30 August 2009

The Future: A Speculation

Take heed of the above title. The following is written primarily in the spirit of speculation rather than any confident prognostication. My grades in college macro- and micro-economics were not high enough for anyone to take what I am about to write without a large dose of salt.

We are now 21 months into the current recession (adopting the estimate that the recession began in December 2007). Some economists and pundits have interpreted a number of key economic indicators and measures to mean that we may have begun to emerge from the recession, or at least are approaching the bottom. Note the number of qualifiers in the previous sentence. It also appears that foreign economies have also begun to emerge from the global recession.

I am heartened by this news, and continue to be optimistic that the global economy will experience a measure of recovery throughout the remainder of this year and will be well on its way back to normalcy sometime in 2010, largely due to the efforts of political and economic leaders who intervened to avert a more serious crisis.

Nevertheless, I have lingering concerns about the employment prospects for the near and long term future. I will point you to two articles, both in the spirit of serious reflection, but one obviously a little more fanciful than the first. See here and here.

The first article, from The New Republic, notes the potential for a "jobless recovery," the concept that businesses and industries may return to former levels of activity, but without rehiring many of the workers who were fired during the worst part of the recession. I tend to agree with this prediction. I believe that recovery may be slow going at first, and that employment will lag far behind other indicators of economic progress. Some firms may return to previous levels of activity, but will have grown accustomed to doing more with less. Those who remained employed will have become very productive in their efforts to impress managers and keep their jobs (I can personally attest to this). Therefore, we will not see firms rehiring at former levels. Of particular concern is that the major driver of the American economy, consumer purchases, may remain lower for the foreseeable future. (See here). Without consumer purchasing as a driver, both here and abroad, major commercial businesses are unlikely to invest heavily in additional employees. If the American economy does not find another key driver of progress (green energy is generally thought to be the most likely candidate), look for sustained high unemployment for many years to come.

The second article, from the Washington Post, reflects on the growing (and coming) displacement of workers with computers and other machines. This is often a great boon to most of our lives, due to increased convenience and less human error (think of an ATM or making plane reservations online). However, it comes at a cost. Those ATMs replaced real humans who were bank tellers, and websites like Travelocity and Expedia practically decimated the demand for human travel agents. To put it crudely, the ongoing march of technology will make large numbers of Americans unnecessary and unemployable in the economy. The difficult decision is what comes next. Faced with a large underclass of unemployables (who are growing older due to better medical care), the stark choices presented us will be: higher (and more progressive) taxes or let them starve. Taxing the haves at high levels in order to redistribute to the poor is, of course, a matter of the social contract, but also a means to maintain social order. Nevertheless, it will be difficult and controversial.

I don't mean the above ruminations to be a downer. I do not consider myself to be one of the doomsayers, constantly afraid of my own shadow (and those of others) and seeing the end of the republic around every piece of negative news. Nevertheless, I believe that the near- and long-term future will present us with a stark set of choices about how we will react to the plight of our countrymen, and it is one that our political and popular discourse is ill-adapted to handle well.

26 August 2009

RIP Sen. Ted Kennedy

There are going to be many obituaries and eulogies for the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy. This will not be one of them. It would best serve us (and perhaps best please him) that, in the words he spoke in a eulogy for his assassinated brother Robert, he "not be idealized, or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life; to be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it."

In the days, weeks and months to come, more nuanced reflections on his life will become increasingly common. His many personal failings will become a particular focus for some. Already, in some less civilized portions of American society, this has already begun to take place. For now, I am content merely to list what I found today as this man's incredibly long list of legislative accomplishments.

