Monday, December 31, 2012

The Perps Get Away With It Again

JP Morgan Chase, Citigroup, Wells Fargo, Ally Financial and Bank of America have, per the Times, agreed to a $10 billion settlement with respect to, er, 'irregularities':

Banking regulators are close to a $10 billion settlement with 14 banks that would end the government’s efforts to hold lenders responsible for foreclosure abuses like faulty paperwork and excessive fees that may have led to evictions, according to people with knowledge of the discussions.

Under the settlement, a significant amount of the money, $3.75 billion, would go to people who have already lost their homes, making it potentially more generous to former homeowners than a broad-reaching pact in February between state attorneys general and five large banks. That set aside $1.5 billion in cash relief for Americans. 

 http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/31/business/settlement-expected-with-banks-over-home-loans.html?hp=#comments

 Ten billion dollars is chump change to these people and their corporations, an entirely acceptable cost of doing business.  They're laughing at our naivete, and toasting each other's robust financial good health, as we speak. And nobody's doing jail time, nobody's admitting to criminal activity. Nothing, but nothing, will change in any substantive, institutional sense. They've largely gotten away with it. Again.  When new calculations arise, they'll go for the new scam, make trillions, concede a billion or two and move on, leaving the rest of us under water. Nothing is more predictable.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Ross Douthat Suggests Balance

His column today, titled 'How to Read', actually describes what to read, including sources from the side of the debate other than one's own.  He doesn't describe how to read--skeptically, willing to question facts and suspicious of naked ideology, demanding a piece which can continue a conversation.

But he neither admits, in the slightest, how entirely unreasonable, hateful and crazed much rightie commentary is, and how few rightie voices rise in protest.  I've been following politics for 50 years from the left and center-left. It's now gospel (sic) on the right that Obama is a crypto-Muslim Kenyan socialist bent on destroying the country, that national health insurance is a step towards Soviet tyranny, that our liberties depend on the availability of 100-round magazines to any citizen, that Europe is an unspeakably horrible example of the failiure of socialism, that talking diplomacy with other than allies is pusillanimous surrender, that government help is an oxymoron, that anthropogenic global warming is a statist conspiracy and that environmentalism is an anticapitalist pseudoscientific religion. Any Republican disagreeing with any of this will be challenged in a primary he/she can't win. Any right wing commenter who suggests that, for instance, Rush Limbaugh was a bit much when he told a black woman to take the bone out of her nose, or Jonah Goldberg when he blamed fascism on liberals, or Ann Coulter when she celebrated Joe McCarthy, is cast out. And Ayn Rand is taken seriously.

I get all that reading rightie sources, and a lot more as bad or worse. And I haven't even touched on the gold standard and fiat currency, or potted female physiology, homophobia, on and on. None of this is stuff I can take seriously, except as pathological.  There's Fred Hoyle and Georges LeMaitre arguing about cosmology; then there's Immanuel Velikovsky.  And there's a difference between 'Here's my view, based on the following facts and logic.  What do you think?' and 'You're a fucking idiot.'  Douthat pretends to a symmetry that simply isn't there.

cite to his article:
 http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/30/opinion/sunday/douthat-how-to-read-in-2013.html?hp

Saturday, December 29, 2012

O Science! I cannot hold thee close enough...

I found the below in a review of Oliver Sacks' 'Hallucinations' in the Times this morning:

The idea of a “romantic science” can be traced to Goethe. The German philosopher, poet and scientist opposed a mechanistic, analytical science of static categories for a fluid and organic one. A. R. Luria, the 20th-century Soviet neurologist, who was a mentor to and friend of Sacks, evoked the tension between “romantic” and “classical” science in his intellectual autobiography, “The Making of Mind.” “Romantic scholars,” he wrote, “do not follow the path of reductionism.” Instead they strive “to preserve the wealth of living reality.” Classical scholars work piecemeal toward the formulation of abstract laws, and in the process they sometimes “murder to dissect.” Romantics may err in the other direction when their “artistic preferences and intuition” take over. Luria sought a middle ground — a science that preserves the part without losing the synthetic whole. This is not an easy balance to achieve, but for Sacks, unlike many clinicians in his field, it remains an ideal.

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/30/books/review/hallucinations-by-oliver-sacks.html?ref=books

Seems to me there's something important going on in this.  One looks in vain, I think, for morality in nature, which simply is.  Then there's looking at nature, which science is about.  The word 'holistic' is used romantically as if it's remotely possible to imagine that science/medicine should be excluded when embracing the totality of existence, as if one can't study trees without destroying the forest.   And the romantic era's embrace of science, superbly documented in Richard Holmes' 'The Age of Wonder', is oft forgot in an uncritical celebration of Enlightenment 'virtues' at the expense of romanticism.  Emotion and rationality are oft contrasted as if they're not only unambiguously separable, but inevitably inimical to each other.  I think that's a mistake.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Away On Vacation (LA)

Six days in LA with the 15 and 16 yo Wombettes, and Dr Mrs W:  celebrities, movie studios, Getty and Disney museums, aquariums, like that. 

I'm alone in being more interested in the mental geography of LA I've absorbed from countless books and movies:  wealth, corruption, mean streets where I might run into Harry Bosch or Philip Marlowe.  Looking around, 'til I see a woman whose blouse isn't too loose, whose skirt isn't too long, and whose legs go all the way to heaven.  Or a piece of angel food cake with a tarantula walking on it.  A dog barked, alone, in the alley...

Sunday, December 23, 2012

GHW Bush's Resignation from the NRA

Mark Thoma's economics blog led me to this letter, via which GHW Bush resigned in outrage from the National Rifle Association, of which he was a life long member:

Dear Mr. Washington,
I was outraged when, even in the wake of the Oklahoma City tragedy, Mr. Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of N.R.A., defended his attack on federal agents as "jack-booted thugs." To attack Secret Service agents or A.T.F. people or any government law enforcement people as "wearing Nazi bucket helmets and black storm trooper uniforms" wanting to "attack law abiding citizens" is a vicious slander on good people.
Al Whicher, who served on my [ United States Secret Service ] detail when I was Vice President and President, was killed in Oklahoma City. He was no Nazi. He was a kind man, a loving parent, a man dedicated to serving his country -- and serve it well he did.
In 1993, I attended the wake for A.T.F. agent Steve Willis, another dedicated officer who did his duty. I can assure you that this honorable man, killed by weird cultists, was no Nazi.
John Magaw, who used to head the U.S.S.S. and now heads A.T.F., is one of the most principled, decent men I have ever known. He would be the last to condone the kind of illegal behavior your ugly letter charges. The same is true for the F.B.I.'s able Director Louis Freeh. I appointed Mr. Freeh to the Federal Bench. His integrity and honor are beyond question.
Both John Magaw and Judge Freeh were in office when I was President. They both now serve in the current administration. They both have badges. Neither of them would ever give the government's "go ahead to harass, intimidate, even murder law abiding citizens." (Your words)
I am a gun owner and an avid hunter. Over the years I have agreed with most of N.R.A.'s objectives, particularly your educational and training efforts, and your fundamental stance in favor of owning guns.
However, your broadside against Federal agents deeply offends my own sense of decency and honor; and it offends my concept of service to country. It indirectly slanders a wide array of government law enforcement officials, who are out there, day and night, laying their lives on the line for all of us.
You have not repudiated Mr. LaPierre's unwarranted attack. Therefore, I resign as a Life Member of N.R.A., said resignation to be effective upon your receipt of this letter. Please remove my name from your membership list. Sincerely, [ signed ] George Bush

 http://www.nytimes.com/1995/05/11/us/letter-of-resignation-sent-by-bush-to-rifle-association.html?pagewanted=print&src=pm

 http://economistsview.typepad.com/economistsview

He'd never have survived the primaries today.  They'd have read his lips, and realized that, though a conservative, he was also capable of doing what he had to do.

Merry and Happy

Now that the Solstice has passed, we're into the second limb of the Scarecrow's obdservation to Dorothy:  'It's going to get darker before it gets lighter.'

Here's Dar Williams' wonderful song about Christians and pagans celebrating together:  merry and happy to one and all

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t_KiHRHwaAs

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Hayek to House Republicans: Play Nice And Grow Up

Reading about House Republican intransigence regarding the so-called fiscal cliff, I was reminded of an essay written by Friedrich Hayek, whose 'Road To Serfdom', in which he claimed that government regulation of the economy inevitably leads to totalitarianism, is an intellectual touchstone of the right.  He's more complicated than that; for instance, he thought national health insurance was acceptable government function.  He titled the essay, 'Why I Am Not A Conservative':

Let me return, however, to the main point, which is the characteristic complacency of the conservative toward the action of established authority and his prime concern that this authority be not weakened rather than that its power be kept within bounds. This is difficult to reconcile with the preservation of liberty...

When I say that the conservative lacks principles, I do not mean to suggest that he lacks moral conviction. The typical conservative is indeed usually a man of very strong moral convictions. What I mean is that he has no political principles which enable him to work with people whose moral values differ from his own for a political order in which both can obey their convictions. It is the recognition of such principles that permits the coexistence of different sets of values that makes it possible to build a peaceful society with a minimum of force. The acceptance of such principles means that we agree to tolerate much that we dislike. There are many values of the conservative which appeal to me more than those of the socialists; yet for a liberal the importance he personally attaches to specific goals is no sufficient justification for forcing others to serve them. I have little doubt that some of my conservative friends will be shocked by what they will regard as "concessions" to modern views that I have made in Part III of this book. But, though I may dislike some of the measures concerned as much as they do and might vote against them, I know of no general principles to which I could appeal to persuade those of a different view that those measures are not permissible in the general kind of society which we both desire.  To live and work successfully with others requires more than faithfulness to one's concrete aims. It requires an intellectual commitment to a type of order in which, even on issues which to one are fundamental, others are allowed to pursue different ends.

