Monday, December 31, 2012

The Year in Media: Part 1, Politics and Discussion

I thought it might be interesting to take a look back at some of the more memorable media I've been digesting for the past year.  Aside from music, books and film, it occurred to me for a second that I might include media journalism in this category, but I quickly realized how daunting a task it might be to find and collate everything interesting I've read in the past 12 months.  I could however, simply list my sort of regular, go-to sources for information:

NY Times
Reality Based Community
Kevin Drum
The Awl
Science Blogs

The Week

Up w/Chris Hayes
Daily Show
Colbert Report
NBC Nightly News

The Liberal Oasis
Little Atoms
New Yorker Outloud
The Slate Political Gabfest
On the Media
Fresh Air
Point of Inquiry
Vox & Friends

It's kind of interesting to see someone's little media universe.  I, of course, am not completely limited to these sources as there are always stories posted to my facebook feed, or otherwise linked somewhere.  And the NY Times doesn't tell you anything very specific about my information habits.  I will say that I've spent much less time reading about education.  Other than the fact that the level of public discourse around the subject is maddeningly misinformed, there just seems less and less to say.  Honestly, I don't know that I haven't said about all I have to say on the topic on this blog, and where I am at on the issue seems incredibly distant from where the front lines actually are in the debate, in terms of Democrats and Republicans largely thinking about the issue in similar ways.  And ultimately, the self interest of middle class Americans and the fact that the problem of education is at root a structural problem with capitalism itself makes the issue much more scary than most Americans are really interested in dealing with.

But back to media.  I listen to the bloggingheads podcasts a lot.  Doing dishes.  Mowing the lawn.  Driving to work.  The basic premise, for those who haven't checked it out, is to try and get really smart people on the left and the right to debate important issues of the day.  It tends to be moderates from both sides, with a good deal of libertarians sprinkled in.  Some of the regular participants are too annoying bother with, and my ears generally glaze over during the wonky foreign affairs discussions.  But overall I find the serious back and forth across partisan lines fascinating. 

Other mentions on the list: The New Yorker Out Loud podcast  is probably the closest I'll ever get to actually reading the magazine.  The authors themselves being interviewed is, while maybe not quite as good as the real story, a special thing in its own right.  I do most of my commenting on the Reality Based Community site.  The community of commenters there are top-notch, and often as interesting as the original post.  Up w/Chris Hayes is sometimes a bit too wonky, and for a supposedly inclusive talk show, gratuitously liberal, but Hayes is very sharp and fun to follow as he tries in earnest to pull out the substance from all sides.  Little Atoms is my most recent discovery and now one of my favorites.  The baseline is secular humanism and free thought, but the range of topics is vast and the conversations always intriguing.

I think I'll stop here and leave the "arts"  - music, books and film for next time.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Wrestling Snakes

So, Gerard Depardieu recently moved to Belgium to avoid paying taxes in France.  How much would he have to pay?  Well, according to him, he's already paid $190 million over his career, and new rates are about to go into effect raising the marginal rate to 85%.  What this means is that for every dollar he will earn over one million dollars, the government will take $.85.  To many, this is outrageously unfair, an outright theft.  Depardieu calls it insulting.
"I am leaving because you consider success, creativity and talent grounds for sanction."
These numbers do indeed sound big.  When we imagine ourselves being taxed at such rates, it seems entirely unfair.  And has he really paid $190 million already?  That might seem unfair.  But looking at the math, it seems less so.  According to the best source I could find, his current net worth is $200 million.  He's clearly made a lot of money.  In order to get to $200 million, he would have had to average $5 million a year over 40 years - and that's just in taxes paid.  I haven't been able to find any better details on his career earnings, but we can only assume that it was an enormous lot.  Remember that this is an increase in French taxes, and still merely a marginal rate of 85%, after an income of one million.  So his career average income would have to be closer to 10 million a year.

But let's assume for argument's sake, that his average after-tax income was an incredibly conservatively estimated to around 1 million a year.  That is an outrageous amount of money.  We're talking about $83k a month.  That's twice the average middle class pre-tax yearly salary.  Can you even imagine having that kind of money to spend?  This is the kind of income that makes luxury spending like this seem reasonable:
"The average jet setter spends nearly $30,000 per year on alcohol (wines & spirits.... hotels and resorts ($157,000 a year), or events at hotels and resorts ($224,000 a year). Spa treatments even fetch more jet-set dollars....$107,000 a year at spas around the world....$147,000 a year on watches....$117,000 on clothes....a whopping $248,000 a year on jewelry."
Are these people really victims?  Is this lifestyle being unfairly hindered?

There are a few things at work in debates over progressive taxation, falling into two main categories.  First, there is the utilitarian argument over what the actual effects are of progressive tax rates.  Do tax rates like those in France (and, it is worth remembering, those we paid her in the US a few decades ago), disincentivize the most productive investors, hinder overall growth, contributing to higher unemployment, higher prices, less innovation and lower standards of living overall?  Or do they actually boost productivity by decreasing income inequality, spreading wealth out into middle class communities and paying for common-good investments like infrastructure and social programs that boost public welfare overall?  The answer to this seems empirical.  Yet, as is often the case with issues that involve a moral component, as we'll get to next, the empiricism is easily lost in the moral intuition.

The second argument is of course one of morality and principle.  Are the rich really deserving of their large incomes, such that forcing them to pay far higher rates is indeed unfair and akin to a form of theft?  Are the middle class really deserving of their modest incomes, and thus deserving of their lower rates of access to things like quality communities, quality services and generally drastically lower standards of living?  The answer here is again empirical, to a degree.  For while there are plenty of cases of individuals obviously inheriting their wealth, and the ability to leverage and thereby access more of it, there are harder cases, those of seemingly genuine wealth creation through more intrinsic, self-generated means. 

However, it must be asked then where did this apparently highly valuable self-agency come from?  At this point many will begin hand-waving about simple free will and choice and self-determination.  More compelling to me, is the social research that gives lie to this concept, as well as the philosophical and neuro-scientific research that paints a much more deterministic picture of human agency.  When looking at any one successful individual, there always seems to be something in their life, come by some kind of environmental or biological fortune, that paved for them their street with gold.  As a larger social matter, the kinds of economic, political, social and cultural institutions in society are enormously determinative in their power.  Even if not entirely determinative, they are at least so much so as to more than justify the moral position that current levels of income inequality in our country are truly unfair, and allowing one to make at least $1 million dollars a year, or $83k a month is perfectly reasonable enough reward for whatever truly self-determinative, and thus morally "earned" productive activity they have engaged in.

At this point, however, those engaged in a moral argument for the rich deserving their riches tend to return to the first argument, that of utility.  And unfortunately, the empirical nature of that debate seems always to be biased by the moral subtext and intuitions regarding fairness and desert.  It seems an endless sort of loop, a tautological ouroborous in which one's righteous position is the only thing that matters.  I couldn't possibly argue that I myself am immune from what I can only assume are my own intuitive, Marxist biases. 

Yet, there is truth in the end.  We cannot all be right.  As concerned as I am with compassion and empathy - my thoughts tending toward humility and the imagination of the other - I place a good deal of faith in these attitudes as allowing me more room for rational objectivity than a posture of self-interest and self-projection onto others might.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Digging Into the Reality of Gun Violence

Like many, I've been struggling to get my mind around what to make of the Newtown shooting, what it says about our society, and what we ought to do about gun violence.  These shootings are increasingly common, although still relatively rare.  Digging into the actual statistics - what types of guns result in homicides, who is killing who is complex.

In the back and forth over the gun issue, tribal politics is in overdrive, even if the gravity of the Newtown shooting has caused many to rethink their positions.  What has stood out to me, however, is the question of threat assessment, and how much our perspectives on the issue are grounded in actual statistical reality.

