Archive for November, 2010

Risk Aversion

November 26, 2010

We are, no doubt, doomed to go on hearing about how extraordinarily risk-averse we foolish ordinary Americans are, until the end of this year’s holiday flying season. We will also, no doubt, get to hear from all the usual “expert” risk assessors, who just can’t understand why we ordinary mopes worry more about flying than about driving, more about nuclear power than about peanut butter.

The answer, which most of the “experts” can’t be bothered to consider, lies in the variable most ordinary people consider most important–they worry less about voluntarily assumed risks than about those imposed by circumstance.

Of course, one of the reasons people prefer chosen risks to those imposed from outside is that freedom of choice is a traditional, well-nigh sanctified American value. But in addition, a person who chooses to smoke cigarettes or live in L.A. or eat peanut butter or drive a car, has already at some level done his or her own risk-benefit calculation, and has decided that the benefit, in terms of what s/he personally values, is greater than the risk of loss in the same terms.

Where the risk is imposed from outside, on the other hand, the social risk-benefit equation may actually look a lot better–but the ordinary person on the street is being asked to assume some proportion of the risk while not necessarily being personally offered what s/he would consider enough benefit to compensate. For instance, living next door to a toxic waste dump may create less risk than smoking cigarettes–but what benefit can I derive from my poisonous neighbor? Quite aside from the health risk, it probably reduces the resale value of my home. The same goes for nuclear power, which offers very little in the way of benefits to anyone, except the people who sell it. The cheaper electric power we consumers were originally promised (“too cheap to meter”) has not materialized. On the contrary, Illinois, the most highly nuclearized state in the Union, also has some of the highest electricity rates in the country. I’m not sure any risk, however small, is justified by higher light bills. Smoking, on the other hand, to those who do it (especially these days, in the light of all those warnings on cigarette packs), has already passed the risk-benefit test; smokers honestly believe they get more out of it than they stand to lose, in terms of what they personally value.

So if we ordinary mopes don’t know enough to accept the experts’ risk-benefit calculations, merely because they often involve our taking the risks while someone else, often someone already much better off than we are, gets most of the benefits, too bad for the experts. Of necessity, our vision may be narrow–but it is not as clouded as the folks on the mountaintop like to think.

Red Emma

The Home Mortgage Deduction

November 24, 2010

Boon or Boondoggle?

The Simpson-Bowles proposal strikes me as the outcome of a joint bipartisan fit of pique. “Take that, you free-lunchitarians of both parties!” It’s hard to blame the authors. I feel that way myself quite a lot these days. But the proposal to eliminate the home mortgage deduction strikes me as really ill-conceived, or at least ill-timed. The Wired family is surely not alone in residing in a property that would be worth a whole lot less than a rental if it were not for the home mortgage deduction. We refinanced some years ago; it might have been a really frivolous and bad idea except that, as it turned out, we consummated the deal shortly after I spent a month under bed arrest after major emergency surgery, unable to work and not yet on Social Security or Medicare. Without the proceeds of the refi, we would have been in real trouble. But as a result, most of what we are paying for our mortgage these days is interest. And, since we live in a condo, the monthly assessment for which is only slightly less than the rent on an apartment of similar vintage, if we weren’t getting the deduction, we would be a lot better off renting. Except, of course, that, without the deduction, a lot of other people would have much less incentive to buy our place, so we would have a hard time selling it. This would create a whole new housing market crisis, even if we were not currently in one.

Like most of us, I am familiar with the arguments against the home mortgage deduction, and agree with many of them. But I feel roughly the same way about it that many “centrists” feel about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and used to feel about the Vietnam war: it was a bad idea getting into them, but getting out is going to hurt a whole lot of innocent people. At the moment, it would probably be the equivalent of a nuclear bomb going off in our economic system.

If I thought there were any chance of Simpson-Bowles being legislated in its entirety, I would be really worried. But I think what the authors really did was just list all the “third rails” of our current polity and crunch the numbers, knowing—and probably intending– all the while that this was a purely theoretical exercise, or maybe a wish list.

Jane Grey

G-d is My Cleaning Lady

November 13, 2010

An Ethical Theology of Housework

Dietrich Bonhoeffer characterized Jesus as the “man for others.” It is, of course, the maleness of Jesus that makes the sobriquet striking. “Woman for others” would be redundant and trite. But, as any theater buff will tell you, “casting against type” is a sure-fire attention-getter. So we have, for instance, the prophet Hosea describing the Holy One as “those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them,” (11:3-4) and even, heaven help us, as a mama grizzly: “Like a bear robbed of her cubs, I will attack them and tear them asunder…”(13:9) Isaiah says, “Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.”(49:15) Moses sees himself as called by the Holy One “to carry the nation in his bosom as a nursing mother carries a nursing child.”(Num. 11:12) Much later on, the apostle Paul compares his concern for the Thessalonians to the care of a nursing mother (1 Thess 2:7-8). Other maternal imagery found in Paul’s letters includes gentleness, tenderness, labor, and breast milk (Gal 4:19-20; 1 Cor 3:1-3) You get the idea. The images work because they are counter-intuitive. Nobody expects men, or, a fortiori, the Holy One Himself [sic], to put themselves at the service of others.

