Friday, August 31, 2007

Health Care for Dummies: The Millionaire's Guidebook

From Paul Krugman in the NYT:

There’s a powerful political faction in this country that’s determined to draw exactly the wrong lesson from the Katrina debacle — namely, that the government always fails when it attempts to help people in need, so it shouldn’t even try. “I don’t want the people who ran the Katrina cleanup to manage our health care system,” says Mitt Romney, as if the Bush administration’s practice of appointing incompetent cronies to key positions and refusing to hold them accountable no matter how badly they perform .... were the way government always works.

This is the core argument between liberals and conservatives, and a tiresome one. One of the reasons it's so tiresome is that the debate over whether government should intervene in social problems is really about whether it should intervene in the problems of the poor. It happily intervenes in the problems of the rich, to mutual advantage, since with the government's help the rich get even richer and the politicians protect their biggest donors. The poor, on the other hand, don't vote in large numbers, and obviously don't donate much to politicians, so we shouldn't be surprise that we've got the system we do. (Watch the subprime meltdown as it plays out on Wall Street and then in people's homes; notice who gets what, and from whom.)

The utter shamelessness of our corporate culture aside, the above quote, from the millionaire Mitt Romney, brings two things to mind. Both are personal experiences of our health care system, which Romney apparently thinks is best run by people with a big financial stake in who gets treated:

My nephew, who is 30, fell last week, dislocating his elbow and breaking one of the bones in his forearm. It was an ugly break, with bones in three different pieces and bone splinters embedded in the muscle. My nephew works as a stone mason, and due to the seasonal nature of his work, ongoing financial struggles and a new baby, he has no health insurance. So you can see where this is going. Instead of going into surgery immediately - that very day - to get the fracture cleaned up and the bone set, he's still waiting for a doctor who will see him without insurance. That will be next week sometime.

In the meantime, my mother, who was an orthopedic nurse for 20 years, is looking at his x-rays and saying he'll end up with diminished function in his arm. Maybe he won't be able to work as a stone mason anymore. I guess we could say it's his fault for not making health insurance a priority. But with the hospital, surgeons, physical therapists and everybody else chasing him for payment and an arm that won't let him work, he'll probably never be able make it a priority. Not now. There just won't be enough money. Maybe he'll end up on disability, costing us all a lot more than if he'd been insured to start with, or, God forbid, if he'd just gotten the free care that would diminished losses in function and got him back to work fast. It's not just about him, of course. What of the house and baby he's supposed to be helping support, and the assistants he would otherwise be hiring? There's a ripple effect, of course, with this kind of injury. One that can cost society a whole of money.

The other thing Mitt Romney has made me think of is my sister. Her surprise breach birth in 1961 (before the time when doctors got their pants sued off for things like this) resulted in severe mental retardation, epilepsy and cerebral palsy. My parents raised her at home until she was about 18, and then, with lots of misgivings, placed her in a nearby nursing home, where they still visit her at least once a day. As a totally disabled person over 18, she gets Medicaid, which pays for her nursing home care and her frequent doctors' and hospital visits.

If not for Medicaid, she'd still be at home, keeping my parents there, too, because she's physically deterioriated over the years and now cannot even walk unassisted. My parents are owners of three successful small businesses, one of which employers a couple of dozen people. Their ability to invest in the business, and to devote their time to it and to other members of the family - like the nephew who just broke his arm, and needs my mother's help daily - would be very much limited if they had to care for my sister as well. And without those businesses, my brother and I wouldn't be inheriting much from them when they die, and nor would our children inherit much from us.

Again, there's a ripple effect.

Can government be in the health care business? It already is. It's taken care of my sister. The care isn't excellent, but it's decent, and my parents provide lots of backup. My nephew, on the other hand, is in the hands of the private health sector. And we see how he's done, and what the likely consequences will be.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Mother Teresa, Disappointed in Love

So Mother Teresa, it turns out, was tortured by doubts about God's existence. After a plateau of high feeling and communion with God, in 1946 and 1947, when she heard Him inviting her to serve him, heard Him plain as day, she never heard God's voice again. Through those long decades afterward, while she toiled tirelessly in his name, she felt nothing at all, just a dark hole in heart where God had been. At times she wondered if possibly she had sacrificed her life for nothing at all.

In considering these astonishing facts, revealed in a new collection of her letters to friends and confessors, the Vatican (which itself released the book) has this explanation: the searing abandonment this little Albanian nun felt was like the cry of abandonment Jesus himself proclaimed from the cross - that's how close she was to him. She was so close she couldn't see him or hear him as a separate presence; instead she lived inside him, feeling his pain as her own.

Possibly. But then, the Vatican has to rationalize the jarring disconnect between her professed faith and her actual faith somehow, doesn't it?

Personally, this is what I think: I love religion and can't quite cleanse my system of it. It has everything - beauty, mystery, ritual, community. Participating in communal worship can feel beautiful and perfectly, absolutely right. Yet I know - because it's plain as day - that religion is man's instrument, reflecting at all times and in all cultures the will of the people themselves, expressing their own fears and prejudices and most passionate desires. And that makes it not a thing of God at all, but just another creation of ours, designed to serve and exalt ... us. And that makes religion utterly unreliable as a divine mechanism of justice or even as code of rules. Lonely, indeed. That's what this news about Mother Teresa makes me feel.

I've spent many years in church, and for a long time considered religion the very best thing in my life. But .... but. Poor Mother Teresa. A venerated soon-to-be-saint, to be sure. But also a pitiful, dejected woman, disappointed in her one and only love affair.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Taxes Were for the Little People, But Her Dog Totally Made Out

It's appalling and amusing at the same time ...

NEW YORK (AP) -- Leona Helmsley's dog will continue to live an opulent life, and then be buried alongside her in a mausoleum. But two of Helmsley's grandchildren got nothing from the late luxury hotelier and real estate billionaire's estate. Helmsley left her beloved white Maltese, named Trouble, a $12 million trust fund, according to her will, which was made public Tuesday in surrogate court.

But then, when you think about it, ordinary people, me included, spend more on their dogs in a month than parents in the Third World spend on their children in a year. Check out these links to see what I'm talking about. (I can hear David wailing, "The poor, the poor, always the poor." Yep, it's some sort of curse, to constantly think along these lines. If you're not into self-reproach, don't become a social worker.) Anyway, lavishing money on our pets rather than other people's hungry children doesn't exactly tip the ethical scales in our favor, no matter how much of an ass Leona was. (While definitely Not a Nice Woman, I bet she still gave more to charity than I'll ever be able to give.)

A condundrum. Peter Singer, some input?

Monday, August 27, 2007

And Don't Come Back Saying You Can't Find It

This explains so much. It turns out that there's a biological basis for everything we do - including our behavior in the kitchen. Which, as everyone knows, is frequently about men saying, "I can't find it," and women going to the cupboard and fishing it - whatever can or box he was looking for - out of some dark recess. Then saying, "There. Was that so hard?"

According to The Economist, a new study shows that women are better than men at "relocating" sources of food. In other words, finding food that's tucked away somewhere, like in a refrigerator or cabinet. Furthermore, the higher the caloric content of the food, the better women are at finding it. "Women's minds are specialised for their ancestral task of gathering the sort of food that cannot run away," the researchers, who are evolutionary biologists, said. They theorize this unique female skill evolved to complement the male talent for chasing down food and killing it. Men hunters, women gatherers. We may run from our gender roles, but even after all these years, we can't really hide.

All very interesting and entertaining stuff. But I wonder if these kind of studies - the ones that confirm that the sexes really do differ, and usually along the lines we already know about - are such a good thing. Because even if biological predisposition is real, it's only a part - and a lesser part - of the story.

