Sunday, February 27, 2011

Demanding Taxes

California, like most states across the country, is facing dramatic cuts in government services.  Polls show that when asked about specific services, people want them.  But when asked about raising taxes, they shrink.

I'm sure much of what is behind the immaturity of Californians, of wanting to have their services without paying for them, is the relentless propaganda that for decades has been declaring government and the taxes we pay for it evil.  When the bill comes due, personal responsibility is no where to be found.  Instead the blame is placed on waste, fraud and abuse, and the terrible, bloodsucking unions.

Meanwhile, at the local community college where my wife works, they are canceling an entire section of remedial English courses, effectively shutting the doors on hundreds of prospective students.  This is just one of the many tragic stories that will be surfacing in coming months.

There is a lie being sold across the country: because the state is broke, we can't afford to pay for things.  The truth is that in our adoption of a right-wing view of limited government, we don't want to pay for things.  The dishonesty here is that one can say, "Look, I'd like to, I really would, I just can't afford it," and hold on to moral dignity of pretending to care.  But in reality one does not actually care. 

Much of the response to the plight of public sector workers, clinging to their bargaining rights and pensions, has been the rather spiteful, "I don't get a pension, so why should they?"  Stephen Colbert, playing his satirical role to the hilt, summed up this notion by asking, if a rising tide lifts all boats, then when the tide goes out, "I want to pull their boat down with me."  This might be more understandable if we were talking about the millionaires and billionaires who have been getting steadily richer throughout this great recession.  But it is not.  They have been having their taxes cut, while the public blames middle class teachers, firefighters, police officers and prison guards.

It is time to stand up for what we want from our government, in clear terms, and demand that those who can afford to pay their share do so.  They cannot claim that we are "stealing" their money.  They cannot claim that taxes will limit growth and prevent jobs from being created.  It is our right to demand taxation, as it is the price required to live and do business in this great country.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Whipping Unions

A common argument you hear in defense of the Republican assault on public sector unions (aided in no small part by the liberal embrace of union-busting teacher reform), is that the public sector shouldn't be allowed to have union representation at all - that they necessarily have a conflict of interest with government. Just because they are a constituency paid by government, they are not guaranteed any other special privileges than private constituencies.  Jonathan Zazloff asks why public unions are considered corrupt, but not limitless spending by private corporations:
Public-sector collective bargaining is unhealthy and distorts democracy because it enables workers to influence the government which negotiates with them; but
Unlimited and secret corporate political campaign contributions are necessary to democracy because they enable corporations to influence the government which regulates them.

It is a slippery slope fallacy to assume that because unions can argue for better pay, and better pay can buy more representation, thereby acquiring better pay, a corrupt feedback loop is created. The obvious problem with this is that there are numerous checks on union power, not the least of which is the fact that government officials are democratically elected. This argument generally rests on the notion that political speech is necessarily corrupt.

Yet, this applies just as well to private political speech. Enter Zasloff’s suggestion that private corporate speech has just been given an enormous boost, generally by the same folks who are now decrying unions.

Another argument on the right – one I heard just today – is that unions were responsible for the destruction of private sector jobs, and now they’re doing the same to the public sector. This is absurd in numerous ways. For starters, even assuming that unions were responsible for job losses due to pay demands, workers would never have been able to compete with third world labor.

Yet what happened to the productivity gains when those jobs were done more cheaply? How has that “trickled down”? And if there had been no unions, and if workers somehow would have been able to compete, where would the productivity gains have gone then?

Yet the public sector can’t outsource its services. So how would unions be able to destroy that sector? Are public workers making too much? I think that’s pretty subjective. I certainly don’t feel like they are getting anything more than they deserve. Are other workers getting what they deserve Probably not. But whose fault is that? By cutting taxes on the rich, are those “productivity gains” going to trickle down too, just like they did in the private sector?

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Ice Floes, Pt. II

In general, calls for harsh retaliation is a very gut-level response common to conservatives.  A classic example is the father who would exact brutal revenge on anyone who threatened his family.  I think it's fair to say it drives the death penalty, hawkish foreign relations, "tough on crime", etc.

Each of these positions can be rationalized, or argued for with logic and reason.  But I wonder whether all that is somewhat after the fact?  Because the truth is that there is this deep reaction, for which there may, or may not be a well-developed rational framework.

And lest anyone think I'm only pointing at the right here, I think there is a sort of anti-response on the left.  That is, the tendency to under-react, or at least to not respond with the same desire for revenge or finality.  This tendency in liberals is all to clear to the right, who routinely point to it as a deep character flaw.  Liberals are "soft" on crime.  Liberals want a "nanny" state.  They are "bleeding hearts".

Yet, the most difficult piece of this is determining to what extent the feeling/reaction follows philosophy/worldview, or visa versa.  By the time one is old enough to be taking positions on the world, one has likely grown up in either a liberal or conservative environment.  Personally, I am largely sympathetic with my parent's liberalism, even if I've moderated my own somewhat.  And so I have a difficult time understanding what it might have been like to change my politics, as many have.  The sheer number of people who hew to their parents' views would seem to argue for philosophy shaping feeling/reaction.  I would assume natural variance in temperament would predict a much more diverse set of outcomes.

Another piece can be inserted here, something maybe described as the "personality style" of a family.  This would be a sort of familial temperament, or tone, that averages from the dynamic range between primary authority figures.  To a degree, peers and extended authority figures would have an effect, but my guess is less than that found in one's home environment.  This influence would most likely be expressed in the common self-describing statement, "...the way I was raised".  This familial tone would affect the essential temperament of an individual, with respect to his reaction to basic moral questions concerning justice, work ethic, empathy, sharing, in/out group, social status, authority and the like.

Unfortunately, even here we are forced to return to the effect of broader worldview on each of these family and network pressures.  The moving pieces thus rotate between self, family, and worldview.  The latter two seem to be the most static, considering predictable regional and ethnic patterns.  However, the first - one's temperament - varies relatively greatly.  Interestingly, temperament would seem to be highly selected for in forming familial partnerships, as well as inner networks of friendships - all having a great deal of effect on the developing child. 

