Saturday, December 22, 2012

Most Republicans Own Guns

Most Republicans own guns.  Most Democrats do not.  Most independents do not.

This is a real difference - gun ownership is one of the strongest predictors of Republican affiliation.

There are Republican majorities in all age groups and both sexes.

The more education Americans have, the less likely they are to own a gun.

The biggest gap:

High-school educated Republicans: 59%
Post-graduate educated Democrats: 22%

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Hurrah! Normal Politics Resumes

The decline of the Tea Party, as I have been arguing, allows Republicans to resume the normal politics of compromise.

I am very hopeful that the Republican and Democratic leadership will reach a deal to raise taxes on the rich and cut government spending, especially on defense contractor entitlements.

I am also hopeful that the Republican and Democratic leadership will reach a deal on controlling assault weapons and other mass-murder tools.

I am hopeful that Grover Norquist will fade into the sunset, now that Republicans are ready to break their foolish pledge never to raise taxes, no matter how much it hurt the country.

I am less hopeful that the gun lobby will fade away, but at least some conservatives are willing to break with them when little white children get massacred.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Is the Casual Sex of Today Like the Smoking of Yesterday?

Today we look back on the indifference to the effects of smoking in the '60s with amazement. Now we know better, mostly due to science.

I think future ages will look at us the same way when they think about the emotional effects of casual sex. And this change will also mostly be due to science.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Why I Don't Like to Travel, Dressed Up in Sociologese.

I don't really like to travel, though I do a fair amount.

I have been thinking about why, exactly, I do not. 

I do like to learn about other people and places; that is one of the reasons I am a sociologist. 

I do not much need to feel the aura of special places, to have an authentic experience of "being there."  On the other hand, I always notice things about the juxtaposition of places and cultures that I would not have seen from just reading about other places. 

Still, I would rather be in my house or campus or coffee house, talking to people and working.

I think this is the main reason I do not like to travel:

When I am home, I feel that I am building social capital.
When I travel, I am spending it.
Each trip, therefore, had better be worth the social expense.

Sunday, December 09, 2012

A Hopeful Sign: Egyptian President Gives Up Dictatorial Powers.

The Arab Spring is one of the most hopeful movements for a peaceful world.

The Islamic world has been so resistant to democracy that some have seen democratic government as un-Islamic.  This charge has not only come from opponents of Islamic nations, but from some Islamist theorists.  Many regimes, from merely authoritarian to brutally fascist, have been protected by the anti-democratic united front of Islamic states.

The Arab Spring looks like it will break that anti-democratic tradition.  If a group of stable democracies were established in the heart of the Islamic world, then the pressure for better government would ripple out all the way to Morocco and to Indonesia.  The "bloody borders" of the Islamic world that Samuel Huntington famously noted would turn to normal, peaceful, compromising, nation-upbuilding politics.

The most important nation trying to establish Islamic democracy is Egypt.  When an Islamist, Mohammed Morsi, was elected president after the overthrow of the dictator, many were worried. That he represents the Muslim Brotherhood, which had assassinated the previous president for making peace with Israel, was even scarier. However, I remain hopeful that having political responsibility will make the Muslim Brotherhood a more responsible and normal political party.

I was very distressed, therefore, when President Morsi proclaimed dictatorial powers.  The oppressed imitate their oppressors.

However, there was broad and sustained resistance in Egypt to Morsi's dictatorship.

Today, responding to the protests, Morsi annulled the decree giving him dictatorial power.

The conflict is far from over in Egypt, but this is a hopeful sign for a happier world.

Friday, December 07, 2012

Another Improvement in Congress

I have been arguing for some time that the Tea Party has been the major obstacle to competent politics, and that this election cycle was their last hurrah.

Yesterday came a further sign that the prospects are improving for compromise and progress in Congress.  Senator Jim DeMint, the Tea Party leader, resigned his Senate seat to become head of the conservative think tank Heritage Foundation.

DeMint's resignation in the middle of his term of actual power is reminiscent of Governor Sarah Palin's resignation in the middle of her term of actual power.

These resignations make sense: it is hard for people with an anti-government ideology to serve in government.  It is hard for people with an anti-compromise ideology to serve in a legislature.

I look forward to better normal government in the coming year.

Sunday, December 02, 2012

Gratitude: The Most Powerful Happiness Tool

This week we finished the first iteration of my "Happy Society" course.

As I reflect on what we have learned this term about what works to make people feel happier, I think reminding ourselves of how much we have to be grateful for is among the most powerful.   

With privileged people, I believe gratitude is the single most powerful tool we have.

Saturday, December 01, 2012

A Nation That Runs on Immigrants Can't Afford to Run Short

American fertility has been at or a little below the replacement rate for a generation.  Our rate is the highest in the developed world, and our demographic future is generally bright.

Immigrants are the main reason that our fertility rate is near replacement.  Immigrants have a somewhat higher fertility rate than the native born.  This bump seems to last only one generation, though, so we benefit from continued immigration.

In the recent recession, immigrant fertility fell, and fell even more than native-born fertility. Fertility normally falls during a recession, and bounces back as people become more optimistic about the future. Immigration also fell during the recession, and indeed there seems to have been more return migration to Mexico (at least) than in-migration during that period.

All of which argues to me that the U.S. has a strong interest now in making immigration easy.  Likewise, we have a strong interest in making it easier to normalize the condition of migrants already in the country illegally.  Moreover, we have an even stronger interest in encouraging the permanent immigration of families, with their higher fertility rates, to insure that we have a sufficient nation - of citizens, as well as merely of workers - in the future.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Our Happy Prospects of Legislative Compromise

A happy society benefits from a competent government, most especially from a competent legislature.  The legislature, by its nature, will have representatives of conflicting interests.  It will naturally be full of conflicts much more often than it starts with broad agreement on major issues.  Thus, a competent government requires a willingness to compromise and work together for the good of the country.

Lately, our government, especially our legislature, has been polarized by a faction, the Tea Party, that rejects compromise on principle.  Moreover, the federal legislature has been hamstrung by a pledge that many members of one party, the Republican Party, made to never raise taxes, no matter what effect that has on the country.

There are happy signs that the logjam in the legislature is breaking up.  The uncompromising faction lost more than it gained in the recent election.  This frees the establishment of their host party, the Republicans, to make deals in the usual way, to move the government forward.

Recently, there has been another happy trend: many Republican leaders who signed the "never raise taxes" pledge are expressing a willingness to shrug off that straightjacket.

I am very hopeful that the lame duck session, and the new Congress to follow, will be very productive in solving a number of problems facing the federal government.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Do Some Feel That Organ Donation is Polluting?

My "Happy Society" class has conducted a project to sign up the entire Centre College community as organ donors.  We have had excellent success with the faculty, pretty good success with students, but only so-so with the blue-collar staff.

A couple of the latter said they would not sign up as organ donors because they "came in with all their organs, and they plan to go out with them."

