Wednesday, September 20, 2017

The False Choice Between Altruism and Social Conformity


Some think that altruism is not real if it has any mixture of self-interest, social pressure, or social conformity.

But we learn how to serve others, much the way we learn anything else.  Virtue is a practice which we try to get better at and make habitual.  When it becomes second nature, it can appear to be "pure".

Yet we learn how, exactly, to be altruistic from social models.  And we keep on trying to learn how to make virtue habitual because we have the support of social norms and of other people promoting those norms.

Moreover, when we do serve others, we also can reap the approbation of others - that is, enhance our status.

These are not impurities of altruistic service.  This is the very human and social way that we learn how to be altruistic servants.

Monday, September 18, 2017

America Acts as One Commonwealth Whenever It Can Check The Southern Grandees


The vision of America as one commonwealth comes from Reformed, Catholic, and Jewish worldviews.  The Yankee vision of the city on a hill translated into the progressive policies of the early Republican Party.  Catholic social teaching and Jewish repair of creation views were joined to this progressive Protestant view (which had changed parties by then) to underscore the New Deal.

Opposition to the view of America as one commonwealth comes from what Michael Barone calls the Southern Grandees.  Marrying racism and exploitation of cheap labor, they have consistently opposed universal social welfare policies.  This has been true in every era of America, from Jamestown to today.

The United States has been able to adopt universal social welfare policies when the Southern Grandees have been checked.  This was especially true during and just after the Civil War, and partly true in the Depression and the Civil Rights movement.

The Southern Grandees, and their fellow travelers, are dominant at the national level right now.  But history gives us plenty of reason to hope they will be checked once again.  America is one commonwealth, and will be able to act like it once again.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

When Faced With Moral Hazard, Err On the Side of the Innocent


Moral hazard is the idea that, if you insure against some hazard, the insured will act in an even riskier way, knowing they are insured.  Economists usually just focus on the economic costs of changing the balance of risk.

The moral part of moral hazard, though, is that people will behave worse than they otherwise would if we, collectively, try to protect people against bad actions.

This has led some people to harden there hearts - if we have no social insurance, then everyone will behave better because they are on their own.

Yet this runs the risk of hurting people who are hurt through no fault of their own.  It is to take care of the vulnerable that we create social insurance in the first place.

So which side should we err on -- taking care of the injured innocent, or promoting the risky guilty?

Personalism - treating everyone as a worthy person - says we err on the side of protecting the innocent, even at the cost of producing some more bad behavior than we otherwise would have.

Monday, September 11, 2017

We Don't Like to Contemplate Our Vices, But Could Reap the Easiest Benefit from Doing So


It is easier to contemplate our virtuous habits than our vicious ones, because we don't want to think about the ways we are vicious.

Yet Aristotle is right that contemplation leads to the highest happiness.  I take this to mean that happiness requires the continuous feedback of contemplation of our habits, both the good habits and the bad ones.  Gretchen Rubin, in The Happiness Project, found that she was made happier by reducing her bad habits than by increasing her good ones.

Contemplating our vices, and reducing the habitual ways in which we engage in them, are the low-hanging fruit for increasing our own happiness.  But, for the reason given above, we resist contemplating our vices.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Aung San Suu Kyi is Squandering Her Moral Capital by Persecuting Muslims


I have admired Aung San Suu Kyi above all current world leaders.  She earned her Nobel Peace Prize in the long democratic resistance to the military dictatorship in Burma/Myanmar.

Now, though, the government and local mobs are killing and burning out the Royhingya, a Muslim minority whom the Buddhist majority regard as foreigners and an impurity in the body politic.

In any other country, "The Lady" would be part of the opposition to this ethnic cleansing.

It is therefore very sad that she is squandering it by not stopping this evil act.

Saturday, September 02, 2017

Karma is ... a Nice Young Woman


We had a wonderful family moment at our recent reunion.  One daughter asked another go get her something.  It is probably relevant that it was a younger sister asking an older one; also, that they are now grown women.

The asker reminded the askee of the many times in their youth when the roles were reversed.

This was a happy exchange, and the returned service was readily offered.