  • Federal Election Campaign Amendments of 1974 - contribution limits and public financing for presidential elections (post-Watergate)
  • COBRA - extending employer-based health insurance after leaving a job
  • Americans with Diabilities Act - set new standards for accessibility of public facilities for persons with disabilities; prohibit discrimination in employment on the basis of disability
  • SCHIP - provide public health insurance to low-income children
  • Mental Health Parity Act - equalize treatment of mental health issues in health insurance
  • HIPAA - allowed employees to retain insurance when moving to a new job; protection of personal health information
  • Ryan White AIDS Act - provide assistance to states who operate programs designed to help AIDS patients
  • INA Act of 1965 - ended quota system in immigration favoring northern Europeans
  • National Cancer Act of 1971 - quadrupled the amount of federal research funding for cancer treatment
  • Title IX - equal funding for men's and women's sports on college campuses
  • Blocking Robert Bork's nomination to the Supreme Court - basically every good thing that has happened judicially over the past 20 years
  • National Teachers Corps - the predecessor of Teach for America
  • Anti-Apartheid Act - banned purchase of certain goods from South Africa under apartheid
  • Civil Rights Act of 1991
  • National and Community Service Trust Act- created Americorps to expand volunteerism and provide grants to students who volunteer after college
  • Two increases in the minimum wage
  • Head Start - providing meals and early education to underprivileged pre-school children
  • WIC - food assistance to low-income women and children
  • Meals on Wheels - federal program delivering found to homebound senior citizens
  • Individuals with Disabilities Education Act - free education to children with disabilities
  • Lowering the voting age to 18
  • Refugee Act - provision of humanitarian assistance, resettlement, and asylum to foreign refugees
  • Civil Rights Commission amendments - expanded CRC's jurisdiction to discrimination on the basis of disability
  • Creation of MLK Jr. Day
  • Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act - allowing persons to sue for past wages if they have been the victim of unequal pay on the basis of gender discrimination
  • Increased access for the disabled to polling places
  • Family and Medical Leave Act- provided up to 12 weeks unpaid leave for family emergencies or newborn infants
  • FHA amendments to help the disabled - prohibiting discrimination against the disabled in housing
  • Even Start - early education and literacy for underprivileged children and families
  • Fuel assistance for low-income families
  • Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty - cut in half the nuclear arsenals of the US and Soviet Union
  • Removal of prohibition on female combat pilots
  • Direct student loans from the federal government
  • Temporary Assistance to Needy Families - welfare-to-work assistance
  • Gulf Coast Recovery Act - emergency funding for recovery efforts in the wake of Hurricane Katrina
  • PROTECT Act - enhanced Amber Alert
  • No Child Left Behind - federal standards in education (initially supported, but never fully funded, much to Sen. Kennedy's dismay)
  • Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008
  • Family Opportunity Act of 2006 - allows states to expand Medicaid coverage to special needs children
  • Eliminated the poll tax from the Voting Rights Act of 1965
  • Violence Against Women Act - allowing battered women to move freely and establish residence without their husband's permission
  • 1994 Crime Act - put over 100,000 additional police on the streets of American cities
  • Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act - regulates the government's use of electronic surveillance
The common thread of course is that most of Senator Kennedy's principal legislative achievements were on behalf of people very different from himself-- the disabled, the poor, the jobless, the victims.

The chief parlor game in Washington D.C., and in newsrooms around the country, tonight and for the next several weeks, is whether Kennedy's death will make health care reform more or less likely. For what it is worth, my hope, wish and anticipation is that this will be the final push needed to make serious health care reform happen. The irony will be that the cause for which Senator Kennedy lived and fought so long will be the one he had to die to achieve.

23 August 2009

What I Haven't Seen in a Very Long Time

See here (and then follow the video link)

Thursday's press conference by the Scottish Minister of Justice Kenny MacAskill regarding the release of alleged PanAm 103 bomber Abdelbaset Al-Megrahi left me a little shocked.  Personally, I am agnostic regarding the release of Al-Megrahi to Libya on "compassionate" grounds.  I would have been happy either way.