And, on the other hand, the apostle Paul talks at great length, in his second letter to the Corinthians, about trying hard not to be a “burden” to the people. But chances are that he never picked up his own socks (or the 1st century CE equivalent in the Middle East), or washed his own dishes or underwear. We know for a fact that he did not write his own letters, but dictated them to various secretaries (Timothy, Tertius, and a host of others, named and unnamed.) The fact that any of them were named was probably not unrelated to the fact that, like just about all the numerous secretarial personnel at the time, they were male.

I do not mean to imply that “Paul was a sexist pig”—that would be a cheap shot and not worth the trouble of writing. Rather, Paul, like millions of other decent men before and since, lived surrounded by a system of mostly female helpers invisible to them and their society in general, and, usually, to the men they helped. What would it be like— I sometimes wonder—to be able to take for granted, to the point of not thinking about it, the perpetual presence of someone to cook my meals, run my errands, make my phone calls, write my letters, wash my clothes, keep my house clean, and remind me of my importance? (Not to mention, of course—and Paul would never have considered this—a whole class of human beings, mostly female, available for hire on demand for my sexual pleasure?)

Yes, like most professional women, I have had access to secretarial services and cleaning ladies, on occasion. Before that, I was a secretary. Partly for that reason, but mostly because, like most professional women, I can’t afford to hire a full-time permanent secretary or housekeeper, I have always regarded “my” helpers as purveyors of temporary and very precious gifts, to be treated with maximum courtesy and friendliness and never never taken for granted. For we were waitresses in Egypt. And most of the time, like most professional women I know, I am my own secretary (and a damn good one too) and my own cleaning lady (not so good.)

The point is that, at various times, I have been part of that invisible army of helpers. I have never been a member of the class for whom they mostly toiled. Like most professional women, I figure I’m doing pretty well if the only person I have to take care of is myself. I have trouble imagining anybody taking care of me, and I absolutely cannot conceive of being able to take such care for granted.

There is nothing individually immoral in not seeing the invisible army of homemakers, secretaries, maids, “girls”, and “working girls” one has been brought up not seeing, beginning of course with one’s own mother. One can accept their services without imagining that he [sic] could possibly be a “burden” to anyone. The choreography is too smooth to notice. You drop a sock and it disappears from the floor. You come home hungry and dinner appears on the table. You have letters to write and your secretary appears with her steno pad at the ready. You beget children and they somehow get cared for. Call it magic, call it choreography, but surely no one could call it a burden! After all, in exchange for this care, its purveyors receive room, board, and sometimes money.

There are feminists who believe strongly that the state of a world run by men who have such hordes of servitors at their disposal is proof positive of male inferiority or at least of having too much time on their hands. “If I had a wife and a secretary,” one friend of mine declaimed on a particularly hectic day, “I could end hunger, cure cancer, bring down the deficit, and make peace in the Middle East by Christmas, and have time left over to learn how to play tennis. What do these guys do with all that spare time?”

Here follows the Ritual Disclaimer/Concession to the Other Side’s Argument that today’s writers consider mandatory even though no reader is likely to notice it. See That is, obviously, hyperbole, erupting from overwork, sleep deprivation, and the myopia these can often engender. It ignores the fact that most men today do a lot more housework than their fathers, and probably infinitely more than their grandfathers (who likely did none at all), and that, in today’s computerized offices, most men also do for themselves much of the work that secretaries did for their fathers and grandfathers. Many of today’s (equally computerized) women who would have been secretaries a generation ago are now the lawyers, bureaucrats, and middle managers they would have worked for. So okay, I’m open to the possibility that sometimes some men are burdened with tasks that are invisible to the rest of the world, even its female component. The theological issue remains the same: what do human beings owe each other, and what recognition do we owe those who supply those needs to us?

