Monday, December 3, 2012

A Dearth of Birthers: Douthat's Birthing Paranoia Morphs into Homophobia

So, Ross Douthat treats us to another column today about the impact of population decline in the US. Actually, there's no sign of decline. In fact, the US population is increasing and will continue for a long time. What gets Douthat's tighty whities in a bundle is the recent report that the birth rate in the US has fallen to a record low. Before his Sunday column even came around, I knew he was bound to spill some ink on the topic. He's done so before.

Well, he did not disappoint in his lack of logic this time either. But he betrayed an additional amount of prejudice and intolerance as well. He argues, basically, that men and women in the US and other wealthy countries are living selfish, decadent lifestyles such that they are not willing to make the sacrifice to have children. He admits the downturn could be temporary. He admits that the absence of any robust family policy in the US makes the decision to have children difficult or at least delayed. And, culturally, we've been moving away from a "child-centric understanding of romance and marriage." And that's where he holds his hat, forgetting all of the conditions presented earlier. That despite all of these changing material circumstances, it's selfish adults that have led to a (temporary decline) in the US birthrate. To quote at length:

The retreat from child rearing is, at some level, a symptom of late-modern exhaustion — a decadence that first arose in the West but now haunts rich societies around the globe. It’s a spirit that privileges the present over the future, chooses stagnation over innovation, prefers what already exists over what might be. It embraces the comforts and pleasures of modernity, while shrugging off the basic sacrifices that built our civilization in the first place.

Take-downs of Douthat's arguments are already proliferating. And some of the best can be found here and here.

I would like to concentrate on just one sentence in his little rant about the dearth of birthers. The cultural trend of no longer believing child rearing is part of the institution of marriage, in his words, "goes a long way toward explaining why gay marriage, which formally severs wedlock from sex differences and procreation, has gone from a nonstarter to a no-brainer for so many people."

Many problems with this throwaway line (and, please, do throw it away) of social analysis:
  1. Gay marriage doesn't formally separate anything for anyone. If you choose to believe that marriage is for procreation, then you're free to believe that. To focus on the idea that marriage should be EXCLUSIVELY for that task excludes other conceptions (no pun intended) of marriage, which have long existed in world history. All gay marriage advocates hope for is equality, not to undermine the procreation-based theory of marriage. Gay getting married doesn't stop straight people from having intercourse.
  2. The more he argues that procreation is the purpose for (heterosexual) marriage, the more he's on the side of the bigots. 
  3. Ross, of course, ignores the possibility that procreation and gay marriage can go together. Ever here of surrogacy? It may not happen in the darkened bedroom between the sheets in the missionary position with a man and women that Douthat wishes for, but procreation in the 21st century doesn't have to happen in some idyllic views of 1950s America of marriage between one working white man and stay-at-home woman that he imagines. Alternative family arrangements are not only possible, but possibly preferred (especially if the biological father is abusive or absent).
  4. As long as we're discussing the 1950s, as other commentators notice, Douthat ignores the people who will actually be giving birth to these new babies. Maybe he should keep that mind next time. If he did, he would at least consider the long patriarchal history of marriage, its polygamous background, the unpaid labor women must do to raise children on their own (at least in America), and all of the other obvious elements of marriage's historical pedigree in the Western world. Women are not about to go back into the kitchen after spending 40 years trying to get out of it, because Douthat has persuaded them to. 
  5. He could have at least asked men to stay at home and help raise kids. Maybe if he had looked at gay male (and female) couples raising children successfully, he would have seen that.
  6. Finally, who ever said having children is an act of SACRIFICE?!? It's one of the most selfish things you can do! For both evolutionary reasons and the social conceit that a marriage is perceived as better if it produces offspring.
 In summary, he blames everyone else except rich white men for why many women are putting off having children and then saying gay marriage is the epitome (or apex) of the movement towards an overly decadent society. If so, I'll take decadence over his misogynous puritanism. Again, the sad thing here is that Douthat is usually credited with being an "intellectual's" conservative, along with our good friend David Brooks. But he continues to hide his ridiculous arguments in effete language.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Ross Douthat Needs a Lesson in Comparative Politics

Ross Douthat, always available for some erudite conservative-leaning op-ed column, has published a new one, in dialogue with Paul Krugman that addresses one of my favorite topics from my Ivory Tower days.

Just a quick work before my critique. Douthat appears to be one the 2 token conservative columnists at the NY Times, next to David Brooks. But, his work does not seem to be as painfully inaccurate and illogical as Brooks. Admittedly, he hides his arguments in some rather pompous language. While he continues to be some kind of apologist for "conservative" values, he is more dismissive of the Republican Party. He seems to hold the Republican Party in more contempt than Brooks. Brooks seems to be trying save the GOP, while Douthat just ignores it.

In any case, Douthat treats us to another short treatise on why the US can't have a Swedish welfare state. As a former professor of political science who studied Europe, I was intrigued. And I was not the least bit surprised that his arguments resemble those of the undergrads I once taught. I published the following comment to his blog entry (and 23 people liked it!):

Douthat's response to Krugman reminds me once again of being in the lecture hall teaching a bunch of somewhat clever undergraduates who aren't capable of making a very sophisticated argument when making their objections to a Swedish welfare state in America. I've heard these arguments a million times and his have the same flaws.
1. Sweden is homogenous!? It had major class warfare in the late 19th century and early 20th that violently divided its society. Why is ethnic diversity qualitatively worse than class conflict? Diversity is in the eyes of the political scientist. And why can't the US overcome ethnic diversity to create a robust welfare state? Does he still think America is too racist/ethnically biased to create one? What are "cultural extremes"? Is there some scale we're not aware of?
2. Sweden is small? If so, then it would be too poor to sustain a strong welfare state. We're the wealthiest country on Earth. We could afford it if we wanted to politically.
3. If children in Sweden are better off and are even more likely to live in a two-parent (though unmarried) household than Americans, what is with this fetish Douthat has with the institution of marriage? Why must marriage be the primary family structure for raising children in the US, if it's not necessary in Sweden?
As much as Douthat praises these "traditional" institutions, he needs to remember their history of discrimination and patriarchy if he wants to seduce us to return to some idealized, but false, past.

Just a quick word on another element of this argument. Despite the decline of religious observance (not faith or spirituality in Sweden), he claims that "Lutheran thrift" and Sweden's social capital has sustained the welfare state. Funny, other faiths in Europe produced a welfare state, Catholics in France and Austria, for example, and a mix of Catholics and Protestants in Germany. And I'm not sure why he can't find thrift among Americans?

I complement Douthat on trying to engage the age-old question of why there's no strong welfare state in the US. But, before writing a column with such a definitive attitude, it would better if he carried out what he set to do, a robust comparative analysis. If he had, he would see his arguments for why the US has a SMALLER welfare state than Sweden melt away and return to the main reasons: immigration and politics (with some decentralization added in).

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Inequality in the Ivory Tower: The 1% Are Better Than the Rest of Us There Too!

For good reasons, there has been a resurgence in the discussion about the causes and consequences of growing income inequality in the US. And this is definitely for the better. It has revealed some group's inherent biases and perceptions of other groups. Faced with these facts, some people have resorted to the belief that rising inequality in the US since the 1950s is the result of "natural" forces--i.e., not political ones. It's the result of the growing premium on a college education, for example, which more US workers do not have and, thus, earn less. Or the 1% are just better than everyone else, i.e. more talented, smarter, etc. And for some reason, talent and smartness has become more unequal over time in the US. I remember hearing this during a Planet Money podcast/This American Life episode some time ago espoused by some Wall Streeters even though they got a bailout. They deserved their high salaries because they're better than everyone else. I nearly puked and punched out the radio. And no better example of contempt for the lower 47% of the US than Romney's infamous comments made at a fundraiser lately; the bottom 47% are just dependent, lazy freeloaders.