It is for this reason that to the liberal neither moral nor religious ideals are proper objects of coercion, while both conservatives and socialists recognize no such limits.

 http://hem.passagen.se/nicb/cons.htm  (read the whole thing)

Hayek knew intimately that ideology can't be imposed on a society without force, and that was unacceptable.  He saw that as a danger regardless of the specifics of ideology.  He recognised that in any society opinions will differ, and that the work of the nation must go on regardless:  working together, muddling through (see post below) rather than marching arm in arm with ideological compatriots toward the Radiant Future, or perishing gloriously before a deluded, evil opposition.

The House Republicans don't know that.  They're proud of their readiness to bring the temple down.  And they project onto Obama, who, I think, is too willing to compromise, their utter intransigence.  Hayek would have taken them aside and told them to fight for their beliefs, but to play nice anyway.  He'd have had a point...

Friday, December 21, 2012

In Praise of Muddlers

Charlie Pierce, in a terrific post today, suggests muddling is the right way to get through the holidays:

...To be a muddler is to recognize that the movement forward, however tentative the movement or however small the steps, is more valuable than a brief look at temporary tinsel. To be a muddler is to understand what optimism really is. To be a muddler is to be an American. There was muddling at Valley Forge. There was never a better muddler born than Abraham Lincoln. We do not celebrate our liberties because someone framed the Constitution one day, hanging a shining star, as it were, on the wall of the National Archives. We celebrate all the decades of muddling that we as a people — that We, The People — have done to make those words a living reality. When Martin Luther King, Jr. explained to the country, "Why We Can't Wait," he was announcing that the muddling had to accelerate. He wasn't asking for the results. He was demanding the effort. He was making a moral claim to the muddling.

So, on we go, muddlers all, toward what may or may not be a better day, trying not to be distracted by the shining stars hung on all the highest boughs by the people who fear where all our stubborn muddling as a people may lead, because they see and fear where all our stubborn muddling has led in the past. They want us to stop and stare at the artificial gleam of their private stars high up on the boughs they have designed forever to be out of our reach. They are still wrong...

 http://www.esquire.com/blogs/politics/ (scroll to 'Out on the Weekend')

Old pulp science fiction space ships usually had names like 'Polaris' or 'Far Star' or some other inspirational moniker.  Poul Anderson's Nicholas Van Rijn, a merchant trader in a galactic federation, named his spaceship 'Muddlin' Through'.  Loved it...

The muddlers do the actual work that needs to be done, that the purists usually disdain.  The muddlers live in the real world, and try to make it a better place.  They remember that living, breathing human beings are involved, and that people are more important than ideas.  God bless them, every one, mostly... 


Prof. Umbridge, Packing Heat

Wayne LaPierre, the National Rifle Association's self-caricature, today came out with his solution to the problem of school firearms violence.  One thing he called for was the presence of armed guards in the schools.  He thinks there's too much violence in the media.  Like that.  Nothing whatever the slightest bit unpredictable or helpful.  He also spoke of handling the mentally ill better, a cause for which Republicans have been notably unwilling to appropriate funds for, siting the adequacy of private sector responses to the problem and the dangers of Stalinist tyranny destroying America as we know it.

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/22/us/nra-calls-for-armed-guards-at-schools.html?hp

Now, I went to school, and recall my teachers.  They ranged from the saintly to the ridiculous, on both superficial and deep levels, as yours did too.  One of my favorites was later found to have liked middle school boys rather better than he should have.  Another, whose bitter right wing diatribes introduced his every class, became a friend, and gave me a life long love of poetry at a time when I wasn't reading anything other than pulp science fiction.

The vision of each and every one of these carrying a firearm to school does not suggest to me a solution to any problem at all...

The Future Is A Foreign Country

Carlo Rotella, in this morning's Boston Globe, notes that a flying car is being tested.  He recalls a time when visions of the future extrapolated airplanes, telephones, cars, electric power, radio and ocean liners into a Radiant Future full of technological mastery and freedom, and then notes the turn towards a mostly darker anticipation of descent into apocalypse, slow or fast:

By 1982, in Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner,” an enormously influential science-fiction portrait of the near future, the flying car had turned definitively noir. Cops lifted off in them from decaying, ungovernable streets, nosing through the perpetual twilight of neon-lit pollution.

 These days we seem to have even less use for sunny visions of the future, instead favoring zombie plagues, enslavement by machines, endless young-adult dystopias, and apocalypses of every stripe. (Today being the big day for Mayan doom, I trust you’re watching the heavens for the approach of Nibiru.) Then, in the real world, there’s climate change, peak oil, and more esoteric forms of resource depletion (we’re running out of magnesium?!), the 1 percent vs. the 99 percent, and the imperial tristesse that infuses the idea of America’s declining power in the world.

 http://www.bostonglobe.com/opinion/2012/12/21/terrafugia-transition-flying-cars-not-just-for-escaping-zombies/0dT7ws8cAcvgaYhKvysMRK/story.html?event=event12

He then admits to being happy that expectations have changed:  his vision of flying cars isn't freedom to travel, but millions of Boston drivers up there doing on the skies what they do on the roads.

But an apocalyptic future is no more probable than a Utopian one.  Utopia means 'nowhere' for a reason.  And extrapolation, which is to some extent all we've got to define the future, is the very Devil's work:  there will always be completely unexpected game changers.  We don't have flying cars these days, but neither do we have computers that grew in size from basement-filling 7094s to whole cities or planets.  And they haven't taken over, and artificial intelligence remains not only a distant goal but one whose very definition, even the possibility of its achievement, remain the subject of dispute.

Problem is, there's an element of self-fulfilling prophecy to all this.  An apocalypse is nothing if not a breakdown of civil order and relations.  In the fifties and sixties, one thought of nuclear war, and, perhaps, built a fallout shelter.  Now, people imagine zombies.  But those zombies all too often turn into Ayn Rand's moochers and looters, and, all too often, people buy guns.  They buy ammunition.  They practice with them sometimes, and every shot fired reminds them that they're preparing to defend themselves against the Other, who becomes dehumanbized.  Trying to understand the Other is not only useless, but a sign of weakness.  Coming together to solve problems is not just a betrayal of values, but bringing a guitar to a gun fight.  Talking to someone with whom you disagree--negotiation, it was once called--is, as in the Bush-Cheney administration, viewed as concession to an enemy, rather than something adults do.

Me, I'll take a flying car over all that...

Thursday, December 20, 2012

You Cannot Conquer Time

Talking about Tolkien's One Ring on the docs' blog Sermo, and got to thinking:  its destruction ended Sauron and Mordor, broke the power of evil.

But the evil of Saruman and Grima in the Shire persisted after the Ring's destruction, and people started setting off for the Grey Havens. That wasn't a voyage of striving, seeking, finding and not yielding; it was an elegiac fade, not at all an exuberant victory.

I'm talking more out of my hat than out of deep analysis here, but perhaps the Ring is Time Bound, and its destruction Time's Release, as the Ring as evil, which it surely is. I see the seduction of the Ring as that of the power to bind Time to one's own ends, the preservation and consequent ossification of one's life, the infinite extension of an illusion of power rendered unchallengeable thereby. And, in the event, the Ring's destruction required an act of the entity most completely enslaved by it--made immortal by it--taking a piece of the living in his mouth as he fell to doom. Time's Release, as well as Time's Binding, may be one of those things one should be cautious to wish for...

Occam's Bushmaster

There's lots of talk about action heroes as dangerous fantasies these days, especially those you can pretend are yourself as you mow down the zombie hordes on the Alienware.  But action heroes make sense in the world constructed around them, which they inhabit.  Absolute good, absolute evil, unambiguous, easily distinguished in the blink of an eye and a flash of a muzzle, where physical violence has a simple, crystal clear origin and physical violence the righteous and inevitable solution.

The action heroes' worlds are every bit as fantastic as the protagonist him/herself.  I'd suggest the worlds of the action hero are more dangerous culturally than the heroes themselves:  they predispose us to view reality that way.  That's not just a mistake, but a catastrophe.  Over and over and over again.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Welcome, Keep Calm and Carry On, And Thank You

A friend from the doctors' blog Sermo, whose denizens are mostly (but not all) rightie and libertarian sorts, and many of whom I count as friends regardless, ran across this blog and asked me if I was keeping it a secret.  I haven't, and I welcome all who want to come here.  If you read back, and find things you disagree with, feel free to let fly; I'll respond.  But I've an odd reservation, as  I replied to him thus (crossposted from the Sermo 'private' messaging board:

My screen name comes from my eldest daughter, who loves wombats after seeing 'em on an Animal Planet show when she was little.  She'd ask me a question, and I'd usually respond, 'That's complicated', and go down to the basement library and come up with five books.  So, she called me 'Prof. Complicated'.  I merged the two out of my love for her, and to remind myself not to take myself too seriously.  Works well, doesn't it?  (dives into blast shelter)
Thanks so much--I've let the blog lapse and thanks for reminding me of it; I'll start posting on it again.  I hadn't spread the news far and wide about it because the stuff i wrote for it i did mostly in a vacuum, which means I didn't get feedback from those with whom I disagree, but want to maintain a conversation with anyway.  There are a couple of people on Sermo like that...  So, some of the political posts aren't all that temperate and reasoned on the blog, more like venting my spleen than debating with intelligent people using facts and logic.
I don't hide my views under a rock here 'zackly.  But neither do I let fly with all cannons firing with respect to how I feel about that stuff.  It's pretty obvious, I'd guess, that I feel deeply about it--wouldn't keep it up otherwise.  And I've said most of what I've said anywhere else here, too.  But neither do I want to offend, or make it impossible to keep the conversation up.  My goals here are to make room for the notion that one can be human and sane and be left of center anyway, to the extent that mutual respect in disagreement is possible, that one can disagree without dismissing someone else's common humanity, the possibility that despite our disagreements we could work together to find enough common ground to move the case along.  That's harder sometimes than just letting the rhetorical flag fly marching into battle.  Less fun sometimes.  Requires restraint and forethought on my part.  And also, harder because I don't want to compromise my views in doing so:  that would be hypocrisy in service of the illusion of community, and would vitiate the whole exercise.  I'm the first to admit that I don't always get it right, but I try.
I love sharing all the non-political stuff, always, and love talking with people who don't think the way I do because I learn something from them, every time.  So anyone who comes to the blog is always welcome, not a secret, Kumbaya and like that.  I just don't want people to come there expecting reasoned dialogue and finding what they might see as partisan diatribe, getting turned off and ending the conversation.  If they have comments in disagreement, I'll answer them the way I do here, semicolons and all, and I'd hope that'd be OK. Hope all that makes sense.
Long answer to your short question--I do that a lot--with deep respect, and gratitude.

