Archive for February, 2011

In Praise of Folly

February 20, 2011

Item 1: So far, there’s one consequence of the 1995 government shutdown that I haven’t seen anybody mention. It was the direct cause of President Clinton meeting Monica Lewinsky. Ordinarily, she would never have spent any substantial amount of time in the Oval Office, as a mere intern. But when Congress shut off the money supply to the federal government, Monica, like all the other interns, suddenly became essential. She could continue to report to work, and even get enlisted to do things interns normally never did, because, unlike the civil servants who normally did them, she didn’t get paid. The pundits now discussing the possibility of another shutdown generally think the Republicans lost that round. If you factor in Monica, that’s not so clear.

Item 2: new entries on the Bennigan’s Index—of the two new eateries advertising their plans to open up within one block of my office, only one has actually done so. I’m getting really skeptical about the other, given that it’s been six months now. And in the meantime, two other cheap eateries in the next block have closed down. This is not encouraging. And of course, Giordano’s Pizza has just filed for bankruptcy.

Item 3: which leads one to wonder. Last year, several economists mentioned the second round of the Great Depression that started in 1937 as a direct result of Roosevelt cutting spending and raising taxes to reduce the deficit. This year, nobody’s talking about it at all. Instead, the GOP is suddenly utterly panicked about the deficit, which of course bothered them not at all when Bush was running it up in the first place.

Item 4: speaking of which, Mr. Wired is watching the SyFy [sic] Channel marathon of disaster movies, which this week is mostly about snakes gone wrong. Roger Ebert once characterized a certain genre of films as “idiot movies,” in which every time a character had to make a choice, it was always the stupidest choice possible. Most of the SyFy disaster films are more like the Ten Little Idiot genre, in which we watch a whole series of characters make such choices, and we get to bet on which one is still standing at the end. Not unlike presidential primary season, except that even the meanest monster snake is still kind of pretty, compared with many politicians.

Item 5: And Republican Congresscritter Mike Beard (see http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/02/16/mike-beard-natural-resources-god_n_824312.html?ir=Religion) seems to think that if he eats all the pie, G-d will put another one in front of him. Didn’t the Greeks have myths about this?

Red Emma

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Getting Real About Democracy

February 17, 2011

In 1959, Vice President Nixon and Russian Premier Khrushchev met in a model American kitchen in a Moscow exhibit, and talked about democracy. The actual specifics of the discussion were rather more subtle than what the public, on both sides of the Iron Curtain, ultimately got out of it. What the US audience heard was that democracy is better than communism because the average capitalistic American can afford a refrigerator and the average communist Russian can’t. But even in the subtleties of real conversation, the fact that an ideology supposedly based on dialectical materialism considered certain kinds of public ideals more important than material comforts, while a culture supposedly founded on the ideals of freedom and equality valued its kitchen appliances more than either, never came up. (Nor, oddly, did the fact that, for a large part of the year in a large part of the USSR, people don’t really need refrigerators, they just need an unheated space for storing perishables. But I digress.)

Is freedom valuable only because and to the extent that it produces material prosperity? Some philosophers decry this outlook as a merely “instrumental” view of something valuable in its own right. Aristotle talks about it surprisingly often. Indeed, freedom is not the only ideal we value for its economic advantages. Max Weber attributed the same advantage to particular kinds of Protestant religiosity. So do many on the Religious Right today. Are freedom, and virtue, good because they are good for business? Only because they are good for business?

This is no mere abstraction. The more prosperous parts of the Middle East are doing some serious soul-searching on the subject as we speak. And so, closer to home, are the citizens of Chicago. It’s hard to find, or even to coin, a term for the form of government which has ruled Chicago (with a brief interregnum) for 50 years, but it sure as hell isn’t a democracy or even a republic. Maybe a political monopoly.

The closest parallel I can think of is an altercation I had many years ago with our newspaper. We were signed up for delivery, and our delivery service was outrageously spotty. I kept calling the paper circulation department to complain, with no results. The circulation people told me they had contracted delivery out to some private service. So couldn’t you contract it out to some other service, I asked, baffled. Well, no, they couldn’t, because there was no other service. And, they pointed out, no other service was likely to spring up, because the current service had an exclusive monopoly on delivering both Chicago papers. That’s a pretty good analogy to Chicago politics over most of the last half-century. The Machine has a monopoly on government. And no alternatives are likely to come into existence, because there is no niche for them to occupy. Now Daley II has announced his retirement, and next week we have to vote on his successor. We all seem to be really awkward about this. After all, no Chicagoan under the age of 40 has ever had the experience of a serious multi-candidate mayoral election.

