Thursday, September 22, 2016

Superstitious Moral Claptrap

Nothing frustrates me more than to hear the words "they need to help themselves".  To the extent that this is a way of arguing that government interventions don't work, that needs to be said instead, and with specificity as to what programs don't work.  An ideological, categorical opposition to all government intervention is paranoid and delusional.

The fact is that people are doing the best they can, or know how to do.  And this includes the people engaging in behaviors that are causing problems: the crime, the neglectfulness, etc.  In my work with poor, undereducated parents, I see that they all love their kids, and want the best for them.  They just sometimes didn't know how.  They lack a certain skill-set to do things like providing a cognitively enriched environment, speaking with certain affect and tones that better reinforce familial bonds, or following through with structure and placing appropriate and consistent  demands.

But there are clear reasons for their skill deficits.  It isn't some immoral choice they are making.  Often it is because that was the way they were raised, or that certain traumas increase stress - anything from relationship issues to working demeaning low-wage jobs.  The causality is incredibly complex, and specific to every family.

There are a vast array of policy interventions - from micro-level options such as parent training, which to be effective would be intensive and costly, to macro-level decisions about neighborhood design, wage, tax, property policy.  In the middle might be specific community-level interventions such as recreation centers, transporations, parent and job training, etc.  Effective macro-interventions would have enormous long-term benefits, as things like functional families or safer streets make micro-interventions unnecessary.  However, in the present there are people in real need, and specific deficits are driving very real issues.

I imagine the answer then, is simply both, adjusted according to necessity.  What we don't need is claptrap about "personal responsibility", which is neither deterministic, parsimonious with fact, or causally coherent.  You might as well say that hurricanes need to be more responsible and stay offshore.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Still Looking for First Base

Glenn Loury and John Mc Whorter for the umpteenth time are bemoaning the state of left-wing thought on race and poverty. These guys have been engaging in this funny little dance routine for years now.

I'd like to hear John or Glenn - or anyone else who shares their perspective - discuss what policy directions we might move in. I tend to agree with them that racism isn't what is driving black poverty (If you're not a seasoned reader of this blog, do me a favor and go back to some of my older posts on racism here, here, or here). But I disagree that it is something "they" need to figure out how to solve by themselves.
But I start from a place of determinism, where culture and institutions are what create all of our behavior. I can't just say someone "ought" to do X or Y, I also have a moral responsibility as a member of society who has been fortunate, to not just sit back and take advantage of that grace while less fortunate others don't have the option. Further, as a participant in an economic, legal, political, social, etc. system, I am perpetuating this system. So, what then to do. We can start with identifying the problem. What are the behaviors that people are engaging in that is leading them away from success? I would start at birth. Three year old children from impoverished families are already falling behind in their cognitive and emotional development. You can track them up through elementary, middle and high school, and plot the cycle of poverty. Then it becomes - if not racism or some nebulous notion of "bad choices" - accounts for the specific behaviors that disadvantaged people are engaging in? What are the institutional relationships? What are the social relationships? What are the economic relationships? There are micro-operations, such as how parents are speaking to their children, to macro-operations, such as how wages are determined for low-skill work. (I think part of the problem is that it is insanely complex stuff, and it is much easier to spend one's intellectual resources engaging in easy answers. This behavior is also reinforced by the sweet nectar of blame - in which we can point fingers and suckle at the teet of self-righteousness. Those silly liberals, those silly conservatives, etc. But the truth is that most people's quiver is sadly empty. And who likes to admit they don't have all the - heck, even some of the answers.) Oh yeah, so finally - after we identify the behavior, then identify the causes. What should the policy solution be? What should we do or not do? What is possible to do? But if we can't even agree at the first or second, we'll certainly never agree on the third level.

