Thursday, November 30, 2006

Mirrors

Most human beings didn’t know what their faces looked like. The familiarity with our own looks that we take for granted because of mirrors and photography was unknown for centuries. Imagine for a moment what it would be like to have your face unknown to you, and all knowledge of it derived from what others said. We occasionally see our faces reflected in still water, but we bring the knowledge we have from mirror and photo to that experience. Rarer still, and more recent historically, people saw themselves in polished metal. There are many living today who have still never seen their own faces with any clarity.

One school of thought (Alfred Crosby, Alan MacFarlane) dates the beginning of the Renaissance to the last quarter of the 13th C, with the improvements in glass and mirrors in northern Italy (Venetian mirrors were the first widespread mirrors of excellence). As one of the key features of the Renaissance was supposed to be the emergence of the individual, this makes a sort of intuitive sense.

I don’t mean to be reductionist. It is a favorite sport of historians to try and identify the one unnoticed factor that changed a culture, or even the world. Double-entry bookkeeping, Toledo steel, and a dozen other advances have been proposed as the key. I don’t believe in the Renaissance anyway, so I won’t offer an opinion on its putative beginning. (For the record, I believe in a period called the Enlightenment even less than one called the Renaissance.) Major technological changes were always coming along and remaking Europe from the 8th to the 20th Centuries: the moldboard plow, the stirrup, vaccination.

Yet I ask you to consider this one, this improvement in glass and silver backing which allowed people to see who they were – to see of themselves what others had always seen. More than the day before, you as an individual could see you existing without depending on the village to tell you who you were.

Assortive Mating

My recent postings on tribal identification and other primitive parts of our personalities gives one reason why assortive mating would be a topic of fascination for me. The other reason, likely much more important, is the idea of legacy. I have four sons, and however much we kid them about marrying them off and how awful their own children will be to deal with, the plain fact is that 4 is a very small sample size, and individual differences and destinies will affect their future lives more than the averages of assortive mating will. Still, as parents, we try to set things up for our descendants to put the averages in their favor as much as possible. Did I marry the right sort of person myself? Have I been a parent who trained children to be parents themselves? Have I provided sufficient warning and insulation against their divorcing or having children outside of marriage? There are deeper items of legacy as well, spiritual legacy, emotional legacy, cultural legacy. I would far rather talk about those, but don’t really know what to say.

It is not that I am here conscious of my audience, which includes a goodly percentage of young friends-and-relations, including my own children. I am actually less conscious of addressing them than I perhaps should be. In discussing large abstract issues, I likely make comments which could wound those I know, because I wasn’t thinking of them specifically when I made a sweeping generalization. My audience should be what makes the discussion difficult, but it isn’t.

Legacies are transmitted bone-to-bone, and thus defy easy description. What children receive is also not quite what we thought we bequeathed. We threw in lots of extra stuff, good and bad, that we hadn’t realized, and never did pass on some things we swore were important to us. Confusing the issue further, each child in any family has different parents. The interactions are different from Day One. And with my two Romanians, who I didn’t even have until Day Five Thousand and Day Six Thousand of their lives, legacy is even more a roll of the dice.

These are close to the central facts of my life, and I haven’t a clue what to say. So I’ll go back to the grand theoretical constructs.

Kay Hymowitz’s new book Marriage and Caste is one of those sound-the-alarm books. She has looked at the numbers for education, stable marriage, unwed parenting, cohabitation, and divorce and is very worried that we are rapidly dividing into two Americas: one educated and married, the other less educated and divorced, single, or cohabiting, with disastrous consequences for the children. She summarizes this material in an essay over at City Journal. It is disquieting. The advantages of having two parents is great – greater than popular culture supposes - and one large portion of the rising generation already has advantages. Two difficulties with the Hymowitz information strike me. 1) What’s new? Even in elementary school I could have pointed out to you who had “advantages” and who didn’t. What are considered the main advantages have changed over time in our society, but they have been drawn from the same short list. These are percentages, not destinies. Perhaps I say this a bit defensively, as I was a child of divorced parents in an era (early 1960’s) when that was rare, and more stigmatized. 2) This pattern does not result in a division into castes unless it is worse each successive generation. Children of divorce are more likely to divorce themselves, but is it even more likely if their grandparents were divorced? Or does that disadvantage remain for only a generation each time? The numbers aren’t in for that, I don’t think. If some factor of deterioration – criminality, substance abuse, chronic unemployment, divorce – is 50% in the first generation, but 60% in the second and 70% in the third, then we have a more serious problem. We would then have an underclass which is not merely under, but going further under every year. I don’t think we see that. People still rise from a low place or fall from a high place with fair regularity in American society.

Hymowitz makes much of the fact that elite colleges have a hugely disproportionate percentage of children living with both parents. It worries her that this is the early evidence of a new aristocracy, which will increasingly get the good jobs and rule the rest of the country. If I thought that the graduates of elite colleges actually were destined to rule society, I would be more concerned. I think that day has long passed. Graduates of Princeton and Bryn Mawr will have higher incomes than average, and more than their share of state attorneys general. But they will also have a higher share of Gender Studies and Art History majors, who might go on to have interesting productive lives, but aren’t likely to be ruling too many of their fellows. Materials engineers from state universities are better placed for that.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

God Rest Ye Merry

One of my Romanian sons asked if we used the word “Merry” for anything but “Merry Christmas,” because he didn’t think he saw it anywhere else. I could think of quick examples, of course, but immediately noticed that they were all from rather archaic phrases that have continued into modern English entirely whole. Eat, Drink, and Be Merry. Merry old soul. God Rest Ye Merry. We don’t use the word much now, not to zip into a sentence as a synonym for cheerful. It is nearly obsolete, but its yearly commonness in Merry Christmas keeps it alive. The other phrases survive because they don’t need explanation to be understood. If you grew up with Merry Christmas, then you know what it means that Old King Cole was a merry old soul, even as a youngish child. You might use merry, in fact, to help you get the meaning by context of soul in that rhyme. We don’t use soul that way very much anymore. Poor souls.

I might use it, but I often use slightly archaic or formal words to mildly comic effect. It’s not going to last. God Rest Ye Merry is already invisible enough that most people think that “Merry” goes with “Gentleman” rather than the first three words of the carol. As Happy Holidays and Season’s Greetings push out Merry Christmas, it may be that in two generations the word “merry” is not always understood. It might become one of those words like yule, or nativity, that are kept around only as antiques, a sort of museum-piece. The other phrases with “merry” will then fall out of use altogether, dragging “souls” down with it.

Hoist On My Own Petard

(For those fascinated by poo-poo words, BTW, petard is a small bomb which has its etymology in a word for breaking wind and traces back to Indo-European. The Indo-Europeans actually had two separate words for breaking wind. These seems excessive, but likely provided double the opportunity for stupid jokes around the campfires)

Over at Atlantic Review, I criticized a comment by one john b chilton, who has since come over and commented here. He was wise to do that, as I take more notice of folks who come to my salon, and think more about what they have said, even in the context of discussions that take place elsewhere.

John b made the claim that doubt was the defining characteristic for Episcopalians, which I scoffed at. When I think of Episcopalians I think of Hooker, Cranmer, the three-legged stool, CS Lewis, the Society For The Propogation of the Gospel, and the assent to the orthodox doctrines of 2000 years of Christian theology. An argument might be made that the 39 (I think) articles under Elizabeth I allowed for some doubt, but I felt that Episcopalians were no more closely associated with doubt than any other branch of the Church, until the 20th C.

Chilton noted that his history as a cradle Episcopalian gave him some standing as an authority, to which I responded that cradle versions of anything overvalue the views of their own time and place, and were in the longer sense less reliable. I didn’t say that anywhere near as well the first time.

I still think those points are generally true. Yet when I applied that standard to my own thought, I found that the truth was less distinct, a little softer around the edges, than I had originally contended. I have noted recently that I am by heritage a member of the Arts and Humanities tribe. I am a cradle A&H member, and I used this knowledge, this penetrating of its values into my bones, to make enormous generalizations about it. I know these people, was my refrain. I am one of them. Wasn’t I, then, making exactly the same kind of argument that I had criticized john b chilton for?

Well, hmm. Things look different when you do that, don’t they? I think I now have a little better understanding of his argument, and its strengths, and some weaknesses of my own previous argument.

Those brought up in a group understand its meaning in their generation at a deep level. We are likely to understand the generation immediately preceding us as well, as parts of it went into our formation. The generation following our own, not so much. Two generations previous to us, not so much. We perhaps think we understand more than we do, because some commonalities remain superficially the same while they change underneath. The several tribes I claim membership in for any length of time, I know well for that time. I have lived in the borderland between evangelical and mainstream Christianity these last 30 years. That is a larger group on the ground than one might expect from reading popular media, by the way, as the conventional wisdom divides those two groups fairly sharply. They are greatly different at the extremes, of course, but not everyone lives there. In that borderland, I know what people of my generation and the one before it read, what music they listen to and sing, how far they range in social attitudes, what doctrines they focus on, and a hundred smaller things.