There’s more to it than that, in both Chicago and the Middle East. From the outside, business and other political entities find a monopoly (or dictatorship, or kleptocracy) easier to deal with than a democracy. You know where to send the bribes. (I’m only partially joking here. Chicago took longer to get television cable service than just about any other large city in the US because that phase of development happened during the “interregnum” mentioned above, when Jane Byrne, Harold Washington, and Eugene Sawyer held the office of mayor, and the political scene ran from free-form to chaotic. As a result, the cable companies couldn’t figure out whom to bribe in order to get the concession.) You know where to apply the pressure. As a result, sometimes the citizens of a monopolistic polity really are more materially prosperous than those of a poor but honest democracy. Once the Daley dynasty was back in charge, Chicagoans had no trouble getting cable.

Back in my English teacher days, I often used my students as guinea pigs in informal sociological studies. Since I taught in both private and community colleges, and often at satellite campuses in suburbs and obscure neighborhoods, I actually had a pretty good demographic spread of subjects. For several years, I asked all of them: If you had to choose between (a) a benevolent dictatorship in which you were guaranteed a job, a good income, a nice home with all the modern conveniences, a car, health care, and education for your children, but no right to vote or choose your leaders or have any part in deciding on the laws that would govern you, and (b) a democracy in which you would have the right to vote, choose your leaders, advocate for laws and causes you believed in, with some chance of effecting the system, but a really bad economy, with poorly-paid jobs, so that most people could not afford a decent home, a car, education for their children, or health care—AND IN NO CASE COULD YOU HAVE BOTH DEMOCRACY AND A GOOD ECONOMY—which would you choose? I had to belabor the point that they could not choose “both,” on pain of a failing grade, because so many of them almost automatically assumed that democracy always produced prosperity that I could not otherwise get them to accept the premise, even for the sake of argument.

The ethnic differences were interesting. African-Americans almost always chose the poor but honest democracy. Hispanics almost always chose the benevolent dictatorship. Immigrants, from almost any country, tended to favor the benevolent dictatorship model. I could not discern any difference between men and women, or older and younger students. Everybody else pretty much split right down the middle.

If I were setting up the same survey today, I might formulate it a bit differently. Instead of a benevolent dictatorship, I might posit a state run like a corporation, in which the ordinary non-shareholding citizens got good jobs, good benefits, the right to live in a well-run company town, but no part in choosing the Board of Directors or the CEO, and no right to buy shares (kind of like George Pullman’s initial vision) versus the aforementioned poor but honest democracy. So okay, my fellow Alexandrians, which would you choose? And why?

Red Emma

The Politics of Politics

February 16, 2011

You’ve probably noticed the phenomenon yourself. Any discussion can be completely derailed, any subject can be avoided. All you have to do is say “Well, that’s just politics.” End of discussion. On to the weather and organized sports. Amazingly enough, even elected representatives can blacken one another’s reputations simply by accusing each other of “playing politics” with some important issue. Politics is a dirty word among Americans. Calling someone a politician borders on libel.

It was not always thus. Aristotle said politics is the main thing that distinguishes human beings from lower animals. (Which tells you how little Aristotle knew about cats, for instance. But I digress.) Politics, after all, is the way people make collective decisions, usually about our various visions of The Good, or about distributing scarce resources, without resorting to violence. In most other cultures, politics (a/k/a public service) is still an honored profession. In Central Europe, post-communist politics has achieved a new birth of respectability. What makes American attitudes about politics different?

Politics has been defined as the “manipulation of power,” and as “war by other means.” Usually, when we talk about “playing politics”, we are referring to something else, to what we call “party politics” and James Madison would have called “faction”–putting the success of one’s own group ahead of the merits of the issue in question. It is this sense of the word which we usually have in mind when we talk about certain things being “above politics”–for instance, that “politics stops at the water’s edge,” i.e. that foreign and military policy are “above politics.” Similarly, we appoint government functionaries through civil service, and appoint federal judges for life, to keep them “above politics”–that is, not beholden to or under the control of any particular “faction.”