I know I'm better at digging the pancake mix out of the pantry than anyone else in my house, male or female. That's because I'm the mom, and the mom always knows where kitchen stuff is kept. You see, even in these enlightened times, moms generally buy the food, cart it home, and put it on the shelves themselves.

Furthermore, there's a payoff involved in being the all-knowing one; the kitchen is still generally a sphere of feminine influence (as opposed, say, to the garage, which is still a sphere of male influence), and being hyper-competent in your sphere is a way of asserting your ongoing importance in the scheme of things.

Retro? Un-PC? Even annoying as hell? Definitely. Still, we're not all the difficult to figure out; psychologists could do it as well as evolutionary biologists.

The Renewables: Solar, Wind and ... Landfill Gas

An interesting bit of local news with broader implications. Check out Environmental Valuation and Cost-Benefit News for more on this topic. Hey - isn't this sort of thing exactly what universities should be doing? Given that we have virtually no political leadership on the urgent matter of saving our planet and ourselves from seems-to-be certain doom, academics and entrepreneurs are obviously going to have to take the lead.

DURHAM, N.H. – The University of New Hampshire, in cooperation with Waste Management of New Hampshire, Inc., has launched EcoLine, a landfill gas project that will pipe enriched and purified gas from a landfill in Rochester to the Durham campus. UNH is the first university in the nation to undertake a project of this magnitude.

The renewable, carbon-neutral landfill gas ... will replace commercial natural gas as the primary fuel in UNH’s cogeneration plant, enabling UNH to receive 80-85 percent of its energy from a renewable source.

Construction is set to begin immediately ... on the the 12.7 mile underground pipeline, which will transport the gas from the plant to the university’s Durham campus. UNH is expected to fuel its cogeneration plant with landfill gas by the fall of 2008. Estimated cost of the project, including the construction of a second generator at UNH, is $45 million.

At UNH, landfill gas will replace commercial natural gas in UNH’s cogeneration (co-gen) plant, the primary source of heat and electricity for the five million square-foot Durham campus. The co-gen plant, which began operations in 2006, captures waste heat normally lost during the production of electricity and uses this energy to heat campus buildings, making more efficient use of energy resources.

The landfill gas will stabilize the university’s fluctuating energy costs, which have doubled in the last five years and grown at an annual rate of 18.9 percent. EcoLine will also have a major impact on UNH’s carbon dioxide emissions. It will reduce the university’s greenhouse gas emissions an estimated 67 percent below 2005 levels and 57 percent below 1990 levels.

Landfill gas is a naturally occurring by-product of landfill decomposition. Waste Management has a state-of-the-art gas collection system consisting of over 300 extraction wells, miles of collection pipes, and compressors to capture the landfill gas.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Let's Get Emotional: What Al Should Have Said to George

How's this for a knock-out punch Al Gore could have delivered in one of the 2000 debates:

"If someone is going to restore dignity to the Oval Office, it isn't a man who drank his way through three decades of his life and got investigated by his father's own Securities and Exchange Commission for swindling people out of their retirement savings." Or this: "Why don't you tell us how many times you got behind the wheel of a car with a few drinks under your belt, endangering your neighbors' kids? Where I come from, we call that a drunk."

Such slap-downs would have been effective because they would have appealed to voters' emotions, put Bush on the defensive, and countered the perception that Democrats are wusses. All of which, according to Drew Westen, whose book "The Political Brain" is reviewed in today's NYT, would be good for us (Democrats) and bad for them (Republicans).

Aside from the fact that Republican operatives have demonstrated time and again how incredibly ornery and low-down they can get when cornered (as John McCain and John Kerry know all too well), AND aside from the fact that Al Gore, having delivered those attacks, would then have to answer all kinds of inconvenient questions about his youthful, and apparent nonstop, dope-smoking, there's at least one other reason why verbal assaults of this kind are bad for us: They make us stupid. Further, they make us mean, and fixate us on barely relevant details that can sway us but not really inform us. And how terrible it would be if politics became even more debased than it already is.

I dislike many politicians, George Bush among them, but I don't need to see them destroyed by below-the-belt zingers delivered by overzealous opponents. If they're going to go down in flames, they're perfectly capable of striking the match all by themselves. Obviously, we're looking at a case in point.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Do School Shooters Suffer from 'Cynical Shyness'?

From Handsnet, a social services e-bulletin:

After performing an analysis of school shootings in the last decade, researchers at the Shyness Research Institute in Indiana say that the perpetrators are likely to suffer from cynical shyness - an extreme form of shyness that predominantly affects males and can lead to violent behavior. To intervene early on and prevent future violence in schools, teachers, parents and mental health professionals need to be on the lookout for those students whose shyness is a source of anger and hostility.

Presenting at the 115th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association, psychologist Bernardo Carducci, PhD, and assistant Kristin Terry Nethery examined news accounts of eight school shootings between 1995 and 2004 for "personal and social indicators" of something they call "cynical shyness." According to them, those indicators are: lack of empathy, low tolerance for frustration, anger outbursts, social rejection from peers, bad family relations and access to weapons.

“Our results indicate that the individuals involved in the seven deadly high school shootings within the last decade clearly had characteristics of cynical shyness. Most of what we see in individuals with this extreme form of shyness is that they tend to be male and desperately want to be socially engaged with other people. But often lacking in social skills, these individuals get rejected by their peers and then avoid social connections because of the resulting pain,” said the authors.

OK, granted. But aren't teenagers in other countries as liable to be ostracized as American teenagers? Aren't they as liable to grow up with a critical shortage of social skills and simmering resentment because they can't find their niche? It's hard to imagine otherwise.

Which makes me think that maybe the most important "indicator" of this malady called cynical shyness is the last one in the researchers' list: access to weapons.

On a related note, it's nice to see that there are countries were death and mayhem by and against children still has the power to outrage. Britain is currently "shocked" by the shooting of an 11 -year-old boy in Liverpool, the youngest gun victim in memory. Two teenagers have been arrested. In addition to being shocked, Brits are perplexed, too, because though guns are strictly controlled they're somehow not very hard to get, and it seems that young people are adopting a casual attitude about using them.

How quaint, those concerns. None of which actually rate as newsworthy here, where the last and next school shooting are always just opportunities for the NRA and allied politicians to declare how opposed they are to gun control. Call it "cynical patriotism," perhaps.

Friday, August 24, 2007

In the Summer Heat, a Falling Man

Is it ever hot in New Hampshire tonight, stifling, the kind of oppressive night where your hair sticks to your neck and you feel like taking a shower every 10 minutes. I can do without any more jokes about global warming - how this will feel like nothing in 100 years, when tropical foliage is overrunning the Northeast and dinosaurs (or something) will have returned. I'm not finding that kind of humor funny anymore, if I ever did. Even the jalapeno peppers in the garden are wilting.

I picked up my third novel about 9/11 yesterday - "Falling Man," by Don DeLillo. I've never been crazy about DeLillo, though I've always admired how technically proficient he is at casting a pall of doom over his stories. "Falling Man" is extreme DeLillo, told in voice so detached and disconnected that the characters seem to stumble through the story shell-shocked, thinking and talking in telegraphic, dazed fragments that don't always make much sense. I have no doubt that the book's tone is true to the surreal quality of the day, but the effect of all this stripped-down emotionality is distancing. Too much, really, to want to spend time with the characters, who all need a lot more therapy than they're going to get, I fear.

