Category Archives: Social Policy/Social Science

Monday’s Mtg: What if Roe v. Wade is reversed or gutted?

Now that President Trump has had two Supreme Court appointments Roe v. Wade and abortion rights are at risk. The 1973 SCOTUS ruling itself is unlikely to be directly reversed, says the conventional wisdom. But, the right to an abortion likely will be narrowed significantly. The main questions are when, how, and where (in which states).

Another set of questions involve the real world impacts of rolling back the right to choose. The impact on women’s health and civil rights. On the unborn (would legal changes really reduce the number and timing of abortions – the answer is unclear). Finally, the politics of it all. How boldly will the GOP and pro-life movement at the state-level go and can Democrats counter-mobilize to either protect the right to choose or at least benefit enough politically from its roll-back so they can reverse the reversals?

This is a big topic presenting many challenging issues of science, politics, and morality. To open our meting I will (a) explain some of the legal issues and cases that will be involved in deciding the fate of abortion rights, and (b) comment a bit on the politics of it all to help guide our discussion.

Our past discussions of this topic have been surprisingly civilized. Let’s uphold that standard.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. Where does abortion law stand now: USG, states? Allowed/Restrictions. What is being targeted for change?
  2. What laws are in the pipeline for courts/SCOTUS to review?
  3. What will SCOTUS do? Overturn Roe outright vs. gut it vs. not much move very slowly.
  4. If Roe is reversed/gutted: What will the states do? How will this affect abortion’s availability, # of abortions, women’s health, etc.?
  5. What will be the political effects?
  6. Optional: Pros/cons of abortion, ulterior motives of both sides, etc.

OPTIONAL BACKGROUND READINGS –

NEXT: Europe’s far right-wing political parties.

Monday’s Mtg: How true and appropriate are cultural stereotypes?

The use and misuse of cultural stereotypes is a hot topic these days, in both politics and the social sciences. In politics, obviously, there is a far greater emphasis on battling offensive cultural stereotypes than there used to be and more awareness (at least rhetorically) on their pernicious effects. Arguably, this increased sensitivity has helped to produce the “anti-political correctness” backlash that features so prominently in conservative politics. Call it a backlash against language oppression. Call it disgust with people overgeneralizing about other people’s motives in generalizing.

Or call it something a lot worse. Either way, stereotypes as tools of power and weapons in politics can make for a fun discussion. But only if we honor the civilized part of our group’s name.

The science is interesting, too. Experts are studying the psychological origins of cultural stereotypes, especially implicit bias and other cognitive shortcuts we take that can steer us to oversimplify other people’s “nature.” Some of the suggested readings below explain a bit about these findings.

Some cultural generalizations are true, of course. Or at least useful. Our group could debate specific cultural stereotypes. Obvious ones involve gender, race, religion, and ethnicity. But there are others related to age, education levels, rural/urban, etc. Which ring true? Finally, when is it appropriate to actually rely on cultural stereotypes? At work? When reading the news? When dating? What about when teaching your kids right from wrong?

Don’t really sweat the readings this week. But, the psych ones re interesting. Also, I added a few on a pet peeve of mine: The alleged American (African-American, usually implied) “culture of poverty.” I present a little bit from both sides, YMMV.

OPTIONAL BACKGROUND READINGS –

NEXT: What’s the relationship between religion and democracy?

Monday’s Mtg: Our Opioid Crisis – Who’s to blame, what can be done?

The ongoing opioid crisis has been called the “epidemic of all epidemics.” It certainly is the worst drug overdose crisis in U.S. history. In 2017 alone 72,000 Americans died of opioid overdoses, [update: …of which 49,000 were from opioids.]  up from 64,000 deaths in 2016. This is a greater toll than died in any single year ever from guns, car crashes, or HIV/AIDS.

It is not just prescription drugs that are the problem. Most addicts do start off with prescription drugs like OxyContin. But, after a decade of ridiculous increases the number legal opioid prescriptions has begun to decline. Most opioid deaths now are the result of people switching to fentanyl and heroin, much of it imported from China and Mexico.

This ravaging of Middle America has been extensively reported in the press for almost a decade. We’ve talked about it before.  What has gotten a lot less coverage is what to do about it. There is no single magic bullet that will “fix” the opioid problem. But there are a whole bunch of actions that if implemented intensively (and expensively) at all levels of government and within the health care industry that could start to contain the epidemic and reverse the damage it is causing.