What are the beliefs of a church? If 97% of its members would agree with a certain idea, does it matter what the official documents say? How about 100%? How about 55%? How much meaning does it have that people generally believed the same things 50 years ago, but not 200 years ago? If we were to stumble upon a group we had no prior understanding of and asked them what their ceremonies meant, wouldn’t we simply accept at face value their current consensus? Or we would attend to the two old guys in the corner who insisted that the ceremonies had meant one thing for a thousand years, but had recently changed under this pack of idiots?

If New Englanders did something for 350 years, but no one has done it since 1990, can we say it is something “New Englanders do?” There aren’t hard lines in these answers. Some answers might be definitely wrong, but no answer is going to be completely right.

As a cradle member of the A&H tribe, I have made rash declarations of what that tribe believes. They are true, within limitations. I don’t need to know what the sales figures are for the various books of my own era, for my tribe. We read Soul On Ice and The Autobiography of Malcolm X, we didn’t read Witness. We always looked very much to Europe for cultural signals, but multiculturalism has made this problematic. I believe the current A & H crowd has solved this by noting that Europe is very permissive sexually, giving some cover to the idea that it is the center of multicultural tolerance, and still worthy of worship. That’s crap for anything other than sexual permission, of course. Ask a French businesswoman how open her society is to her advancement.

But the Arts & Humanities tribe is old. Mine is not the only generation. Some of the reasons for my defection from the tribe as currently constituted come from my identification with its earlier incarnations. I must speak with less assurance when describing the rising generation. I know more of where their ideas come from that what they are.

Relative Versus Absolute Poverty

The idea of relative poverty, rather than absolute poverty, is gaining traction in the social sciences. In this configuration, people who have adequate sustenance, but have less than those around them, have disadvantages which increase over time. They have less network interaction which might bring them a better job prospect, their children have fewer successful role models and are handicapped in assortive mating, their neighborhoods are more vulnerable to crime. It is not merely that the poor feel bad about themselves, the argument goes, but they have real obstacles as well.

My first instinct is to reject this with a pat on the hand and say “providing food, shelter, public schools, and police protection satisfies society’s obligation to the poor.” Actually, I believe there are several other obligations, and the society at large has chosen to take on even more, but you get my point. Easily definable, basic sustenance and opportunity provisions are what the government should be involved with. Going beyond that would seem to be opening several cans of worms. The neighborhoods-of-crime argument strikes me as highly valid, however. The worst part of American poverty may not be lack, but danger.

Rather than attacking from the usual angle of theories of governance, I’d like to stick with the tribal, evolutionary psychological, decision-making interpretations I’ve been fond of lately. Receiving less than the perceived average of the tribe’s resources may set off enormous warning signals in our primitive selves. Until about 1800, few humans experienced any sustained abundance. We may not be well wired for saying to ourselves “looks like my family is going to have enough for a long time - I can relax.” Finding oases of calm in deserts of anxiety may be the default condition for humanity. In that context, receiving less than others may be interpreted as the first step toward receiving nothing.

But even if this is the default setting, to which humans revert if nothing else intervenes, it is clear that millions of people have overridden it. There are numerous strategies, of varying morality, psychological cost, and savoriness, to get off the low end of the bell curve of tribal distribution. Many of these strategies, in fact, have potential payoffs far greater than just getting up to average resources. If you forbid the use of spurs, the welfare reformer claims, you end up with an entire herd of medium-slow horses, some of which could have been racehorses, and all of which are now collectively more vulnerable.

When humans cooperate at all, they are protecting each other from some of the harshness that reality can dish out. Providing for the disadvantaged is not an either-or proposition, but a long continuum from sleeping in shifts to keep off predators to absolute socialism. Where each society chooses to draw that line may have a certain arbitrariness to it.

But what if the worst of relative poverty is not the actual disadvantage playing off our tribal instincts, but simply the perception? How responsible should we be for the fact that people are more likely to get discouraged? Do we know for certain that we would have overcome the obstacles others face if they were ours? Does that question even matter in how we set up society?

A woman who grew up wealthy but spends her adult life in the middle class might consider herself to be – not impoverished, but deprived and a failure, if she continues to use wealth as her measurement. How responsible is anyone else for alleviating this?

…if she continues to use wealth as her measurement…

I think that gets us to the heart of the relative poverty argument. We have myriad (okay, maybe only half a myriad) ways of measuring success and reward in our society. It is almost certainly true from a Christian perspective that we use monetary wealth as a measure too readily. Come to think of it, from a Christian perspective we use all the alternative measures too readily as well. Comfort, taste, education, beauty, charm, fame, health, knowledge – all of those are false gods as well, though we acknowledge it less often.

To focus on equalizing wealth is to embrace the monetary standard of evaluating ourselves and our fellow humans. When Jesus directed us to give, it was to meet needs, to use money as a tool to provide sustenance or compensatory justice. This doesn’t rule out using money as a tool of kindness, but those are not the same thing. As soon as money becomes more than a tool it becomes a god (Jacques Ellul would say it is a god anyway, its power held in check only by the power of Christ).

The idea of relative poverty might be a fit one to consider sensitively for our interactions with others. We all enter situations where we are relatively poor, and others where we are relatively rich. But for society through government to seek to alleviate relative poverty seems an unending task, for it reinforces the very impression of deprivation it tries to eliminate.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Valley Of Tears

Wretchard, over at Belmont Club, has a sobering report.

Tom Waits Really Understands Dwarves

I'm pretty sure that this wasn't what Disney was thinking of. The recognizable part doesn't come in until halfway through.

As Waits says "Yeah, I did take the spring out of their step, didn't I?"

Diversity Training, Again

The educational opportunities in this field just abound. The main speakers at the upcoming Diversity Workshop are TAHIRA, a storyteller who believes that spirits are lifted and bodies healed by storytelling, and an activist and co-author of Economic Apartheid in America, a primer on economic inequality.

TAHIRA is right about the lifting spirits, of course, depending on what story is being told. I have less assurance about the healing bodies, unless she’s really a standup comedian. But mostly I am worried that adults pay continuing education dollars for this. And yes, I am concerned about people with one name in all caps. Not even Madonna does all caps.

The speaker about classism looks like a real hoot. Over at Amazon.com, we learn that the authors are not economists, but social activists, explaining economics to us. One of the reviews is from a grateful person who never took any economics and is glad someone explained all this to her. Need I mention that appears to be no training, formal or informal, in anything related to economics either? No statistics, economic development, business, nothing like that. The negative reviews claim this is Marxism Lite. The positive reviews include a lot of sputtering about fascists, Wall Street, and corporate control. The book itself seems to base its indictment of corporate America on two facts: multinational corporations are very big, and their CEO’s make a lot of money. I wonder if this connects with my earlier post about resentment of others’ wealth being hardwired into us. That we all are more prosperous isn’t the point to them. The point is that someone is becoming prosperous faster than you. Great. I feel much better now that whatever I thought about my life before, it actually sucks.

Financial activities have financial payoffs. Social activities have social payoffs. Spiritual activities... oh, why bother. There seems this unaccountable desire to mix these categories. Because the activities of people besides the CEO might be more socially important or spiritually important, people think it is immoral that they be paid less. This really torques people off about CEO’s, baseball players, day traders, and entertainers. Or anyone who doesn’t look like they are working as hard as miners or breakfast waittresses. We think their activities should not be rewarded so handsomely in financial terms, because we consider the actions socially or spiritually less important. It bugs us that people no more worthy than, well, us, for example, get paid more.

This sort of envy does not elevate the social and spiritual value of other work – it demeans it. It measures all things by money. Rather than denying the worldly standard, it embraces it. This sort of class envy says to the hardworking person of low salary “by any fair standard you should be considered more valuable, but you’re not. You’re considered a loser.” Gee, thanks a lot, there, pal. Glad you’re on my side. You wouldn’t uh, think that there might be some personal issues in all this, would you?

Monday, November 27, 2006

CIA Personality Quiz

For those of you who like to take multiple-choice personality tests, this one is by the CIA, which has a disconcertingly hip website.

BTW, I am a Thoughtful Observer

Old Europe -- A Visit to the Nursing Home

Several years ago, Donald Rumsfeld made a somewhat dismissive comment about "Old Europe." I wondered what a visit to the Old Europeans Home would be like...

France is most noticeable, because she greets you at the door. She has completely forgotten who you are, but always tells you in strictest confidence about the affairs she had with famous men in her day. You’ve been secretly keeping count. The number is quite high.

The Benelux siblings, two women and a man, seem initially to have a graciousness about them. Only after repeated visits do you realize that they are always complaining about the cook. They won’t admit it’s their digestions that have gone. They don’t like anyone, really, and are always correcting the others’ grammar and manners.

Continue reading here. (This post is a repeat from last November, and has been updated).