Actually the only novel I've read on this topic that was truly good was "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close." If there's a writer out there better than Jonathan Safran Foer, I haven't found him. One day a more compelling and beautiful book about 9/11 and its aftermath will be written, but it hasn't been yet.

As I write this I wonder if it's a sign of emotional rebound that we can actually weigh the relative merits of the various 9/11 novels in such a cool fashion. If so, the rebound seems temporary and fragile, like it's only waiting for the next bad thing to happen.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

The Women Who Hate Hillary Too Much

So Stanley Fish, writing in the Times, is already talking about who Hillary Clinton will choose as a running mate. Frankly, the presumption of her candidacy upsets me, because I'm not sure she can win. And the reason she can't win is that about half the people in this country hate for reasons they themselves can't articulate.

And women, it pains me to say, are the most irrational of anybody on the subject. You get a smart, well-informed woman who's against Hillary, and she's not just against her, but she's opposed in every fiber of her being, she's deeply offended on every moral and ethical level that exists, she's apoplectic with disgust. Hillary is "evil," she will be the "ruination of American democracy," she's a Fascist biding her time til she can seize the reins of power. (Yes, each and every one of these has been said; when it comes Hillary, who started her political career as a "Feminazi," you don't have to make anything up.)

I don't hold myself above the rabble in this regard. I'm politically immature myself, when it comes to women. I just have to see Kay Bailey Hutchinson at a press conference or in an interview to get all squinty-eyed. How can she have sold women out, by being a ... Republican?

Irrational? Yes, I admit it. I don't know anything about Kay Bailey Hutchinson*, can't even name a single thing she's voted for (though I could probably guess). But if we were to have an Extreme Encounter - if, for instance, we found ourselves marooned together in an elevator for a couple of days - I might find she was the funniest, smartest person I ever met. But seeing that I'm not likely to get that chance, I'm going to continue to be annoyed that she exists. It's just easier and more satisfying that way.

With Hillary, the sense of perplexity and, finally, of daggers-out anger is ramped up to the nth degree. How dare she wear pink? How dare she show her cleavage? How dare she act like she's entitled to power? Who does she think she is? Sound like a cat fight? It is, sort of. That's how unevolved women can be when it comes to sizing up, and rejecting, one of their own. Maybe I'm a traitor to my sex for saying it, but if Hillary Clinton's really going to be the Democratic candidate, somebody should.


*What's weird is that Kay Bailey Hutchinson is the only Republican woman who even comes to mind. I'd have to go to to dig up any more. Is this a party still so unconsciously patriarchal that it stifles uppity women in the cradle?

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Scary American Guys Wish You a Merry Christmas

Spotted yesterday, on the office wall in a dank garage in Waltham, Mass.:

A Christmas card, still taped up eight months later:

On it, here's what we see: A leering skeleton wearing a Santa's hat, clutching an automatic rifle in its bony arms. He's aiming it at us. And then underneath, in Gothic letters, this line: "Merry Christmas. Know that while you sleep men wait in the night, ready to visit violence on enemies who would attack us. PEACE ISN'T PRETTY." All against a death-black background.

Now this card was a real curiosity to me, and as I stood there, waiting to pay my bill, I tried to figure it out. Because while I'd obviously seen a lot of this sort of over-the-top celebration of American militarism before, on bumper stickers and car windows and the like, this was the most ... what to call it? There's no word, really.

Forget the disconnect between the supposed innocence of Christmas, with its tinsel and lighted church windows, and this bloody-thirsty death-skull avenger. The disconnect is the point, obviously.

Instead my thoughts were really just a series of questions, all having to do with my conviction that hey, apparently a lot of people like this sort of thing.

This whole concept - don't worry, go on nestling in your beds, dreaming sweet dreams, because we'll kill them for you - is actually comforting to some people. It cheers them, makes them happy.

It's not just men who think this way, but it's mostly men, I would guess - the kind of men who hang shiny steel testicles from their trailer hitches, to show they're macho (I suppose that's what they mean to show). And the kind of men who have bumper stickers that say, "Never trust anything that bleeds for five days and doesn't die." These guys are rough types, not too educated, not thinking they're in need of any education.

How many of these guys are out there? Are they a big slice of us? And do we utterly rely on them and their cartoonish machismo to implement our relationships with other countries in the world? I'm afraid the answer is yes. We do. That, standing in the garage, was what I was thinking.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Obama's Getting Groped!

Here we go. It didn't take long.

The promo for the new book "Obama":

David Mendell has covered Obama since the beginning of his campaign for the Senate and as a result enjoys far–reaching access to the new Senator––both his professional and personal life. He uses this access to paint a very intimate portrait of Obama and his life pre and post Senate, including Obama's new status as a sex symbol now that going into a crowd to shake hands with constituents carries the added concern of being groped by women, and the toll this has had on his marriage.

According to the press, Obama's wife is a fighter. Ladies, don't mess with her.

Hey, Dude, Let's Party

Imagine my pride in discovering that, just two weeks before my son heads off to college for the first time, his school has been ranked number 7 in the Princeton Review's annual list of Top 20 Party Schools. It's thrilling, this recognition, quite an honor. No, no, please - it's too much. Really. Really.

Actually, I have no expertise in this area. Although the college I attended was (and is) also highly ranked, I never went to a single party when I was there - yes, hard to believe, and sad in its way, but true. Never saw the inside of a frat house, never drank my weight in beer at a boozy tailgate shindig. But I'm a freak, as my son reminds me constantly. Which is the reason I think the decline of our popular culture began when the word "party" became a verb.

But my real question is directed to the statisticians out there: how solid is the research here? It seems important to know, right about now.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Nuclear Power's Imperfect, but It's Less Deadly than Coal

David, who works as an engineer at a nuclear power plant - that's a conversation-stopper at dinner parties, we've found - came home today with news of a presentation he'd just attended at work. The featured speaker had been a control room operator at Three Mile Island on the day in 1979 when one unit's reactor core partially melted down. This man, just short of retirement, was in his '30s then, and ever since the accident, he's been travelling to nuclear power plants around the country explaining how events unfolded that day, and warning a younger generation of workers not to let improved technology and more rigorous oversight make them complacent. Despite all the improvements in the industry prompted by the accident, bad things can still happen.

It was a great presentation, apparently, and as David told me about it, he handed me a fact sheet the Nuclear Regulatory Commission had issued about the accident. (The former control-room operator estimated that roughly 600 investigations had been conducted since 1979.)

I looked through the NRC report. It's written simply, in layman's terms. Its lead sentence reads:

"The accident at Three Mile Island Unit 2 nuclear power plan near Middletown, Penn., on March 28, 1979 was the most serious in U.S. commercial nuclear power plant operating history, even though it led to no deaths or injuries to plant workers or members of the nearby community."

The report goes to explain precisely what happened. In the end, the NRC determined that the accident resulted from a "combination of personnel errors, design deficiencies, and component failures."

In the aftermath of the accident, several federal and independent studies were conducted to determine what, if any, health consequences the people around the plant had suffered due to the small amounts of radiation released from the plant.

"Estimates are that the average dose to about 2 million people in the area was only about 1 millirem. To put this into context, exposure from a full set of chest x-rays is about 6 millirem. Compared to the natural radioactive background dose of about 100-125 millirem per year for the area, the collective dose to the community was very small. In the months following the accident, although questions were raised about possible adverse effects from radiation on human, animal, and plant life in the TMI area, none could be directly correlated to the accident."

Bottom line: Although the reactor was seriously damaged, the effect of the radiation release on life and the environment was "negligible."

I'm a recent convert to nuclear power, and I'm certainly not downplaying its risks. It's imperfect, to be sure.

