Sunday, December 20, 2009

Traditions connect generations; don’t give up on them

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune Star, 12/20/09

TERRE HAUTE — “If you guys buy an artificial Christmas tree, I’m leaving.” Although I don’t recall writing it, I found that note in my hand writing in one of the numerous boxes of my parents’ precious pictures and papers. The handwriting and paper it was written on leads me to think I was 14 or 15 when I wrote it.

Two things struck me when I read it: First, why was I so strongly against the idea of an artificial Christmas tree and, second, why did my mother keep the note.

Coincidentally, a few hours before I found that note I had suggested to my wife that we consider buying an artificial tree. She was surprised that I suggested it (“I’m surprised you, of all people, would suggest that.”) We didn’t make any decision but later that evening she found the note I’d written more than 30 years ago, and I’m looking at our real tree as I write this. I guess my disdain for artificial trees is obvious to my family.

No one should be surprised that people respond passionately, angrily and/or forcefully to change, especially when that which is changing carries a lot of meaning for them. I’ve tried to remember writing that note, I can’t. But I recall tensions at Christmas time related to the traditions in our home. My dad always put up outside Christmas lights, but he never varied what he did. It was always exactly the same. Sometimes my mom would suggest a change. I think we changed the color of the light in the cupola once. Our tree was always very similar, though a couple of years we put it in a different room. I do recall when the mini lights arrived in stores, my dad liked them and wanted to give them a try. My mom was not pleased. One year we had a tree with a mixture of mini lights and the older larger lights. The older style lights meant something to my mother, perhaps something similar to my “line in the sand” regarding real trees.

People attach much meaning to rituals and traditions and no more so than at this time of the year. My parents continued to leave milk and cookies for Santa Claus for years beyond the time I was a child. Those rituals and traditions seem to take on added importance during times of change. And in today’s society, change is constant. Don’t be surprised if family members are crankier about family traditions this year. The last year has been full of change and it is the end of the decade.

I think it has become traditional and ritual for some to express outrage at what they see as the diminution of “Christmas” in both the public and commercial spheres. Lamenting the increasing commercialization of Christmas has been going on as long as I can remember. Nevertheless, there is no evidence whatsoever that the trend is abating. Indeed, the success of the commercialization of Christmas now seems critical to the health of our economy. And the commercialization of Christmas assures that anything controversial (like the greetings that shoppers receive when they enter the store, the music played on the intercom) will continue to move toward what the retailers think is the least offensive until a seasonal greeting and seasonal music is all but eliminated. Some would argue that point is already here.

Traditions and rituals connect generations and they demonstrate the importance of “our” values. My mother was a very complicated person. No one was particularly good at understanding why she did some things, including her. But I suspect that she kept that note I wrote so long ago because she saw it as validation of “our” values.

One of my family’s Christmas Eve traditions is changing this year. I haven’t written any passionate notes about it, but I am searching for some kind of compromise/alternative. My kids have suggested the change and I guess I am glad that they care about our Christmas Eve traditions. And I want to work with them, but I admit to feeling a bit sad, which surprises me. Sometimes we don’t realize how much “silly traditions” mean to us until someone suggests changing them. This year, indulge a family member who insists on a “silly tradition.”

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Americans’ opinion on access to abortion unwavering

Originally published in the Terre Haute Tribune-Star, 11/22/09

A CBS News poll of adults taken in early October asked: “Which of these comes closest to your view? Abortion should be generally available to those who want it. Or, Abortion should be available, but under stricter limits than it is now. Or, Abortion should not be permitted.” Forty-one percent indicated generally available, 35 percent stricter limits, 20 percent indicated it should not be permitted and 4 percent were unsure. On Nov. 7, the Congress voted 55 percent to 45 percent to impose stricter limits on abortion through the Stupak Amendment that restricts the use of public monies in either the “public option,” insurance exchanges or in use of insurance credits. Adding together those who indicated stricter limits and those who oppose abortion entirely, you account for 55 percent of the adults polled. has compiled the results of 349 polls of Americans on the subject of abortion covering more than 30 years.

Examining these polls, I’m struck how consistent the results are, how little change there is across the years. For instance, Gallup asked a similar question in April 1975, “Do you think abortions should be legal under any circumstances, legal only under certain circumstances, or illegal in all circumstances?” Twenty-one percent indicated legal under any circumstances, 54 percent legal only under certain circumstances, 22 percent illegal in all circumstances, and 3 percent were unsure. Gallup last asked this question in July ‘09, the findings were virtually the same, 21 percent, 57 percent, 18 percent, and 4 percent.

Time/CNN polled in April 1989, asking: “Do you favor or oppose the Supreme Court ruling that women have the right to have an abortion during the first three months of their pregnancy?” Fifty-four percent favored, 39 percent opposed, and 7 percent were unsure. The same question was asked in January 2003 (the most recent for this question) and the results were nearly identical: 55 percent, 40 percent and 5 percent.

Anyone who follows public opinion on the abortion issue knows that public opinion has remained stable since the 1973 Roe v Wade. So, why does the controversy still rage so hotly? It lies in understanding what the poll results really say.

While public opinion doesn’t seem to change, abortion law, availability and access have. Perhaps the first legal restriction was passed in 1976 in Missouri, a parental notification law, which now at least 35 states have. A spousal notification law was passed in Pennsylvania, but the U.S. Supreme Court overturned it in 1992. Twenty-four states have a mandatory waiting or counseling period before a woman can get an abortion. In 1976, the Hyde Amendment banned appropriated funds for the Department of Health and Human Services to be used for abortion services. The effect of these and other measures is to restrict the access or availability of abortion to women, despite the overall public support for the Roe decision. Harris Polls, taken 14 times since 1973 and last taken in 2009, consistently show a majority favoring the Roe decision. The Supreme Court has at least four times upheld Roe in subsequent rulings.

The movement has been to restrict abortion either through direct laws such as parental notification laws, waiting periods or restricting access through funding restrictions. Compared to the mid 1970s, the availability of abortion is much less than what it used to be. Yet, support for more restrictions remains constant. When those who support more restrictions combine with those who oppose abortion, we can expect more and more restrictions.

I wish pollsters would ask a question about abortion similar to one they have asked over the years about gun control: “In general, do you feel that the laws covering the sale of firearms should be made more strict, less strict or kept as they are now?: Asking about keeping laws, availability or access as it is now, would be very telling about where the future of abortion availability will head. With gun laws, 78 percent favored stricter laws in 1990, and as gun laws got stricter, public opinion shifted to keeping things as they are, from 17 percent in 1990 to 43 percent in October 2009 (Gallup Poll).

Unlike American’s opinion on gun control, which seems to respond to changes in those laws, American’s opinion on abortion seems “inelastic” with respect to the availability or access to abortion services. A coalition of those who favor stricter laws or narrowed availability and those who oppose abortion in any circumstances, suggests women’s ability to exercise their constitutional right will continue to be narrowed. Perhaps pro-choice groups could learn something from pro-gun groups about defending a constitutional right in face of political majorities to restrict it.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Working hard isn't enough for some living in poverty

Previously published in theTerre Haute Tribune Star, 10/25/09

If the United States contained only 100 people, how many would be living in poverty? According to a September 2009 US Census publication, “Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2008, based on data collected in March 2009 (Current Population Survey), 13.2 individuals would be living in poverty. After living in Indiana and Vigo County for over 20 years, one thing I’ve learned is how proud we are to be different than other places. And certainly Vigo County is different when it comes to poverty.

According to the most recent data available on poverty in Vigo County (2007), 15.4 individuals out of 100 were living in poverty. Keep in mind the Vigo County data is taken prior to the financial meltdown in 2008. The US rate then was 12.5 percent.

Figure 1 shows the percent of persons living at or below the poverty line in 2007 for Vigo County and its border counties. True to Vigo County exceptionalism, we stand out, with the highest poverty rate in the area. Is there any credible evidence that as the US’ poverty rate climbs, that Vigo’s is heading down? Already I can hear those who don’t want to confront the facts; college students are not counted in the census unless they make Vigo County their residence, otherwise they are counted as part of their parents’ household and prisoners are not counted in poverty statistics.

While there is ample data on poverty for the US as a whole, detailed data on local communities is much sparser. But a comparison of current US statistics with detailed local statistics from the 2000 US Census is revealing in how exceptional poverty is in Vigo County. However, we follow the trend when it comes to female poverty, it strikes harder at females everywhere. Figure 2 shows female poverty rates by age. What is most revealing about Figure 2, is that poverty hits younger people the hardest. This was not always true, once, less than 100 years ago, poverty struck hardest at the elderly, but government programs, especially Social Security, new public policies protecting pension plans, Medicare and Medicaid, transformed the “face” of poverty from one of single, elderly people, to children and women.

Figure 3 shows how disproportionate the impact of poverty is on children. Almost one-quarter of every child in Vigo County, 10 years ago, was living in poverty. What about today? Nearly one in five pre-schoolers live in poverty. How does that affect their education and personal development? Should we blame the children for their poverty status the same way we blame their parents?