So with ethnicity and worldview falling into general patterns, at least regionally, you would then have clustering by temperament, as networks associate and disassociate according to basic moral responses. 

And so here we are.  I have a much different response to whether terrorists do, well, basically anything.  And my response is very different.  As a liberal I very much take the "hand-holding" or "bleeding heart" position.  I have plenty of philosophical reasons to back up why I should feel why I do (and why you should too!).  But I wonder just how much of how I got to where I am at emotionally and intellectually, is due to the soundness of my ideas, and how much is due to the particular milieu from whence I come. 

Oh yeah - I love tofu and once hugged a tree (no lie!).

Monday, February 21, 2011

Me, Myself and I

Thinking about abortion....

Heard about this on Radiolab yesterday... very interesting.

Basically, twin zygotes are created, but somehow fuse back together, forming into one (like Voltron!), which then has two sets of DNA, with one or the other assuming command duty depending on cell type.  So the liver might have one, blood having the other, etc.

So, if we aborted one zygote before the merge, would that be "taking a life"?

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Too Elite, or Not Too Elite?, Pt.II

There’s got to be something deeper going on psychologically with anti-elitism and art. There’s something of a fundamentalist mentality to it, in the sense that art is associated with liberalism, which is associated with modernity and threat to traditional values. It is interesting that you brought up historical exclusion. Exclusion has been so much a part of the American mythos – even as we have excluded our own people. To be American is both to be excluded and yet exceptional.

It has been said that there is no dirtier word in America than class. We don’t want to admit to it, yet is stings us. And what is “elitism” but the use of a sort of “class card”. It is real, but at the same time a sort of forgery, and one that can’t be mentioned by name. The working class has been excluded from arugulla, museums, literary criticism, gender politics, etc. But those things aren’t necessarily exclusive – or they don’t have to be.

Yet they happen to be things, ideas that are nurtured and germinate in academia, the ivory tower that is indeed exclusive. The fact that universities are bastions of liberalism is neither an accident nor a fact lost on the many who feel left behind culturally and economically. So in a way, liberalism has been foisted on its own petard – it has allowed itself to be associated with economic privilege, even if that is not generally the case, and liberals are not necessarily more affluent.

Too Elite, or Not Too Elite?

With the latest budget squabbles, we've been hearing a bit about government arts funding.  And again, we hear complaints of arts funding as somehow elitist - presumably because of art's history as a fancy of the upper classes.  I think that's less true than it has been at many times in the past.  More on that in a bit.  But first, let's take on the allegation of "elitism" being deployed with such fervor by the contemporary right.

Let me start with socioeconomics.  I've been lower-middle class all my life, as measured by income.  But both my parents were college educated, and I grew up in a very "rich" cultural environment (arts, philosophy, history, world religions, politics, etc. all discussed regularly).  That puts me in an upper class percentile.  My wife and I now both have graduate degrees, and our daughters are being raised in a similarly culturally rich environment.  Yet we have generally lower-middle class incomes. 

So when my daughter goes to school, she'll no doubt encounter other children whose parents were not college educated, and do not have highly intellectual discussions at home, yet are upper-middle class income-wise.  Thus they are in a lower cultural percentile, yet higher income percentile.  They'll tell her that abstract art is stupid, "as any kid could do that".  They'll tell her that her challenging of dominant social norms is "weird".  She'll tell them their unquestioning embrace of popular art is predictable.  She'll accuse them of being provincial.

Of course, they can all be quite civil about it.  While the town can certainly be snobbish, the gown - at least in my experience - can be just as cruel, expressing an "elitism" of their own.  Just go to any gay ghetto and ask how many people had fled the persecution of small-town norms.  I'm always struck by the tone-deafness of those who would accuse liberals, or the educated, of snobbery, while failing to see how oppressive conservatives, or the uneducated can be.

While the arts have sometimes been used as a cudgel with which to clobber the townies, they have also been used as a sort of cultural escape-hatch, through which those who don't fit in, or just see things a tad differently, might find transcendence.  Furthermore, art appreciation has looked quite differently through the ages.  I'm no art historian, but it seems to me that "the arts" today is wide-ranging and diverse.  There is an irony in those who would disdain the arts as elitist, in many ways actually making the arts more elitist, by dismantling the very supports that have allowed the arts to thrive in ways that a purely privatized field would not have. 

I'm very uncomfortable with the increasingly tired conservative anti-elitist rhetoric.  Especially when coming from millionaires.  Just because George W. Bush, a trust fund baby, legacy education at Yale, talks with a twang, rides horses and likes Toby Keith, he's somehow not an elitist, while the vegan kid behind the coffee counter who goes to a state college, listens to indie rock, and likely has socialist sympathies is an elitist.

Are we not just really talking about the power of knowledge?  I mean, this isn't really about liberal elitists "looking down" on the townies.  It is about the dismissal of their special knowledge, in the sense that they know something about comparative religion, world music, the history of cinema, philosophical discourse, and the subtleties of cuisine. 

And yet, is it even about their knowledge of these things?  Most so-called "elitists" I know are actually quite uniformed in many areas.  Imagine!  So are we then really talking about the knowledge itself - the mere idea that someone, somewhere, thinks your mustache is stupid?  That you can't enjoy a good cheap beer anymore without the idea that there was a "fancy" one on the shelf above it?  Or that you went to see Transformers instead of some foreign documentary about foreign films?  Isn't this why Professor Glenn Beck gave a rave review of Spiderman?

Honestly, it feels like "The Republican War on Science" should more accurately be described as "The Republican war on Knowledge".  You there, with your fancy glasses! 

How much of this sort of cultural self-pity is being hyped up for political if not financial gain?  Everyday.  Millions of listeners tune in to Rush Limbaugh and others who tell them that the "elites" are looking down their noses at them.  Yet are they?  Or is this trumped up paranoia, digging in to people's deep-seated fears about themselves, much in the way hypnotists plant false memories?  The classic demogogic  ploy.

Because yeah - you don't have the most fashionable clothes.  You didn't go to university.  You enjoy cheesy television.  You really like Applebees.  You feel comfortable with traditional cultural roles. You don't "get" modern art.

