Wednesday, February 29, 2012

There Romney Goes Again

Via David Kurtz, Romney is once again on the defensive over what you would think would be a non-issue.
About an hour ago, a reporter for a cable-only TV news station in Ohio tweeted that Mitt Romney has told him in a yet-to-air interview that he opposed the Blunt amendment, which would allow employers to refuse to provide health insurance policies that cover contraception and other matters of conscience. Opposition to the Blunt amendment by Romney would mark a sharp break from the current orthodoxy of national Republicans, but it’s not entirely clear yet what Romney said.... [T]he campaign is saying Romney in fact supports the Blunt amendment.
Now it may be true that the tape will show that Romney is consistent in his support for the Blunt amendment, but this story has traction because nobody knows when Romney is sincere - when he's telling the truth, when he's flip-flopping, or when he's outright lying. Well, maybe Romney knows, but sometimes I'm not so certain even of that.

The other interesting aspect, though, is how Romney has hurt his credibility by claiming to pass every Republican litmus test, no matter that he is on the record at one point or another taking something close to an opposite stance on pretty much every litmus test issue. Romney seems to buy into the theory that he can run to the right in the primary, then pull back to a more centrist stance in the general election. I think that was more true in the past, before the ease of videotaping and the rapid online distribution of video clips highlighting contradictions, but I'll agree that at some level it's not an unreasonable assumption. People who vote in primaries tend to be more polemic than those who do not, but you need the larger population of voters to support you once you're nominated.

But here's Romney's miscalculation: Running to the right has not helped him, because the people in the "Can't we find anybody but Romney" camp don't trust him. There are few voters outside of the social conservative camp that is currently hoping for a Santorum victory who will care that Romney supports the Blunt amendment, but there are plenty of moderate Republicans and Republican-leaning independents who support insurance coverage for birth control, or who get their birth control through employer-sponsored health insurance. Romney's position certainly can't help him with moderate female voters - would you trust him to do anything to protect women's rights?

Had Romney run as an honest politician, one who ran a center-right campaign with a moderate tone on social conservatism, would his present position be materially different? Even if we assume that his flip-flops on socially conservative issues, the ones that coincidentally lead to Romney's near-perfect alignment with the latest opinion polls of likely primary voters, he has demonstrated that perception is more important than reality. The religious right believes he's a moderate Republican who is possibly somewhat progressive on social issues. Republican-leaning independents and conservative Democrats hope that he's a moderate Republican who is possibly somewhat progressive on social issues. But pretty much everybody thinks he's lying.

By running as the person everybody hopes or believes him to be, he might not only have avoided looking like a mendacious demagogue, he might have worn out the opposition - once the first few woefully inadequate opponents had their day in the sun and it was clear that Romney was going to defeat them despite his admittedly socially moderate views, I suspect that it would have taken the wind out of the anti-Romney movement. But even if I'm wrong, it's difficult for me to see how he would be harmed by professing positions on the issues that key voter blocks believe he holds and being viewed as principled, as opposed to taking positions that both alienate the center and make him look habitually dishonest.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Sugar, Food and the Nanny State

That seems to be the gist of this argument in support of regulating sugar:
When Ronda Storms, a Republican state senator in Florida, is accused of nanny-state-ism for her efforts on behalf of a sane diet, it’s worth noting. When she introduced a bill to prevent people in Florida from spending food stamps on unhealthy items like candy, chips and soda, she broke ranks: few of her party have taken on Big Food....

To some, dictating what recipients of benefits through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program can eat seems unfair. But when the program began in 1939 it aimed both to feed the unemployed and to aid farm recovery. Participants received $1.50 in stamps for every cash dollar spent, 50 cents of which was designated for purchase of agricultural surplus. That’s already a directive on spending, but perhaps more important is that nearly three-quarters of a century ago almost the only thing you could buy — with or without regulation — was real food. Since then Big Food has moved our diet in the wrong direction, and now we have a surplus of empty calories.

The argument for limiting the use of food stamps to actual food is consistent with established policy. They’re already disallowed for tobacco, alcohol,vitamins, pet foods, household supplies and (with some exceptions) food meant to be eaten on premises. Payments have been based on the cost of a “nutritionally adequate diet.”
First, most products include sugar. How do you create a meaningful regulation? Sugar is okay as long as the food isn't "too sweet" by some arbitrary measure? Raisins are okay, but not chocolate-covered raisins - even if the chocolate is less sweet than the raisins? No "craisins" or other dried fruits that have sugar added? What about sugar substitutes, some of which may be no more healthy than sugar and some of which may pose other health consequences? Also, if we're trying to ban "unhealthy foods", aren't we opening the door to a non-fallacious slippery slope argument: what about foods that are too fatty? What about foods that contain tropical oils? Salt? Nitrates?

The author cites a study that is particularly critical of fructose:
The authors specifically target “any sweetener containing the molecule fructose (which makes sugar sweet) that is added to food in processing” as the key problem in our current diet, and correlate the rise in consumption of sugar with a rise in disease, listing the many ways in which sugar’s effects on the body are similar to those of alcohol.
The authors also distinguish naturally occurring fructose from the addition of processed fructose to food products - a distinction that appears t be supported by science but again complicates the issue of regulation. You can't buy product X because it's sweetened with high fructose corn syrup, but you can buy product Y because it's sweetened with white grape juice?

Also, isn't it a bit simplistic to say that fructose "makes sugar sweet" when we also sweeten with glucose (high fructose corn syrup is about 55% fructose and about 42% glucose) or sucrose (in which the fructose is bound to glucose at a molecular level, rather than being free)? If the problem is an excess of fructose, and fructose is markedly worse for the health than other sugars, why not work on reducing the food industry's reliance on high fructose corn syrup instead of targeting sugars that are, well, less unhealthy?

Fundamentally, though, I think the idea of trying to regulate poor people in this fashion is ill-considered. It's fairly described as nanny-statism becuase tht's exactly what it is. If I had my druthers, although an initial lump sum would be included on a newly issued card, we would charge EBT cards by an equal increment each day (so nobody could completely run out of food money for more than a day) but otherwise let individual recipients decide how to use that money. I don't see much point to creating a context in which some recipients trade their EBT card for a cash payment of half of its value, or buy groceries that they intend to trade for what they really want. Let people make mistakes, let people learn from those mistakes. (I would extend this to other aid for which the recipient doesn't want bills to be vendored - if you want a cash allotment to pay your heating bill and you choose to spend it on something else, you should face the consequences of that choice and can subsequently either manage the money properly, have the bill vendored, or again deal with the consequences of a possible shutoff when you don't pay your bill).

I find it interesting that the author makes no argument that sugar poses a special or unique risk to the poor, or that the poor eat a disproportionate number of desserts or candy bars as compared to other groups. Just that poor people don't need sweet foods and we should feel free to try to regulate the poor into eating healthier diets. We also overestimate the effects of the interference - money is fungible, after all, and if you provide two sources of cash aid, one with strings and one without, you don't stop somebody from purchasing cigarettes or alcohol even as you pat yourself on the back for not letting them buy it with their EBT money. There are better ways to approach this issue, and ways that should be far more effective than trying to impede the poor from buying sweetened foods. I know the poor are easy targets, easily vilified, easily treated as some form of the "undeserving other", but you would think that present times would teach us that we "responsible folk" aren't necessarily as far removed from being on food assistance as we would like to believe.

Why Aren't "They" Grateful?

What is new about the following: A powerful nation invades and occupies a weaker nation, imposes some form of western-style law and order, western-style governance, all at the point of a gun. Then when the occupied people act in a manner that suggests that they are not grateful for "everything we are doing for them", the people of the occupying nation respond with surprise. How can they not appreciate our lifting them out of their ignorance, constructing roads, giving them the opportunity to live lives more like ours?

But the fact is, even if this is correct, people don't like to be subject to foreign military occupation. The fact is that living under military occupation does not feel like living under enlightened governance - it feels like, you know, foreign military occupation. It may seem obvious to us that our intentions are good, that capitulation is the best option for the occupied people and their fastest path out of occupation, and that we are making an enormous sacrifice for the good of the occupied nation, but that's not how occupied people view occupation. Nor is it how our nation would view an occupation even if the occupying power credibly promised to end poverty, balance the budget, fix the roads, and put every American into a productive, well-paying job while cutting taxes for the rich. Because, you know, foreign, military, occupation. And if they said, "Trust us - as soon as we're done which, if you capitulate, shouldn't be more than a few years, we'll leave you with an indigenous, democratic government under a new and improved Constitution," what are the odds we would believe it?