Who Really Cares: Finally, The Review

From the first chapter:
These are, perhaps, the most common stereotypes in our modern American political discourse: the political left is compassionate and charitable toward the less fortunate, but the political right is oblivious to suffering. As I have already confessed, the stereotype once characterized my own beliefs. If you had asked me a few years ago to sum up the character of American conservatives, I would have said they were hard-headed pragmatists who were willing to throw your grandmother out into the snow to preserve some weird ideal of self-reliance. Hardworking, perhaps – but not generous. In contrast, I would have told you that even though some liberal sentiments and policies were ill-conceived, they generally emanated from a fundamental sense of compassion and charity toward others.


Who Really Cares: The Surprising Truth About Compassionate Conservatism. Arthur C. Brooks, professor of public administration at Syracuse University.

The main force of the book is twofold: demonstrating that in refutation of the stereotype, conservatives are much more generous than liberals; and discovering why is this? From the introduction through the entire first chapter, assertions leap off every page, begging to be shouted from the housetops. The common myth has it backwards. Conservatives give more by any measure: give more money to both religious and secular causes; give more time, give more blood, give more informal gifts. This is not because they have more money – they have 6% less.

My quibbles with the book are small, and I shall get them out of the way straight off. The book tells little about the 30% of moderates or centrists in the country. As Brooks is seeking to discover stark differences, this is hardly surprising. Social scientists seek trends in the data, and mixed data obscures the results. I understand that he has done this in the interests of science and clarity. Nonetheless, it’s a lot of people to leave out.

Next, most of the divide in giving is between the religious and the nonreligious. Brooks notes this in several places – once at length – but religious liberals get a bit slighted here. They are only slightly behind religious conservatives in their giving.

Thirdly, not all the differences are enormous. That the working poor are seven times more likely to give than the poor receiving government subsidies is an enormous difference that would give anyone pause. But that group A gives to X 69% of the time while group B gives only 60% is less remarkable. Over the huge data sets being considered, a 9-point difference is statistically significant. But it makes some conclusions more precarious.

Lastly, one important question is only partially answered. While it may be true that every $100 increase in government funding to a nonprofit creates a $57 decrease in private giving, and is thus less of a benefit than supposed, the non-profit would still be $43 to the good in this scenario. Brooks spends the last third of the book extolling the cumulative, multiplying, and secondary benefits of giving. While he does this convincingly enough to sell the reader on the idea that government assistance is a long-term losing proposition, he doesn’t address the short-term loss head-on.

It’s quite an amazing little book – 180 pages of lucid prose even on complex subtopics. The technical discussions are moved to the appendix for those who want to press the methodological questions, but you don’t need to understand ANOVA or regression analysis to get the idea what he’s driving at in the text. Brooks expected to find one answer and found another. When he found that religious people gave more, he thought that disparity would wash out when gifts to specifically religious causes were removed. It wasn’t. The religious people still gave more. A similar percentage of people from all religions gave – including “other” - if they actually practiced one in some measurable way.

The possible arguments explaining this away he shoots down one by one. Conservatives give less to social welfare causes and more to private educational institutions and symphony orchestras. No, the reverse is true. A small percentage of very wealthy conservatives raise the average. Conservatives give more at every income level, especially among the poor. Conservatives give money but not time. No, they volunteer more often, and for more hours when they do. They are also more likely to give blood, give to strangers, and give to friends and family. Liberals give less because they live in places where they’ve voted in more government support. Liberals give less regardless of what state they live in or what the level of government support is. Having redistributive political views seems to substitute for charity instead of encouraging it.

Brooks actually identifies a network of four value differences between liberals and conservatives that affect giving. There are more than four differences between the groups, of course, but these four, all pointing in the same direction, correlate with giving. Married people, especially those with more children, give more than single people, with or without children. People who believe it is the government’s responsibility to make incomes more equal give less. People who receive money from the government – a group that is predominantly liberal – are not only much less likely to give money to causes, they are more likely to engage in antisocial behaviors – crime, substance abuse – as well. And as we noted, religious people are more likely to be generous.

Aside: I wonder if that is also true for “corporate welfare,” that the companies that receive it are more likely to be corrupt in business practices.

People who were raised in a religious tradition give more, even if they no longer practice. They fall about halfway between the religious and nonreligious groups. People who watched their parents give and volunteer, give and volunteer themselves. Brooks contrasts American generosity with European. The same web of anti-charity values is present in Europe as in liberal America, with even more dramatic results. Church attendance in Europe is also strongly correlated with charity and volunteering – but there are far fewer church attenders. Many more Europeans believe it is the government’s responsibility to equalize income (as opposed to opportunity), with a predictable drop in charity. Married Europeans with two children give much more than their single and/or childless counterparts – but there are fewer of them there.

Much has been made of the coming demographic implosion of Europe. Births per woman are far below replacement levels, which will lead ultimately to an aging, expensive population supported by few workers. Immigration may solve that problem, but at a cultural cost that will result in the disappearance of core western values. Brooks argues that this is interrelated and a deteriorating cycle. Reliance on government to support more and more citizens and level outcomes produces a people who do not give or volunteer, have few children, and experience less prosperity. Charity is a marker of social trust and optimism – that things can be fixed, that problems can be overcome. To give is to become more prosperous, as free markets improve in efficiency as trust and social cohesion improve. To give is to become happier, as more Americans say they are than Europeans.

More dramatically, to receive from the government rather than private charity or non-profits is to become more unhappy and discouraged. Perhaps this is because the receiver is less isolated, and part of a cycle of exchange. If you receive help in need from a charitable group, you can give to that same group when you have better times. No one is going to give back to the government. The government check is anonymous, and there is no immediate loss of face. But in the long run, the loss of face is subtler, and far more thorough.

The need for government support is real, and ongoing. As I noted above, it has proved a much better solution in the short run for those in distress. But the long term costs that the self-reliance advocates keep harping on are not theoretical: Brooks maps out the data showing that the receipt of such leads to less happiness, less community involvement, less confidence, and less prosperity in the long run. Short-term rescue must be balanced against long-term destruction.

I will add my own comment here that the destruction of personality does not happen because the poor or disabled are lesser beings or less moral. Many of us would show similar “loss of character” in the same situation.

Another Frenchman Who Doesn't Get It - And An American As Well

Francois Heisbourg, Director of the Foundation For Strategic Research in Paris, and onetime advisor to Francois Mitterand.
Europe defends a secular vision of the world. It does not separate matters of urgency from long-term considerations. The United States compensates for its shortsightedness, its tendency to improvise, with an altogether biblical assurance of its transcendent destiny.


The last clause shows the inability to understand. America does not believe that it has a transcendent destiny. We believe that certain ideas are right, and the right way to run a country. It is the ideas we believe are transcendent, not our plot of land, or the particular people who live here, or our collective DNA.

I am absolutely sure I am not the first person to point this out. I couldn't be. Therefore, this alternative explanation has long been available to European thinkers. Yet its meaning eludes many of them. Somehow they cannot believe that this is so - our protestations to the contrary, Americans must really believe that it is they themselves who are special. We like our ideas because they are ours, not because they are actually better.

Disagreeing with another culture's ideas is a perfectly honest and acceptable stance to take. But to not be able to understand suggests a deeper pathology, a refusal to apprehend an uncomfortable truth.

We had a similar situation over the weekend in which Congressman Charles Rangell stated that people volunteered for the military because they didn't have other good opportunities. It is not just that he misreads the data. He damns himself with his own words, declaring for all to hear "I have no idea what this duty, honor, country, patriotism is. Whatever enlistees say, that can't possibly be their real motivation. There must be something else."

Francois, Charles - thanks for pointing out what is beyond your comprehension.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Different Holocaust Up Close

This is a repeat post from a year ago.

Visitors to Auschwitz and other Holocaust memorials are often moved to tears by the shoes, or other homely items of the victims. Perhaps because of advance preparation, such things don’t move me as much. What has tightened my throat and brought tears to my eyes are the things which took me by surprise: At the Museum of Terror in Budapest, the focus was on the persecution that was absorbed by Hungarians in general by the Germans and the Soviets. In most exhibits, the Jews were neither excluded nor singled out. But in one film, a man was speaking about the horrors taking place in his neighborhood, to his friends and own family and suddenly bursts into tears “Why did they have to do that to the Jews? They took them away and killed them.” The word “Jews” was not an abstraction to this man. The word conjured up memories of actual individuals he had known and cared about.

continue reading here.

Who Really Cares

The book I mentioned earlier, suggesting that conservatives are more generous than liberals, arrived yesterday, and I have started it. Every page has information that makes me go "Holy Vegan Cupcakes!" and want to quote at length. Sneak preview: the divide is not so much between liberals and conservatives as it is between religious and non-religious people, which the conservatives currently have a lot more of. But even that has some qualifiers.

