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Saturday, April 30, 2011

God and Cheating

Here we go again. I just can’t help loving these junky social science studies that purport to provide revelations about human behavior. Previously, I have reported on one that proved the alarming conclusion that teenagers lie about sex (whether bragging about "experience" or "restraint"). Another expensive study explained why students procrastinate ... they fear failure or are just plain lazy. Who woulda thunk it?

Now the L.A. Times reports one of the best I have ever seen. A magazine with the self important title of "International Journal for the Psychology of Religion" published a startling study (which they did not conduct, but instead claimed to have vetted and peer reviewed), called "Mean Gods Make Good People: Different Views of God Predict Cheating Behavior".

As the title suggests, the 100 undergrad students who were tempted to cheat on a test were asked about their particular beliefs in a deity. The study concluded that those who claimed to believe in a fire and brimstone, vengeful, scary Old Testament kind of God cheated less than those who asserted a belief that "God" was just and merciful.

"In line with many previous studies, it found no difference between the ethical behavior of believers and nonbelievers. But those who believed in a loving, compassionate God were more likely to cheat than those who believed in an angry, punitive God."

The article quotes many other studies, including surveys that have concluded that 95% of Americans believe in the existence of God. But which God?

Another study broke it down for us, reminding us that we mostly see God as we see our parents:

"...28% believe in an ‘authoritative’God who is engaged in the world and judgmental,

... 22% in an engaged but ‘benevolent’ God who loves us despite our failings.

Two other groups of believers view the deity as more abstract and less engaged:

...21% conceive of a ‘critical’ God who keeps track of our sins and may render judgment in the afterlife,

... 24% see a ‘distant’ God who set the universe in motion but is not involved in day-to-day life."

[***the last is more like the model my God / parents followed.]

Another conclusion was that:

"More wrathful images of God are related to moral absolutism, while people with benevolent, loving images of God tend to be moral relativists."

[Implication: moral relativists are more likely to cheat. "Moral relativism" of course is a pejorative term used by conservative religionists to refer to "secular humanism", i.e., Godless athiests, aka Liberals.]

Although the co-author of the study acknowledged the need for objectivity, this study, like almost every other one I have read, whether I agreed with the results or not, is highly suspect.

I have spent 40 years questioning people (including thousands of prospective jurors), devising questionnaires to elicit "honest" viewpoints about personal beliefs. My conclusion is that it is almost impossible to be certain about whether the answers provided can be relied on to draw any conclusions.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Duck ... it's The Donald!

The notion that Donald Trump might run for the presidency should be laughable. But in the present political / pop culture climate in the USA the "ha-ha" would be quickly followed by "uh-oh".

David Brooks, the intelligent conservative NY Times columnist classifies The Donald as one of the "obnoxious blowhards" that the American public become enamored of on occasion. He likens Trump to George Steinbrenner, Ross Perot, Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, Bobby Knight, Howard Stern, and for balance, includes George Soros, the liberal outspoken billionaire. He might have included others from "the left" such as civil rights shouters Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, and Keith Olbermann. Mohammed Ali was probably the first such icon in my memory, a "blowhard" who soared above the pop culture / political fence. Ali was abetted by another blowhard master who saw in him as a kindred ego spirit, Howard Cosell.

Brooks observes that, like others of his sort, Donald’s attraction is his flamboyant aura of success and wealth, traits which many segments of American culture find fatally attractive. The allure is so strong that negatives of character and major flaws in taste, manners, correctness, reason, are overlooked or even seen as signs of iconoclastic courage. Trump, like the other blowhards, says things that his followers wish they had the courage to say, outrageously extreme, but emperor’s new clothes "truths" only people of independent wealth and soaring egos dare to speak.

Brooks’ bottom line is to discount the likelihood of Trump’s presidential ambition, his presence is an amusing and valuable addition to the boring world of cautious politics as usual.

There is a problem with this analysis. History is full of other blowhards who were laughed at by the intellectual rationalists. Even in democracies, populists can become demagogues and if the conditions merit, may metamorphose to tyrants. Fear, caused by economic or political troubles, are such conditions. In our own country, the Depression of the 1930's produced Huey Long, Father Coughlin, and other extreme haters on the left and right. In Europe, Mussolini and Hitler were long viewed as funny blowhards, not worthy of concern.