Without arguing that the comparison is entirely fair, this essay reminded me of this poem.
The United States and its allies have given the Afghan people every chance they could possibly have wished for to step up and be part of the modern world. If [internecine] tribal warfare is more important to them than forming a nation, who are we to tell them it isn’t? If they prefer feudalism and local warlords to democratically elected leaders and the rule of law, who are we to tell them they have to act like us? If they would rather have their hoary superstitions and magic books instead of running water and [penicillin], who are we to force them to enter the modern world, kicking and screaming?
Take up the White Man's burden --
The savage wars of peace --
Fill full the mouth of Famine
And bid the sickness cease;
And when your goal is nearest
The end for others sought,
Watch sloth and heathen Folly
Bring all your hopes to nought.
Certainly it's not fair to suggest that the essay shares the same colonial mindset in which Kipling was immersed, or Kipling's projection of race onto a clash of cultures. But it's a similar reaction - why aren't they grateful? Why can't they see and appreciate everything we're trying to do for them? Why don't they realize that the violence of occupation is their collective doing, not ours, and that they will benefit from capitulation? But truly, would we act differently? One of those wacky aspects of human nature is that we seem to prefer, collectively, to suffer under domestic repression than to be "liberated" by a foreign occupying power. Once liberated, people want the liberator to leave. Although an occupation may be necessary to effect the liberator's goals, and may in some cases be objectively better than what came before or is likely to come after, occupation breeds bitter enemies.
When Israeli troops first invaded southern Lebanon in 1978 to drive out the PLO and create a "buffer zone" to prevent attacks on northern Israel, Shiites welcomed Israeli soldiers with rice and flowers. But that honeymoon did not last long, and Shiites were soon fighting the Israeli occupation. The Shiites turned out to be more formidable enemies of Israel than the PLO.
When we criticize or find incomprehensible the mores of an occupied nation, how far removed are we from similar conduct? How much different were the men of fifty years ago who saw it as a social good to lynch civil rights leaders, or boys who didn't show proper respect for white women? How much different are we from the German people, before or after the Nazi era, even if we fervently believe that something akin to happened in that dark period could never happen here? How long did it take us in the "global war on terror" to turn our collective backs on the concept that we are an enlightened society that adheres to the rule of law, that we treat our prisoners with respect, that we offer Due Process, that we disdain torture.... Why is it easy to believe that riots in response to the accidental burning of a holy book is evidence of depravity of an occupied nation, but so difficult to accept the possibility that the collective impact of occupation and the imposition of a corrupt, incompetent government, no matter how well-intentioned, have created a simmering resentment in which the burning of the holy book is more accurately seen as a proverbial "last straw"? Why is it that when occupation forces commit atrocities we can easily dismiss them as aberrational, while the actions of individuals within the occupied nation are often perceived as evidence of their collective depravity?

The idea of transforming Afghanistan - a tribal culture, proud of its long history of repelling and defeating invaders, with a population that is largely impoverished and poorly educated, with ethnic divisions that would make it difficult to form a universally accepted government in the best of times - should never have been perceived as something that would be either easy. As much as we might try local outreach, to try to explain our beneficence and good motives,
We came to install a democratic government and present the Afghan people with an opportunity to reconstruct civilization and re-enter the community of nations after decades of brutal internal conflict, Soviet invasion, and xenophobic theocracy.
To the Afghan man on the street, how different does the U.S. occupation look as compared to the Soviet occupation? How different does the Karzai government look as compared to the Najibullah government? To us the differences may be vast and obvious. To them? I'm thinking, not so much.

When we get into the realm of the transformation of culture - education that includes girls, allowing women to work, allowing women the choice of having their faces, even their hair, uncovered, hospitals that treat women alongside men, perhaps even allowing women to treat male patients.... It's easy for us to say that resistance to such progress is parochial and backward, but such clashes of culture can be the most obvious signs of foreign occupation and can overshadow less obvious signs, let alone the stuff that's simply not visible to the man on the street or simply not comprehensible to a village elder with a third grade education and strong religious beliefs that he feels are under active attack. Many of the things we have attempted in Afghanistan in the name of enlightened, progressive western thought are the same things that the Soviets attempted in the name of "godless communism".

Nation-building, to the extent that it has been tried, is largely oversold. If the occupied nation had the fundamental building blocks of a modern society prior to the occupation, some form of parliament, courts and a professional judiciary, a professional civil service, it stands a chance of emerging from occupation as a modern society. But the west's track record of transforming a society without that foundation into a functioning capitalist democracy through military occupation is abysmal. When you want to implement changes that require a generational shift in thinking, you should expect that your occupation will last for at least a couple of generations.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Romney Must Not Get to Michigan Very Often....

Via TPM,
This feels good being back in Michigan. Um, you know the trees are the right height. The, uh, the streets are just right.
This for a state in which people joke that that there are two seasons: Winter and "orange barrel" season. If potholes, crumbling cement and detours are your thing, yeah, "just right".

Sunday, February 26, 2012

I Know Exactly How Things Always Used to Be....

Because I've seen a few episodes of Ozzie and Harriet. Seriously, can we expect pundits to ever tire of cherry-picking a date from the late 1950's or early 1960's as the date that society was perfect, and acknowledge both that the period at issue was anything but perfect - particularly for non-whites - and is not representative of the rest of human history?
In 1957, 57 percent of those surveyed said that they believed that adults who preferred to be single were “immoral” or “neurotic.” But today, as Eric Klinenberg reminds us in his book, “Going Solo,” more than 50 percent of adults are single. Twenty-eight percent of households nationwide consist of just one person. There are more single-person households than there are married-with-children households. In cities like Denver, Washington and Atlanta, more than 40 percent of the households are one-person dwellings. In Manhattan, roughly half the households are solos.
In 1857, what percentage of people do you suppose would have argued that marriage should be based upon romantic love, and that the romantic feelings should last a lifetime? What percentage of people would argue that it is never acceptable for a husband to strike his wife? I've heard it argued that conservatism is predicated upon trying to identify and preserve the best elements of the past, while acknowledging and accepting change of the worst, but the Brooks-style argument is far more prevalent: Pick a point in history, most often when the commentator was a child, romanticize the era, ignore its bad points, ignore the social factors that contributed to the often historically brief high points of the era, and argue that everything would be perfect if only we could build some form of social engineering time machine and force society into the fictionalized mold of that era.

Brooks observes,
A few generations ago, most people affiliated with one of the major parties. But now more people consider themselves independent than either Republican or Democrat.
Um... so what? At one point it was Whigs versus Tories, right? Times change. More to the point, the fact that people call themselves "independent" does not mean that they in fact vote differently than people with stated party affiliations. If you follow up with "do you lean toward the Republican Party or the Democratic Party", you'll get an answer that his highly predictive of how an independent will vote.
A few generations ago, many people worked for large corporations and were members of a labor union. But now lifetime employment is down and union membership has plummeted.
An interesting observation, given that union jobs, stable employment and the ability to earn a solid, middle class salary as a blue collar worker factored into the middle class culture of the late 1950's that Brooks so adores, but I somehow doubt that Brooks is arguing for more unions, higher wages for factor jobs and job protections. It's like that song, Love and Marriage, which I believe was released in 1955 - you can't have one without the other. Except in relation to marriage you can, and for most historical marriages you did. What you can't have is a strong, economically stable blue collar middle class if you don't have job opportunities and labor laws that will support and sustain a strong, economically stable blue collar middle class - history teaches us that lesson, as well.
A few generations ago, teenagers went steady. But over the past decades, the dating relationship has been replaced by a more amorphous hook-up culture.
A few generations ago, boys were allowed to "sow their wild oats" while girls were to remain chaste and to marry, often at a very young age, the man their parents chose for them to marry. Brooks also later suggests that if teenagers hang out in groups instead of going steady, this is indicative society's evolution away from a time when "America was groupy". Um, yeah.... Needless to say, Brooks carries on for a while longer in that vein.

Brooks makes an interesting observation,
But if there is one theme that weaves through all the different causes, it is this: The maximization of talent. People want more space to develop their own individual talents. They want more flexibility to explore their own interests and develop their own identities, lifestyles and capacities. They are more impatient with situations that they find stifling.
Brooks overstates his case. As with his attempt to attribute major changes in society and culture to technologies that have only existed for the past ten to twenty years, he overstates both the role of talent in society and the extent to which talented individuals can carve out their own successful career paths. But there's a lot of truth to the fact that our society has evolved toward an expectation that people have the right to make their own choices, to "be happy", and to be fulfilled, even if we don't have a clear sense of what that means. In Brooks' "groupy" past, there were strong group pressures to tolerate miserable situations lest you lose your status within your groups. I don't consider it to be a bad thing that some of the groups that once dominated social behavior have lost their stranglehold, but at the same time we have evolved into a society in which people feel more free to pursue their individual wants and needs and that the freedom has had an impact on traditional groups and upon the institution of marriage. Like pretty much every process of social evolution, the result is a mixed bag.