But, like Madison, we tend to think “faction” is a bad thing because we see it as based on nothing but personal or group advantage. “Viva Yo,” as the Spanish put it. If a faction takes an ideological position of any substance at all, we assume that position is somehow conducive to the personal advantage of faction members, or they wouldn’t be adopting it. There is some basis for this, of course. Very few people who do any serious thinking about public policy issues arrive at positions that are likely to work against their personal advantage and survival. Most of us figure that what’s good for me is also good for just about everybody else, everybody who matters, anyway. But the real purpose of politics is not merely to allow factions to compete for advantage, but to allow divergent visions of The Good to compete for public support and power.

The other aspect of politics which most disturbs ordinary Americans is the necessity of compromise, splitting the difference, making sure everybody leaves the table still a bit hungry. To decide any issue this way, we think, is to start by presuming it can’t be very important. If it were, we would fight to the last drop of blood. Once a question transcends politics in this sense, war cannot be very far away. Once slavery stopped being a normal part of life, like breathing air, and became a moral issue for both sides, politics failed and war became inevitable.

Which puts an entirely different slant on placing anything “above politics.” That which is above politics is also beyond civil dispute. If “politics stops at the water’s edge,” then foreign and military policy lie outside the operation of democracy. Somebody–who may or may not have been popularly elected–decides what that policy should be, and our elected representatives then buckle down to supporting and implementing it. Even if circumstances change, so that a workable policy become unworkable, or a morally neutral policy becomes an abomination, the people and their representatives must continue to implement it to the bitter end. Any attempt to call a halt, for instance by cutting financial support, would be “playing politics” with national security, or so the supporters of the status quo insist.

Similarly, to say that education, or the environment, or other matters of public policy, are “outside politics” is to say either that we are prepared to “go to the mattresses” for them, or that we have unanimous agreement on The Good in those areas. No doubt there have been periods in our history when the latter was true. But, more often than not, this is simply wishful thinking among partisans of one or another vision who desperately want everybody to stop all this arguing and let them get on with their work. Merely wishing, however passionately, will not make it so.

We have to accept the fact that most communities and nations–and particularly ours–are host to numerous factions competing both for material advantage and for their visions of The Good. If we downplay the political realm as a place to play out this competition, we do not thereby eliminate competition. We merely force it to happen in other arenas and by other means. The most common alternatives are violence and money. If you cannot get a hearing for your vision of The Good within the political forum, you can always assassinate one of the more legitimate contenders, or buy off his supporters. Both of these alternatives to politics are popular in Third World countries, and both have achieved some currency even in the U.S. and industrialized Europe as well. The political realm, because its participants can so easily (and often deservedly) be accused of using public funds and facilities for personal advantage, has a hard time protecting itself against infringement by money or violence, and an even harder time distinguishing, in practice and in theory, between personal advantage and ideology.

In countries where, as here, the political realm still exists in a more or less healthy condition, it needs a few things to insure its preservation:
(1) better mechanisms for drawing more people into political dispute, especially people whose opinions are not normally solicited or listened to;
(2) a clear message that dispute is legitimate, and nothing is “above politics,” including ongoing military conflict, national security, and data and principles agreed on by scientifically-educated people; and
(3) mechanisms for public education about issues currently under public dispute, in structures accessible to any interested citizen, and encouragement of a strong ethos requiring those who take part in public debate to educate themselves first. What the “public square” did in a rather rudimentary but thoroughly personalized way in ancient Athens or revolutionary Philadelphia, the Internet is equipped to do in a somewhat shallower but far broader way. For the first time ever, we are technologically equipped to exercise democracy in cities larger than the Aristotelian fifty thousand families.

The questions that so far have been adjudged to “transcend politics” are all, of course, “controversial,” which is what we call any topic when we don’t want to discuss it. What the word actually means is that people disagree about it, and feel strongly about their opinions on all sides, but cannot imagine allowing their minds to be changed by rational argument.

So far, the U.S. has managed to form and preserve a relatively healthy political forum by keeping the really hot “controversial” topics out of it, or allowing discussion within the political realm only by properly licensed “special interest groups.” Such groups are likely to explore an issue more thoroughly and extensively, but they are not necessarily more knowledgeable than the average person on the street. On the contrary, they may just be better organized and more enthusiastic in spreading ignorance and misinformation (and sometimes even disinformation.) Which would be okay if all sides had an equal chance to be heard. But that kind of opportunity depends on all kinds of often unpredictable variables. Money helps a lot. Enough of it can guarantee a hearing. Being perceived as controlling a lot of votes or a lot of publicity is the next best thing. Absent these advantages, the best an interest group can do is try to get a lot of money or a lot of votes, and then parley them into access. Merely having strong, well-researched, carefully-thought-out, well-expressed opinions will not do the job. Maybe we need a more open political realm where it would.