I'll be back here often enough to keep you coming back, assuming the content's at all worth it to you.  Go ahead.  Teach me something.  Make my world bigger.  I get stupid if I only talk to myself...

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Bipartisanship Requires Two Partisans

Paul Krugman today reduces the Ryan phenomenon, as he has repeatedly, as emerging from the willful blindness of those, especially in the media, looking for credible Republicans with increasing desperation:

...the Ryan phenomenon wasn’t primarily driven by the hard right, which has plenty of heroes. It was driven, instead, by “centrist”, self-righteously nonpartisan pundits who seized upon Ryan as their demonstration that see, there are honest, reasonable conservatives who must be taken seriously.
And these people have been hit really hard by Ryan’s precipitous plunge from icon to punchline, which is made much worse from their point of view by the fact that some of us warned years ago that Ryan was in fact an obvious con man.

 http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/09/04/whom-the-gods-would-destroy-they-first-make-bipartisan/

The astounding, egregious Republican primary sequence was an exercise in hailing one absurd candidate after another as the Great Not-Romney Hope, only to be dashed on the rocks of reality. We now have Romney elevating Ryan, demonstrating that Romney himself isn't much better.

Those looking for the moderate, centrist, reality-connected candidate, with an actual plan to deal with the economy, should vote for Obama, who is all of those things. Were the Republican party not dominated by liars and crazies, it'd be easy to see him as bipartisan. And those of us (raises hand) who find Obama too centrist have no alternative at all but to vote for him.

Obama: Devoid of Republican Substance

David Brooks often suggests that Obama's government is defensive, and that neither the Republicans not Obama have had substantive plans for changing things for the better.  Consider today's article, in which he offers Obama his skills as a speech writer:

Obama has been reactive. He has been defined by the various negotiating positions he has taken in his confrontations with Congress. He’s used a more partisan political style to mask his small-bore policy substance. It’s not clear what he is passionate to do if he is elected for another four years.

 http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/04/opinion/obamas-elevator-speech.html?hp

Small-bore policy substance?  Mr Brooks obviously hasn't read the president's jobs program, not even taken up by the Republican-controlled House.  Nor Obama's budgets, dismissed a priori.  Nor Obama's negotiations with the Republicans over the budget, in which they refused to consider the slightest bit more spending or a penny of tax increase, holding simultaneously and irrationally that the deficit and high taxes are both problems needing to be addressed urgently and forgetting unemployment.  Nor Republican intimidation of the Federal Reserve Bank.

Takes two.  If there's only one at the table, that one makes concession after concession and meets only obduracy, that isn't symmetry.  Add on the constant drumbeat of doubt as to Obama's birth, religion, association with dangerous radicals, apologies for America, attacks on religion and other nonsense, and it's even worse.  Perhaps Mr Brooks should reconsider...

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Can I Get A MIttless? A Modest Suggestion for a Campaign Ad

The visual would depict Mitt Romney's dressage horse, prancing about the ring in a manner which all but those involved in the sport would find ridiculous.  Overlaid, a soundtrack detailing Romney's proposals that the rich get further tax cuts, that the middle class gets increases, that the poor and those dependent on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid take one for the team.  And, closing, mentioning the cost of such a horse and its maintenance, and, finally, pointing out that Romney deducts the horse as a business expense from his taxes, which means that every citizen of the USA helps pay for it.


Hold That Tiger?


There's a fascinating article on Chinese education in the Times today, on Nicholas Kristof's blog, by an American college student who spent a year in a Chinese high school. He'd noted the very high science and math scores Chinese students have with respect to the rest of the world, very much including the USA, and had hoped to learn a lot. He became disenchanted quickly:

But we cannot take those successes and implement them here. A cafeteria approach to Chinese culture – “I’ll take the work ethic, but not the stress-producing, creativity-killing exam, please” – doesn’t work; the baby is inseparable from the bathwater. Kristof often measures his praise with criticism of the Chinese model, acknowledging that it causes stress or stifles creativity. But these criticisms are more than disclaimers, they are inextricably linked to the model’s successes. The same gaokao that puts heavy stress on students also makes them willing to do homework over the summer and the emphasis on mindless rote memorization is precisely why students score highly.
The question we need to ask is not “How have the Chinese produced such hardworking students?” but rather “Is it possible to instill such a work ethic without a high-stakes exam to scare students into submission?” Instead of “How have the Chinese achieved such measurable success?” we must ask, “Is it possible to succeed without revolving around tests?”
China’s solutions won’t work – what we need are answers of our own.
http://kristof.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/08/29/que...

Richard Feynman, in (I think) 'What Do You Care What Other People Think?', told of his experience in Brazil, where he found a similar system, restricted to rote repetition at the expense of creativity. A friend whose daughter attended the Sorbonne in Paris had similar stories to tell. In Japan, entrance into Tokyo University is key to advancement, as is the Ecole Polytechnique in France. Once the ferocious competition is over, students in such places slack off considerably, perhaps (don't know for sure, speculating here) behaving as do, say, Harvard legacy students 'earning' gentlemen's C's.

I'm reminded of John Searle's Chinese Room argument against the notion of artificial intelligence arising solely out of algorithm, as a digital computer program would. He imagined a man, speaking no Chinese, in a room with a Chinese dictionary and other books. Through a slot, questions would appear in Chinese. He'd take the books, and render them into Chinese, and send them out the slot. The man would know no Chinese at all. Neither would a computer doing the same thing. So, in another example, the computer chess program Deep Blue, executing a gazillion instructions a second, beat then world champion Garry Kasparov, who couldn't possibly match it in its method, and used, perhaps, another. This isn't universally accepted, and can be attacked in several ways. But would the man in the room be encouraged to creativity, to brainstorm with others, to solve problems or even define previously unrecognised ones to solve? Dunno...

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Tea Partiers: the Sokol Hoax Lives?

Ron Suskind quoted an unnamed source during the Bush administration, famously, as claiming the right to construct their own reality arising out of their power. The Tea Partiers seem to all but themselves increasingly at odds with reality, and the Republican Party increasingly unwilling to challenge them on even their most ludicrous beliefs. Such as Krugman, shaking their heads, say outright that their numbers don't add up, their assumptions at odds with data, that Ryan's and Romney's proposed budgets are fraudulent and out of fantasy rather than reality.

I've wondered in this context about the philosophical distance at which some on the left have positioned themselves from the notion of the correspondence theory of truth, the existence of an objective reality, the alleged hegemony of scientific over humanistic takes on life and the hard-to-define demarcation between the two. The right, trying to claw back shared power and reassert its claim to exclusive possession of it, demonstrates a potted caricature of postmodernism, raising the possibility that there's a fundamental problem with it. Or, perhaps, a less fundamental one, whose desperately needed clarification would exclude righty abuse of the notion. The Tea Partiers and, well, sane people, are obviously at odds. Their world views are irreconcilable, and not merely, seems to me, because of intrinsic assumptions equally valid though different, their validity a matter of social construction and nothing else, neither side privileged, but rather because one side is entirely crazy and the other is trying to deal with the real world. I don't see how that can be argued. I see their assertions as not stating facts, but, rather, laying out social markers, by which identification with the group is granted, and, therefore, unchallengeable by assertion of fact. For many of them, the Obama-as-Kenyan and Obama-as-Muslim assertions are completely unfalsifiable. And 58% or so of Republicans discard the theory of evolution despite vast, unchallenged scientific evidence.

The Tea Partiers, of course, would disagree with me, and assert precisely the same thing about, well, sane people, and are immune to factual and logical disputation of their positions. I'd like to refute them with more than a Potter Stewart hand-waving 'I know it when I see it'. I'd like to assert, with absolute confidence, that there's a way to objectively distinguish between socially constructed world views based on external correspondence, or lack of it, with reality. Then again, I'd like to do so with respect to science and other human enterprises--an exercise most scientists take as obvious or unnecessary, but which has resisted most rigorous philosophical attempts to do so. Or, perhaps, I can just say they're all bigoted, intolerant, ignorant, dogmatic poopyheads, and that lefties aren't. Obviously...

Republicans: Bring Back Noblesse Oblige

Ross Douthat in today's Times tries to recast Mitt Romney as not a Mormon but a classic WASP, one of those worthies schooled in the Values That Made This Country Great.  Wrong, seems to me, on both counts.  Dwelling on Ann Romney's speech, he concludes thus:

Her best line evoked generations of reticent, public spirited Brahmins: “Mitt does not like to talk about how he has helped others because he sees it as a privilege, not a political talking point.” The same was true of her strongest passage:

      No one will work harder. No one will care more. And no one will move heaven and earth like Mitt Romney to make this country a better place to live.