Predictably, Brooks imagines that society is composed of two kinds of people:
Over all, we’ve made life richer for the people who have the social capital to create their own worlds. We’ve also made it harder for the people who don’t — especially poorer children.
If life is harder for children who are poor we're not actually talking about social capital, are we? Because poverty is an economic construct. Here Brooks appears to be trying to sustain his weak argument from recent columns in which he attempts to argue that the bottom thirty percent of wage earners have lost their moral bearings but that, even though he sees something close to a perfect correlation between economic trends and the changes in social behavior, their situation has nothing to do with economics. It's a bit like his allusion to union membership in this column - he can identify and track myriad economic factors that correlate with what he perceives to be a shift in values, but then turn on a time and argue without evidence that we're actually seeing some form of transformation of human nature. Correlation should not be confused with causation, but if the correlation holds for pretty much all of human history and you have no other evidence to support your claim....

Brooks concludes,
These trends are not going to reverse themselves. So maybe it’s time to acknowledge a core reality: People with skills can really thrive in this tenuous, networked society. People without those advantages would probably be better off if we could build new versions of the settled, stable and thick arrangements we’ve left behind.
It's a shame he couldn't find room in his column to suggest a means through which we can push the working poor through that social engineering time machine and recreate the world of Ozzie and Harriet. (Perhaps we could call that world Pleasantville.) But really, if Brooks breaks away from his standard cocktail circuit and explores the real world, he will likely find that people with the "skills" and opportunities necessary to create a wholly independent life are few in number, and that most people are pretty much embedded in a culture of jobs and paychecks. One might argue that if we lived in the meritocracy that Brooks imagines himself to be a part of, a better columnist would be composing a column in his place and would be acknowledging that reality.

If Abortion Can't Be Rare, Women Shouldn't Have Contraceptives

That appears to be the subtext of Ross Douthat's recent column in which he imagines that "liberals" don't truly want abortions to be rare. As with many of Douthat's columns, the weak and fallacious reasoning is so overwhelming it's difficult to find a point of focus - to produce an analysis many times as long as Douthat's original, demonstrating how his logic is flawed, his factual assertions are incorrect, or how he substitutes his assumptions and prejudices for facts. I expect that there are countless posts around the blogosphere that take Douthat apart, line by line, so I'll try to focus on aspects of Douthat's analysis that seem to me to be particularly egregious or that I doubt would be the focus of those other posts.

Douthat writes,
Where cultural liberals and social conservatives differ is on the means that will achieve these ends. The liberal vision tends to emphasize access to contraception as the surest path to stable families, wanted children and low abortion rates. The more direct control that women have over when and whether sex makes babies, liberals argue, the less likely they’ll be to get pregnant at the wrong time and with the wrong partner — and the less likely they’ll be to even consider having an abortion. (Slate’s Will Saletan has memorably termed this “the pro-life case for Planned Parenthood.”)
So far, not so bad. Douthat predictably skips over an important element of the liberal view - contraceptive use requires not only access, but education. When and how to use contraception effectively, which contraceptives are most effective, when you should "double up" and incorporate a backup method along with your primary method, what to do in the event of a mistake or failure. Douthat's misleading arguments later in his piece, citing to a Guttmacher Institute study that undermines his claims (e.g., Douthat's argument that "only 12 percent cited problems obtaining birth control as a reason for their pregnancies" when about half of the pregnancies at issue did not involve any contraceptive use, or the impact of the unavailability of contraception to sexually active teens on the abortion rate) - nor the cultural and religious context that people like Douthat help create, that contributes to an atmosphere of ignorance and shame about sexual activity that both contributes to the non-use of contraception and to unwanted pregnancy. But again, I expect his arguments on those fronts have been well-covered by others.

Douthat has basically stated that liberals accept that unmarried people will have sexual relations, and that married couples will at times want to avoid pregnancy, and that the best way for people to avoid unwanted pregnancy is to use contraception. Saletan, who I would not characterize as a liberal, grasps the fundamental truth of that argument. So why is it that Douthat sees the argument as partisan opinion? Why can't he accept the basic truth that people who choose an appropriate form of contraception for their lifestyle, and use that form of contraception properly and consistently, in fact do largely avoid unwanted pregnancy?

Douthat's discomfort with basic facts is further evidenced by his presentation of the "conservative" case - which he later implies through a parenthetical is really a religious case, and even within that context more of a Catholic or possibly Evangelical Christian case than a Protestant position:
The conservative narrative, by contrast, argues that it’s more important to promote chastity, monogamy and fidelity than to worry about whether there’s a prophylactic in every bedroom drawer or bathroom cabinet. To the extent that contraceptive use has a significant role in the conservative vision (and obviously there’s some Catholic-Protestant disagreement), it’s in the context of already stable, already committed relationships. Monogamy, not chemicals or latex, is the main line of defense against unwanted pregnancies.
Douthat then admits that, as a matter of raw, unambiguous fact, the "conservative narrative" is a complete failure - yet he sneers in relation to high rates of unwanted prenancy in "conservative regions" that "Liberals love to cite these numbers as proof that social conservatism is a flop". Well, Ross, let's see... We have had birth control of various sorts for thousands of years. We have had religion of various sorts for thousands of years. We have had abortifacients and abortion techniques for thousands of years. The Catholic Church has been preaching abstinence, the evils of abortion and "sex only for procreation" for almost two thousand years. We have seen essays decrying the moral depravity of youth, unwanted pregnancy, and people defying the teachings of their religions in order to utilize birth control or obtain abortions (sometimes at grave personal risk) for thousands of years.

At what point, Ross, can we look at the facts and admit that pointing our fingers at young people and lecturing, "Shame on you for your dirty thoughts - no sex for you!" isn't going to prevent teen pregnancy? That we're dealing not with a clear and easy moral choice (that it would seem Douthat didn't make for himself but wants to impose on others, particularly women) but are dealing with an incredibly strong biological drive and immutable aspects of human nature? That unwanted pregnancy is something we can influence through education and contraception, but that will never disappear?

The fact that Douthat makes only the slightest reference to his own religion in his essay, without sharing statistics on contraceptive use and abortion rates among Catholic women, betrays both Douthat's fundamental dishonesty and the failure of what he purports to be the "conservative narrative". If the near-absolutist philosophy of the Catholic Church has that little impact on its members, what makes Douthat believe that human nature is suddenly going to change and that preaching abstinence and preventing access to birth control will do anything but increase the number of unwanted pregnancies? Douthat claims that "Mormon Utah... with some of America’s lowest rates of teenage pregnancies, out-of-wedlock births and abortions" is the exception that proves the rule - oops.

He predictably cherry-picks his blue state statistics, arguing that "Liberal California... has a higher teen pregnancy rate than socially conservative Alabama" and that its lower teen birth rate results from a higher rate of abortions. What happens, Ross, if we control for California's high teen pregnancy rate among its immigrant population - most notably socially conservative, Catholic Latino immigrants? His argument kind of... falls apart. And whoah - if you want to reduce unwanted pregnancies within that population and thereby reduce the number of abortions, guess what works? Could it be... education and access to contraception?

And that last line... monogamy prevents unwanted pregnancies? Since when?

Douthat latches onto the politician's line that "abortion should be safe, legal and rare", and pretends that it is a coherent policy statement - politicans can't truly believe that, he seems to believe, because in his opinion abortion is not yet rare enough, except perhaps in states that have next to no abortion clinics and a culture of intimidation of abortion providers - and in his opinion access to safe, legal abortion is irrelevant - neither safety nor legality are important to Douthat, so he completely discounts that those are the foundations of pro-choice policy whereas rarity is an aspirational goal. And his solution to the problem appears to be to suggest that we rely upon moral solutions that have never worked, because even when available contraception is not always used. Like his suggestion that monogamy prevents unwanted pregnancy, his argument is at its core absurd, ignorant, and contrary to indisputable facts.

When Will Health Care Inflation Normalize

Before disappearing to warmer climes for a week, I made note of an interesting argument on Mark Thoma's blog, that our worry about projected healthcare inflation may be overblown. How well can we predict the future? Not well.

Thoma quotes Jeff Sachs,
Yet somehow I'm not ready to panic about the health care costs as of 2085. Mechanical extrapolations that assume that health care costs will rise much faster than GNP between 2011 and 2085 are utterly unconvincing. Why should healthcare costs continue to rise so far and fast when healthcare costs are already vastly over-priced now compared with what other countries pay for the same services? Why should we assume failure decade after decade to use the new information technologies to lower the costs of health-care delivery and administration?