I have a hypothesis about why this is so, which I don't have enough data to test.  Jonathan Haidt, in The Righteous Mind, argues that all kinds of people tend to have immediate emotional reactions to moral questions.  Educated people, though, have trained themselves to only accept judgments that serve to prevent harm and advance care, or prevent inequality and advance fairness.  But most people also have an emotional commitment to liberty, sanctity, loyalty, and purity.  If they are not trained in Enlightenment theories, most people will go with their first emotional reactions.

My hypothesis is that when some people imagine their organs going in to other people react with disgust at the impurity of it, the pollution of their identity that would result.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Tea Party Has Shot Its Bolt

This was the last Tea Party election. Like most uncompromising "know-nothing" movements, they fade away after about three elections because they don't get everything they want, and don't understand that all of politics requires compromise. 

To be sure, some politicians elected by the Tea Party will remain in office, such as my own junior senator Rand Paul.  But now the Republican establishment will be able to free itself from this threat from the right, and begin to make deals in the normal way.  And I hope we can also dispense with Grover Norquist and his foolish "don't raise taxes" straightjacket, too. My own senior senator, Mitch McConnell, is already talking about raising taxes.

One part of the Tea Party is burning itself out in petitions to secede from the United States.  This is open treason, and might be cause for serious criticism by regular, patriotic Republicans if the movement weren't so laughable.

Another part of the Tea Party will go back to grumbling political inactivity, along with the would-be socialists and anarchists.

A third part will become regular members of the Republican Party, arguing for their positions, but working to make deals that move the country forward.  I hope that my junior senator evolves in that direction. Likewise, I hope that my senior senator helps him by working with the Democratic Party to actually govern.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

An Unexpected Benefit of the Election: Mormons are Normalized for Evangelicals

Evangelical Protestants have been suspicious of the Latter-Day Saints since the church began.  Until recently, even well-known ministries described Mormonism as a cult.

However, evangelical Protestants are also the core constituency of the Republican Party today.  So, when the G.O.P. nominated a Mormon for president, some thought evangelicals would be cool to Mitt Romney, a Mormon bishop and very active church leader.

Instead, evangelical Protestants dropped their opposition to Mormonism.

Though Mitt Romney did not win, I think his candidacy normalized Mormonism in American politics as much as John F. Kennedy's candidacy normalized Roman Catholicism in American politics.

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

What I Like About Obama: The Personal Reason

I believe that Barack Obama is the person most like me who will ever be president of the United States.  And the Obama family is the most like my family that will ever occupy the White House.

Barack Obama is a year younger than me.  I am conscious of being right on the cusp between the Baby Boomer generation and Generation X.  As I get older, I side more and more with the younger generation, the Xers.  Barack Obama is clearly a Gen Xer - a pragmatist who rebuilds basic institutions, willing to compromise to get practical reforms moving.  That is my attitude toward politics, large and small, as well.

Barack and Michelle Obama are meritocrats from financially modest backgrounds who made their way by academic success.  They finished their schooling at Harvard, which my wife and I, who did our graduate work at Yale, do not hold against them.

The Obamas are long and solidly married, and devoted parents. The Gruntleds married younger, so our kids are older, but I predict that Malia and Sasha Obama will likewise be successful students.  When Malia is ready for college in a couple of years, I imagine there will be stiff competition, especially between Columbia and Princeton, her parents' alma maters.

The Obamas are mainline Christians from a Reformed tradition of stewardship for society. Their faith informs their politics - including a firm sense that church and state should be separated for the good of each.

The Obamas were raised with the Civil Rights movement as the living chapter of the long sacred history of America, a heroic fulfillment of the long-denied promise of our nation's birth.  The Gruntleds see American history the same way. We have a triptych over our fireplace, surrounding the many family pictures: Lincoln, Martin Luther King, and above all, Jesus, in Rembrandt's rendition.

I feel a personal connection to Barack Obama that I am not likely to feel for any other president. I happily voted for him before, and again today.

Sunday, November 04, 2012

What I Like About Obama: The Joshua Generation

One of the greatest achievements of President Barack Obama is how little we talk about him now as the first black president.

Four years ago, candidate Obama was very much seen as the great hope of the Joshua generation of black leaders to complete the civil rights revolution wrought by the Moses generation of Martin Luther King and his contemporaries.  Obama himself honored his elders, and sought to carry forward the mantle honorably.

It is a huge measure of his success that now his supporters, like me, point to his solid record of practical achievements in righting the ship of state from the disaster of the previous administration, and making dozens of improvements in how government functions.  Likewise, Obama's opponents attack him for many things, but only rarely for his blackness.

To be sure, Barack Obama's election to the presidency brought the racists out of the woodwork of American politics.  And some of his most vociferous and poisonous opponents are motivated by racism, which they sometimes foreground in their attacks.
NOTE: I am not saying that all opponents of Pres. Obama are racists.  Most of just Republicans, opposing the Democrat, in the most ordinary of ways.

I think that anti-black racism is the original sin of America.  I therefore believed four years ago that in electing a black president, American had taken a giant step forward.  And in electing a hugely accomplished meritocrat, married to another hugely accomplished meritocrat, who were devoted parents, committed church members, patriotic citizens - in short, just what we usually want our First Family to be - the Obamas made it clear that there were plenty of African-Americans ready and able to take their place in the leading classes of ordinary, bourgeois America.

Barack Obama was elected as, among other things, the first black president, and that mattered a great deal.  But he will be re-elected (I believe) as just the president, and that matters more.

Friday, November 02, 2012

What I Like About Obama: His Long List of Practical Improvements

I have been wrestling with this post for some days because the list of Pres. Obama's practical achievements is so long, I have not known just which ones to lift up in a short post.  Here is one fairly current list, of many.

And the list itself is only half the story. Obama has succeeded as a practical reformer.  He is not the radical that either extreme paints him to be - and never was. 

He campaigned and government as a practical reformer. And in his first term, especially in his first two-year Congress, he had a list of achievements that only Roosevelt and Johnson can compare to in the past century. In his second two-year Congress he has continued to achieve practical good, especially in foreign affairs, despite an opposition party that is publicly committed to opposing him no matter what effect that has on the country.

Jonathan Chait makes the practical, moderate case for Obama very well.  I particularly like this summary:

"Obama can boast a record of accomplishment that bests any president since Roosevelt, and has fewer demerits on his record than any of them, including Roosevelt."

Monday, October 29, 2012

What I Like About Obama: Everyone is Better Off Than They Were Four Years Ago - Except bin Laden

The world economic system was collapsing in 2008, as the Bush administration waited to expire. They bailed out the mortgage banks, but not the mortgage holders.  They were ready to let the auto industry die, as Gov. Romney explicitly argued at the time.

The Obama administration acted quickly to save the banking system. They saved the auto industry. They stimulated the economy, as much as the intransigent Republican leaders would allow. They could have created jobs, which would have done the most to stimulate the economy, but the Republicans chose to cut jobs instead.

Four years later, the economy is steadily recovering. The auto industry is thriving. The banking industry is thriving.  Even housing is starting to come back.

Everyone benefits from this recovery.

Thanks to President Obama, GM is alive, and bin Laden is dead.