This is not an ideological or policy-oriented argument, calculated to reassure conservatives worried that Romney is too moderate or moderates worried that he’s too conservative. Nor is it a promise that Romney would actually be a great guy to have a (non-alcoholic) beer with. And while it evokes the hope of a better tomorrow, it doesn’t cast the mere act of electing Romney president as a kind of grand apotheosis in its own right, in the style of Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign.

Instead, it’s an argument for Ann Romney’s husband that could have been made on behalf of the old White Anglo Saxon ruling class with whose Social Registered members he shares so many qualities. You don’t have to love him, the more effective parts of her speech implied, or relate to him, or even always necessarily agree with him. But you can trust him with the presidency, because he’s suited to public service, and he was born and raised and trained to do this job.

http://campaignstops.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/08/29/the-case-for-noblesse-oblige/?hp

He titles his column 'The Case For Noblesse Oblige'. Wrong, seems to me, on both counts.  It's hard to be more of a Mormon than Romney, who ministers, tithes, missionaried and raised five Mormon sons.  And one of those Values was never flip-flopping on issues such as abortion, or joining the NRA while running for president out of a lifelong love of hunting, or renouncing one's principal political achievement (Massachusetts health care).  Nor did Romney, with Bain Capital, actually build anything.  But Douthat's wrong on a deeper level.  Consider, for instance, the egregious Niall Ferguson, who waxes nostalgic for the British Empire--though not in a bar in Perth or Dublin, nor in Amritsar or Johannesburg.  In reviewing a book by Philip Bobbitt, Ferguson, descending into self-caricature, delivered himself of this gem:

Philip Bobbitt, however, is homo atlanticus redux. A dapper Southerner, renowned almost as much for his sparkling literary allusions as for his acute thinking, he divides his time among Austin, Tex.; New York, where he teaches law at Columbia; and London, where he has lectured in war studies. His new book, “Terror and Consent,” is in many ways a manifesto for a new Atlanticism, not just a reassertion but a reinvention of the dominant role of the trans-Atlantic alliance. It will be read with pleasure by men of a certain age, class and education from Manhattan’s Upper East Side to London’s West End.

 http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/13/books/review/Ferguson-t.html?pagewanted=all

 Such rhetoric expresses profound regret that people formerly excluded from power--women, black folk, Hispanics, gays and lesbians, former Colonial wogs, others, constituting solid numerical majorities in the USA and the world--are demanding, and sometimes asserting, a share of that power, and recognition of their common humanity.  And not just regret, but anger, resentment and resistance by any means necessary, attempting to reverse time.  It cuts to the Republican position on issue after issue.

So, Obama isn't even a citizen of the country, and won because of voter fraud--itself a falsehood arising in part out of record turnouts of black and Hispanic folk in 2008--after a lifetime where every achievement was due to affirmative action--reverse racism, they call it.  Control over women's bodies, abortion, even contraception.  Romney's bellicose nonsense about Russia as geopolitical enemy and China as requiring stern resistance.  Foreign aid and the United Nations.  Obama kissing the Saudis and 'apologizing for America'. Ayn Rand's 'virtue of selfishness.'  All of it.

Not only wrong factually, morally and ethically, but, if implemented as policy, utterly doomed to failure, arising out of fantasy, stupidity and outright lie.  And, apparently, appealing enough to many to, quite possibly, get Romney elected.



Monday, August 27, 2012

Money Talks, Republicans Walk

The Times today has two Republicans and two Democrats discussing the utility of presidential conventions in their 'Room For Debate' series. It's fun to read: http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2012/08/26/do-party-conventions-matter-anymore?hp Interesting that the two Republicans have little use for conventions, and the Democrats like them. Also interesting that Dan Schnur, a Republican, called for the parties, rather than the taxpayers, to finance the conventions. It's almost as if the Republicans, who have far more money after Citizens united than do the Democrats--Sheldon Adelson alone could finance the GOP convention--want to put the Democrats at a further financial disadvantage, and as if the Republicans don't want the Democrats to have an opportunity to place their message before the electorate. Imagine that. NB: been ill, better now and will show up here. Thanks for understanding

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Gee, Officer Zimmerman, We're Sociologically Sick

I remain baffled by those discussing the Trayvon Martin killing out of ideology trumping tragedy. There is one unassailable, absolute, 100% true aspect to this case: an armed man killed an unarmed kid. That shouldn't have happened, and should be prevented in the future if at all possible. Such an event should be found horrible by all who contemplate it.

When liberals/lefties/whatever seek explanations for social problems with a view towards mitigating them, they're routinely accused by conservatives/righties/whatever of not merely explaining, but justifying. Extending a common humanity across the board to all is oft viewed as an abdication of morality, an abandonment of holding people personally responsible for their actions, denial of a moral sense of right and wrong, and so fundamentally flawed as to perpetuate, even worsen the very problem under study. That's usually (not always) wrong: there's a fundamental difference between explanation and justification, and personal responsibility is more, rather than less, necessary in a world where easy certainties are more elusive than any of us would like.

We have here an event, as I said, that should not have happened. And we have here emerging from the right precisely the sort of reasoning that they so oft accuse the left of in caricature: a framing of the death of an unarmed kid at the hands of an armed man as not merely explainable, but justifiable.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Philip Larkin

Michiko Kakutani in the Times today reviews an exhaustive, meticulous new complete works of Philip Larkin:

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/10/books/philip-larkins-complete-poems-edited-by-archie-burnett.html?hpw

My hat's off to her; I've loved Larkin for a long time, but would never dream of subjecting myself to that big a dose of him at once. His work isn't, in bulk, exactly a ringing affirmation of human possibilities. Sometimes, though, his humor mitigates his gloom, even when he's at his most pessimistic:

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another's throats.

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don't have any kids yourself.

-----

Another of my favorites:

Why should I let the toad work
Squat on my life?
Can't I use my wit as a pitchfork
And drive the brute off?

Six days of the week it soils
With its sickening poison -
Just for paying a few bills!
That's out of proportion.

Lots of folk live on their wits:
Lecturers, lispers,
Losels, loblolly-men, louts-
They don't end as paupers;

Lots of folk live up lanes
With fires in a bucket,
Eat windfalls and tinned sardines-
they seem to like it.

Their nippers have got bare feet,
Their unspeakable wives
Are skinny as whippets - and yet
No one actually starves.

Ah, were I courageous enough
To shout Stuff your pension!
But I know, all too well, that's the stuff
That dreams are made on:

For something sufficiently toad-like
Squats in me, too;
Its hunkers are heavy as hard luck,
And cold as snow,

And will never allow me to blarney
My way of getting
The fame and the girl and the money
All at one sitting.

I don't say, one bodies the other
One's spiritual truth;
But I do say it's hard to lose either,
When you have both.

---

His concision and effortless form, everyday diction and combination of humor and seriousness in these two echo Auden, are instantly memorable and, even if I disagree with them somewhat, are far too serious at root to be dismissed.

But my favorite of his poems is 'The North Ship', which would have annoyed him: an early work from his first book (1945), extensively anthologized, that he himself didn't like his work reduced to. It begins thus:

I saw three ships go sailing by,
Over the sea, the lifting sea,
And the wind rose in the morning sky,
And one was rigged for a long journey.

The first ship turned towards the west,
Over the sea, the running sea,
And by the wind was all possessed
And carried to a rich country.

The second ship turned towards the east,
Over the sea, the quaking sea,
And the wind hunted it like a beast
To anchor in captivity.

The third ship drove towards the north,
Over the sea, the darkening sea,
But no breath of wind came forth,
And the decks shone frostily.

The northern sky rose high and black
Over the proud unfruitful sea,
East and west the ships came back
Happily or unhappily:

But the third went wide and far
Into an unforgiving sea
Under a fire-spilling star,
And it was rigged for a long journey.

--

So Larkin would be annoyed. Why should the toad of middle aged disillusion squat upon my life?

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

'War Crime' is Redundant. 'Just War' is Oxymoronic.

David Brooks explores today the transition of a good, decent civilian who now stands accused of appalling atrocity in Afghanistan, going to the notion of original sin and to research demonstrating human capacity for violence. It's an important, interesting column, too short a piece on too deep a topic. I think it's a good start, and would go further as below.

We learn nothing from the Nazis worth learning unless we acknowledge that they were human, as human as we are, and that which can make a human a Nazi exists in all of us. It is something not to be denied but to be watched for, and fought, not least within ourselves. And yes, heroes, too, are human, as human as Nazis, which is precisely why one must reject despair, which aids and abets Naziism far more than it enables heroism.

It should be old, old, very old news indeed that war produces atrocity, on all sides, in people who would not so behave otherwise. There has never in human history been a war devoid of it. The notions of 'just war' and 'war crimes' are willful denial of the fact. There is no such thing as just war. There is no war without crime. One can say that it was necessary to defeat Hitler's evil, even if it required acts such as massive civilian bombing and alliance with one of history's most monstrous regimes, but one cannot pretend that victory, even in a war as necessary as any, can come without its price to the soul of the victor, or that 'necessary' and 'just' are synonymous.

One of the curious, profoundly unsettling things about nuclear weapons is that they are so powerful that they have forced upon many of us a moral consensus that their only just, moral and ethical use is the deterrence of their use by others. A world otherwise full of horror has not seen a nuclear weapon used in war since 1945. We have, of course, not entirely embraced that yet. A single ballistic missile submarine has 240 or so warheads which can be individually targeted to destroy the infrastructure and population of even the largest country on earth within 30 minutes of the order. We now have around 10,000 warheads, and that is celebrated by some as an improvement, and railed against by others as unilateral disarmament. Meanwhile, even such as Kissinger, Scowcroft and Shultz have joined in calling for an end to nuclear weapons. Some of us might add that one might call for an end to war in general under similar grounds: easy to begin, difficult to limit or control or end, inevitably producing atrocity not just from an enemy but from ourselves, and far more often than not preparing the ground for the next war.