But one neoliberal meme out there is that inequality is necessary for growth. See this book recently published by one of Romney's Bain Capital friends. In fact, the author argues that more inequality is needed to increase economic growth and reduce unemployment in the US. And any system that fosters more income equality or egalitarianism must be severely flawed and unsustainable.

Now this meme has hit academia. In a recent article in Scientific American, Paula Stephan, an economist from Georgia State, argues that the reason the US leads the world in science is because we reward productive scholars more than others and that leads to more inequality. Stephan argues that the US has the "best scientists" [see article for measurement] because we reward higher levels of productivity with higher salaries, which means there's more inequality (I leave it to you to connect the dots between X and Y up there--I can't). Across different professorial rankings (from assistant to associate to full), there are increasing levels of inequality. That's what gets the best scientists over here to the US and why science is so unproductive in those socialist utopias over in Europe. The figure at the side is intended to say it all.

Now, I understand you have to write something insightful in less than 2 magazine pages, and not every argument has space to be conditioned and fully explained, but this one is ridiculous on its face. There are so many flaws that this article burned inside of me for quite awhile, until I wrote this blog post [Letter to the editor forthcoming.]

Here are the flaws as I see them:

1. The figure doesn't even show what the author argues! Nowhere does she even present a graph that tracks levels of inequality across COUNTRIES against levels of scientific production. The figure above only looks at THE US! Are we are just supposed to believe her that she's right?! And how does inequality within a professorial rank demonstrate that higher salaries for more productive people is at work? Given the statistics and spread in salary among teachers in the same rank, she argues, "It's a pretty safe bet that high salaries and a system that rewards productivity play important role in the US's science ranking" Really?! How could that be when the data presented don't even show that?! Or have any relationship to her argument? I'm willing to take that bet against her! And who says that there is perfect inequality in academia in Europe?!

2.  Isn't it weird that inequality is INCREASING as you move up the rankings, but, hypothetically, the way to get to each ranking is constant--i.e., promotion is only based more productivity. How could inequality be increasing, if the ones be rewarded with higher salaries are the most productive?! Inequality should be SHRINKING as you move up the professional ladder because only the productive ones in each discipline are being rewarded with higher rankings--i.e., they should all have high salaries, but LESS income dispersion! What is accounting for more unequal incomes among full professors who should ALL be at the top of their game? Or is it because some institutions can just afford to pay their full professors more than others, and this pattern has only gotten worse over time, which is independent of productivity! I bet that this is a private vs. public institution phenomenon, or liberal arts college vs. research university! She says it could be because wealthier universities are recruiting the best and brightest in the world of free agency academia. While true, that's only the creme dela creme. Too few to matter for her outcome.

3. The author ignores something very glaring in the figure. Inequality across all academic rankings and disciplines has increased tremendously across the years in the US, mirroring what's happening in the US in general. Why does Stephan completely ignore this?! And at least she could try to show us that scientific production increased in the US BY A LOT between 1973 and 2006 as inequality increased! At least that would help her case somewhat. And has she thought of where many full professors are working that DON'T pay very much and why?

4. Let's just spend a moment on the causal logic here. Foreigners (never discussed in the article) are coming here because productivity is rewarded "more" than in stagnant, egalitarian Europe. So scientists across Europe are saying to themselves, "No, I won't publish more and won't do more science because everyone is getting paid the same if I work or not (which is untrue), unlike the wonderful inequality that exists in the US." Or they come to the US because, "I know the losers will be paid a lot less than the winners (like me)." Let's put aside, for a moment, the fact that many STEM scientists coming to the US of late, who are the most productive, are coming from relatively POOR countries, like China and India. Moreover, they come from countries that are MORE unequal than the US! And I would argue that they are a greater proportion of the newly minted PhDs than stellar Europeans coming over because of higher salaries.

More foreigners are coming over because salaries are simply absolutely higher in the US simply, which is because the US has more economic resources to pay higher salaries, which she kind of admits. Think of all of those endowed chairs by major corporations! It also mirrors the conservative trope that people in more equal societies don't work as hard as they do in the US. Then why are productivity levels so much higher there and people are happier? Yes, the US has a higher GDP and is wealthier on a GDP per capita basis, but we're damn more unequal and haven't performed any better economically, if not worse, than more egalitarian countries in Europe. And we're more stressed. Look, I would be among the first to admit that European academia needs significant reform, but to attribute its problems to too much egalitarianism is ridiculous.

This goes to the heart of some neoliberal critiques of teacher tenure. "How can you get good teachers if you can't fire the bad ones and reward the good ones with higher salaries?" Well, I don't want to get into the weeds of measuring teacher performance, but this assumes that teacher performance would improve if there was more financial motivation to do so. But some people are good teachers and do it because they simply enjoy it, no matter the money. Matt Damon put it pretty well in a great video.

So where could this inequality within each professorial rank be coming from? Stephan does acknowledge that total resources for public institutions are declining, while endowments at elite colleges and universities, like Harvard and Yale are increasing, and supposedly salaries there along with them. By the way, salaries and compensation have increased somewhat over the years, but NOT in line with tuition! Where is all of that money going?!!

I think when others see and discuss this article, please share with others, you will have the same reaction I did. Outrage mixed with disgust. Here's someone who has appropriated the neoliberal of discourse of "inequality good!" for the world of academia. And this is dangerous. It leads to the conclusion of a typical university finance officer (and, sadly, some tenured faculty): "You adjuncts, living at the poverty level, without benefits and no job security, just increase your productivity if you want more money! It's your fault you're just adjuncts anyway. No, it has nothing to do with the fucked-up employment system where too many PhDs are being produced for too few full-time tenure-track jobs, while you get exploited by large research universities to teach multiple courses to our 10,000 undergrads and prevent you from becoming more productive in first place [or unionizing] because you're weighted down by grading and other commitments. Anyway, you would have a higher position if you were just better. It's a meritocracy, damn it!" Sounds dangerously close to that asshole banker at the bar who got his big bailout in 2008.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Just what are YOU, Scott Brown?

Time for another rant? Yes. And, as usual, it refers not just to a controversy, but how that controversy is broadly framed in the media.

For months, Elizabeth Warren has been accused of taking advantage of the "affirmative action" system at Harvard by lying about her Native American heritage. She only got her job as a professor of bankruptcy, so she is accused of, because she claimed to be a member of a disadvantaged minority group.

Republican Senator Scott Brown, in a tough reelection fight [that he'll probably lose, if there is good Democratic turnout this fall], accuses Warren of misleading Harvard to get some "special advantage." He repeated these accusations in last week's debate [a must-watch for any political junkie and fan of Warren as I am]. Warren defended herself by saying that she was referring only to family lore when making claims about her heritage. Inevitably, the attention that this issue received evolved into crass, racist displays of offensive chants and sloganeering by the mobs, as shown here. It seems Brown is getting a bit desperate in his attempt for re-election, and tapping into the latent racism of many working-class whites in MA to show that the "Professor" is an "outsider" and not "one of us." Sound familiar?

What I find most offensive is what Brown said during the debate and how the media choose to report the story so far. Brown brought it up during the debate by suggesting it is a character issue. By claiming she's Native American, when she's not. And the proof? Well..."Just look at her! Clearly she's not!"

Really, Scott Brown? And what is the test that she must pass? Her skin is not "red" enough for you? Her hair too blonde? Let us know what the standard is for you, and we'll see if she meets it. My guess is that standard is so full of racist imagery that I don't even want to begin to unpack it.