But so what?  Your clothes are really boring and you didn't put much thought into their meaning.  People are going to sing the praises of university because it is a temple of the human mind.  People are going to rag on television because it is overly commercial and filled with cynicism and cliché.  Traditional cultural roles are often really terrible and we all need to think critically, taking nothing for granted.  Modern art is, well, it's complicated, and it's OK to admit you don't understand it. 

These are objective realities.  It is just as true that "elites" are just as lacking in numerous areas of their lives.  Yet those areas tend to not have the same sort of "status" associations (although ask a redneck if knowing how to change a tire is as important as the difference between modernism and post-modernism and he'll laugh in your face).

In the end, the two forms of knowledge have different uses.  As we move further into an information based world, abstract thought will likely become more important than mechanical thought.  And what is ultimately important is not whether one has a mustache or eats arugulla, but how much human, social and political capital one possesses.  It is in all of our interests to set aside petty bickering and focus on the project of equality and empowerment of humanity as a whole.

Saturday, February 19, 2011


Matt Welch at Reason finds a distasteful sign at the Wisconsin rally and has this to say about public sector unions in general:
I have written in the past about how libertarians are pretty lonely in the political scheme of things in terms of constantly being challenged to defend themselves against the "logical conclusion" of their philosophy. But I think it's time to amend that. We are witnessing the logical conclusion of the Democratic Party's philosophy, and it is this: Your tax dollars exist to make public sector unions happy. When we run out of other people's money to pay for those contracts and promises (most of which are negotiated outside of public view, often between union officials and the politicians that union officials helped elect), then we just need to raise taxes to cover a shortfall that is obviously Wall Street's fault. Anyone who doesn't agree is a bully, and might just bear an uncanny resemblance to Hitler.
This is an object lesson in cherry picking problematic elements of the rhetoric used by those with whom you disagree, in order to create a straw man.

That was a terrible sign.  But is there much evidence of that type of rhetoric elsewhere on the left?  With the Tea Party, as with right wing radio and television in general, there seems to be a definite trend.  What is more, there is a longstanding tradition on the right of a narrative that literally worries that liberalism is inherently fascistic and will lead to tyranny.  That said, it is an important reminder of how muddled thinking cripples debate.  More than anything, what the above sign did was to distract from real engagement.

Welch also makes some more serious points.  There are a couple of assumptions implicit in Welch's commentary.
1 - Because few private pensions exist, public pensions shouldn't either.
2 - Public workers shouldn't be allowed to unionize, because they'll end up capturing politicians and getting paid too much.

1 - Should private pensions not exist?  It would seem that pensions are a form of compensation set up in an environment of job stability.  For a number of reasons, they couldn't be maintained.  But does that necessarily apply in public sector work, which is almost by definition a very stable industry (we'll always need cops, teachers, firefighters, etc.)?

2 - Public workers have the same needs as private workers.  Aside from basic questions of labor rights, unions can be an invaluable way for an organization to get objective input from its "members on the ground" - middle managers are just as interested in preserving a status quo that makes themselves look good at the expense of larger truths.  (Our teachers union is greatly interested in best-practices and is often the only bottom-up link politicians and administrators have with what is really going on in the classroom.  To the extent that they are receiving information they otherwise could not that affects students, it is a structure that ultimately benefits student learning).  Any large organization is fooling themselves if they think that workers won't rationally choose to protect their jobs to avoid rocking the boat.  Often, the channels for constructive criticism simply don't exist.  (The popular television show Undercover Boss illustrated this point again and again).

The argument against political capture is valid as far as it goes.  But if you accept the argument that all workers ought to have organized advocacy, not only to benefit themselves, but to benefit the larger organization, this weighs against it.  And if you look at union-backed public compensation in general, it isn't terrible out-of-control at all.  Obviously there will be debate, but if you think public workers are living high on the hog you're sorely mistaken.  The compensation I see seems perfectly reasonable.

Welch is making a slippery slope argument when he says worries that the democratic position on public unions will lead to a political capture that will spiral out of control.  The problem with slippery slopes is that they aren't logically predictive.  Just because something could, in some perfect scenario, happen, it doesn't mean it will.   This is why we don't have speed limits of 150mph - or 10 mph for that matter.  Other pressures come to bear.  With public sector unions, that pressure has kept compensation pretty reasonable, and is certainly coming to bear now.

Yet what to make of Welch's claim that the current situation is proof that public workers will always require an increase in taxes - if tax rates were sufficient to cover compensation before, why are they inadequate now?  A picture is painted in which closed-door negotiations conspire to grab ever-more of public coffers.  Yet the public consistently supports services they are unwilling to pay for.  This schizophrenia pits public confusion (manipulated in no small part by ideologues and politicians) against sound fiscal policy.  What's more, the electoral reality is that this also reflects a bitter split between competing visions of what public services should exist to being with.

Furthermore, while the recession has hit all states, each fiscal situation is different.  It is simply not the case that state deficits can all be pinned on compensation negotiated by public unions.  Frequently, pension coffers are drawn from to finance other areas government.  To blame pensioners now is not only an unfair breach of contract, but it is a dishonest manipulation of fact.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Making Culture

 From the Wikipedia entry Culture Industry:
Culture industry is a term coined by critical theorists Theodor Adorno (1903–1969) and Max Horkheimer (1895–1973), who argued in the final chapter of their book Dialectic of Enlightenment, 'The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception' ; that popular culture is akin to a factory producing standardized cultural goods – through film, radio and magazines – to manipulate the masses into passivity; the easy pleasures available through consumption of popular culture make people docile and content, no matter how difficult their economic circumstances.

Adorno and Horkheimer saw this mass-produced culture as a danger to the more difficult high arts. Culture industries may cultivate false needs; that is, needs created and satisfied by capitalism. True needs, in contrast, are freedom, creativity, or genuine happiness. This was reference to an earlier demarcation in needs by Herbert Marcuse (see Eros and Civilization (1955))

I'm not sure if I'm so skeptical of these lines of reasoning because I misunderstand them, or because they are very flawed. I certainly haven't them, so that's that. But it does strike me as part of a much older leftist story that is kind of right, but feels really ham-fisted and often plain wrong.