Poverty is not an equal opportunity. Indeed, poverty strikes much harder at minority people. Figure 4 shows rates of poverty for the US and for Vigo County by race and ethnicity. So many people object to policies like Affirmative Action, but few seem to object to what seems like a racial preference program for poverty. The odds of living in poverty, if you are “different”, is nearly double in Vigo County and nearly triple in Vigo County compared to the US as a whole.

One reason why poverty is so hard to alleviate in the US compared to other industrial democracies is because of our long cultural history of Protestant-individualism. In short, we tend to blame those in poverty for their situation. We believe that poverty is caused by the presence of poor people, both materially, culturally, and morally. One of the most persistent myths about poverty, which emerged in the early 1980s, is that of generational poverty. Yet, according to the US Census bureau, in the 48 month period from 2003 to 2007, only 1.8 percent of the US population fell below the poverty line for all 48 months. People move in and out of poverty; the rates, however, stay stubbornly persistent.

Poverty is a social condition. It is a structural feature of our society. Yes, that is a sociological insight which, in a society so inoculated to the presence of poverty, in a county where high rates of poverty have been normalized to the point that most of us who live here don’t even notice it, a statement like “poverty is a structural feature of our society” is pretty abstract and likely meaningless. Maybe these examples will help.

Figure 5 shows the federal poverty guidelines for 2009. Currently minimum wage is $7.25 an hour. Working full time and for a full year, a worker at the minimum wage would earn $14500. That is 130% of the poverty income threshold for a one person family. Make that person a single-mother with a child and working full time at minimum wage lands her in poverty. In short, public policy mandates that people be paid a minimum wage that is at or below the poverty level. Hence, the willingness to work and work hard at any job is not good enough to escape poverty.

According to the most recent Occupational Outlook Handbook (OOH), published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the third fastest growing occupation in the US is that of home health aide. The BLS notes that this job requires very little training, limited to short, on-the-job training. Hence, anyone can do it, who is physically able. And currently almost 900 thousand people do, with opportunities growing daily. Home health aides earn on average $21,400, or below the poverty threshold for a family of four. The question to ask is not why would anyone do this work, but instead, the question should be, we need nearly 900 thousand people to do this work, who is going to do it? Poverty assures that we have people to do it as well as such jobs help create the structural poverty in our society.

One of the largest occupations in the US is known by the BLS as “Laborers and Freight, Stock, and Material Movers, Hand,” a precise and clinical term for “back labor.” The OOH notes this job, like home health aides is easily learned, with a short, on-the-job training. Anyone can do it, who is physically able. And over 2.3 million people do and earn, on the average, $24,690, just above the poverty level for a family of four. These jobs may pay a wage that keeps people just above the official poverty threshold, but one dollar above the threshold doesn’t change much, except reduces one’s access to many services…hence, just above the official poverty thresholds might actually be worse.

Understand that our society needs home health aides and needs people to move boxes around in warehouses and to load UPS and FedEx trucks. In just these two occupations, we are accounting for 3 million people, 2.7 percent of the labor force. There are many, many more low income jobs, that require little training or education, that pay low wages. When I state poverty is a structural feature of our society, this is what I am talking about. Our society needs these people to do this work. If everyone earns PhDs, that just means there will be PhDs doing that kind of work and for similarly low pay.

If “hard work” is a core value of the United States, what does it say when hard work is rewarded with poverty? For millions of Americans and thousands of Vigo Countians, working hard isn’t enough.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Wine-and-cheese Marxists or vodka-and-borscht Burkians--they still rant

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune Star, 8/13/2009
This summer I took a break from the blogosphere. Last week when I returned to my familiar trek through it, the shrill rhetoric from all points, right-left-center, was so off-putting that I felt like I had been dropped into a shriek fest. This is progress from reading two or three good daily newspapers?
The rant of the moment was President Obama’s pablum speech to the nation’s school children about the importance of staying in school. With a high school graduation rate among the lowest in the industrialized world, 70 percent or so, I suppose among all the other pressing issues that President Obama must focus, a speech to youth about the importance of staying in school is plausibly justifiable. I doubt the speech will “move the needle” on the high school graduation rate and since the speech doesn’t signify (another new) policy to “fix the nation’s” schools, I don’t expect much “impact” from this event.
Yet, apparently there are many who fear that President Obama addressing K-12 students about the importance of staying in school will have an impact. It will spawn a new generation of socialist/commie/fascists. The slurs of socialism, communism, and fascism, are so shrill and ill-used that it is laughable but this kind of response has caused schools to expend limited resources on notifying parents of the interloper Obama with his controversial messages (“The story of America isn’t about people who quit when things got tough, it’s about people who kept going, who tried harder, who loved their country too much to do anything less than their best.”) to the students in our schools and the creation of alternatives to keep the students occupied. As parsed as the school day is already, what valuable time will be lost in teaching to the state mandated tests?
The left wing has it’s “wine and cheese” Marxists, those well educated, high earning, and portfolio managed who sneer at the workings of capitalism, who posture by choosing to invest in or purchase from “socially responsible” dividend paying firms, and who send their children to private schools to keep them away from the “riff raff.” The right wing has their “vodka and borscht” Burkians, who rant at every government “intervention,” who label everything they dislike socialist or communist, who wish to live according to late 18th century policies but unlike the Amish who pretty much do live in the late 18th century, aren’t willing to do much beyond rant.
Just as the wine and cheese Marxists aren’t going to do anything to threaten their interests such as helping to organize workers and poor people into a political force or abandoning the Democratic Party in favor of a more labor oriented party where the interests of workers are front and center instead of Wall Streeters, the vodka and borscht Burkians aren’t going to do anything to undermine the “socialized” aspects of our country like prisons, law enforcement, the court system, or public schools. How many of the vodka and borscht Burkians are going to refuse to eat food grown with an agricultural subsidy? How many will organize a tax protest and refuse to pay taxes that go for roads, police, parks, and licensing boards for such occupations as physicians, dentists, lawyers, school teachers, plumbers, barbers, and the list could go on and on? All of these are “interventions” in the free market, hence, socialism, right? And the cost of funding these interventions are paid for by all of us, whether we use them or not. Sounds like socialism. Yet, I suspect the same groups who rant about “socialism” are the first to line up to support more money for prisons, more for police, more for the military. These are three of the most “socialistic” institutions in the US. Why aren’t the vodka and borscht Burkians demanding that the military be run like Wal-Mart? For the same reason that the wine and cheese Marxists aren’t leaving the Democratic Party for mouthing concern about cutting taxes on the rich.
As ill-informed as the ranters seem to be, Thomas Jefferson’s belief that "If a nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be" (from a letter to Charles Yancy, 1816) seems especially timely. At a time when information is so available, so free of gatekeepers, that a technologically sophisticated people would seek only to validate its fears over reason and understanding, seems a triumph for those who would traffic in fear and ignorance, the antithesis of civilization.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

That's Entertainment! (Are We Talking About College?)

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune Star (1 September 2009)

“Are we going to have fun today?” A student asked me that question at the beginning of a class this summer. Summer classes are, contrary to popular belief, more intense than regular classes. Indeed, this particular class was a special class that involved class meetings for nearly six hours a day for two weeks, an entire semester’s worth of work in two weeks. I told the students and their parents less than 48 hours before that this would be the most demanding academic challenge any of them had undertaken. The question about having fun was a statement about expectations than anything else.

This student’s question/statement triggered something that has been nagging at me for some time. After attending a high school open house and listening to the principal’s welcome, where again “fun” was a central message, the message finally got through my thick skull…”school” is not fun, but we offer other attractions that are.

In the last three years, I’ve been on college tours with my daughters. At this point, I have toured a dozen or more . There is a rhythm to the presentations the schools make and they follow one of two. Either the rhythm is “fun, fun, fun, academics” or “academics, academics, academics, fun.” I’ve toured both public and private, big and small campuses, and the rhythm isn’t really related to those distinctions. Indeed, the loudest “academics, academics, academics, fun” rhythm was on a large public university. When did learning and fun become mutually exclusive?

The usual college tour is conducted by a current student. Often parents ask questions of the student guide like “why did you choose this school?” or “what has been your favorite class so far?” Inevitably “fun” is part of the answer, even eating in the cafeterias is described as “fun.”

“Fun” is used so much to describe the college experience that it seems to lose its meaning (at least for over-thinking folks like me). Maybe fun means “enjoyable.” So, when the campus is described as “fun” it is enjoyable. It could mean “acceptance.” The students are fun here because I can find people who accept me. It could mean “I’m happy.” The beauty of some of these campuses would make the sourest person happy. One school’s campus was an arboretum.