Here are some descriptions of America’s opioid disaster, one major piece on solutions, and some reminders of major obstacles that prevent their being adopted. I will give a brief opening related to these readings.

OPTIONAL BACKGROUND READINGS –

Solutions –

Obstacles to / problems with the solutions –

NEXT: The new Supreme Court – How far right will it really move?

Monday’s Mtg: Dating and romance in the social media age.

Probably the main purpose of Civilized Conversation (to me at least) is to help people make sense of the rapid changes that are occurring in U.S. politics and society. The background readings provide some key information and POVs and we expand on them in the discussions.

We can also learn a lot from each other. This is especially the case for topics that relate to everyday life, like this one on dating and social media.  Many of you no doubt have tried on-line dating. Even if like me you haven’t you probably have wrestled with how to use social media within your existing relationship(s) or advised friends and family on online romance issues.

About 100 dating websites/apps are commonly used, according to one study (see link below). The ten most popular websites each get more than 1 million unique visitors per month, from #1 Match.com (35m) to #10 Blackpeoplemeet.com (1.2m). The behemoth Facebook just announced it will be getting into the dating app game, so more big changes are coming.  Popular apps include Tinder, Bumble, and Grindr. Something like one-third of single Americans have used the internet for dating.

A logical approach (to out mtg, not to romance) might be to go through how the social media revolution has altered how Americans

  1. Find relationships,
  2. Maintain them,
  3. End them and deal with their aftermath, and
  4. Support family and friends that are in stages 1-3.

After my very short opening, how about if I go around the room and ask people if they want to share any stories about online dating and the lessons they’ve learned?  Feel free to pass or wait until later to talk.  Maybe some common themes will emerge early.  Regardless, we can also explore differences in the online romance world by age, race, religiosity, etc., and try to predict where all of this might be going in the future.  (Wearable dating software?  AI-enhanced love?)

There are several public affairs angle, well. One is online dating fraud and harassment. Another is privacy.  This is highly personal info people are giving out and one firm owns Match.com, Tinder, OKCupid, and Plenty of Fish. Pivoting off of last week’s outstanding meeting on racism, I would like to get into whether social media is increasing tolerance faster than intolerance.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

NEXT WEEK: Labor Day tough question – What does responsible journalism require today?

Monday’s Mtg: Is human nature best grasped by science, philosophy, or religion?

Everybody is all science-y about human nature these days. Insights into how and why people are the way they are gleaned from cutting edge neuroscience, evolutionary psychology, and other hard sciences have captured the public’s imagination. Pop science mags/websites are chock full of articles on the latest findings about the biological basis of human nature. The social sciences keep plugging away on the matter, too, trying to untangle the role that environment and upbringing play and whether there is such a thing as a common human nature that spans different eras and cultures.

When CivCon discussed the existence of a universal human nature in 2015 our discussion focused mostly on the science, if I recall right.

The idea behind Monday’s revisit is to make sure we don’t shortchange the 3,000 years of thinking about human nature that came before 21st century cognitive science. There are the major philosophers like Plato and Hume and their heirs. Political philosophers, including Madison and Jefferson, rooted their theories in particular views of human nature.

There is also religion. Don’t all of the major faith traditions have a conception of basic human nature? What is the Ten Commandments if not a statement about how people naturally will act if not deterred by authority? Isn’t Jesus saying that human empathy is malleable and expandable? Buddhists claim our nature is to suffer because we crave too much. You get the idea. And, yeah, the science is pretty cool, too.  Maybe some of us know more about it than I do (It would be hard to know less).

Our meetings are getting pretty crowded these days. This is great in many ways, but maybe a bigger group needs to discuss a broad topic like this one within some sort of loose structure. So, after a brief intro I will ask sequentially about:

  1. You: What personal experiences have given you insights into human nature?  Education.  Family.  Marriage/relationships.  Parenting.  Work. Worship/spirituality?  Personal crises?
  2. Science: Anything cool you’ve read on biology etc. of human nature?
  3. Social science: Sociology, economics…
  4. Religion: What do religions assume about human nature and can faith/spirituality change it?
  5. Philosophy: Insights of major thinkers + different schools (like East/West or essentialist/nomological)
  6. Art:  I forgot this one.

Here are some (optional as always) background things to ponder.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

NEXT WEEK: Hail Me! If you were our dictator what would you decree?

Monday’s Mtg: Fixing California’s Affordable housing crisis.