The vast majority of gun deaths are not mass, but rather individual shootings.  There are over 300 million guns in the US, much more than any other country (about twice as many as the next highest gun-owning country).  There is a strong correlation between the number of guns in a country and their homicide rate.  People are more likely to die with the gun in their own home.  About 16,000 kids are killed in gun accidents a year.  About half of gun deaths are homicides, while the other half is suicides.

Richard Florida put together a very interesting graph showing correlations between socio-economic indicators and gun deaths.

As you can see, the top two indicators of risk for gun death is being in a Republican state and being poor.  As Florida writes,
"Though this association is likely to infuriate many people, the statistics are unmistakable. Partisan affiliations alone cannot explain them; most likely they stem from two broader, underlying factors - the economic and employment makeup of the states and their policies toward guns and gun ownership."
Overwhelmingly, gun violence seems most clearly to go back to poverty and lack of education. 

I've experienced this personally in my work with poor kids.  In my first year teaching Kindergarten in a lower-class, immigrant community, one of my kids entered school two months late due to having been accidentally shot in the torso by a family member. Two years a go, at a continuation high school, one of my students was shot in the head in a drive by, killed instantly, her 6 month old child was hit in the leg and survived.  A family member of one of my students, again a from lower socioeconomic demographic, was recently in critical condition from a gun injury.  I frequently hear about violence in the neighborhoods and lives of my students that is simply not present in the lives of better off families.

So basically, if you live in a poor neighborhood, you're going to be subject to the dysfunctional few who have been segregated into your community via social forces (family breakdown, economic exploitation, poverty perpetuation, incarceration, etc.).  Now, having to live in a poor neighborhood is going to be much riskier, and it may indeed make sense to own a gun for self-defense.  That seems a perfectly reasonable conclusion that individuals might make.  Of course, other issues arise, such as the necessity of knowing how to properly care for such a deadly weapon.  And in order for the gun to be an effective means of self-defense,  having it at the ready is going to be important, which in turn opens up greater risk of accidents, especially among children.  In poor communities, many of the gun owners are going to be relatively low human and social capital individuals, who may not have the proper where-with-all to keep their gun safe.  And with regard to guns getting into the hands of criminal elements of the community, easing regulations on gun sales is going to only make it easier for criminals to get guns.

In the back and forth over the gun issue, tribal politics is in overdrive, even if the gravity of the Newtown shooting has caused many to rethink their positions.  What has stood out to me, however, is the question of threat assessment, and how much our perspectives on the issue are grounded in actual statistical reality.  Most of us are not in any near danger.  Unless we live in poor neighborhoods.  Otherwise, the presence of a gun in the family puts us at greater risk, especially if the gun owner is poorly trained, doesn't keep their gun secure enough, or someone is at risk of suicide.  As I was just telling my students last week, after worries arose over the likelihood that someone would come and shoot up the school, that they were more likely to die or get a debilitating brain injury in a car accident.  So if they were truly concerned about their safety, they would begin wearing a helmet when driving in the car.

Everyone laughed.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Responding to Tragedy

Immediately following the tragedy in Connecticut, we began to hear the age-old rhetoric of retribution and bloodlust.  It came in two pieces, sometimes expressed together, sometimes not, but both logically dependent on one another.  The first, a reaction of disbelief and exasperation at a seeming lack of causality:  "Who could do such a thing?" The second, an impulse to revenge: "I hope he burns in Hell for this."

In the first response, the question is empirical.  We actually have a pretty good idea of who do such things.  They are usually mentally deranged, due to some combination of mental illness and life trauma.  It is very rare that there weren't clear indications of mental distress in their lives leading up to the violence, whether known prior by some or hidden away to be uncovered in subsequent, post-event inquiries.  In these cases the question is simply not one of rational action.  Statements like "I had a bad childhood", or "I know lots of people  (with autism, schizophrenia, etc.) who would never do such things", have no real value.  These disorders are large spectrum, as is human experience.  There are different types of trauma, and everyone experiences trauma differently.  Some people may have the temperament to triumph, while others get pushed in other directions. 

What we do know is that mental disorders and trauma have real effects on one's ability to reason, and introduce elements of emotional, behavioral and cognitive impairment.  I'm aware of no sociopath ever having existed who had no history of mental disturbance or life trauma.  If one did, he or she would be exceedingly rare.  In any event, the question would then become how their personality and cognitive capacities were able to form in such a way that committing heinous acts made rational sense to them, in light of the fact that every waking moment, from one's first life breaths, of human socialization in every society in the world has designing effects on our person hood.  According to the theory of Societal Capital, such a "normal" person acting so abnormally would be an exceptional outlier.

The second response, calling for bloodthirsty retribution, is logically dependent on the question in the first response going unanswered, and an assumption of free, rational agency.  It is reliant both on on there being no good explanation for the individual's behavior, and the assertion that the individual could have done otherwise and yet chose not to do so.  As I have tried to show, we know enough in general about human behavior to be able to assume that a a logic reason for the individual's behavior. 

The second assertion, about free will, is more difficult.  We live in a universe of cause and effect, and it is near impossible to speak of anything existing outside that framework.  Yet because consciousness is so complex, and seemingly impenetrable in terms of its causal mechanisms - who can measure the thousands of connections firing from billions of neurons at every second of waking life? - it is often claimed that within this mysterious process there could exist uncaused phenomenon.  To put it more simply, the notion of free will is dependent on our being able to act in ways that are free from causality, and thus determine choices ourselves, instead of having them determined for us by the laws of the universe. In this way, we are supposed to be literally supernatural creatures, unhindered by the constraints of reality that everything else - rocks, trees, animals, etc. - are forced to obey. 

Incredibly, not only are we imagined to be capable of transcending the physical, spatial world, so too must we transcend the direction of time itself, effecting past events as we would (from some time in the future, if only seconds) like them to have been, freed as it were from the constraints of having had prior reasons for what we had done.   A question illustrates this paradox.  Can one act for no reason?  That is, can one develop reasons for making choices that themselves have no reason?  For instance, if I were to decide to make myself a cup of coffee, I would ostensibly have had a good reason for having done so, such as desiring caffeine.  And this reason would have been based on prior reasoning - knowledge of the effects of caffeine, knowledge of how to make coffee.  To the extent that my ultimate decision was informed, either by conscious cognitive processes, or unconscious emotional, behavioral, etc. processes, there was a reason for it.  In fact, it is impossible to imagine a human choice that is not based on a prior causal process.  While it is certainly true that we can never know exactly what all of the causes are in a given choice (conscious, unconscious motivation, etc.), there is no way to explain an action without resorting to causation.  This seems indeed a tautology, but only in the sense that time moves forward, based on prior interactions within the universe.  To assert that consciousness could somehow allow one to step beyond this reality, and to do things that were not caused, is a basic violation of physical law. 

The claim that someone "could have acted differently" could have two meanings.  The first is simply an acknowledgement that reality unfolds according to prior events; the tree would not have fallen had there not been a wind storm; the dog would not have bit the child had he not been abused as a puppy; things could have been different had prior events been different.  

Yet somehow, in humans, we allow often ourselves a different, supernatural meaning.  We say that one could have done differently had things been exactly the same.  This second meaning is practically quite useful. It serves to reinforce social norms as it reminds us to think of what is good and bad behavior.  He should have done this or that.  It was great that he did this or that.  These are important reminders both to ourselves and to others with whom we share an ever-evolving social sphere of norms and expectations.  Through this language of ought and ought not, we contribute to a narrative that solidifies social bonds and contributes to a social project in which our basic desires for a fulfilling, satisfying life are closer to being met.  By looking at circumstances as they are, and imagining the possible outcomes of different behavioral choices, we model projections for standards of behavior that we can then hold ourselves and each other accountable for. 

Yet of critical importance to this narrative is a model in which we identify with the individual actor.  It is of no help to our narrative if we cannot imagine ourselves in their place.  When we say an individual ought or ought not do something, we are implicitly injecting ourselves into their position.  After all, it would be hypocritical to say an individual ought or ought not do things that we ourselves do not do.  Of course, none of us is perfect, and often times our moral convictions are mostly aspirational.  In this way though, we are still injecting ourselves into the role of actor, even with the caveat that our projected selves might not be perfectly suited to the role.

