Sunday, December 30, 2012

Skewed perceptions have us fearing wrong things

Previously pubished in the Terre Haute Tribune-Star, 12/30/2012

TERRE HAUTE — Regular readers of my essays probably know that sociologists are often more interested in people’s responses to tragedies like the Newtown, Conn., school massacre than trying to explain the event itself.

Two responses are evident in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy — compassion and fear. The compassion toward the families and the community of Newtown is evident. Indeed, a poll conducted by the Pew Charitable Trust, following the tragedy finds that 57 percent of adults are following the story closely.  

Fear is evident in the spike in handgun sales immediately following the tragedy, the talk of arming teachers or putting more armed individuals in schools. Fear is evident in the rush to regulate guns, too. It’s hard to imagine a gun law or set of laws that could have stopped Adam Lanza. Nevertheless, fear will compel our leaders into passing new laws that evidence shows, paradoxically, might actually make people more vulnerable to such attacks.

Pew also asked whether people thought the shootings reflected broader societal problems or just the isolated acts of troubled individuals. The public is divided. Forty-seven percent say broader societal problems and 44 percent say the acts of isolated, troubled individuals. Is this divide random or does the divide reflect other “divisions”?

Men and women are divided in their view. Fifty-four percent of women and only 39 percent of men see the shootings as reflecting broader societal problems while 51 percent of men and 37 percent of women see it as acts of isolated, troubled individuals. This doesn’t surprise me because it is males who are the usual shooters and seeing them as “monsters” is a way to distance themselves from the shooters, who otherwise look like them. However, broader societal problems could relate directly to the seeming increase in these mass shootings. Perhaps the loosening of social bonds in our society is creating more isolated, troubled individuals.  

To listen to extremists who suggest that God’s displeasure with us is why these horrific acts happen is to be willfully blind to a host of indicators that suggest something different. Divorce is down, out of wedlock births are down, abortion is down, violent crime is down, murder is way down, teen drug and alcohol abuse is down … so much due to the aging of our population.

But our media-driven perceptions of our society are the opposite of that. Even mass shootings like that in Newtown are not necessarily increasing, though they seem to be because of the sensational coverage such events receive in our media-saturated culture.

The evidence, though, suggests that such incidents are stable (though some experts argue that they are increasing). What is true is violent crime and murder rates are falling, while mass shootings are stable. In short, our perception of events is actually more important than the reality of them.  

And what is driving the perception? Who benefits from a fearful and anxious population, when in fact, our streets and homes are safer than they have been in two decades?

According to a Scripps-Howard study, from 1980 to 2008, 4,685 died in 965 massacre shootings (defined as four or more deaths). Counting the carnage in just this year’s notable massacres, including Newtown, adds to less than half the 163 people who died annually in that 28-year period.

In the first quarter of 2012, traffic deaths soared, 13.5 percent with 7,630 people killed. How many of them died in suicides or because of drunk or impaired driving? But traffic deaths are not given grisly coverage on television and there are no slick production shows that feature “death at the wheel” every week, so the public’s perception is such that it underestimates the true risk of driving.

Without even calculating the odds, I bet that kids are safer in school, even with lax security measures, than when mom or dad (or teen sibling) is driving them to school. In the same 28-year period cited above, according to the Centers for Disease Control, the incidence of childhood obesity increased 13 percentage points, to where one in five kids, aged 6-11, is obese.

We are wired to fear imminent danger; to run away or to fight. Yet, our leaders and our media-saturated, intense culture seem to stoke fear over reason, thus blinding us to certain dangers like traffic deaths and death by carbohydrates. The most common killer of kids is accidents, with car accidents being the most likely.

If we are to live in fear, at least be afraid of the right things.           

Sunday, November 25, 2012

If you're thankful you need to show it

Previously published, Thanksgiving Day, 2012, in the Terre Haute Tribune Star


No doubt, during Thanksgiving week Americans are in a thankful mood. Take away the national cue to give thanks, are we a thankful people the other 51 weeks of the year? Much suggests we take much for granted, that we assume the incredible affluence that characterizes the American lifestyle, that we feel entitled to the newest, the best and the most. We take our freedoms and the relationships in our life for granted.

The prevailing culture in the United States is “individualism.” And despite some who claim that individualism is dying or dead, my conversations with international students and with immigrants about their struggles to understand the individualistic American leads me to conclude individualism is quite robust.

“Individualism,” in short, refers to the exaltation of the individual person over the group, including family, church and state. A child learning the culture of individualism would learn such things as follow your own path, to do what you want, to follow your own interests. The epitome of individualist culture is for a person to do what they want, without regard to what others think. It is an ideology of self-sufficiency, economic independence, and self-determined values and morality. In short, it is the passionate pursuit of self-interest and those interests are determined selfishly.

Think about it. If you do it yourself, who do you thank?

It matters little about the facts on the ground whether we actually do it ourselves or we are dependent on a myriad number of others to achieve our self-interest. If we believe we did it ourselves, then does it matter? If we believe we build a successful company on our own, despite the taxpayer-paid-for infrastructure, public education of the company’s employees, and Social Security providing social insurance for their employees, who do we thank for the good outcomes? If we believe we did it ourselves, is there any need to thank anyone?

Radical individualists go so far as to view gratitude as superfluous. If everyone is just pursuing their self-interest, then a kindness or even what appears to be a “selfless” act is not that at all, but just another example of a person pursuing their self-interest. Do I need to thank someone who just did something for themselves and not for me? A child has no need to be thankful for parents because parents are just pursuing their self-interest. A radical individualist would not view Jesus Christ as giving himself up for our sins. Instead he was pursuing self-interest, he did it for himself, the forgiveness of our sins is just a residual benefit of his own radical pursuit of self-interest. It’s no different than the rich person who builds a grand home in the neighborhood enhancing the value of your home.

