Sunday, April 29, 2012

What Do You Know?

I was watching the latest episode of What Would You Do on ABC, and they set up an interesting scenario. They chained a bicycle to a signpost in a park and then sent in a young person to "steal" the bicycle. If questioned about the bicycle they would usually reverse the question, asking if it belonged to the questioner, although if a passerby asked if they had lost their keys they would usually answer in the affirmative. They did this three times, and it broke down roughly like this:

When the "thief" was a young White man, most of the park patrons (who were almost exclusively White) ignored the young man. Some challenged him or moved to call the police, while, on the other hand, a few offered to help him out. But many decided that they "didn't want to get involved," and went on about their business.

When they replaced the actor with a young Black man, he wasn't so fortunate; and things went downhill in a hurry. Many more people expressed a willingness to call the police, confrontations (sometimes white angry) were common and there were a couple of times when I was a bit concerned for the guy.

The third actor was a young and attractive White woman. She had the easiest time of it. While a couple of women called the police, many men actually helped her to steal the bicycle - even when she admitted to being a thief. (I hope the guy who helped her cut the chain off even while his wife was dialing 911 has a roomy doghouse out back - it's going to be his new address for a while.)

In the context of all of this, I was thinking of the John Derbyshire essay that recently got him into so much trouble, where he basically called out blacks as congenitally violent criminals, and counseled White and Asian parents to advise their children to avoid interactions at all costs - even if that meant letting a person die in the street. (In one commentary on this, it was noted that even among the most rabid Southern segregationists wouldn't have dreamed of acting in such a manner.) It occurred to me that Derbyshire, to an extent, wasn't telling people things they didn't already know - he was just telling Americans that the ways in which they already seemed prone to behave were, in fact, okay.

While the men who helped the young woman were pretty willing to admit to being sexist, or at least drawn in by a pretty face and sexy body. But many of the people who were so quick to confront the Black man were adamant that they've have done the same no matter who they'd seen attempting to take the bike. Conveniently, none of them had to do anything to demonstrate it.

We tend not to see anything wrong with being willing to judge a person by the color of their skin. What we censure is being obvious about it. We should change that. It will force us to see ourselves for who we are, rather than enabling the pretenses that we carry with us today. When people dispute the idea that certain groups are, by their very natures, more criminal than others, people haul out numbers and claim that statistics do not lie. But when presented with evidence that they'll give some people a pass that others don't get, they're just as quick to deny it.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Tumbling Dice

We in the United States have a characteristic nearly unique in the world. Short cultural memories. In fact, we tend to view this as a virtue - we treat events in even the sixties and seventies as ancient history; mainly, it seems, to make it easier to sweep the downsides and mistakes of those time periods under the rug.

Other nations don't do this, and we tend to be critical of them for it. There's a Huffington Post article that excoriates Germany for being viscerally afraid of inflation, claiming that: "This fear has outlived its historical origin by a half-century: Catering to inflation worries today by hemming in the central bank is something like refusing to restore electricity to a darkened German city for fear that President Roosevelt will bomb it."

This snide remark does an injustice to history. Runaway inflation in the Wiemar Republic is, more or less, a direct cause for the Second World War, and ALL of the horrors that went with it - which were not confined to Germany. Now, history being what it is, it's impossible to say that all of the nasty goings on of the war could have been avoided if Germany had managed to keep its inflation rate under control. But it's likely, in any event, that a more stable German economy wouldn't have provided such fertile ground for the National Socialists to come to power. And though it may be true that the risks of the modern German economy going so far off the rails that history repeats itself are slim, every other time history has tragically repeated itself, it's been possible to find someone standing amid the wreckage in a daze, repeating "This time, it was supposed to be different," over and over.