I do have a few quibbles, but perhaps they will be answered by the end of the book. Stay tuned.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Word Storage

Word storage in the brain is analogous to rooms of filing cabinets. Words are stored not only by meaning, but by sound and appearance. Con-stitutionalist. Co-religionist. It's a con- or a co- word. Consanguinity. Consternation. Because we eventually store words in this way, some educators started using the whole-word method, believing that the phonics step could be skipped, or at least de-emphasized. Contumely. Cross-section. Darn, cross-section is close, but I know it's not a hyphenated word. There is experimental evidence that if the initial and final letters are in place, people can identify a word fairly easily even if the remaining letters are mixed. Szpnruiisg, but ture. Convoluted. No, that "st" on the inside was right. Constantinople. It's a theater-word. Style of design. When I was in elementary school they played with drawing outlines around words, to see if we could guess them from that. Because it was a whole chapter in the text, rather than a fun puzzle to be done as we were winding down on a Friday afternoon, I think someone had the bright idea this would help with reading. Well, maybe. Consternation. Constitution. Ooh, it's like that. This is going to drive me nuts until I get it.

The phonics versus whole word debate does not occur in many languages other than English. German is entirely phonetic, with the very minor exception of some umlauted vowels sounding like others. In Germany, you teach phonics. End of story. In contrast, the Chinese languages are represented by signs, unrelated to any pronunciation. The signs, in fact, represent the same meaning language to language even when the pronunciation is entirely different. This is why Chinese newspapers can be read across the country, regardless of which Sino-Tibetan language one speaks. No one teaches phonics in Chinese.

English is primarily phonetic, but with so many exceptions that it throws young children off. Heck, it throws adults off. Teaching phonics is an advantage, and more children learn that way. But be prepared to bail frequently. Constitutionalist. Constructionist! Constructionist! No, that's not it. Constructivist! Finally!

This morning it was a name I was looking for. Sportswriter. Early 20th. Rube...Goldberg. Rice...no, it's not Grantland Rice. Rudyard Kipling. Damon Runyon. Do you note how we are inching toward that important "R" with a two-syllable last name? R.D. Laing. C'mon, sportswriter. Red Barber. Maybe it is Damon Runyon. I cast farther afield, hoping that will help. Rube Foster. E.M. Forster. He wrote short stories. Baseball. I try to describe it out loud. Odd first name, not Robert or Rick. Booth Tarkington. Nah, that's not close. Ring Lardner! That's it. Ring Lardner.

Even when you are an advanced reader, working from additional cues and shortcuts, phonetic cues are still needed.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Altruistic Punishment and Class Envy

A touch of class envy, or something quite like it, may be hardwired into humans. Most societies have cues which discourage conspicuous displays of superiority.

It is true that absolute egalitarianism seems to be rare, even in hunter-gatherer tribes, and most groups expect leaders to show some elevation, because they represent the prestige of the group to outsiders. But on the whole, ostentation is discouraged.

Because ostentation exists, we might speculate that the social cues are not very powerful. Yet at the day-to-day level, among families, neighbors, and clans, they are quite powerful. The peasant’s disapproval of the Lord of the Manor has little effect, yet both are affected by disapproval within their immediate circles.

Altruistic Punishment is thought to be a partial explanation of how cooperation is enforced. Members of the tribe will spend their own resources unasked to punish those breaking the social rules. The cost may be the risk of confrontation, as a person who intervenes against a bully, or even a criminal. People may go well out of their way and cease productive activity in order to report a miscreant to the authorities. Being a busybody carries social risk in itself, but some of it seems necessary.

If punishment seems unnecessarily negative for this concept, you may think of it as "holding others accountable."

Most studies of altruistic punishment are artificial, laboratory constructions, but these may illustrate the simpler social structures which complex interactions are based on. In one set of experiments, subjects were told that $20 would be divided by an anonymous other between the two of them. If they accepted the deal, it would go forward. If they rejected it, neither would get anything. Measuring personal advantage only, then, subjects should accept any deal offered, even if the “other” kept $19 and gave you $1. Hey, it’s a free dollar. Why complain?

But people punish that behavior. They often reject a 17-3 payout, giving up the $3 for the purpose of signaling to the other: “you should not act this way.” There is a sense that it is bad for all of us if people are allowed to go around acting like that. Rejecting an offer may also be an expression of refusing to be humiliated. To be openly seen as not receiving the tribe’s resources, and accepting that situation, may worsen one’s status in the group. When the division is believed to be controlled by chance, people rarely reject any offered sum.

As the number approaches a 10-10 split, fewer people reject the deal. Even 12-8 deals are seldom rejected with an anonymous other. If subjects have been introduced to the person they believe is dividing the money (the division is in fact controlled by the experiment and has nothing to do with the person introduced), they insist on greater fairness.

There are related topics of people’s attentiveness to procedural fairness, the idea of relative rather than absolute poverty, and our perceptions of how the decision maker acquired the position, all of which I will tackle in other posts For the moment, it is enough to note that simply receiving a sum of money one would not have otherwise had is not enough for us, somehow. This has political implications for what economic policies people will accept. Advocates for more purely free-market policies like to point out that “everyone does a little better – so what if some do a lot better?” Advocates for more redistributive policies highlight the greater disparity between the high and the low incomes. To those people, that some benefited enormously while some benefited only a little is seen as a problem.

This second attitude, which conservatives tend to dismiss as foolish class envy and misunderstanding how the system works, may actually be part of our natural makeup. That wouldn’t make it right, of course, as violence, robbery, and rapine also seem to be preloaded into our nature. We may automatically assume that if A receives an extra $12 while we receive only $8, that something by definition must be unfair. We expect the tribe’s resources to be divided evenly, unless we can see a clear connection between A’s actions and the increase for all. If A is a better hunter or more skillful trader with other tribes, we can see how he might deserve a greater share. But if we don’t see that connection, we consider ourselves equally deserving – whether we are or not.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Health Care Discussion- Addition

For those who participated in the healthcare-availability discussion here, you may be interested in this podcast.

With the Democrats back in Congressional majority, there’s more talk of health care regulation, and perhaps even a Canada-style socialized-medicine approach. Dr. David Gratzer is the author of a new book, The Cure: How Capitalism Can Save American Health Care, and — as the foreword by Milton Friedman might suggest — he suggests a very different approach. Gratzer, a Canadian physician who has practiced in both the Canadian and American medical systems, looks at the flaws in both approaches, and observes: “The problem and the predicament of American health care can be stated in a single, paradoxical sentence: Everyone agrees that it’s the best in the world, but nobody really likes it.”

We discuss HMO’s, single-payor, Health Savings Accounts, and how Wilbur Mills and Fanne Fox played a major role in creating today’s problems. Plus, what to do about them.

Muslims And Women

One of my frequent soapboxes over at Dr. Sanity’s is that societies which devalue women produce narcissistic young men, who are outraged at the merest perceived slight. It is not good for a young man to pass his mother in status at a young age.

I have no opinion on whether there is something inherent to Islam which perpetuates devaluing women. Many claim so. I know little from personal experience, but the behavior of American Muslims would suggest that improving status for women is possible. The behavior of Muslims in Europe recently has many darker passages, and in Muslim countries, reports continue to be grim. I recommend the following three articles, heartbreaking as they are.

Spengler, over at Asia Times, declares that demographically, the Iranians have already lost.
Wars are won by destroying the enemy's will to fight. A nation is never really beaten until it sells its women.

The French sold their women to the German occupiers in 1940, and the Germans and Japanese sold their women to the Americans after World War II. The women of the former Soviet Union are still selling themselves in huge numbers. Hundreds of thousands of female Ukrainian "tourists" entered Germany after the then-foreign minister Joschka Fischer loosened visa standards In 1999. That helps explain why Ukraine has the world's fastest rate of population decline. On a smaller scale, trafficking in Iranian women explains Iran's predicament.

Fjordman's report on rape in Scandinavia shows the grim toll coming to Europe.
According to a new study from the Crime Prevention Council, BrĂ¥, it is four times more likely that a known rapist is born abroad, compared to persons born in Sweden. Resident aliens from Algeria, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia dominate the group of rape suspects. According to these statistics, almost half of all perpetrators are immigrants. In Norway and Denmark, we know that non-Western immigrants, which frequently means Muslims, are grossly overrepresented on rape statistics. In Oslo, Norway, immigrants were involved in two out of three rape charges in 2001. The numbers in Denmark were the same, and even higher in the city of Copenhagen with three out of four rape charges. Sweden has a larger immigrant, including Muslim, population than any other country in northern Europe. The numbers there are likely to be at least as bad as with its Scandinavian neighbors. The actual number is thus probably even higher than what the authorities are reporting now, as it doesn't include second generation immigrants. Lawyer Ann Christine Hjelm, who has investigated violent crimes in Svea high court, found that 85 per cent of the convicted rapists were born on foreign soil or by foreign parents.

And Theodore Dalrymple has hisusual perceptive take on Muslim women in the UK, who he frequently saw as psychiatric patients, in despair and suicidal. He contrasts the plight of Shakespeare's Juliet with modern Muslim girls
How often have I been consulted by young Muslim women patients, driven to despair by enforced marriages to close relatives (usually first cousins) back “home” in India and Pakistan, who have made such an unavailing appeal to their mothers, followed by an attempt at suicide!
Capulet’s attitude to his refractory daughter is precisely that of my Muslim patients’ fathers:

Look to’t, think on’t, I do not use to jest.
Thursday is near, lay hand on heart, advise:
And you be mine, I’ll give you to my friend;
And you be not, hang, beg, starve, die in the streets,
For by my soul, I’ll ne’er acknowledge thee,
Nor what is mine shall ever do thee good.