But, here's the thing with risk. In just the past several days, six coal miners and three rescue workers have died in this country, and almost 200 coal miners have died in China. Yet the public will soon dry its tears, if indeed it ever really shed any, and we'll continue burning coal as if nothing ever happened.

My question is this: Why do we accept these deaths as tragic but unavoidable, while continuing to wring our hands about nuclear power, which, even in its worst US accident, has yet to harm a single person in this country?

How Come Athiests Build Better Societies?

I hate to thieve shamelessly, but that's only a general rule. I was so intrigued by a post on Angry Bear on religion that looked into his source material myself. It's a 2005 study from the Journal of Religion and Society about the pervasive (though sometimes unconscious) tendency we have to equate high degrees of religiosity with social health.

Here's the link, if you want to read whole thing. It's fairly short.

Two centuries ago there was relatively little dispute over the existence of God, or the societally beneficial effect of popular belief in a creator. In the twentieth century extensive secularization occurred in western nations, the United States being the only significant exception (Bishop; Bruce; Gill et al.; Sommerville). If religion has receded in some western nations, what is the impact of this unprecedented transformation upon their populations? Theists often assert that popular belief in a creator is instrumental towards providing the moral, ethical and other foundations necessary for a healthy, cohesive society. Many also contend that widespread acceptance of evolution, and/or denial of a creator, is contrary to these goals….

The twentieth century acted, for the first time in human history, as a vast Darwinian global societal experiment in which a wide variety of dramatically differing social-religious-political-economic systems competed with one another, with varying degrees of success. A quantitative cross-national analysis is feasible because a large body of survey and census data on rates of religiosity, secularization, and societal indicators has become available in the prosperous developed democracies including the United States.


Among the developed democracies absolute belief in God, attendance of religious services and Bible literalism vary over a dozenfold, atheists and agnostics five fold, prayer rates fourfold, and acceptance of evolution almost twofold. Japan, Scandinavia, and France are the most secular nations in the west, the United States is the only prosperous first world nation to retain rates of religiosity otherwise limited to the second and third worlds (Bishop; PEW).

A few hundred years ago rates of homicide were astronomical in Christian Europe and the American colonies (Beeghley; R. Lane). In all secular developed democracies a centuries long-term trend has seen homicide rates drop to historical lows. The especially low rates in the more Catholic European states are statistical noise due to yearly fluctuations incidental to this sample, and are not consistently present in other similar tabulations (Barcley and Tavares). Despite a significant decline from a recent peak in the 1980s (Rosenfeld), the U.S. is the only prosperous democracy that retains high homicide rates, making it a strong outlier in this regard (Beeghley; Doyle, 2000). Similarly, theistic Portugal also has rates of homicides well above the secular developed democracy norm.

Mass student murders in schools are rare, and have subsided somewhat since the 1990s, but the U.S. has experienced many more (National School Safety Center) than all the secular developed democracies combined. Other prosperous democracies do not significantly exceed the U.S. in rates of nonviolent and in non-lethal violent crime (Beeghley; Farrington and Langan; Neapoletan), and are often lower in this regard. The United States exhibits typical rates of youth suicide (WHO), which show little if any correlation with theistic factors in the prosperous democracies. The positive correlation between pro-theistic factors and juvenile mortality is remarkable, especially regarding absolute belief, and even prayer. Life spans tend to decrease as rates of religiosity rise, especially as a function of absolute belief. Denmark is the only exception. Unlike questionable small-scale epidemiological studies by Harris et al. and Koenig and Larson, higher rates of religious affiliation, attendance, and prayer do not result in lower juvenile-adult mortality rates on a cross-national basis.

In general, higher rates of belief in and worship of a creator correlate with higher rates of homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, STD infection rates, teen pregnancy, and abortion in the prosperous democracies. The most theistic prosperous democracy, the U.S., is exceptional, but not in the manner (Benjamin) Franklin predicted. The United States is almost always the most dysfunctional of the developed democracies, sometimes spectacularly so, and almost always scores poorly. The view of the U.S. as a “shining city on the hill” to the rest of the world is falsified when it comes to basic measures of societal health.

Although they are by no means utopias, the populations of secular democracies are clearly able to govern themselves and maintain societal cohesion.

Indeed, the data examined in this study demonstrates that only the more secular, pro-evolution democracies have, for the first time in history, come closest to achieving practical “cultures of life” that feature low rates of lethal crime, juvenile-adult mortality, sex related dysfunction, and even abortion. The least theistic secular developed democracies such as Japan, France, and Scandinavia have been most successful in these regards.

The non-religious, pro-evolution democracies contradict the dictum that a society cannot enjoy good conditions unless most citizens ardently believe in a moral creator. The widely held fear that a Godless citizenry must experience societal disaster is therefore refuted. Contradicting these conclusions requires demonstrating a positive link between theism and societal conditions in the first world with a similarly large body of data - a doubtful possibility in view of the observable trends.

A couple things leap out here. We know from numerous other studies that high levels of religious participation correlate positively with health behaviors in youth (or at least tends to protect against typical teenage destructive behaviors), and we also know that teenagers tend to leave organized religion in droves about the time they get out of high school.

If, in societies that are equally prosperous, high religiosity does not correlate with positive outcomes for adults (and it clearly doesn't, because in the US, many adult 'believers' zealously kill, rape, maim, commit all sorts of sexually dysfunctional acts, and otherwise victimize themselves and others) then what might that suggest? That religion in the form that most people practice it is essentially suited to children and adolescents, but loses its effectiveness with adults? And would this be because of the evolutionary stage of religion itself, or is this a problem inherent in religion for all time?

These aren't rhetorical questions because I don't pretend to know the answers. I've been deeply attracted to religion for most of my life, but even while I was actively involved in it, I found it hard to truly believe a good deal of what was being professed. And so did a lot of other people sitting in the pews.

One thing I know: as Walter Lippmann, whose book "A Preface to Morals" I'm reading, points out: A religion that must be defended and debated is already blighted. Garry Wills said much the same thing in "What Jesus Meant": If you simply cannot accept the (Christian) story as it's presented in the only definitive source of the story that exists, then why bother with it?

It seems that it's all or nothing, logically speaking. But then again, logic has always been the enemy of religion, which is why from Christianity's earliest days, followers were exhorted not to question or probe.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Could Nakedness Be Going ... Out of Fashion?

I really like nudity, but it always seems to look better in smaller groups, and in more secluded places. Like, at home. Maybe it's the lighting.

Efforts to raise awareness of global warming take many forms. On Saturday August 18th Greenpeace launched its latest stunt to sway doubters that a heating planet is generally a bad thing. The environmental group co-opted Spencer Tunick, an artist renowned for his photographs of rolling acres of nude men and women, to repeat his trick on a Swiss glacier. But art and protest do not always make for happy bedfellows—crude polemic and subtle imagery often jar. Perhaps a bigger concern for the activists is that these days the naked form has lost much of its power to shock.

Rousseau, in Defense of Religion

From the cover story of the New York Times Sunday Magazine, on why the "Great Separation" between politics and religion that occurred in the West is not inevitable elsewhere:

The short section of (Rousseau's) Emile, which he called 'The Profession of Faith of the Savoyard Vicar,' has so deeply shaped contemporary views of religion that it takes some effort to understand why Rousseau was persecuted for writing it. It is the most beautiful and convincing defense of man's religious instincts ever to flow from a modern pen ....

Essentially, 'The Profession' argues that religion is necessary for moral expression; whether factually true or not, man needs it and cannot function well without it. If true, the question becomes: can religion be entirely expunged from the political sphere, and should it be? Perhaps what the rest of the world does with religion is more natural, in a sense, than what we've done.