What about those who do show gratitude to others? Research suggests that showing gratitude can have measurable positive effects on people. Positive effects can be shown for mood, various hormones, pleasure-related neurotransmitters, the immune system, stress, heart health, blood pressure and blood sugar.

It seems like a good thing for people to show gratitude. It’s in one’s best self-interest with all those health benefits to show gratitude to those we feel thankful for. The trick it seems is to ignore the ideology of individualism, to recognize the inherent interdependent social basis and (at times selfless) cooperation that makes our world work, and show gratitude to those people who are important to us and reap the personal health benefits of doing so.

Give thanks to the important people in your life. Given the health benefits, nothing is more self-interested than being thankful and showing it.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Measuring the march of time, culture in Morocco

TERRE HAUTE — I spent 10 days in Morocco in October. We were planning a study abroad trip for May 2013. My impression of Morocco, after a couple of days, was both familiar and “mysterious.” Familiar due to its French influences, Morocco was a French colony until 1956. In the capital city of Rabat it was hard not to think I was in a European city. That French was spoken, that signage was in French, that buildings reminded me of New Orleans, all made the first days in Morocco familiar and comfortable.

Just as my college French seemed to be coming back to me, as I got familiar with bon jour, oui, merci beaucoup and si’l vous plait, we moved from Rabat and its meetings with government officials to smaller towns, university officials, back-street cafes, and bold, stark landscapes. Then something happened. New feelings pushed in, as the familiar gave way to the unfamiliar … the more Arabic aspects of Morocco.

In Marrakesh we visited the largest public square in Morocco. The square and the large open-air market adjoining the square, has a frenetic energy. No fancy malls, no slick advertising, no sales promotions, just the raw energy of buyers and sellers negotiating a deal to mutual satisfaction.

In Essaouira I began to relax and feel comfortable with mysterious Morocco. Essaouira is a very old walled city on the Atlantic coast. Founded by the Portuguese in the 14th century, we stayed in an old Spanish style villa in the old medina. There we sat at a café, drinking atay, the traditional mint tea, watching the locals and tourists in the market, hearing the call to prayer at the three nearby mosques. On our way from Marrakesh, our driver, Mustafa, showed us various economic development projects, one a winery. We bought a bottle and after the sun was down, and the air cooler, we sat in the courtyard of the villa, the Riad Al Madina, enjoying the wine. Later, I restfully slept with the windows open to the cool dry air, with the deep, rough, powerful Atlantic but a few hundred yards away. I changed in Essaouira, I was beginning to see the real Moroc (as Morocco is called by Moroccans).

I’m fascinated by the way time is experienced in the culture of the land I am visiting. At first, Moroc felt like the industrial time that is America, an unrelenting industrial drum beat of time. Americans, even the laid back ones, are in a rush. Schedules, meetings, appointments, rush, rush, rush, in constant motion rushing from one thing to another. That was how our first days in Rabat were, rushing from meeting to meeting, place to place.

Moroccans, however, build in time for the pleasures of life, like eating. In Moroc, the most delicious and “artful” food can be served to you in McDonald’s-like time. On the streets and back alleys, a tajine (a conical-shaped “crock pot” cooked over hot coals) cooks all morning so as to be ready for lunch. One actually inspects the particular tajine, negotiates its price, then it’s served at your table. If it were McDonald’s, the food would be served then, and 10-12 minutes later, we’d be off to the next appointment. Not in Moroc. Time is really the secret spice in Moroccan cuisine. No meal is “fast.” “Hurry up” spoils the meal. Table talk is as important as the khobz (bread) served with every meal.

Order atay (Moroccan mint tea) and you get a small metal pot of boiling green tea with fresh mint and several large sugar cubes. It is not served ready to drink. The fresh mint must be added and let steep. Sugar must be added and mixed. Mixing is done by pouring the tea into a small, shot-glass sized glass, from a rather high distance to put a frothy head on the tea and then that is poured back into the pot, over and over and over. Until it is right. Time to get it right. Not clock time, but right to the taste.

Amidst the frenetic energy of the medina, the traffic of the boulevard, the time intensive march of modernity, Moroccans wait for the tea to be just right. How much have we lost in the U.S., especially in the important relationships in our lives, because time either rushes things or we find we don’t have enough time to get it right?

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

In political terms, who are the ‘middle class’?

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune-Star, 10/14/2012

TERRE HAUTE — Will the 2012 presidential election win a prize for how many times the candidates say they care about the “middle class?” Who is this “middle class” they talk about? In many ways, the candidates are really talking to anyone and no one at the same time.

“Middle class” is a bland term, one that is broadly inclusive in an uncontroversial way and helps the candidates obscure their policy paybacks to their political base. To the candidates, middle class status is simple: it’s a single dimension, an income range, with no stated bottom, but a ceiling of $250,000. This is the political equivalent of redefining the shrinking middle class to enlarge it. There is no serious discussion of poverty. Hence, the middle class is construed as expansive. In short, it’s America.

According to the Pew Research Center’s study of 2,508 U.S. adults during July of this year, 49 percent identified themselves as “middle class.” The middle class brand is for mass consumption. Self-identified middle class status varies little by race, age (except for 65 and above), or education. Forty-six percent of those who earn $100,000 or more, 65 percent who earn $50,000-$99,999, 51 percent who earn $30,000-$49,999, and 35 percent who earn less than $30,000 self-identify as middle class.