What really gets my goat is the fact that her identity has to pass some "test" determined by him. Whether you're Native American, Jewish, white, or black is not exclusively up to others, especially not Scott Brown. Everyone has the privilege and ability, although difficult, to construct their own identity. You always have to make some room for your own conscious perception and self-construction. This is topic that I myself have dealt with a long time. People could say I'm not Jewish because my mother is not (and I satisfied their Jewish legal doctrinalism by undergoing "re-circumcision). I'm not German, because I grew up in the States, even though I have a German passport through my "mother's blood." Maybe I'm not gay, because I don't listen to enough showtunes (see Halperin's How to Be Gay).

I always retort that no one else is charge of my identity or how I choose to express it. And no one else has any right to set up some test for me personally. But I don't want to sound naive. Do rabbis in Israel, the Catholic Church, or, in the case of tribal identity, determine who is a member or not? Sure, all the time. Membership in their organizations is always a privilege. And is Barack Obama black, even tough he has a white mother? Of course, because that is how others have identified and treated him, not really because of anything he's done (although he struggled as well with his racial identity and came to accept society's dictates, probably because it's just so hard to ignore them when you're trying to get a taxi).

As most of us know in the social sciences, social institutions are extremely powerful and almost wipe out diversity and outliers as part of their raison d'ĂȘtre. And it's difficult to maintain a sense of independence in the wake of such powerful forces. And usually one's identity becomes an amalgam of sorts when it has such a complex background. But that doesn't mean one should give up and leave it to racists like Scott Brown and others to define our ethnic identities for us. Or say they are lies (see this stupid Slate piece).

Of course, the media have covered this story poorly. Basically, it's a blend of "how well does she 'deal' with this issue" or "is she on the defensive still; can she get on offense?" And, to fully confess, I don't think she has responded as aggressively as she could, which would simply be asking, "Who are you, Scott Brown, to say I'm not?! And just what are you anyway?" But this misses the main point; that Brown seems to be the judge and jury about what is truly Native American or not. Wow, another job for the white man to do.

While a bit of a pipe-dream, the media should be focusing instead on the underlying assumptions instead; that Scott Brown thinks Warren is "too white" to be "red," according to him. And that's what so infuriating about this little, stupid kerfuffle in this exciting election year.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Romney, Benghazi and Subtextual Islamophobia

Sorry for not posting in a while. But, as usual, this blog is meant to respond to certain events or writings that just get my goat! And today is a day to vent (with very hot steam) at the Romney campaign.

We all know he's a fool when it comes to foreign policy. But this fuck up is intolerable and inexcusable. Everyone is condemning Romney for condemning Obama for "apologizing" for American foreign policy. Everything his campaign has issued has been full of factual errors. He's also committed several original sins of being a presidential candidate. He didn't wait to get all of the details before responding. He's violated superficial norms about not criticizing the President during a foreign policy crisis. Did not show a proper unified American stance. He politicized a tragic event.  "How dare he violate decorum?!" is the general critique so far. He violated procedures and protocol.

But let's look at the substance!
Romney accuses Obama of "apologizing" for America. Let's set aside the giant argument whether the US should apologize for its actions in the Middle East over the past 80 years. After all, the list is very long. And let's put aside the immediate issue of determining even if that statement is factually accurate. I've looked over the suspected messages on twitter and see no such thing that comes close.
Assuming the campaign is rational, I know, difficult to do...I see four possible explanations.

1. They really believe that this argument about Obama apologizing for America is a strong sell. Even though we all know it to be wrong, it resonates with the right-wing base. You all know why. But, in a nutshell, it goes like this: "This strange foreign man that illegitimately won the presidency, who wasn't even born here, doesn't like America and 'what it stands for' and is selling America out." Add additional obvious stuff here. In short, Romney is going to his base.
----Side note: if this was the strategy, then why backpedal on your desire to repeal all of Obamacare recently?

2a. There's something more craven here...tring to take advantage of a crisis to demonstrate your bona fides of "strength" and "resoluteness" when the president is trying to figure things out. No...not too convincing.

2b. Incompetence. Convincing, but not entirely rational.

3. Let's get to the "subtext" of the Romney's critique. Yes, Reason #1 holds. But it's built on a foundation of intolerance for Islam. Start: why would it be wrong for the US embassy to condemn the video that instigated the violence? Any rational person would condemn the video as a horrible case of bigotry, prejudice and full of hate (although I'm sure Bill Maher will have no problem with the video, unfortunately, because it will only justify his contempt for organized religion). And the condemnation of these videos is the apology that Romney is referring to? So, apologizing for hate speech is wrong? The fact that Rumfeld agrees who adds fuel to the argument that these neocons have something more sinister lurking in the minds than just an erroneous view of foreign policy and how the world works..namely, some latent and not so implicit Islamophobia. This would be a rational response given their ideology.

Of course, the media won't latch on to this as an explanation for a while, until they try to understand what Romney meant and connect it to actual words. Anyway, don't hold your breath for them to do that all. They're more obsessed about how this affects the drama on the political stage, rather than what words mean and the arguments being articulated. And a new shiny object is distracting everyone (iPhone 5!!). But more needs to be written about not the procedures and protocols that Romney violated, but the norms of tolerance is violating and the intolerance he is defending.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Lies, Damn Lies, and the Romney Campaign

Some time ago I wrote about the end of the Enlightenment in America. Well, at least in the Republican Party. Since then, we have had an acceleration of its pace. The list of lies about Obama's policies and statements is too long to bring up here. Paul Ryan has lied about running a sub-3-hour marathon. That last one has really gotten people's goat. It's fine to lie about policy and other politicians. But never lie about your physical performance. Not only does the powerful runners' lobby then get involved, people find it especially offensive if you have the gall to lie about how well you did in a race. Athletic contests should be one of the few places in this world where reality rules, where objectivity rules and we can come to a mutual agreement about the truth; did you run faster than another or not? Also, hundreds of thousands of people run marathons a year and know what it takes to run a below-3-hour marathon. Second, they find it pretty offensive that you need to lie to show how much better you are than everyone else who've worked so hard to just complete one (who knows why they would want to do that). That's why Ryan's lie about his marathon runtime has gained particular traction and a flimsy retraction so quickly. [And let's not forget our dear leading Harvard liar, Niall Ferguson].

The fact that so many giant fibs have been uttered and repeated so often has gained special attention of late by the news media. Even FOX NEWS thinks Ryan is lying. But why now? Politicians have always lied. That's what they do. If they weren't, what would they say? And why is the collective media wringing their hands now? Why didn't they start pointing out all of the lies starting with the Bush Administration in 2000 with its tax policies being deficit neutral, possible preventive warnings about the 9/11 attacks, and, of course, Iraq and WMD? Now, in 2012, the media are all concerned about falsehoods and mistruths? Is it because the attacks on the quality of the media--and politicians--by Jon Stewart are starting to take a real toll on their psyches, consciousnesses and notions of professionalism?  It could also be because the Romney campaign has just reached such a high level of mendacity, have bothered so little to dress them up, and impervious to criticism that both the Obama campaign and the media can hardly tolerate it any longer.

Whatever the cause, we need to move beyond the useless question of if and why there is so much lying in politics and start asking a more important question. Namely, what is its impact? Tell a lie big enough, often enough, people start to believe it. No, Goebbels did not say that. Instead, it's a variation of Adolph Hitler's statement about one of the conditions for propaganda to succeed. But that is a hint to what I think are the nefarious effects of these lies. They're not just there to whip up sentiment and get votes. Blatant lies, repeated often, poison the democratic process. Assuming that democracy involves deliberation as much as bargaining and compromising over areas of self-interest, then the more people deceive each other, the worse is our governance. Lying means you do not have the courage to argue with another over the interpretation of the facts, which means we cannot come to better mutual understandings of the truth. We could not convince each other of the better argument. Not only does truth not matter, but the degree to which the other person matters diminishes as well. You may be lying to persuade her to do something against her interests. They have less worth as human beings. But you are also probably trying to deceive someone to harm them in some way. You're using your lying to assert your will over another, because if your words were based on truth, they would be ineffective. So far, we can be thankful that the lies that the Romney campaign so mendaciously commits itself to repeating are relatively innocuous. At least compared to the bigger lies that have been told in the 20th century, which at least partially contributed to the death of millions.