I'd never read the piece ... here's a link.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Stop that Sex!: The Puritans Waste More Money

From the Chicago Tribune:

Congress has spent $1.5 billion in the last 10 years on programs that deliver a single message: Abstain from sex until you marry. That's a good message for young people about how to stay healthy and safe. Taken alone, though, it doesn't appear to be a terribly effective message.

A recent study of 2,000 children who were tracked over 10 years found no evidence that abstinence-only programs delayed the start of sexual activity by teens. The study found that such programs didn't increase condom use by teens who do have sex. The study was commissioned by the federal government and conducted by the non-partisan firm Mathematica Policy Research Inc.

Sexual activity by teens declined through the 1990s but has essentially been level since 2001, roughly tracking the time Congress has put big money into abstinence education. That doesn't argue for the effectiveness of the programs.

Yet the U.S. House recently approved $204 million for abstinence education, a $28 million increase over current spending. Democratic leaders in the House say they agreed to the increase to draw Republican votes to a health and education spending bill.

The view here has been that the federal experiment in funding abstinence programs should be given a chance to see if it works. It has had the chance, and the evidence isn't encouraging. If Congress is going to put money into sex education in schools, it ought to promote broader programs that stress abstinence, but also include information on the correct use of contraception and the treatment and testing of sexually transmitted diseases.

Under federal law, abstinence-only programs cannot include discussion about contraception, except to discuss its failure rates. An increasing number of states -- 11 so far -- have rejected the federal money.

I've been following the abstinence debate for a few years now. The Mathematica study cited here has done the most rigorous research to date on this question, and it's good research, looking at the subject over a range of years to see how instruction given in elementary and middle school affect "sexual debut" and other sexual behaviors in the teen years.

Lots of conservatives keep hanging on, though, because they want it to be true: just tells kids how really, really dangerous sex is, and they'll wait until they get married to have it.*

Abstinence-until-marriage is a fairly freaky concept, when you think about it. If young people adopted it as a credo in any number, we'd have 17- and 18-year-olds marrying in order to have sex, the way many teenagers did, say, in the '50s. (My own parents, for example.) And when people do that, you not only get immature, ill-considered marriages (hardly good for society), but you get a social ethos that has elevated sex beyond its true importance, with all the inevitable skewing effects that will follow.

(To see what puritanical sexual policies can do to a society, check out our good friend and ally Saudi Arabia.)

I'm all for encouraging abstinence til maturity. Talk to teenagers, and you'll find how clear-thinking many of them their readiness for sex. But come on. Very few of us were "abstinent until marriage," and our kids won't be, either. If we feel uncomfortable with the hypersexualized society we're raising our kids in, let's change it. Please.

But it's our own immaturity that has us falling back on religious and paternalistic sensibilities that only waste our money and time. Religious and social conservatives need to pick up these particular marbles and go home.


*This is what abstinence-until-marriage programs teach. "E" wins some sort of award for hypocritical, fear-mongering psycho-nonsense.

Table 1. A-H Definition of Abstinence Education for Title V, Section 510 Programs
A Have as its exclusive purpose teaching the social, psychological, and health gains to be realized by abstaining from sexual activity
B Teach abstinence from sexual activity outside marriage as the expected standard for all school-age children
C Teach that abstinence from sexual activity is the only certain way to avoid out-of-wedlock pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, and other associated health problems
D Teach that a mutually faithful, monogamous relationship in the context of marriage is the expected standard of sexual activity
E Teach that sexual activity outside the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects
F Teach that bearing children out of wedlock is likely to have harmful consequences for the child, the child’s parents, and society
G Teach young people how to reject sexual advances and how alcohol and drug use increases vulnerability to sexual advances
H Teach the importance of attaining self-sufficiency before engaging in sexual activity

Harvard Doesn't Hate America, Despite Being Effete

I took David to Cambridge last weekend - his first trip there ever, though he's lived within driving distance for more than 20 years. He seemed vaguely surprised that there weren't liberal snipers posted at turrets, waiting to pick off the unconverted. (If he'd shown his face during the 2004 campaign, it would have been a different story.) He found Cambridge strangely congenial, full of all the smart and interesting types he likes. We ate Korean food, checked out the funky little stores, laughed at the fact that there really is a "Dewey, Cheatem & Howe" sign up in a Harvard Square window. Turns out Cambridge opens its arms to everyone. Ah, the beauty of diversity.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Lippmann's Answer to the Death of Faith

A few months ago I drove up to Vermont for work. I go there periodically to meet with my boss, who lives in one of those blessed spots where every kind of rustic beauty is on excessive display: uncut grass in pastures, the gray expanse of Lake Champlain, the Adirondacks in shadows on the other side. There's even a covered bridge in this picture, but why gild the lily?

Last year my boss moved her mom and dad, whose health is fragile, from New York to a house just a mile down the road from her, on the edge of the lake, and now her parents can watch the westerly light on the mountains at sunset. According to them, that's what they've always wanted - a house situated just this way, with this lovely view. Now, toward the ends of their lives, they finally have it.

Her dad, who is known within the family as Baba, is something of a period piece. Necessarily, I suppose. (Actually her mom, Ann, is too. They're New York Jewish liberal agnostics of a particular middle-class, middle-century sort. One time Ann said to Baba, "Remember in the '70s when every cocktail party you went to, everyone was in psychoanalysis?")

On this particular trip Baba pointed out a book he'd just picked up at a second-hand shop. Apparently he'd seen Andy Rooney on television saying that if his house was on fire, it's the one thing he'd grab on the way out the door. Since they're of the same generation and sensibility, this impressed Baba, and he found the book. It's A Preface to Morals, by Walter Lippmann, which looked, from his copy, like it'd been out of print for decades. Since Baba and I are totally simpatico, I promised him I'd find a copy, too, so we could read it in tandem. (In turn, he promised me he'd look up "Call It Sleep," a new favorite of mine which more or less tells his own story of immigrant Jewish life in New York.)

Anyway, I found the Lippmann book on Amazon and now have it in front me. It's all about the inexorable death of religious faith, and how at this point, even people who want to believe can't quite do it. In a sense, unbelief has always been part of faith. Throughout history, from the Greeks on, the orthodoxy of any period has spun off liberalizing dissenters, who in turn become the authors of a new orthodoxy, and on and on. But there's a natural end to the cycle, he says, and our modern society has arrived at it.

Lippmann is writing in 1929, when the loss of religious certainty (and authority) no doubt seemed certain to have dire, imminent consequences. From his perspective, there is no natural substitute for religious faith, though we'll keep on living in search of one. Faith made us comfortable; science makes us anxious.

So what next? Is there an answer, or just more anemic grasping for a faith we can all sign onto, whatever that may be? All signs are that Lippmann's going to propose something. I'll be reading avidly to find out what.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Caring for the World's Poor, Our Way

From the New York Times:

MALELA, Kenya — CARE, one of the world’s biggest charities, is walking away from some $45 million a year in federal financing, saying American food aid is not only plagued with inefficiencies, but also may hurt some of the very poor people it aims to help.

CARE’s decision is focused on the practice of selling tons of often heavily subsidized American farm products in African countries that in some cases, it says, compete with the crops of struggling local farmers.

The charity says it will phase out its use of the practice by 2009. But it has already deeply divided the world of food aid and has spurred growing criticism of the practice as Congress considers a new farm bill.

“If someone wants to help you, they shouldn’t do it by destroying the very thing that they’re trying to promote,” said George Odo, a CARE official who grew disillusioned with the practice while supervising the sale of American wheat and vegetable oil in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital.