Nevertheless, I don’t really think that is what “fun” means in these contexts. I think it means “entertaining.” The fun message is really saying, “come here and we’ll entertain you for four years.” Students increasingly expect everything to be entertaining, hence “fun.” One school I recently toured spent an incredible amount of time talking up one of its sports teams. Few people participate in the sport itself, rather, the “fun” is being entertained by the team on its way to another championship. Even the school’s president was described as “fun.”

I’m not bashing students; they reflect our culture. The pursuit of “happiness” is a core value of our society. “Fun” is part of that pursuit. Learning and formal learning (education) has long been a path to pursuing happiness. The US has never been a society where formal learning was a goal in itself, rather it is a means to an end. Colleges are better known today by their role in the entertainment industry (big time college sports) than by accomplishments in their core mission, despite the efforts of public relations and information offices.

The juxtaposition of academic work and fun seems to send a negative message about academic work. When did it become necessary that academics be “fun,” or entertaining? For some students, some classes are fun because it stimulates an interest they have or they discover a talent for a particular subject. For others, learning calculus is a gateway to designing technology to deliver communication signals across a radio spectrum.

Entertainment, especially “spectating,” is a passive activity. Surfing the internet, watching YouTube videos, and even catching up with friends on Facebook are mostly passive entertainment forms. Learning is not. Learning requires effort ; it is not passive. Entertainment is not hard, it is easy, it is something we consume. Education (learning) is something we do, or at least we should be doing. If you follow the “issues” in higher education, one of the bigger issues is “retention,” or keeping first-year students persisting to the second and on to graduation. If part of the retention problem is student expectations of being entertained, no wonder they exit.

Oops. Time to get ready for class. Now, where is my clown suit and ventriloquist dummy?

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Cash for Clunkers

The CARS program, more affectionately known as "Cash for Clunkers," is gaining more opposition as it shows more success. let's be real here, this is a stimulus plan for the American Car Companies, and certainly it is doing that. Ads around where I live show that with the rebate, one can get an economicaly car for a damn good price; one dealer is doubling the bonus...taking 9k off the price. I checked today to see if my "clunker" a 91 Plymouth Acclaim qualified (it doesn't).

Interesting that Fox News slams the program as early claims are that the average mpg of vehicles traded in is 10 mpg less than what people are driving away with.

some of the controversy comes from the destruction of the cars. This takes energy (as does building a new car). yes, these criticisms are accurate, but then let's be honest and all recycling is just down cycling, not true recycling. These criticisms are coming from fairly radical environmentalists. If we narrowly look at just transportation, the savings in mpg, assuming that people will not double their driving due to the increased mpg, we are saving gasoline. Some people will undoubtedly drive more, just as people who switch to compact flourescent bulbs, leave the lights on longer since cost is the driver, not energy consumption

Addendum to previous post

In my newspaper essay I complained about poor journalism around the healthcare debate. Finally somebetyer journalism. This week's Time has a chartehst shows how major features of the proposals would effect people in different demographic groups; both ppsitives and negatives. The chart also outlines the major players in the debate like insurance companies, docs, and others this is much better .

Monday, August 3, 2009

Specifics of Health Care Reform Need Examination

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune-Star, 8/2/09

What does health care reform, education reform, and campaign reform have in common? Other than repeated attempts to “fix” without much success, public opinion on these topics shows similar patterns. Significant majorities of people polled agree that the present system is broken, that reforms are needed, but those same people also report their health care plan, their local schools, and their elected officials are fine. In short, my situation is fine but everyone else’s is fouled up. Recent polls on the current run of “health care reform theatre” indicate Americans don’t want to pay for health reform. Such is the behavioral effects of payroll deductions.

How should policy makers understand such polls? Without specifics, it is very difficult to make sense of them. Polls show significant proportions of Americans think the system needs changing but at the same time “don’t change my situation.” No wonder opposition to any change is so effective. All the opposition has to do is to scare people into thinking that their situation might change and reform is defeated. The only way to break the logjam is to focus on specifics. Specifics, however, are often difficult to find.

I’ve spent quite a bit reading the “America’s Affordable Health Choices Act of 2009.” This is the House’s version of health care reform. The Bill is 1028 pages long. I’ve read about a quarter of the bill. I’m a reasonably informed and literate person. I am having a very difficult time trying to understand exactly what this bill is going to do. Oh, the House committee makes it easy with fact sheets about what is contained in the bill, but other than the claims made, it is very difficult to see how those claims will be achieved.

Some features are easy to see: the bill, if enacted, would extend coverage to most of the uninsured. The dreaded exclusion of previous existing medical conditions would be gone, and there will be a public option health care plan modeled closely on Medicare. Polls could be done on these specifics: do you support or not support ?

Other aspects, like cost savings, are more difficult to understand. How the plan creates savings is complex. Extending insurance coverage to everyone will save money because fewer people will use the most expensive options for health care…..the emergency room. Okay, that sounds like it will work. Beyond that, I don’t get it. Taxing the richest families among us? There is not enough money there to put much of a dent in the cost of extending coverage to all. And, there are added costs. The administration of who is in, the additions to the tax code, the extra regulation of business, the new bureaucracy that will be created to oversee the public option and so on makes me wonder if the “savings” will even cover those new costs.

Few are going to read this bill. I wouldn’t except I decided to write this essay. So, we informed folk rely on journalists and advocacy groups to inform us. The pro groups and pro journalists pretty much just repeat the fact sheets the House committee has prepared or White House talking points. Journalists don’t provide much critical or objective examination of the proposed changes. They prefer to focus on the political machinations instead. And the anti groups and anti journalists rely on fear of possible unintended consequences (or secret conspiracies) like ending all private insurance or the dreaded “socialism.” There is nothing in the bill’s first quarter that suggests the government would hire doctors and open up separate health care facilities for people, even on the public option. The model is Medicare, not the VA. (The VA is a version of socialized medicine.) Even in countries with single payer systems like Canada and Great Britain, private health insurance, for those who can afford it, flourishes.

No doubt there are more specifics in the remaining 750 pages of the bill I didn’t read. Based on what I did read, I (and my family) would benefit from ending the practice of excluding previously existing medical conditions and having the right to choose other than what our employers offer. (That one of us has Anthem, choice would be welcome given the local situation with Union Hospital). These are two specific parts of the House plan that I suspect would be very popular if pollsters asked the right questions and journalists reported with more depth and a little more complexity

Friday, July 31, 2009

If health care reform is socialism, then why isn't this socialism?

Why isn't the huge income tax deduction on mortgage interest socialism? Why isn't the gas for clunkers program socialism? Why isn't public schools socialism, why aren't energy tax credits socialism? Why isn't ant tax deduction or rebate or any thing like that socialism?

Wouldn't ant market transfer that doesn't/generate (or have the possibility to generate) a profit be socialism?

Monday, July 27, 2009

I smell a fart, thus I am disgusted by immorality.

I don't normally copy an entire article and past it here, but I found this fascinating. Now, I think as provocative as this is, the graphs it seem to me are not starkly different, and I wonder if there is not something else going on here. for instance, there a are multiple dimensions to morality, "disgust" being only one of them, and different people "load" on different dimensions in different ways. Perhaps those who load heavily on disgust are affected by manipulation of the disgust or cleanliness factor more than others. Nevertheless.....this is interesting given the debate between whether morality is a "god-thing" or something that emanates from our brains.

How wrong is it to use a kitten for personal sexual pleasure? Depends on whether you've washed your hands
Category: Emotion • Reasoning • Research • Social
Posted on: April 23, 2009 3:55 PM, by Dave Munger

Imagine the following scenario:

Matthew is playing with his new kitten late one night. He is wearing only his boxer shorts, and the kitten sometimes walks over his genitals. Eventually, this arouses him, and he begins to rub his bare genitals along the kitten's body. The kitten purrs, and seems to enjoy the contact. How wrong is it for Matthew to be rubbing himself against the kitten?
Or how about this one:

You find a wallet with several hundred dollars in cash, along with credit cards including an American Express Gold Card and ID locating the owner's home in the richest neighborhood in town. You're barely making ends meet. How wrong is it for you to keep the cash and anonymously mail the wallet back to the owner?
These are questions of morality, which many people believe we can answer based on reason alone. But a couple of recent studies suggest that seemingly unrelated local circumstances can affect how we perceive the morality of scenarios such as this. A team led by Simone Schnall asked students walking outside on a college campus to answer questions about scenarios like this, rating them on a scale of 1 (extremely immoral) to 7 (perfectly okay). The catch was that they had rigged a trash can near the experimenters' desk with fart spray. Some respondents read and rated the stories in the presence of a mild stink (four sprays of fart scent), some had a strong scent (eight sprays), and a lucky third group completed the experiment with no scent at all. Here are the results:

This graph shows the combined average ratings of several different scenarios, like marrying or having sex with a cousin, falsifying a résumé, or filming a documentary without permission of those being interviewed. The combined ratings were significantly lower -- more immoral -- when the survey was conducted in the presence of fart smell. Schnall's team says that this demonstrates that our moral judgment is affected by disgust: we're harsher in our moral judgments when we're disgusted (a post-test confirmed that those who smelled the fart spray were significantly more disgusted than the others). Interestingly, the quantity of fart spray didn't matter: despite the fact that everyone agreed that more fart spray smelled worse, the moral judgments weren't different depending on how much spray was used.