Which prompted me to say "Karma is a nice young woman."

Which then led the whole family to reflect on how we usually take justice to be harsh.  Yet, just as often, what we deserve for the many good things we do in life is good things in return.


Friday, August 18, 2017

Straight Swap: Lynching Memorial for Confederate Memorial in Danville


In Danville, Kentucky, where I live, there is a Confederate monument in the park between my church and my college.  It is supposedly of a local resident, but is looks like a generic Robert E. Lee-type officer.  It was erected in 1910 -- not in the aftermath of the Civil War, but at the height of Jim Crow.  My favorite part is the caption on the back - What They Were, The Whole World Knows.

Heh, heh.  I'll buy that.

Which is why the monument should come down.

I learned this week that a black man was lynched in Danville in 1866.  He was killed by a mob of Danvillians right in this same park.

The Equal Justice Initiative is making a memorial pillar for each lynching victim, to be erected near Montgomery Alabama.  One excellent feature of their plan is that an identical pillar be erected in the place where the lynching took place.

I propose a straight swap.  Take down the Confederate memorial in Danville, and erect a lynching memorial in the same spot.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

The Mundanity of Virtue

I went to the “Post-Bourdieusian Theory” session at the American Sociological Association annual meeting yesterday.  Mustafa Emirbayer was the respondent.  In talking about a paper unpacking the idea of talent, he cited Dan Chambliss’ article about swimmers.  I know Dan as a Yale Ph.D. and fellow small-college professor, but I had never read this article.  I mistakenly thought it was about swimming.  But Emirbayer praised it as one of the ten best sociology articles ever written. So I downloaded it and read it just now.

His title is “The Mundanity of Excellence.”  He says, in conclusion:

“But of course there is no secret; there is only the doing of all those little things, each one done correctly, time and again, until excellence in every detail becomes a firmly ingrained habit, an ordinary part of one’s everyday life.”

It struck me that this is what critical realists should say about the virtues.  They are habits of action.  They are mundane in themselves.  The excellence of virtue comes from their being habitual in a person, and in a social institution. Just about anyone could learn to be virtuous.  Why relatively few do is an important empirical question.  But is it not because we lack a talent for virtue.

I think there is an important way forward here.

Tuesday, August 01, 2017

Integrity Idol Elevates All by Honoring Honest Officials in Corrupt Systems

My topic on WKYB.

Integrity Idol is a popular competition to honor public officials who do their jobs honestly, transparently, and well in places where that is not the norm.

Created by the American good-government group Accountability Lab, the project now exists in five countries notorious for their endemic corruption.  Starting in Nepal in 2014, the local teams take nominations from all over the country of public officials doing their jobs well.  The five nominees are then profiled on television.  Popular voting determines the winner, who is then honored on the show.

The first winner, Gyan Mani Nepal, is a District Education Officer in Nepal.  He was faced with a terrible pass rate by his students - 14% - on the national exam.  When he looked into why, he found that many teachers simply did not show up for work.  Many were patronage appointments made by local politicians.  They collected their salaries, but often were out doing the bidding of their political bosses.  Mr. Nepal gave his phone number to all the students and had them text him whenever their teacher was absent.  He had the students keep attendance logs for their teachers.  Using this, he fired the worst offenders, trained the best teachers, and encouraged those in the middle to commit to their jobs.  He also reduced his own budget, and posted all of his expenses, thereby winning the respect of the public.  The parents, in particular, were grateful supporters.

In one year, the pass rate on the national exam rose to 60%.

Max Weber said that money and command authority are, indeed, two kinds of power in the world.  But an equally important kind of power comes from status.  Status is not something we can give ourselves, but comes from the honor we earn from others.  Integrity Idol puts status power to work to lift up the honorable, empowering them to improve their whole system.

Jonathan Haidt says that when we see others doing good things, it elevates our own happiness, and makes us want to go out and do good, too.

Monday, July 24, 2017

American Religious People Now Evenly Split Between Young-Earth Creation and God-Guided Evolution


A new Gallup poll shows that the 4/5ths of Americans who are religious are now evenly split - 38% to 38% - over whether God created the universe pretty much the way it is within the last 10,000 years, or whether God created the universe a long time ago and has guided evolution since then.

