Archive for the ‘ways of life’ category

Ignorance is no Defense

April 5, 2008

In a New York Times Op-ed (March 30) Kristof raises the critical issue of the remarkable ignorance of Americans. He points out that compared with the people of other developed countries Americans are ignorant as a people and the leaders they select relatively uninformed. He points to numerous studies, showing, for example, the remarkable percentage of people who do not believe in evolution, as well as the general ignorance of Americans of geography outside the USA. Large percentages believe in UFOs, and about 20% believe the sun orbits the earth. In President Bush we probably have the only leader of a modern state who still believes that on evolution “the facts are still out”. Such facts force us to address the question why we have a larger intellectual vacuum at many levels of society than other developed countries?

To effectively address the issue we need to first establish the extent and the nature of the deficit. (I suspect that further investigation would show that the deficit begins with parents and teachers, and is then passed on to the young.) Next, we need to compare the American educational system with the systems of countries that particularly excel us in this regard. By educational system, I mean much more than the classroom. It includes media of all kinds and how they are actually used by people at different economic and cultural levels at different stages of life.

This investigation should be based on and help initiate a larger comparative study of the cultures of developed countries. So many of our critical social and institutional problems could be seen more clearly and be more successfully addressed if the experience of other advanced countries could be incorporated into our agenda for change. To fail to do this would unfortunately reinforce the argument for our comparative intellectual incompetence.

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Sex in an Enlightened Society

March 15, 2008

Elliot Spitzer has been caught in a media and federal web for arranging to meet a prostitute in a Washington hotel. He has now resigned as Governor of New York. This is only the latest in an endless series of political and social tragedies dating back to prehistory. Thinking about this “crime”, several points need to be made.

1. Most people have strong sexual desires from about age 12 to age 60. It is not possible to understand the strength of this desire in your neighbors (for eample, in men “normal” testosterone levels vary from 300 to 1000 units, with attendant effects on behavior)

2. These desires are hard for some people to satisfy within the confines of the social codes of their place and time. These vary widely. For example in Iranian Shiism, “Mut’ah” or “Sigheh” marriage is sanctioned. Some jurists insist that one can only have four sigheh marriages at a time; others disagree. Many societies have allowed sex before marriage, for example to prove fecundity.

3. Some will, inevitably, evade the codes of their social group on occasion.

4. Some societies make evasion a great crime; others understand and live with it. In older tyrannies, whether tribal or national, powerful men generally had access to a wide range of women (as we see in the Old Testament). Modern American and conservative islamic societies head the list of those who make sex outside marriage a major crime. (even in those islamic societies that allow sigheh).

5. “Prostitution” is the term used in our society for the form of evasion for which social or judicial punishment is most commonly exacted.

At this point we should stop and notice that keeping a mistress or having sex at the conclusion of a casual date are generally overlooked in many societies, including our own. Payments in kind seem to be generally accepted, but not in cash.

The Spitzer affair led to a number of op-eds in the NYTimes. Most of them argued that prostitution is not a victimless crime. The writers insist that laws against prostitution should be vigorously enforced, especially against the Johns. The argument is made on the basis that coercion is often involved. However, one prostitute offered an op-ed that said that if prostitution is conducted on a private referral basis, no one is hurt while all parties benefit.

It seems to me that coercion and mistreatment is what should be criminalized. Many service people are mistreated. Laws should perhaps be strengthened to cover coercion in the sex for hire business. Enforcement should be directed especially at the entrepreneurs who bring people across national boundaries for sex, or traffic in underage persons of either sex. If retail prostitution were decriminalized, it would be much easier to gather evidence against the brutality and coercion by pimps and johns that are the real problem.

In an enlightened society, the importance of sexual relations of any kind will be downplayed at the same time that laws will be developed and enforced against any forms of oppression and cruelty in the family or outside it, whether or not sex is involved. It is time to lift society above slavish acceptance of inherited dogmas, deal with people as they are, placing law and condemnation on the side of humanity instead of prejudice.

Secularism Still “Winning”

February 16, 2008

Those readers who might be discouraged by the inability of enlightenment ideas and ideals to replace the dedication to the superstitions of organized religion might be encouraged by reading Alan Wolfe’s “And the Winner is. . .” in the March Atlantic. He argues that the assumption that secular values are losing out to religious values is wrong.

His thesis is based too much, in my opinion, on the fact that the more wealthy countries become, the less religious they are — with the singular exception of the United States. Religious countries do tend to be poor countries, which is perhaps another way of saying that religious countries are relatively uneducated. After all, the pleasant Mr. Huckabee is probably the only major candidate in a while to not believe in the theory of evolution (although President Bush tinkers with the idea, I am not sure he has ideas).

