Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Moral Foundations are Natural, but Their Ethical Configuration is Cultural

I have been thinking about Jonathan Haidt's empirical work on moral foundations.  He offers (tentatively) that the six moral foundations that he has identified are natural.

Much of his work is on the consequences of the fact that liberals only embrace two of the foundations - care for the harmed and fairness (understood as equality) - as a legitimate basis for public policy.  Conservatives, by contrast, embrace all six, or at least five - adding sanctity, loyalty, and authority, and maybe liberty.

So how do things which are natural to all get grouped differently by some?

I embrace the distinction between individual morals and social ethics.  (Not everyone distinguishes the terms this way, but it makes sense to me, especially sociologically).

Ethics can helpfully be thought of as contrasting configurations of moral foundations to serve social ends.  Different visions of what society is leads to different ethical structures, even though they are made of the same natural moral material.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Women Can Close the Confidence Gap

My topic on WKYB this morning.

Last week I wrote about women selecting for confident men.

This week we look at the other side of that coin - why women are often less confident in their own abilities than they should be.

I blogged about this "imposter syndrome" previously, drawing on Susan Pinker's The Sexual Paradox. 

More recently, Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, two very high achieving television journalists, wrote about The Confidence Gap.  Women are more likely to read their failures as reasons not to do that thing again, whereas men are likely to see failures as learning experiences.  Women are more likely to ruminate on what they did wrong and whether other people noticed, while men are likely to move on and not dwell on it.  Women are more likely to hold back from trying new and bigger tasks until they feel 100% prepared, while men are likely to seek opportunities even if they only feel 60% prepared because they are confident in their abilities to figure new things out.

Moreover, women are likely to read men's expressions of confidence as they would read women - that is, if men seem fully confident, they must be fully prepared.  Women are more likely to apologize for their preparation, and attribute their success to luck no matter how prepared and competent they actually are.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

The Spectrum of Spiritual Experience

This is an idea I am chewing on.  It came from a class discussion of the rise of the "spiritual, but not religious" category recently, especially among young people.

There is a spectrum of spiritual experiences.  At one end are mystics, who experience full oneness with a (the) spiritual entity.  At the other end are rationalists (maybe autistics?) who never experience it at all.

This may correspond with William James' categories of the twice born, one-and-a-half born, and once born.

Religious institutions exist to shape spiritual experience into ritual, and to form people who share ritualized spiritual experiences into a community.

Most people are in the middle of the curve, with a normal frequency and intensity of spiritual experience. If they trust religious institutions, they say they are "religious." If they do not, they say they are "spiritual, but not religious" or "nothing" because they lack the language to describe their experience.

This would mean that the increase in religious "nones" does not really mean a decline in the underlying experience that we read as religious, but a change in how we institutionalize that experience.

Friday, May 05, 2017

Women Don't Like Bad Boys. They Like Confident Men, Especially the Nice Ones

A study with the provocative title "Nice guys have more sex than bad boys" makes this larger point.

Women like confident men.  They like the confidence itself, and also like it as a sign of their ability to get resources.  Many women put up with arrogant confident men, and even selfish confident men - bad traits which they sometimes find out about too late.

But women prefer nice confident men the most.  They want the resources, and the sharing of those resources, in the joint project of raising a family.

Sex is part of the project, but not the main point.

Thursday, May 04, 2017

Regulations are Protections, Taxes are Investments

George Lakoff is right - conservatives and liberals each have a compelling worldview, but conservatives have been better at framing theirs to appeal to the emotions of more Americans. Worse, liberals have let conservatives reframe the liberal worldview in an unflattering way.

Fighting back with reasoned argument alone misses the basic fact that we are emotional creatures first.

Lakoff names these contrasting worldviews as "strict father" vs. "nurturant parent."  These differences apply to family life and government equally. The different gender politics are also contained in the deliberate asymmetry between "father" and "parent."

At the government level, the liberal worldview sees regulations as protections, and taxes as investments. This is the kind of care for the whole that any good nurturing parent would do. The whole that is envisioned by liberals is all of the people in the nation, together.

Conservatives, by contrast, see regulations as limitations on freedom, and taxes as theft.  They want to toughen up each person under their charge to be personally responsible. The whole they envision is just us - our tribe, our kind, against all others.  The others are constantly trying to infiltrate our tribe, so we must be vigilant in punishing and expelling them, as well as any traitors who help the infiltrators.