In fact, the recent trends are mildly favorable. As J. D. Keinke of the American Enterprise Institute writes today in the Wall Street Journal, the idea of runaway health spending is a "myth" because "new data show that health spending over the past several years has been normalizing toward the rate of general inflation, rather than growing higher and higher, as had been the case almost continuously since the 1970s." ...
My first reaction is that it's a bit silly to worry about what the economy will look like in twenty-five, fifty or a hundred years because - even if we pretend that we're good at making such projections based upon current data - there are too many possible intervening factors that can completely undermine the projection. Economic projections in 1900 would not have anticipated a half-century that included two world wars, the dust bowl, the Spanish flu and the Great Depression. Economic projections in 2000 did not anticipate Medicare Part D, 9/11, the housing bubble, the collapse of the auto and financial industries, or two extraordinarily expensive and protracted wars of choice. Economic projections for the public cost of health care today typically do not take into consideration the predicted impact of global warming on sea levels and food supply, the probable continued upward curve in the cost of oil and gasoline, and largely assume a return to the economic norms of the past half-century. That is to say, the projections largely assume that the economy will largely remain unchanged for the duration of the projection, even though we all know that it won't - that there will be big surprises, not all of them happy.

Without digging into the data referenced above, showing a reduction in healthcare inflation, the first thing that occurs to me is that we're really talking about the cost of prescription medications. It's anything but a secret that prescription medications play a major role in the cost of healthcare in the U.S., with pharmaceutical giants having repeatedly and successfully lobbied Congress to prevent price negotiation by Medicare and to restrict the import of identical medications from nations that offer better pricing than the U.S. But a lot of the blockbuster drugs that drove up the cost of healthcare have come out of patent, resulting in their availability in generic form and at lower prices.

Still, bleeding edge technologies tend to be expensive, and there will remain a strong incentive for pharmaceutical companies and other medical companies to develop new drugs and technologies to more effectively treat medical conditions. People will clamor for those drugs, devices and procedures over those which are (or which are perceived as) lesser, even if the improvements are marginal or the costs enormous. And somebody will continue to have to draw a line over what medications and treatments are going to be available to the masses, and at what cost. Is it possible that somebody will invent a new technique that will revolutionize medical care, allowing for vastly improved, individualized care at a lower cost? Certainly. It's also possible that we'll get the same invention but that over the short- or longer-term it will be available only at an enormous cost.

If we can change the way human beings perceive and fear death, we can achieve significant cost savings in health care. But the odds of that seem roughly equivalent to our ability to project how the economy will look in a half-century. (Okay, I exaggerate. The odds of sound economic projections over a half-century or longer are actually much greater than the odds of changing human nature.)

Friday, February 17, 2012

Santorum's Mediocre Mind

Reading one of Dan Larison's recent posts on Rick Santorum, I was reminded of the Dunning-Kruger effect,
The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which the unskilled suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly rating their ability much higher than average. This bias is attributed to a metacognitive inability of the unskilled to recognize their mistakes.
Santorum seems to be a man of average intelligence, but appears to sincerely believe that he holds the answers to every question of law, policy and ethics. Although unlike Newt Gingrich he does not have a habit of expressly stating that he has all of the answers, it's difficult to think of an issue upon which he won't speak with considerable confidence without revealing a fundamental ignorance of the facts or an implied disdain for anybody who holds a different opinion. I am astonished that he remains a credible candidate for the Republican nomination, but as with Newt Gingrich's undeserved double-bounce it's not a question of merit - with apologies to Ron Paul, as far as voters who don't care for Romney are concerned, he's the last man standing.

In an editorial aptly titled "Small Thinking", the New York Times highlights some of Santorum's recent platitudinous prattle on issues such as taxation, public assistance, jobs, education and religion. Referring to Larison's comments, let's not forget that he's also hopeless on military and foreign policy.

Santorum is, in effect, a poster child for what has gone wrong with the Republican Party. Santorum is viewed by a huge number of likely primary voters as a superior option to Romney, not because he has anything to offer as a candidate, not because he understands the important issues the country faces, but because he's a "social conservative". He passes the right set of litmus tests - the ones that the same voters fear Romney's lying about. But if you can't lie convincingly on those issues, the Republican Party has made it somewhere between extremely difficult and impossible to win the party's nomination. Can you even imagine an openly pro-choice Republican running for President? How about one who asserts the fundamental truth that in order to balance the budget we must not only cut spending, we must also raise taxes? Same sex marriage, climate change, immigration, health care... depart from the party's orthodoxy at your own risk.

I'm not going to argue that there is a huge list (or even a small list) of Republicans waiting in the wings who would be materially better than Romney, either as a candidate or as President. The "dream team" names that are thrown out by pundits often seem to include only candidates who are untested or who have significant flaws and deficits that would make their quest for the nomination as difficult as that of Romney. Or Huntsman. Or Gingrich. But "dream candidates" aside, pretty much everybody else who actually ran would be a superior alternative to Santorum.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Why Might People View Prejudices As Irrational

If you're going to make derisive arguments about how far the apple falls from the tree,1 you had best protect your parents by having something intelligent to say. When you have nothing more substantive to offer but ad hominem abusive about the children of celebrities and adherents of religions you don't like, well, discretion is the better part of valor.2

Ben Shapiro asserts that "the values espoused by Hollywood parents infect their children", and provides (among others) the following example:
[Is it any coincidence, for example] that the sexually over-the-top and androgynous Cher, had a daughter, Chastity (Chaz), with sexual identity issues?
Forgive me for asking, but what exactly is it that would make somebody believe that Cher is androgynous? Is it her tradition of wearing long hair in feminine styles? A wardrobe that often seems inspired by Vegas showgirls - but under the apparent belief that showgirl costumes aren't sufficiently revealing? And Cher is simultaneously "sexually over-the-top" and "androgynous"?

Perhaps it's that Shapiro is confused by the fact that Cher isn't a conventional beauty, but it would be rather childish for him to say, "Look at Cher's face - she looks like she could be a man", let alone to suggest that her facial features caused her child to have gender identity issues. But if you look at anything else, what could possibly be the source of Ben's confusion? Seriously - I've seen lots of pictures of Cher, and I really can't recall any where I was even slightly confused about her gender.

And then there's the issue of the father... the late Sonny Bono, staunch Republican, former Member of Congress. You would think that the last name "Bono" might have clued Shapiro in, but apparently not. I'm reminded of various long-discredited psychological theories that blamed mothers for autism, effeminate behaviors of boys, homosexuality, and the like. Chaz Bono has a male gender identity? It must be mom's fault. Ron Reagan is gay? It must be... Nancy Reagan's fault?

When I hear people who fret that people can catch homosexuality or gender identity issues, as if they're diseases, I think it says more about the speaker than it does about the subject. That is, I rarely encounter somebody who appears to be secure in his own gender identity who believes that the exposure to an ostensibly androgynous parent will turn a child into a cross-dresser, transexual or homosexual.

Shapiro also attacks Oliver Stone, whom he suggests places no level of import on "religion and pro-Americanism", because one of Stone's children recently converted to Islam. I suspect that, had Sean Stone converted to Orthodox Judaism, Shapiro would not be singling him out as an example but, you know, "wrong religion". Sean Stone has made the statement, "People don’t like Ahmadinejad, but that doesn’t warrant a war or an uprising." Forgive me, but I'm not seeing any "anti-American" sentiment in that statement, nor any basis for Shapiro's claim that Sean Stone is "a backer of genocidal anti-Semite Mahmoud Ahmadinejad". If that's the best quote Shapiro could cherry-pick, you would think he would have been able to recognize his attacks as baseless.

Over at The Non Sequitur, John Casey challenges similarly weak reasoning by Dr. Keith Albow, in which Albow attempts to characterize David Brock as "a dangerous man" supposedly feeling that "he’s unloved and unloveable, shunted to the side" because he was adopted.
Many adopted children are tremendously well-adjusted, but for some reason, this man feels he’s unloved and unloveable....
Casey observes,
... when I make up these arguments for quizzes on fallacies I feel as if I'm being unfair. Nice to be proven wrong. I think.
It's no surprise to find that the logical reasoning behind reactionary prejudice like Shapiro's falls somewhere between weak and absent, but it remains somehow disappointing that people like Shapiro and Albow can so easily find platforms to espouse and advance their attacks and prejudice.
1. Via LGM.

2. When you start trying to count the fallacies in Shapiro's claims, you can quickly become overwhelmed by the sheer volume. Ad hominem abusive, post hoc, composition, genetic fallacy, guilt by association, spotlight, straw man, questionable cause, biased sample, hasty generalization, begging the question, appeal to spite....