Getting back to Paul, he says in Galatians 6:2 “Bear one another’s burdens.” Not a bad idea. My former congregation once experimented by undertaking to translate from Hebrew, and back again, a version of a sabbath prayer including such descriptions of the Holy One as (Heb.) “ozer”–the one who helps us. Feminine: (Heb.)”ozeret.” Which happens to be the modern Israeli Hebrew word for “cleaning lady.” It drew a couple of giggles from a congregant who had formerly lived in Israel. I found it mildly amusing. But then I was also jarred into thinking about it. These days, I reflected, it would take an act of divine intervention to get somebody else to help me clean my house–possibly rising to the level of a miracle. Or, looking at it another way, when we make ourselves available to help each other with the drudgework of everyday life, are we not doing the work of the Holy One? And isn’t this precisely the kind of reflection a good religious communication should evoke, at least occasionally?

Jane Grey

Preferred Exit

November 10, 2010

Warning: Lugubrious Subject

Public health authorities are troubled because so many Americans worry more about less probable causes of death that about those which are both more prevalent and more preventable. At the same time, these authorities have trouble discussing the problem because—well, let’s face it, death is depressing, and what could be more depressing than an article, or a TV show, or a call-in show, about different ways of shuffling off this mortal coil. We have an incredible variety of euphemisms for it, and we will do almost anything to avoid looking it in the face.

We Americans, when we think about kicking the bucket at all, have very decided preferences. There’s accidentally falling into one’s bank vault and drowning in money, for instance. Or everybody’s favorite, getting shot by a jealous husband (wife? Significant other?) at age 95. That one has a particular resonance for me, because my maternal grandmother really did have a hostile run-in, at age 78 or so, with her 54-year-old boyfriend’s wife. It did not culminate in gunfire. Which is actually kind of a shame. When she finally did depart to the Great Beyond, 7 years later, she had been totally disabled by a series of strokes. If anybody had bothered to consult her, she would undoubtedly have preferred the Frankie-and-Johny scenario.

But, aside from these modes of departure most often encountered in fantasy, most of us prefer to go to the happy hunting ground by some means which is quick, more or less painless, and not preceded by any long period of physical or mental disability. We have pretty clear ideas about which methods meet these specifications, too. Heart attack is the biggie—one brief moment of chest-clutching pain, and then—wham! exit, comfortably. This attitude may be colored by the universally-admitted fact that, ultimately, everybody dies of “cardiac arrest.” For younger people, the car crash is seen pretty much the same way—a cloud of dust, a squeal of brakes, a crunch of impact, and the rest is silence. Some people—mostly men—still see maternal death in childbirth as “natural” and not especially agonizing. Most suicides are planned with the same requirements in mind—something as close as possible to a quick “natural” exit. For men, this is frequently a gun; for women and less macho men, an overdose of some kind of depressant drug will do the job.

At the other end of the spectrum is cancer, which most of us connect with protracted and insuperable pain, and stroke, which we see linked with physical paralysis and mental disintegration. We see the degenerative nerve diseases in the same light, except that they’re a lot less common.

Our preventive health behavior pretty much mirrors these perceptions. We will go to enormous lengths to avoid any chance of getting cancer—except, of course, for smokers, about whom more later. But we worry a lot less, and therefore behave a lot less carefully, about heart attacks and car crashes.

Ultimately, of course, everybody dies of something, and the immediate cause of everybody’s death really is cardiac arrest. But our perceptions about car crashes and heart attacks are dangerously inaccurate (docs here, correct me if I’m wrong.) These days, the first heart attack—the one that really does operate on the wham-bam-thank you ma’am model—is unlikely to be the last. And the ones in between tend to result in progressive physical and mental disability—as well as, sometimes, in strokes, with all their attendant drawbacks. Likewise, car crashes don’t always kill everybody involved, or not instantly, anyway. They may, instead, cause head or spinal injuries which leave the victim paralyzed and possibly vegetative for years. So can gunshot wounds, even self-inflicted ones. (Death in childbirth, by the way, is likely to be preceded by several hours or even days of intense pain. And, yes, it does still happen in this day and age in the world’s richest country, though rarely in its better neighborhoods.)

Furthermore, those people who figure once you’ve gone off into the never-never land of a coma, your own problems are over and you have become somebody else’s problem, may be mistaken. I have it on pretty good authority from people who have spent time on life support in a comatose state and then recovered, that, even if you are not visibly responding to pain and other stimuli, you may very well be feeling them, and that the grossest concomitants of “life support” –having one tube run down your throat and another run up your urinary tract—hurt just about as much as if you were “awake” for them, which is a lot.

Then there’s smoking. Most smokers get introduced to the weed in their teens, and rely on the fundamentally inaccurate belief that the time smoking takes off of your lifespan comes off the end you look forward to least anyway, the last few years in a nursing home. In fact, most people spend only about 6 months in nursing homes or other custodial facilities, and the time lost to smoking generally comes out of the time before being totally disabled at the end, so that you die earlier mainly because you become disabled earlier.