In fact the situation of Muslim girls in my city is even worse than Juliet’s. Every Muslim girl in my city has heard of the killing of such as she back in Pakistan, on refusal to marry her first cousin, betrothed to her by her father, all unknown to her, in the earliest years of her childhood. The girl is killed because she has impugned family honor by breaking her father’s word, and any halfhearted official inquiry into the death by the Pakistani authorities is easily and cheaply bought off. And even if she is not killed, she is expelled from the household—O sweet my mother, cast me not away!—and regarded by her “community” as virtually a prostitute, fair game for any man who wants her.

Partial Credit

I predicted that the speaker for Grand Rounds would make a political comment, even though it would be off-topic. With my earlier discussion of tribes and trust cues, I noted that there are comments and identifiers that people use to show they are true members of any tribe. In human services, anti-conservative or anti-Republican jokes are a trust cue and an easy laugh-getter. The speaker’s professional website had more than a few nutroots-style comments about Bush, not merely disagreeing with him but accusing him of sociopathy, narcissism, etc.

Technically I was correct, as he did make an unnecessary political comment. I don’t think I should claim full credit, however, as the comment was prompted by a question from the audience. A gentleman with a goatee and a battered narrow tie asked if the speaker thought there would be more money for expensive talk therapies now, and would insurers be made to pay for them, now that the Democrats had won the election.* The speaker laughed that he was happier, anyway, which was not really on point to the question but drew appreciative chuckles nonetheless.

I think I get less than half-credit for that prediciton.


*Yes, good sir, and the flowers will have brighter colors and young maidens will dance flirtatiously in a row. Huzzah!

Monday, November 20, 2006

The German-American Economic Collapse

This post will also be submitted to the Carnival of German-American Relations, which I will link to when it comes out. We will have guests.

Introduction

I have been teaching adult Sunday School off-and-on for 25 years now, first as a Lutheran, then as a Covenanter (for my German guests, that is an evangelical offshoot of the Swedish Lutherans). I learned early that if people are given the textbooks for free, attendance drops off and few people do the homework. If people are required to pay for the materials, they value them more. This went against my principles at first. Is the Gospel not free? Do the just not live by faith and not works? But there it is. What people are given free, they treat as valueless. Unless someone tries to take it, of course. Then they are outraged.

This is not a failing of the poor, or of minorities, or of modern, selfish westerners. This is human nature. Anyone who has brought up children has seen this in action. What children earn, they value, and are happier for it. I am not advocating that four-year-olds be sent out to earn their keep, of course. But children given too much are often ungrateful. Every toy you try and remove brings forth wails. Then the toy sits unused for another six months.

This carries through to adulthood: the more people are given, the less grateful they are. Every one of us receives something unearned, yet feels cheated if it is taken. People treat us well because of a relative of ours whose friendship they wish to keep, even if they don’t like us. In the US, there are types of income one can deduct from taxable income: deductions for charity, or mortgage payments, or education. We did not earn these, but resent anyone trying to take them away, even for a tax structure that might benefit us. They are ours. We deserve them, we think.

I work primarily with people who have government pensions and health insurance. Most of them would not be able to hold a job, no matter how hard they tried. In that sense they deserve the money they are given, in that they are not falsely claiming to be unable to work, but have legitimate disabilities.

In 30 years, I cannot recall anyone who is still grateful for the money after two years of receiving it. They regard it as something society owes them. People who get brief help from their towns often escape this deterioration, and remain grateful for years after. I doubt if they are much different from me in original moral character. I would likely do exactly the same thing. Short term: grateful. Long term: ungrateful

Implications for economic policy

There were riots recently in Hungary, after the government revealed that it had told people the lies they wanted to hear in order to get elected. Half of the protestors were angry because they wanted their candidates to win and change the economy to something that would not soon go bankrupt. The other half was worried that their government checks would be taken. They wanted to go back to the lies.

Americans and Europeans claim to have different models for dealing with poverty, but this is not strictly true. They both have part-capitalist, part-socialist methods. Europeans believe the American method is harsh, leaving too many adrift. Americans believe the European model is unsustainable, and will lead to economic collapse and social upheaval in the long run. Required caveat: this is a great overgeneralization. Many Americans would like to move at least somewhat in the direction of the European model, many Europeans would like to move somewhat in the American direction. But it is the same model. It is a continuum; we occupy mildly different places on it.

Readers familiar with the American-European debates on the subject know the stereotypes. They are tiresome. Some Americans take smug comfort in hearing of European difficulties with unemployment, or medical care, or pension obligations. This strikes me as congratulating ourselves that the sharks will eat you by 2020, but not us until 2030. It seems rather pointless.

The reality is that for both American and European economies, the current obligations, extended forward, cannot be paid for with what we believe we will have then. There will not be enough workers, and the obligations will get more expensive. We all know that, and there are some relatively simple and painless solutions. Yet we cannot do them. We find ourselves frozen and unable to act in our own long-term best interest. This is as true of cutthroat capitalist Americans as it is of squishy socialist Europeans. We find ourselves unable to act.

American conservatives, I believe, think that the collapse of the European economies will be the wake-up call for America, which will then make changes and avoid destruction. I think that is an illusion. We will deny what is happening right in front of us, as usual. To balance our Social Security obligations, the US needs to add one year to the retirement age every three years. If we added one year every sixth year, we might make it. If we added one year to the retirement age every nine years, we would at least postpone the collapse a long time. But we cannot do any of it. We are politically unable to add even a single year to the retirement age. As in the introduction, people feel they have earned a retirement age of 65. It is not earned, it is a gift.

As in Beckett’s “Waiting For Godot” Shall we go? Yes, let’s go. They do not move.


How Shall We Then Live?

I am not much interested in discussing here what would be best for us to do. There are a number of plausible scenarios offered in the international discussion. Funding research in hopes of a cheap energy solution; open borders/closed borders; free trade/fair trade/protective trade; negative income tax; hoping economic growth outpaces obligations; Hong-Kong model, Danish model, New Zealand model. Others with more knowledge of economics will make their arguments to us, more persuasive, or less.

I am interested in the question of why we cannot do what we must. Some possibilities:
1. We care what struggles happen to ourselves and to our children. We care somewhat less what struggles happen to our grandchildren. We don’t care much after that at all, whatever we say.
2. We want the world to look a certain way, and to keep the illusion that it will continue. (For example, environmentalists who think return to an earlier state is a good thing)
3. We expect that some technical marvels will rescue us before the problems happen
4. We believe that some group of rich or powerful people has everyone else’s stuff, and that eventually it will be taken from them.

Underground DSM-IV: (Not) Going To Rehab

The DSM-IV is the diagnostic manual for psychiatry. My underground version will make you familiar with elements of the mental health biz that we know, but don't tell our clients.

This is a reprise of a post last November.

It is not a good sign for someone to use the words "whatever it takes," when describing their readiness to stop substance abuse. You would think that is precisely the attitude you would want a user to take, but somehow that particular phrase is a red flag. It will be replaced in 24-48 hours by some... hedging... about how this rehab thing... is going to play out in practical reality.

There is the Goldilocks version of this growing avoidance: That rehab is too far. That rehab is too near. No rehab is just right. Repeat indefinitely.
continue reading

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Just Ordered: Who Really Cares

Arthur C. Brooks, a Syracuse University Economist, has a new book Who Really Cares? It purports to show that conservatives, religious folk, and Red Staters are more generous. I have ordered it and will report on it.

I don't have a particular interest in proving to anyone that conservatives are more generous with time and money than liberals. As everyone is well behind where they should be, that would not be helpful in the long run. I am, however, tired of the opposite claim being made: that conservatives are selfish people who wish to abandon the poor.

My own experience working with charities, especially working in Romania, was that conservatives wildly outnumbered liberals. The few statistics that I read which suggested otherwise struck me as contrary to my observations. But, I reasoned, my observations were not the whole data set. Perhaps liberals just volunteered and gave at different places.

I may find flaws with the book. I hope its conclusions are true, but the evidence may not be solid enough to make the claim. I'll keep you posted.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Not Their Tribe

The Arts & Humanities crowd in America do not support OIF, or indeed nearly any war, because they do not perceive their tribe to be in danger.

There are numerous American tribes, and we all belong to a few. Usually, we will have one as our primary identifier. James Webb, just elected Senator from VA, wrote Born Fighting: How The Scots-Irish Shaped America, which is a powerful defense of the oft-maligned Southern, Appalachian, South Central US culture. Webb’s point is that this culture has fought our wars and continues to fight them – it is absolutely the case that the Revolutionary War could not have been won without them, for example – and is defined by honor, duty, country. Other tribes, particularly the Arts & Humanities crowd, deride them for their cars, their music, and their accents. Actually, the A&H crowd pretty much derides anyone who tries to do entertainment or academics that’s not under their supervision.