In three additional experiments, the researchers confirmed that disgusting smells weren't solely to blame. They had students rate scenarios in a disgusting office (with a sticky desk and old pizza boxes overflowing the trash can), after watching a disgusting movie, and after recalling a time when they were disgusted. The results were similar: People who are more disgusted express stronger moral outrage at questionable scenarios such as eating your dog after it's killed in a car crash, or flipping a railyard switch to save five people from a crash but causing the death of another person.

But if manipulating people to feel disgusted causes stricter moral judgments, might it be possible to manipulate emotion in a different way to cause moral laxity? Working with a new team, Schnall gave a new group a students similar tests of morality, but instead of evoking disgust, the experimenters primed students to think about cleanliness and purity. In one of their experiments, the students washed their hands before completing the survey (the experimenters explained that the office they'd be working in was kept extremely tidy by the professor who occupied it). Here are the results:

This time the rating scale was reversed (9 = Completely Wrong; 0 = Perfectly Okay). The students who washed their hands said that the scenarios were significantly less immoral than those who didn't wash their hands. In another experiment, thoughts about purity were induced by a word-scrambling task; and the students who unscrambled words like "pure," "washed," and "immaculate" again rated the scenarios as less immoral than those who unscrambled neutral words.

So the context in which we make moral decisions matters quite a lot. Moving from disgusted to neutral thoughts leads to a significant change in moral attitude, and moving from neutral to pure thoughts causes yet another change. We don't appear to make moral decisions with cold rationality or consistency -- even when we're assessing the how wrong it is to masturbate with a kitten.

Schnall, S., Benton, J., & Harvey, S. (2008). With a Clean Conscience: Cleanliness Reduces the Severity of Moral Judgments Psychological Science, 19 (12), 1219-1222 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2008.02227.x
Schnall, S., Haidt, J., Clore, G., & Jordan, A. (2008). Disgust as Embodied Moral

The Police, the Professor, and the President

EGads. This has really turned into a big story out of stuff that happens too much in the US. President Obama should have stayed mum on it. He may think he is the philosopher king and this was a teachable moment, then he needs to do more than to remark on a case, where he couldn't have known the facts. His remark was inflammatory to be boot.

I just finished reading the police report, which Lawrence O'Donnell on MSNBC said proves false arrest on the lead in to Keith Olberman....yeah. Well, I guess I don't see it.

I'm not taking sides here. I think this stuff happens too often in the US and white America doesn't want to deal with it. Gates, if the police report is true, wasn't making his case very well. As eloquent and influential as Professor GAtes is, he should have just complied and then called a press conference. This is assuming he was making a scence (at his house, but come on, I'm white, such a thing is not likely to happen to me, but if it did, I'd comply, then complain like hell.

This is an issue for the City of Cambridge, not to waste time when we have so many serious things to wrestle with, like whether President Obama is a US citizen or not (another too silly non-issue).

We are invovled in two wars, we are in the worst economic downturn in a generation, we are on the brink of major health care reform, we have an energy problem, and we are expending immense energy on an arrest, correct or not, of a Harvard professor and a President who can't resist pontificating on every item that can be found in Google Reader.

If President Obama apologizes, he should apologize for sticking his nose in some place that his nose didn't belong. If this was false arrest, I have no doubt that Professor Gates will pursue his case in the courts.

President Obama opened this up, and now that Congress is going to debate a resolution that President Obama should apologize to Sgt Crowley, he can be blamed for this political crap that makes so many citizens, like me, take a dim view of our leaders.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Cheney's secret CIA program

So, VP Cheney had his own secret counterterrorism program that he ordered the CIA to keep from Congress...for 8 years. It must be uncontroversial because current CIA Director Panetta ordered it closed upon hearing of it. No controversy on the closing of it. The leading Republicans trying to defend that lawless administration. I predict Republicans soon will turn so hard against the Bush Administration, because it will be the only way to distance themselves from the nasty stuff that is going to leak out. President Obama may want to put it all behind us, but that is not goingto happen.

According to the NYT, Senator Kyl, said:

Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., argued against any investigation
just yet. "I don't think we should be jumping to any conclusions," Kyl said.
"The Republican leader on the intelligence committee in the House described this
certainly not as some kind of massive program but something that was on again
off again … never got off the ground."

Kyl said he understands the concept that national security concerns may
preclude the executive branch from sharing some information with Congress.

Don't jump to conclusions is what he is saying. But he is not saying to not stop the program. If he trusts the previous administration so much, why isn't he arguing that Panetta shouldn't jump to conclusions, to stop an 8 year program that must, MUST, have been crucial to keeping US safe. yeah.

Senator McCain';s remarks are just as nervous:

Arizona Sen. John McCain, Obama's Republican opponent in the election, said
on "Meet the Press" this morning that such an investigation would not be in the
country's best interests. "For us to continue this and harm our image
throughout the world. … I agree with the president of the United States. It's
time to move forward," McCain said.

Harm? No bellicose remarks about the Democrat Panetta endangering the country by summarily ending the counterterrorism program? Come on.

The Republicans are going to eat themselves on this one, just watch.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Health Care in the nitty gritty

The ongoing debate over what to do about health care, health care costs, plans, choice, all the ingredients in the ongoing mess that is health care can all be seen in a nice bit of reporting by one of our local reporters. This article examines a local hospital and its dispute with one of the largest insurance companies, Anthem. When I read the article, I get the distinct feeling that everyone is angling here for more money using all the usual words, fairness, etc, but patient care is completely lost. An interesting short sighted solution has apparently lead to this problem: in an attempt to reduce medical costs, more and more services are moved away from the four walls of the hospital (because costs are higher there). But that move reduces the revenue stream of the hospital, so the hospital reaches out to the off campus sites, incorporates them into the hospital (through accounting categories) and then can bill at the higher rate. So, a cost savings measure leads to an unsustainble economy for the hospital which in turn plays accounting games to raise costs.

In the local case, the hospital cites the possible loss of three medical oncology pratices. I don't know if that means all medical oncology would be absent in Terre Haute. Perhaps three practices are not sustainable in this area, I don't know.

But this article, I think, lays out the real issues better than do the big stories, becuase this brings it home.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

My daughter is currently at a language institute in Fes, Morocco. This is a video of her house in the Old Medina.

The house is 300 years old. Pretty cool, if I do say so myself.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Goofy thinking on opposing the public option in health care

Reforming our health care (non) system is needed. What reforms are needed, well, that is up for debate. To listen to the AMA it seems all that is needed is to end malpractice suits and pay docs exorbitant fees.

Hmm, I wish someone would show what docs made before medicare and after. I bet things got lots better for them.

Okay, there is lots of political propaganda out there and not much substance. But, one line of reasoning I don't quite follow. the public option is feared by those who oppose virtually any change at all because ??? they fear people will choose it? I mean, if a single payer system, if universal health care is SOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO bad, why fear a market choice? I mean, virtually anything that is "public" is deemed bad....public pools, the library, public schools, public land, everything. private, private, private....that is what America likes, so what is to fear?

Or, is it that in the marketplace of ideas, a simple system, wins out.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Use Civil Action to Curb Those Who Incite Violence

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune Star, 6/7/09

I am sick of reading statements like this: “There is no defense, no excuse that justifies the murder [last] Sunday of George Tiller, the Wichita, Kan., doctor who was one of the few physicians left in American who specialized in late-term abortions.” Yes there are excuses, far too many of them. All one has to do is read the many blogs, community forums, and talkback features on news sites. There is no shortage of excuses for the assassination of Dr. Tiller.

Those who make their living in the mainstream of US media still bend to social convention where it is “wrong” to endorse obvious murder. Outside the mainstream there are those who endorse his murder.

There is no shortage of opportunists jumping on this in order to advance their own agendas. Some are calling for curbs on incendiary and hate filled speech. I have no doubt that the incendiary and hate filled rhetoric creates a climate and is a contributing factor in Dr Tiller’s murder. It is the same rhetoric that Randall Terry, founder of Operation Rescue, refers to in his response to the assassination: “the pro-life movement must not be browbeaten by Obama or the child-killers into surrendering our best rhetoric, actions and images“. Mr. Terry is making excuses. The assassin, Mr. Roeder, appears to be linked to Operation Rescue.