We now live in times when one of the two major parties' rhetoric constantly calls for more personal responsibility, but, in general, only finds it lacking in others. That is absurd on its face, offers no way forward at all, and opposes the teachings throughout history of the greatest teachers humanity has produced. We also constantly hear saber rattling over the possibility of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons, as if war is the default position, to be proceeded with absent guarantees of total success were it not embarked upon. It isn't hard to hear a dismissal of the inevitable 'collateral damage' of such a war, as if Iran's government and its people are one and the same, as if a war could not possibly have negative consequences as large as those of not going to war. Not so.

If any of us can be Nazis, if any of us might under some circumstances commit or abet atrocity, then it seems to me amongst the very highest of our obligations to prevent that. It's obvious that it can be prevented: most people do not so behave. That requires us to understand both what exists within ourselves, and what circumstances encourage evil behavior from us. And there are no more confirmed data about humanity than that war brings terror, atrocity and death, that politics and religion which dehumanize others result in man's inhumanity to man, that weapons designed to kill facilitate killing.

Cite to Brooks: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/20/opinion/brooks-when-the-good-do-bad.html?_r=1

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Be Quiet: It Goes Without Saying

Reviewing Eyal Press's 'Beautiful Souls', Louisa Thomas opens with this story from the book:

Paul GrĂ¼ninger, a Swiss police commander, had a simple explanation for why he broke the law to help Jewish refugees flee Austria in 1938. His daughter remembered that he would repeat the words “I could do nothing else.” It is a humble answer, as if to say that anyone would have done the same.

Except that most Swiss police officers didn’t: they turned the refugees away, as the law required. GrĂ¼ninger made a choice, and it was certainly not the expected one. He did not fit the image of a resister. He was not a political activist and did not have a history of rebellion. He had a family to protect and provide for. He had taken an oath to uphold the law, and he considered himself faithful to his country. When the authorities discovered that he had falsified the documents of Jews, he became a pariah. So why did he disobey his orders?

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/11/books/review/beautiful-souls-by-eyal-press.html?ref=books

Every person I've ever met who could be construed as heroic, every last one, has been reluctant, even refused, to discuss the heroic behavior/incident, and said something similar, often going on to say, 'You'd have done the same thing.' It's impossible for me to believe that of myself. Reading, for instance, the Congressional Medal of Honor citations, I can't imagine acting that way. And yet, that's an a priori belief, sitting on a couch with my laptop in a situation devoid of heroic possibilities. I might not stop to think, just act, feel as if there's no choice. Most heroes don't think, they just do. I might not. So I'll probably never know. Sometimes I wish I'd taken more risks, demonstrating what I'm capable of, or not; sometimes I don't.

Then there are differing notions of heroism and risk. A friend recalled to me sailing with a single friend/crew member across the Atlantic. Found the bolt securing the mast held only by friction one evening; he quickly put the out back on. They were sailing into regions where crime was possible to the extent that they hid a couple of machine weapons in a false ceiling, fortunately never used. I found that risky. Meanwhile, I'd gone to Russia and Kazakstan to adopt my younger daughters, after getting (happily) married and having a biological child. He found that far riskier than sailing across the Atlantic--he's a robustly heterosexual confirmed bachelor. He doesn't see himself as courageous, nor do I. And we were both general surgeons, confronted with tasks that are a day's work to us and awesome, even heroic to lay folk.

I discount courage in those who point out their own, just as I instantly mistrust someone who says, 'I'll be honest with you,' or 'I don't have a drinking problem.' And there's an extent to which I'll never know if I'm courageous or not. If I catch myself thinking I am, I'll not believe myself. I recall TS Eliot's Thomas a Becket, in 'Murder in the Cathedral', tempted not by fame, riches or power, but by martyrdom: is the ultimate treason to do the right thing for the wrong reason?

Beats the crap out of me...

Can I Get a Mittless? Episode V: Strange Things

We are informed today that Mitt is campaigning for the Southern vote in next week's primaries by saying that he's finding himself liking grits, and that similar 'strange things are happening' to him.

There is nothing more implausible to me, a lifelong North Easterner, than that a Southerner would listen to this with anything other than a derisive snort. First, it's caricature. Second, the notion of Mitt actually eating grits is hilarious.

And, third, and most important, it's obviously a politician's pandering rather than a human being's attempt, however flawed, to sympathise, much less empathise, with other human beings. Recall his reaching into his pocket for fifty dollars to give a woman who told him of her bad times, a gesture so thoroughly repulsive and politically stupid as to be beyond belief. Recall his wife's kinship with millions of unemployed auto workers in the devastated Rust Belt as evidenced by her two Cadillacs. Over and over again. He doesn't understand politics, he doesn't understand other people, and, most important, I think, there's increasing evidence that he doesn't understand himself.

It would be a shame were his ideas so devoid of substance and consistency, his personality so vapid, his political skills so absent, that the coming campaign for the Presidency turns on his defects rather than on an actual, necessary debate on the future of the country. It'll be uglier than it needs to be, and divide the nation, and the Republican Party, even more. But that's what's coming, I think.

So I bought an industrial umbrella and a pair of chest waders from Amazon today.
I'm ready...

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

David Brooks on Character

His column this morning praises the late James Q. Wilson, who cited the importance of character as central to social problems. Well, sure, but character isn't an isolated phenomenon springing whole from Zeus' brow. Character doesn't exist in an economic vacuum. Massive losses of good jobs, especially in light and heavy manufacturing in the cities, aren't irrelevant.

He cites household debt as evidence of weakened character. The credit card and the home equity loan were not invented by consumers, but by banks. The end of usury limits on credit card interest was not sought by irresponsible consumers, but by credit card issuers. And these exceedingly profitable entities have been remorselessly marketed. This isn't merely a failure of consumer character.

Self control, in general, isn't as short term profitable as unrestrained self-indulgence. Every last incentive, marketing tool, advertisement, directed at us from cradle to grave, militates against the very character traits that Mr Brooks sees as vital. The complete, utter lack of restraint of those trying to get us to spend our money, and our borrowed money, in search of happiness, sexual fulfillment, beauty and so on is hardly to be ignored in a discussion which all too often centers on individuals' character flaws. Of course, character is important. But Brooks contradicts himself regularly when, for instance, he talks of the 'stresses of the information economy' as causative. You indeed have to play your hand as best you can. But you don't cut the cards, don't make the rules, and it's the only game in town.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Family Values: Love Them or Leave Them

Rick Santorum, whose ignorance seems matched only by his arrogance, has come out against amniocentesis, which he views solely as providing information which may, in the mind of an immoral pagan, encourage or even justify abortion.

The key to Santorum is his exclusion of even the possibility that a virtuous pagan might exist. His religion does not, first and foremost, bear on his own life and responsibilities, but, rather, distinguishes virtuous Self from fallen, ignorant, even evil Other. This is why we were recently treated to the spectacle of voters concerned about 'family values' in South Carolina rejecting Mitt Romney, who, whatever his other faults, has an exemplary nuclear family life, in favor of Newt Gingrich, whose personal life offers no such comfort to observers. Gingrich's hypocrisy is more welcome than Romney's conduct, or, for that matter, Obama's with his lovely family. Hypocrisy such as Gingrich's is welcome to many because it reinforces, rather than challenges, exclusive claims to virtue and, therefore, to power. Romney and Obama, with decent families though not accepted within the group, challenge that exclusive ownership; Gingrich's hypocrisy reinforces it. Many view 'family values' as theirs and theirs alone, the way some claim the flag as theirs and deny the patriotism of their political opponents. They view 'family values' as something which distinguishes themselves from others to their own benefit. THe result is that they see no reason to look within themselves, examine their own lives, viewing social problems as arising solely from the errors or active sinning of others. It's a definition of a group, a social marker, and a denial of, yes, personal responsibility.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Doubt: It's Hard to be Certain About It

Cullen Murphy, in an essay in the Times, says that doubt and uncertainty are natural and inevitable parts of the honestly viewed human condition:

That’s the way it is with moral certainty. It sweeps objections aside and makes anything permissible if pursued with an appeal to a higher justification. That higher justification does not need to be God, though God remains serviceable. The higher justification can also be the forces of history. It can be rationalism and science. It can be some assertion of the common good. It can be national security.

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/12/opinion/sunday/the-certainty-of-doubt.html?_r=1&scp=1&sq=doubt&st=Search
,
Those who are completely sure of themselves usually exclude the possibility that they can err, or that others can be right, or live virtuous, decent lives involving another belief system. They find it easy to deny a common humanity, and to accept collateral damage in pursuit of what they see as unambiguously good. History, in general, hasn't been kinder to them than they have been to their fellow human beings.

One of the moral absolutists' defenses is that without such absolutes--often, but not always, arising from religious orthodoxy--we're left in a land of situational ethics, of moral ambiguity where anything goes. I disagree. One is still compelled to act as decently as one can. The uncertainty with which the honest person confronts such actions requires, in fact, a mindfulness, a sense of personal responsibility, which orthodox true believers run from and reject. Erich Fromm's 'Ezcape from Freedom', which I cite all the time, is on point here: one response to doubt is fear; one response to contingency is the artificial imposition of order on a chaotic, unknowable universe. Neither is the best of which human beings are capable.

Those who call for increased personal responsibility only from others, not starting with themselves, are a walking oxymoron. Not everybody has the courage to be uncertain.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

The Measure of a Man

Charles Blow, in the Times today, saying it better than I could:

Start with this fact: The truest measure of a man, indeed of a person, is not whom he lies down with but what he stands up for. If we must be judged, let it be in this way. And when we fall short, as we sometimes will, because humanity is fallible, let us greet each other with compassion and encouragement rather than ridicule and resentment.