On the negative side, this Scots-Irish/ Appalachian/stereotypical Red State culture is historically racist (or more exactly, very tolerant of racism), suspicious of outsiders of any color, and violent. While this is less true now than previously, some remains.


Arnold Kling, over at TCSDaily, writes about “trust cues,” of the different groups, and in particular identifies some of the verbal cues of the Business Tribe. Such cues declare “I am part of this group. To lose that status would be painful for me. You can trust me to obey certain norms.” Such trust cues apply only for the specific tribal rules. Business trust cues don’t indicate whether you can trust the person with your wife or what his politics are.

Black voting patterns are tribal in this larger sense. Being loyal to “the community,” giving back to “the community,” remains important. White liberals like to note that black theology stresses social action and justice. Which would be more convincing to me if the justice sought didn’t always involve a large percentage of other black people. The black social action which defends Hispanics or American Indians exists only in the context of defending African-Americans, with others as throw-ins. It is invisible otherwise. Ironically, this larger tribalism may be a result of slave owners making extreme effort to destroy tribalism in the African sense. Slaves were split up from their historical tribes so they could not communicate with each other and become dangerous. Mandingos and Bantus lost their historical importance. Had these persisted, the national rivalries we see resolved in America – Poles & Germans, or Serbs & Macedonians as comfortable neighbors, shaking their heads at those idiots in Europe – might have taken place among Africans as well, as they are with Caribbean blacks now. That sort of natural accommodation might have be better. But because white people saw blacks as “all of a piece,” they came to see themselves that way.

There are regional tribes: Joel Garreau convincingly describes Nine Nations of North America. Texas conservatives are not the same as New Hampshire conservatives, as my second son is finding out. They are an affiliated tribe. They like making noise. We like being left alone. Or perhaps, their other tribal identifications are very different from what you find in New England. Libertarians in New England are geeks who really care about the Tenth Amendment; the same party in Arizona tends toward people who also belong to NORML. There are religious and ethnic tribes as well.

Many people straddle tribes, or move fairly easily in more than one. Many more think they move easily but don’t. The entire cultural weight of the LL Bean catalogue was founded on the illusion that even though you’re a chieftain in the (Preppy) Business Tribe of suburban Boston or New Haven, you can still mix naturally with hunters, boat repairmen, and dog breeders in Maine. The balancing act for those trying to rise in the Business Tribe is difficult. You actually might mix well with the lobstermen and pie-bakers – because they really are your relatives. There’s just something humorous about wearing the look that is supposed to be an imitation of the relatives you are trying to hide, so that you can assume the appearance of unassuming wealth.

Come to think of it, the Arts & Humanities tribe tries to do that on their vacations also. It’s no accident that there are lots of books about people having profound thoughts while hiking in the wilderness. That group doesn’t hunt or fish much, however.

There is an element of choice. Many of us have family from several tribes, and at some point choose to align more with one. My wife and I aligned early with the Arts & Humanities tribe, and both have our jobs in its offshoots. Our closest friends haven’t tended to be from that group, and our allegiance to it has waned, but that alignment shows in our two older children. We belong to some older version of that tribe.

Each tribe has at least some disdain for the others. The A & H tribe looks down on the others, despite its shameful dependence on the Business Tribe. Most other tribes look at the A & H with suspicion, enjoying the shows and magazines, sending their children to the colleges, but wondering whether these people are quite stable and sensible. Couldn’t all this talent and energy have gone into something more, well, important? Businessmen are regarded as being removed from emotions, relationships, and “real life.”

Strong crossovers provoke both respect and nervousness. A friend who is both a Poli-Sci professor and a parish minister laments that the Poli-Sci professionals regard him with suspicion because of his MDiv; church folk treat him tentatively at first because of his PhD. Austin Bay is a retired Air Force colonel, and also a PhD in English from Columbia. People just don’t know what to do with that. They ask test questions upon meeting him, hoping to establish which tribe he identifies with. To many people, it is crucial to know what tribe you identify with.

Though the military draws from all the national tribes, it draws least from the Prep School and A & H tribes, and draws most from the Western, Southern Heartland, and Rust Belt workingman (especially ethnic) tribes. Also, the military specifically inculcates a value common to those groups, mutually reinforcing it: we are all Americans, leave your differences at the door, we have to work together. As I noted in an earlier post, some groups find it infuriating that others split themselves off, claiming a primary allegiance elsewhere. “Proud to be American,” their bumper-stickers read. No hyphenated Americans, please. The Prep and A&H tribes tend to be internationalist, and worry about displaying the flag. They believe that Transnationalism is a higher calling, and the mainstream clergy, drawn heavily from A & H, believes transnationalism is more holy . This gets a lot of dressing in religious language, but is essentially a merely tribal value. A & H values the opinion of Brussels more than Nashville. So do their pastors.

Few writings in recent years have provoked more anger than Michael Moore’s screed immediately after 9-11. His comments that the terrorists should have targeted Texas rather than New York, because “these people didn’t vote for Bush,” was a clear statement that his identification was not with the US as a whole, but with his particular subgroup. His statement was interpreted, rather accurately, as “I don’t care if people from your tribe die. I care if people from my tribe die.” This sentiment of not merely disagreeing with other large tribes in the American coalition, but actively unfastening oneself from their fate, is growing in Blue America, and may be dominant in the A & H tribe.

Contrast this to the country music song “Have You Forgotten,” referring to the destruction of the Twin Towers:
Have you forgotten, when those towers fell
We had neighbors still inside goin through a livin hell.

The A&H tribe in NYC doesn’t think of Biloxi as “neighbors.”

The fact that the 9-11 attacks took place in NYC created some temporary realignments, but Arts & Humanities quickly quarrantined the victims as “Business” and were able to avoid connection. By defining themselves out, what they define as their tribes are indeed not in much danger. Why stir up trouble, George Bush? We’re not going to be losing our sons unless it’s a very large war.

Evolutionary Psychology

Evolutionary psychologists speak of survival strategies of individuals being bound up in the survival strategies of the group. Over hundreds of generations of hunter-gatherers, belonging to a group that survives to pass on its genes is worth more than being a person able to obtain resources within the group. While both are ultimately necessary, it is thought to be better to be any member of a high-resource clan than the most powerful member of a low-resource clan.

Parallel to this are the social strategies that keep the individual from being excluded from the group. The group has necessary resources.

The Rules, then would be:
1. Promote tribe survival
2. Don’t get kicked out of the tribe
3. Get resources from the tribe. (Resources meaning food, mates, child protection.)

Is it true? Let's ignore that for the moment. If you believe in a telescoping or time-compression Genesis, there's no reason it couldn't be. (Quick summary: Bible narrative is in real time, with exceptions, back to Genesis 14; Genesis 4-14, time is 10x; Genesis 2-3, time is 100x; Genesis 1, time is 1,000,000x)

It’s one way to look at human behavior, and does seem to explain some near-universal values. Plus, it’s just fun to think about, imagining your wily ancestors outwitting all the other poor schmoes whose Bright Ideas didn’t lead to grandchildren (Note: gene-survival requires not just offspring, but offspring that grow to maturity). Interestingly, males tend to focus imagination on the strategies of their male ancestors, females on their female ancestors, though less exclusively so. Perhaps we are hoping for some intuitive advice about our own lives when we imagine such things.

Part of the fun in this way of looking at the world is to disparage the survival strategies which brought us to this point. They were successful in hunter-gatherer societies with precarious resources, but create problems now because we have different economic and social organization. This POV also provides convenient explanations for sins and rules against them: adultery, thievery, assault, lying – these can all be explained as good strategies for individuals that tend to be bad for the tribe, and so are punished. We keep these strategies, but keep them under control.

Thus, getting all the guys in C Building at Lakeview Apartments and raiding one of the buildings over at Elmwood Estates for cattle and wives (while the guys in B Building protect our stash of cattle and wives) is what we are bred for, but is now officially discouraged, because it screws up people’s leases and deposit refunds. With all this in mind, let’s look at political events in America, and describe them in terms of tribal survival.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Some Edges In The Healthcare Debate

A post on healthcare over at Tigerhawk discusses universal health care as it might develop in America. He links to folks who claim "it'll never happen," and to others who point out what the American people would absolutely require of any future healthcare arrangement, and how difficult some of those are politically. Several new aspects I had not considered at the link.


The ugly truth is that there are only three ways to allocate healthcare: auction (ability to pay), queuing (standing in line), and bureaucratic fiat (an "expert" deciding who gets what healthcare). All healthcare systems use some mixture of these three methods, with the proportions varying according to political demand, the history of local institutions, and national income. There is no a priori virtue to any one of these three allocation methods, and there is widespread consensus about the best method for many procedures. Almost everybody agrees that we should allocate breast augmentation surgery by auction, emergency care by queuing, and flu vaccination in times of shortage by bureaucratic fiat. The arguments about allocating the treatment of chronic conditions that diminish the quality of life without immediately threatening it are far more difficult. Which should come first, advanced drugs for my wife's MS, or surgery for your brother's debilitating chronic back pain? Now there's a toughie.