In short, if you really want to croak painlessly and expeditiously, your best bet is to stay on good terms with a paramour whose significant other is a good shot—and in the meantime, to quit smoking, eat sensibly, and drive carefully.

Jane Grey

A Climate of Controversy

November 8, 2010

Why does the Right—religious and otherwise—so strongly oppose the scientific theory of global warming? Everybody seems to just accept this as a given, apparently without noticing how odd it is. I can certainly understand why the Right, especially the Religious Right, would oppose theories about human overpopulation of the planet and its essential harmfulness. Such theories have obvious implications for the proper organization of sex and marriage and the family, about which the Religious Right has strong convictions. Similarly, I can understand their problems with evolution, which casts doubt on the human race being God’s favorite children. If they re-started the controversy about the geocentric vs. heliocentric vs. randomly organized universe, I could understand that too, though I would marvel at their ability to ignore evidence.

But global warming? Are they opposing the theory just because the Left (such as it is in this country) supports it? Yes, the science behind it is not yet rock-solid. I can remember back in the early 1980s reading some very persuasive scientific articles about the impending Ice Age, a theory that seems to have evaporated of its own accord in the intervening decades. (Although there is a perfectly respectable scientific scenario that involves global warming resulting in an Ice Age, at least in Europe, by way of shutting down the Gulfstream.)

One possibility is that the Right, Religious and otherwise, is in the pocket of the global oil industry, and opposes anything that could result in reducing the use of petroleum products and the profits to be derived therefrom. For individual politicians, this may be a sufficient explanation. The fact that the petroleum industry itself seems to be rolling quite well with the scientific punches and is now establishing multiple beachheads in alternative energy technologies casts doubt on it, however. The Left does seem to be underestimating the flexibility of global capitalism (which is probably quite prepared to market numerous consumer-attractive varieties of marijuana if it becomes legal, especially if tobacco also becomes illegal) but apparently the Right does too.

With some hesitation, I find myself returning to my gut-level realization that my fondest dream is somebody else’s worst nightmare. Let’s take that a step further. There are people out there for whom my fondest dream is their worst nightmare precisely because it is my fondest dream. If I (secularist feminist socialist that I am) can dream fondly of a future in which every household provides its own power from solar cells or whatever, why shouldn’t Ayn Rand, given her fondness for smokestacks and their emissions, be horrified by that dream? Certainly I read Rand’s utopian screeds with less than impartial skepticism, precisely because they are Rand’s and not, say, Marge Piercy’s. “I do not like thee, Doctor Fell,” after a while, becomes its own rationale, capable of justifying almost anything.

Some thinkers on the Right seem to honestly believe that the Leftist Conspiracy has concocted the theory of global warming as a great hoax upon both the economy and the body politic. They spend a lot of time attempting to demonstrate that the theory is not scientifically valid, or has even been fabricated from whole cloth by a bunch of mad scientists. But they never (so far as I know) bother to explain just why the scientists, or even their sinister political supporters, would go to all that trouble. Cui (the late congressman Sonny’s adopted Vietnamese daughter) bono? No doubt there are “green entrepreneurs” who could make money off it. If they’re any good at their job, they could perfectly well make money off of some other less speculative technology. Why bother with this one?

Other than the Doctor Fell theory, I have no answer, and have seen no plausible answer either from the Left or the Right. What am I missing? In the words of Our Leader, is this anything?


A Note to Remember

November 2, 2010

Mr. Wired has come up with another good idea (he’s also the originator of the concept of the Vestigial Virgin, but that’s another story.) He says he’s tired of hearing people complain about the deficit, and never coming up with any real ideas to reduce it. This one should appeal to all parties, and provide endless occupation to ad firms: the Deficit Note. Every year, when April 15 comes around, the taxpayer (even if s/he does not in fact owe any taxes for the year) will have the opportunity to purchase a Deficit Note, either by reducing his/her refund by a corresponding amount, or by enclosing a check. The Deficit Note, in whatever amount the citizen prefers, will constitute a five-year, five-percent loan to the government, to be applied specifically to reducing the deficit. In return, the citizen will get an honest-to-pete Note, on US Government notepaper, in presidential handwriting, laying out the specifics of the indenture, and conveying the gratitude of the United States. No more selling US debt to foreigners or even home-grown billionaires. This time the debt will be held by honest Main Street Americans, regardless of party affiliation or political ideology, who thereby demonstrate their faith in the American way of life. Ad firms can run public service ads, using the volunteered labor of entertainers from both sides of the political fence, telling us that we are all in the same boat, and it is time for us to pull together toward the salubrious shore of solvency. It worked during WWII. Let’s try it again.

Jane Grey