Logical fallacies can be used to prop up an argument the speaker knows is weak, so as to mask its weakness. William F. Buckley, Jr., was a master at that art. They can (and will) slip into anybody's thinking, because we are all human and are thus all susceptible to flawed thinking. Sometimes, though, the speaker offers them with sincerity, and establishes a pattern of earnest, habitual illogic that reveals him to be a weak, undisciplined thinker.

Voting on Civil Rights

On a recent episode of Real Time, Reihan Salam argued that it would be a positive thing to hold direct votes on certain civil rights issues, such as gay marriage, rather than achieving equality through the courts. Rev. Al Sharpton took issue with Salam, pointing out that if people had voted on civil rights he would still be riding at the back of the bus, and with a "bad eyed driver" so would Salam. In large part, Sharpton is correct - had civil rights been expected to pass on a state-by-state basis some states would have acted promptly but others would have been slow to act, and we would likely still be waiting on a number of states.

I'm not sure what the concept is behind popular voting for civil rights. If there's popular support for a civil rights movement but for some reason the nation's legislatures are slow to act, court action addressing the situation is not likely to be unpopular. If there's a lack of popular support, direct voting won't bring about change, and it would thus fall on legislatures and the courts to implement any change against the will of the people.

The theory appears to be that if you have a few successful votes around the nation, you will start to shift the balance and eventually create a tipping point at which people will back away from their prejudices and accept that they, also, should support the civil rights movement. Reihan focused on Roe v. Wade as opposed to segregation and Jim Crow, and Sharpton was correct to bring the issue back into focus.

Reihan can protest that had reproductive rights been allowed to progress on a state-by-state basis we would not have abortion (and contraception) rights as a front-and-center issue in every federal election. But if the objection people have to Roe v. Wade is that stripped states of their rights, and imposed on certain states a policy that the majority of their residents found objectionable, why isn't the same true of the civil rights movement in general? Even in states that saw violent opposition to the civil rights movement, there is now a general acceptance that segregation is neither "equal" nor consistent with our nation's values.

Another objection to the notion that important civil rights issues should be resolved by plebiscite is that we live in a representative democracy. As a matter of routine, important decisions are made by our elected representatives in part under the theory that they're better informed than the people at large, and are better positioned to avoid the passions and prejudices of the day. Why would we want to add an asterisk to our system of government, such that we would revert to a direct democracy on those issues over which the people are most passionate or prejudiced? That doesn't sound to me like a recipe for a state-by-state transformation of the nation, with gradual realization that other groups of people deserve additional civil rights. It sounds to me like a formula to preserve the status quo in much or all of the country.

The plebiscite approach also raises a question of finality: If people can vote to grant civil rights, why can't they also vote to take them away? If we are supposed to get some sort of finality and social acceptance of the grant of civil rights by proceeding state-by-state, how is that achieved when every election cycle has a new initiative to repeal those rights on the ballot. When the Supreme Court has rolled back the protections of cases like Roe v. Wade, or policies such as affirmative action, the tendency has not been for legislatures and ballot initiatives to move to protect the status quo. Quite the opposite - we see immediate activity to roll back rights that had previously been accepted or assumed, and some legislatures immediately setting up legislation for the next "test case" to push through the courts in the hope of achieving a further rollback of rights.

In the context of gay marriage, when the issue has been placed on the ballot in states like California we have already seen well-funded "anti-" campaigns run by outside groups that oppose gay marriage. If repeal is permitted, that would happen in most or all election cycles. If repeal were not permitted, the argument for resolving civil rights issues by plebiscite becomes incoherent.

Those who favor the "state's rights" or plebiscite approach often also express a certain contemptuousness for the Surpeme Court, speaking of it as an unelected body, a small number of elites who get to decide very important issues, and that the public has little recourse even when the decision is against the overwhelming will of the people. So I look at my copy of the Constitution (1780), I review the case in which the Supreme Court established itself as the final arbiter of constitutionality (Marbury v Madison, 1803), and I say to myself, "Wow - how is it that nobody has noticed this until now?"

No, what I actually do is again note that our system of government was designed to have an independent judiciary, a Supreme Court that would render opinions on matters of constitutionality, and that for all of its flaws the approach has held up for more than two centuries. I note also the contextual nature of the argument - those who criticize the elitist, non-democratic nature of the Supreme Court when it is expanding civil rights do not express similar sentiments when the Supreme Court rolls them back, nor do they express similar sentiments when the Supreme Court expands other rights that they support.

Nobody is suggesting anything more than a gut check for which issues should be taken out of the Supreme Court's hands and (supposedly) resolved gradually, over time, by plebiscite or state legislative action. If you shake your fist angrily that Roe v. Wade deprives state and local governments, and the people they represent, of their right to fashion laws and outcomes that fit their circumstances, why are you celebrating D.C. v. Heller for depriving local governments of a tool they view as important to suppressing crime and keeping their streets safe?

When I look back on the civil rights movement and cases like Brown v. Board, and compare present level of controversy to Roe v. Wade, I don't see that public acceptance of civil rights is tied to how those rights are implemented. I see that there are people with strong religious and moral objections to abortion rights, and even to contraception, who don't care about policy arguments, they want a "no ifs, ands or buts" ban, or something very close to it. I can respect strongly held moral beliefs, I can respect adherence to the teachings of your church, but I don't believe that either should trump either constitutional process or efforts to form sound public policy.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Primary Season Quote of the Day

Josh Marshall on Mitt Romney:
[R]unning around the country in a long twilight struggle with Rick Santorum is just … how to put it? Inherently demeaning and diminishing. It’s like struggling to land a one pound fish or searching for the way out of a paper bag. People see you doing that and you just look weak and feckless, even pitiful.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Romney's Dishonest Pitch to Michigan Voters

Mitt Romney has a problem in Michigan. Four years ago, part of his case for his candidacy was that he could deliver Michigan for the Republican Party. He won the primary, but with less than 40% of the vote. Now he's the presumed nominee, and he may lose Michigan to, of all people, Rick Santorum. Then, as now, Romney claimed a form of inherited connection with the state and auto industry that, like pretty much everything else he claims, just doesn't ring true for a lot of the voters he expects to support him.

Four years ago, Romney argued that we should "let Detroit go bankrupt."
If General Motors, Ford and Chrysler get the bailout that their chief executives asked for yesterday, you can kiss the American automotive industry goodbye. It won’t go overnight, but its demise will be virtually guaranteed.
Can you feel his brilliant business insight at work? He follows that up with a number of observations that range from the trite (the need to renegotiate labor contracts for lower wages and benefits, the need to replace bad management, the need to focus on a long-term strategy and not simply he next quarter's financials), and suggests that the auto industry is the wrong place to spend government money,
I believe Washington should raise energy research spending to $20 billion a year, from the $4 billion that is spent today. The research could be done at universities, at research labs and even through public-private collaboration.
Yes, that's right, Romney was for massive public investment in companies like Solyndra before, with the benefit of hindsight, he was against them. It's astonishing that a guy who claims to be a genius venture capitalist believes that you can invest $20 billion in research without taking any losses. Most good venture capitalists have a success rate of what, one in three?
Let's start with my 1/3, 1/3, 1/3 assumption that regular readers will be familiar with. This says that 1/3 of an early stage venture portfolio will be losers, 1/3 will get your money back or make a little money, and only 1/3 will deliver the kind of performance you expect when you make an investment (5-10x).
Romney complains when people criticize his record at Bain, and point to the companies that ended up failing, but he predictably applies a very different standard when going after the President. Solyndra obtained almost a billion dollars in private equity - money from companies like Bain - prior to its collapse. Romney can argue that the scale is different, an argument undermined by his own assertion that the federal government should push $20 billion into alternative energy research, but as others have pointed out the entire effort resembles a push Romney made as governor of Massachusetts, with some of his administration's selections for the receipt of millions in grants ultimately failing. By the time he was criticizing Solyndra, Romney had either forgotten or flip-flopped on his proposed $20 billion budget for energy research, with a campaign spokesperson arguing, "Gov. Romney worked to limit the role of the state as venture capitalist". As a former head of the Massachusetts fund argues,
"[Romney's] administration was certainly at that point willing to support the establishment of a fund that was going to be in the business of giving money to individual companies and in effect picking winners," Leon said. "This is true. In some ways, it's a question of on what basis one wants to be critical of his position now."
Romney's other arguments about Solyndra seems remarkably detached from reality,
"When they put $500 million into Solyndra, they thought they were encouraging solar energy in this country," Mr. Romney told a friendly audience packed with business executives. "They did the opposite. Because when they put $500 million into Solyndra, the other 100 entrepreneurs in America working on solar energy just lost any potential to get capital."