What can we do? Well, the people at Slate discussed it and basically they had the right response. The media, as our main information providers, just have to keep trying and keep getting better. It's an uphill battle. But seeing what's down below if we don't push back on these giants balls of lies, our democracy just becomes more and more threatened as a result.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Ferguson, Akin, and the End of the Enlightenment?

What does an effete, British, Harvard-university-professor of history have in common with a right-wing, divinity-degree-holding, Republican Congressman and engineer from the middle of America? Basically, timing and perspective. In the past two days, both Niall Ferguson and Todd Akin have revealed themselves to be men incapable of rational thought. Evidence contrary to their claims, whether scientific or historical, doesn't seem to phase them. In both cases, their own ideology guides them to the reality they wish to see or want to perceive to see.

Let's quickly address each case on its own. First, there is our good friend Professor Niall Ferguson. This week he wrote the cover story in Newsweek on why he believes Obama should not be re-elected. As a piece of intellectual insight or informed observation or even political pamphlet, it counts as pure dribble. The errors in his analysis of the ACA, employment performance under the Obama administration, deficits, debt and how it's measured, China, foreign policy, etc., are too numerous to list here. The best critiques come from Paul Krugman, James Fallows, and, most damaging and vitriolic, Brad De Long. More is to come from Andrew Sullivan. I strongly recommend going to the links, including a summary of the best reactions here.

What I find so depressing is not so much the quality of his writing, but how closed-minded he is to actual facts as well the lack of logic in his essay as he constructs his argument. A typical college student would get a D for this paper, except for maybe at Harvard (a gentleman's C there).

Why is Ferguson is permitted to write such a horrible piece of writing in a "major" American newsweekly? In a world governed by reason, we would have outside third parties existing to check truth claims, often the "fourth estate," if the author fails on his own. But the media, in this case, Newsweek, is just "monitoring" the "debate." Apparently Newsweek just "trusts" its cover story writers to check their own facts. If it sounds like the "truth" or has a degree of "truthiness," then it must be true. And, in their ironic post-modernity, conservatives and contemporary American media (at least the mass-produced form) think truth is in the perspective of the beholder. It just FEELS true. There are always "two sides" to people's claims about the world. Any independent arbiter of reality does not exist here, except for other bloggers. And, yet, Ferguson says his credibility is still intact, for some reason.

Then, there is our good friend Rep. Todd Akin, who apparently believes that the female body has special hormonal powers to prevent pregnancy from "legitimate rape." This comes from his pro-life ideology, misogyny and junk science. It's a worldview that he holds, despite evidence to the contrary, in spite of reality. Although the establishment-elements of the Republican Party are denouncing him, he's not alone. First, VP-candidate Ryan supported legislation that also limited abortion funding to "forcible" rape, as opposed to the other kind (it has to do with the battle over abortion and whether Planned Parenthood was seeking federal funding for pregnancies resulting from statutory rape). And one of our resident wackos in the House of Representative, Rep. Steve King, apparently doubts whether women can become pregnant from incest or statutory rape. So there's no one within this movement to check these folks and confront them with facts either.

This is sad. Very sad. It's sad when a major political party in the most powerful and influential country on Planet Earth is entirely captured by forces that are determined to deny the role of reason in governing. Reason and facts have no place in the public sphere. We can just throw away that nasty, and outdated movement, called the Enlightenment, they argue. Paul Ryan certainly thinks the Enlightenment was a quaint debate in the 18th Century, but governing by reason doesn't seem to relevant to him anymore. This is nothing new in America, of course. My chief complaint, and what Ferguson and Akin both show coincidentally these past two days, is that the conservative political movement's efforts to push out reality as a basis for discussion and continue to reject rationality as a basis and mode of argument and for thesis-generation has not just deepened, but widened. It now includes a Harvard professor, from one of the best universities in the world. It's sad to see how tow people with such different backgrounds can have so much in common. And they do make for strange bedfellows, but the fact that they're even in the same room together is even more sadder.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Southerners Need Not Apply!

So much to say about the Romney/Ryan ticket. First, I'm still not sure if these two names are alliterative or not. But aside from the possible literary qualities of the ticket, there is one other major historical quality about this Republican ticket to point out.

Many have already written about how this is the FIRST presidential ticket from a major party WITHOUT a white Protestant on the presidential ballot. That is something to applaud, even if to bring that about one party's ticket was replaced by a conservative Catholic and a Mormon. Actually, it's not too surprising if you think about it. Mainstream (white) Protestants have become much more moderate socially, while the Republican Party has moved to the far Right on social issues related to abortion, gay marriage, contraception, and pornography, to capture or reflect the evangelical Christian base that remains WASP.

But, notice that there's no Southerner on either party's ticket either, since...well, a long time. What about Sarah Palin from Alaska in 2008? That's just the South with ice and oil. There's one exception--Ford/Rockefeller in 1976. But since Ford was only there because Nixon resigned, and Agnew was from Maryland and on the ballot in '68 and '72, which is the "South," I'm not counting that election. Anyway, if you look at presidential election history, you see a Southerner somewhere on the ticket almost all the way back to the turn of the 20th Century. On both sides of the ticket. And, while I'm not a scholar of American political history,it appears that we're now at an important juncture in American political history.

What does the absence of a Southerner on the ticket this fall indicate about American politics and society? Well, first, it appears that the two parties are more comfortable than before in thinking that they can win the presidential election without one on the ballot. The fact that North Carolina and Virginia are turning into real swing states, along with that bizarro land known as Florida, seems to show that. Northerners can actually win those states that were once part of the Confederacy. At the same time, other Southern states are firmly in the Red column, probably still for years. So, Dem's have no incentive to try to court voters from those states by putting a Southerner on their ballot.

At the same time, you wonder if a vast majority of Southerners are getting the representatives they want if they go R. Remember, Santorum captured a majority of the Southern vote during the Primary season, except for some major metropolitan areas [click on the state results to see the pattern]. The exception is Newt, who got South Carolina and Georgia, and the same counties, generally. Overall, ANYWHERE where the median income in a county was at or below the national average, someone other than Romney won it. And that's a majority of Southern counties! Sad to say that the Republican Party--with a Mormon patrician from the Midwest/Northeast on the ticket and a libertarian ideologue from the Midwest--won't be representing those people's interests.

Romney and Ryan are now working to win an election while taking the Southern vote for granted, with the exception of VA, NC and FL, states that represent the "New South." And that's a safe strategy. But their policies, as lamented in so many other places, only hurt a majority of those voters, or at least don't help. At the same time. some don't feel sorry for the South. Some wish they would secede. I think this just indicates, perhaps contrary to some conventional wisdom, the South is not the political powerhouse it was in the 1990s. Or, more precisely, the South is changing, but, in a typical Southern fashion, very molasses! If Obama is reelected and there is continued social change in states like NC, VA, and even Georgia, regional patterns of voting in the US could, maybe, start to end. And new divisions based on ethnicity or rural vs. urban will take their place.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Paul Ryan is the P90X VP you don't want!