There is a real difference in worldview, and each rests on a different metaphysic.  Worldviews grip us through our emotional stories first and most.

Tuesday, May 02, 2017

Americans are Happy to Pay Taxes

My topic on WKYB this morning.

One of the big books of popular social science this year will be Vanessa Williamson's Read My Lips: Why Americans Are Proud to Pay Taxes. She found that "being a taxpayer" is an important part of the identity of most Americans. Two interviews with her, explaining her findings, are here and here.

I would add that our sense of legitimacy of American democracy comes from the feeling that we all pay our bit.  This gives us a voice in what our government does, just as much as voting does.  Indeed, since many more people pay taxes than vote, our sense of democratic legitimacy comes more from being taxpayers than being voters.

What Williamson found is that the great majority of Americans are proud to pay taxes.  What makes them mad is if they think other people are not paying their fair share of taxes, especially if they pay no taxes at all.  This ire is directed at rich people and corporations first, and also, in some sectors, at illegal immigrants.  But there are also widespread misconceptions about who pays taxes, and for what.  We remember the income tax due to the hassle of filing, but forget the sales tax because, except for the poorest people, we don't think about is when we pay it.

While everyone pays taxes, groups differ in how many people they believe pay taxes.  The people who are maddest about our current tax system think, on average, that only 66% of people in this country pay taxes - including themselves.  On the other hand, the people who are least mad about our tax system think that the proportion of taxpayers is above 80%.

Paying taxes is a meaningful activity, which joins us with others in serving a cause larger than ourselves.  This is one of the key components of happiness.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Donald Trump is the Last Baby Boomer President

I am of the youngest cohort of Baby Boomers, born in 1960.  Donald Trump, from the other end of our cohort, is 70.  While the younger Boomers will still be in their prime in four years - and, at a stretch, still viable in eight years - I think the era of Boomer presidents is over.

Barack Obama was the first Gen X president.  "No-Drama Obama" exemplified many of the virtues of Gen X.  He was a little ahead of time, though, as far as straight generational succession would predict.  If Hillary Clinton had been elected in 2008, I think she would have been the last Boomer president, and the normal time for the Gen X succession would have begun with this term.

The Silent generation, by the way, is the first in more than a century to have no presidents.  John McCain was probably their best shot, and Bernie Sanders was surely their last.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Kids Do Help Happiness, After All

Our topic on WKYB this morning.

The conventional wisdom was that kids made parents less happy than non-parents.

However, a new study is upending that conclusion. First, they distinguished parents with young children at home from people who had ever had children - the latter being a much more mixed group.

Second, they noted that, since the 1990s, the happiness of non-parents had gone down, whereas the happiness of parents had held steadier. A higher percentage of parents with kids at home started saying they were "very happy", compared to the percentage of non-parents who were very happy.

I read this evidence this way:

Parents generally think that raising kids is meaningful, though hard.

Thinking that what we do is meaningful is a big part of being happy.

Parenting is a specific kind of project, which focuses the mind on what we need to do and to have.

This explains one interesting tidbit of this new study: parents were more confident that they had the financial resources to be happy than were the non-parents.  I think this is not because parents had more money, but because they had a better idea of what money they needed.  Within the vast and varied group of non-parents are many people who do not have as specific a project for their lives, so they don't know what kind of resources they will need.  They can imagine all kinds of scary contingencies - and against our anxieties, no amount of money can ever be enough.

It makes sense to me that people raising kids are happier because they have a better idea of what they are trying to do - and they believe that doing that is, on the whole, happy-making.

Monday, April 24, 2017

We Are All Equally Shaped By Society

We are all products of socialization.

It is not that some people are socialized into gender roles, while others are free, or freed, to be natural.

Nature writes a rough draft of ourselves, then society and our own agency edits it.

People who learn to reject traditional gender roles learn that, just as much as their opposites do.

Some thoughts on reading student responses to Alison Wolf's XX Factor.  Students often write that "society" forces people into gender roles, as if they would naturally do something else.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

The Virtues of Volunteer Firefighters

Volunteer firefighters are prime examples of altruism.  A study in Vermont found that "service to others" was far and away the main motivation for volunteering for the serious responsibility, vital training, and dangerous work of putting out fires in rural communities. The second motivation, though, was what the researchers called "image," or what sociologists usually call status.