Moving in with Hate

Reverend Jim Jones at a protest in front of the International
Hotel, 848 Kearny Street in San Francisco in 1977.
Photo by Nancy Wong
David Brooks feels the Democratic and Republican parties are undergoing a great realignment:
"....he most important social divide today is between a well-educated America that is marked by economic openness, traditional family structures, high social capital and high trust in institutions, and a less-educated America that is marked by economic insecurity, anarchic family structures, fraying community bonds and a pervasive sense of betrayal and distrust.... These two groups live in entirely different universes. Right now each party has a foot in each universe, but those coalitions won’t last."
He goes on:
"Just as the Trump G.O.P. is crushing the Chamber G.O.P., the Clinton Democrats will eventually repel the Sanders Democrats. Their economic interests are just different. Moreover, their levels of social trust are vastly different."
I don't know about Brooks' assessment of the disaffected right. For plenty of them I feel like it has less to do with economic or family realities, and more to do with a cultural, political ideology that creates a narrative of disaffection through its own logic and assumptions. Sure, it is appealing to uneducated, working class whites. But it is nearly as appealing to educated, upper class right-wing whites. The Republican party is hardly the party of the uneducated poor.
There seems to be such an emphasis on economic and social structures giving rise to this movement. While it makes sense, what about the notion that ideas can have a power of their own, and that ideologies can develop in which their own internal rules are self-perpetuating?
Examples of this would be Nazism, Communism, or Anarchism. Each of these movements capitalised on basic economic anxieties, but were much more largely about their own warped ideological assumptions. You might add any extreme movement: hyper-PC, religious fundamentalism. In each what draws people in is some basic anxiety, but it gets twisted into rigid thought control in which self-criticism and skepticism, nuance or flexibility isn't tolerated. There is a constant sense of threat, that there is a sort of war going on in which the "other side" is trying to get you at every turn. Extreme Christians have perfected this, referring to these sort of thoughts as literally being "from the devil".

Of course you have this type of extreme thought on the left.  Bernie supporters yelling about Clinton in the convention argued that if Trump had to be elected to prove a point, then so be it.  This stance was certainly extreme, and as such came at politics on a war-footing.  There are times when injustice is so clear that extreme protest is justified, but favoring a democratic socialist over a moderate neo-liberal in a center-right country isn't one of those times.  

But the extreme left is not nearly as ascendant as the extreme right.  Much of this is likely due to the reality that academia and media are indeed generally composed of liberals.  This allows the left to not feel so attacked, not so paranoid.  Liberalism in this sense is indeed more "respectable", and status quo, as Brooks claims.  However, the broader public's conservatism, and indeed the business class - whose influence is indeed immense, is just as much the status quo.  

So rather than false-equivalency, I feel it important not to ignore the peculiar qualities of extreme right-wing thought that may need some anxiety to get going, but has plenty of timber within its own logic and assumptions to burn brightly.  Just like any religion, there are particular, deep human needs which this ideology plays to.  Victims of cults or domestic abuse may be more susceptible to begin with, but the intrinsic structure of thought becomes reinforcing.  Cult leaders and abusive spouses masterfully manipulate their victims, spinning reality so that 2 + 2 = 5.

So too is the charismatic power of right-wing extreme media.  Listening to AM conservative radio is in many ways like attending a cult seminar, or for that matter an evangelical church.  Ideas that would otherwise seem preposterous or outright morally repugnant are delivered with a sweet, authoritative charm.  And the larger the audience, the more normalized this becomes.  The idea that Jews ought be exterminated wasn't hauled out on day one.  It was a slow process of getting people used to the idea that the master race needed to be cleansed.  Domestic abusers don't start off with intense abuse on the first date.  It is a slow process of control and domination.  Donald Trump couldn't have said what he says 20 or even 10 years ago.  But as the extreme right has ascended in its cocoon of fear and victimization, the space for his ideas was being prepared on airways and internet forums across the country.

By making external excuses for the extreme right, we are excusing its rhetoric of its intrinsic power.  Slavery, Jim Crow, segregation and antimiscegenation laws weren't the product of working class resentment, or changing traditional values - however much those anxieties might have helped at various points in time.  They were simply bad ideas which had their own internal logic and assumptions, and which were useful in their own right.  

Saturday, September 10, 2016

On Punishment

The Punishment of Loki, by Luis Huard, 1900

Mark Kleiman quotes his colleague Ed Witney:

“Voters should think twice before delivering great political power into the hands of men who show a strong urge to punish. Those who neglect this principle will not remain free or safe for long."

Punishment definitely affects behavior - technically, by scientific definition it means that the behavior has reduced or stopped. But what we're really talking about is the application of aversive consequences after a behavior, and this definitely works. 

That said, it's far more complex, obviously. I'm reminded of a classroom of teenagers I once worked with at a continuation (at-risk) school. I asked them to raise their hands if they had been spanked as children - almost every single hand went up. These kids were horrendously behaved, and yet came from homes in which corporeal punishment was the norm. There is also evidence that this type of punishment teaches physical aggression through modeling. Punishment tends to be more effective short term, as the individual learns avoidance strategies. It also requires consistency - if punishment is delivered inconsistently, it weakens dramatically. 