If middle class means middle income, Pew used Census data to estimate how many people fall into a range of middle incomes. They found the share of adults who self-identified as middle class in the survey was about equal to the share of adults living in households defined as middle income using Census data falling in a range of two-thirds to double the overall median size adjusted household income. Hence, Pew found that 51 percent of adults lived in households with incomes $33,331-$101,004. If President Obama and Gov. Romney think middle income is above $200,000, it would be interesting to hear them explain why.

It is to the politicians’ advantage to use an abstract concept of social class, one based only on income. This simplistic, non-relational, concept of social class helps to obscure real social class differences that might cause political difficulties for the economic elite in the United States.

Many reading this surely remember everyday terms that real people use to describe various social class groupings. One that was common just 20 years ago was “working class.” And working class people had influential non-governmental organizations to help represent their interests in the rough and tumble world of politics — labor unions. How about white collar and blue collar? Those terms reflect social class as a relation, not just a crude income category; they reflect social class in terms of one’s relationship to the economic institution. In short, how a person makes their living, which is not the same as one’s income.

People who earn their money by working for a paycheck are treated differently on a daily basis in their work and through public policy than those who earn their money by “renting” their wealth. Most employees are “at- will” employees and serve at the will of their employers. Losing their job means losing their income, their health insurance and a whole lot more.

Others can earn a middle class income through dividends, interest payments on large sums of money and buying and selling stores of wealth. Others earn their money directly off the labor of their employees. Some earn a salary by supervising and managing the labor of others who in turn make money for the enterprise’s owners.

Public policy treats sources of income differently. Income earned through work is, except at the very lowest levels, taxed higher than income earned through expending no effort other than lending money, buying municipal bonds, and renting assets. In short, those who can live off their wealth are in a different social class than those who live mainly or solely from what they can earn with their labor. A job can be easily expropriated, but wealth cannot. These people are in different classes even if their incomes are similar.

Reducing complex social relationships that create power differences between people into broad groupings of people based on income serves only to benefit those who govern the rest of us. The Washington gridlock and the political polarization isn’t serving the interests of the middle class. Whose interests does such a situation benefit? The poor?

The median household income in Vigo County in 2011 was $39,229. Twelve percent of households earn over $100,000 and 22.5 percent of families with minor children live in poverty. That means that virtually everyone, to listen to President Obama and Gov. Romney, are middle class in Terre Haute. Really?

Monday, September 17, 2012

Morning not just a time of day, it’s an emotion

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune Star, 16 September 2012

TERRE HAUTE — During church last Sunday, one of the hymns was “Morning Has Broken,” popularized by Cat Stevens in the early 1970s. As the organist played the first few bars and the congregation began to sing, I experienced one of those emotional waves that only music causes; that spine-tingling, goose-bump raising, overwhelming emotional rush. It surprised me and for the rest of the service I sat contemplating why had I reacted so strongly to this song? Nothing like church to prompt introspection.

I am a morning person, easily rising early daily, even when I don’t really want to, around 5-ish. Always been this way; scientists tell us that some are wired this way and others are not. I’m definitely wired that way, as I suspect my father was.

My psychologist colleagues likely would point to some aspect of personality for both early rising and the emotional reaction to the song. I can shoe-horn myself into a psychological profile: I like beginnings better than endings (you can tell that by looking at my many started projects that never seem to get finished). I have a fairly short memory for bad things, each day is new, why hold onto yesterday’s crap (and frankly why hang on to the good stuff … today’s is new!). The nutritionist might point to the need for coffee. While I like coffee, I don’t drink enough anymore for a coffee jones to explain my “morningness” or my emotional response to that tune.

As a sociologist, I tend to lean toward explanations of behavior in terms of socialization, relationships, situations, and perhaps values, which include the entire range of motivators, economics, and other types of reward systems. Sociological explanations are not for individual persons but for the entire class of “morningphiles.”

As I contemplated through the morning prayer, I noted that I spent my childhood and youth waking early with my dad. He rose every day at 5:30 a.m. As he headed for the kitchen to make coffee, he would turn on my bedroom light. I’d pad out to the “Florida” room, exchange a few words with Dad, who was not much of a talker, as he settled into his morning routine, which included watching the sunrise, the animal action in our backyard, and girding himself for a day of work that he was not all that fond of.

I, by the time I was in school, had my own routine that included reading the newspaper, front page to the classifieds, and making myself breakfast. My mother, who was not an early riser, made me independent and self-reliant, qualities I hope my wife and daughters appreciate. This routine lasted until I left home for college and resumed anytime I was home.

I also spent many special mornings with my dad. He was an avid bass fisherman and we spent many a weekend fishing. Getting on the water before dawn was always a goal. He and I spent many mornings on Florida lakes and rivers.

While I appreciate the solitude that being the first one up provides (that and a hot shower), I also enjoy sharing morning with others. Because my wife works on a factory schedule (public school) and I do not, I dealt with our daughters, waking them, fixing them breakfast, getting them going. One daughter is a morningphile and one a morningphobe. They are now gone from the house, but I still have the dog. She and I have our own routine that includes barking at the dark and morning carrots.

Even on vacations, I rise early, and like to find a neat place to sit, sip coffee (check email and read the newspaper online now) and talk with other morning junkies. I enjoy the morning light, its coolness, its freshness, and as the song notes, “the sweetness of the wet garden.”

I always feel good in the morning, every morning. It is not too much a stretch to say, I go to bed at night looking forward to another morning.