Some people think desiring status for good works undermines their goodness.  Tocqueville, though, reminds us that American democracy works by mobilizing the citizens' sense of self interest - but self interest, rightly understood.  And that right understanding is that when I serve the community, I am also serving myself.  This does not undermine the virtue of serving the community.  Rather, it puts that habit on a more reliable footing.

Status is a gift we give to others out of justice - a sense that they truly deserve it. We would hope that, in a just community, they would do the same for us, when we truly deserve it, too.

The Vermont study made ingenious use of one local fact - volunteer firefighters could buy a special license plate with an emblem marking their role.  This was not needed to to their job. They often added lights and sirens to their vehicles to help clear their way to a fire.  Rather, the license plates were pure status markers.  And as such, they were good signals of civic virtue, which other people did honor.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

The Kentucky Legislature Should Not Add "In the year of our Lord" to its Resolutions

The Kentucky legislature quietly voted to add "in the year of our Lord" to all their resolutions.

I think this is a bad idea.

Don't get me wrong - I am a church elder.

The state is not like any other institution.  It should not be run "like a business" or "like your household" or "like a church."  Those are all private institutions, which can have their own private rules. But the government has a mission to serve everyone, not just the majority.

I wish we had more government officials who understood that the government serves all the people, not just the people like them.  The state has to be religiously neutral for the good of the church, as well as to do justice to all the citizens who are not Christian.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

What Really Works to Reduce Teen Pregnancy (and Abortion)

Colorado is leading the way in providing long-acting reversible contraceptives - LARCs - to teenagers.  These include intrauterine devices (IUDs) and implanted contraceptives, such as Norplant.  The state covers the high upfront cost.

The results have been dramatic - a 40% reduction in teen pregnancy, and a 35% reduction in abortions.

The Colorado plan builds on earlier experiments in St. Louis and statewide trials in Iowa.  Colorado added a "no wrong door" approach, to try to reach teens anywhere and everywhere they might be open to talking about birth and birth control.  In addition to the LARCs, this approach included comprehensive sex education.

I believe LARCs have the possibility of breaking down the polarization about sex and abortion.  Reducing teen pregnancy and reducing the demand for abortion is a cause we can all get behind.

Tuesday, April 04, 2017

The Good News About Global Poverty

The good news is that global poverty at the very bottom has been cut in half in the past generation.

The surprising news is that most people think global poverty is as bad as ever, and maybe getting worse.

Sure, there are still hundreds of millions desperately poor.  But there are now billions of people who are not.

In the 1970s the world changed from mostly very poor, to mostly not very poor.

And the even better news: desperate poverty keeps declining.

Sunday, April 02, 2017

Right-Wing Movements Are About Nationalism, Not Economics

There are right-wing movements all over the world.  Some are in more market-oriented societies, some in strong welfare states, some in state-authoritarian economies.  Their economic policies, likewise, range from populist social provision to you're-on-your-own-Jack austerity.

What they have in common is ethnic nationalism.

The Trump vote was driven more by white racial resentment than by economic dislocation.

I believe other studies will find similar things about the rise of right-wing populism in other countries, as well.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

"Low Education Whites Dying Younger" May Be a Statistical Artifact, Not A Real Worsening

It has been widely reported that low-educated whites have had increased mortality at younger ages, reversing the decades-long trend of all groups living longer in the U.S.  Indeed, the "decline of the white working class" has been the main explanation of who the Trump voters are.

However, this Slate piece points to another possible explanation: the "low-education white" population has changed over time, with the healthier getting more education (and thus moving out of the "less than high school" category).

This takes us into the statistical weeds, and is not a sure thing.  What might have happened is this:

White people who did not finish high school have always been less healthy than more educated white people.  Nonetheless, for a long time, white people of all levels of education have been living longer.  Recently, though, "less than high school whites" started dying younger.  This could mean that this whole group is actually dying younger - they are less healthy, are smoking, drinking, and taking drugs  more (especially opioids), and are committing suicide more.

However, it could also be that the healthiest part of the group of low-education white people used to stop before high school graduation, but now they finish high school.  Even if the overall longevity of these people stayed the same, by using "less than high school" as the dividing line, it appears that the least educated are also dying younger.

As evidence, this article cites a paper which found that if we look at the lowest quartile of whites, there has been no decline in longevity.  It could be that, a generation ago, much of the lowest quartile of whites did not finish high school, so these two categories were very similar.  Now, with more people finishing high school, the "less than" group is smaller and composed of the worst off (who die sooner), while a rising portion of the lowest quartile are now high school graduates.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Immigration is Good For America

Tuesdays on WKYB I get to talk, mostly about happiness.