In our projections of our selves into the role of actor, reality often gets in the way.  That is, the individual is often quite a different person from us.  To the extent that this is true, our attempt to reinforce a social narrative is weakened; a story about what I would have done is a story about what everyone should do, and thus a valuable model.  However, a story about what someone very different than I am introduces complications.  Effective models are clear and easily understood.  Effective social models are those in which everyone can imagine themselves a part of.  Everybody likes a good story.  We want to identify with the protagonist.  Ought and ought not stories are no different.   It takes a great deal of mental energy to try and comprehend the mind of a psychological stranger.  We therefore tend to imagine others as similar to ourselves.  The cognitive efficiency of doing so, combined with the handy utility of reinforcing the larger social normative narrative places pressure on us to simplify what are usually very complicated stories behind tragic actions of individuals.

While a more nuanced approach to reflection upon tragic human behaviors such as mass shootings, one that acknowledges the minds of such individuals as very different from our own, and assumes that there is indeed a causal mechanism in place that led to their actions, requires more patience and more mental effort to quiet our more primitive neuro-physiological responses, I believe it ultimately allows us to not only attain a more accurate picture of reality, but indeed to further a stronger social narrative that is based less on the weak bonds of illusion and naivete about human nature and more on a sophisticated understanding of what it means for all of us to be human, fully-caused - and flawed - souls.  We are thus ever more prepared in very real ways for active compassion and calm wisdom about the tragedies of human behavior.  We no longer need to bother with the empty and nihilistic feelings that come from pointless questions such as "Why would any one do such a thing?", and instead allow ourselves to experience the tragedy as we would any other natural calamity, without unnecessary blame but instead a singular focus on natural grief and constructive reflection upon what we as a society might be able to do to limit such future tragedies.

For those interested in exploring more of what the Naturalistic wordview has to say about free will and human behavior, check out Tom Clarke's excellent

Friday, December 7, 2012


Map of Poverty (red) by location in San Francisco
The New York Times reports that a number of school districts across the country are moving ahead with plans to extend the school calendar, the reasoning being that poor kids need extra time in school to catch up with their middle class peers.

I'm not necessarily opposed to this in theory.  But I was struck by a line in the piece that is emblematic of current thinking in education, which tends to overlook the profound impact of family and peer interaction on cognitive and behavioral norms.  Advocates of extended school days claim, the author writes, that
"poor students tend to have less structured time outside school, without the privilege of classes and extracurricular activities that middle-class and affluent children frequently enjoy."
While this is generally true, these things have little to do with the cause of the achievement gap.  To the extent that we emphasize these particular inequalities in societal capital, we miss more salient inequalities, such as the effects of things like family stress (due to any number of problems associated with poverty, such as lack of access to health care, job issues, etc.), poor parenting, lack of parental education resulting in diminished cognitive and vocabulary development. 

We also miss what is maybe one of the most powerful drivers of the achievement gap, which is the effect of concentrated poverty, in which those with the least societal capital are segregated into geographic and social concentrations.  Neighborhood class segregation means schools become highly segregated by class, and a variety of social norms become prevalent. 

This is all, of course, a function of our capitalist system wherein property markets reflect class divisions.  It is a system that isn't going away any time soon.  Apart from experiments in bussing that might correct for class segregation, schools will likely be segregated for the foreseable future.  Extended school days have their benefits, as do the provision of extra-curricular activities for poor children.  But we must not fool ourselves into thinking that half-measures such as these are anywhere sufficient to remedy what are profoundly larger inequalities that result in an oppressive dynamic across classes that perpetuate social inequality of societal capital formation lasting not only for lifetimes of students but across generations. 

A proper assessment of student need in emotional, cognitive, health, and relational domains is needed.  From there, we can build a system of interventions that is truly appropriate to the task of rectifying the deeper inequalities in societal capital that result from a capitalist system which is in large part driven by the exploitation of these inequalities.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Stuck in Society With You

Libertarian Mathew Kahn argues that climate change is real, however in our attempts to adapt to it, we ought not incentivize irrational choices, such as building levees so that people can continue to live in low-lying areas.

Humans are incredibly irrational decision makers.  Assuming they are not underlies our greatest tendencies to apologize for inequality and injustice.  We tell ourselves, "It is their own fault.  They could have done differently.  They made a rational choice."  Yet again and again, we see that people do not.  Any businessman who has ever depended on advertising knows this well.  Any politician who has calculated his message knows this.  Any one who has struggled with diet, a budget, or quitting smoking knows this.

The problem is that it is near impossible to understand the irrational drivers of our own behavior.  With great work, we can find ways to counteract this irrationality, but it is largely in the darkness that we work.  God knows what it is that is driving you to take that bite of the fattening donut?  Your bad childhood?  The time you spent reading Zorba the Greek?  An impulsive temperament?  All the brain research and psychology that exists can only give us the faintest hints.  The fact is that the causal mechanisms at work in any given second, when each of our billions of neurons involved in the choice is firing off with its 7000 connections, making up the entirety of consciousness and unconsciousness, is unfathomable.

We learn to counteract the irrationality, in order to supposedly act more rationally.  Yet are we really acting more rationally, or have we simply been able to design habits for ourselves that have out-maneuvered the negative impulses?  "Rationality" is merely shorthand for *choosing the correct option*. 

In a fundamental way, society can be thought of as a vast, evolving system of habit formation.  At the individual level, we feel very rational and "in control".  But at the macro level, patterns emerge that tell a very different story.  Instead of individual, rational actors we see the products of systems such as family, peer relations, education, government, and social norms that conspire to design not only an individual's ability to make correct choices, but - more foundational still - an individual's ability to design for himself the ability to make correct choices.  Thus, the choice as whether to eat the donut or not is dependent not only on an individual's choice, but the individual's prior ability to have designed for himself the ability to make that choice.  For instance, after week three of having successfully fought the 8am donut cravings, the choice to not eat the donut will be far easier than it was on day one.  (I'm not actually hip to diet design, but you get my point: successful routines for habit formation are successful because they are routines, not individual, isolated choices).

So, does this mean that no one ever ought be held accountable?  Should we all get to make base, easy, immediately gratifying decisions with no concern for external effects, with the excuse that we had no control?  This is generally the first response many have to the argument I have presented.  Yet this is a case in which patient, nuanced thinking is called for!  If you will recall, I spoke of the element of social design in individual decision-making.  Just as we would set for ourselves a course of habit formation that we hope will bring about correct decisions, so too we set for society a course of policy that we hope will bring about correct social behavior.  So too we design our formal and informal social institutions.  The idea is to look ahead and put in place systems that we hope will flourish.  This utilitarianism makes the question of blame somewhat irrelevant.  Policies ought be designed that foster, through the mechanics of incentives, social good. 

If the question was mere utility, it could be answered by either side of the aisle.  It could mean lowering taxes on the "job-creators", harsh sentencing for criminals, or letting residents in low-lying areas suffer rising tides without assistance - the right-wing model.  Or it could mean a more left wing emphasis on the benefits of redistribution, leniency, or shared burdens.  To the extent that these are subjective, evidence based controversies, the chips will fall where they will.

But what is removed from the equation is the moral posturing that has traditionally been wrapped up in left vs. right politics: no one is to blame.  So, even if we will all benefit from "job-creators" getting tax breaks, they are not inherently morally superior by their good works.  They have merely been the recipients of social circumstance that have allowed them - being in the right place at the right time - to do good things.  We can argue until the cows come home about the extent to which their work is actually good, and how much money is the right incentive for them to continue whatever it is they are doing.  But in the end, they are products of *us*, as the saying might go, "we built them".