I’m not sure this introspective discourse explains my emotional reaction Sunday. As I reflect on what I just wrote and think about how to end this essay, I can’t help but observe that I associate mornings with my most intimate relationships. Not sure that is why I reacted so to “Morning Has Broken,” but I know today is a good day because it is early afternoon and the light and feel of the day still has a morning quality to it.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Rep. Akin’s view has roots in pro-life movement

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune Star, 26 August 2012

TERRE HAUTE — “It seems to me first of all from what I understand from doctors that’s really rare [a pregnancy resulting from rape], if it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”

— Missouri Republican Senate candidate Todd Akin in a local news interview on Aug. 19 in response to a question about abortion in the case of rape

To most this quotation sounds bizarre/offensive/obscene, so much so that leading conservatives have pleaded with Mr. Akin to step aside so that another candidate can be put on the Missouri ballot.

As the father of two daughters, Mr. Akin’s statement completely disqualifies him in my view. But he is not alone in those views, they have a history in the pro-life movement.

The extreme position of outlawing all abortions in all cases is not widely supported. Exceptions in the case of rape or threats to the health of the mother enjoy broad-based support and are currently constitutionally necessary in any law restricting abortion.

Kristen Luker, in “Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood” published in 1984, carefully described and analyzed the worldviews and strategies of both pro-choice and pro-life activists. Exceptions are unacceptable to the pure pro-life ideology. The fictive female biological response to “shut that whole thing down” was once a common response of pro-life activists to this moral/ethical dilemma. Luker writes: “Most of the pro-life people [activists] we interviewed said that women who are raped simply don’t become pregnant very often, and many of them said they thought this was because something biological happens to rape victims that precludes the possibility of pregnancy.”

This view may not be as widespread as it once was because ardent holders of pro-life views today see the hand of God in pregnancies resulting from rape. Sharon Barnes, a Missouri GOP activist, is quoted in defending Mr. Akin, “If God has chosen to bless this person [the rape victim] with a life, you don’t kill it.” In short, pro-lifers have substituted a narrow religious interpretation for their former bad biology.

That pregnancies following rapes are rare is because of how rape victims are medically treated. Those rape victims that come forward and accept treatment are given powerful “morning after” drugs thus preventing pregnancies. Yet current efforts to define personhood beginning at conception would effectively outlaw those procedures. Such pregnancies would be justified as God’s will or “a blessing” as a matter of public policy. By such logic, a woman resisting a rapist could be resisting “God’s will.” Is that next?

In Indiana, current law provides that a rapist father can claim custody of his child (I believe this is the case in 30 other states). In Indiana, current efforts to change that law are running into opposition.

Before Mr. Akin uttered “legitimate rape” he framed well the moral conundrum, “Well you know, people always wanna try and make that one of those things, well, how do ya, how do ya, how do you slice this particularly tough sort of ethical question.” He followed with the sentence that caused the firestorm.

He is correct in part; it is a “tough sort of ethical question.” Yet, he and his fellow believers avoid the tough ethical question by inserting the active hand of God or myths concerning female biology.

These extreme positions are those of a relentless, relatively small, but politically well-organized and funded group, which is, in effect, forcing its extreme, religious views on America. There are many religions as well as religious individuals who do not share these views, including many Christians, Jews, Muslims, not to mention atheists. Indeed, the views of the extreme pro-life movement mirror closely Theravada Buddhism. I suspect that if the justifications for banning abortion were in terms of “karmic sin,” “karmic rebirth,” and thus “consciousness begins at conception,” that those views would not be acceptable as public policy, but perfectly acceptable as an individual’s way to decide these thorny ethical and moral dilemmas for themselves.

Women who are raped and perhaps become pregnant must actually wrestle with that tough ethical/moral question. Imagine that she and her husband are trying to get pregnant. Taking the morning after pill might end what they are trying to make.

It is individuals who eventually must decide and it is they and their families who bear the cost of those decisions. A public policy, albeit clean and simple (no abortions under any circumstances), takes that tough decision away from the people closest to the dilemma and inserts justifications that many, perhaps most people, do not believe in. It is imposing religion through public policy.

Let those who believe in “no abortions under any circumstances” follow that belief. Proselytize others into sharing that belief, if they must, but it is fundamentally anti-American to force religious views, through the State, down the throats of people who disagree. It violates religious freedom.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Mystique of 'guns' ensure control efforts fruitless

Previouisly published in the Terre Haute Tribune-Star, 29 July 2012

A simple Google search on “Batman shooting” produces about 376,000,000 hits. That number isn’t very meaningful until put in some context. “Barack Obama” produces about 280,000,000 hits; “Mitt Romney” about 21,000,000 hits.

Not to diminish the tragedy, but in the big picture, the upcoming presidential election is more important, yet its Google search just barely out-“hits” “Batman shooting” with 387,000,000 hits. Worldwide phenomena should produce more hits than the “Batman” shooting, so “2012 Olympics” produces about 2.4 trillion hits. It helps to put things into proper perspective.

As a sociologist I am usually more fascinated by people’s response to this kind of tragedy than to the event itself. In an age of round-the-clock media, to borrow from Roger Ebert’s review of the tragedy, “we’ve seen this movie before.” The responses are predictable: the NRA wastes no time in doing its version of a deranged Paul Revere shouting through the land, “gun control is coming, gun control is coming.” As if on cue the anti-gunners call for closing some obvious loopholes in our current gun laws which in turn has the NRA pointing with glee at evidence for the truth of their delusions.

Politicians eager to up their hits on Google issue ridiculous statements like Louie Gomert, R-Texas, suggesting that prayer in school would have prevented this problem. I’m sure Charles Whitman (the Austin, Texas, shooter from 1966 who killed 16 people) had plenty of school-led prayer growing up in Lake Worth, Fla. He had a brain tumor that likely explained his behavior. Who knows what we will find with James Holmes, the Batman shooter? There are those who blame media violence; those who blame the death penalty (both sides, too much and not enough). There are those who blame the victims for not being armed, stupidly relying on the “guvmint” to protect them.