It is remarkable that with all the talk of the evangelical vote and all the hype about Huckabee, and the fierce (if unconventional) religiosity of Romney, the Republican candidate in November will be a moderate, centrist who makes relatively little of his religiosity — while the democratic candidate will stick largely to a secular script with spiritual decorations.

Looking back at the world, the less progressive countries in Europe are the poorer cousins to the east. The rising stars of Asia are largely secular, with the notable exception of the Republic of Korea. A few years ago the secular Congress Party was ousted in India, but the Hindu nationalists have lost their steam and seem to be both less popular and less fanatic. Today’s New York Times tells us that Pakistan is actually much less religious and much less fanatic than we have been led to believe. The real heart of religion in the country is in the Sufi orders, and they notably believe in live and let live. We hear relatively little of them in the news because they are generally apolitical. Elsewhere in the country, the people are sick and tired of the Taliban. In the upcoming parliamentary election, the religious parties are expected to lose out nearly everywhere, including the Northwest Frontier Province.

Another strong current within the religious communities, even in the Middle East and Africa, is an evangelism that sees religion as the road to wealth and pleasure. This new current is found in Egypt and Nigeria. In the latter, there is even a competition between a Christian and Muslim versions of this gospel of wealth and pleasure. This may be religion, but I doubt it is what the enlightened have feared.

Existentialism, or the Missing Ingredient?

July 24, 2007

The other day I read about a popular Harvard professor who was still attached to the existentialists of the recent past, such as Sartre and Camus. Without knowing much about them, I too have thought that something like existentialism must be the life philosophy of the enlightened. Unfortunately, when I then went back and looked a little at what the existentialists had to say, I was not so enamored. What I think I like is the word and the bare bones of thought that go along with it.

I have long realized that rational, enlightenment thinking does not meet all the needs of real human beings. They need some basis on which to answer the larger questions, such as “Why”. Why are we here at all. What comes before and after us as individuals and a race of beings? If the world will someday end as a frozen blob or else a fiery sphere, why do we work so hard for good outcomes for ourselves or others in the short run that we are necessarily confined to?

To me, existentialism is the philosophy that meets these questions head on. The answer, basically, is that these are all unanswerable questions. All we can do is understand as much as we can about our own lives and those around us and make all we contact feel better about what they do and can do. We must all be heroes continuing into uncharted darkness. We must all arbitrarily shorten our grasp of time to what we can comprehend and to some degree affect.

I exist, you exist, our communities exist, and the world and everything in it exists. Let us live with this existence as best we can, and enhance existence according to our own lights.

Economics 101: A New Look

July 12, 2007

When I was a beginning “soft social scientist” around 1950, it was always assumed that there was only one “hard” social science — economics. The reasoning was simple. Economics dealt with real figures and it used mathematics to manipulate these figures. This had been the road to success of the natural sciences and it was assumed it would soon be that of all science. Psychology, political science, and sociology are still struggling with this assumption.

Meanwhile, over in economics, there seems to be something of a revolt. More and more economists are starting to reject dependence on “hard numbers” and on simplistic mathematical formulae. A long article in the New York Times (July 11) refers to some of these revolutionaries and their arguments. As one says, “Economics is often a triumph of theory over fact.” They are starting to notice that open markets and free trade are not always good, that the level playing field is never level, and the players may have quite different goals. They are noting that government regulation is not always bad, particularly when compared with absence of regulation.

Of course, one alternative to mainstream economics has been “behavioral economics”, which is rather closer to sociology. It has been a round for a good while, but seems to be having a renaissance.

I particularly noted that the conversion of some economists to the new thinking was based on studies of the actual effects of the minimum wage. It has been a basis tenet of standard economics that the minimum drives up costs for everyone and puts many people out of work. However, a recent study in New Jersey showed that an increase in the minimum wage actually resulted in a rise in employment. I was struck by this because when I was at the Hudson Institute in the 1960s, an institute heavily infused with the standard economics, I had occasion to look at studies of what happens when minimum wages were imposed or raised. Unlike what our speakers confidently asserted, I could not find a study that supported their opposition to the minimum wage. The vaunted association of minimum wage and unemployment was a good example of a triumph of theory over fact.