It's easy to sit back in the United States and sneer at the worries of other nations, even while we've spent most of the last decade demanding that the rest of the world change the way they go about things to make room for our worries. Especially when we see consequences for ourselves in other nations' "unreasonable" refusals to drop their concerns. But I submit that we're the ones who are being unreasonable in expecting that other nations and other cultures adopt an American standard that seems to discount the significance of any event that the commentator isn't old enough to remember.

The consequences of runaway inflation in Germany were more wide-ranging than huddled German civilians dying in nighttime Allied bombing raids. That shouldn't need stating. And follow-on effects of the chain of events set in motion by the economic disaster of the early 20th century persist to this day. If Germany would rather have an economy that muddles along for a "lost decade" in order to avoid a repeat, that's their prerogative. Even if they drag the whole of Europe into the economic doldrums with them, that will be because the European Union ditched most of their national currencies - in part, for precisely the same reason. If we in the United States feel that unleashing inflation, and the risks that go with it, are a trivial thing, then let us lobby Congress to bear that burden ourselves, rather than complain about others' unwillingness to gamble on the outcome.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

The Blue Trees


The 91 Percent

Once upon a time, I managed people. Some of them came to me with a quandary. They were being asked to do things by other people in the company, and they were having trouble saying "no," because they wanted to be team players.

To give them a hand, I reminded them of something. "I, in effect, sign your paychecks," I told them. "If people on other teams are happy with you, but I am unhappy with you, you're liable to be fired. If I'm happy with you, but people on other teams are unhappy with you, they get to go suck eggs. Any questions?"

Congress works in much the same way. There are five-hundred and thirty-eight members of Congress between the House of Representatives and the Senate. The average member of the voting public is allowed to vote for exactly three of them. Their approval (or disapproval) of the other five-hundred and thirty-five might make for interesting political chatter, but it is, in effect, immaterial. I might decide that the junior Senator from Arkansas (to select someone at random) is a complete clown who has no business being allowed within a two-hundred mile radius of important legislation. The fact that I live in Washington state, however, means that the esteemed Mr. Boozman can tell me to go soak my head. Or, if he prefers, to go suck an egg.

The fact that Congress has an approval rating lower than that of leprosy is only going to become important when that means that people are unhappy with their own elected officials. Congress only having a 9% approval rating is not really a problem for the junior Senator from Washington. But only as long as her Western Washington support base continues to back her. Let them decide that they'd be better off with a change of representation, then, and only then, will she have a problem. But it's likely that for her, the 9% approval rating of Congress is an asset. Senator Cantwell could easily decide to run against the rest of Congress, convincing us that we're better off returning her to The Other Washington. Even while we wonder aloud why the rest of the country doesn't throw their bums out.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Not Spring Yet

"I've been thinking about starting a category just for sunny news — because occasionally, there is some. Today, Simon Johnson of Baseline Scenario suggested the name 'Green Shoots'."
Laura Conaway, NPR's Planet Money Blog. 23 February, 2009
Back when then esteemed Ms. Conaway was actively managing the Planet Money Flickr page, and I (among other people) was contributing photographs, I started to long for some of Mr. Johnson's Green Shoots. While it was easy to find pictures of the economy to take, many of them were downright depressing - failing businesses, abandoned projects and empty shopping malls were easy subjects to find. Taking photographs that illustrated the post-crisis economy was enough to land one on medications.

So I was somewhat excited to find that a furniture store, and then a second, opened in Kirkland's Totem Lake Mall in the first half of 2010. If furniture stores were opening, perhaps people were feeling better about the housing market. And while I was leery about what struck me as myriad attempts to re-inflate the housing bubble, a little confidence was surely a welcome thing.

But it was not to last. The first of the stores was liquidating its inventory only a year after it opened, and the other is doing so now, having lasted about two years itself. Green shoots withering and dying in a harsh landscape.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

But It Could Still Bite

"And in general, the world that contraception has made is a world that de-emphasizes the moral weight of the sexual act, while insisting on the centrality of a perpetually-fulfilled libido to human contentment."
Ross Douthat - Slate: The Book Club: Bad Religion: Entry 6: The world that contraception has made.
I was reading Will Saletan and Mr. Douthat write back and forth about Douthat's new book Bad Religion, and this statement, in the most recent entry, struck me as interesting. I, for my own part, am a firm proponent of the idea that most, if not all, virtues are born of necessity. But this, of course, raises the question of what happens to the virtue when the necessity is gone.