Immigrants are great for America.  They improve the economy at the bottom and the top.  They commit less crime.  They pay more in taxes than they receive in benefits. They have a higher fertility rate, which we need in an era of below-replacement fertility.

Some demagogues play on fears about immigrants, citing some scary stories.  They do not, though, show the proportions of crime, welfare use, and other scary things that immigrants produce compared to the native population.

Much of the illegality of illegal immigrants comes from their immigration status.  If we had an easy guest worker program, then they could live and work here above board.  This would prevent them from undermining wages, and make them more likely to cooperate with the authorities on all manner of civil order tasks.

The current ban on some immigrants, and the widespread fears of coming here that the administration has generated among all foreigners, has already hurt us in tourism, in foreign students, and in the kinds of workers we are trying to attract.

Let's go back to e pluribus unum and welcome immigrants.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Raising Kids in the Boburb

I am studying how what I call "boburbs" - bourgeois bohemian city neighborhoods - compare with suburbs.  Right now I am trying to figure out what the distinctive ideals of each kind of neighborhood would be.

The suburban ideal is driven by the nurture of children.  As such it is fundamentally an honorable ideal. 

Bohemias and boburbs are primarily for childless people, and their neighborhood projects are adult oriented.  

Still, there is an ideal of human development as "cosmopolitan citizens" that leads some parents to include children and child rearing into the boburb project.  They are not just finding a way to raise kids in the city, they embrace it as a better way for the kids.  This is especially true for adolescents.  

This is a higher risk, but higher payoff, form of adolescent rearing.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

International Day of Happiness

Tuesdays on WKYB I get to talk, mostly about happiness.

March 20 is the International Day of Happiness. The United Nations first proclaimed this annual event in 2012.  They take this occasion to report on well-being around the world.  The index used in this report emphasizes a range of measures of well-being that go beyond economic activity.

This year's report places Norway at the top of the well-being ladder, along with several other Scandinavian countries.  At the bottom are several sub-Saharan African countries, along with Syria. The United States ranks 14th.

Clearly, well-being is roughly related to wealth.  That, though, is not the whole story.  The world rankings show that several Latin American countries are better off than their economic performance would suggest, because they also invest in the kinds of quality relationships that improve well-being.

National governments have been trying to measure and promote overall well-being since the '70s, when Bhutan proclaimed that they would aim to improve Gross National Happiness, more than just Gross National Product. GNP includes all measures of economic activity - more money spent on security and divorce and disease, as well as money spent on good things.  Well-being measures, by contrast, look specifically at things that make life better.

In the U.S., our economic indicators have been improving since the recession, but our social trust measures have been declining.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Helping When Another's Religion is Under Attack

On Tuesdays I get to talk on WKYB, Danville's country station.  This was this week's topic.

Mr. Rogers famously said "When I was a boy and would see scary things on television, my mother would say 'Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.'"  Fred Rogers was a Presbyterian minister.  This attitude reflects both a Calvinist sense that there will always be sin in the world, tempered by a mainline faith's belief that the world is full of decent people who will come to provide aid.

I have been struck by the number of instances recently in which, in response to terrorist attacks on one faith, people of other faiths have been quick to help.  When the Jewish cemeteries in Missouri and Pennsylvania were vandalized, Muslims organized the relief effort. When a mosque was burned in Texas, people from all over, mostly Christians, quickly raised a million dollars to rebuild. In Cameroon, where a Muslim terrorist organization threatens not just vandalism but murder against any who do not practice their eccentric brand of Islam, Christians and Muslims take turns protecting one another's places of worship on their respective sabbath days.

The religious terrorists are few.  The religious helpers are many.  Look for the helpers.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Wednesday, March 08, 2017

The Plunder Agenda is the Main Point of the Trump Administration

The main activity of the new Republican government has been to roll back regulations that costs corporations and their rich owners money.  Lobbyists have been sending in their wish lists of environmental, health and safety, consumer protection regulations they want ended - even rules that protect the entire world capitalist system from another meltdown.

In nearly all cases, the Trump administration and the Ryan-McConnell Congress has been complying with these corporate wishes before the public can respond. The administration of the "best negotiator" has asked for nothing in return - no alternative method of protecting the public or the future, no jobs made or saved, to alternative revenue to pay for the president's hugely expensive announced agenda.