The shocking thing was the eloquence, bespeaking careful deliberation and attention, with which Mr. MacAskill announced the decision for Al-Megrahi's release.  I have rarely seen its like on that side of the pond or on this one.  The detailed and thoughtful manner in which Mr. MacAskill explained this decision indicates that he takes his audience (primarily the Scottish and wider British polity, but also the international community) seriously as an intelligent and equally thoughtful consumer of information and participant in the social and political life of the nation.  It is altogether refreshing to see a politician and leader not think and speak in easily consumable soundbites, which taken together may not add up to saying very much at all-- essentially talking down to us as passive recipients of information.  It is even more remarkable given that, in his capacity as a Cabinet Minister in the Scottish Parliament, Mr. MacAskill is unelected (he is an elected member of the Scottish Parliament however).

Regardless of the merits of the decision (Al-Megrahi's reception in Libya on Friday seems to have put Mr. MacAskill's decision in a very poor light), the way in which it was received by British and American policymakers was predictable and useless, even if the release of Al-Megrahi turns out to have been in poor judgment.  Mr. MacAskill handed us a clear opportunity to have a meaningful dialogue about the nature of terrorism, the proper handling of terrorist suspects and those convicted of terrorism, and the limits of current anti-terrorism policies here and in the UK.  That invitation was shoved back in his face like a cream pie.

06 August 2009

Stupidity, self-deception, and charity

Hearing or reading things like this (or this) continue to trouble me profoundly. It is tempting to believe that these are problems of simple ignorance-- problems that, with a sufficiently large bullhorn, can be remedied with simple but forceful education. However, after recently finishing Robert Wright's The Moral Animal, a mid-1990s study on evolutionary psychology, I have come to suspect that their is something deeper and more firmly entrenched at work.

The human capacity for self-deception is well...practically limitless.  But if, as I believe, most of us pride ourselves on searching for and accepting "truth," why is their self-deception?  To put it simply, it helps (or helped) us reproduce better, in two ways.  The simple version of the argument goes as follows: Under Darwinism, the (unconscious?) goal of organisms is to perpetuate their genes through their offspring.  Males in almost all species, who can conceivably reproduce with many females during any reproductive cycle, have the ability to have many, many more offspring over their lifetime than do females, who are generally burdened with gestating and raising the offspring, which limits their lifetime fertility.  Thus males seek after raw quantity of offspring, while females focus more on the quality of the few offspring they are able to produce, hoping that an achieved fitness will enable those offspring to reproduce prodigiously in future generations. 

The first reason for which self-deception may have evolved has to do with how females go about converting their few offspring into worthy future reproducers.  Females primarily pursue quality of offspring through male parental investment (MPI).  A male's MPI will likely inhibit the number of other females with which he could reproduce.  Thus, a male has an incentive to deceive the female regarding the level of MPI he is willing to provide.  In response, females would have likely developed a mental mechanism to detect deception.  But it is the male's counter-measure which is truly intriguing.  At some point, males may have developed a mechanism which heightened the sincerity of their deception by deceiving the males themselves regarding their less-than-noble intentions.  Being utterly convinced of their intention to provide a high level of MPI enabled those males to be utterly convincing to females.  Ergo, those males who could self-deceive reproduced more than those males who did not possess the new fangled mental equipment.  (Note that over a period of thousands of years, the mental machinery for deception, self-deception, and deceptiveness detection would have spread through both males and females in the population).  Whew, that took longer than expected.

The second reason for which self-deception may have evolved also involves sexual selection.  Under this theory, men are better able to achieve status and power through deception, or rather deception is one apt tool among many that males (and females) are able to call upon to achieve status and power.  Status and power translate into higher reproductive potential in males.  Again, self-deception enabled the ambitious to be more able deceivers, and thus to achieve status and power more readily.

Now, what was all this about?  My point, going back to the introduction, is that at some point in our evolution, human beings developed a capacity for self-deception.  Originally, this self-deception was designed for purely reproductive purposes.  It may still serve that purpose or it may not.  However it is unlikely to have become dormant merely because its usefulness has declined.  (Note: This is because this capacity would have taken thousands and tens of thousands of years to develop through natural selection.  It would not disappear in the few hundred years since our species outgrew its usefulness, if we have at all).  Therefore, nearly all humans would likely possess this unconscious capacity to deceive ourselves, all the better to deceive others.  I make the point about self-deceptions unconscious nature to show that self-deception is not malicious, or at least not intentionally so.