For decades, most religious Americans took the "young earth" creationist position.  That support has dropped in the last few years.  The contrasting "theistic evolution" position has risen somewhat.

At the same time, the belief in a wholly secular evolution has doubled to nearly a fifth of all Americans.

Theistic evolution has been the majority opinion among the most educated religious people for decades.  Most college-educated religious Americans accept that there is no conflict between creation and evolution.  It may be that what we are seeing reflects the fact that more religious people are getting a college education.

This is also good news for all centrists, who lament the polarization of much of our culture by false dichotomies.  May we all be more willing to consider the middle position.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Heroes Help Us Elevate Our Own Virtuous Actions


My topic in WKYB this morning.

What are heroes for?

One important role of heroes is as models for us.

Positive psychologist Jonathan Haidt found that when we watch other people do morally uplifting things, we feel elevated - which he reads as the opposite of "ashamed."  Moreover, feeling elevated makes us more likely to want to help others ourselves. When we publicly celebrate real heroes in our midst, it raises the happiness of the whole community.  We share in the good act, and the proportion of those feeling elevated shapes our culture to make good acting habitual.

A study of Carnegie Hero Medal winners - ordinary people who risk their lives to save strangers - found that they were much more likely to just act when they saw another in trouble, rather than carefully weigh pros and cons.  They were empathetic people who were not torn by ambivalence about whether helping others was really wise. These real (not fictional) heroes had a habit of trusting that virtuous action really works in the world - they are not suckers for helping.

Which got me thinking about the current boom in fictional superheroes.  I am not much drawn to superheroes - I am a sociologist because I find real people and real lives fascinating and meaningful.  Still, when hundreds of millions of real people around the world go out of their way to watch and emulate fictional superheroes, that turns the phenomenon back into sociology. Most of the superheroes in movies at the moment are ambivalent about whether they have to be heroes - whether "with great power comes great responsibility."

It was in this mood that I was helped by a review which made clear to me why I really liked the new "Wonder Woman" movie.  Wonder Woman is a hero like the real Carnegie heroes - she knows she has the power to act, and is not ambivalent that her actions are worth doing.

And observing that kind of hero is elevating.

Tuesday, July 04, 2017

Would You Have Supported the Revolution in 1776?


I audited a colleague's course on the American Revolution this year.  It made me revisit some attitudes I had taken for granted, probably since elementary school.  As an American today I am a patriot. I strongly support republican government.  When I was in Britain and someone offered a toast to the queen I discovered just how visceral my loathing for monarchy is.

I was raised a Quaker in the originally very Quaker town of Plymouth Meeting, PA.  The Revolution was fought in the territory around where I lived.  And Quakers, as pacifists, were mostly opposed to the war.  So what would my position have been if I had been, say, 16 in 1776 (as I was in 1976)?

I probably would have opposed the American Revolution.

Since my 20s I have been a Presbyterian.  Of all the American denominations, Presbyterians were the most responsible for promoting the Revolution. If I had been 26 in 1776, I would have been more moved by the arguments of republicanism. But as a meliorist, I would have thought the arguments for achieving a republic by immediate revolutionary war were dangerous.  I expect I would have pointed to the the bad effects of a previous revolution, the regicide of Charles I and the gross excesses - Presbyterian excesses - of the Commonwealth.

I probably would have supported the aims of independence, but opposed the revolution.

If I had been 56 in 1776, I would have been more confident that justice requires changing the culture, as well as changing the laws.  I would have supported a movement for gradual, negotiated independence from Britain.  But in the negotiation we would firmly push for liberty for all.  Using the power of the crown on the way to an American republic, the United States of America might not have emerged until a generation or two later - without slavery.

Sunday, July 02, 2017

Mitch McConnell is the Boies Penrose of Today


I recently read a claim that we will look back on Senator Mitch McConnell, the current majority leader and power broker of the Republican Party, the way we now look back on John C. Calhoun.  I do not think this is the right comparison.  Calhoun was a committed ideologue from beginning to end.  Senator McConnell, by contrast, has no real commitments except staying in power.  This is why his signal achievements have all been obstruction.

