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.