What first occurred to me that it is rather puritanical. I mean, replace "freedom, creativity, or genuine happiness" with something more religious and you've got a paraphrasing of Islamist cultural critique.

Yet there is an obvious truth to it. No matter why they are doing it, much of American behavior and attitudes are terrible. The question is kind of chicken/egg: do we buy it because we want it or because we've been told to want it? And how much of this is a feedback loop anyway? You've got those in power positions leveraging this stuff, and so their hand is at least partly behind the wheel. But they're also often "following the money".

And how much of this is really "false contentment"? I'm reminded of the old TV vs. non-TV watchers debate. Although, let's be honest, it's mainly the non-TV guys standing there with their noses in the air, trying to absorb as much of the erudition and sophisticate status as possible, almost as if applying salve to their wounds-of-penance, lying on their uncomfortable futons, drinking bitter wine and cursing reality television. But there are obviously incredibly redeeming qualities to mass culture, often ones that far surpass what careless observers might consider "higher art".

I'm entirely open to being disabused of my notions. But as it stands, this sort of thinking can get tendentious rather quick.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Ice Floes

Today I was pointed towards this column on the effects of climate change in the San Diego Union-Tribune.  More specifically, the comments section, and how decisively conservative they were.

Interestingly, the comments vacillate between denial, and spiteful joy in the possibility that the sea might be rising - "what great fishing opportunities!"  I can't help but think that the former is the same old hand-waving-as-a-smokescreen-for-true-rightwing-perspective found in the latter.  You can't generally come right out and say you don't give a shit about the earth or most of its (brown) people, so you come up with one elaborate ideological scheme after another. 

This sort of callous "political incorrectness" is widespread on the right.  So much so that it seems to go to a more fundamental issue of temperament.  It's an attitude that takes an almost gratuitous pleasure in human frailty.  I work with a woman, for instance, who routinely jokes that the poor, emotionally-damaged children she teaches "ought to be rounded up and shot".  Understand, she has a dark sense of humor, and this is gallows humor at its finest.  But the attitude comes directly from a larger worldview that is often very conservative (she claims to be a moderate, despite her husband's devotion to Rush Limbaugh in the car).  And the right is filled with just this sort of quasi-humorous social-Darwinist commentary.  Tune in to AM radio for an instant and you're thrust right into a cauldron of anger, disgust and open hostility towards the "weak". 

To the extent that conservatives hate liberalism, it seems largely due to liberals' unending devotion to the plight of the "weak".  This is what they cannot stand.  Whether it is blacks, women, gays, Muslims, or owls - this "concern" continually expressed absolutely drives them mad.  Obviously, the implication is that they, due to a lack of expressed empathy, are callous, greedy bastards.  Yet maybe they are?

Of course, there are the polls that find conservatives give at least as much on average to charity as liberals.  And as generally very church-going folk, I have no doubt this is true.  But one cannot help but notice their general air of righteous individualism: "I got mine, get your own - dammit!"  The term "politically correct" itself seems to define a de facto stance of humility and charity in communication that conservatives would simply not abide - at least in all but the most racially offensive situations (a barrier straining at the edges after the Obama presidency).

This is all very ad hominem, I guess.  But it isn't something I take lightly.  I tend to think of myself as generally nauseatingly moderate and wiling to crawl inside the mind of my fellow man.  Yet at the end of the day, I keep returning to the question of liberalism and conservatism as fundamentally character and temperament-based (the former largely learned, the latter not).  Is my character attack on the right simply a principled reaction - that which I feel in my gut?  Why is my accusation of "greedy" or "callous" necessarily different than their principled position of "individualism" and "freedom"?  Conversely, is their accusation of my being a "bleeding heart" or "tree-hugger" necessarily different than my principled position of empathy or naturalism?

We can of course from here concoct elaborate ideological and philosophical arguments for our positions, underpinned with facts and evidence, reasoning and logic, yet how much of the cart is being pushed before the horse?  How much, in the end, are we all just hand-waving in front of deeply-felt and generally intransigent "emotions" (for lack of a better word). 

And maybe a good deal of the problem is just that - our lack of a vocabulary, our lack of a meaning for words to describe.  Neither by neuroscience, nor psychology alone do we have more than a very incomplete picture of what is driving these deep-seated responses to the world.  The tantalizing question remains: how much of our feeling is being driven by ideas, and how many of our ideas are being driven by emotion?  And what is it that we are really feeling?  Anger seems one of the most triumphant emotions in politics, yet does not anger always have a source in another emotion.  What are we afraid of?  What are we mournful of?  What has been offended in us?

Through understanding the roots of our own feelings, the original causes of why we feel the way we do about an aspect of the external world, hopefully we will come to know better why we hold the beliefs we do.  Because what are our beliefs, but the codification of how we have chosen to interpret our response to external events?  All of which is nothing less than humankind's eternal struggle to know itself.  And in this we continue forever onwards.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

My Achy Economics Bone

It's just a hunch, but something tells me Mark Kleiman just finished Tyler Cowan's book, The Great Stagnation.  (David Brooks essentially used it to fill his column today, in which he spun this really odd tale about a man born in 1900 vs. a man born in 1973, and how the former "built wealth" while the latter shuffled his ipod.)  Kleiman worries that something called the Baumal Effect necessitates an increase in teacher productivity.  From Wikipedia, the Baumal Effect:
involves a rise of salaries in jobs that have experienced no increase of labor productivity in response to rising salaries in other jobs which did experience such labor productivity growth.
Kleiman's solution?  Video-screens! No, seriously.

This crap makes my economics bone hurt.  I would ask this question: where is the morality of shared interest in this economic equation? There are plenty of things in life that are good, valuable services yet which will likely, in 1000 years, be about as productive. Like parenting, for instance. The husband or wife who chooses to stay home and raise the babies is doing something invaluable. So how do we value it? Mark might suggest we find ways of increasing the productivity of parenting – maybe involving videoscreens?

We’ve become so used to business-speak about “growth” being this magic genie that grants all things good, that we have lost sight of what really matters in society. Once we discovered that there were millions of starving people in the 3rd world willing to live on slave wages (because at least slaves get to eat), we sold our neighbors out faster than you can get to page 6 of the WSJ.