I think we will look back on Mitch McConnell the way we now look back on Boies Penrose.  This means:
a) We will think of him primarily as a skilled manipulator of the machinery of politics - a politician, in the pure form; but
b) No one but politics nerds will remember him.

I would guess that very few of my readers will have have ever heard of Boies Penrose.  He was a powerful U.S. Senator of a century ago, the head of the Republican Party in Pennsylvania.  In the words of The American Heritage, he was a "boss" of the gilded age kind, who, "having acquired power, wanted simply to hold on to it instead of parlaying it into something else. ... Among these Boies Penrose of Pennsylvania stood out.  ... he was the biggest boss of his day."

What was notable about Penrose was his cynicism about politics, politicians, and, especially, ordinary voters.  "Their tastes are very simple;" he said, "they dearly love hokum."  And he supplied it to derail reformers and good government leaders.  He stayed in power for more than a quarter of a century, spiting his enemies until death took him.

Saturday, July 01, 2017

Non-Profits and Volunteering in the Greenwood Help Fight Recessions


“One extra non-profit per one thousand people added up to a half percentage point fewer out-of-work residents.” 

This is from Melody Warnick's This is Where You Belong: The Art and Science of Loving the Place You Live.  We are reading this for our alumni study group this year.

The finding is based on a running study by the National Conference on Citizenship.  They counted a baseline of non-profits and volunteering per capita in many cities and every county, starting in 2005.  When the recession hit at the end of that decade, the Conference was able to correlate the non-profit rate with the unemployment rate.  

The result:  places with more non-profits before the recession had less unemployment during the recession.

Warnick's reading (following other researchers): places were people show more "place attachment" by volunteering, also show greater local investment in more material ways.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Reading Harry Potter Reduces Prejudice

My topic on WKYB this morning.

For this twentieth anniversary of the release of the first Harry Potter book, I was happy to review the studies of the good moral effects of reading this series.

The central plot of the series pits the racist villains, who believe they are magical "pure bloods," against what they regard as impure "mud bloods" and inferior "muggles." Harry Potter, though himself of a magical lineage, fights heroically with the good guys of all groups against the racists.

Researchers in Italy tested the effects of this story on children. With one group they read and discussed passages in which Harry and friends stood up to the racists.  With another group they read and discussed other passages, not dealing with this conflict.  They then tested the children on their attitudes toward immigrants, a stigmatized group in Italy.

The first group of kids absorbed the message of Harry Potter: they were significantly less prejudiced toward immigrants than the other group.


Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Helpful Neighborhoods Tend to Stay Helpful

My topic on WKYB this morning.

Neighborhoods differ in how helpful they are.

Robert Sampson studies "enduring neighborhood effects," to take the subtitle of his fine Great American Cities. He did surveys of Chicago neighborhoods, and found that they differ in how trusting or cynical they are.  However, what people say is not always what they do.  So he compared this attitude data with some ingenious studies of behavior in different neighborhoods.

People have heart attacks all over Chicago.  Sampson looked at how likely bystanders were to offer CPR in different neighborhoods.  This gives a map of helpful behavior.

Then, years later, he did a letter-drop study.  He dropped addressed, stamped letters all over the city, then counted how many from each neighborhood were picked up by a stranger and put in the mail.  This also gives a map of helpful behavior.

The two maps are highly correlated.  Helpful neighborhoods tend to stay helpful; unhelpful neighborhoods likewise have an enduring effect.

Sampson then compared these behavioral maps with the survey data. Here, again, there was a strong correlation.  People in helpful neighborhoods said they were trusting, thought local government was legitimate, and were more likely to create civic organizations to do good.

Other research has shown that helpful attitudes and behavior are contagious.  So if you want your neighborhood to be one of the helpful ones, start a viral trend of visible helpfulness.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Centrist Principle: Social Movements Come from the Failure of Meliorism

I write on the principles of centrism at the Gruntled Center whenever I think of one.