The foxes are in charge of the henhouses, and are dealing out the chickens as fast as they can.

This is really what this administration is about.  Their actions on immigration, abortion, marijuana, and the endless tweets are secondary at best, and a smokescreen most of the time.

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

The Good News About Reforestation

On Tuesdays I get to talk on WKYB, Danville's country radio station.  This was today's topic.

The world is reforesting at a delightful rate.

True, we are still losing more forest each year than we gain.  But the rate of deforestation has slowed. Brazil, home to the "world's lungs," the Amazon rainforest, has made great strides in reducing forest cutting.

Moreover, some countries have had astoundingly successful reforestation programs.  China has had a net gain of 46,000 square miles of forest in the past decade. Pakistan has planted 750 million trees just in the past year or so. And last summer India planted almost 50 million trees in one day.

The United States has more trees now than it did a century ago.  We use much less wood for fuel, and have returned many acres of marginal farmland to trees.  Some of this effort is government driven, but quite a bit is from the decisions of millions of private property owners that it makes sense to plant trees - or just to let them regrow naturally.

In Danville, yours truly has helped raise money in an ongoing project to plant 50 trees a year along downtown streets.  This is a micro initiative, but is like many others which, taken together, add up to a macro reforestation of urban America.

Good going, trees.

Sunday, March 05, 2017

In Inequality the Price of Peace

I have previously promoted Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature on the decline of violence. I still think this is a great book, and a phenomenon worth celebrating.

I am now reading Walter Scheidel's The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century. His main point is that the only things that have worked so far in human history to level economic inequality have been accomplished with great violence - war, revolution, state collapse, or pestilence.

A point that is secondary to Scheidel's argument, but primary to my consideration of the happy society, is that peace and stability seem to necessarily lead to increasing income inequality.

I will have to chew on this.  More as I digest Scheidel's argument.

Saturday, March 04, 2017

Middlebury's Shameful Suppression

Charles Murray was invited by students to speak at Middlebury College by a conservative group.  The college accepted this invitation, and the president of the college spoke before Murray.  She said clearly that Middlebury was liberal, while Murray was not, but that as liberals, the college was open to listening to opposing views.

Whereupon liberal students shouted down Murray to the point that he had to leave the room.  The college attempted to interview him in a separate location, streaming the interview back to the original hall, but that was shouted down, too.

Murray's car was attacked.

Worse, a professor who had helped with the interview was physically attacked, ending up in a neck brace.

But worst of all, the college has taken no disciplinary action against the suppressors.  I think  they should at least be suspended, with notation, for the rest of the year, and have to reapply for admission.

This is exactly the kind of mob action that the fascists engaged in, which these same liberals so fear and condemn.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

The Racists Even Hated Obama's Dog

We are reading Michael Tesler's Post-Racial or Most Racial: Race and Politics in the Obama Era in class.

Tesler's main finding is that the people with the most "racial resentment" strongly opposed Barack Obama - no surprise - and everything associated with him.  They didn't care about Sen. McCain or Gov. Romney until those men were the "last line of defense" against Obama.  They supported Gov. Crist, a Republican, until he hugged Obama - then his career as a Republican was over.  They liked Hillary Clinton when she was Obama's opponent in the primary, but strongly disliked her when she was his Secretary of State.

In one wonderful, though head-shaking, experiment, Tesler showed people pictures of a Portuguese water dog.  When they said it was Ted Kennedy's dog, Splash, the racially resentful rated it the way they did other Democrats' dogs.  However, when they told people the identical picture was of Barack Obama's dog, Bo, their dislike of the dog went up 20 points.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Why It Matters That the First Lady Recited the Lord's Prayer at a Presidential Event

First Lady Melania Trump recited the Lord's Prayer at a rally held by her husband.

This event was billed as a re-election (!) campaign event, one month into Pres. Trump's first term.  Therefore, it does not come under some of the same restrictions that an official government event does.  And the First Lady is not a government official, in any case - almost nothing she does is restricted by government ethics.

My concern is not that the separation of church and state was violated.

Rather, I am troubled by the regression of Republican politicians to a solely Christian expression of public faith.