Friday, October 26, 2012

What I Like About Obama: The Long Game

There are many particular achievements of Pres. Obama that I applaud.  I will get to some of them in the next few posts.  But I want to note, first, that I believe the president has had a clear, politically realistic vision from the outset, which he has been amazingly successful at achieving.

I believe the big goal that Barack Obama set for himself from the beginning of his campaign for president was to finally, finally, achieve universal health insurance.  This has been the dream of the whole middle and left of the political spectrum since the New Deal.  Many presidents, Republicans and Democrats, have failed in this great attempt, sunk by insurance and drug companies.  The Clinton administration, under what should have been ideal conditions, failed spectacularly.

When Obama set out on this great quest for universal health insurance, he knew it would take all of his political capital. He knew he would have to make big compromises, in his own party as much as with the opposition. And on top of the huge task passing universal health insurance, he had to save the entire economy.

The biggest constraint the Pres. Obama administration faced was that they only had two years to do nearly every important thing on their agenda.  When Democrats won big in the 2008 election it was clear to me that they would lose the lose big in the 2010 midterms.  This usually happens to the incumbent party, even in the best of times.  Add a massive recession and the most intransigent opposition since the Wilson administration, and the midterms would probably stop nearly all progress.

In fact, the Obama administration, working with Speaker Pelosi and Majority Leader Reid, managed the most successful Hundred Days since FDR. And that made possible the great push for the health care bill. Obamacare - a term that began as an insult, but will, I think, become one of the greatest terms of praise of the president - is a huge step forward.  I don't like all the compromises that had to be made to pass it, but I appreciate that it was necessary for the president to make compromises.  Barack Obama is a masterful politician - I trust his judgment about which rat parts needed to go into the sausage.

Pres. Obama knew that he had until the end of the 111th Congress to pass most of what he would be able to pass in his first term. And he did, right up to the budget compromise at the end.

Barack Obama is a great player of the long chess game of governance.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Obama: What I Don't Like

The rest of my posts from now to the election will be what I do like about Pres. Obama.

Today I want to start with what I don't like.

He didn't close Guantanamo Bay prison.

He assassinates American citizens with a thin veneer of due process.

He spies on American citizens with a slightly thicker veneer of due process.

He has not prosecuted the Wall Street barons who created the financial crises quickly enough.

He has too many Wall Street veterans in charge of economic policy.

There are also some compromises he made that I am uneasy with, though they may have been necessary to get the deal done.  This is especially true for the health care bill and the budget compromise.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Re-Elect President Obama

I think Barack Obama has been a very good president.  I enthusiastically support his re-election.

Each day until the election I will give a reason why I support President Obama. 

I welcome your comments.

Monday, October 22, 2012

An Appreciation of George McGovern

The first election I paid attention to was the 1972 Nixon-McGovern debacle.  I don't think Sen. McGovern could have beaten Pres. Nixon even if he had run an excellent campaign.  Turns out, though, that Nixon would eventually do it for him.

I give Sen. McGovern full credit, though, for opposing the Vietnam War. That war was wrong in so many ways, and as it headed toward its third decade, it needed killing.  Having the standard bearer a major party - the historic war party - oppose that war help speed its end.

McGovern stood for good causes all of his public life, in office and out. He did not cash in in retirement; in fact, he didn't really even retire.

By opposing the Vietnam War, though, the Democratic Party did acquire a reputation for softness.  This was mostly undeserved, but not wholly.

It is fitting, therefore, that the end of George McGovern's honorable life should come during the term of a Democratic president who is clearly not soft.  An era has ended; another has begun.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Interests of Romney and Obama Followers

A fascinating graphic from iProspect about the election compares the Facebook followers of Gov. Romney and Pres. Obama.  This suggests, in tantalizing outline, a social portrait of the two groups.

Gov. Romney has 1.5 million followers on Facebook.  Pres. Obama has 20.9 million.

The top activities listed by Gov. Romney's followers:
  • Basketball
  • Guns
  • Gardening
  • Football
  • Church
  • Quilting
The top activities listed by Pres. Obama's followers:
  • Camping
  • Meditation
  • Stand-up Comedy
  • Power Walking 
  • Playing Computer Games
  • Jigsaw Puzzles
I wish they broke this down by the standard sociological categories of race, class, and gender, as well as age, but it does create a picture in the mind of the different "ideal type" voters for each candidate.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

The European Union's Well-Deserved Nobel Peace Prize

The European Union was the surprise winner of the Nobel Peace Prize this week.  Yet, as I pondered this choice, I chided myself for not having thought of it before.  The Long Peace of Europe since the Second World War is so much a part of our taken-for-granted world that we have already forgotten what an achievement that peace is. 

The massive decline in violence in the world in the past two generations is due primarily to the strong system of inter-connected and law-abiding states. And the core of the system of peaceful states is a stable Europe and a stable North America.

Good job, Nobel committee.  The prize is long overdue.  I hope it helps the EU overcome its current financial difficulties.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Creating, Versus Consuming, Love on the Internet Dating Market

I am working through the new book of that fine sociologist, Arlie Hochschild. In The Outsourced Self: Intimate Life in Market Times she looks at the many ways we have turned to the market for aspects of personal life that we used to rely on "the village" for.

In the chapter on internet dating that opens the book, she makes this helpful observation: internet dating clients had such trouble finding a mate because "they were preparing to be consumers, not creators, of love."

One fruitful insight of our "Happy Society" class is that the simple act of performing acts of kindness for others makes one feel happier.  And we notice that our friends, seeing our example, are more likely to do the same.

I find that students have another, even more unexpected insight.  They have clear feelings about whether society is happy and kind, or unhappy and cold.  But until doing this class exercise, they had just never thought about themselves as the creators of the moral tone of society.

Creating love, like creating kindness, is hard and risky.  But it is also empowering.  And, of course, good.

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Protestants Fall to Less Than Half: Nones Rise to a Fifth

The Pew Research Center has released a new report, The Rise of the Nones, on the changing shape of American religion.

Protestants are down by 5% to 48% total.

Religiously unaffiliated (nones) are up 5% to 20%.

Catholics are down 1% to 22%

Other religions are up 2% to 6%.

The main thing that seems to have happened is that lightly affiliated Protestants of five years ago now no longer call themselves religious at all.

Sunday, October 07, 2012

Marriage is the "Group Selection" on a Molecular Scale

Evolutionary thought usually focuses on individuals being selected for, and thus passing on individually valuable traits.  The idea that groups can be selected for, thus passing on a trait of "groupishness," is usually dismissed.  Jonathan Haidt, in The Righteous Mind, makes a case for group selection. It is precisely groupishness that gives humans an advantage as a species, and more social groups of humans their advantage, in the long run, over anti-social aggregations of people.

We see the same group advantage at the molecular level of society: families.  Couples who successfully marry and raise children together have well-documented advantages in their own lives.  Their children, likewise, benefit in many ways.  The gap between the social class that marries and the class that does not is growing.