And so too did we build those who, at the other end of the spectrum, we now see are playing out what society has designed for them in the form of irrational, self-indulgent or poorly-planned behavior.  We can also argue about the extent to which these people's behavior is all that bad, or whether by circumstance it appears so (the "negligent mother" may indeed be working two jobs and thus have no ability to look after her delinquent son).  But regardless, again, "we built them".  So when designing policies that, in the interest of deterrence, or disincentivization, will create hardship on individuals caught in such a tangled web of causality, we must admit that, as they are not the originators of their actions, rather society is to blame, their hardship is a form of Earthly purgatory. 

It may allow us to sleep easier at night believing that the many who suffer do so at their own choice.  But it is a convenient fiction. 

I confess much of this argument is aimed squarely at the right, who though at times concede some degree of social determinism, generally downplay it, if not deny it completely.  After all, who then, if not government is going to help enfranchise those whom society has failed to give an equal design?  The utilitarian case for less government action is rather weak.  And, more noticeably, a great portion of right-wing framing is not utilitarian at all, but rather a direct appeal to an assumed agency ("I built it"), or merely a sense of unfairness at the notion of social design - redistribution is unfair because well, "I built it".  The truth is that, were government indeed pared down to only its most basic elements, poverty and class-mobility would not suddenly cease, or even diminish.  The supposed moral hazard in provision of social services, or even such things as student loan forgiveness - as former candidate Romney complained about -  is a convenient excuse for a callousness that comes from not seeing individuals as determined by social design, whose ability to make rational choices is constrained by a prior ability to develop in themselves this ability, and so on, outwards into the fabric of socialization.

So I'm all for utilitarian incentives.  But when their effect is serious hardship in the lives of real people, we must ask ourselves if there was not another, better way to have both incentivized good choices, without having allowed such trauma to have occurred.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Have Faith in Atheism

It must be nice.

That is, having faith in God to pull you through.  Having faith that there is a plan for you, having faith that there is a meaning in the universe and a reason for everything.

Of course, no one is without doubt.  Even the most devout believers must at times struggle to hold on to their faith.  But they have a faith to hold on to.  They have a deep and enduring story that, at least in theory, accounts for everything in their lives.  It tells of a universe designed with them in mind, with special details and guarantees that promise not only an ultimate reward in the afterlife, but a better life now.  It spins tragedy into harmony, grief into glory, pain into love.  There may not be any specific answer to specific problems, but in faith it is promised that a deeper purpose exists, and faith will carry one through.

Unfortunately, I have no such reassurances.  As an Atheist, I have no reason to believe that there is any higher purpose to my life.  The universe was not designed with me in mind.  It simply exists, according to a relatively limited set of physical laws.  These laws have set in motion an unbelievably vast and complex series of interactions, my body and mind composed of elements forged in the ebb and flow of stellar supernovae, brought together by interactions of gravity and electromagnetics, propelled by energies as distant as the Milky Way galaxy within which our Sun orbits, and as close as  the very bonds that hold my sub-atomic particles together.  Within this vast cosmic dance, I do my thing.

So, what is "my thing", and more importantly, why do I do it?  A question for the ages, right?  What is the meaning of life?  What is the purpose of life?  Having already declared my Atheism, I have already submitted that there is no purpose.

Seven years ago, I tried to kill myself by overdosing on prescription pills.  For twenty five years I have gone about my daily life in varying degrees of chronic pain.  Sometimes it feels like the walls are closing in all around me. It is all I can do to focus my mental powers like invisible rods and struts, holding back the vice grip of gnawing muscle tension.  At other times the pain is barely noticeable, lurking in the background but easily ignored.  My life has been torn apart; who knows how it could have been had I not had that surfboard accident in 1989.

In my darkest moments - which thankfully, are much further far and in-between than they used to be before the suicide came as somewhat of a watershed - I do not have God to comfort me.  My footsteps are my own.  I cannot bend my knee and take solace in a faith that there is a purpose to my pain.  There is no "lesson" that I am to learn.  There were no sins that I am paying for now, redeemable for a ticket into heaven when I die.  There is only the cold machinery of the universe, of which I have been on the receiving end of misfortune. 

It is true that we all need purpose.  I know as well as anyone what it feels like to reach the end of the tether which attaches me to my will to live.  We need a reason to live.  We need a reason to push on despite horrible pain, anguish and tragedy.  We cannot live without purpose.  Purpose is what gives our lives beauty and reminds us in moments of challenge that there is much to be thankful for.  Purpose is what drives us to be better, more honest, more caring, more supportive people, to do better things, to set ambitious goals and struggle to accomplish them.  Without purpose, our lives become aimless and superficial, stumbling over minor obstacles and sidetracking us towards short-term satisfactions.

If there is no God, or supernatural story within which our lives are fixed, which gives ultimate purpose to our lives, carrying us through the pain and propelling us towards the fulfillment of our best natures, how is it that the Atheist is not destined for all that accompanies a life devoid of purpose?

Some might take solace in the notion that it is Atheism itself which destroys purpose.  After all, how can one ever prove that there is no God, or supernatural force that guides our destiny?  Partly a semantic issue, Atheism is not incompatible with such agnosticism.  It can as easily be said that one can never really prove a negative.  Two plus two may equal four this time, but no one can know the future.  Just because there is no evidence for God at all, and an inexhaustible supply of evidence for causal mechanisms in the natural world that need no creator to be explained.  Aside from the creation of natural laws themselves, we have every reason to believe they are enough in and of themselves to explain everything that exists in the universe.  Agnosticism should be the basis not only for supernatural questions, but our stance towards reality itself.  However, it is merely a baseline.  Acting with purpose requires so much more.  While nothing may be able to be completely disproven, we live in a practical world and Occam's Razor requires us to make practical decisions.  I may not know that two plus two will always equal four, but I can't sit around waiting to find out.  There is just as little purpose in agnosticism as there is in Atheism.

While Atheism can give us no purpose, it makes a stronger statement about purpose in general: that we make our own purpose.  In fact, in Atheism we see that all religious faiths (all but one of them being untrue, by default) are in fact man-made.  Therefore, the purpose that they purport to offer the faithful is man-made as well. 

Unfortunately, as a non-believing Atheist, I cannot simply adopt the purpose of the faithful as my own.  And thus I cannot collect the rewards - the comfort, the inspiration.  And so I must find my own.  Limited to the natural world, I cannot simply invent convenient stories, hiding away in the mysticism that "everything happens for a reason", knowing full well that it doesn't.  We offer no such hubris to the billions of animals that die of starvation or predation each year in the wild.  The reason?  That's life.

But maybe the stoicism of the natural world offers us a clue in how to make sense of a harsh reality.  It has been theorized that at root, humanity's existential despair comes from our larger cognitive capacity.  Our brains have evolved as sense-making machines.  And yet, when faced with senseless tragedy, we are at a loss.  Our brain is a hammer looking for a nail, and unfortunately one does not exist.

Or does it?  In our quest to make sense of the world, we have invented powerful mythologies with the ultimate goal of finding purpose where there seems to be none.  It is a highly useful story to tell, yet everyone knows all but one are wrong - Atheists simply claim that one is wrong too. 

But what if we had a story to tell about purpose that didn't require the supernatural.  Is there not enough to live for here on earth?  Is there not enough to get us through the tragedies, the hardships, to inspire us with ambition, to want to make the world a better place? 

When I look into the eyes of the woman I love, I feel a purpose.  When I laugh along with my two daughters, I feel purpose.  When my family and friends remind me of our shared memories, I feel a purpose.  When I see my smiling neighbor walking past my house everyday after returning from the bustop after work, I feel purpose.  When I pull weeds in my garden I feel purpose.  When I finish writing a new song with my guitar I feel a purpose.  When I listen to a new record that inspires me to go back and write again, I feel purpose.  The roadrunner that struts across my garden wall gives me a sense of purpose.  The way the tendrils of the grapevine reach out in slow motion for a new handhold, I feel purpose.

