Category Archives: Social Policy/Social Science

Monday’s Mtg: Does history have a direction or purpose?

I think this will be a really fun topic. We love our history in CivCon. Yet, this one asks a bit more of us than usual. Determining what “history” is and how and why it moves the way it does can get very complicated very fast. An entire subfield of philosophy is devoted doing so. It’s called the Philosophy of History, and some of the giants have wrestled with its questions, including Voltaire, Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, Vico, and Foucault.

But, those links are more FYI. For our purposes, I think just asking some of the basic, big questions about history would be a good way to start our discussion. It also might guarantee we go a bit deeper than History Channel-level generalizations about what history’s direction or purposes might be.

Now, many religious people, obviously, claim history has a divine purpose and/or end-point. YMMV. But, secular people also like to believe that history is governed by comprehensible rules and mechanisms. Some of the philosophers and historians have even seen predictable cycles and scientific laws in history. We can talk about those, too.

If I can find the time this weekend I will work up a short opening presentation on some of this stuff. Try to peruse some of the recommended readings or at least briefly ponder questions like these, please.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. What: What is “history?” Just facts and events? Which events and whose facts? Does history contain a central narrative, or do we make one up? Is history more myth and rationalization than science?
  2. Why: How can historical cause and effect be determined and combined into mechanisms? How complicated is contingency? Can we detect an overall narrative or meaning to history that isn’t just self-reflection?
  3. Who: Who/what drives history? Role of big, impersonal forces (e.g., economics, science/technology, war, cultural interaction) versus individual agency and chance?
  4. Direction:/purpose
    1. Is there a natural direction to history? Are we “progressing?”
    2. Does history repeat or move in cycles?
    3. Does biology or some other natural force provide us a purpose?
  5. Lessons: Types of lessons from history and their use/misuse.
  6. Examples: What is your favorite and least favorite Law of History / theory of history’s purpose/direction?

OPTIONAL BACKGROUND READING –

NEXT WEEK: Can California resist Trump’s agenda?

Monday’s Mtg: Is technology ruining our attention spans?

I know, I know. You thought ruining attention spans was my job. Information technology’s effect on human attention spans is just one of those how-info-tech-is-changing-the-world topics we dip into occasionally.  We’ve done porn’s effect on sexuality, cyber security, and Facebook’s influence on friendship.  I remember linking to at least one article for some meeting that said the internet is changing the hardwiring of our brains.

The attention span angle is a new one for us but it is a topic of both general and academic interest.  I don’t know about you, but everybody I know complains the internet has ruined their ability to focus for any length of time on just one thing.  They’ve all but stopped reading books, can’t finish articles they start reading on-line, stop watching videos on-line after 34 minutes, etc.  Academic work on the issue got a short burst of media attention (is there any other kind of media attention?) a few years ago after a major study claimed technology has reduced average human attention span to a mere eight seconds – shorter than that of a goldfish. I don’t know if the study was any good or how it defined “attention span,” but I’ve linked to an article about it, below.

So, on Monday we can discuss the readings and anything else people have read or seen on our allegedly disappearing ability to pay attention. Also, this would be an especially good meeting, I think, to share some personal experiences. Most CivCon regulars grew up before the internet existed at all, and the full-on social media age is new to everybody, everywhere. What has happened to your attention span and those of people you know?  How do you fight it?

We also could get into related issues. For example, how has the information technology revolution affected our memories, how and how much we learn, the capacity for empathy, and openness to opposing points of view?  What about our intimate relationships and social lives?

I’ll see you Monday at 7pm.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

NEXT WEEK: Is rural versus urban America’s worst political divide?

Monday’s Mtg: How far should the government go to encourage healthy lifestyles?

The more I think about this one the more complicated it gets. OTOH, a lot of what the government does to prevent and treat what are called non-communicable diseases (like cancer, diabetes, anorexia, Alzheimer’s, and hypertension) is widely supported by most Americans. The public loves govt funding basic research on chronic diseases, Medicare and Obamacare subsidies, and govt-enforced safe food and water.

But, when Americans perceive that other people’s illnesses are due to poor lifestyle choices things get controversial. How far should, for example, regulation and taxpayer-supported health insurance go in protecting people from their own bad choices?

It’s not just a moral judgment, either. As the first article below points out, it is hard to attribute many chronic conditions to specific behaviors. This is true even for health problems they’ve been studying for decades like cancer and diabetes and (it seems to me) is probably even more true for behaviors that public policy is newly targeting, like obesity. How can we know what interventions are cost-effective if we don’t know how a lot of the science works?

Oh, and what constitutes a bad lifestyle “choice” exactly? Not all decisions about what to eat and where to work and live are equally voluntary, especially for children but also in a sense for people too poor to afford healthy choices.