Part of our problem is not merely that we distrust politicians (although, heaven knows, we do!) but that we distrust the political art, even (perhaps especially) when practiced by sincere advocates who are not pursuing their own material advantage. “Rhetoric”, which originally meant the art of persuasion, is now a synonym for the barnyard epithet. Most of us resent anyone who merely states a position without prefacing it modestly with “It’s only my opinion, but…” Anybody who has the nerve to try to change other people’s opinions–except, of course, in the mode of commercial advertising–is somehow infringing on our right to believe whatever we want. The converted are now the only people it is acceptable to preach to. Indeed, most advocacy activity these days is specifically directed only toward inactive sympathizers, and its purpose is not to change their opinions, but to persuade them to act on the opinions they already hold. The only non-sympathizers who can legitimately be confronted with one’s opinion are legislators and other public officials. The purpose of such confrontation is still not to change their opinions, but to change their official actions. We don’t really expect politicians to have opinions of their own, but only to weigh the vote-power behind the opinions of their constituents and act accordingly.

The blogosphere itself, the virtual ground on which we here confront one another, is one of the political arenas with the most potential for civil discourse among widely divergent constituencies. It can easily break down into either a commercial forum for sale to the biggest advertiser or a batch of mutually inaudible echo chambers for the narrowest possible ideologies. But the fact that nobody is paying us to be here, and that we have so far managed to refrain from both real and symbolic threats against each other, is a good augury. This may be the ground on which the American polity revitalizes itself, and we—with all our flaws, crochets, and ideosyncrasies—may be among those who can make it happen.

CynThesis

Kids Having Kids, Grannies Raising Kids; or Leapfrog Parenting in Our Future?

February 7, 2011

The River City Syndrome

“Friends, we got trouble
Right here in River City,
And that starts with T, and that rhymes with P
And that stands for….Pregnancy?”

Everybody talks about teen pregnancy, but nobody can figure out what to do about it. Newt Gingrich had it figured out 17 years ago or so—take the babies away from their mothers and raise them in orphanages. Then he looked at the price tag. Modern standards for what we now call group homes would turn his plan into a bigger entitlement program than Social Security or MediCare. Forget that.

They have it figured out in continental Europe. Teens there actually have more sex than American teens. But they are diligent about contraception, and have no problem resorting to abortion as a back-up if necessary. So their teen pregnancy rate is much lower than ours. This is not to be confused with their out-of-wedlock pregnancy rate, which is really high in Scandinavia, but not among teenagers. Middle-class American girls operate pretty much the same way.

They had it figured out in the 1950s in the US. I remember that system very well. It was the reason I didn’t go to the local public high school. The year before I would have started there, half the girls in the graduating class were pregnant. Most of them got married, very quietly, and then lied about the date. The young men involved all got the satisfaction of having done the honorable thing. The girls got the wedding ring. The babies got their legitimacy. There may have been a couple of girls whose partners did not do the honorable thing, so instead they took a six-month vacation with an aunt in some other state. Most of the girls in question hadn’t planned on college anyway.

The Maternity Dress with the Blue Collar

So far as I know, almost nobody operates that way any more. Blue-collar girls, regardless of race, creed, or color, just stay home (and stay in school as long as it isn’t too much trouble) and have the baby. What has made the difference? Two things, as nearly as I can tell. One is that nobody approves of “shotgun weddings” any more. Even the Catholic Church is reluctant to perform marriages where the bride is pregnant. The statistics on such marriages are discouraging. Both abuse and divorce are much more likely than in the general population of married couples. So the young man in question is under absolutely no pressure to marry the girl. It is no longer considered “the honorable thing.”

The second thing, counter-intuitively enough, is Roe v. Wade. Yes, I know blue-collar girls are very unlikely even to consider abortion. (This is not necessarily because of parental pressure. Indeed, sometimes it is despite parental pressure. When I worked at juvenile court, I once represented a girl whose father had thrown her out of the house for refusing to get an abortion.) But the fact that, in spite of the legality and availability of abortion, they don’t get one, marks them as “good girls,” in their own eyes and those of their peers, in spite of having gotten pregnant. It gives them some moral leverage they would not otherwise have. The Catholic Church recognizes, with a surprising degree of rationality, that anything that makes unmarried pregnancy more difficult makes abortion more likely. So Catholic schools go out of their way to make life easy for pregnant students. Public schools do too, though for different reasons—they just really want to keep the girls in school as long as possible. See http://www.city-journal.org/2011/21_1_teen-pregnancy.html. A pregnant teen who finishes high school is in a much solider situation than one who drops out. Many of the bad things that happen to single mothers and their children are less likely to happen when the mother finishes high school, or better still, goes on to college, at least for a year or two.