How can talking heads, bloggers, and pundits condemn the incendiary speech of Islamic clerics as contributing to terrorism, such as:

“Terrorise [sic] your enemies as we cannot remain silent at their violations.
Otherwise, we will reach a stage when the consequences will be serious... I
am concerned about you because demonstrations are useless... Your enemy
loves terrorism and scorns nations and all Arabs. It seeks to silence the opinions of
others. I appeal to you not to resort to demonstrations because they
have become useless. You should resort to other methods. Moqtada al Sadr,
5 April 2004.

but not see the link between the rhetoric of leaders like Mr. Terry, or the statement by Dan Holman of Missionaries to the Preborn Iowa that he was “cheered” to hear about Dr. Tiller’s assassination. His response to whether he supported the killing: “I don’t advocate it, I don’t support it. But I don’t condemn it, and I believe that what he did was justifiable.” If it was justifiable then why would he not support the act? Mr. Holman continues that he supports the death of all abortionists and others including “George Bush, Barack Obama. Any politician that gives our tax money to Planned Parenthood and organizations that kill babies are participating in the killing of innocent children deserve the same penalty.” If that isn’t a clarion call for political assassination, then what is it?

There are those who deny that the rhetoric is any way connected to the actions. If so, then neither are motivational speeches related to actions. That is what this incendiary rhetoric is, motivational speech, and motivational speech should never be curbed or its content regulated. That’s why I disagree with calls by some on the left for laws to curb the incendiary speech of some in the pro-life movement. I do support, however, working within the current system. Just as the Klan was eventually defunded and rendered virtually inert (the organization but not white supremacist ideology), organizations like Mr. Holman’s, Operation Rescue, and other extremist organizations that suggest the political assassination of people they disagree with, should be carefully watched, though not necessarily by the government. I think a strategy like the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Klanwatch is what is needed to counter those who incite political violence against anyone who supports abortion rights. Bring suits to the civil courts with evidence that the extreme pro-life groups incite violence and conspire to commit violence and hit them in their pocket books. Those who motivate others to assassinate political opponents should be held accountable and the civil courts are a good place to do that.

Lynching was not “simple justice.” It was political violence. The political violence directed toward women, physicians, politicians, and those who support the right to choose is wrong. The civil and oft times heated debate about abortion, however, is welcomed. There is nothing wrong with trying to change people’s minds. Resorting to violence or motivating violence in the face of failure to convince one’s opponents is wrong and those who do so must be held accountable in our courts of law.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Flip Flop or now you get it

President Obama is set to flip flip on his campaign promise not to tax health benefits. See article here. I preferred McCain's general approach to health care reform. I think we need to sever the dependency of people on their employer for health care. Everything points to a more tumultuous relationship with employers, meaning, we are going to have more and more of them. The long term employment with a single employer, is going to get rarer and rarer. Many people remain at employers they don't like just for the health benefits. that is not good for the employee or for the employer (or perhaps it will cause the employer to change its ways).

So, President Obama will get nailed because he flip flopped on his campaign promises, but in this case, I think the willingness to tax health benefits, as much as that is going to sting (I'm one with good benefits and will pay more for them), is a good idea----if it actually delivers on what is promised.

The suggestions to water it down, only on e high end workers or only on the most generous health plans, nope, no good. Low income workers will still be low end and will miss much of the tax hit anyway, and, if there are caps put on and etc, employers will just find ways to get around them by rearranging benefits, etc. Make it simple, the money employers pay to employees for health care gets taxed...period.

Let's get it on with it.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Preventive Detention, preventing reelection

I was not and continue to not be an Obamamanic. I was, early on, a Hillary Clinton supporter but became increasingly disappointed in her campaign. I admit I did not think that the US was ready for a black president, but I also did not realize, early on, what a magnificent politician candidate Obama was. By the Indiana primary, after many long minutes in the ballot box, I voted for Obama because he ran a campaign like I thought one should be run, like a social movement.

I voted for him for president.

I did not, however, believe he was the super liberal, leftist, that many of his most ardent supporters did. I think many people projected their own views on him. He was especially skilled at getting people to do that.

So, that he has moved slower on Gitmo than many would like (me too). that he has backed off a little on Iraq withdrawal, that he has gone into Afghanistan (I agree wholeheartedly with that one), that he has not been bold in the specifics of his programs, though bold in scope, well, all that fits what I saw.

I also am not a single issue voter. So far, President Obama has been what I figured he would be. He is still a politician, he take a long view, and he tries to change the terms of debates. All intellectual stuff that I appreciate.

But, BUt, BUT, BUt, BUt......the May 20th NYT article on President Obama's talk on "preventive detention" sickens me. Article is here.

They [anonymous sources] said Mr. Obama told them he was thinking about “the
long game” — how to establish a legal system that would endure for future
presidents. He raised the issue of preventive detention himself, but made clear
that he had not made a decision on it. Several senior White House officials did
not respond to requests for comment on the outsiders’ accounts.

This really concerns me. What I am hoping all this was, was President Obama being the law professor who posed all kinds of arguments as just an exercise. To see how people responded, to hear arguments for and against. I sure hope so.

If President Obama moves forward in trying to establish some kind of preventive detention, which seems to completely turn our legal and political values on their head, I will be a single issue voter because to undermine due process as we understand it, is far worse than just about anything else the defender of our constitution is supposed to do.

What would pose as a threat? Providing material aid and comfort to terrorists? How about recognizing the legitimate politcal goals but denouncing the means? Would that be worthy of preventive detention? The very idea of this is frightening and I don't frighten easy.

Torture which has happened, repeatedly, and we (the public) don't care, the resistance in Congress to closing Gitmo (I'm not a Lyndsey Graham fan, but I agree with him completely on his position regarding Gitmo), I wonder who is going to resist preventive detention.

The terrorists win if we institute a legal shibboleth to begin preventive detention. Maybe they already have if we are seriously speaking about it.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Teens' true motivations for sex may surprise you

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune-Star, 5/17/2009

It’s prom night. This is my fourth prom as a parent. No one will believe that it’s just a coincidence that the subject of this essay was not inspired by parental anxiety related to proms (and parents’ own recollection of that “special” night).

Recently, a nationally syndicated columnist cited a statistic about teens’ belief that “telling teens to abstain from sex, but if you do, use birth control or protection” encourages teens to have sex, seemed off to me. I found the cited study and sure enough the columnist had cited the findings incorrectly. That study and then reading a little more in the area led to this essay. Really.

The study, “With One Voice: A 2009 Survey of Adults and Teens on Parental Influence, Abstinence, Contraception, and the Increase in the Teen Birth Rate.” was conducted by The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. Parents, quit blaming the media and internet. Teens, especially younger teens, rank parents as the most influential on their decisions about sex. Don’t breathe that sigh of relief too fast. Only about a third of teens indicated parents, more than any other source, but that leaves two-thirds of teens citing something else, like themselves, friends, the media, religious leaders, teachers, and sex ed (in order of most influential).

Adults underestimate their impact on their teens. 43 percent of adults cite teens’ friends as the biggest influence while only 18 percent of teens rated friends that way. Less than a quarter of adults believe parents most influence their teens.

71 percent of adults but only 37 percent of teens say they wish teens were getting more information about both abstinence and contraception. One-third of teens say they are getting enough information about abstinence and contraception.

60 percent of adults believe telling teens “to abstain but if you choose to have sex use contraception or protection” does not encourage teens to have sex and three-quarters of teens say the same thing. I wonder how adults would respond to this question: “Do teens understand what encourages and discourages them from having sex?”

Both teens (42 percent) and adults (51 percent) think more conversation between parents and teens would help young people avoid teen pregnancy. I suspect that there is quite an overlap there; that parents who think more open conversation would be helpful have kids who do, too. So, if you believe open conversation would be helpful, my guess is so does your kid (same goes for kids, if you think more open conversation would be good for you, there is a good chance your parents think so, too). Of course, cleaning your shotgun in plain sight of the young man who comes to pick up your daughter might convey a certain message, too.

As I read this study, I couldn’t help think that an organization that is dedicated to preventing teen and unplanned pregnancy might ask why teens have sex. Adults are good at framing teen sex in ways that make it very hard to actually have a conversation about it. There is the moral and religious framework that makes pre-marital sex dirty, sinful, awful, and dangerous but a walk down the aisle and a ring on the finger makes it romantic, moral, life-fulfilling, safe, and pleasurable. There is the “boys will be boys” or “tempting” girls framework, even “hormones gone wild.” One thing we don’t do is ask teens why they are motivated to have sex.

The authors of “Greater Expectations: Adolescents’ Positive Motivations for Sex” published in “Perspectives in Sexual and Reproductive Health” (2006) did just that to a sample of 637 ninth graders. Both boys and girls ranked three goals for relationships in the same order: intimacy, social status, and pleasure. Not surprisingly, girls rated intimacy more highly than boys and boys rated pleasure more highly than girls.

How does sex fit in with these goals? Boys expected sex to fulfill the goals of intimacy, social status, and pleasure more so than did girls. For girls, there were other means to achieve intimacy, social status, and pleasure than sex. Discussing those alternatives might be good fodder for conversation. For boys, ranking an emotional goal first is perhaps the most valuable finding of this study. It counters the more conventional view of male sexuality resulting from biological drives, risk taking, and physical pleasure instead of emotional needs.