As everybody knows our state’s perennial affordable housing problem has turned into a full blown crisis in recent years.  It is simultaneously a supply crisis (too few houses and rental units being built) and a demand crisis (too many people wanting to live in too few big coastal cities with stagnant incomes exacerbated by rising inequality).

Housing costs are a huge burden to millions of Californians, but it’s more than that.  Peoples’ inability to find a decent place to live, especially in our coastal areas where most of the opportunities are, may be turning into an anchor that drags down the state’s economy in the future.  Since CA is a major engine of national growth and since affordable housing is a problem in many other parts of the country, we need to find some way out of the crisis for everybody’s sake.

To their partial credit, in the last few years the state’s politicians have made affordable housing a priority. In 2017, the legislature passed a package of 15 new laws designed to jump start an increase in housing supply. Three more measures that might help will be on the November 2018 ballot – including a return to rent control. More radical ideas have been proposed, including a law that would have let the state government override just about any local zoning law that interferes with building new affordable housing. That bill got killed in committee in April, but its sponsor has vowed to try again.

The articles below explain some of the major causes of our state’s mushrooming housing crisis and the new and some of these proposed fixes. The biggest cause, from what I gather, is an old problem. Local elites control zoning decisions and – especially in the suburbs – they almost never want to permit greater living densities in their neighborhoods. But as I will go over I my opening remarks, there are other obstacles that might be more amenable to fixing without overriding all local control over housing. These include the changing the tax system, building codes, tenants’ rights laws, environmental law, and others.

This is a really great topic to illustrate a key point about politics. The news media focuses relentlessly on national issues, the partisan divide, and personalities. Yet, the parts of government that often affect people’s lives the most is this kind of stuff right here: State and local laws and regulations concerning land use, economic development, and taxes.  Many of the key decisions are made by low-visibility boards and panels, not by elected officials. It’s boring but it matters.

If California can find ways to encourage affordable housing that are consistent with other progressive priorities (like environmental stewardship, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and being fair to working people and friendly to business development) then our state will once again lead the way for the nation in the 21st century.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. Problem: How big is problem? Where? For whom? What kind of housing?
  2. Problem? Should building more and more housing at virtually any cost really be such a top priority?
  3. Causes of the problem.  Biggest ones.  Most intractable ones.  Most partisan ones.
  4. Solutions tried recently: 2017’s fifteen new laws, SB827 (would have allowed steamrolling local zoning regs), etc..
  5. Solutions:  Three Nov. Propositions.  Rent control issues.  SB827-type solution.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

The Problem –

Solutions (??)

NEXT WEEK:  Is human nature best grasped by science, philosophy, or religion?

Monday’s Mtg: Are kids made or born?

In Civilized Conversation we’ve done a fair number of romance- and relationship-related topics. We’ve done others concerning changing cultural norms and issues of personal morality.  We have several more of these in our new August – December schedule, which Jenn and Rich and I are working on and which will be posted this weekend and in hard copy on Monday.

But, we never do topics related to parenting. This is kind of an omission, I‘ve always felt, since raising children is the biggest endeavor of most people’s lives. It is true that some of us have had kids and others haven’t. Either way, most of us have some personal experience in dealing with children and the mysteries of how they turn out in spite of their parents’ best (or worse) intentions. Some of us may even have been children ourselves.

So, this topic is for everybody. We can focus on either our opinions about how kids turn out in ways that are surprising to those that raise them, based on our personal observations. Or, we can talk about the psychology, biology, sociology, etc., of the nature versus nurture debate.

Link hunting, especially on topics that are way outside of my knowledge base, is time consuming. So, here are a few that seemed interesting, plus some specific discussion questions that I will use in the meeting to keep us focused on the topic.

I’ll see you Monday with new topics.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. How often in your personal experience have you seen children turn out in ways that surprised you, given their parents and upbringing? To what did you attribute these differences?
  2. What about you? What do you think caused you to be the way you are? Were you born to be a certain way or raised to be? Were there pivotal influences or events? Were you lucky or unlucky?
  3. Science and social science: What do they say about nature v. nurture? Are there new findings you’ve heard about or debunked CW? Is some of the pop science about nature v. nurture wrong?
  4. Specific traits’ origins: Nature/nurture effects on –
    a.  Intelligence?
    b.  Judgment?
    c.  Talents and abilities?
    d.  Sociability and anti-social behavior?
    e.  Morality, ethics, empathy?
    f.  Sexuality?
    g.  Success in life and in relationships?
  5. Traumas: How crucial are childhood traumas to development? What have you observed/experienced + what does the science say?
  6. What is your advice to new parents – and to ex-children?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

NEXT WEEK: Affordable housing in California.

