annually, or around 3% of GDP (equivalent to the entirety of our economy’s growth, or more). Bipartisan legislation enacted last year allocates to this problem just $1 billion over two years. While Trump has declared the border to be a “national emergency” supposedly requiring a $5.7 billion expenditure on a wall.

Biden for President

April 27, 2019

When I saw Joe Biden’s 3-1/2 minute announcement video Thursday morning, as a longtime observer of American politics I was frankly shocked. It was not what I expected; unlike anything seen before.

Please view it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VbOU2fTg6cI&feature=youtu.be

It is all very well to talk about health care, tax policy, jobs, and other issues. No doubt Biden will in due course. But those kinds of concerns pale in significance when America’s very soul is on the line. Biden’s powerful statement strikes to the heart of what’s at stake in 2020. What I’ve been saying for three years. No other candidate shows such incisive mettle.

It’s customary to call every election “the most important in years.” But this one truly is the most consequential, at least since 1860. I always used to know that whoever won an election, America would be all right. Not so for 2020. We stand at the hinge of history. Biden shows why.

He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat;

He is sifting out the hearts of men before his judgment seat;

Oh, be swift my soul to answer him,

Be jubilant my feet!