So, here we go! Paul Ryan is the first Wisconsinite to appear on a presidential ticket since 1980 when Gov. Patrick Lucy (yeah, never heard of him either) was the vice-presidential nominee for John Anderson. One difference, though, is his comparative youth and fitness.
Let's forget about his Eddie Munster good looks for a moment! Put aside his arrogant attitude and smug sense of superiority without much to show for it. I don't think reading Ayn Rand and following objectivism, except for the atheism part, makes you an intellectual per se. Yet, you do have to admire him for his strong commitment to fitness. I'm sure there's a great six-pack somewhere under those adult-size suits he wears. And that's where I think his lean body-fat and lean view of government come together.
You see, he's a big follower of this P90X exercise routine. Ryan's commitment to such a crazy fitness regime as P90X reflects his personality and, as we say in German, his Weltanschauung.
First, P90X adherents have a false belief that everyone is just like them. No one's body type, physical condition or opportunity is that much different from theirs. So, there's nothing really holding anyone else back from losing all that weight and having rock hard abs--a "12-pack" as some say Ryan has. Just start the program and get to it, lazy bones!
Second, routines like P90X seem to fetishize pain. In order to be reasonably fit and healthy, you have to do 1000 crunches and change to a primarily meat and berry diet?!?!  The routine is almost masochistic.
Third, if you can't do it and don't meet your goals in a SHORT amount of time, you just aren't worthy. You didn't put enough hard work into it. There was no luck that led you to success or anyone out there that helped you along the way. You did it on your own, and if you didn't, then you failed...and just live with that failure. You're a loser!
Let's ignore for the fact that his budget plan is so full of empty spaces that its bloody tragic that the document counts as something "serious" on DC Sunday talk shows. What it does do, in summary is this.
  • It transforms Medicare from a defined benefit plan to a defined contribution plan. Need more treatment than what the voucher gives you? You're SOL. Better get that P90X training video.
  • Block grants to the states for MEDICAID? Well, given these grants won't keep up with healthcare inflation (and repeal of Obamacare would just create more uninsured and higher costs), you're just SOL if you're poor and sick! 
  • Just TWO tax brackets--25% and 10%, for those earning more than 50K or less, respectively, if you're single. [BTW : no gay marriage for you!] Yes, someone making MILLIONS pays the same taxes as someone making 75K--the closest to a flat-tax system that has been proposed by a major candidate for office. This is based on the belief that anyone can be rich..anyone can get into that higher tax bracket..which is only fair because you "worked hard." If you didn't or luck kept you down, then you have only yourself to blame. 
And why do (some) Americans subscribe to this view? One easy answer is that those who do are already in power. And if they "built it," then they don't understand why others can't do the same. A more complex and realistic answer is probably a combination of two other reasons. First, just as Americans buy billions of dollars of exercise products every year, they think they CAN do P90X and succeed, too. It's simple and quick! If they failed, it was their own fault, not anyone else's. They've been "trained" to think that (pun intended). Second, and related, they see in Ryan at least something they would like to be or envision themselves as! And at least they're not as bad as that "weird/undeserving" person next door [sound familiar?].

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Why We Punish Cheaters

First, the blog entries will become shorter. While I've made that promise often, it still goes unfulfilled. But now I have a real chance to do that.

Second, this blog is not just going to have rants, although Ross Douthat (here's a really bad one) and David Brooks give me enough material for that. [More on Douthat's profundity later]. No, I'm also aiming to rave about stuff I read and watch, too.

So, while browsing The Economist yesterday, I came across a really interesting article about fairness. I was so excited by this little piece that I just needed to share it all with you {that and it's been a little difficult generating a similar amount of excitement among members of my close social circle; hopefully, this will create some excitement out there that was on par with my keen level of joy}.

So, here it goes. In this article, anonymously written, as is the Economist's style, the author reports on an experiment that two Brits did. Apparently, it's very hard to determine why people choose to punish others for misbehaving. Without doing a giant literature review (and these scientists show how to write a brief and effective one you political scientists should follow), these scientists discuss some possible explanations. Negative emotions that lead people to engage in the costly act of punishing someone could be the result of many causes. First, people can punish others for violating specific norms of cooperation. If a person cheats, that's morally bad, it raises negative emotions, and the cheater is punished. Second, punishment could be weeded out just for retaliation; if you cheat, then I cheat--tit-for-tat. Third, if the cheater's behavior leads to that person to become much better off or the relative position between the two changed as a result, then that person will be punished because the result was "unfair."

So far, it's been really hard to disentangle what motives people have for punishing another because many of these causes are difficult to assess independent of each other. That's where these researchers came in. They set up an experiment. It's based on the "moonlighting game." They use a cool technique called Amazon Mechanical Turk to get subjects that are more diverse than your typical college undergrads at an elite university. With over 500 subjects, they test under what conditions a player will PAY to punish another for "cheating." Without going into the details, they set up three basic scenarios or treatments. In each treatment, Player 2 can cheat and take a certain amount of money away from Player 1. It turns out that Player 1 retaliates or "punishes" Player 2 MOST OFTEN when the results of the cheating produced inequity, i.e., changed the relative position of Player 1 to Player 2. Punishment did NOT happen when someone was left worse off in an absolute sense or just because cheating happened. In other words, punishing the offender happened most often when the first person perceived the result of the other person's behavior as leading to an "unfair result." [Side note--Some people "retaliated" even when no cheating happened; those were the sadists!]

So, these findings are very exciting to me for the following reasons. First, it turns out we don't punish either because a norm was violated, nor out of a simple desire to retaliate [See stupid, ubiquitous IR book by Robert Axelrod every IR grad student is forced to read.] No, human beings go through the messy and complicated analysis, or as the scientists write, "a more cognitively complex task," of determining whether the result was "fair" or not before punishing another. Those crazy humans! [AND, it turns out that ONLY HUMANS do this; other species just retaliate every time.]

So what are some of the implications here? First, apply that to the big banks! We didn't care that they were gaming the system for so long, as long as our financial position relative to them hadn't changed. But if it did, then we get angry! So, yes, President Obama and Elizabeth Warren are right, we're not upset that people are rich, and we're not trying to start a class war. We're out to punish them for cheating, because they've made us all worse off because of their cheating for the last ten years, they've been made a LOT better off as a result, and we will punish them (someday) even if it's expensive to do so.

This also has foreign policy implications. When creating environmental or other types of international agreements, we shouldn't set up agreements that lead to automatic retaliation when cheating is discovered. We should expect that to happen from time to time. When constructing agreements, we don't just need to lay out the conditions for punishment ahead of time. We also need to include a clause in the agreement that says what the consequences will be if the cheating leads to an unfair outcome, i.e., made some party better off than before relative to the other party. If one player thinks that the other player's cheating led to inequitable outcome, then punishment will be dealt.

This means we should just acknowledge that cheating happens all the time when it comes to international agreements, and all the monitoring mechanisms and sanctions threatened may not work to prevent it. And it's really damn costly to set up all of those rules and institutions anyway. Just acknowledge that China/Iran is going to cheat on the agreements it makes. The US should focus on the cases that lead to the change in relative position between the US and China/Iran when deciding to punish. (Q to IR-friends: Does this resurrect that old, stupid debate over absolute vs. relative gains in international cooperation theory and show that those relative gains people are right, sort of?]

There are so many other implications worth discussing.

Was this briefer?

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Outrageous Housing

As mentioned earlier, this blog is a chance for me to vent. And something happened JUST NOW that deserves your attention.

Our good friend, Ed J. DeMarco, who heads the Federal Housing Finance Agency, just announced that he will object to the Obama administration's efforts to reduce the principals that homeowners owe on their mortgages. So many houses in foreclosure has led to a severely depressed housing market,  declining housing prices, more and more people just packing up and mailing their keys back to the bank, creating more people who are underwater on their mortgages...basically a vicious financial and business cycle.