All this is becoming increasingly important as we struggle with the demands of globalization. On the one side are those who will profit from it (large corporations and some poor countries especially) and the economic fraternity that treats opponents like biologists treat the critics of evolution. On the other side are those who will clearly suffer in the short term and those who are not attracted to the vision of a thoroughly homogenized world. The economics of globalization needs at least a long hard look that goes far beyond the attractiveness of shifting production to the country with the greatest comparative advantage.

Comparisons

July 12, 2007

One notices that the enlightenment value given to inter-country comparisons in the consideration of policy is becoming more generally recognized. This is particularly true in regard to medical systems, as many writers have recognized that the United States has lagging infant mortality and longevity rates at the same time that it has by far the most expensive health system in the world.

Taking off from this, a recent NYT Op-Ed (July 5) informally asks friends in Italy to compare the country with the U.S. Of course, health care is first on the list and Italy is far ahead. As to leisure, America ranks last among developed countries in the number of guaranteed days off. Twenty-five percent of Americans have no vacation days. The average American takes 13 days vacation a year; the average Italian 42. We work 100 hours a year more than even the Japanese. The Europeans do pay more taxes, but they do not invert the tax pyramid, as is American practice. As Warren Buffett has pointed out, he paid a 17% tax on his taxable income last year while his receptionist paid 30%.

The author concludes, however, by pointing to one area where he believes America shines. There appears to be more equality of opportunity than in other advanced states and there is certainly less prejudice against ethnic minorities. Italians and advanced peoples are on the surface, at least, much more inclined to put down those who belong to other groups than their own.

Wikipedia and Enlightenment

July 10, 2007

A recent New York Times magazine article on Wikipedia (Magazine, July 1) reminded me just how significant this encyclopedia is. It provides an instant access, free source of knowledge on almost anything (now over 1.8 million articles in the English section alone; it offers articles in 250 languages). Anyone can contribute, adding anything from a misplaced comma to an extensive research article with footnotes. The enterprise is run by a non-profit foundation, controlled by a small board. There are 30 “stewards” and 1200 administrators. The “admins” are the only ones who have the power to check content, remove articles or additions, and even permanently ban certain persons from access. Everyone involved seems to take their responsibilities with the utmost seriousness. The amount of work put in by all contributors, but especially the administrators, is mind boggling — and all for free. (I would think it would not hurt to develop a compensation policy, but this could weaken the monkish self-abnegation that seems to infect all involved.)

In spite of the way in which it is organized, and the lack of “recognized authorities” behind its articles, studies have shown that it is about as accurate per line as the Encyclopedia Britannica. Another study here found that experts rated Wikipedia articles as more accurate that nonexperts unfamiliar with the material. My own experience is that it is often a waste of time to use the Internet for information on a topic. It is much easier to just go to Wikipedia and review their material. The great success of this “democratic” approach to knowledge compilation reminds one of the success of juries in most kinds of trials and of recent studies that have shown that a group of non-experts will come to decisions at least as useful as experts (which is not to say that in manifold ways, the contributors to Wikipedia are not themselves “experts”).

The project is guided by what are called the five pillars.

The first and more general pillar defines the enterprise as an encyclopedia, which is not a place for personal opinions or trivia. It is not a soapbox or a directory etc.

The second pillar sets the objective as “a neutral point of view”. The user or contributor is told that “verifiable, authoritative sources should be used whenever possible, especially on controversial topics. When a conflict arises as to which version is the most neutral, declare a cool-down period and tag the article as disputed; hammer out details on the talk page and follow dispute resolution”.

The third pillar is that it is free and entries can be changed by anyone. All revisions are kept, so that the article can be changed back to an earlier form if necessary. No copyrighted material is allowed.

The fourth pillar emphasizes the importance of good manners by all involved. There should be no editing wars. Good faith should be assumed on the part of all involved.

The fifth pillar is that there are no firm rules. People should be bold in editing and writing. Perfection is not required. They are reminded that all prior versions are kept, so there is no need to fear the destruction of good material.

What seemed truly remarkable to the writer of the NYT piece was the dedication of those involved to these principles. He particularly noted that in an age in which many social scientists and literary critics have concluded that it is naive to believe neutrality is possible or that there is “a truth”, he has found a community in which these values are treasured. Noting that most of those deeply involved in the project (including many admins) are in the 20-35 age group, and many are still in high school, he asks “Where did they learn these values?” What this suggests is that there are thousands of teachers throughout this country who are instilling in the young firmly held educational values in spite of the chaos that surrounds so much of modern life.

The Wikipedia phenomenon is one of the most hopeful signs of the possibility of a new age of enlightenment that I have come across.