Trent Lott

Trent F-in' Lott. I could just scream. (via GMRoper)

European Vs. American Economies

Over at Backtalk, there are charts and discussion of Western economies. The key item, to my mind, is that the poorest 10% in America have the same after-tax spendable income as those in the wealthiest European countries. I had not visited the site before today. The host identifies himself as a liberal Democrat college professor from California. Not who I would ordinarily expect to be touting the American system. But there we are - people don't fit my prejudices.

Considering how many immigrants, legal and illegal, that we are absorbing, that seems pretty darn good. Additionally, the bottom quintile (20%) in the US, ten years later, have about equal chances of being in any of the five quintiles in income. Because of the (justified) attention paid to children in single-head-of-household families, we tend to think that this group makes up most of the poverty group. Not so. Sprinkled in among the bottom quintile are graduate students, newlyweds, and new immigrants. The chronically mentally ill, whose prospects do not change much from decade to decade, make up about one-fifth of those below the poverty line.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Two Year Delay

I have posted on this before, but it came up recently, and I repeat it because I think it is one of the keys to understanding the effects of presidential decisions on the economy.

The premise is that a president does not have any real effect on the economy for two years after taking office. If that seems sensible to you, and you don’t need it proven, you can skip down to the **** ****

Because really, the argument for it is boring. So, down to the **** ****

The day a president is elected, he has had 0% effect on the economy. Agreed?
The day a president is inaugurated, he has had 0% effect on the economy. You might make an argument that he has had some small psychological effect, but by definition, none of his actions have had any impact.
Legislation takes time to pass. It is traditional to speak of a president’s First 100 Days, to see what he has accomplished. Accomplished in this setting means “bills passed by Congress.”
Economic and tax policy legislation have starting dates, usually Jan 1 of the following year. There was general brouhaha when Clinton made a tax increase retroactive, and when Bush made a cut retroactive, but even these were not about all taxes, but only personal income taxes. Also, taxes are only one portion of economic legislation.

So let’s hold right there for a moment. A president gets elected, and it is 14 months before almost anything happens that can be measurably attributable to him. All change to this point is anticipatory, psychological, or attributable to the previous president/congress. It cannot by any stretch of the imagination be more than 10% attributable to the sitting president. 2% may be more likely.

Once policies go into effect, they then start to have an impact. Start. If they are going to have any effect at all (and some policies might have small, or offsetting effects), the gears don’t start grinding until this point.

How long before things change after that? Depending on the intervention, this varies enormously, as a moment’s reflection reveals. Some decisions won’t have full impact until years down the road. Entitlements would fall into that category. Other legislation, like the standard snake-oil of a “jobs bill” affects at least a few people pretty quickly. Jobs bills are actually among the few which sometimes get started before January 1. Trade and tariff, capital gains, research, education – all these are in the middle and take months to come to effect.

Let’s say, just on average, that this Great Middle of economic legislation which the president and congress has put together, takes 6-12 months to really get rolling and shoving the economy in whatever direction. So by July 1st, we can attribute about 30% of whatever change has occurred to the current president, which means that the previous president is still deserving of some credit or blame. By September 50%. We are by that time in full swing for the mid-term elections. Almost two years have passed since election day. November 70%. January 90%.

Ignoring for a moment what the Fed, the Congress, Microsoft, and sugar prices do to the economy, and sticking to the usual oversimplification of what effect a president has on an economy, there is a two-year delay in who gets credit or blame. When President B wins in 2012, it won’t fully be his or her economy until 1/1/2015. It will still be President A’s through all but the last of 2014.

**** ****
This means the Nixon/Ford economy runs from 1971-78
The Carter economy runs from 1979-82
Reagan 1983-90
Bush41 1991-94
Clinton 1995-2002
Bush 43 2003-2010

Keep that in mind, whoever we elect in 2008. It's more Bush's economy than theirs until 1/1/2011.

When you read GDP, inflation, unemployment, deficit, or other general economic information, this 2-year offset is almost always ignored. Left or Right, columnists or commenters give blame or credit to a president starting in the year he was inaugurated, effectively backdating his starting date weeks before he takes office. The general public is even worse, seeming to think that the clock should start ticking the day after the election.

And worst of all are the deeply partisan, who start the clock when the person last campaigned there. In NH, that's quite a step back, but I received emails from people in 2003 detailing what the economy was doing when Bush was last campaigning here, in February of 2000.

With that concept in place, here is an interesting set of grades, quarter by quarter, for the economy in general. You can figure out for yourself who gets which grades.

Bye Bye Europe

Over at the always-interesting Brussels Journal, which the Belgian government has tried to censor for its commentary, there are three consecutive articles about native-born Europeans leaving their countries in increasing numbers. 200,000 in Great Britain, 100,000 in Holland, 145,000 in Germany. In populations of millions, these numbers are still relatively small. Their importance, however, lies in the fact that these nations already had low birth-rates – well below the replacement level – and that the emigrants tend to be skilled or well-educated people in their 20’s and 30’s. Unsurprisingly, a disproportionate number are Jews, who do not like the increasing tolerance for violent anti-Semitism that the Western European nations are showing toward their Muslim immigrants.

Americans tend to assume that the Muslim immigrants to Western Europe are much like those who come to America. This is emphatically not so. Whether this is a self-selection bias in those who choose the US, or that we are simply better at assimilating different others in hotly debated. What little scientific evidence there is on the matter suggests the latter, though even Americans tend to believe that Europeans are more tolerant. Though we are widely criticized for our racism in the US, it remains the case that no one (no, not even the Canadians and Australians) absorbs racially diverse immigrants as well as the US. Whether one compares crime rates, income, years of education, or neighborhood integration, immigrants to America score much higher on all measures.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

An Ex-Jihadist Opinion

This is ahem, just one man's opinion about what cause Islamic jihad. Unfortunately for the conventional wisdom, it is a man well-placed to know the answer.

Those Experts Again

The mathematician George Gamow, who wrote books on mathematics for the general public, told a joke on his own people, the Hungarians. This was just after the decades in which little Hungary had been capturing a wildly disproportionate share of Nobel Prizes in the hard sciences, and were widely suspected of being just plain smarter than everyone else.
Two Hungarian explorers, suspecting they were lost, took out their maps and pored over them a long time. "According to my calculations," said one, pointing to the horizon "we're on top of that mountain over there."

His point being that experts might come very close to the right answer, but miss something obvious that an Assistant Village Idiot might notice. Which is why we have this blog.

Joy In Worship - The Thaw Continues

I have been in a period of over five years in which I have had little or no (perceived) joy in worship. There have been oases, but I have had a "dry mind in a dry season, my headpiece filled with straw." (Without googling, does anyone recognize the quote?)

Being deeply New England Congregationalist and Swedish Lutheran by heritage, I have never been much of an enthusiast in worship anyway, except that I like to hoom-boom the bass notes of introductions and preludes or drum with my fingers on the pew in front of me. Not having exciting, moving worship is fairly normal for me. Others may look at pentecostals with mild to intense disdain or envy. I am merely puzzled.

I can also bring up - I do not say manufacture - energy for worship leading for two related reasons. One, I declare what I know to be the eternal reality, even if I cannot feel it at present. Two, it's my job, and the needs of the worship community trump my own feelings. Happily, that has in itself been a source of oases in this desert, and I have often left worship grinning wryly at God's humor with me, bringing out unsuspected joy in my driest times.

It's not so bad, really. I have a narrative that I believe, anyway, about how this has occurred. Also, I expect that this state of affairs is normative at some place in a Christian life - and for some poor bastards, almost lifelong. Given my heritage, it would be hard to tell the difference anyway. A wise friend, who I told about this ongoing lack of joy, asked "What do you expect it to look like when it's fixed?" Great question.

But five years was getting to be a long time. The other parts of my life went on their usual courses, sometimes more cheery and energetic, sometimes less. Worshipping away from my home congregation was often interesting, but didn't change things. Times of prayer, reflection, fellowship, or study were as likely as ever to bring happiness.

It is usually wise in such situations to consider the possibility that you are doing something wrong, locking the door against God in one area. I tried various remedies, thought about it, asked advice. No worse, no better. Ah well. Until this summer I still expected there was something I was supposed to discover, some key to turn the lock. And I admit, it may have still been of my own doing, and Jesus is simply releasing me from my own foolishness to attempt a new way to teach me something.

But the ice is breaking up, and I have no ready explanation for it. Even a few weeks ago, when we went on serious metaphor overload in worship about "being sheep" and pastures and fences and the whole lot inserted into nearly everything, it didn't drag me down. The accidents of worship, as Aristotle might call them, seldom have much effect on me.

When folks give testimonies or write little encouraging articles for Christian magazines they usually identify some lesson that they learned through all this that made it all worthwhile and improved their walk. If that's the case here, it will have to be something that I see only in retrospect, because I don't have a clue why the thaw has started, or where any of it is going. It just is.