Good news; CARE is finally taking the high road. But will the snub change Congress' mind about the way it shamelessly panders to American farmers? (Actually, minds in Congress are pretty much set in concrete, on this as on so many other issues, so I would hazard to guess no. Seeing that we have two senators from every state, regardless of that state's population, it's not a great surprise that the political process favors rural areas.)

Funny, because my sense is that Americans generally agree that we should stop infantalizing farmers by stuffing them full of perverse financial rewards that may (in some strictly short-term sense) be good for them, but are demonstrably bad for everyone else. They're adults, and they're in business, and they're smart. If capitalism-lite works for the rest of us, shouldn't it work for them? Do we really need top-down, market-manipulating agricultural planning?

In the United States, we seem to want to help the world's poor. That's what we say, anyway. Then let's stop attaching strings to our aid packages - stop insisting that recipients buy our farmers' surplus crops, hire our aid consultants, make this our show (yes, in the end, it's all about us, since much of our donated cash flows right back in our direction). Food distributed to poor countries in this way merely subverts their own markets, weakening them and everyone who will depend on them when we're gone.

Three years ago I had the strange and uncomfortable experience of standing in a concrete hut in Haiti, scooping out rice and corn meal and raw brown sugar to people who'd been hungry for months because they'd been too frightened to leave their houses. The latest period of violence had mostly ended, though, and now they were lined up in the sun holding pillowcases and torn bags and dirty plastic jugs and old aluminum pans, anything they could get to carry this windfall food back home. (The group I went to Haiti with bought the food locally, by the way.)

There's nothing better than doing whatever small good you can do for people who really need it, and there's no shortage of people in this world who do. But charity has its own backstory, and when it's really all about us and our needs, we should admit it. It's the least we can do, given the lottery we Americans won when we born here rather than there.

Generosity is the purest form of egotism - that's what a former international aid worker is quoted saying in this week's New Yorker. Sadly, that has resonance, and particularly for us in the US.

Hey, Negative Population Growth Can Be Fun!

From The Denver Post:

Moscow - A Russian region of Ulyanovsk has found a novel way to fight the nation's birth-rate crisis: It has declared Sept. 12 the Day of Conception and for the third year running is giving couples time off from work to procreate.

The hope is for a brood of babies exactly nine months later on Russia's national day. Couples who "give birth to a patriot" during the June 12 festivities win money, cars, refrigerators and other prizes.

Ulyanovsk, about 550 miles east of Moscow, has held similar contests since 2005. Since then, the number of competitors, and the number of babies born to them, has been on the rise.

Russia, with one-seventh of Earth's land surface, has just 141.4 million citizens, making it one of the most sparsely settled countries in the world. With a low birth rate and a high death rate, the population has been shrinking since the early 1990s.
In his state-of-the-nation address last year, President Vladimir Putin called the demographic crisis the most acute problem facing Russia and announced a broad effort to boost Russia's birth rate, including cash incentives to families that have more than one child.

Ulyanovsk Gov. Sergei Morozov has added an element of fun to the national campaign. The 2007 grand prize went to Irina and Andrei Kartuzov, who received a UAZ-Patriot, a sport utility vehicle. Other contestants won video cameras, TVs, refrigerators and washing machines.

Actually I'm wondering if there might not be another solution here. Give a bunch of "procreation visas" to Chinese who are limited to having only one child. They can move to Russia, declare allegience to Motherland, and have at it.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

It's Not About Breasts, But It's Worthwhile Just the Same

I agree with Ann Althouse that Hillary Clinton's cleavage is a fascinating and significant issue, worth at least several days of debate. But the carnage in Iraq has led me instead to consider something a little darker and, in its own way, more important that political decolletage - the American Civil War.

I've read a lot of history - I'm the type who loves poking around old battlefields and reading obscure war memoirs - but I've never come across a trajectory quite so unusual as the one traced by three books, one old and two quite new.

I read "Little Women" in the fifth grade, crying my way through math class the day Beth died. The novel was no more or less significant to me than it was to lots of other girls my age; we all wanted to be Jo, though most of the time we acted like Amy. The book, for those unlucky people who haven't read it, is set in Concord, Mass., during the Civil War, and the March family's father, who never makes an appearance, is "down South," presumably in the thick of it.

As an adult I visited Fruitlands, the failed Utopian community Louisa May Alcott's father (who was a tiresomely sanctimonious teacher, philosopher and ne'er-do-well ) co-founded. Though it failed after one disastrous winter, the cluster of buildings on the beautiful sloping Massachusetts hills still suggest his family's dogged devotion to him. Paintings of and by the Alcotts still hang in one of the main buildings.

"American Bloomsbury," Susan Cheever's recent book about the Transcendentalists of Concord (Thoreau, Emerson, Margaret Fuller, the Alcotts and a few others) was a revelation to me: what a slight movement Transcendentalism was! How gauzy it remains. In reality, it apparently was little more than a series of letters and speeches, though it became so important that New Englanders, always contrarian, still embrace it as a homegrown progressive theology.

To cap off all this Civil War-era reading, I just finished "March," Geraldine Brooks' novel-based-on-reality that won the Pultizer Prize last year. This is a truly wonderful and unlikely book: the Alcotts retrofitted into the story of "Little Women," which itself, of course, was originally based upon the Alcotts. It's full of things I didn't know about the Civil War: about northern overseers, for instance, who went to revive nearly destroyed Southern plantations, only to fall prey to the Southern resistance when the Yankee troops pulled out.

The book is violent and poetic, and so fine that anyone interested in the Civil War or religion in America really must read it. Even if you don't care about the Alcotts and their abolitionist/vegetarian/Transcendentalist principles, it's worth reading for the reminder that war, then and now, has always been unimaginably ugly.

Today, I Feel Real

According to Nick Bostrom, a philosopher at Oxford (as reported by John Tierney in The New York Times) it is "almost a mathematical certainty" that we are, on one day will be, "living in someone else's computer simulation."

Tierney writes:

This simulation would be similar to the one in “The Matrix,” in which most humans don’t realize that their lives and their world are just illusions created in their brains while their bodies are suspended in vats of liquid. But in Dr. Bostrom’s notion of reality, you wouldn’t even have a body made of flesh. Your brain would exist only as a network of computer circuits. You couldn’t, as in “The Matrix,” unplug your brain and escape from your vat to see the physical world.

The only thing this scenario requires, according to Bostrom, is that technological advances produce a computer with more processing power than all the brains in the world. With that kind of supercomputer, "advanced humans, or 'posthumans,' could run 'ancestor simulations' of their evolutionary history by creating virtual worlds inhabited by virtual people with fully developed virtual nervous systems."

Some computer experts have projected that we will have such a computer by the middle of this century.

Tierney continues:

There would be no way for any of these ancestors to know for sure whether they were virtual or real, because the sights and feelings they’d experience would be indistinguishable. But since there would be so many more virtual ancestors, any individual could figure that the odds made it nearly certain that he or she was living in a virtual world.

The math and the logic are inexorable once you assume that lots of simulations are being run. But there are a couple of alternative hypotheses, as Dr. Bostrom points out. One is that civilization never attains the technology to run simulations (perhaps because it self-destructs before reaching that stage). The other hypothesis is that posthumans decide not to run the simulations.

Bostrom's feeling is that there's a 20 percent chance we're living in a simulation now. Tierney thinks the odds are better than 20 percent.

In any case, Tierney goes on to conjecture that the kind of geeks likely to run these simulations would favor creating huge, bloody wars, because, hey, war's fun, at least for the audience.