Sociology as a discipline celebrates social movements.  We look for the conditions under which people can be roused to activism for social change.

Yet in a centrist social theory, in a well-functioning society there would be no need for social movements.  The daily action of incremental improvement - meliorism - would gradually mitigate social problems and improve social life.  Social life will never be perfect, but the meliorist ideal does believe in gradual improvement.

Meliorism reduces social friction.  Social movements are like earthquakes, which happen when unresolved friction builds up.

The proponents of social movements like the conflict, as well as the social progress.  Centrists, by contrast, see conflict as a danger and a social failure.  We try to engineer a society with gradual progress that removes the need for social movements.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

I Condemn Left-Wing Terrorism and Right-Wing Terrorism


This morning a Bernie Sanders supporter shot a Republican member of Congress, and others with him.  This is a vile act.

The great majority of terrorist acts in this country are committed by right-wingers, and I condemn them.

On this occasion of left-wing terrorism, I am equally strong in condemnation.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Celebrate Loving: Interracial Marriage on the 50th Anniversary of Loving v Virginia


This week is the 50th anniversary of one of the great Supreme Court decisions, Loving v Virginia.  In 1967, interracial marriage was illegal in the lingering residue of the slave states.  Only 3% of American marriages were interracial. Loving changed that.

Today, 11% of all marriages are interracial, and the rates are rising.  An even better indicator of the future is that 17% of all new marriages are interracial.  Hispanics and Asians are leading the way - already more than 1/4th of their marriages are interracial.

Attitudes toward interracial marriage have also improved dramatically.  In 1990 - not in the dark ages before the Civil Rights Movement, but just one generation ago - most white people opposed intermarriage for themselves or their relatives.  Now that group is down to 14%.

Even more indicative of a sea-change in attitudes: today, almost 40% of Americans think interracial marriage is a good thing for the country.


Thursday, June 08, 2017

Are Strangers a Benefit or a Cost?


If you trust the world, strangers add to your diverse treasure of interesting experiences.

If you fear the world, strangers cost you an expensive evaluation of their threat.

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

Celebrating Global Stability

My topic on WKYB this morning.

The Fund for Peace calculates a stability measure for almost every country in the world, every year.

This year, South Sudan is the least stable country.  This is not surprising, as they are in the midst of a civil war.

Finland is the most stable country, as it has been several times before in this ranking.

We tend to focus on the scary instability arising here and there in the world.

But the big picture is actually that the world is pretty stable - especially in NATO territories.  On this D-Day, that is something to celebrate.

Sunday, June 04, 2017

Jane Jacobs Sees That Poverty is Normal. This is a Calvinist Insight


Jane Jacobs, the founding mother of the new urbanism, wrote a trilogy of books about cities.  She defined the field with The Death and Life of Great American Cities, and extended her insights in The Economy of Cities and Cities and the Wealth of Nations.  I am reading my way through all three again.

I was struck this time by her critique of macroeconomics, which she describes as a "shambles."  Economics, she says, has long thought that prices and jobs were two ends of a seesaw - if one was up, the other had to go down.  This, they thought, was a basic rule of the market.  Their job as economists was to come up with the right balance of the two. Thus, the endless war of demand-siders and supply-siders.

However, writes Jacobs, in the '70s and '80s all economic theory was confounded by "stagflation" - high inflation and high unemployment.  Both bad options of the seesaw were up at the same time.

The true condition of humanity, Jacobs wrote, is that poverty is the norm - most people most of the time have lived with both high prices and high unemployment.

The great achievement of creative city economies is to create moments of innovation that drive prices down, and growth that drives employment up.  This achievement is not guaranteed, and cannot be sustained in any one place for long.

This, it seems to me, is a very Calvinist insight.  The normal condition of human beings in a fallen world is poor.  We are given a vocation within which to work in order to build up the world.  The work is hard and the prize is not guaranteed.  But the story of human existence shows that it can sometimes be done.

Jacobs was raised in a Calvinist family, though she became a very secular adult.  But perhaps this insight shows the long effects of her early training.


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.