Parents talking with their boys about their needs for emotional intimacy might do more to prevent teen pregnancy and early sexual intercourse than any government program.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

paddling fast

My friend, Andre and I, went paddling today on Sugar Creek. Wow, we knew the water would be high, in fact, I checked out Sugar Creek yesterday. But a heavy rain overnight sent the river into a torrent. I never saw white water in Indian before.

13.39 miles (from the put in above Narrows to the West Union covered bridge) in 2.5 hours. That is about 5 miles per hour. What a ride. A couple times the water seemed to take us over, but overall, a fun paddle.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

professors and liberal ideology, part 3

Part 3, I can't believe it. I've hit the motherload, the vein of response. If there is one thing I'v learned from my time writing my irregular column, it is that people are generally unwilling to write a letter to the editor. Two more in today's Tribune-Star on my April 26 column. I reproduce them below:

This first one doesn't address the April 26 column directly, but I'm not sure what else would have prompted it:

Force-fed the liberal agenda

Throughout my school career I have found instance after instance where the liberal agenda was forced upon me. To begin with, middle and high school teachers had a way of leaving out important facts in history to assist with the liberal agenda. They would make the conservatives out to be bad guys and the liberals out to be the heroes. As a young student, I didn’t know the truth and therefore almost fell for their lies.

I have always had an interest in history so I took it upon myself, in my spare time, to learn true history. I have learned several interesting facts that were never shared in school. I have also realized that not only is the liberal agenda forced upon students but an un-American view is also forced upon us. In schools, students are taught that American soldiers forced themselves on other countries and that we, as Americans, were tyrants. There is no excuse for teachers shoving this agenda upon young impressionable students.

College was even worse. I began my college career as a political science major but after being treated as poorly as I was as a conservative I changed my major to business and marketing. My first class in the political science field was a blatant example of the liberal agenda being forced upon students. The professor seemed great at the beginning and encouraged students to share their opinions on matters with the class. Little did I know at the time that as far as he was concerned the only important viewpoint was that of the liberals.

I offered my opinion a few times after studying topics and having prepared notes for a well-thought-out debate. I was told that I did not know what I was talking about and called “stupid” for taking this view. I was beyond livid, but being the person I am it only made me more stubborn and insistent on getting my points across. It got to the point where my grade was negatively impacted and I was receiving C’s for the same work others received A’s for.

I soon after transferred to another college and ran into the same problem in another political science course. At this point I was majoring in marketing, however due to my love of history and politics I decided to take the course. Once again, the professor focused on making Americans out to be bullies. When he wasn’t trying to get the students to believe Americans were the bad guy, he was trying to make conservatives out to be the bad guy.

I realize that liberals are trying to excuse themselves and their acts by claiming that it’s the “norm”, however this should not be the case.

Students should not have to pay to be called “stupid” nor should they have to put up with having the liberal agenda forced down their throats. As a young conservative student I realize that I am in the minority, however, I will not put up with being attacked by the liberal professors. It’s high time that either both viewpoints are given equal time or neither one is shared.

— Jessica Robinson


A second letter:

Thinking critically primary objective

This letter serves to inform you of my opinion in response to the April 26 essay by Thomas Steiger in the Tribune-Star regarding the issue of whether or not liberal perspectives are taught by college professors.

Throughout my college career there were many instances of my personal experience in which college professors have willingly acknowledged their own political views to the class. In some classes this was the source of much critical evaluation and constructive debates that were pertinent to the class’s development and understanding of the issue at hand. However, in other classes such opinion has also led to much heated debates that contributed very little, if not negatively, to the productivity of the class during those sessions.

A professor’s willingness to put their opinion out there for class discussion in itself does not merit the claim that the professor is trying to influence the class to have a “liberal” or “conservative” perspective. However, the professor’s willingness to defend this perspective and demonstrate why his or her opinion is the most valued/best opinion to others does express an overt willingness to influence others’ opinions regarding this subject matter.

Second, I think that sometimes there is confusion between teaching people to think liberally and just teaching people to think, and this contributes greatly to an overabundance of the opinion that college professors teach liberal idealism.

Many professors seem to play devil’s advocate for both sides of an issue for the intent of trying to get students to understand why people hold opinions on both the liberal perspective and the conservative one in an effort to demonstrate the critical thinking that is necessary for someone to form a well-founded, educated opinion.

Last time I checked, the concept of thought was in itself neither affiliated with conservative or liberal perspective but was the source of determining such ideals.

— Jolene Beck, senior student

Indiana State University

Terre Haute

Ms. Beck is not one of my students and I don't recall her ever taking one either.


Profs should steer clear of politics

Concerning Thomas Steiger’s April 26 essay titled “Are college professors teaching liberal ideology?”:

I believe that some college professors have began to teach liberal ideology in the classroom. This is a significant change of teaching for me, because when I was in high school, the teachers steered away from politically sensitive questions.

If a student asked a question that they felt crossed the line, then they would just say that is not what is being covered in the class material today. Now, in college, the teachers are not afraid to base their opinions on everything. This was especially the case here recently, due to the presidential election and economic downturn.

In all my classes at college, the opening topic was one of the presidential candidate’s views, policies and background. Many teachers were quick to bash one political party in order to create popularity for another, for whom which they were in favor most of the time.

I do believe that teachers and professionals are progressing toward using more of their own opinions and views while teaching and informing others on topic matter. From my own personal experience, this can be somewhat contrary to what your own personal beliefs are. This can often cause conflict and disagreement in the classroom.

I do believe that teachers should focus more on specific classsroom topics and material, and should steer away from political issues and debates. I do not believe that this approach is the most used by them, but it should be. It is up to each individual to develop their own opinions and perspectives on political topics, and the teachers should allow this process to take place.

— Trent A. Land


I don't recall any previous columns ever receiving 4 letters to the editor in response. Yay!!!!!

Friday, May 8, 2009

professors and liberal ideology, part 2

As I expected, I spent quite a bit of time responding to angry conservatives about my Trib-Star column of 4/26/09. I'm still not finished responding, but the last two weeks of class have to take precedence.

Yesterday, this letter to the editor appeared in the Trib-Star:

Most profs don’t teach any ideology

This is in response to Thomas Steiger’s essay titled “Are College Professors Teaching Liberal Ideology?” (Sunday, April 26, Page D2).

Before really thinking about the question, the answer yes immediately popped into my head. Teachers have always been known to be more on the liberal side, therefore teaching liberal ideas. But after reading the article, the author’s points made sense.

Growing up in a state that is typically more liberal than others, my high school teachers (especially) seemed to be more liberal. Not always just in their teaching, but in the way they voiced their opinions. Comments would be made about President Bush and how bad things were and how the Republican Party just wasn’t doing things correctly. Because of this, it was to my thinking that all teachers are like this.

When I came to college, I thought for sure things would be the same. Of course, there are those professors who openly state their liberal opinions. But I was surprised to see how many more conservative professors there are. I do believe a lot of that is because of the state we are in. Indiana is known to be a typically conservative state, so the professors are going to typically follow in that respect.

With all of that being said, I do not feel that professors are teaching liberal ideology as a whole. There are some out there who are very strong liberal-minded. There are some out there who are very strong conservative-minded. For the rest of them, they do a pretty good job of keeping their political views to themselves and focus on the task at hand – teaching students the material that needs to be taught.

— Abby Butler, student

Indiana State University

And she is not one of my students.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

There is a spectre haunting Pennsylvania; the Arlen Specter

In order to avoid what would likely be a primary loss, Sen. Specter switches parties. I hope Toomey wins the general election. Or better yet, Sen. Specter loses the Democratic primary, though the craven deme will probably pressure any local deme who might haveconsidered running to bow out. The Senate deme are just as bad.

I used to respect Specter. Though his tool like performance in the Anita Hill interrogation was unsettling; nevertheless, this is the new democrat the other deme so warmly welcome?

I look forward to Sen Toomey.

Monday, April 27, 2009


So Porter Goss enters the fray. His NYT piece is chilling, chilling on two fronts. First, he is correct, the elected officials in congress who were aware of the "High Value Terrorist Program" and who didn't speak out at the time (what they were doing were cringing, looking for political cover, not surprising, but just one brave soul?) should be swept right along with the rest of this to some form of justice. I hope they are all defeated and I will examine that situation upon my next vote. My Congressman wasn't elected at that time, but both my senators may be part of it. Especially, one who I like, Richard Lugar, he is on Foreign Relations. If he knew and didn't speak out or agreed with it, he has lost my vote. This is too telling a situation.

Thats is chill number 1.

Number 2 is the idea that if the CIA can't do this stuff, if they can't keep everything secret, and that the distinction between the CIA "professionalism" and the brutality (opposite of professional is amatuer) of the terrorists...he mentions the dull knife beheadings (I infer that if the CIA were beheading people we would do it more professionally, does that mean with a gulliotine or perhpas we would refrain from such acts). Mr. Goss doesn't make that clear.