Along with these issues, here are some other basic questions we might consider on Monday. I will be back from my vacation, BTW.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. Rationale: Why should the govt try to prevent/minimize bad lifestyle choices?
    — Why: General public interest? Externalities (effects on other people)? To help the economy? To prevent needless suffering? To fulfill international obligations?
    —  When: Scientific uncertainty.
    — Who: Federal govt v. state/local concern?
  2. Targets: Which behaviors?
    — Smoking/drinking, other drug use and vices.
    — Diet: Obesity/sugar, child nutrition/school lunches, “food deserts” in poor areas.
    — Violence and accidents: Guns, hazards. At work/home.
    — Health care: Insurance, Obamacare carrot and sticks.
  3. Tools: It’s not just regulation.
    — Taxation/subsidies.
    — Information and advocacy.
    — Market regs: Restrictions on buying/selling, food service, product safety regs, etc.
    — Health care.
    — People under govt control: School kids, prisoners, soldiers…
  4. Limits:  How much govt action is too much?
    — Who should decide?
    — Where has govt gone too far or should do more?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

NEXT WEEK: Does foreign aid work?

Monday’s Mtg: Why is American culture so violent?

The United States is one of the most violent countries in the developed world. For example, here is how we compare with other OECD countries in deaths rates from assaults.

assault-deaths-oecd-ts-all-new-20131

[Source: OECD See here for identities of the other countries.]

Wow.  And it it’s not just homicide and it’s not just crime. Just thinking out loud I suppose we could identify four kinds of societal violence:

  1. Domestic violence (home/family);
  2. Public violence (crime, racial/sectarian/communal strife);
  3. State violence (repression, war/pseudo-war, criminal justice system); and
  4. Recreational violence, both simulated (TV/movies/gaming) and real (violent sports, hunting, gun hobbyists).

I haven’t looked up whether we lead in all four of these. But, we certainly do on #2, and maybe on #3 and #4. Of course, many poor/non-democratic nations have much higher levels of violence us, and much of our war fighting is as head of the Western alliance system. Still, the American people and its institutions are really, really violence-prone.

For this meeting I thought we could tackle the very unnerving idea that the main cause is cultural. Is there something, er, exceptional in American culture that makes us this way? The 300 million guns? The high poverty rates? Racism and segregation? Mass incarceration? Hyper-individualism?  A Wild West mentality or Southern culture (the South is by far our most violent region)?  Do conservative explanations hold any water, like declining religiosity/respect for moral authority or self-destructive “culture of poverty” values?  Violent entertainment?   Drugs?  You get the complexity idea.

Also, has a high tolerance for violence always been a part of our society, or has something changed recently? One of the links below is about the growing paranoia of U.S. gun culture.  Also, we just elected a president at the very least despite of – or more likely IMO – because of the way he reveled in violent rhetoric and promises to inflict actual violence. His message of an “American carnage” terrorized by violent crime and foreign exploitation and his unveiled threats of vengeance against foreign and domestic enemies deeply resonated with tens of millions of Americans. What does that alone say about our culture’s normalization of violence, or, perhaps more benignly, about voters’ beliefs that the violence is out of control?

Here are some different points of view on whether and why American culture is distinctively and excessively violent.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

NEXT WEEK: Who runs San Diego – and for whose benefit?

Monday’s Mtg: Which beliefs have you changed since you were young and why?

Gale came up with this idea. I like it partly because it lets us get off the hamster wheel of reading and intellectualizing over politics, philosophy, history, and the like. But, I also like the topic because it basically asks each of us how much of what we have experienced and learned has really mattered – enough to make us change our opinions.

What people learn from experience is heavily influenced by what they want to believe a priori, of course. Still, as this week’s handful of background readings discuss, our beliefs do evolve throughout our lives as we gain experience and perspective. About what have you changed your opinion? God/religion, politics, personal ethics, marriage and children? What did it for you? Marriage and kids, church, school, career choices?  How hard was it to evolve?

After my 45 minute opening lecture (Note: KIDDING), I am really interested in hearing what you all, with all of your decades and decades and decades (sorry) of wisdom have to say. Have a nice weekend and I’ll see you on Monday evening.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –  

NEXT WEEK: What is a “fair” burden of taxation?

Monday’s Mtg: The Uses and Abuses of “Pop Economics.”

Rich suggested this topic. I wish I had, because I think it is one of our most important topics in years. The way basic, introductory-level economics has been abused to make bad national policy has been a pet peeve of mine for many years.

Sure, all rhetoric in politics is kept sound bite and bumper sticker-friendly. (Not to a fourth grade level like Trump’s rhetoric, perhaps, but still.) And, everybody does it. “Our borders are unguarded/open.” Liberals aren’t patriotic. Neoconservatives love war.