One of the great achievements after World War II was to become a nation that embraced all people of faith, and no faith.  Robert Bellah's famous essay on "Civil Religion in America" in the mid-1960s noted that, while presidents routinely invoked God in their inaugural addresses, they did not name Jesus.  Our civic culture explicitly included Catholics and Jews, along with Protestants, in the "banquet religions" of ordinary American life after the war.  After 9/11, President George W. Bush pointedly included Muslims in the faiths he invoked in naming who is included in America.

Lately, though, Republican political ritual has been content to invoke explicitly Christian statements of faith - and leave it at that, without further inclusions.

White Christian nationalism is the most likely source of, and route to, fascism in this country.  Our political culture has evolved past being exclusively Christian in order to live up to both of our mottos - E Pluribus Unum and In God We Trust.  We must not revert to religious exclusion.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Why We Should All Think Like Scientists

On Tuesday mornings I get to talk on WKYB, Danville's country radio station. This was our topic today.

Jonathan Haidt, a leader in positive psychology, emphasizes that we human beings are not selfish individuals, but a groupish social species. It is overwhelmingly a good thing that we are attached to our groups.  We try to be loyal to the group, and believe what it believes.

The bad thing that can happen from our groupishness, though, is that we tend to seek evidence that supports what the group already believes, and reject evidence which contradicts this belief.  We have a strong "confirmation bias." This bias is not simply a feature of some people's individual psychology, but of everyone's natural (and mostly admirable) tendency to be loyal to our group. Haidt, in The Righteous Mind, writes "For non-scientists, there is no such thing as a study you must believe."

Science, by contrast, is the honest search for truth.  It is a hard discipline of reason and of moral candor.  All of us act like scientists in this regard sometimes.  And professional scientists do not always live up the high standards of science, even in their scientific work.

The great virtue of thinking like a scientist, a virtue we can all follow, is the ability to steel ourselves to follow the evidence wherever it leads, even if that means rejecting a cherished belief of our group. This is our best defense, as individuals, as groups, and as society as a whole, against false beliefs and the hopeless conflicts they engender.

Truth is in order to goodness, and thus to happiness.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Feelings Toward Muslims Are Warming

Pew reports some unexpected good news:  the feeling of Americans in general toward all religious groups have improved since 2014.

Even Muslims, the least-liked religious group, rose on the "feeling thermometer" from an unfriendly 40 (out of 100) to 48.

The only group whose rating did not change were evangelical Christians, who stayed at 61.

The rating of Muslims rose among both Democrats and Republicans.  The two parties differ, though, in how highly they rate Muslims: Democrats today rating them 52, while Republicans rate Muslims 39 on the feeling thermometer.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Valentine's Day Is a Useful - and Much Used - Ritual for Expressing Happiness in Love

On Tuesday mornings I get to talk on WKYB, Danville's country radio station. This was our topic today.

Valentine's Day is a structured ritual for expressing happiness to, and with, our loved ones.  A study of 4.6 million tweets over several years found a large spike of happiness tweets each February 14 - just below Christmas as a day for expressing happiness.

Some people think having a structured ritual invalidates expressions of love. I think, though, that getting people to articulate what they are, in fact, already feeling is a good thing.  It is, especially valuable to have a reason, and a way, for men to express -- by action and words (tweets?) -- their love for their spouses and romantic partners.

I can take or leave the more commercial elements - candy, flowers, dinner out.  Whether those particular actions are living or stilted depends on the couple.  But I do think it is a good thing to have periodic reminders to express to your mate, and to the world, your love.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

In Studying the Virtues, Start With Courage

Perhaps courage is the easiest cardinal virtue to study because it is the lowest and most widespread. Plato says it is the virtue we share with animals.

You do not have to master all the higher virtues in order to understand this one.

This is helpful in thinking about how to study what is involved in building up a virtuous society.

Thursday, February 09, 2017

Strongmen Are What Make the World a Dangerous Place

There is a good market right now for fear entrepreneurs who sell the idea that the world is a dangerous place.  There are always such nostrums on the market - and politicians ready to cash in.  For most of the last three generations since World War II the forces of order have kept the fear mongers and would-be strongmen in check.

But now the last generation to remember the rise of the strongmen is nearly gone.  Younger people take orderly institutions for granted.  They do not see that the rule of law is fragile, even in old republics like ours.  The permanently fearful minority allies with the short-term partisans, and the next thing you know we have elected a strongman.

All across the democratic world, right-wing nationalists challenge the governments which have made the world safer since VJ Day. All across the Muslim world, right-wing nationalists launch terror attacks on the democratic nations that keep invading them, while threatening their local authoritarian governments who make peace with the invaders.