So I pointed out a couple of examples in the first sentence of incredibly bone-headed behavior as evidence for human being's capacity for self-deception.  I say this without sarcasm or malice, because being a human trait, self-deception is one with which we are all afflicted.  It actually inspires me to be more charitable towards those with whom I disagree.  Many of them believe some things which are false (and even demonstrably so, not just a mere difference of opinion).  However, they believe them for powerful reasons that have little or nothing to do with the truth or falsity of the idea...and they are not even aware of it.  The phenomenon we call cognitive dissonance would have arisen as part of our capacity for self-deception, in fact to deepen it.  Self-deception is still a tool in the search for status and power.  Believing certain false ideas because of self-deception, and therefore being a very believer in that idea, may have little utility in the larger population or among other communities, but could be incredibly useful in signaling one's status or potential in one's own community.  For example, take the "birthers."  I can predict, with near certainty, that there are few, if any birthers, on the faculties at Harvard or Yale.  Believing such a thing, or at least publicizing it to others, would cause an extreme loss of face, resulting in loss of standing in the intellectual community.  (This does not, of course, preclude faculty members at Harvard and Yale being self-deceived in other areas, which actually contribute to their status and standing).  However, a recent poll showed that 53% of Southerners polled said they did not believe or were not sure that President Obama was born in the U.S.  For a variety of factors, involving politics, racial history, and our baser emotions, being a "birther" may have some utility for some people in the South.

As I alluded to before, humanity's capacity for self-deception is a double-edged sword.  I can point fingers at the absurdities that other folks believe, while being ignorant of the many ways in which I have deceived myself into believe a host of other half-truths and silliness.  In sum, I am encouraged by Wright's admonition towards the close of The Moral Animal, asking us to be more generous with one another and more introspective and thoughtful about our own ideas.  The self-deceived need not remain so.

04 August 2009

Townhall ambushes

What may end up being the big news story of the week ( and perhaps the whole month of August) is the disruption of House members' townhall meetings and other public gatherings with their constituents by "teabaggers" and other assorted conservative activists. By their own admission and by order of their organizers, the goal of such activists is to disrupt these events and prevent communication between the Representative and his or her constituents, particularly as it regards health care reform.

I support the right of all citizens to peacefully (and sometimes not so peacefully) petition their government and make their voices heard. However, this behavior is absolutely juvenile. It is the equivalent of sticking your fingers in your own ears (and the ears of those standing around you) and going "Lalalalalala...I can't hear you!" The activists' goal is not to move the debate in one direction or another or to influence the legislators with alternative proposals. Their purpose is to stop the process dead in its tracks and frankly, to intimidate the legislators among their own people. It is mobocracy and an attempt at governing through fear. If the "teabaggers" have some positive and constructive suggestions for legislative enactments that actually accomplish some of what needs to be accomplished in health care reform (more universal coverage, lower cost, etc.), by all means, share it. Share it loudly if need be. But let's put this childish and foolish behavior behind us.

Thoughts on the proposed "Mormon Review"

Sunday night, my wife (who has collaborated with Richard Bushman on the Faith & Knowledge conference for the past three years) received the following (a shorter version of which is posted here at T&S):

Out of the Best Books: Introducing the Mormon Review

By Richard Lyman Bushman

The scripture that begins “and as all have not faith, seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom, yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom” may have been Joseph Smith’s favorite. He quoted it twice in the Kirtland Temple dedicatory prayer, and made the study of the best books the chief work of his School of the Prophets at Kirtland. Since his time, the scripture has been a favorite of all who appreciate the wide compass of Joseph Smith’s search for truth. It is inscribed in steel letters in the stairwell of the Harold B. Lee Library at BYU.

We launch the Mormon Review, an online journal of cultural criticism, in the spirit of seeking wisdom out of the best books. We ask: What is the meaning of this signal scripture in our time? How do we seek wisdom out of books today? We invite all who are engaged with Mormon culture to join this inquiry.