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/11/opinion/blow-real-men-and-pink-suits.html?hp

Friday, February 10, 2012

The Rich Do Better in School: They Have More Money

The Times treats us this morning to the observation that the rich do better than the poor in school, and the gap is widening:

One reason for the growing gap in achievement, researchers say, could be that wealthy parents invest more time and money than ever before in their children (in weekend sports, ballet, music lessons, math tutors, and in overall involvement in their children’s schools), while lower-income families, which are now more likely than ever to be headed by a single parent, are increasingly stretched for time and resources. This has been particularly true as more parents try to position their children for college, which has become ever more essential for success in today’s economy.

A study by Sabino Kornrich, a researcher at the Center for Advanced Studies at the Juan March Institute in Madrid, and Frank F. Furstenberg, scheduled to appear in the journal Demography this year, found that in 1972, Americans at the upper end of the income spectrum were spending five times as much per child as low-income families. By 2007 that gap had grown to nine to one; spending by upper-income families more than doubled, while spending by low-income families grew by 20 percent.

“The pattern of privileged families today is intensive cultivation,” said Dr. Furstenberg, a professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania.

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/10/education/education-gap-grows-between-rich-and-poor-studies-show.html?hp

No foolin'. Not mentioned is the ubiquity of tutoring specifically oriented towards the SAT exam.

Charles Murray, er, tarred himself with 'The Bell Curve', which purported to show that genetics and race trumped attempts to overcome their burdens. His recent book 'Coming Apart' examines the worsening state of poor white Americans, and comes to the conclusion that it's about values: welfare-encouraged parasitism, single-parent households, crime, misguided government attempts to solve the problem, sex, drugs, rock and roll, like that. Meanwhile, blue collar jobs with decent wages and benefits have vanished or been exported by the millions, leaving rural areas full of closed factories and cities full of burger flippers. Unions, which have a little to do with worker safety and security, are now demonized as one of the causes of economic decline at a time when they are at a low in membership and political power. And study after study shows a widening gap between the rich and everybody else with respect to, well, money; the notion that the gap in education spending might parallel the gap in economic fortune might occur to someone.

Murray, and others on the right and amongst libertarians, call for more personal responsibility, almost always from others rather than themselves. That itself, of course, is oxymoronic. They cast social ills not as problems to be solved, but as moral failings, and therefore the responsibility of someone else but not of themselves. And, too, note that, in a polity where economic analysis has triumphed over all other ways to examine the human condition and deal with it, the role of economics is denied in every situation in which it could be marshalled in favor of granting a common humanity to the poor, and to people of color, while exalted--and, at that, using potted, easily discredited models--when the rich would benefit.

This isn't just Moynihan's 'benign neglect'. This is willful blindness and a flight from personal responsibility. It must be called what it is, and fought.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Citizens Disunited

Those seeking the Republican presidential nomination have spent a lot of money, in the tens of millions of dollars. Romney outspent Gingrich by 5:1 in Florida, and won. Gingrich disapproved, citing that discrepancy rather than his own failings, and those of his campaign. Santorum today talked of spending far less than Romney, and winning anyway. Meanwhile, Romney's career at Bain Capital has been attacked as 'vulture capitalism'.

The Republican primaries are the first major national contest after the Citizens United decision, and demonstrate the obscene role of money in politics in the USA. So, we have Republicans themselves wondering if all that money is a Good Thing, and if all the ways capitalists make money are socially and morally Good Things. And a staple of libertarian objections to government is 'crony capitalism', the complicity between government and business which the odd lefty also points out.

Looking for coherence from Republicans on the surface is looking for gold in a coal mine. The actual basis of their views is power, its acquisition and its use in service of its clients, no more and no less. Their social positions are crystallizing around a return of unchallenged power to white men, their economic positions around the prerogatives of the rich, their foreign policy around the fantasy of complete freedom of American action arising out of an assertion of military power in service of a fantasy of exceptionalism.

There's something to work with here. A shame were the opportunity lost, ignored or even unrecognised on the left. And, too, a shame were some of the Republicans themselves to continue to reject thoughtlessly lefty positions they themselves find mirroring. But it's striking and appalling that Republicans, and the media reporting on them, don't laugh off the stage people who say the things the Republican candidates have said.

Can I Get a Mittless? Episode IV: Defeated by a Fantasy

We're greeted today by the news that Rick Santorum has won primaries/caucuses in Minnesota, Colorado and Missouri. Let's review Santorum's career for a minute: No significant legislative accomplishments. Turned out of office by his own constituents. No accomplishments since. Now, let's review his qualifications for the presidency: No knowledge or experience in foreign affairs. No substantive economic proposals, or demonstration of any knowledge of economics. Let's move on to his social beliefs: Abortion should be outlawed even for victims of rape and incest. Gay folk are gay by choice, and can be brought to heterosexuality by treatment, and should be banned from marriage. Sex is for procreation, as God intended, and nothing else.

It's easy enough to poke holes in the man. For instance, if God had intended sex to be solely for procreation, He wouldn't have made it such a pleasure, and labor such a trial. But the overall truth is that Santorum offers no evidence, none whatever, to an objective observer of any ideological stripe whatever that he's qualified for the presidency. Neither intelligence, nor knowledge, nor managerial ability, nor accomplishment in decades of what we're pleased to call public service. Too, he's not representative of the mainstream of the country, will not appeal at all to the center he needs to win the presidency and is close to unelectable.

To fair numbers of the Republican faithful, the congeniality of his social views trumps his utter lack of qualifications for the job. His unacceptability to the broader electorate is less relevant to a lot of them than his ideological purity. His social views, arguably the center of his campaign, are more important to them than his more substantive positions, ill-considered and incoherent though they might be. And they view him, on that basis, more acceptable than Romney, who went into these contests soon after his victory in Florida over Gingrich, at the time the only challenger given credibility in the media.

So, the serial attempts by Republicans in this ridiculous primary field to make chicken salad out of chicken shit now move to Santorum's new credibility, at least within the GOP, and further damage Romney, who remains the likely candidate. The most committed Republican voters simply don't like Romney, don't trust him, and won't work for him on the ground the way they'll have to in a general election. I doubt that they'll do it solely because they think beating Obama is important enough to do it. In this way, he resembles McCain, who remained distrusted by many on the right though he pandered to them constantly in 2008, bringing Sarah Palin to national attention.

I can only hope that the country would marginalize, rather than embrace, a party capable of supporting such extremist views propounded by a man who so obviously shouldn't be taken seriously. And, were I Romney, I'd be more nervous about the general election. Fact is, Obama could run close to a complete campaign with YouTube clips taken from Romney's challengers alone, not to mention clips of Romney saying things at odds with his prior positions.

Well, I did mention them. Naughty Wombat...

Friday, February 3, 2012

Islamic Unity

It should be obvious by now to all observers that Islam is no less heterogeneous than is Christianity. Shiites, Sunnis, Sufis, others. The largest Islamic countries by population are Indonesia and India. The ultra-orthodox (Wahhabi, Taliban and others) get most of the coverage, but aren't representative, much less dominant.

It should also be obvious that Iran's government and its people are quite two things, and frequently at odds. A reformist president was elected with 60% of the vote. THe recent reelection of Ahmadinejad was universally thought fraudulent, and demonstrations against it violently suppressed.

So, in a conference trying to bring the Arab Spring revolts under the rubric of reasserted, unified Islam, the Iranian government found itself, er, questioned:

--A Pakistani television reporter observed that some members of the Pakistani delegation had made vicious slurs against Shiites in their own country, and now mouthed mantras of pan-Islamic unity — presumably, he said, to hedge their bets or seek alliances with Tehran on political issues. “The talk here is of religion,” the reporter said. “But under the surface it is all raw politics.”

...The conference was widely reported in the Iranian news media, and posters bearing the words “Islamic Awakening” were plastered on walls near the conference hall. They were met in some Tehran quarters with dismissive sarcasm. One popular text message, circulated widely on cellphones around the capital, went: “If you’re having trouble sleeping at night, don’t worry: it’s not the high prices, poverty, or unemployment. You are suffering from Islamic Awakening.”

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/03/world/middleeast/effort-to-rebrand-arab-spring-backfires-in-iran.html?pagewanted=2&_r=1&hp

And one very interesting, highly heterodox observation was made:

The Iranian effort to hold up the struggle against Israel as a crucible of Islamic unity comes across to many Arabs as doctrinaire and shopworn, no matter how strongly they sympathize with the Palestinian cause.

---I've long thought that much of Iranian foreign policy is directed as much to a domestic audience as a foreign one. I view their movement to develop nuclear weapons in a similar light.

Samuel Johnson's old observation is that patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel. Ambrose Bierce, in 'The Devil's Dictionary', begged to differ, in that it's often the first. We've even seen once or twice in the United States that a government called for domestic unity before a foreign threat.

Many a deficiency in Arab governance has been subordinated to opposition to Israel, and to the United States as its primary supporter. It's unfortunate that Israeli behavior towards the Palestinians so often provides factual material to that end. But the focus on Israel has oft been used to divert Arabs and Iranians from the need for domestic reform.

In which light, the United States, and Israel, make a serious error when they gratuitously offer material supporting that narrative. A military attack on Iran, in particular, would be a catastrophic mistake, empowering the very people we'd like to see out of power. It would confirm the wrong narrative, and unify an increasingly fractious Islam around opposition to the Great Satans. Containment, and a persistent recognition in word and deed that the Iranian people and its government are at odds, and that the government, as in the Arab Spring states, will not survive indefinitely.

Beethoven: A Touch of the Tar Brush?