It’s unsettling to think of the world being run by a futuristic computer geek, although we might at last dispose of that of classic theological question: How could God allow so much evil in the world? For the same reason there are plagues and earthquakes and battles in games like World of Warcraft. Peace is boring, Dude.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

'A Burning Platform of Unsustainable Policies'? Well, It Seems Like a Possibility

This is alarming reading, especially since it comes from someone in the know but with no votes to chase. Maybe he should be president. Then again ... nah. Reality bums people out.

From the Financial Times:

The US government is on a ‘burning platform’ of unsustainable policies and practices with fiscal deficits, chronic healthcare underfunding, immigration and overseas military commitments threatening a crisis if action is not taken soon, the country’s top government inspector has warned.

David Walker, comptroller general of the US, issued the unusually downbeat assessment of his country’s future in a report that lays out what he called “chilling long-term simulations.” These include “dramatic” tax rises, slashed government services and the large-scale dumping by foreign governments of holdings of US debt.

Drawing parallels with the end of the Roman empire, Mr Walker warned there were “striking similarities” between America’s current situation and the factors that brought down Rome, including “declining moral values and political civility at home, an over-confident and over-extended military in foreign lands and fiscal irresponsibility by the central government.”

“Sound familiar?” Mr Walker said. “In my view, it’s time to learn from history and take steps to ensure the American Republic is the first to stand the test of time.”

Mr Walker’s views carry weight because he is a non-partisan figure in charge of the Government Accountability Office, often described as the investigative arm of the US Congress. While most of its studies are commissioned by legislators, about 10 per cent – such as the one containing his latest warnings – are initiated by the comptroller general himself.

A More Instructive Sunday Section

Last Sunday I did my usual perusal of the New York Times' wedding pages. As I skipped from announcement to announcement (wondering how they could all be hedge-fund managers or hedge-fund lawyers), I had a thought. Wouldn't The Times do its readers a much better service by running stories not about how marriages begin (because, let's face it, how many variations can there be?) but about how they end? This might be a template:

Kathleen (previously Markowicz) Flood-Haddock, who will henceforth use only her maiden name, announces her divorce from Albert Markowicz, the man whom she claims has "basically ruined" her life for seven of the last eight years. The court hearing is scheduled for April 27 in Courtroom 2B of 11th District Family Court, where the divorcee plans to strew rose petals of gratitude before returning to her home in Slope Park for a wine-and-cheese fete with friends.

Ms. Flood-Haddock, 39, owner of a midtown catering service called Fork It Over!, says she had been considering a split since shortly after the couple's hot-air balloon wedding over an upstate New York amusement park in 1999. According to court records, her long working hours alienated Mr. Markowicz, who retaliated by conducting a series of affairs, but never with women who were "in the least attractive." Ms. Flood-Haddock claims his "callous disregard" of her "aesthetic standards" resulted in a crisis in her self-esteem, leading her to make various mistakes at her catering job. Though "only two" lawsuits ensued, both related to food poisoning, the damage to her reputation was the last straw for her, she said. "They were both settled out of court, and it's not like anybody died," she added.

She went on to claim that Mr. Markowicz' unwillingness to rinse his goatee trimmings from the bathroom sink was a contributing factor in her decision to end the marriage.

Mr. Markowicz, 41, denies Ms. Flood-Haddock's claims about the beard trimmings, but acknowledges that in more than one case he did leave sodden teabags on the kitchen counter. He regrets his part in all teabag-related incidents, he said, as well as other incidents involving splayed magazines, Clearasil-stained tissues left on the coffee table, and rare but upsetting episodes of uncontrollable flatulence.

For his part, Mr. Markowicz, who says his initial attraction to Ms. Flood-Haddock's iridescent pink-and-turquoise hairdo faded soon after their marriage, remains circumspect, unwilling to blame either party for the cooling of their passions. "I just want my Steely Dan albums back, that's all," he said. Following the courthouse ceremony, he moves into his new efficiency apartment, overlooking two dumpsters and the back of a foam-insulation company.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Alert: You Don't Have to be American to be Dead

I stole this graph from a stridently right-wing blog, where it stood alone, without comment, as though the facts it conveyed said it all. But what does the chart really say, and about whom?

Here are some ideas:

1. It says that very few Americans have died in the Iraq War, compared to other wars, so stop making such a big deal out of it; and

2. That grievously injured soldiers saved by our whizz-bang technology don't count either, though they may come to wish they had died outright, rather than piece by piece; and

3. American lives are the only ones anybody's counting, anyway. Only we matter, because we're, ah ... us.

How insulting all the way around. If my 18-year-old son had been hurt or killed in Iraq, I'd feel like reaching through cyberspace and strangling the designer of this graph (and the soul-dead partisan who heralds it as though it actually says something good), gladly raising the war-related death toll by two.

But the more important point is this. Now listen up, because here's some key information. Iraqis who are dead because of this war are dead. They're people, too, just like us, and they didn't invite us to come on over, blow their country apart and ignite a civil war that would get thousands of them killed.

No one can contest these facts.

So, in the name of plain decency, let's say it again. It's worth saying. You don't have to be an American to be dead, to lose everything, and to weep forever over the loss of the people you love most.

'Overturning the Existing Basis of Society ...' Whoa.

One more on the Fed and the mortgage crisis. The following quote by John Maynard Keynes is a favorite of David's, and he insists that I put it out there, so that his Fellow Citizens (yes, he said those words) will understand that inflation is basically an unlegislated tax levied by Washington to keep the government rolling in dough. He recommends that you read the whole blasted thing. (It quotes Lenin, no less, who was apparently right on this one point.)

Lenin is said to have declared that the best way to destroy the capitalist system was to debauch the currency. By a continuing process of inflation, governments can confiscate, secretly and unobserved, an important part of the wealth of their citizens. By this method they not only confiscate, but they confiscate arbitrarily; and, while the process impoverishes many, it actually enriches some. The sight of this arbitrary rearrangement of riches strikes not only at security, but at confidence in the equity of the existing distribution of wealth. Those to whom the system brings windfalls, beyond their deserts and even beyond their expectations or desires, become 'profiteers,' who are the object of the hatred of the bourgeoisie, whom the inflationism has impoverished, not less than of the proletariat. As the inflation proceeds and the real value of the currency fluctuates wildly from month to month, all permanent relations between debtors and creditors, which form the ultimate foundation of capitalism, become so utterly disordered as to be almost meaningless; and the process of wealth-getting degenerates into a gamble and a lottery. Lenin was certainly right. There is no subtler, no surer means of overturning the existing basis of society than to debauch the currency. The process engages all the hidden forces of economic law on the side of destruction, and does it in a manner which not one man in a million is able to diagnose.

Not that this has anything to do with economics (or much else, for that matter), but what I find most interesting about Keynes is not his influence on American economics, but the fact that he was a member of the Bloomsbury Group, and therefore knocking-around buddies with Virginia Woolf and E.M. Forster. Cool.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

The Fed and the Mortgage Crisis, in 10 Easy Steps

David, my conservative, ah, whatever, has been ranting for a few years now about the evils of the Fed. At first I thought this was just another one of his weird Republican fixations. Now I know it's more properly libertarian than Republican, and that his revulsion for the Fed is shared by a bazillion financial bloggers as well as by Ron Paul, the congressman from Texas running for President.

Normally, it would be easy for me to ignore the Fed. (Actually, this is quite an understatement.) But since today's papers are full of mortgage meltdown stories, with only more to come, I thought I'd give you David's view about why the Fed is ultimately responsible, put in easy-to-understand terms that I pulled out of him, one by one and in sequential order, with pliers. (If you still don't care, and only want to read about sex, skip to the previous post.)