All in the Family Way

Most of the pregnant teens who manage this do so only with the help of major parental (mostly maternal) support. If mother and daughter can remain on good terms for the duration (which is not always easy for either one), the baby will have the benefit of two adults caring for her, and often, of two incomes supporting her, just like the child of a properly married couple. I know of no source for statistics on the prevalence of split-ups between mother and daughter in this situation, compared with the stats on divorce after a shotgun marriage, but my guess is that it is somewhat less frequent.

According to AARP, one in every twelve children in the US is being raised in a household with one or more grandparents. These statistics do not distinguish between households in which the child’s mother is also residing and caring for the child, and households in which the mother is for some reason absent (death, incarceration, drug addiction, general flakiness, military service, or single-minded pursuit of education and career goals.) Nor do they provide any information on the increasing number of children being raised by their great-grandparents. But they do suggest a solution to some of the problems besetting the modern family.

The Murphy Brown Syndrome

In blue-collar families, pregnancy happens “too early”, all too often. By “too early,” we mean before socioeconomic maturity, often before finishing school, or even instead of finishing school. In white-collar families (regardless of race, by the way—professionally-educated African-American women have the lowest birth rate in the country), pregnancy often happens “too late.” By “too late”, we mean after socioeconomic maturity, after finishing one’s education and getting established in a career, and after the height of female fertility in the late teens and early twenties. Often, we mean after the precipitous decline of female fertility in the mid- or late thirties. In which case, “too late” may mean not at all. But even if it doesn’t, it often means having children who will be starting college just as the parents would otherwise be starting to think about retirement.

New Supporters of Early Marriage

Early marriage by choice rather than because of an unplanned pregnancy is occasionally discussed among religious groups that frown upon premarital sex (see http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2009/august/16.22.html?start=1), and presumed among others such as the Amish who discourage post-high school education anyway, as well as among some immigrant groups. For the rest of us, it seems to further complicate what is already the most complicated period of most people’s life, from age 12 through 25.

Alternative #1: Leapfrog Parenting

But there are a couple of alternatives worth considering. The obvious one, already discussed above, is for women to bear their children early, raise them with the assistance of their mothers, complete their education, start their careers, and then marry. This could even be organized so that grandmother, having finished raising her daughter’s children, would be able to retire just as the daughter is ready to start raising her daughter’s children. Think of it as “leapfrog parenting.” Biologically, we are told, the best age for women to conceive is from 18 to 25. Socioeconomically, the best age for a person, male or female, to raise children is from 35 to 55. The numbers point to one ideal conclusion: bear your own children at 18, and start raising your daughter’s children at 36.

Make Room for Daddy

What place does this scheme leave for the fathers of all these children? I am tempted to say, whatever place the particular man in question wants, since that seems to be what happens anyway. Not being forced (sometimes at gunpoint) to do “the honorable thing” is probably an improvement in our ideas about family life. Not knowing quite what to do when one’s girlfriend gets pregnant definitely isn’t. Fortunately, the country is rife these days with all kinds of projects and programs for, and studies of, teenage fathers. Lots of us are looking for answers to this question, and with any luck, we may find one. (more…)

Snowpocalypse Now

February 2, 2011

Happy Ground Hog Day to all! Apparently the entire central US, from Oklahoma to Maine, is on the wrong end of a massive snowstorm, just as Australia is bracing for a historically huge typhoon and Cairo and its environs are bracing for actual all-out battle. We are all in the middle of an Irving Allen scenario. Here in Chicago, we have been getting blizzed since yesterday afternoon. The Public Safety people just gave a press conference in which they said, essentially, “Stay home. If you absolutely have to go anywhere, call ahead first to make sure somebody is there. If nobody answers, stay home!!” The fact that none of them were calling from home somewhat blunted the effectiveness of this counsel.

Punxsutawney (sp?) Phil apparently violated this very good advice to come out at dawn today and predict an early spring. It can’t come early enough for me right now. Outside, I can hear our super running the snowblower, which he has been doing since roughly 6 AM. I do admire that man.

CynThesis