When the strongmen come to power, the structural logic of their ideology makes them push for more danger and more war as proof that they were right about the world being dangerous.  And the more danger they create, they more they can suspend normal checks and balances and consolidate all power in themselves.

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

Measles Eradicated in the Americas

On Tuesday mornings I get to talk on WKYB, Danville's country radio station. This was our topic today.

The global effort to eradicate disease is one of the most powerful arguments that things are getting better.

Smallpox has been wiped out.  Polio is on the verge, if not already eradicated.

And now we get word that measles has been eradicated in the wild in the Western Hemisphere. There are still occasional outbreaks, but they come from outside.

There is a new danger now from the people who do not vaccinate their children, in the foolish belief that the vaccines themselves cause autism.  These folks, as well as some anti-vaccine faith healing groups, endanger us all by lowering our "herd immunity."

Nonetheless, the sustained and coordinated effort of international health organizations, governments, charities, and local public health workers has achieved this great good for our part of the world.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Keeping Your Heart Together Through Christmas

On Tuesday mornings I get to talk on WKYB, Danville's country radio station. This was our topic today.

Doctors have long known that there is a spike in heart-related deaths just after Christmas. This is not a huge rise - about 4% higher than one would predict from other months.  Being medical types, they looked first for physical causes.  They speculated that the cold weather might make people with weak hearts more vulnerable.

To test this, a study was done in New Zealand, where Christmas falls in high summer - the equivalent of the end of July on the northern hemisphere. They found the same rise in post-Christmas heart deaths.

I think the explanation actually says something very positive about human happiness, and human freedom.  

We all die eventually, but, with rare exceptions, we don't determine exactly when.  But it makes sense to me that people whose hearts are fading make an extra effort to hold on through the holidays.  They want to see the family one last time.  They don't want to ruin Christmas for other people. Consciously or otherwise they hold on through the year-end  holidays.  

And then they let go.

Being together with family is, for most people, a source of happiness.  And having some control of the end is an empowering exercise of freedom.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Angela Merkel and Justin Trudeau are now the leaders of the free world

As the United States descends into a nationalist bunker, I am grateful that there are still leaders of the broad-minded, warmhearted, law-abiding global community. Angela Merkel and Justin Trudeau display a rational sense of what is in best interest of their countries, the west, and the world.

Capital So far they have been able to stand up against the fear-based nationalists at home.

Long made they wave. I hope we can rejoin them soon.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Loyalty to the truth versus loyalty to the team

Which picture has more people in it?

In a survey conducted on the Sunday and Monday after Pres. Trump's inauguration, 15% of Trump voters said the one on the left. Only 2% of Clinton voters, and only 3% of nonvoters, said the same.

I do not believe that Trump voters can't count, nor that they have bad eyesight.

Rather, they are deliberately giving a false answer – what psychologists euphemistically call expressive responding – to show their loyalty.

Sadly, it appears that they have greater loyalty to their team than to the truth.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

The three things we can count on the business party to do

I used to think that there were two things we could count on the business-oriented party to do whenever they were in power. First, reduce taxes on the rich. Second, reduce regulations on corporations.

I have come to realize that there has always been a third objective: privatize government functions so for-profit corporations could rake in tax money.

The business party presents privatization as a way to do things more efficiently. What usually turns out, though, is that the government was doing it about as efficiently as private industry would. What the government doesn't have to do, though, is make a profit at.

Therefore, what privatization amounts to is giving businesses the governments cost of achieving a public end, plus a guaranteed profit.

Oh, and the privatizing businesses are always big donors to the business party.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Why I am marching today

Today I will join millions around the country and the world in a "Women's March." The impetus of the march looks back - to protest the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States. Not to contest the election - he won under the rules, if only on a technicality. But to protest the fearful nationalism of his official platform, and to oppose the elements of his coalition who are much worse than that.

That was the impetus of the march - of the many marches.

The meaning of the marches, though, looks forward. America is a great nation already. Part of our greatness is a willingness to face our problems and fix them. America has been steadily getting better, and helping the world get better.

I am marching for what, as Langston Hughes said, America will be.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Why I find this election humiliating

Until now, one of the most admirable parts of American exceptionalism is that we have not used our democratic power to elect a demagogue.

Andrew Jackson was close, but at least he was a general who served the country in some ways.