The best way to stop this deflationary cycle is to offer debt relief. For a small price to taxpayers (in the short-run), the principal is re-negotiated at current interest rates. People then get to stay in their homes, Fannie and Freddie don't take a total loss on the home because people are still making payments on their mortgages, and the money that people are sending to banks (who are refusing to lend and just sitting on their deposits anyway) could be spent on on other goods and services, stimulating demand and economic growth (and increase tax revenues), and housing prices start climbing again as fewer homes go into foreclosure! It's basically a giant tax break or reduction. Win, win, win, win! Both Republicans and Democrats have favored this sensible, or SOBER, (see that word again!) plan.

DeMarco rejected this idea. In a letter to the Obama administration, he stated that the costs outweighed the benefits. He basically believes taxpayers--not homeowners, the agencies he runs, nor the overall economy--would benefit enough. Yes, taxpayers would have to pay for this activity, and the uncertain benefits are outweigh by the even more uncertain risk of moral hazard. This ignores the fact that everyone is made better off in the medium to long-term, if we have a tiny amount of loan forgiveness now. [And I won't even get into how beneficial it would be to forgive student loan debt!]

Economists and other experts have resoundingly objected to DeMarco's objections. Some say he doesn't have the power to decide these matters. That he was charged with managing Freddie and Fannie and should not be concerned with matters related to the federal budget and taxpayers. I'll let the lawyers work that one out, however.

What irks me the most here is that he has an incorrect notion of what moral hazard is--or is at least applying it to this case incorrectly. What is moral hazard? In a nutshell, it occurs when a person is incentivized to engage in behavior that was previously detrimental to his interests because he is now insured against the consequences. It pays to fail (somewhat). For example, moral hazard occurs when people buy any type of insurance. A person is rational to purchase insurance because in today's modern world you can't possibly prepare for all of the possible events or actions of others (or, yes, your own) that can severely affect your financial position. Rationally, you don't have the time or money to worry about every possible disaster and save money for every possible negative event that comes your way, such as cancer, a car crash, accidental housefire, or you hit someone on the golf course in the head with a golf ball with an errant drive and you get sued. It's also rational because it makes more sense allocating your scarce resources to activities that will have bigger payoffs, instead of the rare chance of something bad happening. It's only irrational, i.e., a waste of money, in a sense, if you know AHEAD OF TIME that you will always have perfect health, never get into a car accident, have a fire or storm damage, or have someone fall on the ice in front of your house. NEVER HAPPENS! [Not that I don't think my insurance payments are waste of money sometimes, until I get into that major accident that my co-pilots think is just around the corner...not literally!]

So, you buy insurance to cover you in case of those low-probability, high-impact outcomes. And insurance companies make a LOT of money doing it. That's the point. BUT, by insuring you, you are SLIGHTLY more likely to engage in risky activity, because you are now partly protected in case of failure, controlling for other factors. So, when people buy hurricane insurance, they are more likely to build a house on a beach in Florida---"After all," they say, "I'm insured!" If everyone did this, then everyone would have the incentive to "fail" and the whole market come tumbling down, and the market would cease to exist or not even come about in the first place, even though it could operate just fine with a bit of monitoring. That's what's known as market failure (not the failure of markets).

Well, the answer is not to eliminate the entire insurance industry! Instead, insurance companies MONITOR you! They pay a lot of money to make sure that you won't do the behavior that you're insuring against. Of course, adverse selection is also a problem. Those who are most likely to need insurance, can't get it. This applies to smokers (for health insurance), people who live on faultlines (home owner's insurance), and teenage drivers (car insurance). That's one way to reduce the effects of moral hazard; only select the best candidates for insurance (or make those who are riskiest pay a LOT more).

So, what does this have to do with DeMarco? Well, he basically believes that if we work to forgive a small amount of homeowners' principals, who have mortgages from Fannie or Freddie, OTHERS will be incentivized to go underwater as well. He writes:

"The sheer size and public awareness associated with the Enterprises [Fannie and Freddie], including the need for a consistent set of public rules regarding implementation, greatly enhances the likelihood of altering borrower incentives by implementing HAMP PRA [Obama's plan]. Even within HAMP PRA as undertaken by other lenders, the subjective, internal decision-making of those lenders creates an opaque environment that inhibits a general rule that borrowers might use to engage in strategic efforts to attain principal forgiveness." What nonsense!

In plain English, he thinks that if we forgive current homeowners, others will have a incentive to go underwater too, i.e., not make their mortgage payments on time, because of some subjective change in attitudes in an opaque environment! Got news for you, DeMarco, that ship has sailed! We ALREADY have thousands of people who are underwater, even though they were NOT incentivized to be so. So, we can't say moral hazard CAUSED the mortgage crisis. Unemployment, stagnant wages, and falling home prices all better account for why people need to be "bailed out."

And this hypothesis leads to an absurdity. How many homeowners say to themselves, "I'm making my mortgage payments on time, but I'll default and go through refinancing, ruin my credit, all just to shave a little off my principal?!?!" NONE! Or very few. And if you really think that the number of borrowers who default on their mortgages is going to increase so much that no bank will want to lend any longer because the borrowers can always refinance, and interest rates will, thus, go up, because banks will think everyone is riskier, then just put some limits on the program. Put some restrictions on the renegotiated principal. Limit it to people with a certain income, time period, or degree to which someone is underwater. But that ship has already sailed. And monitor people. Make sure they're making their payments on time.

My point here is that most people who are complaining about moral hazard are ignoring the fact that the disaster that should have been avoided already happened! It's like saying, "Oh, no, we won't insure you against tornadoes, even though a tornado just hit your house and now you need help rebuilding your house, BECAUSE we're afraid that OTHER people will build houses that get hit by tornadoes." And you're blaming the disaster on moral hazard, when it had nothing to do with it. In the meantime, an entire community is destroyed, people are injured, and it would be cheaper to just rebuild the town and everyone benefits from the town being made better off.

Of course, there are two objections here.

1. The system is currently rigged to allow people to do this. That the system encouraged moral hazard. Well, that DEFINITELY applies to the banking crisis of 2008, but I don't have time to get into it. But, if you think a homeowner is MORE LIKELY to go into default with his mortgage just because he has mortgage insurance now, you're insane...or just don't know what the total ramifications are for a homeowner if they default on their mortgage.

2. Libertarians will oppose this plan. "Everyone is on his or her own!" they say. They argue that if you default for no fault of your own (which is not the problem of moral hazard), then you're SOL. Well, there are ways to argue against that on moral and political grounds. But, for now, there's the economic one. We're all better off economically, including the libertarian, if we do so, EVEN IF it was their fault, which it wasn't.

Fire DeMarco!

Monday, July 30, 2012

The Not-So-Subtle Racism of Mitt Romney

This blog was envisioned as a way for me to comment on political and social affairs, defined broadly. It's also a place for me to vent about particular events or columns I've read that just leave me completely flabbergasted. And since my current audience is relatively tired of my rants, this blog is a good venue for them. And today I have one.

It's well acknowledged that Mitt's foreign trip has been pretty much a flop from the get-go. He's insulted just about one of our closest, and friendliest, European allies by criticizing their preparations for the Olympics. One fundamental rule is that the British are allowed to complain endlessly about their own politics and society, but no one else is allowed to complain about things British to them. That's not only rude, it pricks the thin skin of every Brit who still longs for that period of Victorian greatness, but just can't admit that they're a third-rate Europe power now. Or, better yet, the Brits don't tolerate outside criticism, because a) they do it so much better than anyone else and b) insulting Britishness is one of the only things the Brits are still good at!

I guess this is in contrast to Germany, where Germans love to complain and welcome foreign assistance in that effort--so as to remind themselves and everyone else that they know they are horrible people and need to continue to hear it from others as well so that they never get high and mighty again, in other words, nationalist masochism. Or is it masochistic nationalism?