Most human beings have a level of libido. And while some are good at ignoring it, others aren't. This is likely a built-in aspect of humanity. After all, humans don't go into heat in the same way that many animals do, and a species of ascetics would be rather short-lived. (In fact, it doesn't take much to see the evolutionary advantage to a strong libido. Those people who greet the thought of sex with an impassioned "meh" aren't known for large families.) But, as with many animals, humans do tend to have a stronger attraction to their own children than they do to the children of others, and many moral prescriptions against sexuality were mainly based around familial relations - in short, no sleeping with people you weren't formally married to. To me, the primary goal behind this was to prevent having a number of children without dedicated caregivers/providers (mostly fathers, since it was generally fairly obvious to anyone around at the birth who the mother of a child was).

But with the advent of reliable contraception, the human libido didn't need to be kept in check so closely to avoid baby booms. So why then should sex remain such a weighty issue? The religious answer to this is that the virtue of chastity wasn't born of necessity, but was handed down, in effect, by the universe itself. So even two people who were incapable of having children, rather than being free to indulge their libidos, had to keep a lid on things or be at odds with the Way Things Should Be. But if you don't believe in a divine lawgiver (especially one whose edicts seem strangely coincident with the needs and wants of certain bronze-age cultures), where does that leave you? Where is the benefit in continuing to be frightened of the bear that you've not only killed, but skinned and made into an attractive throw?

Of course, in a serious of short e-mails back and forth about a book that doesn't have contraception at its core, there really isn't much room to discuss why chastity should be pursued for its own sake when the consequences of being unchaste (the physical ones, anyway) have largely been dealt with. But this is why, for many people, "the Catholic Church’s" (and many others, besides) "teaching on the subject can seem at once obscure, hair-splitting, and willfully unrealistic." It may also explain part of what I suspect Douthat sees a "Bad Religion;" the idea of a wrathful, vengeful deity who seeks to punish anyone who dares to rebel against its cosmic control-freakishness, yet is strangely reluctant to show itself.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Money For Nothing

"The Defense Ministry in rival South Korea released figures this week saying that North Korea could afford to feed its population for a year with the money it is spending on the missile launch."
North Korea rocket launch reportedly fails 
Unsurprisingly, the Internet has wasted no time in a) condemning the North Korean leadership for not being a working welfare state b) pointing out that in the United States, the National Aeronautics and Space Agency and Department of Defense also spend large amounts of money that could go to feeding hungry people at home and abroad.

I don't think that the primary problem in North Korea is its failure to be a proper welfare state. While there are nations that do reasonably well for themselves through maintaining a system of transfer payments, I have yet to come across any nation, present or past, where you couldn't make the point that people's lives could be made better if only the state were willing to move just a little more money their way. And besides, if you're reading this, it's likely that I could come to your home and point out something that you've "wasted" money on and lecture you about some poor African child who doesn't have shoes while you spend money on frivolities. Give someone enough time, and they'll be able to find a myriad of uses for your money in the service of poverty reduction.

If we're going to fault North Korea, it should first for not allowing it's people to do what they can to care for themselves, in the name of making them dependent on a regime that is primarily about keeping itself in power. While I've never been to North Korea, I have it on fairly trustworthy authority that the place isn't a desert. It's people could likely do much better for themselves than they are, if they were allowed to do so by the regime that's in power.

Granted, it's not like the United States ensures that each of its citizens has the opportunity to be all that they can be, but we're not in effect manufacturing grinding poverty for little reason than to claim "anything you can do, I can do better" on the international stage. It's fashionable to claim that our government is in the business of fostering dependence, but it's more accurate to note that they're in the business of buying votes with public money - machine politics at its finest.