But, when it comes to rhetoric –and policy, too – concerning economics, something much, much more pernicious goes on. It has been called the problem of “Econ 101ism” or “Economism.” Economism, to quote the coiner of the term, is “the misleading application of basic lessons from Economics 101 to real-world problems, creating the illusion of consensus and reducing a complex topic to a simple, open-and-shut case.” For years I’ve seen way too many politicians (and their pundit and journalist enablers) use over-simplified – and thus often inaccurate – Econ 101ism as a kind of Gospel that fully explains how the world really works. They use its “lessons” to show what correct government policy has to be and anybody that disagrees doesn’t understand economics.

Everybody does Economism sometimes. Liberals sometimes indulge in it when thinking and talking about international trade and, less often IMO, about macroeconomics (govt spending levels). But, as the articles below explain better than I will on Monday, there is something about Econ 101’s easy, breezy, oversimplified analysis of how markets work that easily seduces conservatives.  All those pretty supply and demand curves leading to ideal equilibriums without ever a need for government interference.

Again, I don’t mean this topic to be about economic polices and rhetoric that I think are wrong.  I mean it to be about those that are wrong for one particular reason: They are based on a belief that the highly simplified textbook explanations of how markets work should tell us all we need to know about what policies should be.  Econ 101ism, to me, is too often a shield for preferences that based on other things, like ideology and moral beliefs. .

I’ve tried to keep the linked readings fairly easy and, well, breezy. They oversimplify, too, but get the idea across.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. What does Econ 101 teach about how markets and govt interference in markets work? What important things does it gloss over?
  2. In what big ways can well-meaning political advocates misinterpret the lessons of Econ 101?
  3. How do the lessons of Econ 101 get misused by politicians; i.e., what is Economism?
  4. What are some good examples of Economism in action on the Right and Left?
    –> In tax policy? Financial regulation? Trade? Wages and labor markets? Health care? Education?
  5. How can seductive rhetoric based on Economism be effectively countered?
  6. What’s the “other side” POV here? Is Econ 11ism not a big thing?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –  

Conservative use of Econ 101ism

Liberals use of Econ 101ism –

Special Topics in Econ 101ism –

NEXT WEEK: What beliefs have you changed since you were young?

Monday”s Mtg: How Important Is White Male Privilege?

Calling out people for being clueless about privilege – usually their White, male privilege – is common these days. Doing so often provokes puzzlement and/or an angry if not furious response, which leads to a frustrated counter-response. Dialogue, much less actually learning something about oneself or society, becomes impossible.

But, understanding what is and is not meant by “check your privilege” is important, whether or not you think there is much to it.  Arguably, disagreement about who is privileged today and who has a right to feel aggrieved was one of the biggest factors in Donald Trump’s shocking from reality TV star to the President-elect. Based on my reading and personal experience, I think that Trump’s election was, well, personal to White American men in a way no other election result in my lifetime has been. A lot of people are saying that this man became president out of nowhere represents either a –

  • Restoration of a White, male-dominated social order, or an
  • Angry reaction to the false accusations of racism and of White, male privilege.

Tough stuff. Aaron L. suggested that Civilized Conversation might be one of the few venues in which people could discuss this awkward topic in a reasonably productive way. Certainly, we can try.

I think the key to civility on this topic is understanding what the assertion of White privilege (and gender privilege) means and what it does not mean. The articles below, especially the first two, explain the term. Spoiler and key point: Crying “privilege” is not an accusation of racist intent or of a personal failing of character. It’s an observation about one’s relative place in a social order, and the advantages (big and small, lifelong and day-to-day) that some people have because of it and others don’t have.

My idea for our meeting is ambitious. I hope we can explore what White, male, privilege means to people that use the term, and what it means to people that feel so offended by its use. We also can get into the actual evidence that White male privilege still is a potent force in our society and the implications for public policy and personal behavior.

We should have a new topic list of Feb – May to hand out on Monday, thanks to Rich and Aaron (The Elder, not Aaron L., Son of Bruce) . It will be Trumptastic.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –  

What is “White male privilege?”

Evidence and Rebuttals –

Trump and White male privilege –

NEXT WEEK:   President Trump’s Priorities.

Monday’s Mtg: Feminism’s Successes, Failures, and Next Steps.

Am I crazy or has this election become a referendum on misogyny and sexism?  Maybe it’s all Donald Trump’s fault.  Maybe his ugly rhetoric and antics don’t represent anything larger in our society or tell us anything important about the state of gender equality or the obstacles arrayed against further progress.  He might be wildly popular for other reasons, and it is easy to think the huge gains made over decades cannot be reversed and that history will just keep on edging us forward on equal rights for everyone.