In the late 1940's and early 1950's, Joseph McCarthy was the loudest blowhard in this country. Long after his demise, his followers continue the conspiratorial paranoid flame burning, giving his name the honor of an "ism". Will we someday be remembering "Donaldism"?

Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Un-Civil War?

On its 150th anniversary, it seemed sensible to refresh my memory about the Civil War. I have been reading "Battle Cry Of Freedom: The Civil War Era" by historian James McPherson. Turns out, things haven’t changed all that much in 150 years.

Today, the debate is still about the power of the central government over the states and the individual, fundamental problems relating to taxation, economy, spending, and welfare. All of these issues have been argued vehemently for more than 150 years, but like racial issues which continue today, the Civil War articulated and dealt with these problems head on, violently, and starkly, providing lessons for us.

Can a government conduct a war and also provide for the welfare of its people?

Can it finance a war and also promote societal progress or must it abandon or roll back the hopes for advancement?

Can it run a deficit and continue to spend, financing war and domestic programs at the same time?

Comparisons between the policies of North versus South, with differing philosophies about the role of government "intrusion" versus "aid", had as much to do with the Civil War experience as the actual fighting.

For example, it seems that, by 1862, the Confederate government had serious financial problems. Less than a year into the war, it was deeply in debt, with inflation spiraling out of control. One cause was the refusal to increase taxes.

McPherson: "Americans had been one of the most lightly taxed peoples on earth. And the per capita burden in the South had been only half that in the free states. A rural society in which one-third of the people were slaves, the South had few public services and therefore little need for taxes."

(Contrary to populist belief, current U.S. tax rates for corporations and individuals rank below most developed countries).

The Confederacy was based on the fundamental purity of "states rights", so states were trusted to collect what taxes were ordered (tariffs and modest direct real & personal property tax of 1/2 of one percent). Only South Carolina obeyed. The other twelve states waffled, ignored or opposed in principle the idea that any central government could force them to do anything.

Just as many of today’s reactionary conservatives (self-identified as Tea Party Movement) champion causes that will hurt them and benefit the wealthy, Southern poor whites in the Civil War era suffered from policies they supported. Not only were their young men fighting the war to preserve the power of the plantation rich to keep their slave based wealth, but the inflation that occurred hurt their families far more than the rich. While they fought the war, their wives and children struggled to keep their farms going.

[Parenthetically, when inflation and scarcity led to black markets and price gouging, scapegoats were found. Guess who? A newspaper wrote: "... native Southern merchants have outdone Yankees and Jews..." Oh wait. "...We shall find all our wealth in the hands of the Jews."]

On the other hand, the Northern economy prospered during (despite or because of) the war. In addition to innovative use of bond sales (presaging the campaigns of the later World Wars), Congress passed the first income tax in our history. It was an intentionally progressive tax, 3 percent on incomes over $800 only, "thereby exempting most wage owners."

Still when the war went badly in the early years, the financial system sputtered. Confidence faltered, led to a panic, a run on banks, and a shortage of money. Lincoln, who McPherson notes was "no financial expert, played little role in congressional efforts to resolve the crisis."

The wartime Congress did act, boldly and successfully. It passed the National Banking Act and elicited the aid of bankers to supply ideas. The government backed and guaranteed loans and bonds by depositing money in the banks, leading to the concept of government bills (greenbacks) being considered "legal tender". (Just as today, there was a cry that this action was unconstitutional, violating the literal words that authorized Congress "to coin money." Paper wasn’t coin. The progressives argued that the "necessary and proper" clause plus a broader construction of "coinage" should apply. Luckily, the ultra conservatives were mostly gone South by then).

Northern inflation was far less severe than that in the rebel states. In fact, the price index of the North in the Civil War was not much different than in the World Wars, less than 100 percent increase from beginning to end, whereas in the South, it rose sixfold.