What this says to me is that successful marriage is an instance of group selection in an evolutionary sense. Lineages that produce more successful marriages get selected for, generation after generation.  These benefits accrue quickly, too.  It does not take the tens of thousands of years that random physical mutations do to become part of the dominant fraction of the species.  People choose who they marry, and who they have children with, much more than other species do.  Thus, those selecting for long marriages can do so deliberately and with pretty good information.  And pass their advantage on in human-scaled time to their descendents.

Friday, October 05, 2012

If We Really Want to Reduce the Abortion Rate, We Should Provide Reliable Contraception for Free

An exciting study from Washington University School of Medicine provided reliable birth control - intrauterine devices and hormone implants - for free to 9000 women, aged 14 - 45 for three years. The researchers tracked the effects on their abortion rate, and also on their teen pregnancy rate.

Nationally, women in this age range have about 19.6 abortions per 1000 - a huge number.

The women in this study: 4.4 to 7.5 abortions per 1000.  That is a huge improvement.

Moreover, teen girls (15 - 19) have a staggering 34.4 births per 1000 every year.

The girls in this study: 6.3 per 1000 annually.

Moreover, IUDs and hormone implants such as Norplant are cheaper than birth control pills.  They are also more reliable, since many women, especially the poorer and younger ones, don't usually take the pill every day - a problem that is solved by implanted methods. 

The implants, though, have a higher up-front cost, which tends to put off those same younger and poorer women from using them.  This is why providing them free was a crucial element of this study.

As someone who would like to dramatically reduce the abortion and teen pregnancy rates, I find this study to be very good news.

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Thrift Was a Greater Virtue When We Were a More Modest People

David Brooks gave an excellent lecture at Centre College last night on how our politics today reflects a change in our culture.

During World War II, he argued, we placed more value on modesty, self-control, and limiting our self-assertion.  The cultural revolution since then produced many good things, especially in overcoming the oppression and self-suppression of African-Americans and women.

But some things have been lost, which has contributed to the polarization and mistrust of the current moment.

This talk led me to make a connection that I had not seen before.  People who are personally modest are more likely to be thrifty.  If it seems wrong to spend lavishly on yourself, you are less likely to go into debt for things.  If you think that your present comfort and status are not more worthy than your children's and their children's, you are more likely to save.

Thrift is not only a good personal virtue and family virtue. Thrift is a humble virtue.

Friday, September 28, 2012

The Privileged Have a Greater Duty to Initiate Positive Reciprocity

Jonathan Haidt, in The Happiness Hypothesis, says that reciprocity is the currency of society. Giving and getting help bind our group together. Some of this reciprocity comes in direct tit-for-tat,  contract-like exchanges.  More comes from longer term gift exchanges - I give a gift to you or the group now, you give a gift to me or the group later. 

Economists and others who emphasize self-interested choices as the measure of rational action note that it is hard to explain why anyone would initiate a cycle of reciprocal trust and gift giving - even though all can see the benefits of being in such a social group.

As part of our "Happy Society" class, I assigned students to perform random acts of kindness for other people each day for a time, recording and reflecting on the results.  All students found the assignment interesting and nearly all reported that it increased their happiness (as happiness research predicts).

I have been thinking about a hidden element of this assignment: it was easy for my students, and me, to initiate a beneficial cycle of gift giving because we are privileged relative to nearly everyone else we interact with. 

This leads me to a general insight: the privileged risk less by giving the gift of trust and service.  Therefore, it is more incumbent on the privileged to take that risk and start the virtuous cycle of reciprocity.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Which Candidate Do Small Business Owners Think Would Be Better?

What do actual job creators (not just rich people) think about the presidential candidates?

George Washington University and survey small business owners and entrepreneurs, who create 2/3rds of new jobs in the average year.  They were asked which candidate is most supportive of small business.  The results:

39% President Obama
31% Governor Romney
28% Not sure

This result is particularly interesting, since small business owners have traditionally been one of the most conservative and Republican constituencies.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Moving Out of a Poor Neighborhood Makes You Happier Like a $13,000 Raise

In the 1990s a major experiment was done to improve the lives of some of the poorest city people.  They were given subsidies to move out of the slums of concentrated poverty into neighborhoods that were a little better off and better mixed economically.  The policy makers hoped that the people who moved would get more education and better jobs.

They didn't.

What they did get, though, was much happier.  Moving their families to safer, less stressful neighborhoods increased their happiness the equivalent of a $13,000 raise.

A parallel experiment that moved poor non-white people into equally poor white neighborhoods had no such positive effect.

This report does not tell what happened to the children of these relocated families.  My guess is that they grew up safer, with better chances, and happier.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Baby Boom Among Women Ph.D.s

A decade ago, one third of women Ph.D.s past 40 were childless.

Today that fraction has dropped to a quarter.

(Thank you Pew Center for another nifty study.)

In my own little faculty at Centre College, six female colleagues have had babies in the past three years.  One was born yesterday.  Her birth announcement was the first I had seen with a full account of the classical derivation of her name, with footnotes and web links.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Why Religious Belongers Are Happier

I am teaching a Sunday School class on "Happiness and Faith."  Reviewing the research on this subject, I have come to this partial insight.

Happiness comes more from the process of doing something worthwhile with other people we care about than it does from any specific outcome of that process.  This is a common finding of happiness research.

Religious people are, on the whole, happier, than non-religious people.  This is also a standard finding of happiness research.

Happiness correlates more with religious belonging than with believing - that is, people who are active in religious communities report higher happiness, whereas people with strong religious beliefs who are not part of religious communities do not report higher levels of happiness.

I believe what religious institutions do that adds to happiness is to give structure and permanence to the process of doing good things together with other people.  One-off group projects are good, and an interest in civic betterment can produce such projects.  But for sheer persistence and long-term effect, nothing can compete with religious institutions for getting a group of people to work together for the common good week after week, year after year, decade after decade.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

New alumni-driven college ranking rates Centre graduates “Happiest in the Nation”

Sometimes, the world writes my blog for me.

I am a Centre College professor, teaching and writing about happiness.

This story is the lead on the Centre College website. 

The story is a based on a new form of ranking from The Alumni Factor, which uses, as the name suggests, on surveys of alumni.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Rubin's Happiness Project Enacts Aristotle's Conclusion

In my "Happy Society" class we started with Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, as most studies of happiness do.  Aristotle says happiness is the highest end of life, the only end that is not a means to some other end.  And happiness is a thing we do more than a condition we have. Happiness is an action of the soul, in accordance with virtue.

In other words, happiness is a project.

Which is why the second book we studied is Gretchen Rubin's The Happiness Project. Rubin read the wisdom and empirical literature of happiness and tried to put it into practice over the course of a year.  She, too, started with Aristotle.  She was not overtly implementing Aristotle, but the similarity in conclusions is striking.

The puzzling thing for many about Aristotle's argument is that he spend 9/10ths of the book talking about happiness coming from practical virtues, and then in the final chapter says that true happiness comes from contemplation.