I predict that, as with Ted Bundy, eventually someone will get an interview with him, and he will explain his own behavior. Bundy basically agreed with the theory that pornography made him do it. The psych-pundits are saying paranoid schizophrenia. Stay tuned.

I don’t think we can prevent incidents like this. We could possibly reduce the opportunities for them to happen, but in the present cultural and political climate, any attempt to control guns isn’t going to happen. The gun control lobby doesn’t seem to understand gun owners and especially the very vocal and organized (and perhaps big in numbers) “gun fetishists.”

Some disclaimers: I own guns. I grew up with guns and learned to safely handle guns very early in life — before I could drive, before I could pilot a powered watercraft, before I could go to a movie by myself. I’ve enjoyed guns for recreation; I’ve never felt the need to protect myself or my “castle” with one. I knew three people who died from gunshots (one murdered, one suicide, and one accidental), more than I knew who died in car accidents. According to the CDC, more than 30,000 people die from gunshots each year, just a few thousand less than who die in car accidents each year. Injuries are much higher. Indeed, the price of freedom is very high.

Just as cars are more than just a means of transportation, guns are more than their designed function: recreation, protection, and a means to kill others (all protected by the Second Amendment).

People add much more to them than their designed functions. For instance, an armed populace represents the ultimate bulwark against tyranny. (Please don’t try to argue whether this is possible or not, it is part of gun mystique.) Guns represent “power.” It is the ultimate way to say no or to force someone else to say yes. With our hyper-emphasis on “individualism,” guns represent freedom, independence and self-reliance every bit as much as cars do. And when we add “gun culture” to the many fears that people have of “they” (as in “they are taking away our freedom; they are taking away our way of life; they are coming for our guns”) a gun provides a sense of security and safety that our society does not provide to everyone.

And yes, as the number of guns increases and the number of “yahoos” with guns increases, more gun tragedies are going to occur with increased handgun sales and applications for concealed carry permits following each tragedy. DIY.

As long as people perceive that guns provide more solutions to their problems than does “gun control,” effective gun control is a dead-end.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

As Americans, we're still far too wasteful

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune-Star, 8 July 2012

When did traditional American values change from thriftiness and frugality to “shop ‘till you drop,” buy now—pay later, and waste, waste, waste?

This isn’t an essay on the political mess in Washington, DC, this is about American households and “policies” that have put us on an unsustainable path (on so many levels) that a different future is inevitable.

The change in these values was not an accident. Henry Ford populated his early assembly lines with European immigrants and confronted his workers’ thriftiness and frugality with the Sociological Department who pushed the workers to spend their incomes on consumable durables instead of saving, saving, saving.

In the 70s and early 80s, tax policy gave a tax deduction for credit card interest.

How long has advertising been a business deduction? Indeed, television is practically completely paid for through advertising and television’s influence (and its advertising) on American culture is undeniable.

Mortgage interest deduction encourages home ownership and all the “stuff” that comes with it. And houses are huge compared to what they were just 30 years ago and those big houses need lots of stuff to put in it. I have a 25 year old refrigerator, dryer, and washer. I dread the day they need repair because repairs are hard to obtain. Instead, the push is to “just replace it.” My repair people scavenge parts from old machines because getting parts is difficult since they are no longer made.

We have so much “stuff” that each of us throws away 4 to 5 lbs a day, even when as much as 70 percent of it is recyclable. The amount of food Americans waste is astonishing. After paper and paperboard, food is what we throw away the most of. A University of Arizona researcher, with USDA funding, estimated that 40 to 50 percent of the food in the US is wasted. And our waist lines keep growing, nevertheless.

This was not always the way. My parents grew up during the Great Depression and they had different values, many which stuck with me. My parents didn’t throw anything away (it seemed), especially food. My dad always thought there was something he could do with cigar boxes, wrapping paper (yup, we reused it over and over again), plastic bottles and lots of other stuff. Wastefulness was not permitted! We shut lights off when we left a room, we didn’t take 45 minute showers, we didn’t waste things, even stuff that was cheap. Today, wastefulness is the default lifestyle.

Wastefulness used to be a vice (gluttony is a sin), now it is virtue. It is almost clichĂ© to say we are “addicted to oil”, especially “cheap” oil. We have grown so used to wasting oil and other fossil fuels, from ridiculous SUVs, to monster houses, to 80 inch TVs, to moving goods from long distances, that we are now trapped by it. You can see the trap in the anemic recovery that now looks even more anemic. Despite an uptick in jobs, despite interest rates that are nil, despite the lowest taxes in 50 years, as soon as the recovery began to show some legs, oil prices began to tick up, gas prices began steadily rising, and because our society is so dependent on oil (for everything from the obvious, transportation to growing our food, to the myriad plastics that make life so cool, to pharmaceuticals) that it sucked the life out of any recovery.

We have the ingenuity to solve some of these problems. Oil is far too valuable (even if it is “cheap”) to burn up in our gas pipes. Oil is necessary if we hope to feed 9 billion people by 2050. It is too valuable to throw away in landfills in the form of one-time use plastic utensils, plastic water and soda bottles, and plastic bags.

At the very least recycle it, but even that still wastes this precious substance. We must demand greater efficiencies, eye with skepticism how much energy “convenience” actually costs, and develop alternative and renewable energy sources, including a return to human energy (that will help reduce our “waste” lines (pun intended)).

These aren’t brilliant insights nor an original viewpoint, but it’s a viewpoint that few of us and even fewer of our “leaders” are willing to address head-on. We don’t have to wait for government to begin change in our households. Recycling is getting more convenient locally even if the economics on it are upside down. But that is a start.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Top 1 Percent Holds More Than Third of Wealth

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune-Star 10June 2012

My last essay focused on growing income inequality and its demonstrated relationship with a range of social ills. This month I want to focus on wealth inequality. All statistics are taken from the work of Edward Wolff.