The Civil War U.S. Congress is considered to be one of the most accomplished in American history. Without obstruction from hidebound Southern conservatives, the Congress passed the Homestead Act, which granted 160 acres of public land "to a settler after five years’ residence and improvements on his (or her, since the law made no distinction of sex) claim." During the war, 25,000 settlers took advantage, by staking claims to over 3 million acres of land. After the war, the westward expansion was fueled by the hopes of a "half-million farm families who eventually settled eighty million acres of homestead land."

A Vermont congressman (Justin Morrill) for years had a pet project, a "bill to grant public lands to the states for promotion of higher education in ‘agriculture and the mechanic arts.’" Passed in 1862, it created the "land grant college movement" leading to establishment of universities such as Michigan State, Penn State, Cal, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois, and many others. The law also included universities in the reunited South after the war.

Another achievement was the "Pacific Railroad Act, granting 6,400 acres of public land (later doubled) per mile and lending $16,000 per mile (for construction on the plains) and $48,000 per mile (in the mountains)" in government bonds to corporations to build the transcontinental railroad. The work began in 1863 (the same year as the Battle of Gettysburg) and was completed in 1868.

While the history of the post Civil War era included vast corruption triggered in part by the corporate power of the railroads, it is also trued that "most Americans in 1862 viewed government aid as an investment in national unity and economic growth that would benefit all groups in society."

In the most ironic parallel, like the Tea Party Movement (TPM) today, Southern secessionists claimed to be inheritors of the original founders of the American Revolution. Lincoln’s election, they cried, would deprive them of their "liberty" and they cited Patrick Henry, and other Virginians for their heritage of "freedom" and their right to "property". It was an odd argument. They fought for the freedom to enslave people as property.

Like the TPM, the CSA was fundamentally white, nativist, intolerant Christian, economically selfish and narrow minded. After the war, American mythology, abetted by romantic notions of the "Lost Cause," elevated the supposed nobility of the Ante-bellum South (e.g., "Gone With The Wind"). But contrary to romantic ideas, some causes deserve to be lost and to be remembered, not fondly but with regret and shame.

Saturday, April 02, 2011

Time Marches On

When I was a kid we had one telephone. It was in the hallway near the front door, and when it rang, it was so loud you could hear it all over the apartment. You had to run to pick it up and then yell to your mother, father, or sister, if it wasn’t for you. There was a pad by the phone and several phone directory books nearby. The phone company owned and supplied the phones and updated the books. It was cool to see your family’s name in the book, but a bit disconcerting to notice how many others there were with identical or almost identical names, even in your own neighborhood.

Eventually, I bought a house and had extensions in almost every room. I had an answering machine and an unlisted number. I had to buy new phones and extensions. Later they were wireless and had antennas.

Now, I have a cell phone. It gets the internet with facebook, twitter, texting, so that I hardly ever get phone calls anymore. When it rings, I have to find it because it is the only one I have and it is very small so I misplace it. I have decided to keep it in one central room, probably the hallway near the door.

When I was a kid and got too sick to go to school, the doctor came to the house, told my mother to boil water for his instruments. He gave me a penicillin shot, charged my mother $10.00 which she paid in cash. He drove to his next stop in a Cadillac.

Now, when I am sick, I call the doctor’s office for an appointment. If he can fit me in some time that week, I go to the doctor’s office and sign in. I then sit and wait for an hour or two until I am called into one of the exam rooms. I wait there, until a nurse’s aid comes in with my file and takes my vitals.

Eventually, the doctor arrives. Sometimes he prescribes some medication for me. My co-pay is around $10.00 and he charges the insurance company $60.00. He drives a Mercedes. He doesn’t validate my parking.

When I was a kid, there were seven daily newspapers, four morning, three evening. My grandfather would bring three of them home from the newsstand and my father brought more home every night.

When Kennedy was shot, I grabbed all the newspapers that were left on the seats of the subway train and spent the weekend with the rest of my family and everyone else in the country, watching Cronkite, realizing that things were scary when he welled up, and removed his glasses to announce the time of death.

Now, I read the news on my cell phone (often while I am waiting in the doctor’s office). I saw the videos of the Japanese quake and tsunami, texted my son, brother, sister, nephews, friends, some others. I even spoke to one of them for a few minutes.

It is not the same.