Rubin, too, spends nearly all of her project on things that she did to increase her happiness - but the final chapters are about mindfulness, attitude, and reflection.  And what she concludes is that what most increased her happiness was not what she did, but what she stopped doing - namely, thinking and saying criticisms of herself and others. A cheerful and contented attitude did more to make her happy than any particular thing she did, even things she did with her children and husband, the loves of her life.

That is, the greatest fruit of Rubin's happiness project came from contemplation of the attempt to act virtuously, more than from the virtuous acts themselves.  The virtuous acts were still virtuous, and worth turning into habits, and also happy-making. And I believe that Rubin could not have fruitfully contemplated the attempt to become happy by acting in accordance with virtue if she had not, in fact, wholeheartedly done all that virtuous acting.

But the greatest happiness comes from the contemplation of the action of the soul in accordance with virtue.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Do Old Fathers and Defeated Fathers Produce Biological Problems in Their Offspring?

Judith Shulevitz has a fascinating roundup of several bad biological effects in kids that are correlated with traumas or sheer age in their fathers.

Children of traumatized fathers (shown more clearly in mice than humans) are more likely to be timid.  Stranger still, so are their grandchildren.

Children of older fathers are more likely to be autistic or schizophrenic. The increasing number of older fathers may explain the otherwise puzzling rise in autistic children.

This research is just beginning, especially on the human side.  But it is fascinating, and promises to provide some balance to the large body of evidence that older mothers risk biologically damaged children.

Friday, September 07, 2012

The Last Tea Party Election

David Brooks laments that

The country that exists is not on the right track. It has a completely dysfunctional political system. What was there in this speech [of Obama's at the Democratic Convention] that will make us think the next few years will be any different? America will only be governable again if there is a leader who breaks the mold and reframes the debate. Romney is unlikely to do that, and Obama’s speech didn’t offer much either.

I am more optimistic than David Brooks that our political system will soon recover some balance.

There are many legitimate interests in a complex society, some of which are in conflict. Working out these conflicts requires compromise.  These compromises will, of necessity, not please most people in every detail.  But most people can see that compromise is necessary. Politics requires the ability to compromise. If you are not willing to compromise, if you see compromise as weakness or treason, then you should not get involved in politics.

The main reason our political system is so dysfunctional right now is the Tea Party movement. They reject compromise on principal.  They want contradictory things - smaller government for people they disapprove of, without any reduction of government for themselves. They attack their political enemies, and they attack their political allies - that is, normal Republican politicians - even harder if they don't toe the line.

The Tea Party is a Know-Nothing movement, of a kind that periodically appears in American politics. And the history of Know-Nothing movements convinces me that they are self-limiting.  They typically last about three electoral cycles.  2012 is the third Tea Party cycle. If the Democrats win, the Tea Party will start to get disheartened with politics - their normal attitude - and return to their previous grudging support of the establishment Republicans or political quietude. If the Republicans win, the Tea Party will turn on them even greater disillusionment for not being able to deliver big government for good people, no government for bad people, and all at no cost.

And when the Tea Party is gone, the regular politicians of both parties will be able to work with one another.  They will not completely end partisan politics and some mutual obstruction.  But the Party of NO will be able to become, once again, the party of Let's Make a Deal.  And the normal, fairly functional politics of American government can resume.

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Republicans and Democrats on the Immigrant Story

Both the Republican and Democratic conventions have been full of immigrant stories, or "up-from-nothing" stories.

I have noticed, though, an important difference in what they emphasize.

The Republican versions emphasize how hard the immigrant (family, usually) worked to build up their business on their own. This is in keeping with the convention's theme, "We Built It."

The Democratic versions emphasize how hard the immigrant (family, usually) worked to succeed in this country, with the help of the public schools, college loans, GI Bill, small business loans, and now health insurance - not to mention the larger structure of honest government that did not take arbitrarily in the first place.  The "land of opportunity" has that opportunity because it is guaranteed by the people's institutions, and the entire infrastructure of opportunity to which we all contribute. This version is in keeping the less formal convention theme of equal opportunity "for all."

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

"You Didn't Build That" - On Your Own

The theme of the Republican National Convention is "We Built This."  This is a critique of an off-the-cuff remark the President Obama made:  "If you've got a business, you didn't build that." They have repeated the audio clip several times during the convention.

President Obama's phrasing is unfortunate.  If he had completed the thought - "If you've got a business, you didn't build that on your own" - this whole kerfuffle would never have arisen.  The rest of the president's statement makes clear his intent.

If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business -- you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.
 I believe this is obviously true.

In watching the convention, it is clear that both sides perceive the world differently.  One side sees the achievements of your life as almost entirely your own work.  The other side sees the mountain of work done by other people - including other people working through the government, but also much, much more - that makes my achievement possible.  The president gave a few examples, which could be multiplied almost infinitely.  And if you believe, as I and most Americans do, that God created the entire universe and still actively superintends it, then the realm of "I built this on my own" shrinks to a tiny fraction of my achievements, indeed.

The major insight that sociology brings to this problem is that privilege creates a whole ladder of unearned benefits that help us "build it."  And the greatest privilege is not realizing that you are privileged.  If you are, for example, a white man in America, from a rich, powerful family, who went to a leading prep school and the fanciest graduate school, you have a huge leg up - even if you then use that privilege to build up a successful business.

Hard work and responsibility are good things which we should honor and assist. But few indeed build anything, no matter how smart and hardworking they are, by themselves.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Merit and Privilege Among our Presidents and Candidates

George W. Bush, Andover '64, was a prep school slacker.
He is the heir to every privilege this country has to offer.
As a result, he does not admit when he is wrong.
He stuck with his decisions, even when they led to growing disaster.

Mitt Romney, Cranbrook '65, was a prep school bully.
He is the heir to just about every privilege this country has to offer, save his religion.
As a result, he does not admit when he is wrong.
He sticks with his decisions, even when they lead to growing pain for others.

Bill Clinton was the child of poverty and family disaster.
He made his way by intellectual merit and hard work through the best meritocratic institutions this country has to offer.
As a result, he readily admits when he is wrong, sometimes very embarrassingly.
He tried to reach out to those who differ from him and to compromise with them for the larger good.

Barack Obama, Punahou '79, was the child of family disorder and ethnic-identity confusion, but also of a supportive extended family.
He made his way by intellectual merit and, eventually, hard work, through the best meritocratic institutions this country has to offer.
As a result, he does not readily admit he is wrong.
He does try to reach out to those who differ from him and compromise with them for the larger good.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Capon Springs - the Pivot of My Year

My family has reunited at Capon Springs and Farms in the West Virginia mountains since the 1960s. We do this the same week in late August.  Many other families have come for years during that same week. The kids I grew up with now bring their kids.

For an academic, the end of August is the end of the year; September is when the year really begins.

Thus, for me, this week of vacation in the mountains, and in the cold, spring-fed pool, is the pivot of my whole annual cycle.

See you in the new year.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Happiness in the High-Trust Society

(Today we conclude our annual Theory Camp.  I apologize for a long entry, but I wanted to pull together my thoughts on both books, and on how they can help us think about the happy society.)