When Experts Wing It

The authors of the paper on heritability of political beliefs, which I commented on below, are poli-sci professors. I downloaded batches of their papers online, having to do with studies and experiments about decision-making, leadership, composition of the US Congress, etc. I always admire the caution I see in professional papers: warnings about small sample sizes, possible alternative interpretations, careful elucidations of necessary assumtions, and the like. What I read in these papers is much the same, with a notable exception.

When the experts wing it, and talk about matters related to their research but not (visibly) affecting the results, they sound just like everyone else, just with better vocabulary. They have the same biases or prejudices as the public as a whole. In this case, they lean left.

One first interpretation of this would be to ask "Well, AVI, if poli-sci professors lean left, maybe that should tell you something. They study these things all the time. Perhaps they lean left because the liberals are correct, and their expertise allows them to see that." I actually do have some sympathy for this view. I have noted before that I would readily defer to the seminary professors and denominational leaders in many matters - if their logic were not so demonstrably bad. Bill James, the baseball statistician, gives the example of a scout or a manager making an evaluation of a player, versus what the statistician sees. If they gave their answers in terms of what would reasonably be their expertise, what choice would I have but to accept their judgement? If the manager claimed that he liked a kid's swing and how he adjusted to pitches, liked his reactions in the field, and didn't care what his batting average is, I could accept that. But managers don't say that. They say things like "well, he hit thirty homers, and we need power." They make a statistical argument. And the statistician knows that besides the 30 homers, the player in question brings very little to the table. He doesn't hit for average or hit many doubles, draws a below-average number of walks, and is a defensive liability. I have that same experience when reading, say, Tony Campolo. The appeal to authority is that they have made the application of the Scriptures their life's work and have the right to generalize. Then they go and advocate for increasing the minimum wage on shaky economic grounds, because y'know, Jesus was for the poor, not the rich. And this minimum wage thing does that, y'see.

I had that experience while reading the articles as well. An example:
Not long ago, Congress initiated an investigation that in 1980 the Reagan campaign team undertook steps to delay the release of the hostages in Iran in order to deny Jimmy Carter an "October surprise." Conclusive evidence for these charges was not forthcoming, but the fact that they were taken seriously by serious people is instructive. (Emphasis mine)


William F. Buckley might chucklingly use the same phrase as the one emphasised above as an understated and even facetious way of saying that there was in fact no evidence forthcoming, and the group responsible for the accusations, the Christic Institute, turned out to be a nest of insane conspirazoids. "Yes, we might safely say that conclusive evidence for these charges was not forthcoming. Heh." Thus the seriousness of those "serious people" is in question. To note mildly that "conclusive evidence for these charges was not forthcoming" borders on dishonesty.

Or again,
Politicians as recent as Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, and George Bush (41. ed) have been accused of going to war for electoral reasons.


Technically true, I suppose. All three were accused of lots of things. By their political opponents, notably.

Or in a third place,
In the 1990's, a Democratic president (Bill Clinton) transformed welfare to workfare; then in the 2000's, his Republican successor (George W. Bush) greatly expanded federal involvement in both education and the provision of prescription drugs for seniors. If the enactors of the policies were reversed. the groups of citizens displaying support for the policies would also have been reversed...(Emphasis mine)

Really. My memory is that the Republicans forced Clinton into welfare reform over the objections of his base, and conservative Republicans were (and are) furious at Bush over exactly those two things.
...Similarly, if a Republican president had committed adultery with with a young intern, or if a Democratic president had dramatically worsened the deficit and taken the country to war in a far-off land on the basis of undeniably incorrect beliefs about the opponents' nuclear and chemical weapons capabilities, the positions of most voters on the acceptability of these positions would be completely reversed.


For such dramatic claims, some evidence might be in order.

What Profs Hibbings and Alford give is a common point of view. It is in fact, the Democratic point of view, delivered here in an academic paper with whatever weight and authority such things carry. The Republican point of view would suggest that misleading a grand jury was at issue with Clinton, that the deficit is equally in Clinton's lap or more (I have discussed the two-year delay in evaluating a president's effect on the economy, because as of his inauguration he has had no effect whatsoever and economies respond slowly), and that the prosecution of this war from start to present has been about the same as any other war as to mistakes, with the notable exception that a lot fewer people are dying.

You might disbelieve the more Republican POV, as I imagine my 25% liberal readership does. You might have evidence of your own that the Democrats' POV is more accurate. The point is that it is an opinion, with little place in an academic paper unless significant supporting evidence were added.

When experts wing it, they are no smarter than the rest of us.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Borat

You learned here first that the village scenes in "Borat" were not filmed in Kazakhstan, but in the Romanian village of Glod. You can now amaze your friends with the knowledge that Glod is a gypsy village in Romania. My son Chris, a fair authority on gypsy villages, assures me of this.

My stomach hurts from laughing. It is, however, tres rude, and a significant percentage of females might declare this "not funny." I don't think this will be an oft-quoted comedy that becomes legendary after it has its run in the theaters, like Princess Bride or Monty Python...Holy Grail. Much of the humor is slapstick visual and depends more on timing and shock value. More than once I buried my face in my hands murmuring. "I can't believe this."

Friday, November 10, 2006

Soundtrack, Part Four of Four

The first ten songs in the soundtrack are
1. O Little Town of Bethlehem
2. The Ash Grove
3. David's OCD Song (discussion of 1-3 here)
4. Can't Help But Wonder Where I'm Bound
5. Darlin' Be Home Soon
6. Since By Man Came Death (discussion of 4-6 here)
7. Sunrise, Sunset No, I mean Sabbath Prayer.
8. Gaudete
9. Create In Me A Clean Heart, O God
10. Pleasures of Obedience Blues (discussion of 7-10 here)

11. Lord Of The Dance This was called “Dance, Dance” in our house, and was a great favorite for family devotions. The usual version we played – loudly – was from The Christmas Revels. The trick was, you had to be actually seated when the verse started and stay there throughout. Once the chorus began you could get up and dance wildly. It’s a great way of wearing kids out just before bed, though it does also get their primitive central nervous systems overstimulated as well.

We did great family devotions at our house, but we never really adjusted to the teenage years. We had pretty standard evening prayers most nights once the boys were older. I wish we had put in the effort we did when they were younger. We did wild things: driving up the mountain to look out over the city all lit up and pray for it; Bible charades; communion in a large variety of ways; dressing up as pilgrims. Tracy and I gave workshops on how to do devotions several times.

12. If I Had A Million Dollars. My own wishful thinking runs more to time travel or turning invisible, but this one’s fun. I wanted something humorous as well, because any conglomeration of Wymans tends to revolve around banter, wit, joke-telling – even when the subjects under discussion are quite serious. I would put the song in quite early in an actual movie – maybe even before the birth of the boys. But I made some concession to at least reduce the anachronism, as the song wasn’t known to us until the late 90’s, and put it late in the list.

It has the right kinds of humor as well. References to arcane bits of general knowledge, puns, spontaneous interactive, plain silliness – it’s all here in compact form.

This ends the smooth, continuous, portion of the soundtrack, and is where it would all end if our life narratives were nice and Aristotelian. We expect unities, with each chapter flowing naturally from earlier episodes. Even the surprizes in the story are supposed to have foreshadowings, even if they are only noticeable in hindsight.

Real life isn’t like that. We impose narrative on events in retrospect because – well, because that’s what the human brain does. We make things cohere as best we can, not only as false comfort, but to understand what little we may. We kid ourselves that we are the center of the narrative – but there is a Real Story.

The next two items represent bits of the narrative that were not absolutely without earlier precedent, but darn close. They represent parts of the story that dropped in unexpectedly.


13. My City Was Gone This one I leave a a puzzle for the reader. I love puzzles; love solving them, making them, reviewing them, even cheating at them if I can. The theme of puzzle-solving runs back to earliest years for me, so I will use that as an excuse to tie this music, which reached me in 1988, to the rest of the soundtrack. Hint: It’s not because I think Chrissie Hyndes is that cute.

14. Dragostea Din Tei (also known as “The Numa-Numa Song”) The song wasn’t written until 2003, but we’ll just have to endure the anachronism of playing it in my soundtrack in 1998, when I first went to Romania. Three years later, we had two more sons, teenagers: Adrian Ionut Parcalab and Dorel Cristian Parcalab are now J-A and Chris Wyman. By 2005 all of us had been to Transylvania, and all of us are part Romanian, even the daughter-in-law, Heidi.

The song itself is a catchy, almost meaningless little number by O-Zone, a now-defunct boy band from Moldova. It ended up being a #1 hit nation by nation, first in Europe, then through the rest of the world. In the US, it is sung by kids at camp and fans at minor league baseball games. The Numa-Numa alternate title comes from the chorus: Nu ma, nu ma iei, nu ma, nu ma iei, nu ma, nu ma, nu ma iei. Which is “won’t take me” in Romanian (not me not me take). She is going away and she won’t take him along. Tragic, really. But with a bright tempo and a video that has almost complete disregard for the mood of the lyrics, it’s the closest thing to a cheerful song you will find in Romania. There are dozens of parodies, including many videos. For those unfamiliar with the song, I really recommend you catch the history at Wikipedia and follow the links. It’s a hoot.