Of course, I will forget all of these things.  I will become overwhelmed.  I will allow negative thoughts to creep over my consciousness and push away all of the good things in my life.  But time will pass, and I will overcome.  I will be reminded of all of these things that give me purpose, and I will embrace them.  I will have faith in their ability to change my life.  I will have faith that they do indeed exist, that I will come to feel their effects again.  These things are real.  They exist in the natural word.  I can touch them.  I can make real connections with them.  I have faith in these things, and through them, I have faith in Atheism.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Homophobia is Irrelevant

After the recent election, it is increasingly clear that America has reached a tipping point in its acceptance of homosexuality as something natural, normal, healthy and acceptable.  Voters in Maine and Maryland approved same-sex marriage, and in Wisconsin the first openly gay US senator was elected.  Of course, the country remains divided, with gay acceptance being very limited among certain groups, especially in the Southern states.  But looking back over the last two decades, the progress of the gay rights movement has been rather stunning.

Gay rights is commonly compared with the anti-racist civil rights movement, which has now reached the point where it is entirely socially unacceptable to advocate against the equal treatment of ethnic and racial groups.  On its face, the similarities are obvious: an historically discriminated against minority group, subjected to irrational, unscientific hostility by a majority group whose main argument rests simply in an appeal to tradition.  Like blacks, gays have routinely been terrorized, ostracized, oppressed, discriminated against both informally and in law.  Pseudo-scientific theories have been invented to justify bigotry.

Yet proponents of discrimination against gays still cling to one key difference between gay rights and civil rights based on gender or race.  While interpretations of religious text have for centuries been used to justify the oppression of women and minorities, viewing them as deserving status second-class citizens, they have largely been abandoned as backward and misguided.  This owes in large part to the paucity of clear references in religious texts to the subordination of these groups.  While with some work, cases can be made for interpretations that support bigoted views, modern progressive opinion, at least in the West, has largely abandoned such explicit justification.  Discrimination surely still exists, as minority and female representation in positions of power is still limited.  However, defense of this status quo rarely appeals to religious text, instead preferring the subtleties of other cultural traditions or social norms.

With homosexuality, things are quite different.  Religious texts still stand as the primary justification for viewing homosexuals as second-class citizens.  The reason for this is clear.  Religious texts, especially the Old Testament, very clearly condemns homosexuality as specifically immoral and unnatural.  Combined with centuries of unquestioned cultural norms of anti-gay discrimination, the verses seem clear as day.  While many other practices are explicitly prescribed in religious texts that would be seen as beyond the pale (at least in most societies), their practice ended so long ago that it is easy to think of them as antiquated and retrograde. 

So it may go with interpretations of religious texts that explicitly view homosexuality as sinful.  However, especially in light of the passion with which so many conservative religious groups seem to have invested themselves in the condemnation of homosexuality not only as an individual sin, but the acceptance of which is emblematic of a larger social and cultural decline word-wide, religious-based opposition to homosexuality seems especially intransigent.

It is undeniable that there has always been a component of hatred to the tradition of anti-gay cultural norms.  Anti-black, or anti-female sentiment has always been expressed not only in codified discrimination, but in literal violence against those groups, whether through rape or lynchings.  History is replete with justifications of bigotry generally rooted in nothing more profound than simple feelings of disgust at some innate quality of women or blacks.  This disgust is a feeling that becomes so powerful that it gives rise to outward expressions of discrimination or even physical violence.

However, the interesting question is where this feeling has come from.  It certainly isn't something innate.  Rather, it is a social construction.  While there is good reason to believe that as a species, we have a tendency towards a fear of the "other" in cultural relations, there is also plenty of evidence that through social construction, we can overcome this fear by mitigating it with patterns of cultural conduct that both pre-emptively inhibit what may be perfectly natural, yet irrational dispositions towards xenophobia and the fear of the unknown.  Further, we can establish norms of social and self-reflection that seek to provide a continual "check" on current social norms, ensuring that they are rational, moral and just.  Looking over the centuries, it isn't hard to see an arc of moral progress in which old social norms have died away, and been replaced by enlightened perspectives.  As such, old "disgusts" that we may have felt in prior centuries past - say, at seeing a woman bathing in a two piece swimsuit or driving a car, a child arguing with a parent, a black man kissing a white woman - would be hard to imagine today.  Their social context has changed, and the construction of assumptions and expectations has been altered in such a way that disgust has been de-activated.

Yet in churches and radio stations across the country, the social construction of homosexuality as immoral and sinful is being activated on a regular basis.  While at the same time it is being deconstructed by a continuous march of reality - one in which homosexuals engage in public activity no differently, and with no different effects than heterosexuals - there exist wide swaths of society that refuse to acknowledge its benevolence.

With feminism and minority rights, there was less for the religiously conservative to lose.  Little in religious texts explicitly calls them inherently sinful.  Religious interpretations that called for the subjugation of women and minorities could be slowly forgotten, or at least, as in the case of women, re-imagined in more benign terms - in rhetoric women could indeed be powerful, however the more enlightened among them would make an honest attempt to stick closer to home and define themselves within the context of traditional marriage.  Having a female or black president wasn't necessarily a threat to civilization as we know it, as long as the general order of patriarchal and Christian supremacy was assumed.  The union of man and woman, under God producing the next generation of Christian youth was intact.

But homosexuality undermines this vision.  Not only do religious texts repeatedly describe homosexuality as outright unholy, but as a social norm, it calls into question the larger holy alliance of male and female procreation under God.  This institutional construction is seen as at the very core of the faith itself.  Breaking it would call into question the fundamental purpose of life on Earth, under God's plan.  The implications extend far beyond homosexuality: sex-before-marriage, a woman's place in the home, a parent's relationship with his child, traditional gender roles - all of these are possibly under threat.  Nothing less than a total realignment could possibly be in store if one were to go down the road towards accepting homosexuality as something neither sinful nor immoral.  As Maggie Gallagher, prominent conservative critic of gay marriage, wrote apocalyptically after the recent election, "The Obama electorate defeated marriage."  Gays didn't win marriage.  Heterosexuals lost it - the entire institution
This is not to say that a massive shift cannot occur.  History is filled with examples of religious interpretation shifting alongside social changes.  Plenty of religious people today have found ways to reconcile an understanding of homosexuality as something perfectly natural with their faith.  But unlike gender and racial equality, homosexuality is going to cause much more soul-searching.

In the meantime, there will be a debate as to whether religious intransigence represents mere principled devotion to faith, or a post-hoc religious justification for homophobic bigotry.  This is a question that is impossible to answer clearly.  We just don't have the opportunity to peer into the mind of our fellow man with the resolution required to determine from where his convictions arise.  Without a textual case to be made, when anti-gay feelings are expressed, there is little to explain them other than simple homophobic disgust.  Yet religious texts, by definition, are powerful sources of ideological guidance. 

The original purpose of gender and racial equality arose not from rational, doctrinal interpretation, but from the supremely personal, human experience of inequality and injustice.  This was the only truth that mattered - that which was real and felt in the minds and hearts of millions.  Despite religious prevarication, so the truth of gay rights lies not in the words on any printed page, but rather in the lived experience of millions.  The only question, in the end, is whether or not to trust in the loving bonds we cannot help but feel for our fellow man.  When asked, in an honest, deliberate comparison of our feelings of hateful disgust versus our capacity for empathy, empathy will win out, especially in the context of widespread social pressure.   However, the attempt must be made, either forced by social pressure or otherwise.  Will the tide of gay acceptance reach the church walls, overwhelming calculation and fear with love and truth?  Or will polarization drive the walls ever higher?  My guess is, eventually, the former.  But given the implications - real or perceived - for religious conservatism's driving against the liberalism it sees homosexuality as representing, the road will be a long one.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Pinning Down Will

A big problem in discussions of free will is language.  One of the sticking points is often the way we talk about the meaning of will, or volition.  The common intuition that we all have free will is based on the observation that most choices we make are in the context of there being many possible options.  I could have eggs for breakfast, but I could also choose to do an endless number of other things.  I have the freedom to decide which.