Now, I’m not suggesting I have any grand answer to trade and productivity. But I do think that we’ve bent so far over the altar of *quantified productivity* and *growth outcomes*, that we’re forgetting the real value of the real work that real people do. Just because Mark Zuckerburg figured out how to print gold, it doesn’t mean that schoolteachers, firefighters, waiters, taxi drivers, professors, mechanics, cashiers and the rest of us now have to have our god-damned stock diluted.

OK, I took a breath. You want productivity? A school teacher who turns out good students prints gold. A taxi driver who can drive you home from a bar at 2am prints gold. A plumber who can fix the gushing pipe in your basement prints gold.  Since when have we become so blind to the value we bring to each other that quarterly growth and performance targets have come to define us?

Monday, February 14, 2011

Shoveling Towards Consciousness

I've been reading Richard Dawkins', The Greatest Show On Earth.  In a playful and joyous manner, he does an excellent job explaining the nuanced brilliance of natural selection.

A particular point he spends time on is the differences between artificial and natural selection.  Or rather, the lack of differences.  He notes that when the horticulturalist or pet breeder selects for some desirable characteristic, he is simply doing consciously what natural selection does unconsciously.  He points to the fact that certain flowers have been bred relentlessly, owing to some natural beauty or perfume the strength of which can be heightened by selection.  Yet other flowers, such as the corpse flower, which smell like rotting flesh in order to attract the flies and carrion beetles which are their pollinators, are of obvious disinterest to horticulturists.

He gives numerous other examples of the ways in which natural selection in nature is driven by a continuous, back-and-forth relationship among organisms, each placing what is ultimately reproductive pressure on one another.  When a flower grows brighter or more nectarous to attract a particular bird (those mutations leading to brighter colors or sweeter nectar being pollinated further), the bird is actively selecting for those characteristics which please it most: color and taste/caloric content.

I haven't finished the book.  And for all I know Dawkins has already or will make this next point.  But it occurred to me while reading about this similarity between natural and artificial selection, that there is no small degree of anthropocentrism going on here.  Because, aren't we all simply selecting for the things which please us?  Or to go further, aren't we being selected for by the things which would please us?

A man wants to plant a tomato plant, so he digs a hole.  The soil is firm, and so he devises a tool to make the job easier: a shovel.  As shovels don't generally exist in nature, you might say that he selected for, or designed the shovel.  Yet could you not also say that his shovel was designed by the firm soil into which the hole must be dug?  Just like the hole itself was designed by the tomato plant?  And the tomato plant having been designed by the man's desire for tomatoes?

So now we come to the classic creationist argument for an intelligent designer: does not a watch need a watchmaker; does Mt. Rushmore not need a sculptor?  Just like shovels, neither occur naturally in nature. 

Yet is man not nature?  When man selects for a particular trait that pleases him, he is behaving just like the bee that selects for the tastiest nectar.  The only difference, it seems to me, is that man's brain is considerably larger, and thus is able to have something called "consciousness" about the whole thing.  Although, as any post-modern deconstructionist will tell you, man is often quite unconscious of what he is - knowingly or not - selecting for.

Now, consciousness is certainly an amazing process.  It is likely one of the most amazing things we know of existing in the universe.  But the actual act of consciousness is largely unconscious (just ask yourself how you thought what you just thought!).  And while the conscious mind can do some pretty amazing things - the Parthenon, the Mahabharata, Hamlet - these are but child's play compared to the staggering complexity of the eukaryotic cell, or the eyeball, both of which were selected for and "designed" over the course of millennia.

At this point it might also be fun to observe that consciousness itself has evolved by a process of natural selection.  Our ancestors a million years ago likely could not have dreamed of the Labradoodle.  Yet the structures in their brains responsible for the inevitable desire to breed such a creature were well under developmental way.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Round We Go

Obama's getting ready to present his new budget proposal.  Conservatives are already saying it its cuts don't go far enough.  Liberals just want their social programs.

You know, is it really so complicated?  Won't there just always be ghettos, wherein most of the crime will occur? Hasn't this always been the case?

Or at least whenever there has been some semblance of property rights. Because you have the haves living together in one area, the have-nots living together in another area. This creates very different normative behaviors which have their own inertia. Broken windows theory.

It seems to me a simple pragmatism that says, OK, we're not going to have perfect egalitarianism any time soon. So let's take a bunch of our resources and target the inner-city/ghetto/etc. We'll do our best to provide a safety net, and put out some scaffolding so as many people can climb out as possible.  It won't break the bank.  We'll spend maybe, 5-10% of our wealth on helping them out.

But the reservoir is going to keep filling with spill-over from other areas of society - those who for whatever reason found themselves failing. Maybe they had bad luck. Maybe they're lazy (I hate that word, as it's meaningless, but it does at least describe a general behavior). Maybe they have issues. Maybe they don't know how to make the system work for them. Etc.

They'll find the cheapest part of town to live in. They'll have children. Those children will go to school with a high percentage of kids from similarly failing backgrounds.

I don't see what the big deal is. There are a lot of things we do that work to help change lives. There's stuff that doesn't. But we learn from it, and design better and better systems of dealing with this problem that seems kind of built in to modern social and economic systems. But the Wax/Mac Donald idea of "waiting for culture to change" just seems, well, idiotic. This problem has been around since biblical times - and long before. Jesus wasn't talking about some different, special kind of "poor". This is just life. It's being human. I won't give up on Utopian fantasies of true egalitarianism. But I realize we need to be practical.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Smart Government

Keith Humphreys acknowledges that substance abuse treatment programs are often designed poorly.  Further, we shouldn't have outsized expectations.  Yet this isn't an argument against there being a treatment solution, nor is it an argument for less spending.  He outlines some very sensible solutions.

It's hard to sell people on government spending towards social problems when there is a lot of money out there being spent poorly.  This tends to get held up as evidence that *no government spending works*, or at least that the benefits aren't worth the cost.  But there are many things out there being tried, and many of them with success.  Instead of debating *whether* money should be spent at all, we need to be debating *how* the money gets spent, with the knowledge that there are answers and that we have a responsibility to find them.