Once again, chill number 2, the arguments of a police state...not a free democracy.

One other note, what about all those intelligence professionals who have now come out and questioned this entire foray into acting like terrorists only professionally? I guess they are just political grandstanders and they don't know anything.

Ends justify the means

As I wrote about a month ago, the futility of torture is the inevitable conclusion. And a month ago, I was thinking that as more information dribbles out that more Americans would show their moral indignation and begin demanding some accountability. Instead, very little outrage and even the defense of none other than Dick Cheney, the spouse of Lynn Cheney, who writes children's books, justifies the torture with, "it works."

Frank Rich in a NYT op-ed peice does a good job of capturing the blase response from the public. Therein lies the triumph of terrorism; not that it terrorizes us into hiding in our homes, but rather it turns us into that which we claim to not be. the article is here

Yet, as I read Rich, I cannot help but think back to one of my earliest takes on the entire "war against terror," that the Bush Administration didn't believe enough in our justice system, in our constitution to deal with terrorism. We couldn't rely on our legal standards, our constitutional safeguards to fight terrorism (or to keep "us" safe). Even our legislative process was suspect. Only police power, a police state, could keep us safe and win the war on terrorism.

Even the fantasy "24" scenario, the ticking time bomb, would/should we torture to get information to save those lives, is one which is used to argue against our laws. If such an unusual situation occurred, we have means to deal with it. The legal system can try the torturer(s) and a jury of their peers can decide guilt. Even now, it seems, that the Dick Cheney defense, "it worked" and then the counter, "no it didn't" seems to miss the point. It doesn't matter if it worked or not, torture is against our values, our morality, and our laws. Either change the laws, scrap the values, overturn the morality, or let our system do its job.

If the authorizers of torture (and those who participated) want to defend their illegal and immoral acts, let them in a court of law. Let them show the information....shouldn't matter, but then OJ got off and that is because the prosecutors did a poor it should be.

The biggest casualty, as I see it, is the complete undermining of our system of justice by the Bush Administration and from what I can see, it continues under the Obama Administration. What a shame.

A nation of laws, where even the powerful are subject to justice if they break the laws is the defensible America. Arguments of ends justify means is the argument of a police state.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Are college professors teaching liberal ideology?

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune Star, 26 April 2009

Several years ago I wrote an essay addressing liberal bias in the (mainstream) media. That essay reviewed a scholarly article by a sociologist who did a careful content analysis of leading newspapers. What I didn’t realize at the time was how many people take such statements as “the [mainstream]0 media is (liberally) biased” as an article of faith. The article concluded that the content examined didn’t show much liberal bias, indeed, more conservative bias than many are even willing to consider.

Sociologists are good at this kind of thing: debunking myths and taken-for-granted “truths.” It is never a good idea to try to suggest things may not be what they seem to the faithful. Nevertheless, I am going to do it again — call it the “sociological impulse.”

Another article of faith among some Americans is that our colleges and universities are “indoctrinating” students in liberal ideology. Evidence for this claim include anecdotes from current and former students, former faculty who claim liberal bias is why they failed to earn tenure, and selective course titles as well as selective faculty whose words are either poorly spoken or taken out of context. There are few systematic and careful studies of the claim. It is true that faculty in the humanities and social sciences are more likely to identify both as Democrat and liberal (as do professional journalists) but does that translate necessarily into bias in the classroom?

A University of British Columbia sociologist, Neil Gross, surveyed 1,471 American college and university faculty and conducted in-depth interviews with a sub-sample across five disciplines that represent a continuum of political views (literature, sociology, economics, biology, and engineering).

Gross lists three main findings from the in-depth interviews. I examine two of them below (the third focuses on differing understandings of academic freedom).

First, “… there is significant variation across disciplines in the degree to which notions like objectivity and politically value-free knowledge are seen as unproblematic and desirable.” In other words, faculty vary by discipline in how much they embrace the idea that facts are facts and that facts speak for themselves. For the engineer, the discipline where the faculty viewed value-free knowledge as the only real knowledge and a desirable outcome, the “meaning” of a reduction in electrical resistance due to a change in materials is limited to the outcome of the “test.” The professors of literature were the most skeptical of any claim to value-free knowledge. They held that all knowledge is influenced by a person’s experiences and views, from the choice of topic to the position taken on the “facts” regarding knowledge.

Think about your own work; how important is the idea of objectivity?

Gross’ second finding is “… norms remain in place in all five disciplines against overt partisanship in the classroom, and champions of ‘critical pedagogy,’ the view that education should alert students to instances of what the left sees as social injustice, are rare.”

Overwhelmingly the faculty Gross interviewed saw the goal of teaching as instructing students in the subject matter of their fields or training them in various skills. Some subjects, however, happen, at this particular time, to fit with left-liberal political agendas due to their subject matter. The core of sociology is the study of social inequality. Questions about social inequality or its effects on society are not high on conservative agendas; it happens to be central in liberal-left political agendas.

So, even “conservative” sociologists who teach “social stratification” raise the political hackles of conservatives.

Faculty disagree whether they should reveal their own political views when addressing politically controversial topics in class. Faculties’ views on this, Gross claims, cross-cut the disciplines. In my read of his work, what varies is how “secure” the individual faculty member feels in their position at the university. White male tenured full professors are the most secure in sharing their political views in class while untenured, female, minority, professors are more guarded. My perception of this differs, but I’ve never conducted a systematic study, either.

Think about your work; do you use your position to indoctrinate your customers/clients in your political views?

In short, this research suggests most faculty follow disciplinary norms regarding the “knowledge-politics” intersection, keep their classroom focus on the subject matter and skills to be taught, and reject overt politicization of their own or of the classroom in general.

There are, however, exceptions, and those exceptions appear to be much of the basis for the conservative claim of liberal indoctrination of college students.

ADDENDUM: There is only so much you can put in a 750 word essay. Some additional thoughts: 1) are all disciplinary ideas first fit to current political alignments? I mean was Adam Smith a conservative republican before he wrote Wealth of Nations or did conservatives, over time, use his ideas as part of their political ideology? Same with Keynes. Karl Marx (boo, hiss) even said that he was not a marxist as leftist political organizations adopted his ideas and put them to political agendas. In my discipline, Max Weber, was a farily conservative fellow in his native Germany, but his ideas in contemporary America seem kind of leftish (unless you realize he was, in many respects arguing with lefties for a more conservative view). The "radical" sociologist, C. Wright Mills, of the 1950s, seems passe and common sensical today. How about Darwin? republican, democrat, or other? Of course the political agendas of the day don't fit well with the agendas or alignments of yore.

Were the founders of the USA apolitical? Who were the cons and libs then? How did the 2nd amendment become conservative, and the first (parts of it) become liberal?

Politics doesn't drive academia as much, at least historically, as do academic ideas become ideas embraced by politicians.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Confusion about values

Linda Chavez, a conservative columnist, but not one that is always towing the party line, who uses rational thought (sometimes) instead of ideology in her writing, makes a pitch for reasonable immigration reform based on family values. Column is here.

This is her concluding paragraph:

The fact that so many illegal immigrants are intertwined with American
citizens or legal residents, either as spouses or parents, should give pause to
those who'd like to see all illegal immigrants rounded up and deported or their
lives made so miserable they leave on their own. A better approach would allow
those who have made their lives here, established families, bought homes, worked
continuously and paid taxes to remain after paying fines, demonstrating English
fluency, and proving they have no criminal record. Such an approach is as much
about supporting family values as it is granting amnesty.

Ms. Chavez has made her mark as a somewhat family values warrior. She cites statistics from the Pew Hispanic Center to bolster her stand. The stand I agree with completely. But the implications, that because illegal immigrants have among the lowest rates of divorce and single (especially female headed households) represents millions of people who value family values the way she and her family values warriors another example of ideology getting in the way of reality.

Consider some of her reasoning and facts: "Nearly half of illegal immigrant households consist of two-parent families with children, and 73 percent of these children were born here and are therefore U.S. citizens."

And "One of the chief social problems afflicting this country is the breakdown in the traditional family. But among immigrants, the two-parent household is alive and well."

Okay now here is where Ms. Chavez either displays here ignorance of demographics (likely) or her wish that her ideology be confirmed;

Only 21 percent of native households are made up of two parents living with
their own children. Among legal immigrants, the percentage of such households
jumps to 35 percent. But among the illegal population, 47 percent of households
consist of a mother, a father and their children.

Only 21 percent of native households in the US are made up of two parents living with their own children. Sounds scary doesn't it, this makes it sound like only 21 percent of households with kids are made up of two parents living with their own children. But, according to the 2000 Census, there were just over 105 million households in the US. Only 68% of those households are "family" households (remember, some households are made up of people just living together with no kids, living alone, 20 somethings with roommates, etc). Now of these family households, which include married couples without kids or an adult child living with an aging parent, of the total, only 32.8% have kids under 18. So, only about a third of all households have minor children living in them. Now, married couple families with own children make up, in 2000, 23.5%. Now, there is your scary number. Okay, but of all families with children, 71.8% are in married couple families with own children.