I was amazed(!) at how "flat-footed" Romney's been during interviews while in Britain. I mean, really, how are hard is it to state some basic pleasantries about the importance of the "special relationship"--something that's only existed since 1945, and been through it's many turbulent times [Suez crisis anyone???]--and complement the British government on the Olympics? No, he has to make repeated slip-ups of smugness, thinking that HIS olympics were better (but we'll never know for sure). And, to further the case that he's just an a-hole [currently in a debate with a friend as to whether he's more of a-hol or more a douche], he won't even cheer for his WIFE'S HORSE! Who knows how the horse got there, but, really, how insensitive can you be? Can't you display or articulate one genuine form of empathy for a moment, Guv'nor?! I'm now starting to think Romney has political Aspergers Syndrome.

It was Romney's foray onto my territory--political economy--that got my gruff! Here's what he said today in Jerusalem:

 “Culture makes all the difference,” Mr. Romney said. “And as I come here and I look out over this city and consider the accomplishments of the people of this nation [Israel], I recognize the power of at least culture and a few other things.” “As you come here and you see the G.D.P. per capita, for instance, in Israel which is about $21,000, and compare that with the G.D.P. per capita just across the areas managed by the Palestinian Authority, which is more like $10,000 per capita, you notice such a dramatically stark difference in economic vitality,” he said.

Let's forget the fact that he's totally underestimated the differences in GDP between Israel and the Occupied Territories. It's his claims that culture [amongst other things?] that matters. So, Romney is just resurrecting our good friend Max Weber via David Landes. What makes some countries wealthier than others? That question has been around AT LEAST since Adam Smith, but probably longer. And has motivated political scientists and economists ever since. Exhuming Weber from the dead, via Landes, culture explains it! When Weber was trying to tackle this question, he found the Protestant ethic was necessary for capitalism. That's why there's no capitalism in the backward Russia or "Oriental" China. They just don't have the right values, whatever those may be. And Landes updates this by focusing on some key "mores and morals" that a society needs to grow economically.

I've been cautioned to keep these posts short, so that people will actually read them. So I won't go into a long critique of Landes's crappy piece of scholarship. I'm just saddened to hear a major presidential candidate subscribes to this thesis. Well, should I be saddened if I have such unrealistically high expectations? 

But here's a short list of flaws:

1. Romney completely ignores all of the OTHER possible reasons--quite rational--why the Palestinian territories haven't grown. A great list of them is here. Needless to say, but let's write about it anyway, there are plenty of reasons to think that IF the Palestinian territories had at least all of the characteristics of a typical market economy, it would be much richer than it is now.

2. Culture? Really? Does Romney dare go further? Just what is it about Jews that make them so much better than our Palestinian friends in running an economy? We're getting into dangerous anti-/philo-Semitism territory here.

3. If a student of mine cited culture as flippantly as Romney did, and they did, then I would give them a D. [Not like Romney couldn't buy a better grade from me.] I've been teaching versions of the "Wealth of Nations" debate for years. And I always got students who said, "Oh, Prof. Siegel, it's just culture." It's the way they are! So, the implications are: nothing can be done; they don't need our help; our help won't work if it is given; they need to change their culture (somehow) to grow; they're different from us, you see; it's nothing we did; can I go on? Certainly fits with their pre-existing views and inclinations not to support these people and their cause. It's not just that there's no room for nuance. It's that no one can really tie together in a meaningful way how some cultures values become shared, are tied to the outcome [industrialization], why some have them and not others, why some cultures don't get them, why some still grow, but don't have them, why some have them, and don't grow, and on and on.

4. Romney's aides said that his comments were taken out of context. He spoke of the differences "between other countries that are near or next to each other. Chile and Ecuador, Mexico and the United States.” Really? Go further, then, please, Governor Romney, just how are Mexicans and Americans different from each other due to cultural factors? Let's how much of the Latino vote you get then? And just think of how this would translate to Detroit! Why not compare it to Windsor and see what "cultural factors" explain those differences? Why is "nearness" your criterion for case selection?

5. There's no doubt that Romney's comments were directed to his audience--right-wing American Jews. What could be a better combo? Israel and capitalism! Jews and free markets. In contrast to socialism and those Arabs. This all fits well with their worldview that is certainly pro-Republican, conservative and Zionist. Let's put off the question of whether Zionism is racism or just another form of nationalism for another day. What we can say is that people like Sheldon Adelson and his supporters do have this attitude of superiority of the Jewish people to others, especially to Muslims. That they deserve special protection. And it's their own belief in the "success" of the Jewish people that makes them better than others--those other minorities!

There, this rant is over. For now. It'll probably continue in future posts, which I hope will happen more often.

Plus, there's no better way to get your blog read than weighing into the Arab-Israeli conflict. My brother and father can attest to that when participated in forums on the conflict in the early days of Prodigy!!

Saturday, July 21, 2012

All we have to fear is ourselves!

Well, here we are. Again. Another mass shooting in the United States. The person is clearly psychologically diseased. But it's another mass shooting on a long list. In the last 30 years, we've had Killeen, Texas. Columbine. Binghamton, NY. Virginia Tech. Fort Hood. And more are bound to happen. Is it because Americans any more insane than any other country? Not likely given the massacre in Norway in 2011 by Anders Breivik. Nor the multiple school shootings that have happened in Germany. No, mass killings are not that unique to the US. But they do seem to be the purview of advanced developed countries. And they are increasing over time in the US.

What does seem to be unique about the US is our complete inability or unwillingness to do anything about it. A rather moving and prescient piece was just penned by Roger Ebert. In it, he identifies quite well the cycle we go through in this country when it comes to mass killings and shootings. We'll have armchair psychologists. We'll point out all of the holes in our gun laws. The right-wing we will say, "Guns don't kill people; people kill people." Some helpful suggestions for reducing the easy accessibility to guns will be recommended, which Mayor Bloomberg has taken the uncharacteristically brave lead on, but then the NRA will mobilize, accuse anyone of making the tiniest effort at improving our gun safety systems as anti-consitutional and pro-tyranny, our government representatives become silenced by the power of special interests, and, as Ebert writes, it all happens again.

But we can't just stop there. Clearly the status quo is not tolerable. But, aside from the special interest groups seeking to advance their agendas, why else do Americans simply tolerate the idea that it is theoretically possible someone will walk into a movie theater and start shooting at you? I've been struggling to think of a convincing explanation besides, "The NRA just won't let you have gun control; that's why we live in fear." Interest group politics is great, but does it get to the heart of the matter? After all, it seems on the surface that more gun control does not lead to less crime or mass killings, as our good friend John Lott would argue [one of the best manipulators of statistics around]. But, then again, gun control is set at such a minimal level in this country, it's probably hard to know for sure. But, I'm pretty certain minimal changes in our gun laws in this country would NOT bring down crime in this country substantially.

No, there are plenty of other reasons why we are such a violent country. One is inequality. There is simply more crime in unequal societies.  South Africa, Brazil and the United States all have extraordinary levels of inequality and high levels of crime. Why? There is so little chance of social and economic mobility, why not resort to crime to get what you want? In highly unequal societies, the ruling social order and authority is perceived as less legitimate. Why not break the law? It's been against me for so long in the first place, see South Africa. That probably needs to be unpacked some more.

But I'm thinking of a different reason. And that is our basic fear of each other as Americans. I started thinking hard about this a lot more after seeing Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine. Say what you will about his work and knee-jerk, political hyperbole, he asked a great question at the end of his movie. Canada has so many more guns then we do, especially per capita, but why are there so many fewer shootings? Why do they keep their doors unlocked? And he turns to Charlton Heston, who famously said, "We are a country with a history of violence...and mixed ethnicity." That's why we kill each other. Because we fear the rise of hostile groups. We fear those groups who are going to take away our power.