In explaining how a computer works, it would make sense to say the computer "chooses" from a set of variables, according to a predetermined set of parameters. When IBM's Watson computer famously competed and won against Jeopardy's best contestants, his responses were accompanied by the relative probabilities his system gave alternate responses.  Did Watson have the "freedom" to make other responses?  No, he did not.  He chose the response that made the most "sense" to him, based on predetermined parameters.

I think it is important to describe will as the act of merely choosing between competing options. In doing so, we make the notion of freedom irrelevant, instead describing the fact that choices are dependent upon predetermined parameters, ultimately arising from impulses outside of, and prior to, our conscious awareness. Just as no one would describe Watson's decisions as anything like "free", no one should describe our choices as such either. The only difference is that our impulses are infinitely more complex and (presently) unknowable.  

Yet to the degree that those impulses are knowable, they are deterministic.  That is, when analyzing why we make any particular choice, wherever we look we see a will that is dependent on predetermined parameters.

Monday, October 29, 2012

The American Hallucination

The American Dream, New Jersey 1991, Marcel Dekker
There may be no more defining characteristic of the American identity than the so-called "American Dream", the idea of America as the land of opportunity where everyone can succeed.  This mythology, by now hundreds of years old, is as persistent as ever.  In many ways, it is an empirical question, and it is true that, as a relatively free, first-world liberal democracy, opportunity is immense.

However, there are two features required of the term opportunity.  First, it must exist as a possible avenue of action.  The opportunity to sit on the grass in a park requires there to be a park in the first place.  But second, and this is just as important, there requires the capacity in one both to desire to, as well as know how to, find the park and sit in it.  For opportunity to exist, it must be realizable objectively, as an external option, as well as subjectively, as a personal option.

In the real world, take the example of the opportunity to start a small business, the hallmark of the American Dream mythology.  Loans might be available.  Markets might be available.  But in order for the opportunity to be real, one must both have the desire and the know-how, as well as the time and energy to start it.  For many Americans, this is has been a very real, attainable opportunity.  But for many more, it has been impossible.  It isn't hard to imagine situations in which personal circumstance might prevent one, through very real obstacles, from following this path.  A single mother with childcare expenses.  Someone with a pre-existing condition for whom self-employment means losing health care coverage.

There are many for whom these kind of practical realities make the American Dream impossible.  But there is another kind of practical reality that arises from something much more complex and less talked about: personal agency.  To those without sufficient personal agency, opportunity is just as unattainable.  As an objective reality, it may exist.  But as a subjective reality, no less important, it does not.

When talking about the American Dream, and the question of opportunity, personal agency is rarely talked about explicitly.  For many, it is something that is assumed to exist in relatively equal measure among all adults.  Objective opportunity is pointed to, and its existence is assumed to be evidence that it is within the grasp of all.  The expectation is that everyone should be able to take advantage of it, and and failure to do so is simply a matter of lack of freely chosen will.

Yet there is no evidence that any such thing exists.  Wherever one looks, human behavior is driven not by free agency, but rather by complex forces of genes and environment.  Depending upon these variables, one either will or will not have the subjective capacity to take advantage of any objective opportunity that exists.

This should be obvious to every parent.  We strive to create the best possible environment within which our children might grow and develop the very best of their potential.  We know that positive environments are almost entirely determinative of future behavioral outcomes.  "Bad parenting" is defined in obvious relation to what is either "good" or "bad" for the child, profoundly effecting development - specifically their capacity for agency.

Somewhat ironically, this can be taken a step beyond.  A cascading effect occurs: "bad" parenting increases the likelihood that the child will reach maturation with a poorly developed skill-set, thus increasing the likelihood that he or she will in turn practice "bad" parenting, in turn increasingly the likelihood that their child will mature poorly, etc.  This process of cyclical, generational dysfunction is well-documented.

In Hart and Risley's classic study, Meaningful Differences, profound differences in language and cognitive development are tracked in granular detail through analyzing interaction in families of varying levels of socio-economic background.  Parent education levels correlated strongly with development of language and cognitive skills in children, which in turn varied greatly across, yet not within, socio-economic background.

In a fascinating follow-up study to Walter Mischel's study in the 1960's on child impulse control, in which children's ability to abstain from eating marshmallows found great variance in self-control as a seemingly tempermental skill, researchers recently found evidence that this skill was not nearly as innate as was once thought.  Environment was actually found to be a strong variable in a child's capacity for self-control.

This comes as no surprise given what we know about child development, and goes a long way to explaining differences in child development across socio-economic backgrounds, specifically with regard to patterns of school success across the nation.  A story emerges in which, from birth to maturation, people are heavily influenced by the environments in which they are raised.  In fact, there is little evidence that one has any capacity to transcend one's environmental or innate abilities.  The outlying cases, upon further scrutiny, always seem to turn up strong evidence of environmental factors.

And yet we seem to cling to the notion that humans can transcend the shackles of genes and environment.  The American Dream is alive and well, despite no evidence that it exists, and a great deal of evidence that it can't possibly.  All around us, we see the link between socio-economics and agency.  But, much like the faith in a God that makes no rational sense, we can't seem to let it go, even when surrounded by evidence to the contrary.

A recent episode of the news program 60 Minutes illustrated the American captivation to this mythology.  A Pakistani immigrant to America was profiled who, seemingly against the odds, through seemingly nothing but pluck and determination, built himself a hugely successful business and is now a multi-billionaire.  The schizophrenia of the American Dream mythology, clinging to its seductive charm, was on high display.  Shahid Khan was at first introduced as coming to America as a teenager from "the dusty streets of Lahore", with nothing but $500 to his name.  From this, he grew a small auto parts company into a profoundly successful enterprise.  A charismatic, jovial man, his optimistic attitude allowed him to become wealthy, proof positive of the American Dream, described as much by a Forbes cover story.

However, as the story quietly mentions, Khan wasn't quite the rags-to-riches story he is made out to be.  The son of a mathematics professor and businessman, he came to America after being accepted as an engineering major at the University of Illinoise.  As a college student in the US, he was clearly of higher socioeconomic status, despite his plaintive descriptions of washing dishes for minimum wage.  In Pakistan, far from the dusty streets, as we are shown, he rather grew up in a walled, two-story compound.  In a 3rd world country like Pakistan with nothing like a middle class, we're hardly taking about a poor kid.  Middle class - if such a thing can really be considered in Pakistan - is unlikely.  My guess is closer to the 1%.

Opportunity in America surely exists.  But in order to take advantage of it, one must first develop the requisite skill sets.  This doesn't happen on its own.  It takes a concerted effort of numerous environmental factors.  Social inequality translates into developmental inequality, and inequality of opportunity.  An American Dream that does not account for this is nothing but a fantasy.  Instead, maybe the American Dream ought to be a vision for all of us to do better, to reduce inequality not just of opportunity but of development of capacity to take advantage of opportunity.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Future Dishwashers of America

I teach the messed up kids.  OK, not all of them are messed up.  But a much higher portion of them are in my classes, as I teach subjects that, although core curriculum, are generally not college-track.  These are the kids that don't do their work, talk too much, have little interest in school as a priority.  Instead of taking notes, they like to break pencils and make jokes with their friends.  Anything they can do to disrupt the lesson and distract the teacher means less time spent focusing on school work.  These are students for whom passing the class with a bare-minimum D is all that matters.

Some of them are angry and mean.  But most are nice enough.  They just hate school.  Some of them truly struggle with reading and writing, and repeated failure has made them frustrated and bitter.  But most simply lack the "grit" to succeed; they cannot stay focused and often give up on completing even the simplest of tasks.

While they comprise maybe half the students in each of the subjects I teach, the other half of the students are generally hard working and genuinely interested in getting a good grade, respecting the class rules, the teacher, and their fellow students.  Many of them struggle as well with reading and writing, but unlike the failing students, they have the grit and determination that the others lack.