Far better, is positive reinforcement: applying enjoyable consequences immediately following appropriate behaviors. This not only strengthens the behavior you want, but allows for targeting and shaping new behaviors that are more functional and will bring the individual into contact with natural contingencies. For example, punishing a child for not doing his homework doesn't specify what skill you want to increase. Better to reward specific study skills such as organization, following a schedule, attentiveness, self-regulation, etc. 

All of this gets quite complex, as there are specific factors unique to every context. But as a rule, positive reinforcement is far more productive. You can do both however: inappropriate behaviors can be punished while appropriate behaviors are rewarded. But too often the latter are forgotten (it's natural to notice poor behavior more than good). 

In my work with families the most difficult barrier to behavior change in children is often a culture of punitive discipline. There is a dynamic of anger, resentment and hostility. When delivered consistently and with love, this isn't too much of a problem. But more often than not the loving, compassionate side loses out to a constant refrain of disappointed criticism. My work is to support the parents in learning to deliver more positive reinforcement by focusing on the behaviors they want from their children. 

This of course applies not only to children but to everyone: spouses, friends, co-workers. Focus on the positive and reward want you want with smiles, compliments, etc. For the behaviors you don't want, give clear, immediate and strong feedback, but don't dwell on it. How we all respond to others has a huge impact on their behavior. 

I'm less comfortable extrapolating this to national politics and policy. But with specific context taken into account, the same principles will apply. Speeches I doubt have much behavioral impact. But policies and programs certainly do. Organizational behavioral management is a field in which policy-oriented topics are studied. 

To note: everything I have said is based in behavioral science, and as such assumes a deterministic view of human behavior, in which our behavior is learned based on our genetic predispositions interacting with the environment. Free will is irrelevant, and as such so is blame. What matters is the system over time.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Values Voters

"The Triumph of Virtue over Ignorance"
(1745) oil on canvas by G.B. Tiepolo.
Cultural rebellion.

Traditional masculine identity under threat.

The nytimes today describes the "rolling coal" phenomenon, in which emissions limitations are removed from trucks to make political statements in thick clouds of exhaust.  The cover photo shows an event populated by blue collar white Americans in traditional garb - jeans, t-shirts and baseball caps, standing around a dirt pile while a suped-up pick-up belches thick black smoke.

I keep trying to empathize, to understand.  But core values of mine are being denied: feminism and the freedom for men to not have to embrace strict conceptions of gender; our obligation to not pollute the planet.  These are questions of morality.  What these people are doing is thus immoral.  Is their expression a defense of immorality: that one ought to be able to pollute, and that men need be defined by a strict gender code?

I can't help but see a picture of non-inclusive identity built of values that creates suffering among the marginalized:

  • homophobia leads to dehumanization and bullying not just of gays but of sensitive boys and men
  • patriarchy limits women's equal rights and leads to domestic abuse and lower pay
  • white identity denies multiculturalism and relegates minorities to "other" status leading to discrimination and lack of empathy
  • denial of science results in climate change that is devastating the planet
  • revelling in selfishness and the principle of "might makes right" promotes authoritarian, undemocratic values, leading to dismissal and exploitation of the disadvantaged
Much has been made this election of the sense of anger among the white working class.  It is claimed that their anger is legitimated by globalization which has devalued their work.  But what of the cultural narrative which has counselled not an embrace of change but stubborn rebellion and adherence to toxic values? 

America has a long history embracing values that today most would find repugnant, but in their time resulted in horror:
  • publicly condemnation of homosexuality as immoral
  • waterboarding
  • denial of women's place anywhere other than in the home
  • condemnation marriage between races
  • promotion of segregation
  • Japanese internment
  • destruction of vast forests leading to extinction of plant and wildlife
  • eradication of Native American peoples
  • slavery
All practices that were rooted in assumptions, principles, beliefs.  They were not engaged in out of anger, but of ideas that were embraced and taken to logical conclusions.  If one does not first hold the value, one will not engage in the behavior.  To the extent that people in this picture have embraced immoral values, they will engage in immoral actions.  Their actions - gratuitous pollution, ostracisation of non-traditional masculinity - will not be individual cases of moral failure, but the product of a system of values.