Likewise, if we're going to fault the United States for spending billions of dollars every year on things that don't do anything to alleviate poverty here at home (although by the standards of much of the world, being poor in the United States is still a pretty sweet gig), the knock should be that the government gets too caught up in attempting to artificially create a society in which everyone wins, even when it would likely do better to focus on expanding opportunities, rather than seeking to level outcomes.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Come Again?

So this guy named John Derbyshire writes a column purporting to be a "non-black" version of "the talk," in reaction to chatter about the warnings that African-American parents give their children about how to deal with (white) authority figures without being arrested, beaten up and/or shot. Given that one of the most lasting legacies of racism in the United States is the continuing expectation of racism, it's likely going to be a long time before things like "the talk" ever go away, and the self-fulfilling prophecies generated by both sides are likely just as much an issue as actual racism.

Not having read the actual piece, my knowledge of it is secondhand, gleaned from the teapot tempest stirred up by yet another random racist screed.

Today, someone asked me if I was offended by Derbyshire's column.

"Why should I be offended?" I responded. "This man, if I understand him correctly, is telling you to raise your children to be sniveling cowards in the face of a group they outnumber four-to-one, out of the idea that we're stronger, more cunning, and better organized that you people can ever hope to be; and that as a group made up of intellectual, effete wimps, your only hope of saving yourselves is to keep your heads down and don't make eye contact.

"Why are you so sure it was us he was badmouthing?"

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Looking Back

The road just traveled.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

City Life

Normally, I live and work in the suburbs. This has been the case for most of my adult life. Even when I've lived in major metropolitan areas, I've never been anywhere near the city core.

This makes it easy to forget, in a sense, the homeless. Not in a literal sense, but in the sense that they drift out of sight and out of mind. The occasional panhandler that I see by the highway off-ramp just sort of comes and goes, and when he's not there, I don't think much about him. But when I was walking to work Friday morning, and I noticed someone sleeping in a doorway, I suddenly recalled him (likely them, really, even if there is only one person there at any given time). And I wondered, where was he, and how was he getting by? Welcoming doorways can be few and far between in the boonies.

Planting the Flag

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Keeping It Real

Every so often, I become aware of a new attempt to prove that Jesus of Nazareth was a "real" person. This is, I think, somewhat of a misnomer, as the actual goal has always struck me as proving that the Gospels (or at least the main narrative arc of them, since that can't all be accurate) are literal histories, and the events that they purport to chronicle actually happened as (belatedly) recorded. The fact that simply proving the existence of a man whose name would have been "Jesus" in Greek doesn't get you anywhere near there appears to be lost on many. Simply because I can demonstrate the possible existence of the claimed miracle worker does not mean that I can automatically substantiate the occurrence of the claimed miracles. (Find me the recorded rantings of a fishmonger or baker who'd planned to make a killing, and we'll talk.) And the same arguments pop up: You can take an uncorroborated story from the Bible at face value; the fact that the story seems sketchy is actually proof of its veracity, et cetera.

For me, the question is simpler. Does it matter? The neutral historical record is always going to be woefully incomplete. That's never stopped anybody from believing before (and belief creates a reality all its own), and if you don't believe, yet another believer breathlessly proclaiming to have found the same evidence that the last 50 did isn't going to be at all convincing.

While it doesn't much matter to me, clearly there are a number of people to whom it does matter. I don't like to speculate about what people are thinking (as I'm rarely correct), but I've always had the feeling that many Christians aren't comfortable with relying on faith, instead looking for concrete evidence. Not only to shore up their own beliefs, but as a means of saying to others: "Now you HAVE to believe." This strange quest to obviate the need for faith seems quixotic at best, and counter-productive at worst. After all, if we can't manage universal agreement on the shape of the Earth, we're unlikely to have universal agreement on matters spiritual.