I am not comparing exactly the same things here. I don't have the disaggregated data that perhaps Pew is citing. But, the basic problem here is that Pew is looking at illegal and legal immigrants with kids, nearly 47%, according to Pew as cited by Chavez, are the "proper" family, while legal immigrants, not quite as good, but better than 21% of the native born, except, the numbers don't add up, the 71.8% I cite, is reflective of all families, but the vast difference in the number of native born versus immigrant born families, could not produce the 71.8% number, if the native born were only 21% of all families with children.

In short, if you campare the right numbers, native born families might be even more likely to have the "proper" family than the immigrant family.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Don't like the current situation, compare it to the fall of the Roman Empire

Last week I wrote a supportive note to Froma Harrop's column on how conservatives and right wingers are calling everything socialism or communism. Shortly after that, a local columnist, Arthur Foulkes, wrote a column with this lurid title: "Political, government takeover of economy a disaster for the United States" He has been writing a series of articles that have riled up some of the locals, especially some members of our Economics department, citing the Austrian School of Economics as if it were gospel. In short, he is treating the Austrians the way marxists treat Marx. Be that as it may.

In this installment, he compares the current situation with the fall of the Roman Empire. I recall these comparisons to the US in the late 60s and early 70s, only then, it seemed to me, it was the liberals who were doing the comparing.

I find it amusing that a conservative would admit to the comparison of an empire to us (we are not an empire, after all, the empire is a lefty claim).

A couple of excerpts and some commentary: (you really should read the column, my excerpting will take things our of context)

Things are the opposite in an economy controlled by the state. In a
government-directed economy, all enterprises become hierarchical bureaucracies.
Production and income are no longer based on voluntary exchange but on politics,
planning, regulation and compulsion.

Any large business becomes a hierarchical bureaucracy...look at GM, or IBM, or how about a huge conglomerate like ConAgra foods. Those entities aren't reading the Austrians, I can promise you that. They work very hard to use the State to their advantage. Now, if Mr. Foulkes were not an ideologue he would not only provide examles of the growth of education:

This is what happened to the Romans and what is happening in America today.
Government control of schools and most universities means educators are often
employees of the state and have every incentive to defend it and look to it for
their support. Government control over more and more of the once private sector
means less and less innovation, growth and prosperity. It also means less civil,
voluntary economic cooperation.

Right wingers always use selective examples of the growth of the government. Education is a favorite one to show. yet, in today's annual Parade Magazine (a terrific source of pop knoweldge) among the fastest growing occupations in the immediate future: police officers. yes, right-wingers don't lament the growth of the state using examples like police officers, prison guards, or the military. Indeed, the largest socialist enterprise, I'd argue, in the US anyway, is the US military. Those are never examples of the growing spectre of government control, never mind that all three are in the coercion business. and the military, prison guards, and police never vote in their self-interest.

Many people believe capitalism, private property and individual liberty are
code words for selfishness. This is completely backward. Capitalism and economic
freedom force people to consider the wishes of others in order to make a living.
To become rich in a truly free economy, it is necessary to provide something for
which other people will voluntarily pay.

Indeed, all those military contractors out there who couldn't survive of their favorite congressman didn't ignore the military brass and demand that a weapon's system that doesn't work still be produced or a base which no longer serves any good military purpose is kept open due to the influence of powerful senators. The same principal applies, but doesn't serve the interests of the right wing ideologue.

The growth of the Roman welfare state also killed the ethic of
self-reliance that allowed Rome to prosper.

It is indeed the government with its free trade policies which is ushering manufacturing out of the US where people have no choice but to work for a dollar day to produce $100 a pair sneakers. In fact, the US continues to rely more and more on the financial side of the capitalist equation, just providing money and no work or interest in self-reliance (oil, future technologies, important industries) we will just buy it cheaper elsewhere. But, those other countries are more efficient with their low wages and coercive governments (China, Mexico, Singapore, Vietnam). Absolutely. There are so many disincentives to work today, the high taxes on income compared to stock market bingo, declining benefits (at least on welfare you get medicaid), there is no question, the morality of our people is suspect (except for the Austrian adherents).

Mr. Foulkes must see the world in a very simplistic way. The educators I know, probably more than he does, are mostly in favor of education (tax them, pay me) but are not in favor of more, tax them, pay me, but cut them). No doubt, the police are suspect of the liberal symps in the universities so they say, tax them, pay me, but cut them. And on and on. The goofy idea that everyone who works for "the state' automatically views the state as all good and all beneficial is ridiculous. Just like everyone else, they will protect their interests at the cost of others' interests.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Don't like it? call it socialism

Has been a busy week and I've not been able to write anything. I did read in our morning paper, a column by Froma Harrop. She is billed as independent and a thinking columnist, and some ofher columns do fit that, but at times she swings wildly and blindly liberal...

Anyhoo, since my column on intellectual dishonesty a couple of week ago, the column sparked some discussion, more on a letter by a local conservative, which prompted some back and forth on the local community bulletin board hosted by the paper. I also field more than the usual number of emails from critical readers.

The response to call everything socialism is getting really ridiculous. Why not just say, "I don't like it." anyway, Harrop's column, I think is right on. an exerpt and a link

MANY CONSERVATIVES think they’ve found a winner in tarring President Obama and his allies as “socialists.” Earnest attempts to explain why “it isn’t so” are
futile, as is asking people what the heck they mean when they say raising taxes
is “socialism.”
The following Isays it all, but I mean what would socialists know about socialism ayway? and most who hurl this claim aren't going to listen to the socialists anyway....because, President Obama is a socialist, not the socialists.

Real-life socialists scoff at this whole back-and-forth. Obama is “a
hedge-fund Democrat,” Billy Wharton, editor of Socialist magazine, writes in The
Washington Post. “Not only is he not a socialist, he may in fact not even be a

Let's start calling things there is an economic system.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

As more information dribbles out, the futility of torture is the inevitable conclusion

Washington Post has an article on the valuable information obtained from the torture of Abu Zubaydah, supposedly an al Qaeda high operative.

Anyone who is willing to consider that the purpose of interrogation is not retribution or revenge, and it is valuable information, would recognize that torture doesn't work. It can even be counterproductive. So, the conclusion of this article should not be surprising. It is, however, something that will force the Obama Administration to either come clean about it, or continue to stonewall as the previous Administration did. There is indication in this article that the Administration is not moving swiftly to clear stuff up. I can understand why, this is going to look back, proof that the US tortured and we will take a hit. And politically it will be hard to prosecute former Bush Administration officials. Maybe Spain will do it for us.

Some excerpts from the article:

In the end, though, not a single significant plot was foiled as a result of Abu
Zubaida's tortured confessions, according to former senior government officials
who closely followed the interrogations. Nearly all of the leads attained
through the harsh measures quickly evaporated, while most of the useful
information from Abu Zubaida -- chiefly names of al-Qaeda members and associates
-- was obtained before waterboarding was introduced, they said.
These revelations could lead to all of the folks we have detained getting off...some probably should, but others, no... nevertheless

Others in the U.S. government, including CIA officials, fear the
consequences of taking a man into court who was waterboarded on largely false
assumptions, because of the prospect of interrogation methods being revealed in
detail and because of the chance of an acquittal that might set a legal
precedent. Instead, they would prefer to send him to Jordan.

Of course, there are others who disagree and I wonder if we will ever get a definitive understanding of this shadowy world..I doubt it if Congress doesn't investigate it.

It's simply wrong to suggest that Abu Zubaida wasn't intimately involved with
al-Qaeda," said a U.S. counterterrorism official, speaking on the condition of
anonymity because much about Abu Zubaida remains classified. "He was one of the
terrorist organization's key facilitators, offered new insights into how the
organization operated, provided critical information on senior al-Qaeda figures
. . . and identified hundreds of al-Qaeda members. How anyone can minimize that
information -- some of the best we had at the time on al-Qaeda -- is beyond me."

It is important to keep in mind that it is not that Zubaydah is innocent, he isn't, though he may not be quite the bad guy he was billed. He did provide significant and useful information, but not because of torture.

Abu Zubaida quickly told U.S. interrogators of Mohammed and of others he
knew to be in al-Qaeda, and he revealed the plans of the low-level operatives
who fled Afghanistan with him. Some were intent on returning to target American
forces with bombs; others wanted to strike on American soil again, according to
military documents and law enforcement sources.

Such intelligence was significant but not blockbuster material. Frustrated, the Bush administration ratcheted up the pressure -- for the first time approving the use of
increasingly harsh interrogations, including waterboarding.

It is disappointing that revelations like this don't create more anger. AIG bonuses paid to execs who had nothing to do with the AIG mess, but were brought in to clean up the mess raises all kinds of anger, but not this.
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