The eldest Wombette this morning refers me to this fascinating discussion of the possibility that no less than Ludwig von Beethoven was, in fact, a black man:

http://open.salon.com/blog/ronp01/2009/09/27/the_african_heritage_of_ludwig_van_beethoven

It's interesting that the author, after reviewing the evidence, cites his use of rhythm as evidence of that African heritage, as though that, too, is hereditary. Not sure I'd go there myself. But it's entirely plausible that in a culture where a carpenter's son from the Middle East is oft portrayed as blond haired and blue eyed, a touch of the tar brush in one of its most revered composers might have been, er, whitewashed.

Some of the commentary on the music itself I find resonant. The second movement of the 32nd piano sonata, which the author cites, all of a sudden breaks into a rhythm that sounds a lot like ragtime. It's odd and quite wonderful, and is late in the sonata, which has a lot of sort of beautiful, mysterious music before it.

The comments are fun to read, too. One noted that the Obama 'birthers' are doing the same thing to history. And righties view any achievement by a black male, any at all, other than their natural sense of rhythm and jungle-bred athleticism, comes out of affirmative action. Not that they're racist...

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

English: Everybody's Second Language, Even Ours

Lawrence Summers, who memorably suggested women less well endowed than men in the sciences and mathematics, has questioned the utility of learning foreign languages in a world where English is the de facto second language. The Times's 'Room for Debate' features debaters all of whom disagree, more politely than yr. obdt. svt., who's astonished that Summers is reveling in ignorance while being entirely full of shit:

http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2012/01/29/is-learning-a-language-other-than-english-worthwhile

The writers focus on the actuality of language as used in world wide commerce, a broader venue than that of top-level macroeconomics. One also suggested the study of literature in its original language, rather than in translation, adds insights not otherwise available. I'd add to their views two reasons:

1. It's simply polite to acknowledge another's language as fully as worthy as one's own. I've been to countries speaking Spanish, French, Greek and Russian, and found invariably that the slightest, clumsiest attempt to speak the language generates huge amounts of goodwill. When not true, I think, it's because the next reaction is American disgust with the foreign national's inability to speak English, rather than to apologise for one's ignorance, ideally in the foreigner's native tongue. True, too, of multilingual immigrants here, of course. Why such an observation appalls those fearing English's position even in this country, rather than is seen as simple courtesy, is obvious only if considered in the context not of language choice but of bigotry and arrogance, traits all too often correctly ascribed to Americans.

2. There's no better way to truly understand one's own language than to study another, where structure, grammar, vocabulary and history are explicitly examined. An average Americans' competence in grammatically correct, correctly spelled written and spoken English is, well, less than complete. During the unlamented Busherregnum, some suggested that English was GW Bush's second language, requiring continuous translation for English speakers at the UN. Meanwhile, English has more foreign words in it than any other language, and, as it's increasingly used globally, will doubtless absorb more. Is our children learning? ROFLMAO...

Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Word's Getting Around: Fromm, Reich and the Right

I've posted here and elsewhere about the relevance of some of the old psychoanalytic literature, in particular Fromm's 'Escape From Freedom' and Reich's 'Mass Psychology of Fascism', to current rightie/Tea Party politics. Turns out others, believe it or not, have had the same idea. Here's one:

Journalist (Max--PW) Blumenthal documents the movement of conservative evangelicals from the political wings to center stage, delving into the psyches of those who now lead a Republican Party "fixated on abortion, homosexuality and abstinence education; resentful and angry." Guided by Eric Hoffer's 1951 cult classic The True Believer ("Faith in a holy cause, is to some extent a substitute for the lost faith in ourselves,") and Eric Fromm's 1941 psychoanalytical study of the Nazi movement (Escape from Freedom), Blumenthal suggests that childhood abuse has shaped the personalities of key leaders, including Focus on the Family guru James Dobson. Blumenthal is at his best examining these characters up close, including presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich and his born-again conversion; John Hagee, a Pentecostal pastor who lauded Hitler for "forcing the Jews to Israel"; Sarah Palin, whose political aspirations first came to her as part of a religious conversion; and evangelical pastor Ted Haggard, a self-proclaimed spiritual warrior caught in a relationship with a male prostitute. (Amazon blurb-PW)

http://www.amazon.com/Republican-Gomorrah-Inside-Movement-Shattered/dp/1568583982#reader_1568583982

It may be possible that he's explored the idea at greater length than yr. obdt. svt. Haven't read it yet; will...

Can I Get A Mittless? Episode III: The Dark Side Taught He Is

We're informed today that Romney has a debate coach, who's taught him to be more aggressive:

The results of that strategy, carried out by a veteran squad of strategists and operatives assembled by Mr. Romney to deal with just this kind of moment, have been on striking display here.

By this weekend, Mr. Romney’s aides were on the offensive and increasingly confident, with some combination of their strategy and Mr. Gingrich’s own performance swinging polls in Mr. Romney’s direction. Even as it acknowledged the damage inflicted on Mr. Romney by the past several weeks, his team suggested that it had learned a lesson about never letting up on rivals, especially if Mr. Romney wins the nomination and confronts Mr. Obama in the general election.

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/29/us/politics/the-calculations-that-led-romney-to-the-warpath.html?hp

One of Romney's amiable traits is doing, saying, believing anything it takes. Does anybody think Romney will look any more genuine out of calculated embrace of aggressive debate? Perhaps, next to an out of control Gingrich, but next to a measured, confident Obama? In a manner consistent with the rest of his smarmy, hypocritical, lying self?

Somebody, somewhere, tell him it ain't fair...Can I get a Mittless? Just a little bit louder...

Republicans: The World as Pulp Science Fiction

Newt Gingrich has cited Asimov's 'Foundation' trilogy, in which psychohistorians use their science to guide human destiny for its own good from a secret base. He's also talked of building a colony on the moon. Meanwhile, Mitt Romney, asked to name his favorite novel, cited L. Ron Hubbard's 'Battlefield: Earth', in which alien conquerors of Earth meet their match in small bands of human resistance fighters.

I grew up reading all the science fiction I could find, and close to memorized Asimov's early work. He, himself, was an indefatigable champion of science and the power of human reason, at least in his early books. So, the psychohistorians, who, enabled by disinterested scientific insight, via covert manipulations led the blind masses to a better future. I put it that way, well, you might have a question about it. So, in fact, did Asimov. In another of his books, 'The End of Eternity', a group sitting outside of time, again enabled by science, manipulated humanity's history by changing reality without changing themselves, eventually revealed as crippling human achievement, no wiser or more decent than any of the rest of us; (spoiler alert) at the end of the book one last manipulation of reality destroyed them. And, in Asimov's later books, contingent events rather than human ingenuity control events, even superseding the original orientation of the 'Foundation' trilogy: the unexplained, spontaneous appearance of a mind-reading, mind-controlling robot with pure, decent interests in promoting humanity, the chance appearance of a similar mutation amongst human beings.

Hubbard's books, meanwhile, I find unreadable even as pulp entertainment. Trust me that I don't have high standards in such matters, and am capable of enjoying a science fiction novel which would make, say, Green Lantern comic books look like 'Notes From Underground'. But a Mormon, of all people, publicly embracing a book with such a plot, written by the man who founded Scientology, beggars the imagination.

Pulp science fiction, like the Westerns of a prior generation, is a genre aimed mostly at adolescent boys. John W. Campbell, perhaps the most influential editor/publisher in SF, made this explicit. Meanwhile, just as the odd Western transcended the genre's limits and became high art--'The Searchers', 'High Noon', 'Treasure of the Sierra Madre' and others come to mind--so, too did some authors make science fiction more than it was/is at baseline. But the overall appeal was based on uncomplicated, mostly male characters, enabled by strength of ego and special talents/abilities to triumph over unambiguous evil.

There's a strong libertarian streak in pulp SF, of which Heinlein's 'The Moon is a Harsh Mistress' is perhaps the classic example. Again, this suits adolescent boys down to the ground: get off our backs, let us stand up for ourselves, freedom and independence will unshackle our greatness. And, as with adolescent boys much of whose freedom relies on adults paying for car insurance and food and the like, so, too, libertarians reject the necessity of common enterprise arising out of collective action, in the absence of private action, in mitigating problems or addressing unmet needs.

Which brings me to Ayn Rand, beloved of Alan Greenspan and many others, whose novels I find well written as pulp science fiction, with cardboard characters standing in for archetypes, who also appeals to adolescents: few boys never succumb, at one time or another as their personalities and egos develop, to the notion that they are Men (sic) of the Mind.

We now live in a time when Romney, Gingrich and Greenspan, and most of the right, explicitly embrace ideas that are adolescent to the core, have not developed into an adult grasp of reality, and which center on their own virtues and just rewards, and others' evils and inadequacies and the just deserts arising therefrom. It is possible, I'd hope, to be conservative, and, nonetheless, a grown up. I see no evidence of it these days.

Should the world really be run by men who never finished emotional high school?

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Poetry Corner: Two Limericks by WH Auden

As poets have mournfully sung,
Death takes the innocent young,
The rolling in money,
The screamingly funny
And those who are very well hung.

----

A friend, who is not an ascetic,
Said, 'Ireland, my dear, is magnetic.
'There are all these elves
'Who just OFFER themselves:
'Quite small, but, still, most sympathetic.'

