Category Archives: Random Blogging

Navigating the Snake (Oil) Pit

If you’re like me, your Facebook feed regularly includes a horrified post confirming just how awful something or someone is. Given the state of our politics, it’s totally understandable that–quite often– the friend posted satirical “news,” believing it to be true. Or was simply taken in by  misinformation promoted by partisans and/or propagandists.

This is a real problem. Most of us have been fooled at one time or another, and the damage done isn’t limited to politics, policy and celebrity culture.

I have previously blogged about my cousin who is a retired cardiologist. He shares what is probably a genetic trait in our family, namely, getting very pissed off when evidence-free,  off-the-wall assertions are taken as fact. Of course, that happens all the time with medical and health “news,” because few of us have the scientific background to evaluate these sorts of claims, or the time to thoroughly research them.

His previous book was “Snake Oil is Alive and Well;” he’s now followed it up with a more in-depth look at the various claims made about foods, diet aids, dietary supplements and much more–all of the information, misinformation and nuttiness that–whatever else they do– generally separate us from our money and our peace of mind. Here’s his description of the book:

Advice on matters of health often comes from companies that sell products on TV, or from individuals who promote treatments stemming from self-serving agendas. Information obtained this way is often unscientific, unbalanced, and, sadly, blatantly fraudulent. Unfortunately, surrounded by all this noise, mainstream physicians are seldom heard from; moreover, few are willing to devote the time necessary to expose those ubiquitous misconceptions and to provide countering advice stemming from sound scientific research. Making matters even more treacherous are the various branches of “alternative medicine” that provide untested or worthless “treatments”, placing patients at risk of being exploited, losing their money and damaging their health. Although such alternative methods are largely employed by non-conventional and unlicensed practitioners, occasional wayward “real” doctors imprudently transcend these boundaries and promote dubious methods to large audiences on TV and other media. It is no wonder that the public is confused!

As a member of the conventional medical community, I have decided to present a balanced picture of what works, what doesn’t work, what are outright frauds, and what we really don’t know. This book is intended to provide an introduction to contemporary scientific thought processes and serve as a guide for everyone on how to follow a healthy lifestyle while, at the same time, how to avoid wasting large resources on useless—sometimes dangerous—techniques and treatments.

For more information, you can visit his blog.

Inequality and Economic Growth

The growth of income inequality, and the disturbing erosion of the middle class have been  well documented.

Aside from the human consequences of that inequality, there are economic ramifications. Theoretically, some measure of income inequality provides those who have less with an incentive to work harder–in economist-speak, an incentive for increased economic output. However, a 2014 OECD report found that economic inequality and economic growth were inversely related.  Countries with falling rates of inequality grew more strongly than those with rising rates.

When you think about it, this makes sense. In economies like ours, we rely upon consumer demand to fuel economic growth. Moderate levels of inequality don’t matter, so long as there is a sufficient middle-class with sufficient disposable income to grease the wheel. So long as those with less still have “enough”–defined as income available after life’s necessities have been covered–and so long as they continue to purchase goods and services with that income, the economy can be expected to grow.

When the distribution curb is “bimodal,” with lots of people barely eking out a living and a few others sitting on piles of money, the picture changes. The poor have little or no disposable income with which to purchase goods and services, and the rich can meet their needs and desires without depleting a significant portion of their assets. In any event, there aren’t enough of the rich to drive economic growth, even if they spent lavishly.

When people don’t buy, manufacturers don’t make. When manufacturers don’t make, they don’t hire workers (or keep the ones they have). Retailers close or downsize. Eventually, the assets held by the 1% lose their value.

A rising tide may lift all boats, but the tide won’t rise without water.

We really are all in this together.

Have You Really Read That Book?

It has a name: confirmation bias. It’s the process of sifting through authorities or evidence to find the nuggets that confirm our beliefs, and ignoring those that don’t.