Income (conventionally defined) is money received in the form of wages, salaries, tips, alimony, welfare, interest and some dividends. For the most part, income is derived from employment —work. And for a brief period last fall, the press and the political bloviators discussed the graph showing the increasing concentration of income among the top 1 percent compared to the 99 percent.

Wealth is one’s (or one household’s) net worth, the sum total of cash on hand, the value of real estate, assets, stocks, bonds, and ownership of private business(es) minus debt. For the vast majority of people, the 90 percent, one’s home is their primary financial asset.

Whatever people think or believe about the state of income inequality, wealth inequality is far more striking. Wealth, since the 1970s, has become increasingly concentrated at the top. The most recent data on the distribution of wealth is from 2007 (new data should come out in 2013) and it shows that the top 1 percent owns 34.6 percent of the total wealth (it was in the 20s in the early 1970s). In contrast, the share of the top 1 percent of income earners was “just” 21.3 percent in 2007.

“Millionaire” still retains high status in the U.S. Despite popular views that millionaires are common, according to IRS figures for tax returns filed in 2009, only 0.1 percent of tax returns filed (among 235 million) had incomes of at least one million dollars. It is one thing to earn a million a year, another to have total assets of at least one million, and in 2007 just over 6 percent of households had net worth that high. Indeed, when we examine the bottom 40 percent of households, their mean net worth is just $2,200.

Wealth differs from income in terms of the social power it confers. Wealth is transferable. A job/career is not. If I inherit a business, I can hire my relatives, including my children, to work the business and can eventually pass the business on to them, but not my job. As I have written in these pages before, the employment relationship is a significant one and it is asymmetrical with respect to social power.

Many argue that taxes on wealth should be reduced, if not eliminated. The argument goes that those who obtain money through their wealth (by investing in stocks, businesses, etc.) are risking their property and deserve to reap the rewards and should not be punished with a high tax rate. Hence, the 15 percent tax rate on capital gains (the selling of an asset and making money on it). Too bad I can’t auction off my job to the highest bidder when I decide to vacate it. My income is taxed at 28 percent. If I could sell my job, it would be taxed at 15 percent.

The amazing thing about risking one’s capital in business is that it gets others working for you. In the private sector, a job is not a gift or something miraculous that rich folks provide when they are happy, as the current rhetoric of “job creator” practically suggests. Business owners don’t create jobs to be civic-minded. Rather, businesses create jobs as a way to make money. Anyone who works in the private sector makes money for the company or provides some kind of valuable service or their job disappears. Unless a business owner has poor business skills, they are only going to create a job when there is a chance to make money for the business.

In 2007, the top 1 percent owned 49.3 percent of all stocks and mutual funds, 60.6 percent of all financial securities, 38.9 percent of all trusts, 62.4 percent of all business equity, and 28.3 percent of all non-home real estate. In short, they owned 49.7 percent of the productive assets in the United States.

Work in the private sector and it’s a 50-50 chance your job helps enrich someone in the top 1 percent.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Politics suppresses issue of income inequality

previously pubished in the Terre Haute Tribune Star, 4/29/2012

It’s looking like a major theme of this year’s presidential election will be “fairness,” with a focus on income inequality. Of course, no serious discussion/debate about income inequality is going to occur as that will be swept aside in the theater of presidential politics.

Unfortunately, Democrats are framing the “debate” in terms of who has money and who doesn’t and increasing taxes on the haves while Republicans will counter with charges of class warfare, class envy and spending and tax cuts.

I’ve spent 25 years studying economic inequality. It’s too bad the topic isn’t discussed like a public health issue; don’t politicize the condition, politicize the solutions to it.

Yes, high income inequality negatively affects everyone, not just those on the low end of the income scale. Like pollution it negatively affects everyone, not just poor people (although it may affect them more).

Below, I am going to refer to data from The Equality Trust ( “The Equality Trust is an independent, evidence based campaign working to reduce income inequality in order to improve the quality of life in the UK.” They use international comparisons of mostly western-industrial democracies (Japan and Singapore are included) to make much of their case. For most of the comparisons, they measure income inequality as a ratio of the proportion of total income received by the top 20 percent of households to the bottom 20 percent of households. The data they present are graphical and easy to understand. Basically they are correlations between income inequality and incidences or rates of other things.

Income inequality is associated with negative physical and mental health. Singapore shows the highest level of income inequality with the U.S. close by in second, but the U.S. has the highest infant mortality among the compared countries (by a wide margin). As income inequality increases, so does obesity.

People like to chant that the U.S. is No. 1. Here are things the data show the U.S. is No. 1 in: obesity rates; drug abuse; prisoners per 100,000 population; murder rate (more than 50 percent higher than our closest competitor). The U.S. also has the highest rate of mental illness.

All these disparate “No. 1s” have one thing in common, our high level of income inequality. And it is not that we have really, really poor people, it is that our rich are so much richer than everyone else. The distance is astounding, creating very separate societies and realities.

No doubt many are thinking, “well, I’m not obese, I don’t know anyone who has been murdered, no one I know is in prison, I don’t use drugs and I am not mentally ill and don’t know anyone who is.” I’m not finished.

The graph for high school dropout rates and inequality shows data for the U.S. 50 states. And sure enough, the states with lower levels of income inequality have lower rates of high school drop-outs while those with higher drop-out rates also have higher rates of income inequality. Indiana is in the bottom quarter of drop-out rates and in the bottom quarter of income inequality. I wish they had a graph of the 50 states with the other international states.