He added: "When the government chooses to put in $500 million, who wants to put $2 million in some idea from this person in Montana? No one."
Seriously, not one venture capitalist in the country will invest in alternative energy if the U.S. government is providing loan guarantees to large ventures that have been vetted and funded by large venture capital firms? And his evidence for this is... that it makes for a great, if mendacious, sound bite in his speech?

You could argue that the U.S. government was following Romney's advice, creating a program that offered a total of about $20 billion in loan guarantees, and that it has a pretty remarkable record, having only one company (Solyndra) default. Perhaps Romney would like to bring out a panel of working venture capitalists, and have them explain how a 2.5% default rate on their investments would bring their companies to their knees. And while Romney likes to bandy about phrases like "crony capitalism" for why the Obama administration (like the V.C. firms that invested the $billion) thought Solyndra was an appropriate recipient for government support, he omits mention of the fact that Solyndra started to receive loan guarantees during the Bush Presidency.
What critics fail to mention is that the Solyndra deal is more than three years old, started under the Bush Administration, which tried to conditionally approve the loan right before Obama took office. Rather than “pushing funds out the door too quickly,” the Obama Administration restructured the original loan when it came into office to further protect the taxpayers’ investment.
If Romney is a brilliant businessman and investor, he knows all of this.

Moving back to Detroit, Romney whines that when the government restructured G.M. it gave a block of shares to the union,
Instead of doing the right thing and standing up to union bosses, Obama rewarded them.

A labor union that had contributed millions to Democrats and his election campaign was granted an ownership share of Chrysler and a major stake in GM, two flagships of the industry.
The first statement is an outright lie. Unions had to make significant concessions as part of the restructuring deal. The "ownership share" was part of the negotiation between the unions and the failing auto companies, and was designed to ensure at least partial continuation of medical benefits to retirees.
In virtually every respect, the concessions that the UAW agreed to are more aggressive than what the Bush Administration originally demanded in its loan agreement with GM. Among other things, the UAW’s existing VEBA – to which GM has a $20bn obligation – will be replaced by a new VEBA as described below....

This new GM will establish an independent trust (VEBA) that will provide health care benefits for GM’s retirees. The VEBA will be funded by a note of $2.5 billion payable in three installments ending in 2017 and $6.5 billion in 9% perpetual preferred stock. The VEBA will also receive 17.5% of the equity of New GM and warrants to purchase an additional 2.5% of the company. The VEBA will have the right to select one independent director and will have no right to vote its shares or ther governance rights.
Let's contrast the type of private investment that Romney implicitly argues is superior, and which he practiced back in his days with Bain,
The [investors] who ran Harry and David into the ground have a defense: economic conditions changed in unforeseeable ways. But that’s precisely why loading firms with debt in order to reap short-term benefits is bad. It leaves companies unable to weather tough times, and allows private-equity firms to make money even if things go wrong.

As if this weren’t galling enough, taxpayers are left on the hook. Interest payments on all that debt are tax-deductible; when pensions are dumped, a federal agency called the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation picks up the tab; and the money that the dealmakers earn is taxed at a much lower rate than normal income would be, thanks to the so-called “carried interest” loophole. The money that Mitt Romney made when he was at Bain Capital was compensation for his (apparently excellent) work, but, instead of being taxed as income, it was taxed as a capital gain. It’s a very cozy arrangement.
Recall also that before the government stepped in, Chrysler was not a publicly traded company. It was privately held by Cerberus Capital Management, a company that appeared adept only at running the company into the ground. In Romney's book, it appears to be a very good thing for a corporate raider to be able to pick the meat off a company's bones, leaving it to the taxpayer to cover defaults on pensions and retiree medical benefits. Surely he understands that the calculus is different when you're a government actor and you care less about profit than the survival of the company and the avoidance of an additional burden on the taxpayer. If Romney doesn't understand the difference between being President and running Bain, he has no business running for President.

Romney is now purporting that everything good about the government bailout of G.M. and Chrysler was his idea, and that everything else about the bailout was bad. Well before this speech was made, Paul Krugman gave an apt assessment:
So what the story of Romney and the auto bailout actually shows is something we already knew from health care: he’s a smart guy who is also a moral coward. His original proposal for the auto industry, like his health reform, bore considerable resemblance to what Obama actually did. But when the deed took place, Romney — rather than having the courage to say that the president was actually doing something reasonable — joined the rest of his party in whining and denouncing the plan.

And now he wants to claim credit for the very policy he trashed when it hung in the balance.
Romney he wants us to imagine that in private hands a company like Chrysler could have survived and thrived, ignoring the fact that Chrysler had spent years in the tends of people like Romney who were either indifferent to its survival or beyond incompetent in their effort to engineer a turnaround. He wants us to believe that G.M. and Chrysler could have survived a private bankruptcy, despite the far that credit markets were frozen and nobody was going to finance the companies' operations over the course of a traditional bankruptcy, even if expedited. He wants us to imagine that GM's bondholders, and Chrysler's private owners, were somehow duped or tricked into believing that they would do as well or better through the Obama Administration's plan that they approved, as opposed to rejecting the deal and pursuing a traditional bankruptcy. And, as a brilliant investor, Romney now encourages the Obama Administration to inflict a massive financial loss on the taxpayer, apparently because this will somehow punish the UAW.
American taxpayers have been left on the hook for billions to benefit unions and the union bosses who contributed millions to Barack Obama's election campaign. Such a state of affairs is intolerable, and as president I would not tolerate it. The Obama administration needs to act now to divest itself of its ownership position in GM.

The shares need to be sold in a responsible fashion and the proceeds turned over to the nation's taxpayers.
I recognize that anti-union demagoguery is par for the course for the Romney campaign, but you would think that in using the word he would have some sense of what it means to be responsible. The numbers are pretty basic: To recoup its 'investment' the government needs to sell its stake in G.M. at $53 per share. The present value of G.M. is $25.33 per share. Were the Obama Administration to follow Romney's advice, they would be "turning over" to the taxpayer a loss of about $20 billion. How can you view Romney's pressure for divestment as anything but dishonesty, demagoguery - a single (albeit very large) company's failure that results in a $500 million default on loan guarantees is government at its worst, but inflicting a $20 billion loss on taxpayers would be "responsible".

The Impact of Economic Opportunity on Behavior

Back when I first started practicing small town law, I represented a significant number of criminal defendants. From the moment I stepped into District Court for the criminal docket, it was an education in a subculture with which I had little prior background. You would see defendants in custody sitting in the jury box as they awaited arraignment, fresh from a night in jail, most yucking it up like they were at summer camp. The smell of a crowded courtroom was usually an unpleasant mixture of body odor, alcohol (from sweat and boozy breath) and cigarettes. No small number of the defendants present had been there before, and with most you had a strong sense that they would be back.

For most of us, the idea of getting through six months or a year without committing a criminal act, let alone being caught and prosecuted, doesn't seem like that big of a deal. For the District Court regulars, it's a real challenge. I represented a number of defendants who couldn't even make it from the day they entered their plea bargains to the date of their sentencings without getting arrested. While investigating cases and interviewing witnesses, I was introduced to households in which a five minute visit would require a shower and a change of clothes - usually due to their being thick with cooking grease, overwhelming 'pet odor' or decaying filth, but other not-so-pleasant odors could enter the mix. At court hearings, I would at times have to remind clients that jewelry that included drug symbols or implied gang activity had best not be worn.

In reading the pre sentence reports of some of these offenders, it was no mystery as to why many of them weren't faring well. Actually, sometimes it was a testament to human resilience - how would you hold up, for example, if your childhood involved witnessing the murders of both of your parents in separate incidents? Odds are the experiences wouldn't inspire you to become Batman.

Sometimes, when working with the defendant, I would meet a spouse who you would think would have a strong civilizing effect on the offender, and you could see that spouse's influence on the children. But it was sometimes quite clear what would happen to the spouse and children if they remained within the defendant's family unit. Odds are, a cycle would continue. And yes, you would see multi-generational patterns.

Within the community, you would find people working hard to live law-abiding, peaceful lives. People trying to get and hold jobs. People who did hold steady jobs. People whose homes were, by any standard, immaculate and well-ordered. Yet their neighbors couldn't hold it together, and the general state of the neighborhood had a spillover effect. Valuables were subject to being stolen, the streets could be unsafe, kids were in danger of being recruited into gangs or as street dealers. And for those who came from the most troubled families, the family itself was akin to a bucket of crabs - try to climb out, and one of your kin will latch onto you and try to pull you back into the bucket.