As we watch the food fight that is our political discourse, I often have to resist the temptation to interrupt this or that pontificator and ask: have you really read that book you are citing?

Mostly, this impulse arises in connection with Ayn Rand. I’ve read pretty much everything she wrote, and I find it absolutely amazing when self-identified “bible-believing” Christians threaten to “go Galt” or parrot something else from Rand–and then more often than not, follow it up with a biblical quote. Rand, of course, was a committed and full-throated atheist, and she wasn’t shy about her contempt for religious folks.

Then there are the economic libertarians who quote Hayek when they oppose government social programs. Hayek was anything but consistent, but in The Road to Serfdom, he devoted several paragraphs (page 148 for those who are interested) to defense of a social safety net, arguing that “There is no reason why in a society which has reached the general level of wealth which ours has attained” a minimum income shouldn’t be guaranteed “without endangering general freedom.”

There are plenty of other examples, but far and away the most selectively read texts are the bible and the Constitution. If you listen to Conservative and Liberal Christians quoting the bible, you would swear they are looking at completely different books.

What’s that line from Simon and Garfunkel? “Man sees what he wants to see, and disregards the rest.”

We all do that to a greater or lesser extent. But education–not to mention intellectual honesty– requires reading, not culling, with an appropriate recognition of the importance of context, and a fair consideration of points with which we disagree.

When we go “cherry-picking,” we miss the other fruit.

 

 

What America Got Right

President Obama made a speech in Kenya that has received very little attention, and that’s a shame, for many reasons. As Amanda Taub wrote at Vox,

While his remarks focused on Kenya, they might as well have been about the United States. And this is what was so striking about the speech: the degree to which Obama seemed to articulate a worldview, and thus a foreign policy, rooted in the lessons of America’s history of racial discrimination. Obama was offering not just a prescription for one African country, but a diagnosis of how discrimination and hatred can endanger any society — one he seems to have drawn from his experiences engaging with America’s domestic struggles during his presidency.

The speech focused upon the structural nature of discrimination and the fact that social attitudes–about the proper role of women, to take just one example–shape systems that operate to perpetuate rules and actions based on those assumptions even after majorities of citizens no longer hold them.

As important as it is to examine and address these discriminatory structures, it was the President’s other point that really struck me.

He reminded the audience that Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous dream was not just of an America without segregation, but of a world in which people would be judged by the content of their character, without prejudice or bigotry. “In the same way, people should not be judged by their last name, or their religious faith, but by their content of their character and how they behave. Are they good citizens? Are they good people?”

As I tell my students, one of America’s most striking departures from prior systems of government was this focus on behavior rather than identity. The rights of citizens were not to depend upon caste, religion, ethnic identity, or the other categories that determined  civic status in the old world; the new American philosophy (if not always the reality) held that citizens should be judged and treated as individuals, on the basis of their behavior, and not as members of favored or disfavored groups.

We have not always lived up to that standard, but the trajectory of American jurisprudence has been in that direction.

Ours is a view of citizenship and equality that is still rejected by many countries around the world–not to mention a distressing number of citizens here at home. As the President forcefully pointed out, however, basing rights on who people are rather than how they behave isn’t just morally wrong; it inflicts real damage on a society.

“When we start making distinctions solely based on status and not what people do, then we’re taking the wrong path and we inevitably suffer in the end.”

This emphasis on government’s obligation to treat people based upon their actions–not their wealth, not their religion, skin color, sexual orientation or gender– is at the core of what it means to be an American.

That principle–not our wealth or military power–is what is “exceptional” about America.

 

Putting Our Money Where Our Mouths Are….

Today’s blog is a departure from my usual content.

As regular readers of this blog know, three years ago I received a grant to establish a Center for Civic Literacy at IUPUI. (You can find out much more about the Center by clicking through to its website.)