Births to teens is easily the highest in the U.S. and we have very high income inequality. None of your family may be having babies while teens, but it is willful blindness to deny high teen birth rates don’t affect us all. And no doubt related to teen births is the association between income inequality and the UNICEF index of child well being. We lose our No. 1 rating there. Israel, New Zealand and the U.K. rate worse.

If these examples are not enough to convince you that income inequality negatively affects us all, then how about this: The more unequal a society is, the less likely people believe others can be trusted, so even if you trust others, others don’t trust you. Much of the experienced degradation of community and social life in the U.S. can be linked to increasing levels of income inequality.

I urge anyone interested in income inequality to visit The Equality Trust. There is more explanation of the observed associations as well as proposed remedies. Doing so won’t make you a liberal or want to vote Democratic, if you are worried about such things. Indeed, income inequality and its correlated “pathologies” are factual. It is the remedies we should be arguing over, not politicizing whether to acknowledge the problem.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

New law takes wrong approach to conflicts of interest

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune-Star, 3/25/2012

The new Indiana conflict-of-interest law, as described in last Sunday’s Tribune-Star editorial, “prohibits employees of local government units from serving as elected officials on the councils that oversee those units. The bill also forbids local government officeholders from directly supervising relatives.” There is no question legislation is needed here, but this law simultaneously goes too far and not nearly far enough.

At a time when it seems finding good people to run for any kind of office is getting harder and harder and legislature after legislature, beginning with Indiana, passes legislation making it harder for people to exercise their right to vote (funny how Second Amendment rights are so eagerly defended by politicians but not voting rights — the fundamental democratic right), we enact a law that requires entire classes of people, based on their employer, to give up their livelihood if they wish to serve their local community as elected officials.

Why is a fireman or police officer serving on the city or county council a worse conflict of interest than a local business owner influencing tax abatements, zoning, or infrastructure improvements that benefit their personal interests? A conflict of interest is a conflict of interest.

All laws are enacted in a context. The same governor who ended collective bargaining for state employees, who enthusiastically supported legislation to limit the collective bargaining rights of teachers, and who just signed into law “right-to-work” shares his unacceptable vision of a conflict of interest: “The conflict of interest when double-dipping government workers simultaneously sit on city or county councils, interrogating their own supervisors and deciding their own salaries, must end.”

And so the Indiana law creates an effective ban on public-minded public employees from serving their communities as elected officials. But why not other, just as egregious conflicts of interest, like a real estate broker serving and pushing through local legislation that clears the way for housing where that broker is the exclusive broker; or a contractor who has contracts with the city or county? Why is the animating horror of conflict of interest an employee “interrogating” his or her own supervisor? If it were not an employee in this situation, but a real estate developer, would this be interrogating or negotiating? And ending negotiations between employees and employers seems a recurrent theme in many Republican-controlled states right now.

The law doesn’t go far enough because a public employee’s spouse is not banned from serving. That, too, is a conflict of interest and the logic of this law, if it were extended, would require the elected official to divorce their public employee spouse before taking office. Why is the spouse of a firefighter or police officer “interrogating” their spouse’s supervisor not a conflict of interest?

A superior law would be one where dual roles are identified (if an elected official stands to personally (financially) gain from a policy they are about to make because of another role they play in life, they should be barred from making that policy. This would include spouses and immediate family members). A mechanism must be in place that if a particular individual refused to recuse themselves from hearings and voting, to force recusal upon them. Conflicts of interest are fairly easy to identify, at least the most obvious ones, and once a good law is in place, norms of practice emerge, and conflicts of interest will be reduced.

Conflicts of interest are also about undue influence. Gov. Daniels apparently sees it only as a problem when an employee is “interrogating” a supervisor or double-dipping, but a supervisor can place undue influence on an employee, too, to vote for and support certain policies. But when a viewpoint privileges one side of the employment relationship and diminishes the other, those concerns fade into the background.

Hence, this is a bad law and likely will not reduce the conflicts in the long run, because it is construed too narrowly, conceiving of conflicts as only a problem with public sector employees and not citizens in general. The law doesn’t define conflicts of interest, it only offers a draconian remedy for those with conflicts that the current Republican view cannot tolerate. It does not address conflict of interest as a serious problem per se.

Rather than bar otherwise good people from serving their local communities, bar all elected officials from making policy and voting in areas where they have a conflict of interest.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Why must U.S. rely on employer-provided health care?

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune Star, 2/19/12

Even an irregular columnist like me can see “column fodder” in the contraception controversy that is dominating dysfunctional Washington right now. Never mind the disconnect between the U.S. Catholic bishops’ stand in face of the birth-control practices of Catholics (both men and women practice birth control and safe sex). Never mind the bishops riding this moral high horse when they still haven’t figured out which horse to ride in the face of covering up child molestation by priests.

If the bishops aren’t enough, Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) offers legislation that would allow employers to opt out of paying for any health care they object to on moral/religious grounds. It would be fun to write a column supporting that posturing so that when the inevitable lawsuits come up, the courts and Congress are then deciding what is moral and what is not (think of it as the Jon Stewart objection … no medicine, just laughter, because laughter is the best medicine and that is my moral belief).

Or even better, let’s pass a law that one’s religious and moral beliefs trump all things government. Hindus and Buddhists could refuse to pay taxes that go for beef subsidies, Quakers could opt out of all tax money that goes for war, and we Methodists could opt out of all tax monies that support the production of alcohol (all those corn subsidies for instance). Yes, all that would be just too easy.

It’s not easy, though. What this controversy does reveal is that it is time to change the U.S. reliance on employer-provided health care. This controversy reveals the irrationality of making health care contingent upon being employed.