One thing that was perfectly clear is that there was a multi-generational cycle in effect, with factors including mental illness, substance abuse, and childhood trauma repeating themselves through parents, children, and grandchildren. Another thing that was perfectly clear is that the families and communities where you would see that cycle were economically depressed. There were few job opportunities for young people, many of the adults were unemployed, and those who worked were for the most part making modest wages, near minimum wage.

Another thing that was perfectly clear was that there were no easy answers to breaking the cycle. I recall one particularly odious, abusive offender, about to go to prison, subtly threatening his wife (the victim of his crime of felonious assault) with what he might do if she divorced him. She was there, showing support, along with their son who looked to be about eight years old. You knew that she, and more so their child, would have little chance of escaping the cycle if she stayed with him.

David Brooks believes that our ability to observe this cycle is a relatively new thing,
Over the past 25 years, though, a new body of research has emerged, which should lead to new theories. This research tends to support a few common themes. First, no matter how social disorganization got started, once it starts, it takes on a momentum of its own. People who grow up in disrupted communities are more likely to lead disrupted lives as adults, magnifying disorder from one generation to the next.
The funny thing is, Brooks seems to view that as a retort to the people who have been criticizing his report on Charles Murray's new book. To the contrary, people seem to be criticizing Brooks for imagining that we're seeing a mysterious transformation of human nature that is leading to economic decline, as opposed to economic decline that leads to entirely predictable patterns of behavior. Brooks' critics are acutely aware of what happens if you destroy the economic foundation of a population. Resorting to the same quote of Paul Krugman that I used yesterday in response to Ross Douthat,
Back in 1996, the same year Ms. Himmelfarb was lamenting our moral collapse, [sociologist William Julius] Wilson published 'When Work Disappears: The New World of the Urban Poor,' in which he argued that much of the social disruption among African-Americans popularly attributed to collapsing values was actually caused by a lack of blue-collar jobs in urban areas. If he was right, you would expect something similar to happen if another social group — say, working-class whites — experienced a comparable loss of economic opportunity. And so it has.
People who are concerned with wage stagnation and loss earning potential at the lower end of the labor market - an effect that has crept up into the middle class - are acutely aware of how you can destroy a community and create a set of perverse influences and incentives that create a poverty trap. And experience has taught us that it's much better to keep people out of that cycle than to try to break the cycle. Fifty years of experience demonstrate quite clearly that we're absolutely terrible at finding ways to break that cycle.

Brooks continues,
Second, it’s not true that people in disorganized neighborhoods have bad values. Their goals are not different from everybody else’s. It’s that they lack the social capital to enact those values.
This is true to a degree. Most of the people in what Brooks calls "disorganized neighborhoods" - note how he uses every euphemism he can find to avoid references to the economics of the people and communities he's discussing - have values and goals that are not dissimilar to those in more affluent communities. But they have social deficits. Many lack job skills, not just in terms of marketable skills desired by employers, but the basic sense of what an employer expects and how to behave in a workplace.

I recall one woman who I would see every few months. She always had a job - always a different job. Interpersonally she was engaging and pleasant. But she had a problem taking direction from supervisors, and was reaching an age when a lot of her supervisors were younger than her. These are the people who might be helped by basic training in how to behave during an interview, how to behave on the job, and sometimes even such mundane details as why you need to show up to work on time and why your boss thinks it's a big deal when you blow off a day's work because you have a really bad hangover.

Brooks talks of "social capital" while avoiding the question of how other types of capital, specifically money, factor into the "enactment" of values. When you have enough money to live in a safe neighborhood with decent schools, and where you and your children are exposed to a peer group that has internalized the standards of behavior that are expected in school and in the workplace, gaining that "social capital" can be effortless. When you live in a society, as we do, where about 80% of jobs are filled through personal connections, having people in your life who can make those connections for you is a big deal.

Brooks asserts,
Third, while individuals are to be held responsible for their behavior, social context is more powerful than we thought. If any of us grew up in a neighborhood where a third of the men dropped out of school, we’d be much worse off, too.
Really? My stepfather came from a working class family in the North of England. His grammar school graduating class included about twenty students, the vast majority of his classmates having dropped out along the way. My high school was both a neighborhood school for a working class area of my city and an academic magnet school. I was surprised by how how small my graduating class turned out to be, given the population of the school. Yet I can't say that my stepfather, who has a laundry list of degrees and certifications including a Ph.D. in physics, or I (only one post-graduate degree, alas) are "much worse off" for our experiences. We both had the opportunity to attend good schools, and the British government at the time made my stepfather's college education virtually tuition free. My paternal grandfather went to night school but was not able to finish. My father grew up with the expectation that he would attend and graduate from college. So did I. And you know what? That's a much bigger deal than the drop-out rates in our respective high schools.
What does differentiate [African American men who complete college], the study suggests, is a complex stew of mostly external factors that appeared to give them a sense that college was not only possible but expected, and engaged them academically and otherwise in their schools and colleges. Among those influences: involved parents with high expectations for them; at least one K-12 teacher who took a personal interest in their academic and personal future; adequate financial support to pay for college; and a transition to college in which high expectations were set for them as much if not more by influential black male juniors and seniors at their institutions as by formal programs designed to smooth their way.
So while Murray writes one book suggesting that underachievement by African Americans is dictated by genetics, and another suggesting that underachievement by lower-SES white Americans is driven by values, there in fact appears to be a significant commonality - you know, as if we're all human beings under our skin, behaving as humans do. As for the notion that wealth is somehow earned through good genes and good upbringing, a somewhat controversial study found an interesting commonality between African American students and legacy students enrolled at Duke University - legacy students underperform those admitted through regular channels and have a pattern of switching to softer majors. And yet why am I thinking that a typical legacy student has a significant advantage over a similarly situated African American graduate, or for that matter even an outstanding non-legacy graduate, despite a weak academic performance? If underperforming legacy students like Dan Quayle and George W. Bush hadn't been from rich, powerful families, do you think we would have heard of them? Oh, that's right, it's all about their good values - as demonstrated in G.W.'s case by indifference to academics, years of drunken self-indulgence, DUI's and the like.

Brooks also informs us of "attachment theory", pursuant to which "children who can’t form secure attachments by 18 months face a much worse set of chances for the rest of their lives", a fact that Brooks appears to believe is a revelation but is something you might otherwise learn in psychology 101. Brooks also asserts that "people raised in disrupted circumstances find it harder to control their impulses throughout their lives", something you would think he would understand to undermine his thesis that the tail wags the dog. Does he imagine that families within the bottom thirty percent of wage earners have been moving into neighborhoods in which their children are raised in "disrupted circumstances" because they like run down communities and underfunded schools? Or is that a consequence of the significant reductions in the number of middle class jobs available to workers with fewer job skills, and the overall reduction of wages for most jobs that remain available?

Brooks, like Murray, fixates on an artificial start date as the benchmark for middle class values, an era of cheap higher education, significant economic growth, strong labor organization, and of middle class blue collar jobs that carried good benefits. Brooks could look to many centuries of history preceding that point in time to get an understanding of how an impoverished underclass behaves, and could easily find arguments similar to his own about how it's all a matter of values. Less sympathetic, as in the past it seems people were more willing to attribute bad values to the poor rather than softening things up with terms like "social capital", but there for him to read.

Instead, Brooks focuses on what, by historical standards, is a snapshot. The rise of a significant middle class. Apparently the values that allow for a robust middle class were lying dormant for centuries until they were finally set free in the mid-20th century, only to immediately being to fold in on themselves. And it is those values that led to economic growth, and the growth of job opportunities and wages at the bottom end of the labor pool, the economic realities of the time being irrelevant.

After gently faulting Murray for failing to address "social capital" in his book, Brooks sneers,
Meanwhile, his left-wing critics in the blogosphere have reverted to crude 1970s economic determinism: It’s all the fault of lost jobs. People who talk about behavior are blaming the victim. Anybody who talks about social norms is really saying that the poor are lazy.
That is apparently aimed at Paul Krugman, and particularly the quote I shared above:
Liberal economists haven’t silenced conservatives, but they have completely eclipsed liberal sociologists and liberal psychologists.
If Brooks believes his comment is a fair representation of the position of liberal economists, it can only be ascribed to weak analytical skills. Theirs is not an argument of "It's either economics or values," it's an observation that when you undermine the economic stability of families and communities, you undermine the rewards and incentives that support stronger families and the pursuit of higher education, and increase a significant amount of stress and trauma into families, while undermining their ability to obtain the tools necessary to rise, through such factors as economic distress, economically depressed neighborhoods and weaker schools.
Even noneconomist commentators reduce the rich texture of how disadvantage is actually lived to a crude materialism that has little to do with reality.
I don't know who Brooks is speaking of here, but it's safe to say that it's not the most appropriate target for that criticism - people on the political right who say things like, "How can that family be poor when they have a car, a television, a cellular phone and a microwave oven?"