That initial grant has run out, and together with a small group of political and business leaders, I am engaged in fundraising to keep the Center alive. (What I have discovered during the past three years is that–although everyone agrees that civic ignorance is a problem–civic literacy is not a high priority for most potential donors.)

So today I am posting a recent “pitch” I have used (below), for two reasons: first, the readers of this blog often share really good ideas and perspectives that I hadn’t considered, and I welcome suggestions for how I might sharpen and improve the “case” for philanthropic funding; and second–and more shamelessly– to provide an online mechanism to support the Center with a tax-deductible donation by those who may be so inclined. (The Center appears in the drop-down menu.) (Feel free to share!!)

I’m grateful for your help–whichever form it takes!

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Only 36 percent of Americans can name the three branches of government. Fewer than half of 12th grade students can describe the meaning of federalism. Only 35% of teenagers can identify “We the People” as the first three words of the Constitution. Fifty-eight percent of Americans can’t identify a single department in the United States Cabinet. Only 5% of high school seniors can identify checks on presidential power, only 43% could name the two major political parties, only 11% knew the length of a Senator’s term, and only 23% could name the first President of the United States.

In today’s media environment, these and other deficits in civic knowledge are too often filled with propaganda, internet “memes” and misdirection.

Productive civic debate requires shared understandings.  When citizens lack basic knowledge, or argue from different realities, we fail to clarify areas of dispute and leave the parties feeling unheard and angry. If I say this is a table and you say it’s a chair, we aren’t going to have a very constructive conversation about its use.

Indiana’s recent RFRA debate was an unfortunate and costly example of what I call “the civic deficit.” The arguments for RFRA’s passage–as well as some of the claims about its probable effects–displayed some very basic misunderstandings of what the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause protects.

It’s not an isolated example.

Essential civic knowledge goes beyond basic American history and the Constitution. If Americans don’t know what science is, we can’t debate the implications of climate change. If we don’t know the difference between the deficit and the debt, we can’t evaluate the merits of economic policy proposals. And we can’t keep our elected officials accountable if we don’t know anything about the Constitution to which they are supposed to be faithful.

Research shows a high correlation between civic knowledge and civic participation. The Center for Civic Literacy recently co-operated with the Indiana Bar Foundation on the most recent Civic Health Index for our state.

  • 5% of Hoosiers report working with neighbors to solve a community problem.  Indiana ranks 47th among the states.
  • 5% of us participate in associations or organizations. We rank 44th.
  • 62% of those who are eligible are registered to vote. We rank 37th.
  • In the last off-year election, as you may have heard, 39.4% voted, ranking Indiana dead last among the states.
  • Only 11% of Hoosiers report ever contacting a public official. We rank 30th.

The Center for Civic Literacy has spent its first three years researching the causes and consequences of civic ignorance, because you can’t prescribe remedies if you don’t understand the problem. More recently, in addition to this ongoing research, we are engaging in what academics call “translational research”—on-the-ground efforts in Indiana to see if we can’t turn things around and raise those civic health indicators.

We are co-operating with the Indiana Department of Education on an effort to recognize and encourage innovative approaches to the teaching of civics; planning a three-forum series in Indianapolis in advance of the upcoming municipal elections, called “Electing Our Future: What You Need to Know about Indianapolis Government in order to Cast an Informed Vote”; partnering with the Indiana Humanities Council to highlight the importance of civic literacy during Indiana’s Bicentennial celebration next year; and fielding a survey to measure Hoosiers’ civic knowledge and provide a baseline for measuring improvement, among several other efforts.

Maintaining a research center is expensive. Fielding a small survey costs 10,000. The annual cost for a graduate student working 25 hours a week is 24,000. Buying 25% of the time of the PPI senior researcher who serves as our project manager runs another 20,000-25,000 annually. Even when we are able to secure grants for specific projects, those “infrastructure” costs must be covered by operating funds.

With your help and support, we think we can improve informed civic participation in Indiana. But we can’t do it without you.

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Suggestions?