Rope-a-Dope

John Quiggin, in a post well worth reading which attacks Cowen's apologies for rising inequality and falling socioeconomic mobility in the USA, makes the following observation:

I don’t buy the 11-dimensional chess version of this story, but the slapdown of Obama’s painfully sincere attempts to reach across the aisle was exactly what was needed.

http://crookedtimber.org/2012/01/25/how-not-to-defend-entrenched-inequality/

I agree. I don't think it was Obama's plan to invite an obduracy which would legitimise a more combative advocacy of his positions. Further, I think it long overdue that he counteract Republican views with an alternative vision which, in addition to being more humane, more restorative of a social contract and more likely to improve the economy, is actually based on fact and logic. But nobody can say that he didn't try. And now, he's set out an agenda which, in all likelihood, will be blocked entirely, without anything of substance in its stead, and will get to talk about it all campaign long. Meanwhile, Gingrich and Romney, tearing into each other, legitimise a Democratic attack on either on identical grounds, with ample opportunity to put up YouTube clips using them as surrogates.

It's worth pointing out, too, that Iran's theocrats rebuffed Obama's offer of talks, legitimising a sterner stance not just from Obama, but from the rest of the world. In the context of Obama's recognition, made explicit in his Cairo speech, that the Iranian people and Iran's government are quite two things. Highly important and, assuming (a big assumption) that neither the USA nor Israel use force, simultaneously opposing the government and offering Iran's people hope. A bigger contrast with Bush could hardly be imagined.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

It's About Power

Newt Gingrich won in South Carolina, carrying most of the evangelical/fundamentalist voters concerned about 'family values'. His personal life, of course, is reprehensible.

The two don't contradict each other at all on a deeper level. Bertrand Russell said that the Catholic Church loves hypocrisy, in that the act of hypocrisy recognises and cements the Church's power rather than challenge it. Wilhelm Reich's 'Mass Psychology of Fascism' and Erich Fromm's 'Escape From Freedom' explored fascism from a psychoanalytic point of view, as, amongst other things, a confluence of power and sexuality. The astounding psychosexual carnival that successive scandals involving fundamentalists and right wing politicians have afforded us can be understood in these terms.

So, Gingrich, who's led an entirely despicable personal life, becomes the candidate of family values, and Obama, whose personal and family life is exemplary, is bitterly opposed. It isn't about family life. It's about power, holding on to power, reversing the process of sharing it with others thought unworthy of it.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Rescuing Judaism From Jews

One could write the history of Christianity as a series of efforts by some of the greatest human beings who ever lived to rescue Christ from Christians. We're now treated to the baleful effects of dogmatic, intolerant fundamentalism in Islam and, now, in Judaism, all three of the Abrahamic religions. An eight year old girl, walking to religious instruction, was spat upon in Israel by ultra-orthodox Jews holding her insufficiently covered. And, too, they demand separation of the sexes on buses and elsewhere in the public sphere. Things have gotten bad enough that an orthodox rabbi takes them to task in the Times this morning:

...It seems, then, that a religious tenet that begins with men’s sexual thoughts ends with men controlling women’s bodies.

This is not a problem unique to Judaism. But the Talmud, the basis for Jewish law, offers a perhaps surprising answer: It places the responsibility for controlling men’s licentious thoughts about women squarely on the men.

Put more plainly, the Talmud says: It’s your problem, sir; not hers...

So the responsibility is now on the women. To protect men from their sexual thoughts, women must remove their femininity from their public presence, ridding themselves of even the smallest evidence of their own sexuality.

All of this is done in the name of the Torah and Jewish law.

But it’s actually a complete perversion. The Talmud, the foundation of Jewish law, acknowledges that men can be sexually aroused by women and is indeed concerned with sexual thoughts and activity outside of marriage. But it does not tell women that men’s sexual urges are their responsibility. Rather, both the Talmud and the later codes of Jewish law make that demand of men.

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/20/opinion/ultra-orthodox-jews-and-the-modesty-fight.html?hp

Just about every belief system, or absence of belief, that human beings have ever come up with can coexist with humanism, decency, generosity, courage and love, or with bigotry, dogmatism, hatred, greed and lust for power over others. Naziism, and other ideologies based on racism, are perhaps an exception, and they, too, have arisen out of a religious as well as an atheistic framework. In so noting, I take issue with Sam Harris and other militant atheists, who hold even liberal religion as oxymoronic, inevitably legitimizing fundamentalist evil. Liberal religious believers have, in fact, fought evil in their religion's name for thousands of years, with courage and at the risk or cost of their own lives. Some have even held Jesus Himself such a one.

The vitally important lesson of Naziism is that we all, all of us, being human, can be Nazis, and that we must recognise and fight that, accepting that none of us is immune to the temptations of evil. The first thought should never be about the failings of others, but, rather, of those of oneself. That, too, is a lesson of the history of just about any religion. Liberal believers, and liberal unbelievers, can share a common ground worth defending, one which recognises a common humanity even amongst pagans, in Israel, in Saudi Arabia and in the United States. During the Republican primary season, the appalling rhetoric over abortion and the rights of women and gays remind me, yet again, that American exceptionalism doesn't extend to proof against the evils of belief. And reviling all Jews, or Christians, or Muslims, based on their fundamentalists' rhetoric and actions, is not only wrong on its face, but extends and ossifies the hatred which allows spitting on children, and sometimes killing them.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

One Nation, Under Money

Kevin Kruse, of the Princeton history department, reminds us that people have found it useful to conflate Christianity, free enterprise and personal wealth, while discrediting government, before:

...Throughout the 1930s and ’40s, Mr. Fifield and his allies advanced a new blend of conservative religion, economics and politics that one observer aptly anointed “Christian libertarianism.” Mr. Fifield distilled his ideology into a simple but powerful phrase — “freedom under God.” With ample support from corporate patrons and business lobbies like the United States Chamber of Commerce, his gospel of godly capitalism soon spread across the country through personal lectures, weekly radio broadcasts and a monthly magazine.

In 1951, the campaign culminated in a huge Fourth of July celebration of the theme. Former President Herbert C. Hoover and Gen. Douglas MacArthur headlined an organizing committee of conservative all-stars, including celebrities like Walt Disney and Ronald Reagan, but largely comprising business titans like Conrad Hilton, J. C. Penney, Harvey Firestone Jr. and J. Howard Pew.

In an extensive public relations campaign, they encouraged communities to commemorate Independence Day with “freedom under God” ceremonies, using full-page newspaper ads trumpeting the connection between faith and free enterprise. They also held a nationwide sermon contest on the theme, with clergymen competing for cash. Countless local events were promoted by a national “Freedom Under God” radio program, produced with the help of the filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille, hosted by Jimmy Stewart and broadcast on CBS..

http://campaignstops.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/01/17/for-god-so-loved-the-1-percent/?hp

For the past couple of thousand years, Christianity has been large, diverse and unsettled enough so that its adherents, in Christ's name, have enlisted the Bible and God in service of empire, war, slavery, genocide, imperialism, power, freedom, love, generosity, courage, caring, and, in fact, just about anything human. Still true. And there have always been, are, and always will be those who rescue Christ from some of the Christians, finding depth there unacknowledged in a facile interpretation in service of human interests. Me, I find it hard to construe financial success as a goal or result of Christian teachings. Some ministers concentrate more on Revelation than on 1 Corinthians 13. But they're both in there. I think it important, at a time when atheism is being promoted in the public sphere amongst, most often, the left, to participate in the formation of a Christian narrative more inclusive, decent and perceptive than one which rationalizes the inequalities of wealth and poverty which pose and result from urgent social problems. Christ has been monopolized before. Wasn't pretty, then or now. Wouldn't mind it, as even a gentle agnostic, were the God our nation is under that of, say, Kierkegaard, Pope John XXIII, Oscar Romero, ML King, Dorothy Day and many others...

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Physician, Leave That Bagel

The Times reports today that the Obama administration will require pharmaceutical companies, equipment maker and the like to disclose payments to physicians. These payments can run from a bagel and lox lunch spread to consulting and lecture fees in the millions:

Many researchers have found evidence that such payments can influence doctors’ treatment decisions and contribute to higher costs by encouraging the use of more expensive drugs and medical devices.

Consumer advocates and members of Congress say patients may benefit from the new standards, being issued by the government under the new health care law. Officials said the disclosures increased the likelihood that doctors would make decisions in the best interests of patients, without regard to the doctors’ financial interests.

Large numbers of doctors receive payments from drug and device companies every year — sometimes into the hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars — in exchange for providing advice and giving lectures. Analyses by The New York Times and others have found that about a quarter of doctors take cash payments from drug or device makers and that nearly two-thirds accept routine gifts of food, including lunch for staff members and dinner for themselves.

The Times has found that doctors who take money from drug makers often practice medicine differently from those who do not and that they are more willing to prescribe drugs in risky and unapproved ways, such as prescribing powerful antipsychotic medicines for children.

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/17/health/policy/us-to-tell-drug-makers-to-disclose-payments-to-doctors.html?pagewanted=1&hp

This move is long overdue. Such emoluments are ubiquitous, and pose a moral hazard all too often bowed to, and sometimes not even acknowledged. What's a bagel?

The subject of marketing of such things to physicians is, politely put, a target-rich environment. For instance, drug companies routinely recruit cheerleaders, pretty ladies with a positive attitude, as saleswomen:

http://www.nytimes.com/2005/11/28/business/28cheer.html?scp=1&sq=drug%20sales%20cheerleaders&st=cse

Another, perhaps more morally hazardous example: prostate cancer can be treated with radiation or surgery, or, in the case of a slow-growing tumor, even ignored. Specialized radiation units are being marketed, and sold, to the very urological surgeons who usually make the decision regarding treatment. The DaVinci surgical robot has become a marketing tool for both urologists and hospitals eager to increase their market share of prostate treatment without clear benefit over skilled surgery (or sometimes radiation or observation). Tidy profits are made, the units are sometimes leased and always depreciated on taxes by their owners. If you own a hammer, you look for a nail, especially if the nail is worth thousands of dollars to you. Not a part of the free enterprise, profit driven health care system that appeals to a patient interested in an unbiased decision with his needs unambiguously at the core of it.