  1. The Fed is a government-chartered monopoly - basically a trade association for banks -that sets the price of money. This is a function that the general economy, through competitive processes, could do better. But ...

  2. If the government gave up the Fed, it would give up the one thing it really, really likes - the ability to purchase lots of goods and services for voters without raising taxes. The Fed also gives the government the wherewithal to encourage consumer spending. If people stopped spending, the economy would tank.

  3. All this free-spending leads to people living beyond their means.

  4. Nevertheless, the government still wants people to spend. The Fed helps them spend by increasing the money supply (and creating credit, through lots of technical mechanisms). This creates inflation, which the Fed always says it's against, but isn't really.

  5. Bankers like inflation, because inflation means ever-increasing demand for credit. When banks give credit, they get banking fees and interest.

  6. In the early part of this decade (around 2002 or so), the Fed became worried that the stock market bubble that had burst in 2000 was going to ripple through the rest of the economy. So ...

  7. It dropped interest rates so fast and so sharply that suddenly average people could borrow at the lowest rates in a generation. What did people do with this windfall in credit? Among other things, they bought houses. Lots of houses.

  8. But about 2005, banks began to see that their pool of well-qualified borrowers was nonetheless drying up. To keep the good times rolling, they ...

  9. Began lowering their underwriting standards in order to lend to people who normally wouldn't have been able to get loans. There were lots of ways to do this: accepting lower credit scores and no proof of salary, for instance, and requiring no cash down payment on the house. Shortly before this, for reasons that still confuse financial types, Alan Greenspan encouraged consumers to take out adjustment-rate mortgages as a way to save money - despite the fact that interest rates were already so low that they would only go up in the future, when ARMs would readjust. Finally, to cap everything off, the Bush administration was busy touting the "ownership society" as a social ideal. Everybody should own a home.

  10. And, in 10 easy steps, there we have it: lots of people who are losing their homes, because - who could guess? - they couldn't really afford them in the first place.

Greed, irresponsiblity, and ignorance play major parts in this tale, and everybody - borrowers who wanted more than they could afford, and the financial institutions who threw money at them - all share some of the blame. But the real villain? The Fed.

This, in a nutshell, is David's view. Actually, there's a lot more than this, and it gets much more arcane. You can imagine. Well, on the other hand, perhaps you can't. And that's probably just as well.

They Were Lying All Along?

From the Sunday New York Times:

Turns out that men aren't more promiscuous than women after all. We had this wrong! Mathematicians have finally proclaimed it statistically impossible that men in the US can claim a median of seven sex partners over a lifetime, while women claim a median of four. In any society, heterosexual men and women must have roughly the same number sex partners, or the math just doesn't work out.

Actually, I have to say I've wondered about this myself. If men are going wild, but women are nun-like in their chastity, who are men having sex with? I assumed it was just the same band of loose girls, roaming from town to town, like the circus. But no - the "prostitute effect," as one researcher calls it, is negligible. Somebody's lying, and he thinks it could be the men. If women say four, and men say seven, three partners are unaccounted for. Two, he said, may be "imaginary."

Men as sexual conquistadors - it's such a nicer stereotype than men as insecure fabulists. I'm going to miss all that strutting and bragging.

*For more on this curious story, check out the Angry Bear blog.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Hillary, the Greatest Satan

What's the point of blogging - personal fulfillment, ego gratification, watching the patterns of your thoughts emerge in writing, so you can see yourself more clearly? And do you really need other people for that?

Since blogging is a new enterprise for me, I've been checking out other blogs to see what kind of conversations people are having. Mostly I've found communities of like-minded people saying things like, "Doesn't the New York Times suck?" and "Doesn't Hillary Clinton just scare you to death?" And their respondents generally answer in the affirmative. Yes, yes, yes, you're so right. And all those people who think the other way, they're just crazy. (That's at the right-of-center blogs, of course, where I've been spending the most time. The left-of-center bloggers are similarly outraged, I'm assuming, but in the opposite direction.) Depressing, most of it, and utterly predictable.

One of the reasons I'm blogging is to actually try to figure out why people think they way they do. If Hillary Clinton is scary, surely there's some reason you think so (beyond mere pathological hatred). If the New York Times reporters are taking bong hits while they're writing their stories, surely you can document some actual instance of egregious error or reasonable-person bias (again, beyond mere disgust that somebody is saying something you don't like).

(By the way, I'm neither here nor there on Hillary Clinton at the moment. It's summertime, for God's sake! Eventually, I'll get palpitations over the election, but not now. I may live in New Hampshire, but I'm not going to start this whole stressful cycle again for the sake of ... why are we doing this primary thing so early, again?)

My favorite political-oriented blog so far is "AmbivaBlog," because - guess what - it's strangely open-minded, neither left nor right, asking questions instead of simply answering them. I like that. It's a refreshing ideal: a bunch of people trying to figure out things together, rather than just despising the other side in tandem. Too sanctimonious? Well, that's a liberal failing, I've heard.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Morality and the Poor Beasties

Today I had lunch at an Indian restaurant with a couple of friends. I had the palek paneer (spinach and homemade cheese), and my friends each ordered the vegetable masala. The topic came around to vegetarianism. As usual, all of us said we were trending that way.

I became a strict vegetarian in high school, when I worked in a deli slicing meat and sidestepping giant slabs of beef hanging from hooks in the backroom. I regressed to "chicketarianism" in my late '20s, out of exhaustion with trying to maintain a diet that people still (but no longer) seemed confused and discomfited by. One of my friends at the Indian restaurant had been a vegetarian for four months; the other said his recent GI problem may force him off meat altogether.

And that's how lots of us are about eating meat: it's a guilty habit we're always gearing up to break.

This month's Atlantic has a terrific, unusually hard-hitting article on the topic, not (for once) about the pitiful suffering of farm animals, but about meat-lovers who acknowledge animal suffering but manage to do a moral two-step around it. They care about the "poor beasties," but never seriously enough to actually stop chewing their way through them.

BR Myers, in the first attack on Michael Pollan (The Omnivore's Dilemma") I've read, describes the mental processes at work when a meat-eater debates an animal-rights advocate:

"One debates the other side until pushed into a corner. Then one simply drops the argument and slips away, pretending that one has not fallen short of reason but instead transcended it. The irreconcilability of one's belief with reason is then held up as a great mystery, the humble readiness to live with which puts one above lesser minds and their cheap certainties."

That's a process at work in any number of arenas. Encounter facts you don't like, throw up your hands, and declare it's all beyond any of us figure out.

So It's Not Just Here?

Apparently there's corruption in Italian politics - really! "The Caste," the new book that describes just how vulgar and self-serving the Italian political class has become, has ignited major buzz on the Italian blogs. This makes me think of an interesting observation made by Elizabeth Gilbert in her wonderful book, "Eat Pray Love." Gilbert spent four months in Italy trying to heal herself after a soul-crushing divorce, and became well-acquainted with the country's many pleasures, all of them, as we might expect, sensual in nature. According to Gilbert, Italians excel in the pursuit of pleasure precisely because their government is corrupt. Italy coalesced into a country only in the late 1800s, long after its western European neighbors, and has always been a mess politically. So why bother with it? Its citizens have been disappointed by their government so often that they've transferred their attention to opera, food, fashion and art, more satisfying pasttimes where they can demand quality and generally get it. That, she says, is why they boo bad opera singers off the stage but tolerated Silvio Berlusconi. Tale รจ vita.

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