The sooner we can come together as a society and decide to hold ourselves accountable for the problem, the sooner we will be able to have a truly "smart" government,.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

What It's Always Been About

Given all the hem and haw recently over the question of the Affordable Care Act's constitutionality, it pays to remember that for conservatives this is merely a technicality.  Jonathan Zasloff reminds us what the real concern is when, following Chait:
all success is earned success. They do not believe that luck or life circumstance play an important part in economic success. They believe that wealth and poverty are essentially moral categories, interchangeable with “hard work” and “sloth.” They decry government, but they don’t really oppose government per se. They oppose those government functions that transfer resources from the rich to the non-rich.
he writes:
What Chait could have said but didn’t is that this is essentially Social Darwinism 101, or Scrooge, or Rand.  Ironically enough, this is the only Darwinism in which Republicans believe.  So instead of the man himself, I would suggest replacing the elephant as the GOP’s symbol with William Graham Sumner, the late 19th social Darwinist.  Although Sumner’s academic bona fides would no doubt offend most in the party, his insistence on the futility and downright immorality of doing anything to assist workers and the poor would be quite congenial.

Liberals need to remember this: the fight for the disadvantaged and oppressed is not about the individuals who exploit them.  It is about the persistent mythologies that drive men to stand behind policies that enable wretchedness.  To pin the intransigency of the right on mere moral failings or character flaws is demeaning to the rich history of callousness that almost defines conservative thought.

Conservatives generally oppose the ACA because it seems a reward for people who don’t deserve it.  A “redistribution”. This is stated over and over. Yet oddly, when repeated back to them, they often respond as if this is somehow an insult, that they could be accused of such a thing! The oddest version of which was Glenn Beck's CPAC speech in which he sung the glories of “allowing people to fail”, because that is the only way they’ll really learn. As if his own AA sob-story has much to do with people who are uninsurable, or are too broke to afford insurance.

Or maybe it does: maybe the poor are really to blame for their poverty. Maybe they are too lazy. This too is a stated claim of many conservatives, even if usually spoken of in a round-about way by all but the most brave. The logic is sound. The wealthy created their own wealth, so the poor must *not* have created it, right? Further, wealth is a prime motivator. If we “give it away”, people won’t have anything to work for. Just look at communism.

Have conservatives not been listening to their own rhetoric these last few decades? Is there something about liberals saying the words that bothers them?

I think one last note to hang on this: the question of contra-causal free will plays a role here. Conservatives generally believe people are responsible for their own choices, and thus social privilege doesn’t really compute. They worship stories of men who succeeded “despite the odds”, as if to prove that privilege means nothing. And yet this magical fortitude, this mystical agency is neither a socially learned function, nor a genetic advantage. Because either (or both – as most liberals believe), would imply *causality*.

Yet if you have causality, you suddenly lose responsibility. Better genes or learning places agency’s origin in events beyond human control (we don’t pick our genes, we can only learn how to learn, how to learn (etc.). This of course is all the logic behind liberal social programs – we call this “social responsibility”. And without it, you have conservatism. Or at least to the degree you have less of it, you have more conservatism.

I personally have never heard a conservative argue around the vast data that supports this basic liberal equation. You generally get the question changed from “should we?”, to “how can we?”, with the answer usually being “it’s too expensive”, or “it’s hopeless”, or “you’ll do more harm than good”. But conservatives never have any helpful solutions aside from vague and hopelessly inadequate gestures towards charity. So then the issue is dropped. Until once again you hear conservatives complaining, “we shouldn’t… we shouldn’t”. And you then explain why, and the liberal policy is criticized (even though, like with the ACA, it has been so weakened by conservative compromises that most liberals in many ways will agree).

Yet, like Sisyphus, we keep trying, fighting for our little old “social justice”, calling for “social responsibility”, pushing that ball a little up the hill. A little more health care for the needy. A little more money for poor kids. A little more regulations on businesses destroying the environment. This will all sound like creeping serfdom to some. But to those of us just looking to give every one a fair shot at success (or just dialysis, for crying out loud), it is a better, slightly more just and ultimately moral world.

Monday, February 7, 2011

You Get What You Pay For

The New York Times reports today that despite all the efforts towards "accountability", many schools are struggling to replace "failing" principals.  Of low performing schools in states that agreed to enforce strict sanctions for a chance at some of Race to the Top's $4 Billion in grants, nearly half have found ways to keep their principals on board.  Apparently finding talented individuals willing to work in troubled schools is harder than was expected.

From the article:
Because leading schools out of chronic failure is harder than managing a successful school — often requiring more creative problem-solving abilities and stronger leadership, among other skills — the supply of principals capable of doing the work is tiny.
You think?  And we're only talking about principals.  What about all the so-called failing "teachers"?  Given the average poor school might have more than 20 teachers,  finding replacements would be that much more difficult.

Of course, the assumption is completely flawed.  As the article rightfully notes, working at a poor school is more difficult.  Add to this the enormous expectations being placed on an already over-burdened and under-appreciated staff, and ask yourself who in their right mind would feel attracted to such a position?  The list of those of us willing to accept that offer is surely shortening fast.

Maybe the real question is why we should expect to be able to ask so much more of these workers in the first place?  We either need to pay them much, much more, or provide the proper support to begin with, so the job will be actually possible with an average employee. 

Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Delicacy of Nuance

A favorite education blog of mine is Bridging Differences, penned by Deborah Meier and Diane Ravitch.  A recent post by Deborah however, interested me less for its actual subject than for the issues it raised in how we all communicate to each other.  The thesis of her post was that in many ways the modern school is like a prison.  The students are forced to attend.  They are not allowed to leave.  They must generally listen when spoken to and register any protest in strictly muted form.  In the post she used words like "abuse", "torture" "coercion" and "justice".  These terms all have a rather large spectrum of contextual meanings, and Deborah's use mainly resided in the less-severe form.

One of her commenters took offense at her choice of words, pointing out that what she was describing seemed not to warrant such hyperbolic language.  Could one not get the wrong impression from such heated words?