The task, as we conceive it, is to pursue the meaning for Mormons of the millions of items that constitute our larger cultural world. What are we to make of the books, movies, art, music, politics, and exhibitions swirling about in our environment? Contributors are invited to examine films, plays, art of any kind, TV shows, children’s books, philosophical treatises, novels, histories, documentaries, scriptures from other traditions, political speeches, poetry, popular songs, video games, entertainment sites like Disneyland--any cultural artifact that awakens their Mormon sensibilities. The only restriction is that these items must not be Mormon. Books by Mormons and about Mormons are reviewed in other journals. The Mormon Review will look outward. We believe the spirit of the best books scripture is to search outside of Mormonism for wisdom.

The phrase “best books” implies discrimination, and we know that even the classics must be read critically. They should not be naively accepted as gospel. We must be prepared to contest the thought of even the most honored writers and artists. The Mormon Review offers a public forum where Mormons can teach one another by exercising their critical powers on significant works

But criticism implies appreciation as well as attack. The “best books” scripture assures us that the best books contain wisdom. Working in that spirit, the characteristic Mormon perspective may more often be positive than negative. Are we not enjoined to seek after things virtuous, lovely, and of good report?

The wisdom Mormons find in their reading is most commonly a literary version of their own beliefs. We like to discover the familiar in unfamiliar places. We laugh at ourselves for wanting to baptize every great writer as a Mormon. But this practice need not embarrass us. Mormon criticism attempts to absorb the larger world, piece by piece, into Mormon culture. One way to make a text our own is to recognize the familiar in the unfamiliar. In hearing echoes of our own belief in great texts, we inevitably deepen our understanding and widen the scope of our faith.

We do not envision a single line of Mormon cultural criticism emerging from this undertaking. We expect each response to be individual and idiosyncratic. In our view, Mormon criticism will be the sum of many variegated parts. When accumulated and deposited, however, the essays submitted to the Mormon Review will form, we believe, an invaluable archive of twenty-first-century Mormons grappling with their world.

Essays of any length (optimally four or five pages) should be submitted through the review’s website. Reviews will be accepted beginning August 1 for the launch of the journal on September 1, 2009. The editorial board will judge essays on their relevance to Mormon culture, clarity of expression, and general interest.

I think that this is a tremendously worthwhile project, though I have some questions about how it will be executed. There are other fora where Mormons review non-Mormon cultural items (Meridian Magazine and Deseret News come to mind). Unfortunately, such reviews generally offer little more than a generic prude's point of view. They could have been written by any concerned conservative Christian author or just be a press release from Dr. James Dobson. In short, there is nothing particularly "Mormon" about the review itself, aside from its author.

This is the hurdle that the Mormon Review must overcome if it will distinguish itself as a more thoughtful version of the vanilla Mormon reviews described above. I have heard (or read) Bushman speak (or write) about his opinion that Mormonism has not yet proven to the world what non-theological contribution it has to make to humanity. The Mormon Review can be an important part of finding this community's special "something" or at least exploring whether Mormonism has anything non-theological to offer humanity. It seems that Bushman and the Mormon Review's editorial board have already recognized that there is not one strand of thinking that will be a Mormon viewpoint. Perhaps that by evaluating cultural productions based on Mormon principles and values, the participants may begin to nail down what exactly those principles are, and those that are relevant to cultural production (aside, that is, from the aforementioned generic prudishness). This is important to recognize, but will require a level of erudition and nuance that has previously been missing from Mormon efforts to engage a larger culture.

03 August 2009

Red vs. Blue Economies

Ezra Klein (him again) and Andrew Sullivan (yes, I am a fan) both have stories (here, here and here) today on Ross Douthat's column in the NYT, in which Douthat argues that red-state economic models (specifically Texas, where I currently reside) may be more useful for emulation than blue-state economic models (in particular California). As you might expect, that argument is somewhat against the weight of the evidence.

California is a mess, no question about that. The housing market and unemployment are quite bad and the recent budget cuts are going to be quite painful for many Californians.