Health care costs are rising too fast and are now so expensive that it is a drag on U.S. business. Health care costs are volatile, something that businesses don’t like. And rising labor costs should rise with productivity. Rising health care costs have nothing to do with productivity. Hence, in a recession, the provision of and commitment to provide health care is a drag on hiring new employees. It’s been a generation since we had such a deep recession and the slow recovery is surely influenced by labor costs (if taxes are such a drag, then surely so are health care costs). Why should an engineering company also be in the health care providing business?

According to the Labor Department, about a quarter of current employees have been with their current employer for a year or less (this dates back about 20 years). Think about that — about a quarter of people change employers every year, which means they are also likely changing health insurers and very possibly their health care providers. Only about 10 percent of employees have been with their current employer for 20-plus years. And even though they have had the same employer, they may have had multiple health insurers and thus different health care providers because the employer decides to change insurers.

What the Labor Department statistics don’t capture are the employees who would like to change jobs but don’t because of the health coverage. I know people who want to pursue the American dream, owning their own business, but the question of health insurance keeps them from pursuing it. How many public servants are remaining in their jobs, burned out and grumpy, and instead of retiring early, hold on, because of the health insurance, just waiting until they qualify for Medicare. This is irrational. It is also a competitive disadvantage in a globalized marketplace where, like the refusal to adopt the metric system, the U.S. insists on employer-provided health care — and pretty much stands alone.

Employers are the de facto provider of health care in the U.S. With rising costs, employers are looking to reduce costs. “Obamacare” reduces employers’ (insurers’) ability to do this through formerly common means such as not covering pre-existing conditions. The unintended consequences of “Obamacare” will be to create perverse incentives for employers to delve deeper into the lives of their employees. Recently “60 Minutes” reported on employers firing employees, based not on their work performance, but based on their perceived future health care costs, such as those who smoke, are overweight or eat the wrong diet.

Employers justified this based on the fact they pay for the coverage.

Insurance companies are hard enough to deal with; one shouldn’t have to feel their job is at risk because they have high cholesterol, high blood pressure, enjoy beer over red wine, or don’t like to eat vegetables.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

More to labor issue than basic economics

previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune Star (1/22/2012)

Right-to-work (RTW) is another of Gov. Daniels’ crises of the season. From daylight-savings time to leasing the Indiana Toll Road, to privatizing (and substituting computers for people) welfare offices, overseeing significant rollbacks in governmental services (BMV), property tax caps, and school reforms, Gov. Daniels isn’t afraid to lead the state into political turmoil.

To be fair, Gov. Daniels didn’t want the RTW fight. But he couldn’t find any traction among Republicans for his reform agenda (sentencing reform and local government reorganization), so he’s following the Republican lawmakers instead. Nevertheless, he has made RTW his number one issue and will no doubt take credit for this dubious “job-creating” policy. Indeed, almost everything Gov. Daniels has done has been justified as economic development. How is that going anyway?

For the record, I have made public statements at academic conferences that I do not favor “closed shops.” I understand the free-rider problem (non-members receive the benefits of collective bargaining without having to financially support the costs of achieving those efforts). I’d think Republicans would understand that, too, as they are quick to point out free-riders all the time (welfare recipients). I think closed shops lead unions away from continually making their case. Never underestimate the power of peer pressure.

I’m disappointed in both the unions’ and Democratic Party’s response to RTW. By focusing so narrowly on pay, they miss so much more about the impact of unions on the Indiana workplace. I’d like to see them reframe the question from right-to-work to “rights-at-work.”

Indiana, as most states, is an “employment-at-will” state. This legal doctrine essentially states: a person employed for an indefinite period is employed “at-will” and either the employee or the employer may terminate the employment relationship at any time for any reason or no reason and without notice. Those who work under a contract are not subject to “employment-at-will.”

There is not enough room here to go into the intricacies of how the law has evolved around employment-at-will, but think of it this way: the legislature (or Congress) and the courts can make public policy exceptions (law) to the doctrine. The broadest exceptions are in the area of demographic discrimination and for when an employee refuses to do something that is illegal (perhaps immoral). Indiana is known as one of the least fettered by public policy exceptions employment-at-will state. Stated another way, Indiana is a state where an employer is the freest to fire employees “at-will;” or, a state where employees have the fewest rights at work.

Over time, the Indiana Supreme Court (ICS) has preserved the employer’s right to fire in cases that, in my experience, really open the eyes of lay people. For instance, the ICS ruled that an employer was free to fire an employee for marrying someone the employer did not approve of. Unless a whistleblower is protected by a very narrow statute, even an employer engaged in illegal activities can legally fire a worker for informing authorities about it. One exception to “employment-at-will” is for an employee exercising their constitutional rights, such as filing a lawsuit against their employer. Indeed, the ICS reinstated an employee who was fired for filing in small claims court over travel expenses. The employee prevailed in the suit but was fired again when he tried to collect his claim.

Back to the ICS. It found that while the employee had the right to sue, he had no right to collect. It is safe to say that suing an Indiana employer for wrongful termination is very, very hard.

Hence, I wish the opposition to RTW would point out how union workers are not subject to the capricious will of employers. And this is becoming a bigger issue as employers mine deeper into their employees’ off-work activities, especially as it relates to health care. Employers are firing employees who they deem too expensive for their health-care plans or who engage in otherwise private behavior they disagree with. Should an employer be able to dictate an employee’s diet, their preferred form of recreation, their political affiliations?

More than just higher pay, union employees can’t be fired for such nonsense. Why? Because their union negotiates a contract on their behalf to protect them from such things. RTW is about undermining collective bargaining and thus those protections.

It may be that most employers respect “boundaries” and would never fire an employee for such ridiculous reasons as not liking who they married. But unless you are working under contract, they can.
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