Brooks declares,
I don’t care how many factory jobs have been lost, it still doesn’t make sense to drop out of high school.
In 1937, George Orwell described the British working class,
This business of petty inconvenience and indignity, of being kept waiting about, of having to do everything at other people's convenience, is inherent in working-class life. A thousand influences constantly press a working man down into a passive role. He does not act, he is acted upon. He feels himself the slave of mysterious authority and has a firm conviction that 'they' will never allow him to do this, that, and the other. Once when I was hop-picking I asked the sweated pickers (they earn something under sixpence an hour) why they did not form a union. I was told immediately that 'they' would never allow it. Who were 'they'? I asked. Nobody seemed to know, but evidently 'they' were omnipotent.

A person of bourgeois origin goes through life with some expectation of getting what he wants, within reasonable limits. Hence the fact that in times of stress 'educated' people tend to come to the front; they are no more gifted than the others and their 'education' is generally quite useless in itself, but they are accustomed to a certain amount of deference and consequently have the cheek necessary to a commander. That they will come to the front seems to be taken for granted, always and everywhere.
And oh, the "disorderliness" of the community,
There is always something to be done, and no conveniences and almost literally not room to turn round. No sooner have you washed one child's face than another's is dirty; before you have washed the crocks from one meal the next is due to be cooked. I found great variation in the houses I visited. Some were as decent as one could possibly expect in the circumstances, some were so appalling that I have no hope of describing them adequately. To begin with, the smell, the dominant and essential thing, is indescribable. But the squalor and the confusion! A tub full of filthy water here, a basin full of unwashed crocks there, more crocks piled in any odd corner, torn newspaper littered everywhere, and in the middle always the same dreadful table covered with sticky oilcloth and crowded with cooking pots and irons and half-darned stockings and pieces of stale bread and bits of cheese wrapped round with greasy newspaper! And the congestion in a tiny room where getting from one side to the other is a complicated voyage between pieces of furniture, with a line of damp washing getting you in the face every time you move and the children as thick underfoot as toadstools!
Orwell noted the impact of high unemployment on people who could not find work,
But there is no doubt about the deadening, debilitating effect of unemployment upon everybody, married or single, and upon men more than upon women. The best intellects will not stand up against it. Once or twice it has happened to me to meet unemployed men of genuine literary ability; there are others whom I haven't met but whose work I occasionally see in the magazines. Now and again, at long intervals, these men will produce an article or a short story which is quite obviously better than most of the stuff that gets whooped up by the blurb-reviewers. Why, then, do they make so little use of their talents? They have all the leisure in the world; why don't they sit down and write books? Because to write books you need not only comfort and solitude--and solitude is never easy to attain in a working-class home--you also need peace of mind. You can't settle to anything, you can't command the spirit of hope in which anything has got to be created, with that dull evil cloud of unemployment hanging over you.
And what of workers whose job skills had become obsolete?
Still, an unemployed man who feels at home with books can at any rate occupy himself by reading. But what about the man who cannot read without discomfort? Take a miner, for instance, who has worked in the pit since childhood and has been trained to be a miner and nothing else. How the devil is he to fill up the empty days? It is absurd to say that he ought to be looking for work. There is no work to look for, and everybody knows it. You can't go on looking for work every day for seven years.
And the influence of consumerism and vice?
Trade since the war has had to adjust itself to meet the demands of underpaid, underfed people, with the result that a luxury is nowadays almost always cheaper than a necessity. One pair of plain solid shoes costs as much as two ultra-smart pairs. For the price of one square meal you can get two pounds of cheap sweets. You can't get much meat for threepence, but you can get a lot offish-and-chips. Milk costs threepence a pint and even 'mild' beer costs fourpence, but aspirins are seven a penny and you can wring forty cups of tea out of a quarter-pound packet. And above all there is gambling, the cheapest of all luxuries. Even people on the verge of starvation can buy a few days' hope ('Something to live for', as they call it) by having a penny on a sweepstake.
You would think that Britain was a hopeless case, and might have imagined that WWII would seal its fate. Oh yes, WWII was the beginning of the end for Great Britain as a world power, but despite the "disorderly", traumatized working class communities, and their emphasis on bling over education, their economic experience mirrored our own, with the rise of a significant middle class including solidly middle class blue collar jobs. Astonishing how similar the behaviors of the working poor of the 1930's are to the behaviors Brooks sees as the cause of the plight of the present working poor - and funny how those values shifted and changed based on wages and job opportunities.

Brooks, from his privileged childhood and exceptionally privileged adulthood, cannot understand why working class kids might drop out of high school. Everything old is new again. Back to Orwell,
To the working class, the notion of staying at school till you are nearly grown-up seems merely contemptible and unmanly.
Brooks no doubt grew up in a household like mine - not in the sense of SES, as I expect his family was exponentially more wealthy than mine, but in the sense of there being a constant expectation that he would attend and complete college. How can somebody not see the value of high school, the most basic academic qualification for entry into the job market? How can somebody not want to at least create a foundation for college, even if they defer enrollment? It has to be a matter of values, not economic, right? But funny how the values that led the sons of coal miners to drop out of school were transformed along with the British economy moving into the 1960's, the starting point for the Brooks/Murray model of middle class values.
The American social fabric is now so depleted that even if manufacturing jobs miraculously came back we still would not be producing enough stable, skilled workers to fill them.
What jobs does Brooks imagine himself to be describing? The jobs held by the legions of Foxconn workers who sit in cubicles for long hours, assembling electronic goods for more affluent and mostly western buyers, before retiring to company dormitories for their night's sleep? The issue isn't that we don't have workers capable of performing that type of task, the problem (if you can call it that) is that the workers of our nation have enough better alternatives that you could not maintain a sufficiently large, stable workforce to keep one of Foxconn's gargantuan company towns in operation. Yes, it would take a considerable amount of time to train a staff of supervisory employees sufficient to oversee such an operation, but that's because no such operations exist in this country. Does Brooks think that the work culture of China's massive manufacturing plants represents a value set our nation needs? Their lives are certainly structured - maybe that's enough for Brooks.

Still convinced that the tail wags the dog, Brooks sees a need "to rebuild orderly communities". Without explaining what policies he in fact endorses, he favors government intervention:
Building organizations and structures that induce people to behave responsibly rather than irresponsibly and, yes, sometimes using government to do so.
But what has actually changed in the "disorderly communities" that Brooks describes, as compared to those that predated the 1960's? Brooks points to out-of-wedlock childbirth, but makes no mention of declining divorce rates or the fact that out-of-wedlock pregnancy was extraordinarily high in the 1950's. Is he arguing for more shotgun weddings, even if they end in divorce? For imposing significant social pressure on young women not to carry their babies to term, or to give their babies up for adoption?

Brooks argues that marriage rates were high during the period between 1912 and 1962, but makes no explanation for why it took fifty years for "middle class values" to emerge and supposedly transform the economy or why, in his mind, those values proved to be so fragile. He argues, "Community groups connected people across class", which I guess means that people used to attend church more regularly. But seriously, marriage rates, in-wedlock births and "community groups" are the only differences he sees between orderly and disorderly communities? With "orderly communities" peaking in the 1960's, little things like this or this get flushed down the memory hole? Yeah, we were all "one big happy".

Brooks closes by arguing, "The depressing lesson of the last few weeks is that the public debate is dominated by people who stopped thinking in 1975." But David Frum (a guy Brooks perhaps believes is a liberal economist) reminded us know who actually stopped thinking in 1975, perhaps a bit earier:
In the first long quoted passage from Coming Apart, I asterisked one of Murray's statistical claims, a claim stating that wages have stagnated for the bottom 50% of the white work force. That claim is true if you draw your line, as Murray does, beginning in 1960. But put your thumb on the left side of the chart, and start drawing the line beginning in 1970. Then you notice that median wages have stagnated for the whole bottom 75%—and that the median wage only begins to show significant improvement over time when you look at the top 5%.
So again, it's values? And somehow the deteriorating values and "disorderly communities" of the bottom 30% of wage earners have caused wages to stagnate or drop for a full 75% of wage earners over a forty year period? Amazing.

Update: Taking issue with Brooks' suggestion that a key issue in the plight of the working poor is their high school graduation rate, Lawrence Mishel responds,
Brooks’ assumption, I guess, is that many workers have low wages because they never completed high school. He’s not alone in thinking that there are a lot of high school dropouts, but this is definitely not true. As the graph shows, the share of the workforce (ages 18-64) who have neither a high school or further degree (including a GED) has dropped tremendously in the last four decades, from 28.5 percent in 1973 to just 8.4 percent in 2011, a trend true among men as well as women.