Francis Fukuyama argues in Trust that high-trust societies are generally richer than low-trust societies. This is because trust reduces transaction costs.  I think this is true.  Moreover, I think that high-trust societies are happier societies.  This is not only because they are richer, but because trust itself is a happy-making public good.

Adam Seligman, in The Problem of Trust, argues that Fukuyama does not really mean “trust,” but rather “confidence.”  Trust, he contends, is what an individual can extend to another individual on insufficient evidence.  By contrast, in a well-functioning social system we can have sufficient evidence to be confident that it will function well in our case, too.

I can accept revising Fukuyama to say that high-confidence societies are richer and happier.  At least, I can accept saying that this is a viable alternative expression. As a practical matter, I think Fukuyama is right that we should still refer to “high-trust” societies.  But Seligman’s main point – social trust rests on confidence in social systems – is correct and powerful.

There remains, though, the question of whether Fukuyama’s society needs trust in the sense that Seligman means.  Seligman believes that there is a realm beyond the limits of social structures, beyond where we can have confidence or even where we can make educated guesses about people based on familiarity. Here agentic individuals, in the full measure of their freedom, may meet other agentic individuals.  Neither have enough structures or cultural clues to be confident.  Here, the individual must make a leap of faith to trust, or a protective calculation to mistrust.

Is Seligman right?  My gut reaction is “no.”  I think human beings are so deeply cultured that we will read any presentation of self as providing some familiar clues about how the other will act. We could be wrong, of course, in reading those supposed clues. But we could be just as wrong in more familiar situations (such as Seligman’s man on the subway who looks like he played stickball). But I think it takes an ideological commitment to the complete otherness of the other to read another person as being completely unfamiliar.  The main ideological commitment to the complete otherness of the other that I can think of is racism, but there could be more.

Seligman defines trust as a rare event occurring at the limits of social structure.  And he argues that the differentiation of the self has gone so far today that our remaining “selves” are too removed from social roles to be true selves in any socially meaningful way.  Therefore, civilization will collapse and we all die.  Or something like that.  He is a little vague about actual consequences.

If, however, there are not really many cases of people beyond institutional confidence and social familiarity, then Seligman’s project may not apply to reality.  And if there are not really many cases of people so removed from their abundance of social roles that they have no true selves, then Seligman’s worry may not apply to reality, either.

Fukuyama, on the other hand, is clearly on to something real when he says that high-trust societies yield a valuable economic benefit from their institutions of trust, compared to low-trust societies.

In thinking about what all this has to do with the happy society, therefore, I think Fukuyama has the more fruitful empirical approach.  However, I do find one part of Seligman’s argument to be helpful for the happy society.  If what Fukuyama calls trust is best thought of as confidence in the social system, then I see a line of action we can take to make society happier: promote confidence in the social system.  Or more exactly, show the ways in which many social systems (the sub-systems of society as a whole) are working well and getting better. Show that confidence in social systems is well-placed.  Show, further, that developing the habit of confiding in social systems promotes the better functioning of those systems, and encourages others to be more confident, as well. 

One finding of happiness research is that happy people tend to see bad events as temporary and unusual, and good events as permanent and common.  Unhappy people tend to see the same events in the opposite way.  Everyone has some bad experiences with social systems.  However, happy people are likely to remain confident in the basic good order of the system, and attribute that particular bad experience to temporary, non-systemic qualities. Unhappy people, by contrast, are likely to blame the whole system any time they have a bad experience.

If most people are confident in their social systems, the society will be happier; if the society is happier, most people will be confident in their social systems. 

This suggests two lines of action to make society happier.  First, fix any actual problems in social systems.  Second, persuade the persuadable to re-interpret their bad experiences, or (more likely) what they have heard about other people’s bad experiences. Some people are, of course, determined to be unhappy. This will be true in the happiest society.  But there is a middle group who can be moved, by example, emotion, and reason, to read the social systems in a positive, confidence-building way.

To persuade people that the bad experiences they have had, or, more likely, just heard about, are unusual, it may be helpful to show that “the news is a freak show.”  That is, the news is designed to present the unusual, and has a bias toward the unusually bad rather than the unusually good.  This is not a flaw in the news.  The unusually bad can be fixed.  We know this is true, in the main, because the bad thing is unusual. The usual practice is better.  So if we can fix or prevent this deviant case, the usual working of the system is good. In any case, even if the bad case can’t be fixed, it is helpful to remember that the case is presented on the news because it is unusual.

Yet many people – most people, I expect – treat the news as a picture of what is normal and usual, because that is all they normally hear and see about that kind of social system. This is not a flaw in the news.  This is a flaw in the audience for news. The main audience for news falls victim to bad stereotyping.  The cure is not to do away with stereotyping – in this case, doing away with the news.  The cure is to teach the audience the difference between the rule, which is not reported, and the exception, which is.  This is why sophisticated people usually have a deeper grasp of what is going on. Not only do they know the latest news, they also know the larger context of the normal that does not make the news.

So, we can promote the happy society by teaching people that they have good reason to be confident in the social system.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Seligman's "Trust" is Only in the Social Gaps

(Continuing the discussion of Adam Seligman's The Problem of Trust from our annual Theory Camp.)

Seligman's most distinctive idea is that trust is rarely needed.  Most of the theorists he is arguing with, especially Francis Fukuyama and Anthony Giddens, treat trust as a common and necessary feature of modern societies.  They think that modern people have to trust that millions of faceless strangers have done their jobs correctly in making our food, building our buildings, driving cars in the opposite lane, and so forth.  But Seligman says that that should not be called trust in other people, but confidence in the social system.

Trust, Seligman thinks, is needed when we confront other people beyond any reliable role in the social system, and beyond any signs of familiarity that they give off that they are people we can predict. Trust in other people is like the faith that people had in God in premodern times before, as he claims, we all became atheists.

Having defined trust as beyond social roles and beyond experienced familiarity, he then draws his grim conclusions.  Our roles are becoming so differentiated that we can't connect any of them to a real self - neither in ourselves nor in others. The globalized world brings us into contact with so many people with different experiences than our own that we cannot assume familiarity. We are forced to trust, or led to mistrust, in more and more encounters.  We are in danger, he thinks, of "re-enchanting" the world.  But the new world would not be enchanted by God, but something "more brutal and more Hobbesian."

[I disagree with Seligman's conclusion, a matter I will take up in the next post.]

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Trust in Civil Society vs. Civic Virtue

In Theory Camp this year we are working through books on trust.  This week we are considering Adam Seligman's The Problem of Trust.

Seligman contrasts the "civil society" version of how citizenship works with the "civic virtue" approach. The former is more congenial to Americans and other English-speaking theorists, while the latter is found more among continental European thinkers.

The civil society approach, since Adam Smith, has seen society as an association of individuals pursuing different ends, within a social order that has enough even-handed institutions to help them live together fairly and pursue their ends without stepping on each other too much.  Tocqueville's great insight was that these free individuals realize that their self interest can be best served if they create civic associations to address many problems of social order.  These associations work for the common good.  Seligman sees that these associations working for the common good engender trust.  I see that, beyond trust, they contribute to the happy society.

