Category Archives: Random Blogging

Cognitive Dissonence

In the past 48 hours, I’ve run across columns, Facebook posts and broadcast pundits all blaming government for not doing enough–not keeping the Ebola virus from American shores, not deporting twelve million “illegal aliens,” and not doing enough to encourage marriage, harness the nation’s energy supplies, or create jobs.

In fact, pretty much everything that’s wrong with America–at least in the eyes of these critics–is a result of government shirking its responsibilities. (Of course, they also add that it’s all Obama’s fault that government failed to do what it was supposed to).

The accusation is that government had a job and it failed to do that job.

Interestingly, these finger-pointers tend to be the very same people who want to “starve government until it’s small enough to drown in a bathtub.” They are also the same people who are always insisting that government “get out of the way” of business (while regulating women’s uteri), that it stop supporting “takers” with our frayed social safety net programs (while continuing to subsidize those “makers” who will be creating jobs any time now), and that government stop extorting our hard-earned money through taxation (while demanding more and more of the services those taxes support).

There’s terminology that describes what happens when people hold fast to incompatible beliefs: cognitive dissonance.

Or hypocrisy.

 

There’s Knowledge and Then There’s Wisdom…

A friend recently shared one of Andrew Sullivan’s “Quotes of the Day”–this one by Isaiah Berlin, in “A Message to the 21st Century.”

 Justice has always been a human ideal, but it is not fully compatible with mercy. Creative imagination and spontaneity, splendid in themselves, cannot be fully reconciled with the need for planning, organization, careful and responsible calculation. Knowledge, the pursuit of truth—the noblest of aims—cannot be fully reconciled with the happiness or the freedom that men desire, for even if I know that I have some incurable disease this will not make me happier or freer. I must always choose: between peace and excitement, or knowledge and blissful ignorance. And so on.

So what is to be done to restrain the champions, sometimes very fanatical, of one or other of these values, each of whom tends to trample upon the rest, as the great tyrants of the twentieth century have trampled on the life, liberty, and human rights of millions because their eyes were fixed upon some ultimate golden future?

I am afraid I have no dramatic answer to offer: only that if these ultimate human values by which we live are to be pursued, then compromises, trade-offs, arrangements have to be made if the worst is not to happen…..

So we must weigh and measure, bargain, compromise, and prevent the crushing of one form of life by its rivals. I know only too well that this is not a flag under which idealistic and enthusiastic young men and women may wish to march—it seems too tame, too reasonable, too bourgeois, it does not engage the generous emotions. But you must believe me, one cannot have everything one wants—not only in practice, but even in theory. The denial of this, the search for a single, overarching ideal because it is the one and only true one for humanity, invariably leads to coercion. And then to destruction, blood—eggs are broken, but the omelette is not in sight, there is only an infinite number of eggs, human lives, ready for the breaking. And in the end the passionate idealists forget the omelette, and just go on breaking eggs.”

  As I wrote my friend, this is a far more eloquent expression of my conviction that modernity requires an ability to live with ambiguity—an ability to weigh and measure, to moderate, to recognize (as Learned Hand once wrote) that the spirit of liberty is the spirit that is not too sure that it is right.
Civility and intellectual modesty–those hallmarks of maturity– will take the human race much farther than shrill certainty and rigid ideology.  As Emerson famously noted, a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds.

 

What’s More Dangerous Than Ebola??

Question: What’s more dangerous than Ebola? Answer: How about ignorance, racism, hysteria…Not to mention that most of us face an immensely greater chance of dying from flu, guns, automobiles, obesity and other causes about which we don’t panic and against which we don’t even take reasonable precautions.

Ebola is one of those “gifts that keep on giving” for our sensation-loving news media. Like missing blonds in Aruba, media outlets can milk it for endless speculation and sensationalism, and best of all, terrifying the public requires virtually no actual journalism.

I’ve been increasingly annoyed by the hypocrisy and disproportionate coverage, but what really set me off was a recent Huffington Post compilation of crazy. Some of the hysterical pronouncements came from the “usual subjects”–Faux News, Laura Ingraham, Rush Limbaugh, etc. (Donald Trump parades his idiocy at every available opportunity; he tweeted that Americans who go overseas to fight the outbreak should not be allowed to come back.)–but there were others.

I don’t know who Morgan Brittany is, but she evidently suggested that American government officials had “orchestrated” the whole thing.

“Maybe the current administration needs this to happen,” she wondered, “so martial law can be declared, guns can be seized and the populace can be controlled.”

For sure, Morgan. The fact that Obama hasn’t confiscated those guns yet is just part of his clever, nefarious plan to keep you off balance….

Someone named Cyril Broderick went her one better:

Broderick published an article in a Liberian newspaper, titled “Ebola, AIDS Manufactured By Western Pharmaceuticals, US DoD?” Between references to conspiracy theorist websites and “The Hot Zone,” a popular book about Ebola from the 1990s, Broderick implies the virus is a result of bioterrorism experiments carried out by the U.S. government in Africa.