Donald Trump ran as something like Silvio Berlusconi, with hints of Benito Mussolini.

This is a humiliating loss of American exceptionalism.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

I miss Obama already

Today is the last day of the Obama presidency, and I miss him already.

I believe that Barack and Michelle Obama are the people most like Mr. and Mrs. Gruntled who will ever be in the White House. They are our age, share a similar educational background, and have a similar family structure. Most importantly, they share the same sacred history narrative of America.

The fact that the Obamas are African-Americans, while the Gruntleds are Euro white people, is actually not the overriding fact of our identities. Both families are educated, hopeful, Christian Americans. We both believe in working for the promise of this country.

I particularly appreciate President Obama's thoughtful, calm, and analytical approach to social problems. I thought he governed masterfully in the face of intransigent opposition.

I also appreciated the high moral tone that the Obamas brought to government, as well as to their personal life.

I am glad that they both plan to stay involved in public life for many years to come.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Too late for the wall against Mexico?

It may already be too late to build a wall against Mexico.

Michael Barone, in his fine book Shaping Our Nation, talks about the cycles of immigration to the United States. Immigration tends to come from countries that are just shy of middle income. They're not so poor that residents can not afford to leave, but not yet so rich that they stay to work in domestic industries. For much of the 20th Century, Mexico fit that bill. The great wave of migrants from Mexico came after the Second World War and continued up to the Great Recession in 2008.

During the recession, though, Mexican migration was negative. That is, there were more returnees than new migrants. This could just be an effect of the recession, and the Mexican migration might resume. However, Barone makes me think that the main era of Mexican migration to the United States is over. The Mexican economy, despite the violence and corruption of some parts of it, is now heading into the middle income of world economies. Moreover, the Mexican birthrate has declined to replacement levels. The pressure of young people to find jobs has diminished.

It might be a great irony of the Trump years that we make a "yuge" effort to build a big wall against Mexico at the very time when it is no longer relevant.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Today's coffee houses produce the public sphere, just as they did in the past

Coffee houses are where the public sphere was born.

This is the argument of Juergen Habermas, an eminent German sociologist. He feared that coffee houses today do not produce as much political argument as the coffee houses of the Golden age, the late 1600s in London.

I think coffee houses have always produced a public sphere, but little of it is directly about politics. This was as true then as now. More often the public discussion in coffee houses is about popular culture. And this is fine; the people should discuss popular culture–that's what makes it popular.

I believe Habermas is correct, though, that some people need to be talking about politics in the coffee house. Indeed, some people need to be organizing civic action in the coffee house and elsewhere. As I read Tocqueville, this is where he thought the voluntary associations would come from that make American democracy work.

Some think we are in dire times for civic engagement. They imagine a golden past when people were more involved in civic life. I think as many people are involved in civic life now as ever have been. The voluntary associations that make our society work have always been the job of minority. The coffee houses of today are as productive of the public sphere as they ever were.

Monday, January 16, 2017

For King and President

In my church we take turns offering prayers of the people. This was my offering for the week including Martin Luther King Day and the presidential inauguration.

Oh lord, we thank you for the task that you have given us of advancing the great call of our secular creed that all men are created equal. 

This day we look back to the work of the last-born of the founding fathers, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. This week we look ahead to the peaceful transition of power. This ritual is one of the glories of our republic. We humbly ask for your support and protection of the outgoing president. We fervently hope for your guidance of the new holder of that great office. 

We all have a part to play in building up the work of our republic, equally as citizens and as Christians. And in this work we know, as Dr. King reminded us, that the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.

Saturday, January 07, 2017

Coffee Houses Are Great Places for the Mentally Unusual to Work

I commend Bitty and Beau's Coffee House in Wilmington, NC, for employing the mentally handicapped.  It is so hard for the mentally unusual - such as those with Down's syndrome, or autism - to find jobs at all.  A coffee house has all kinds of jobs that are honorable and feasible for such persons.

Even more so, a small-town, independent coffee house is an excellent place for unusual people of all kinds to find a place and be part of a community.  My own coffee house, the Hub, has hard-working, friendly, and beloved staff members who are also ambassadors for the respectful treatment of autistic and mentally limited people.  The place wouldn't be the same without them.

And, as the owners of Bitty and Beau's note, the Southern tradition of hospitality is a real help from both customers and employees in making a small-town, independent, Southern coffee house a good home for the mentally unusual.