It is also true that Texas has responded better than most to the current recession. Last time I checked, unemployment was lower than the national average. In my own experience, some people here have lost their jobs but the consumer and housing markets have remained relatively healthy in spite of all the bad news. However, there is a price to be paid in all this. In terms of a social safety net, Texas is a quite miserly. Its levels of poverty and lack of health insurance (both for the general population and specifically for children) are among the worst in the nation. (See Klein's chart here). Texas has some special challenges-- in particular the large immigrant population-- but of course that is shared by California as well. Texas also has natural resources and industries that contribute a goodly share of the state's tax base, but somehow it has been difficult to translate these revenues into benefits and services for the most disadvantaged. Part of it is a question of priorities-- while I noted yesterday that Americans are more individualistic than Europeans, Texans are the epitome of this attitude.

Getting away from these two states, the bottom line is the twenty-five most prosperous states (by average income) are overwhelmingly blue states (21-4 in favor). The least prosperous states...well why belabor the point? But all of this obscures the real issue. The health of a state's economy cannot be measured solely by its per capita output or income, or the average price of a home. There must be room for a metric which reflects how broadly the benefits of prosperity are shared. No doubt this may reorder the list somewhat, but we have to move away from the abstraction that it is the states that have $X in income and remember that the ones truly suffering are not states, but individuals, families, and children.

02 August 2009

Why Not a Moral Case for Health Care Reform?

Author's note: Yes, I am aware that Ezra Klein wrote a post called "What Happened to the Moral Case for Health Care Reform?" here.  This post was half-done by the time that appeared and I never consider it to be bad to be on the same frequency as Ezra Klein.

The past several weeks have seen an almost-unprecedented level of attention  given to President Obama's (and Congress') attempts to reform the American health care system.  As observed by the editors at The New Republic here, a useful but sometimes unfortunate amount of attention has gone to the admittedly wonkish details of reforming the system (the taxes, the precise structure of "health insurance exchanges," will there be a public option?, etc.), to the detriment of the "moral case for health care reform."  Among the strongest proponents and supporters of comprehensive health care reform (among whom I count myself), the moral case is the most compelling and often the original reason we were drawn to this particular cause above or beyond any others.  Why the disconnect?

Before going any further, it might be important to recognize that any time President Obama or Congressional leaders mention "47 million uninsured Americans," the moral case is being made implicitly.  But why not just put it out there? 

First, the moral case that has been made by other countries in their own pursuit of health care reform (specifically moving towards universal coverage) may not work so well on Americans.  In general, Americans are less enthusiastic and more suspicious of government involvement in economy and providing forms of "welfare" to its citizens.  Americans tend to be more individually focused than European countries, which have a more communitarian ethos.  This has its positives (better welfare in Europe) and negatives (less individual rights in favor of group rights in Europe).  But for appeals to "justice", "fairness" and "equity/equality", there will always be a higher threshold to cross on this side of the Atlantic.

Second, at this particular point in their history, Americans are (and with good reason) narrowly focused on the cost of additional government programs and growing budget deficits.  While some of us are not as concerned as certain GOP  politicians claim to be, it does not pay to be flippant about endless deficits and the growing U.S. debt (neither of which I believe is a necessary or certain outcome of health care reform).  In that sense, talking about the details of cost, tax incidence, and "bending the curve" is inescapable.

Third and finally (and most perjoratively I might add), many of the persons at whom such arguments are aimed, namely, those who are not already convinced that health care reform must pass, don't really give a damn about "the other"-- those who don't have insurance, or who are losing their insurance, their livelihood, their savings, or their health because of a lack of coverage or inadequate benefits.  These are the people Andrew Sullivan is describing (even if not consciously) when he says:
I believe in capitalism in as much as history has yet to show a more efficient or democratic way of allocating resources and rewarding effort. But to believe only in capitalism, to see this money-making machine as an end-in-itself, is spiritual death. And if capitalism is to survive, a citizenry capable of retaining spiritual perspective is critical.