And yet.  Political movements in democracies tend to get the leaders that best express what their adherents stand for. Close to 80% of self-identified conservative Republicans say Trump stands for conservative values and principles. Does resentment of gender equality belong on that list, or is the volcano of hate Trump drilled down into more aimed at Hillary Clinton personally and/or the ideologically left-wing bent of modern feminism?

I don’t know. But, either way Monday will be a good day to discuss the successes, failures, and unfinished business of the feminist movement. We can also vent a little about the election. I’m here for you. I don’t read much on feminism and am not well-versed on the priorities and projects that animate the movement these days. So, I will give a brief opening on Monday that focuses on Hillary’s explicitly pro-feminist rhetoric and policy agenda.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –  

Next Week (Nov 14): Donald Trump: Who is to blame?

Monday’s Mtg: “Trans-Humanism” – Will/should science reinvent the human species?

If you’ve never heard of Monday’s Halloween-appropriate topic, missing our meeting to trick or treat won’t spare you forever. Science and technology cannot yet enhance human capabilities so radically that any of us could transcend humanity’s natural limits and become Trans-human.

But as the articles below describe, we’re getting there. Major advances are being made in key areas, like genetic engineering, pharmacology, and wearable/implantable technologies for the body and brain. Debates over the bioethics of human enhancement technologies have been raging for years already. There has been at least one Presidential blue ribbon commission on bioethics (GWB’s “Cloning Commission”), and an international Trans-humanist movement that has sprung up. The call is coming from inside the house.

Panning Trans-humanists types as over-the-top techno-optimists is easy and fun. But, I think Aaron’s topic ideas is a great one. The ethical, religious, and political implications of it are fascinating, IMO. I’ll be at the meeting. But Aaron will introduce the topic and preside and I look forward to a very interesting discussion of our possible Gattaca-like, Brave New World.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –  

Next Week (Nov 7): Hillary Clinton and feminism’s successes, failures, and future.

Monday’s Mtg: Do Government Anti-Poverty Programs Work?

This month marks the 20th anniversary of federal welfare reform. The 1996 law drastically limited assistance under the U.S. govt’s largest welfare program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. Since then, a lot of other changes have been made to our anti-poverty safety net. Yes, TANF was gutted, but other programs have been created or expanded to make up the slack, and the whole system is now better targeted to incentive work and to reach the truly needy.

Still, perhaps welfare reform’s main accomplishment was political. It de-weaponized welfare as a high-profile, partisan issue in American politics. Rising poverty and inequality levels may bring it back, but it hasn’t yet. And if it ever does, most Americans will be just as easy to manipulate as before because few of us know anything at all about this part of government. For example, did you know that

  • The biggest and most effective ant-poverty programs by far are Social Security and Medicare?
  • Govt spending per poor American has gone up in recent years – not down as most progressives think?
  • Benefit levels are pretty paltry, and the biggest poverty programs do incentive work – contrary to what most conservatives think?

Given these and many more public misconceptions, I thought it might behoove us to devote an evening to taking a big picture look at how the government combats poverty in America and how effective it is.

I am a bit pressed for time this week (inc. finding you good, analytical links). Here are some discussion questions I will use to guide our meeting on Monday, and some background readings on anti-poverty programs and their effectiveness. My opening remarks will describe the largest federal and state govt anti-poverty programs and make a few points on the issue of effectiveness.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  1. What are the main federal/state anti-poverty programs? How much do they spend and who gets benefits?
  2. What is their purpose? How is aid targeted and conditioned? Temporary v. permanent help? Cash v. non-cash benefits?   “Making work pay” v. helping non-working poor?
  3. (BTW: Why are there so many poor Americans, anyway?)
  4. Effectiveness at…
    1. Reducing poverty and helping the helpless?
    2. Targeting the “right” people.
    3. Incentivizing work?
    4. Keeping social cohesion.
  5. Problems with…
    1. High program costs.
    2. Dis-incentivizing work.
    3. Subsidizing low-wage employers, like Wal-Mart.
    4. Minimizing fraud and abuse.
  6. Past and future:
    1. Did welfare reform “work?” For whom?
    2. Future alternatives to / expansions of poverty programs.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –  

How much do we actually spend reducing poverty?

  • It depends what you count as “welfare” and exaggeration is common. Recommended.
  • A conservative group counts up the total.
  • [Update: Is entitlement spending for lazy people growing out of control?  No, it is not: 91% of entitlement spending goes to the elderly (50%), the disabled (20%), or the working poor (20%).  Only 9% goes to non-working, non-disabled adults.]

Impact of anti-poverty programs –

Conservative POV –

20 years after welfare reform:

Worldwide Poverty –

Next Week (Sept 5):  Will President Obama’s Achievements Endure?