I am deeply convinced that the polarization in America today among liberal and conservative outlooks can be boiled down to how we view the nature of human choice, and the process of human development.

A local business woman in my neighborhood like to place bold right-wing slogans in large print in the windows of her dress shop.  Her most recent was "The government didn't build my business, I DID!", an obvious reference to the Republican campaign attack on Obama's speech in which he argued that government and social infrastructure is integral to a successful economy.  An obvious rejoinder to her slogan would be to point out that her business relied on everything from the clean streets and stoplights outside her doors, to public school and post office up the street, to the parks and libraries across town, to the well-regulated, quality neighborhood buildings, clean water, police patrolled safe streets, firefighters putting out fires, interstate highways bringing her goods, etc.

But at a deeper level, her impulse is representative of conservatism's emphasis on individual responsibility, and the corollary claim that people get what they deserve because of the choices they make.  She worked hard to build her business, and shouldn't have to pay for government expenditures on those who maybe made poor choices.  She was never (in her mind, infrastructure aside) looking for a "handout".

I recently had a conversation with a fellow teacher, an older Republican guy, who himself has taught these very same "gritless" students, who make poor choices on a daily basis, have misplaced priorities, and will statistically go on to live lives of poverty and likely dysfunction.  Many will drop out, many will resort to substance abuse, many will end up in prison.  Most will simply live out their lives in poor desperation, creating broken homes and generally living with high levels of stress and exhaustion.  "I tell my students," he said to me, "don't hate wealthy people.  They worked hard.  You can be wealthy too.  Just do your work.  Go to college."  It's a good message, but its optimism somewhat deceptively hides an ugly truth.

To conservatism, people have no one to blame but themselves.  They could have studied harder.  They could have put their own pain aside.  They could have reached down deeper, focused harder, sacrificed more, and put in the work to become successful.  History, they'll remind us, is filled with examples of people who have come from little, faced enormous odds, and found a way to overcome.

Yet these are exceptions.  I see it daily with my students.  Many of them have terrible stories, and yet they manage to buckle down and keep pushing to success.  But the vast majority of those who truly face disadvantages - broken homes, negligent parents, wayward peers, etc. - do not find success.  For them, the best they can do, amid the multitude of teenage distractions, is keep their head above water, struggling to complete just enough assignments to pass their classes by a hair.

So what is it about the exceptions, those who diligently do their work and seem to have a vision for themselves of a better life, that is different?  With 130 students, it is impossible to know all of their stories.  But there are many clues.  They tend to have more supportive parents.  They are more mature.  They tend to have a quietness about them that speaks to lower levels of stress coursing through their brains.  They are often preternaturally more introverted, more academically oriented, seeing a definition of self in terms of intellectual, rather than social pursuits.  They have a better sense of self-esteem, not feeling the need to measure themselves up against others through constant attention seeking.

In poor, disadvantaged, broken communities, seeking external validation means adopting what are often destructive and unhealthy norms.  Internal validation, unlike external validation which is subjective, and a constantly moving target, is more objective.  It gives one reliable, immediate feedback against intrinsically rewarding goals that are self-reinforcing.  Making art, reading books, playing sports, getting good grades involve the building of skills that are not only easily identifiable but progressive and generally highly valued by wider society outside of the local, dysfunctional community - especially that of superficial and status-driven teenagehood.  And in a poor neighborhood, where so many peers are going to have lower capital and developing dysfunctional coping mechanisms, external validation is a constant driver of community destruction.

It is hard to disentangle the genetic and environmental factors in either students who manage to "rise above", or those who do not.  But it is undeniable that it is developmental forces that have created them.  They cannot be said to be "making their own choices" in a sense in which their actions can be separated from their background, life-experiences and temperament.  Whether at 16, 12, 7 or 5, each student has a specific developmental history that is entirely dependent on his own genetic and environmental story.

When zooming out to a larger, macro social level, the pattern is all the more distinct.  Socio-economics is completely determinative of a student population's exhibition of successful or unsuccessful characteristics.  At schools in which parents are better educated, have better jobs, and whose families are more intact, the student populations will always be much more mature, have more self-control and emotional management, have better world knowledge, better cognitive skills, better academic performance.

Can these students be said to "choose" their developmental abilities?  Can they in elementary school?  Middle school?  High school?  They can't choose their genes or their environment.  They cannot be said to have chosen their development of emotional and cognitive skills.

So how can they be said to "choose" their ability to act beyond their developmental capacity?  How can they be said to possess the ability to have more self-control than they do?  How can they be said to have the ability to choose to have more intrinsic than extrinsic motivation?  How can they be said to have the ability to be more loving and compassionate than they know how to be?

There is a classic Mad TV skit in which Bob Newhart plays a therapist whose basic technique is to simply tell his patients, "Stop it!  Stop doing it!"
While there is some truth to the notion that such simple advice can be effective in certain situations, the basic premise, that all manner of psychodynamic and developmental patterns of conscious behavior can be reduced to such a simplistic either or choice, is absurd.  Over 100 years of psychological research, as well as the burgeoning field of neuroscience provides ample evidence that such a view is laughably naive.  Equally, social science research into the enormous variety of factors that contribute to the ways we end up living our lives paints the same picture at a social level.  If it were so simple, nearly all social problems would be neatly resolved, billions of dollars and countless hours of productivity would be spared.  Nothing less than world peace would be accomplished by the simple admonishment, "Stop it."

Who could believe such a silly notion.  Well, conservatives, for one.  Again and again, this basic premise underlies many forms of conservative rhetoric.  I built it.  I pulled myself up by my own bootstraps.  I played by the rules.  I worked hard.  I never asked for a handout.  I abstained from sex.  I never did drugs (or if I did, I quit on my own).  I studied hard in school.  I never needed anyone's help.  I found God.  It isn't easy, but one faces a choice between doing the right thing and doing the wrong thing.  You have no one to blame but yourself.

All of this sounds good.  And these are mostly good words to live by.  But, even though they feel true, they aren't.  The choices we make seem simple at the time, but our ability to make them is dependent both on a lifetime of development as well as the specific situation we find ourselves in at any given time.  Even though feel as though, at any given point in time, we are completely free - seemingly omnipotent - agents of every choice we make, we are just the opposite.  We are merely the conduits, second by fleeting second, of all that has gone before, into all that will come to be.

This is a profound perspective.  The absence of free will, classically defined, strikes many as utterly contrary to common sense.  But, just as it was once common sense to believe the Sun circled the earth once a day, once the evidence is gathered, and the theory becomes better supported by fact, it is increasingly understood with a "new common sense".

There are a number of claims made in opposition to the notion that we do not have free will, but they are rather easily dispatched.  The first claim is often that this leads to fatalism; if we are mere conduits of time and biology, then what is our purpose?  Well, what purpose is there anyway?  Any evidence of purpose with free will is the same without.  This is because although we may be conduits, our brains have evolved a consciousness that is dependent on a model of ourselves as agents, functioning within a limited range of knowledge of choice at any given moment.  There is a vast, incomprehensible reservoir of stimulus operating on every conscious thought that arises within us.  We will only ever be capable of understanding a small fraction of it, and most of us will spend the majority of our days not giving it a second thought.  In fact, one of the strengths of consciousness is the ability not to get caught up in self-reflection and over-analysis of one every thought.  Many mental illnesses, such as depression or anxiety , are actually marked by a tendency to over-think one's problems, real or imagined.  People with a capacity for minimal self-reflection can often be much more successful, focusing only on the positive aspects of life, as opposed to both the positive as well as the negative.  In general, while we do not have free will, we cannot but act as though we do have it.  We are thus subject to the same pleasures and pains that would drive our behavior and give us purpose regardless.

