Saturday, March 28, 2009

In Real Life, Awesome

My niece, a first-grader, uttered this dispatch from the cutting edge of youth lingo:

"Awesome. Really awesome. Seriously awesome. In real life, awesome."

Friday, March 27, 2009

Pronatalist Payroll Tax Policy

Philip Longman writes about the scary possibilities of the coming population decline. He and New America Foundation colleague David Gray have been working on a "new social contract." At the root such a contract they propose policies and cultural changes to assure that there is a new generation to have a social contract with.

One of the reasons population decline is scary is that in the future there won't be enough workers to support the retirement and medical entitlements of retired workers. Longman and Gray, therefore, propose that the payroll tax for parents be reduced by a third for each child while the kids are under 18. Parents of three children would pay no payroll tax while raising those future workers. Employers would keep putting in their share, though, and come retirement, the parents would get their full benefit from a grateful nation/economy. Longman and Gray propose to make this full benefit contingent on the kids graduating from high school, which is coming to be a minimum credential for workers.

This proposal seems to me to be sensible. The solution and the problem are tied together rationally. The policy would be simple to figure out and do. And policies that support the next generation of workers are not only good for the economy, they are good for all the family values of the nation.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

15% of a Rich Nation Are Not Religious

The latest edition of the American Religious Identification Survey has found that 15% of Americans are not religious. This is up slightly from the 2001 survey, but is almost double the result found in 1990.

Educated people are less likely to be religious. Some think that religion is primarily a way of explaining the world, and educated people have learned another explanation. However, educated people are also more likely to be well off in every way - in their finances, their relationships, their psychic security. I think religious faith, for adults, is not primarily cognitive. It is not an explanation or set of ideas. Theology is for intellectuals. For most people, God is a source of confidence that their lives mean something, and a source of comfort that they are cared for in good times and, especially in bad.

When educated, secure people suffer serious setbacks, they often see that their cognitive idea of religion is not enough. For some this means a crisis away from faith. For others, like many of the no-religion people I meet, their crisis can be toward a real appreciation of the emotional roots of faith.

It is harder for rich, secure people to be religious. If you think you are doing well, are secure in your position, and that you got there by your own efforts, it is hard to feel gratitude to God. When bad things happen, it is easier for people to see how much we rely on the protecting hand of Providence.

Rich, secure, educated people who are religious typically do not think they achieved their lives on their own. The feel blessed and are grateful for their blessing which they do not deserve.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

1/5th of Older Gen X Women are Childless

The rule of thumb is that about 87% of the women in a population will have children. In the United States and other industrialized nations the percentage has fallen below that as we move from the first wave of Baby Boomers, born in the 1940s, to the first wave of Gen Xers, born in the 1960s. By the time they were 44, the usual end of a woman's fertile years, about 86% of older Boomer women had children. For older Gen Xers, the number is 81%.

Put another way, almost a fifth of older Gen X women, the "Atari wave" as opposed to the "Nintendo wave" of the '70s, will have no children. Gen Xers are more likely to be educated, and to have more education, than their predecessors. All those years of schooling and career starting eat into baby time. This catches many forty-something women by surprise. Also, as the most divorced-upon generation, the Xers were much slower to marry and have kids than their predecessors were, for fear of screwing their kids up.

It is too early to know the completed fertility of the Millennials, or even the later wave of Xers. If the increasing numbers of weddings by young Millennials that I get invited to are any indication, though, the rising generation of fertile women may reverse the trend of their "lost generation" predecessors.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Old Dads Risk Dumber Kids

Australian psychiatrist John J. McGrath and colleagues found that children of older fathers were likely to have lower IQs than children of younger fathers. Their kids were also more likely to be schizophrenic or autistic.

The children of 50 year old fathers had average IQs 6 points lower than the children of 20 year old fathers. That is half a standard deviation - a pretty substantial difference.

A woman has all her eggs at birth. They run the risk of wearing out and breaking down, which is one of the reasons that children of older mothers are more likely to have some birth defects. However, the children of older mothers did not score any lower on the intelligence measures in this study.

Sperm, on the other hand, and made continuously. It was thought that this prevented the kind of breakdown with age that eggs show. McGrath and colleagues, though, point out that there are many more steps in the copying process to produce sperm in older fathers. The sperm of 20-year-old men are the result of about 150 cell divisions; those of 50-year-old men, 840. Each division provides a new opportunity for mutation and error.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Peculiar Religious Obliviousness of "Kings"

NBC's new series "Kings" was advertised as a "what if" story of a king arising in a place that looked remarkably like America after a major war. This looked like a large-scale epic, beautifully shot, with Ian McShane in the leading role. The capitol, rebuilt from the rubble, looked like the proposed Freedom Tower to be built on the World Trade Center site. The Gruntleds tuned in, looking for a modern political allegory, and wondering who thought monarchy was the answer.

To our surprise, the story is built directly out of the story of King Saul and King David. McShane's "King Silas" leads Shiloh in a war with Gath. Young David Shepherd single-handedly defeats Gath's Goliath (tank) while rescuing the king's son, Jack. The story does not shy away from God - King Silas takes his mission from a divine sign. Young David is annointed by a preacher named Samuel(s).

And yet, after a valiant hour, we gave up. The show is well done - good acting, decent dialogue, really nice photography. But I just couldn't forget the Biblical story in order to get into this story - not after the show went to such great lengths to remind us of the biblical story. This wasn't, as the official website contends, "a contemporary re-telling of the timeless tale of David and Goliath." This is the story of David and Saul - but without God as the central character.

The Bible is a rich field of story and image, the most fertile bed of the imagination of the West. I have no problem with allegories and analogies drawn from Biblical models. But it seems to me a perverse misreading of the Bible to treat its stories as if they were themselves allegories of politics in religious dress.

I was once in a group of earnest young people wrestling with how to understand the mystical experience of God. One young man, not really in sympathy with the project, said it would be easy to find out: just go into the desert and fast for forty days. If you had a mystical experience, then it was real. This was such a perversely backwards way of understanding mysticism that we were left speechless. If you go into the desert and fast, but are not earnestly seeking God, you are not recreating the absolutely vital core of the desert mystics' experience.

The story of David and Saul is the most poignant story in the Bible of trying to serve God while wielding earthly power. If you tell the story of Saul and David but they are not earnestly seeking to fulfill the vocation God gave them, you have missed the vital core of the David and Saul (not David and Goliath) story.