And then I listen to idiot-Congressman-of-the-day-Louis Gohmert, who says that the shooting resulted from Judeo-Christian values (which are a contradiction) coming under attack. And why didn't anyone shoot back? Aside from the pure stupidity of his comments, what he is subconsciously  trying to say, assuming he doesn't only have an id?  And they're out to get us. And that we're all on our own. And we should be ready to shoot them when "they" are. This is how the NRA succeeds in telling its members that Obama is out to take your guns, a completely irrational position. The UN is out to get us with its back helicopters. We need to have LOADED guns in our home, despite the clear danger that poses. Why increase the level of danger in your home by having a loaded gun? Because there must be something out there that is even MORE dangerous! And why are we so afraid?

We're afraid of everyone else. We are extremely fearful of our fellow Americans. We really believe the guy next to us (usually a guy) is locked and loaded and ready to take us down. And Charlton Heston was right on track. It's because we don't get along in this groups, contrary to what Rodney King wished. "We need our guns to feel safe." From what? From each other. Someone could break into my home. Someone could rape me. Someone could take my property! And, most likely of all, they're likely to be a different skin color (now, religion) than me. That's what people are afraid of. Why else are there people in rural areas of this country owning more guns than people in cities, where there is there MORE crime per capita?!?! Because they're afraid of each other out there! Sure, it's hard to call on the police when you live more than 50 miles from the nearest police station. But, historically, what was the greatest fear? Sure, some people who wanted to take your property. But, white man, you were also taking it away from someone else already! Are you surprised that some Native Americans in the 19th century fought violently to keep their land? That's why you had to have a gun on the farm..not just to protect you from the nearest mountain lion or wolf.

This is why conspiracy theories are so powerful in this country...maybe a bit more effective than elsewhere. And I'll more to say on those in a bit [I've been told successful blog posts should be shorter]. But, underneath all of the interest group politics and feckless politicians who say nothing about it, especially in an election year, it's just our deep-seeded fear of everyone else in this country that leads to the easy accessibility of guns and the successful efforts of interest groups to use propaganda to prevent rational gun control policy. What could be more successful in this country than to tell a bunch of middle-aged, rural and suburban white men that a black man, who's in charge AND illegitimate by the way, is coming to take away your guns? That's why there's no real gun control in this country. Someday we'll overcome all of this, sober up as a country, and enter the 20th century.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Anne-Marie Slaughter's anti-gay bias.

Here's a copy of a letter I just wrote to the Atlantic. It's in reaction to her "much-talked about-discussed--commented on piece on "Why Women Can't Have It All.

Dear Professor Slaughter:

As of now, your piece on "Why Women Still Can't Have it All" has blanketed various media in the US. The fact that your article has received such a great deal of attention by so many testifies to the importance of the topic and the contribution you make. Since I've been following your career and your writing for so long--I received my PhD in Political Science in International Relations from Cornell, but have now left the profession--I was so eager to learn what you had to say about the topic of "work-life-balance" for women. But, like a few others, I was pretty disappointed in your analysis. For a while, I left it to people with more time and stature than me to respond to your article. But, I saw that you will appear on the Colbert Report this Monday. This just reminded me once again that I had something to say in reaction to your piece and wanted to get it out as you appear in an upteenth interview--on my favorite program no less. And I doubt you have heard this perspective elsewhere.

So why the provocative subject heading? First, it's an attention grabber. I know you've probably received thousands of emails about your article by now. And somehow I wanted my points to get through your cluttered inbox [and the Atlantic gatekeeper]. Second, I find the assumptions behind your piece flawed and biased against gays and gay couples raising kids. And it's important that you hear them. Let me explain. 

Throughout your original piece and elsewhere (during your interview on the Slate DoubleX Gabfest, for example), you have constantly reiterated the arguments that it is WOMEN who have this biological need to be with their children. I'm not sure if you really believe that men do not have an equal need, biological or not, to be with their children. But, reading your article and short piece reacting to the reaction, I get the sense that you think this drive is less among men (although you give plenty of exceptions to the rule of elite Washington men who at least wanted to be home with their children). You also said as much on the DoubleX Gabfest. you remarked that equality means respecting women's difference--a la Simone de Beauvoir. But, in your constant defense of the "biological necessity and drive" for a woman to be at home with her kids, you are giving ammunition to the school of thought that women ARE NECESSARY to raise a child. Now, I know that you do not to intend this. You would probably argue either a) I did not have gay couples in mind when I wrote this or b) the problem of finding a new work-family balance is a problem for all types of families. If the latter, then great. But you don't seem to give that much weight in your argument. Even in your "reaction to the reaction" piece, you once again state that you wrote this for women. And why? Because it is women that have this need to be back home and juggle work and family, PRIMARILY. So where does that leave 2 gay men raising a family? Do they also not have this problem?

Well, the answer, Prof. Slaughter, is not to strengthen stereotypes which are hetero-normative (which you do in your original Atlantic piece). You are probably not aware that your piece is being read by the gay community, especially those with children, as saying that "Oh, well, I don't have those pressures because I'm not a woman--how DARE HER!" EVERY type of caregiver, gay or straight, faces this difficulty. And what this implies, and what you can't seem to be torn away from, is that your perspective is that to say that PRIMARILY WOMEN face the pressure to "have it all" is itself sexist. The fact that you are "grateful" that Andy stepped in to take care of your children while you were away at the State Department only gives the reader a greater sense that it was YOUR fault and agony to bear when being away from them. Where was Andy earlier, before your teenage son was having problems? Did he ever experience loss when being away from his kids and writing his books? And why would you reconfirm these sexist stereotypes on the XX gabfest, when you said "it was difficult to be in a home full of testosterone." It took be a good minute to bring my eyes because of how far they rolled up into my head. Is that how you define masculinity? By claiming that there is this biological need for a woman to be with her kids, you are just re-affirming the stereotype that it is a WOMAN AND A MAN that is needed to properly raise a child.

And you are probably not aware that simply stating that it is the woman that has this desire to take care of her children, which is biological, you are giving ammunition to those groups who deny and which to take away those rights gays and gay families have fought for and received in the last 20 years. BECAUSE of the stereotypes you are re-affirming, I can hear plenty of right-wing, gay-hating groups saying, "SEE, even this smart, Harvard-educated, leftist woman thinks a WOMAN is NECESSARY to raise a real, functioning family," or at least to feel like a successful woman, i.e. have family and work success. I wonder if you can see the underlying bias of your article any better. 

Think of what the implications are for two gay men raising a child based on your thesis. If they are men, they both would rather pursue their careers and there will less of a "motherly" or "feminine" figure in the house. So, gay families would be weaker and less able to raise children because the two, gay, mean will pursue careers over family, because it's biological.

Finally, this leads me to my last point about where you think change will come from. You only vaguely say how, except that it's necessary to bring woman to power. Well, first, not every woman is going to share your analysis of the problem, i.e. Sarah Palin. Second, why not start convincing men that they should start taking care of their children as well. Maybe more childcare for ALL will then be available. Criticizing Hirshman's critique of your article just because she is another academic is kind of cheap. And you don't really respond to her central claim that your problem IS a problem that WE ALL must deal with. 

One last cite Michelle Obama as a model to follow. You forget that she had a lot of help...from HER mother. Her mother LIVED with the family AND still does help raise the children. Perhaps if it was possible for the rest of us to rely on extended family to help care for our children, we all, gay and straight families, can have it all.

Scott Siegel

And see Hirshman's response to Slaughter's Response!

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