I think that might be true, but I can completely relate to Deborah's style of thinking - even though it constantly gets me in hot water!  It's all in the nuance.  Because from another mouth, those words might indeed sound really terrible.  But if you "get" what she is trying to say, there is a very powerfully spoken emotion in her language that might be sacrificed in a "tidier" version.  The danger, of course, is in this type of language being misread, especially as it can sometimes sound like the sort of cynical rhetorical device used by propagandists, in that the intent (consciously or not) to deceive or manipulate.

To elaborate, this is how I at least defend my own style, which I think is similar.  There is a certain faith that is placed in the listener that assumes they are interested in taking a kind of walk with me, that they too are operating in good faith and are willing to possibly forgive the inaccuracies implicit in what I am saying in order to, with me, understand a deeper meaning that may not otherwise be understood.

The reader is in this way thought of as a serious and capable participant.  In the same way a poet might choose beauty over specificity, or a musician might choose dynamism before harmony, a leap is being taken with the hope that the listener will follow.

Obviously, this technique requires delicacy, and could easily slip into laziness.  Yet for those to whom this type of writing - thinking, really - appeals, it is in their DNA to carry on this way.  In the same way a more literal or linear thinker's lack of nuance, or "art", must be overlooked in order to appreciate their special focus and well-chosen delivery, the abstract, impassioned speaker must be indulged to reap the charm of whatever new and delightful dalliance they might take.

So, are schools really like "prisons" for children.  Often torturous, or abusive?  Well, yeah.  I know exactly what she means!

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Singing Songs

Andrew Sable, looking for inspiration in the glory of the unsung laborer, recommends this speech by Patton:
An Army is a team. It lives, sleeps, eats, and fights as a team. This individual heroic stuff is pure horse shit. The bilious bastards who write that kind of stuff for the Saturday Evening Post don’t know any more about real fighting under fire than they know about fucking! We have the finest food, the finest equipment, the best spirit, and the best men in the world. Why, by God, I actually pity those poor sons-of-bitches we’re going up against. By God, I do.

All of the real heroes are not storybook combat fighters, either. Every single man in this Army plays a vital role. Don’t ever let up. Don’t ever think that your job is unimportant. Every man has a job to do and he must do it. Every man is a vital link in the great chain. What if every truck driver suddenly decided that he didn’t like the whine of those shells overhead, turned yellow, and jumped headlong into a ditch? The cowardly bastard could say, ‘Hell, they won’t miss me, just one man in thousands.’ But, what if every man thought that way? Where in the hell would we be now? What would our country, our loved ones, our homes, even the world, be like? No, Goddamnit, Americans don’t think like that. Every man does his job. Every man serves the whole. Every department, every unit, is important in the vast scheme of this war. The ordnance men are needed to supply the guns and machinery of war to keep us rolling. The Quartermaster is needed to bring up food and clothes because where we are going there isn’t a hell of a lot to steal. Every last man on K.P. has a job to do, even the one who heats our water to keep us from getting the ‘G.I. Shits’.

…One of the bravest men that I ever saw was a fellow on top of a telegraph pole in the midst of a furious fire fight in Tunisia. I stopped and asked what the hell he was doing up there at a time like that. He answered, ‘Fixing the wire, Sir.’ I asked, ‘Isn’t that a little unhealthy right about now?’ He answered, ‘Yes Sir, but the Goddamned wire has to be fixed.’ I asked, ‘Don’t those planes strafing the road bother you?’ And he answered, ‘No, Sir, but you sure as hell do!’ Now, there was a real man. A real soldier. There was a man who devoted all he had to his duty, no matter how seemingly insignificant his duty might appear at the time, no matter how great the odds. And you should have seen those trucks on the road to Tunisia. Those drivers were magnificent. All day and all night they rolled over those son-of-a-bitching roads, never stopping, never faltering from their course, with shells bursting all around them all of the time. We got through on good old American guts.
It's a great speech. 

Sable then puts out a call for similarly inspiring odes to the working man.  Beyond the physical rewards for labor, he writes, the work cannot be honored enough - especially by the left.

But one wonders – is any of this more than blather without the actual existence of rubber-meets-the-road improvements in lives? Like decent pay, benefits, pensions, etc? Ooooh… I said pensions!  Because now more than ever, it seems we need less speeches and more actual, real-world "trickling down".

Because I recall the time I proposed to a conservative, in a conversation about trade schools vs. college, that we don’t respect the working class in this country. She assumed to remind me that I would sure respect a plumber when he came to fix my broken pipe. Well, that was my point. Not only do we not respect their work, but in terms of pay, physically demanding labor is often valued less – certainly the less skill it requires. Anyway, many of the traditional tools we have had for guaranteeing some measure of wage equality (unions, minimum wage, health care, regulations, etc.) are hated by the very same people who would champion such oratory.

I realize there are nuanced arguments for how unions, minimum wage, health care mandates, etc. all end up hurting the lowly worker. But those aside, there is a substantial degree of meritocratic pablum out there, in which each man is measured not by his work, but by his wage. And that there is no real inequality in making less, because that is simply what one deserves, according to the wisdom of the market. So if you can barely pay your rent, can’t afford health care, work in unsafe conditions with no job security and no retirement benefit – well it’s your own miserable fault. (You just need to work harder and you too can be like Rush Limbaugh with your fat suits and thick cigars.)

All of this ends up doing two things: it avoids offering any prescriptive measures for change, and reminds us that there need be no real change anyway. Things are fine just the way they are. Except they aren’t, really. So the class anger – which is real – is magisterially woven into a narrative about Cadillac union memberships, wine and cheese college elites, public pension cartels and anyone else getting “payed off” by a Democratic party less interested in social justice than funneling taxpayer money to liberal interest groups and rubbing their pagan social mores in the faces of mustachiod Nascar mechanics.