The civic virtue approach sees the whole society as having an end toward which it is working, not just the ends of the many different individuals in it.  This is an appealing, Durkheimian vision of a society unified in one collective conscience and one collective consciousness. In the tiny hunting and gathering bands that Durkheim used as his examples of the elementary forms of social life, this degree of unity seems possible.

In modern societies, though, which are huge and highly differentiated, the idea that there is one collective conscience and consciousness is harder to see.  Durkheim offered an ingenious solution, through the collective cult of the sacred individual.  Seligman, though, doesn't think it can really happen. He argues that we cannot know that we share a social conscience with others, nor even, have confidence that our shared social institutions make others predictable.  There, and there only, in the place beyond the limits of the collective sacred or the social institution, is the realm where trust is needed.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Trust - Masculine and Feminine Evaluations

In Theory Camp this year we are reading about trust.  Specifically, we are starting with Francis Fukuyama's Trust: The Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity.

One of the men in the group remarked that trust seemed like such an emotional idea, and therefore not something one could reason about.  However, when we understood Tocqueville's argument (transmitted, in this case, by Fukuyama) that our self-interest is best served by serving our community and building a trusting society, then trust was rescued from irrationality. Trust, on this view, is not self-justifying; however, if trust is a means to a material end, then it is shown to be secretly rational.

For the women in the group, the value of trust did not have to be demonstrated.  They started from the view that trust is a good thing, and an obvious goal of a happy society.

I think these two approaches to social trust - justified as a means to self-interested ends, vs. a social good in itself - are characteristically masculine and feminine responses to the value of trust.

Monday, August 06, 2012

Turkey 6: Atatürk

Kemal Mustafa was given the name Atatürk, "Father of the Turks", by a grateful nation. He is not just the father of modern Turkey, he is the object of an ongoing national cult.  His mausoleum, erected on the most visible hill in the capital, is a massive pilgrimage site for Turks, and an obligatory stop for foreign dignitaries. Since Muslims must be buried in the earth, his body is not in this tomb cover, but sixty feet below it.

The ceiling of the great, open-air hall is a mosaic in the form of a Turkish kilim rug.

Directly above Atatürk's tomb marker is another mosaic, in the form of a Turkish carpet.
The exterior faces a large ceremonial plaza. We went to many ruins of Greek temples in Turkey. At Atatürk's tomb, I got a sense of what it would have been like to see a civic temple in its prime.

Friday, August 03, 2012

Turkey 5: Muslim Nation, Secular State

Turkey has a secular state.  Indeed, through much of its history, Turkey has had an aggressively secular state. With an Islamist party in power, the state is more accommodating of religion.  On the other hand, the Turkish nation is very Muslim.  The call to prayer sounds in every city.  We were in Konya, perhaps the most important Muslim site in Turkey, when Ramadan began, and the town came alive when the fast was broken.  One rich symbol of the pervasiveness of Islamic culture in Turkey was this sticker.  In hotel drawers you will not find a Bible, provided by the Gideons.  You will, though, find a kible, marking the direction to Mecca.

Thursday, August 02, 2012

Turkey 4: Coffee

The Turks gave coffee to Europe. Turkish coffee is made by pouring very hot water directly on to finely ground beans in these small cups. It is bitter and strong, but surprisingly addictive.  They normally ask how much sugar you want in it. It is available everywhere. In the non-tourist places I had it, the consumers were overwhelmingly men.

This is the leading Turkish coffee chain that offers Starbucks-like coffee drinks, heavy on milk and sweeteners. Not surprisingly, I only saw them in tourist and international business districts.

Ataturk drinking coffee (inside a Kahve Dunyasi store).

Monday, July 30, 2012

Turkey 3: Hittites

I spent two weeks in Turkey with the Brown Fellows, Centre College scholarship students.

The Hittites were a Bronze Age people who flourished in Anatolia (the heart of modern Turkey) in the centuries around 1500 BCE. The modern Turkish state has embraced the Hittites to a surprising degree. This headpiece, featuring the Hittite bull god, was adopted by the city of Ankara as its symbol.  A large sculpture of this piece stands in the middle of town.

The Museum of Anatolian Civilizations in Ankara, sometimes called the Hittite Museum, has the best collection of Hittite artifacts in the world. The museum was created early in Ataturk's reign. It helps foster the idea that Anatolia has had many civilizations, including important non-Christian and non-Muslim ones like the Hittites.  All of these civilizations are honored by modern Turkey - and none define it. This uncaptioned picture of Ataturk inspecting the collection is posted amidst the exhibits.

Ataturk's image and signature, which are everywhere in Turkey, hang from a banner in the Hittite Museum, above the treasures from King Midas' tomb. The civil religion of modern Turkey embraces the Hittites as part of the useable history of the many civilizations that have existed in Anatolia.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Turkey 2: Three Interesting Things About the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque

I spent two weeks in Turkey with the Brown Fellows, Centre College scholarship students.
The Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya) was built as a church, which is why the center window faces Jerusalem. When it was converted to a mosque, the mihrab (the gold niche, above) was made a little off-center, to point to Mecca. The secular Ataturk government converted the building to a museum.

The Sultan Ahmed, or Blue, Mosque, is the greatest Islamic landmark of Istanbul. The current prime minister heads an Islamic party, but the state is resolutely secular. How does the prime minister associate himself with this great Islamic site without implicating the government?  By personally giving the mosque a model of Medina.

The Hagia Sophia and the Sultan Ahmed Mosque are neighbors, sharing a plaza. The trinket sellers in the plaza, wanting to serve all markets, offer Koran verses, Christian icons, and evil eyes. On the same sales rack.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Turkey 1: Istiklal Avenue

I spent two weeks in Turkey with the Brown Fellows, Centre College scholarship students.

Istiklal Avenue is the main shopping street of the European side of Istanbul.  I will start my reflections on Turkey with a few light scenes from the street, suitable for a Saturday post.
Taksim Square, at the head of the street, is the main staging area for protests.  This one was against cheating on the university placement examinations on behalf of members of the ruling party.  Protests are so common here that riot police are permanently stationed on the square.

English is the second language of Turkey, especially in commercial areas. While American culture was not evident everywhere, I was impressed that the NBA was such a world brand that it could be displayed without any further explanation.

And the first item? A pet food ad that loses a little in translation to English. :-)

Monday, July 09, 2012

Marriage and Children Make People Happier Than Work Does

"Marriage and Children Make People Less Happy at Work."  So reads the headline reporting a new study of 10,000 Britons by Kingston University Business School.

The main finding is that when people get married or have kids, they are less happy with their jobs.  This is especially true of women.

Or in other words, getting married and having kids makes people happy, especially women. This tends to make other aspects of life, including work, pale by comparison.

I am not surprised that a business school puts the work effect first.  But I think most people put the family effect first.

Sunday, July 08, 2012

Cohabitation Makes It Hard to Break Up, Even When You Should

Scott Stanley, one of the great scholars of marriage vs. cohabitation, reports, as other have, that people who cohabit before marriage are about one-and-a-half times more likely to divorce than are people who do not cohabit before marriage.