And of course, Indiana embarrassment Todd Rokita had to chime in, claiming that “the real Ebola threat lies with Latin American immigrant children.” Well, Todd, glad to see you are maintaining your own immunity to accurate information.

There were many more, one crazier than the next.

We have an epidemic on our hands, all right, but it isn’t Ebola.

 

Dehumanizing the Poor

Paul Krugman can generally be counted upon to tell it like it is, and yesterday’s column in the New York Times was no exception. In the first couple of paragraphs, he used the recent upheaval in Hong Kong as an example of the disdain with which affluent folks in developed countries regard the working poor, and quoted Leung Chun-ying, the Beijing-backed leader of Hong Kong, who inadvertently blurted out the real reason the regime is resisting giving pro-democracy demonstrators a voice:

With open voting, “You would be talking to half of the people in Hong Kong who earn less than $1,800 a month. Then you would end up with that kind of politics and policies” — policies, presumably, that would make the rich less rich and provide more aid to those with lower incomes.

So Mr. Leung is worried about the 50 percent of Hong Kong’s population that, he believes, would vote for bad policies because they don’t make enough money. This may sound like the 47 percent of Americans who Mitt Romney said would vote against him because they don’t pay income taxes and, therefore, don’t take responsibility for themselves, or the 60 percent that Representative Paul Ryan argued pose a danger because they are “takers,” getting more from the government than they pay in. Indeed, these are all basically the same thing.

For the political right has always been uncomfortable with democracy. No matter how well conservatives do in elections, no matter how thoroughly free-market ideology dominates discourse, there is always an undercurrent of fear that the great unwashed will vote in left-wingers who will tax the rich, hand out largess to the poor, and destroy the economy.

As Krugman notes, this attitude is anything but new. If there is a staple of human politics, it is the tendency to demonize the “other.” Gays, Jews, African-Americans, Muslims, non-Ayrans– the identity of the marginalized may change, but the political and psychological need to draw a distinction between those who are righteous and “deserving” and those who are not seemingly remains constant.

These days, demonizing racial or religious minority groups is publicly frowned upon (although privately indulged), but blaming the poor for their poverty is seen as analysis rather than bigotry.

It’s bad enough that this moral opprobrium prevents us from implementing ameliorative economic policies, but it also retards our efforts to fix public education.

On Thursday, the Mind Trust and the United Negro College Fund hosted a lunch. The keynote speaker was one Roland Fryer. He was brilliant. Fryer–the youngest African-American ever tenured at Harvard–is an economist who studies education, and he reported the results of a large-scale experiment he and others recently conducted in Houston and Denver.  (I’m told his entertaining and informative speech will be shown on Channel 16, and for those who missed it, it would be well worth watching.)

Fryer made a number of important points, but the basic message was simple and profound: poor children–including poor black children–are every bit as capable of learning as their more affluent peers. (Fryer himself grew up in a poor neighborhood in Houston; he never knew his mother and his father was imprisoned.) When poor kids are given good teachers, when their schools support those teachers appropriately, and when the teachers expect those children to learn and excel, performance improves dramatically.

If we want to live in a society where the gulf between the haves and have-nots is deep, where resentments fester and plutocrats retreat ever farther into their gated communities–if we want to inhabit a society focused upon what divides us rather than what we have in common–we just need to keep doing what we’ve been doing.

 

 

Ideology is Expensive

Here’s another entry for my growing pile of public policies that cost more money than they purport to save. (Of course, the more illuminating question is: who bears the costs and who gets the savings. The answer to that question explains a lot.)

According to the Economic Policy Institute,

“.. if the minimum wage were boosted from its current level of $7.25 per hour to $10.10, as proposed by the Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2014, more than 1.7 million Americans would no longer have to rely on public assistance programs. This would produce $7.6 billion per year or more in savings for the federal government, according to the study.”

The report noted that approximately half of all people earning under $10.10 per hour–or some 11.9 million Americans–receive some form of means-tested benefits from the government. That would include benefits like the Earned Income Tax Credit, food stamps and other forms of welfare.

We the People pay for those benefits. Walmart, McDonalds and other major low-wage employers don’t. The money companies save by paying their employees poverty wages goes directly to their bottom lines. The arguments for continuing to have taxpayers subsidize the (very handsome) profits of such employers is that, if the minimum wage were to be raised, these companies would choose to raise prices rather than (horrors!) see any erosion of those huge profit margins.

Maybe.

I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’d prefer paying an extra nickel for a cheeseburger, and putting that 7.6 billion dollars per year toward something that advanced the common good. I’d rather repair our crumbling infrastructure, educate our children, develop a vaccine for Ebola…there are lots of priorities I’d place ahead of subsidizing the continued wealth of the Walton family and McDonald’s shareholders.