A second common claim against the idea that we don't have free will is that personal responsibility would disappear, and we would thus have no mechanism for justice or social order; people would be free to do what they wish, with no accountability, being as they could no longer be considered free actors.  The first part of this claim is certainly true; personal responsibility, in the sense that one could have done differently, does disappear.  But the latter does not follow, that social order would break down.  The concepts of deterrence and reward would still apply, as would the utilitarian notion of protecting society from the dangerous among us.  Interestingly, the concept of deterrence and reward are actually behavioral concepts that rely on an certain absence of free will; if one truly has free will, at least the psychological effects deterrence and reward would not exist.  Obviously, they do.  We do not have to believe that one could have done otherwise to allow the intelligent and hard-working to be rewarded for their productivity.  But we would acknowledge that their ability to work hard and apply their highly developed cognition and self-control was not consciously made, but rather the product of genetic and social forces that created in them the capacity for behavior that society holds in high regard.  Likewise, we do not have to believe one could have done otherwise to punish criminal behavior, or provide more limited pay to those who have only developed limited cognitive capacity, or the capacity for much self-control.  But we would acknowledge in them as well the centrality of genetic and social forces, and thus ensure that their lives are as meaningful and dignified as possible.

I can't simply tell my students to "Stop it!"  Although I certainly do, on a daily, hourly basis.  But I am merely one behavioral mechanism in their river of development.  With the current level of resources at the disposal of government, acting as an agent for larger social policy, one teacher can only do so much.  When my students leave my classroom, when they leave my school, they will return to the environment that created them.

In a recent conversation with a couple of well-intentioned, yet struggling students, I was described home lives that were developmentally crushing.  One child described being yanked about by a father high on methamphetamines.  His later conflict with a step-father drove him to rebellion in middle school.  To this day he struggles to find his priorities.  All day long, his teachers have told him to "Stop it!"  But after talking with me, the next day something in him beamed with intrinsic desire to be successful.  He needed me to listen to him.  It was by no means everything he needs, but it was a start.  Another student told me everyone in his family has been to prison (likely for drugs).  He does no work in school, and spoke of being depressed.  But he has never wanted to do drugs himself, seeing how it affected his family.  After we spoke, he too expressed an interest in finally doing enough work to at least pass the class.  He told me he felt like none of his other teachers listened to him.  They were probably too busy telling him to Stop it!  In a classroom of 30 students, there isn't much time for anything else.

If a student doesn't work hard in school, his prospects for success in life are severely dimmed.  Society is rife with inequality.  Those from disadvantaged backgrounds are much more likely to remain disadvantaged.  Those from privileged backgrounds are much more likely to remain privileged. 

In a recent column, Steven Pinker described how conservative thinkers such as Thomas Sowell and David Pinker characterize the right-wing view of humanity as having
a Tragic Vision of human nature, in which people are permanently limited in morality, knowledge and reason. Human beings are perennially tempted by aggression, which can be prevented only by the deterrence of a strong military, of citizens resolved to defend themselves and of the prospect of harsh criminal punishment. No central planner is wise or knowledgeable enough to manage an entire economy, which is better left to the invisible hand of the market, in which intelligence is distributed across a network of hundreds of millions of individuals implicitly transmitting information about scarcity and abundance through the prices they negotiate. Humanity is always in danger of backsliding into barbarism, so we should respect customs in sexuality, religion and public propriety, even if no one can articulate their rationale, because they are time-tested workarounds for our innate shortcomings.
This Tragic Vision might also be summed up as the Stop it! vision; the choice between hard-work and sloth, barbarism and civilization, sin and sainthood, comes down to a simple choice.  The simplicity of the choice implies an ease which needs to complex social science or psychology to understand: that who make the wrong one have made a choice and thus must face the consequences.  In this vision, inequality is not structural, but rather personal.  Thus, it dismisses any sense of collective culpability, either in contributing to the original inequality, or the failure to adequately correct for it.

The Tragic Vision is built upon intuitions, and denies mountains of scientific evidence that paint a far more complex and nuanced picture of social structure and human development.  It appeals to a certain kind of common sense about the degree of power one has over his own life.  It appeals to basic human emotions about wrong-doing and causality, where the person-hood of others is understood to be the rough equivalent of ourselves, and imagined to be operating within a similar context of agency; if I were you, I would Stop it!  So why can't you?  It appeals to a sense that humans all have roughly the same capacity for action, regardless of genes or environment.  It denies the complexity of human behavior, and the facts we know about development.  It supports the status quo, where millions of Americans who grew up poor are imprisoned, addicted to drugs, or raising children by themselves, their children statistically destined to repeat the story of their parents.  It supports the status quo, where the millions of wealthy and middle class Americans grew up in educated, intact families from nice neighborhoods, with health insurance and safe childhoods filled with enrichment and positive stimulation.  It supports the notion of "I got mine, and I don't have to care about you", by pretending that "you can to" because developmental capacity doesn't matter.

This is the essential underlying belief of the Republican party, who in the current election are enjoying the support of 50% of American voters.  This is what half of the country believes.  According to them, the rich deserve to be rich because they knew how to Stop it!, and the low-skilled, low-income workers deserve to be poor as long as they continue to refuse to Stop it!  As long as this particular brand of common sense, this intuition unrestrained by fact, this unscientific fantasy, is alive and well in America, there will be no hope for my struggling students, who clearly don't possess the capacity to do better in school, despite what some of their teachers, voters and politicians continue to assume about them.  And that is a truly tragic vision.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Unicorn Politics

Virgin and Unicorn, Domenichino (1605)
One of the fundamental disagreements in politics today is over the degree to which society can afford to spend tax dollars on social goods.  In some areas, such as welfare or food stamps, it is argued that the spending itself is counter-productive because it promotes negative behavior; it promotes dependency instead of forcing people to create their own productivity.

But in most areas, government spending isn't argued to be promoting bad behavior.  Instead, it is simply argued to be a luxury we cannot afford.  Things like bridges (such as the project New Jersey Governor Chris Christie famously axed "because we can't afford it"), schools, libraries, parks, police, firefighters, social security or medicare are all forms of government spending that nearly everyone supports.  Yet while they are valued, it is argued that they must be limited because we cannot afford them.  As Mitt Romney famously said, "I love Big Bird... but I don't want to borrow from China to pay for him".

So, is our fate then, according to those with this view, to live in a chronically underfunded state, with over-crowded classrooms, dilapidated libraries and parks, inadequate roads and bridges, clogged courts, and thinly stretched police forces, and denial of health care and social security to millions of seniors?

Here's where we get into the realm of unicorn politics.  Depending on which brilliant economist you ask, the government can either afford these things or it cannot.  Some will say that, like many Western countries, we can have all of these things through better regulations and higher taxes.  Others will say that more regulations and higher taxes will only inhibit growth, reducing the tax base even further and limiting our ability to spend.  The details are enormously complex, and it is nearly impossible for a layperson to realistically discriminate between the competing perspectives.  "Common sense" is irrelevant to such complexity.

So what do we do?  We have faith in our own intuitions.  We all have basic moral instincts about the role of government and social justice, what is fair.  For instance, if you tend to feel that one's income and net-worth is an accurate expression of his real worth - how hard he has worked and what he thus justly deserves - then you are more likely to feel that asking him to pay more of his money in taxes for the good of the rest of society is unfair and immoral.  If you feel that his income and net-worth have been determined not only by his hard work but by larger social forces that have enabled him to attain more wealth at the expense of others, then you are more likely to feel that he ought to pay a higher tax rate back to the society in which has privileged him so.

Unpacking the mechanics of these two very different assessments is complicated.  Serious economic and sociological arguments can be made to support either, but much of it seems to be intuition about one's fellow man.  Asking someone why they are a liberal or a conservative rather than vice-versa, is akin to asking a Catholic why they are not a Protestant, or for that matter a Muslim or Hindu.

To what extent do we simply have intuitions about what is fair, and then find post hoc rationalizations to make them fit into something that feels reasonable?  Sure, I can (and regularly do, on this blog) make a compelling case for why my perspective is based more on reality than on mythology.  But to what extent is the unicorn grazing beside my eloquence?