At the recent Schreyer Seminar he offered this account of why: cohabitors are more likely to marry someone they would not otherwise marry just because they are already living together.  At a certain point, it becomes easier to marry than to break up.

Thursday, July 05, 2012

Marry at 25

The median age of marriage in the USA is older than as it ever has been - 26+ for women, 28+ for men.  But the age of coupling - including cohabitation with children - seems to be about the same as it has always been - when you are done school and beginning adult life.  When that is varies by class - about 19 or 20 for the less educated majority, and about 23 or 24 for the more educated minority.

Young people seem to be putting off marriage because they think that they need to be fully ready for adult life first.  I think this is an impossible ideal.  Moreover, it shows a misunderstanding of one of the foundations of a strong marriage: our commitment to each other, and to the institution of marriage, helps us become adults together.

At the same time, research on marital satisfaction shows that the happiest marriages tend to come from couples who marry in their mid-20s.  And this is also the age that most young people and most parents of young people regard as the most desirable age for marriage. 

Life leads to many compromises with our abstract ideals, of course, and most of the time these compromises work out.

Nonetheless, I am led to a radical idea for a social norm: plan to marry at 25 (give or take a year). This allows most people to make a good start at adult life, without setting an impossibly high ideal for being "ready."

Your mileage may vary, of course.  But I believe that planning to marry at 25 would be a good norm for most people to plan around.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Justice Roberts' Decision in the Health Care Case is a Triumph for Centrism

Chief Justice John Roberts agreed with the conservatives that the Commerce Clause and the Necessary and Proper Clause are not a sufficient foundation for the individual mandate in the universal healthcare law.  He agreed with the liberals, though, that the mandate could stand, because it is not really a mandate but an exercise of Congress' taxing power.

Some see this as an incoherent position, or some kind of sellout.  I disagree.  I think the Chief Justice has forged an important centrist position. 

In fact, I think he may be finding his way to be the leader of the middle of the court, so that the Supreme Court is more than just a battle of left vs. right.  He has said that he wants to see - to create - more unanimous decisions, and fewer of the horrible 5-4 slugfests that we have seen in recent years.  I wish him very well in that quest.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Hymowitz is Right About Young Adults Not Understanding What Marriage Does - But Did They Ever?

Kay Hymowitz' new book, Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Has Turned Men Into Boys, argues that young men and women are delaying marriage so much these days because they see it as something you do when you are already an adult. Now, young people who plan ahead try to get all their education done and their careers started before they marry and have children. For many women, this means they wait too long for kids.  Men do not have the same timeline, so the mismatch between the sexes creates the problem Hymowitz is writing about. There is, she argues, no certain script for adulthood, which leaves "emergent adults" emerging (or floundering) for a long time.

I think this is true - which raises an important question about the past.

Prior generations found marriage to be a formative institution of maturity.  You got married, then you figured out together how to be adults, especially when the first child came along. The script of adulthood often began with early marriage, with or without pregnancy, with growing maturity to follow.

The question I put to her at a recent seminar was this: did past generations understand marriage to be something that forms you into an adult, or did they just get married as part of the script, and then find out how formative marriage is through experience?

Hymowitz didn't know, and neither do I.  I put this question to you, blog friends, for your thoughts.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Blankenhorn Evolves to a Centrist Position on Same-Sex Marriage

David Blankenhorn, the head of the Institute for American Values, is an important advocate for marriage and for responsible fatherhood.  Recently he has become a noted opponent of same-sex marriage, especially during the Proposition 8 debate in California.

This week he changed his position, coming out in support of same-sex marriage. He has not changed his views that, on the whole, children do best when raised by their married natural parents. But he now says that "the equal dignity of homosexual love" is also an important social principle. The children raised by same-sex couples would be better off if their parents were married, and therefore social policy should be changed to make it possible for same-sex parents to marry.

I believe Blankenhorn's evolution to a centrist position on same-sex marriage is commendable.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Slaughter is Mostly Wrong About Women Having it All

Anne-Marie Slaughter's cover story in the current Atlantic Monthly is an argument that even ideal conditions for a woman "having it all" aren't enough.  I found it a very frustrating article.

Slaughter was a tenured dean at Princeton, married to another tenured Princeton professor who was a very involved father, with a full-time housekeeper to help care for their home and two adolescent children.  She got her dream job in the Obama administration. But after two years she decided to leave that job and go back to Princeton to spend more time with her family.

The way she put the choice to herself was to ask whether she was indispensable to her job or indispensable to her children.  Put that way, the choice seemed obvious.  She went home.

She was asked in an interview if the answer to that question isn't obvious for everyone? She dodged the question.  Yet, if those are the choices, the answer is obvious to every parent.  By that standard, no parents, fathers or mothers, would ever go to work.

My wife is a highly educated attorney with an important career.  When we speak as a couple to my "Family Life" class on this exact subject - Can women have it all? - the answer she gives is "yes, but not all at once." You can marry and have your kids and even start a career when you are young.  As your kids get more self-sufficient, you can devote more time and effort to your career, and really hit your stride in late middle life.  For healthy middle class people these days, life is long enough for most women to do all of these things.

Slaughter says that for older women that might be fine, but that these days marrying young and having kids early has "fallen out of fashion." (She is the same age as Mrs. G. and me.)

She says that women today need to fully start their careers, and then pause to marry and have kids in their late 30s or early 40s.  They can pick up their careers a decade later and head to a peak a decade after that. She also wants a woman president, 50 women senators, and equal representation of women in corporate and judicial leadership, who will remake work and social life so women like her can have it all.

This plan strikes me as unrealistic. It would require massive social engineering, not to mention rewriting biology. 

I am also stuck on her dismissal of the "having it all, but not at once" plan as "out of fashion." The best researcher in how highly educated women can have it all, Sylvia Ann Hewlett, concluded from her empirical studies that this is the most likely plan to work in the world that actually exists.  In fact, Slaughter reveals in the interview, though not the article, she herself first married in her early twenties to a fellow professional. She then divorced and married again at 35, and only then had children. So her social engineering looks more like special pleading for her own case than a necessity for all elite women.  And there is still that pesky biological clock to work with.

There are some elements of Slaughter's article that I think are very good, especially her critique of the "cult of face-time" in office work.

But on her main points I found her argument wrong-headed and ungrateful for her fantastic opportunities.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Fatherhood Makes Sociologists More Successful

The headline news of a study of women sociologists is that having children does not interfere with having a successful career at a research university.

What struck me about the study by Roberta Spalter-Roth and Nicole Van Vooren, though, is the even larger difference that having kids made to the careers of men.

The study divided these sociology Ph.D.s, measured a decade after getting their degree, into "ideal" careers as tenured professors at research universities, "alternative" careers as tenured professors at teaching colleges, or "marginal" careers as adjunct teachers and the like.

For the fathers, 80% were in either ideal or alternative positions, with only 20% getting by marginally.

For childless men, 41% were in marginal careers.

I see this is further evidence that marriage and fatherhood transforms men from the least productive to the most productive workers.