What’s interesting to me about this set-up is that it offers a tragic salve: it recognizes that there is an injustice out there, but buries the blame in a phantasmagorical, Freudian blend of class resentment and cultural fundamentalism, none of which actually gets at the real truth. Public pensions are not to blame for the fact that pensions don’t exist anymore. Unions are not to blame for the fact that so many people are without health care. The minimum wage, child labor laws and regulations are not the reason that all of our jobs have gone overseas. Well, actually they are. But that’s just sad.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Getting the Light Just Right

 Keith Humphreys presents the following dillema in pain management:
"Every public health official I talk to at the city, county, state and federal levels knows how serious prescription drug misuse and overdose are, yet is also struggling to find ways to limit the damage without causing harm to people in pain. If you can thread that needle perfectly, the world will beat a path to your door."

It's a really sketchy call.  Let me share some of my personal experience.

I've had moderate chronic neck pain since I was in a near-fatal surfboard accident in 1989.  As the onset of the pain was slow - taking maybe 6-8 years to fully present, I watched my quality of life slowly deteriorate.  Depression thus became a growing concern; suicide gradually came into focus as a sort of emergency escape hatch.  The pain was essentially non-stop, worst at night, when sleep was difficult.  Formerly a very athletic skateboarder, my life activities ground to a near halt; more than light/moderate activity risked intense spasms that could last days.

I attempted suicide a couple of months after the birth of my first daughter.  Hard to fathom such a cruel act in retrospect, at the time it seemed perfectly logical.  I was the primary caregiver (my wife taught classes during the day) and the baby was colicky.  I was able to imagine my wife remarrying and finding a better life for her and my daughter with someone who was able to give them what I felt I could not.

I had been taking anti-depressants and over-the-counter tylenol/advil for years.  I had a few sleeping pills I'd stashed from my time spent in a medical environment earlier in my career.  Yet none prescribed.  Anyway, what I took was some combination of those.  I remember regretting it almost instantly.  As the baby cried downstairs, I went to the toilet and tried to induce vomiting.  But it was too late.  I lost consciousness in a matter of minutes.

I found out later that my wife came home from work to find me blue on the couch.  She called the ambulance and had to wait for it to arrive, with me dying by her side.  They pumped my stomach and in two days I regained consciousness.  I spent the next week in the psych ward.  But it was largely unnecessary.  I knew as soon as I woke up what I had done.  It was as if something terrible had rushed out of me, and something beautiful had rushed in.  The pain was still there, it has never left.  But so was my wife, my daughter, my family, my friends, my art, my dreams.  Keeping my mood up is often a daily battle.  But it's never been so hard since.  The suicide, like some taunting devil in the closet, has been banished far, far away.

I now take a doubled dose of anti-depressants and a sleeping pill.  On really bad days I'll take a Xanax.  The doctors I've seen over the years have all been very nervous about treating my pain with opioids.  And for the most part I agree - I try to live without as many "crutches" as possible.  It is partly just a matter of psychology.  The less I worry about my pain, the less I, well, worry about my pain.

But sometimes you can't escape, and it can overwhelm you like a ton of bricks.  A formerly beautiful day full of golden promise can become a wretched bog of shit to slog through.  What a difference a "mood" makes.

I wonder if my pain could have been managed better, I might never have reached the depths of depression that nearly robbed my family of me.  But that's a counter factual too impossible to know.  And yet, there is a correlation between suffering and depression, between pain and suicide.  There is a logic to the thought that the only way to stop the pain is to end your life.  But it is a logic that misses a couple of key things.  One of them is medical treatment.  And the other is the extraordinary power of the mind to transcend physical suffering.

However, that power is not inexhaustible, and all it takes is a few life events to pile up and you have a powder keg of stressors that can break even the most strong-willed patient.  It occurs to me that in this time I was without medical insurance.  Ironically, this was because I had a pre-existing, chronic condition, and could not find coverage.  It may have been no use.  But a better system of pain management, possibly a routine series of visits with a physician every few months, might have helped.  Ultimately, in many ways I got lucky.  These cases can be tricky for the health care system to deal with.  But I find it hard to come to the conclusion that less care would ever be better.  Especially for those who need it most.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

For the Good Times

For all the tragedy and complaints I might have about the ways in which the continuation high school isn't meeting the needs of my students, it does do a lot of good.  At least for troubled kids, it's certainly much better in many ways then mainstreamed classrooms. Many drop-out, and many do little work, and most are mainly interested only in sex, drugs and violence. But they're out of the teacher's hair, and with the individualized attention we can meet more of their needs. It isn't perfect. And some days they seem to do no work at all. But for many of them they are simply in a safe environment in which they can let their guard down.

I had an interesting talk with the counselor yesterday about meeting the emotional portion of their needs, which for at least 50% of the students is the main barrier to academics. They've tried providing one-on-one counseling sessions, but the population has trouble making appointments. Then the bigger problem is being able to build rapport. Many students are so emotionally closed off that it takes weeks or even months to get comfortable with any adult.

I'm reminded of this story in the NY Times, in which a psychiatrist argues that one of the most crucial aspects of any kind of therapy is simple human connection - something that surely won't happen in a class of 40 kids. Then again there was the study which seemed to find that the real therapeutic effects of placebos were in the doctor's relationship with the patient - that they were being paid attention to, as patients who were informed of the placebos did as well as those who were blinded!

Anyway - a bit tangential. But goes to the concept of making meaningful interventions in students lives, meeting not just their "academic" needs but looking at their whole story. There are a lot of cumulative effects of poverty that wear a kid down over the years - whether it's the wrong crowd, stress at home, drugs, violence, etc. By high school many have simply reached the breaking point. And I honestly don't blame them for wanting to punch someone in the face.

Tidbit from the trenches: yesterday I was talking with a group of young mothers/mothers-to-be who I'm trying to design a sort of parenting elective for. One of them is rolling her eyes as she describes a girlfriend of hers who has 3 kids by 3 different guys, while her boyfriend has 4 kids by 3 different girls.

I turn to one girl - heavy eyeliner, sort of chola-style - who has previously discussed her deeply dysfunctional relationship with her boyfriend ("I hate him but he says he'll hurt himself if I leave"). I ask her, "You don't have a baby do you?" She shakes her head non-nonchalantly and replies, "Nah, but we're trying."

"What?!!", I reply, shocked. "Is this the same boyfriend you're always talking about hating?"

"Yeah," she says, "I know we're prolly gonna break up... but this way I have something to remember the good times by, you know?"