Monday’s Mtg: Pros and Cons of a Universal Basic Income (UBI)

The idea of replacing (or augmenting) some or all of America’s social safety net programs with a single, large cash payment has been around for a long time. Today, there are several different versions of the proposal, usually referred to as a Universal Basic Income (UBI). Some countries and a few U.S. cities have experimented with UBI on a small scale.

Part of the impetus for this is that UBI has been slowly growing more popular among the policy wonk crowd in recent years. Some progressive experts see it as the best solution for a future of mass unemployment and low wages caused by widespread adoption of artificial intelligence and other advanced means of automation. They also hope that adopting a single, universal to everybody income support program could finally drain some of the resentment many Americans feel towards welfare, especially in an increasingly diverse nation. Other liberals strongly object to a UBI. (FWIW, DavidG opposes a UBI, mainly because I don’t think it would ever be politically viable.)

Some conservatives are UBI converts, too. They usually argue that a UBI would consolidate the plethora of low-income programs, some of which they say are of dubious value, eliminate welfare’s perverse incentives, and be more administratively efficient. Other conservatives hate the idea.

Here are some background readings. I will open our meeting with a brief explanation of the ABCs of a UBI and the main arguments for and against it.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

USA need a UBI –

No, UBI is a bad idea –

NEXT WEEK: How will longer lifespans change society?

Monday’s Mtg (5/21/18): Do the various genders communicate differently?

Remember Men and From Mars Women Are From Venus? It was a huge best-selling book in the mid-1990s, and it was only one of many books in the last 30 years or so that tried to explain differences in the psychology and biology of men and women. Today, a lot of the well-known pop science explanations of innate (or even socially determined) differences between the genders have fallen out of fashion. Maybe as equality in the workplace and personal relationships has edged closer to reality people are less inclined to believe that men “are” one way and women “are” some other way.

Still, we have all noticed characteristics that appear to be more common in women than in men, haven’t we? I think I have observed some differences in communication styles, if in nothing else, over the years in professional and personal settings.  This includes the more than 600 Meetup-like meetings I’ve presided over or attended (CivCon = 50 mtgs per year x 9 years alone!).

What about you? Have you observed that men and women have distinct communication styles? In which aspects of life do they manifest – at work, in romantic relationships, in child-rearing, at certain ages? If men and women communicate differently, why? Is it a gender thing – either due to genetics or socialization and discrimination? Or, is it the product of other factors, like social class, education, media exposure, parental or peer pressure, etc.? To me, separating reality from stereotypes and gender socialization from other causes will be the challenge (and the fun) for us.

The links below are…my best guess at background readings that cover some of the major theories and points of view on gender communication differences. See if they add any useful information or perspective for you.

See you on Monday.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

NEXT WEEK on Memorial Day:  Nuclear war: Will it stay unthinkable? 

Monday’s Mtg (5/14/18): Status anxiety as a social and political force.

This is one of those topics that has no particular design or agenda lurking behind it. It was spurred by all of those studies and surveys that show that many Trump voters were motivated by anger at losing economic and/or social status in a 21st century economy an culture that (allegedly) devalues people like them. But, there are a number of different ways our discussion could go.

We could talk about the role that social status and social rank play in psychology and society. We could discuss the purported recent rise in generalized anxiety in the United States and try to relate it to social status concerns, especially those of Trump voters. We could even get into the role anxiety plays in say, adolescence, or examine anxiety disorders, like agoraphobia and PTSD.

Maybe some of you know something about these or other aspects of social status that are non-political. I don’t.  So after some reading (including the ones below) I will turn what I learn into a short introduction to open our meeting.

Also, I added some new meetings from our schedule to the Meet-up site. The dates for two meetings in June have been switched to accommodate someone who knows a lot about one of the topics and really wants to be there. The new order is:

  • June 18th – Brinksmanship as a foreign policy tool.
  • June 25th – Power and privacy in an age of Big Data corporations.

Trump’s meeting with North Korea’s leader is supposed to happen on June 12th, so that works out well. Revised hard copies will be available Monday.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

Basics –

Is status anxiety on the rise?

Trump voters –

  • Loss of social status was their main motivator. Or was it?
  • Yeah it was, albeit in a complex way that deserves some sympathy. Recommended.
  • Unfairness: It was his voters’ sense of the unfair way their security and status were taken from them that was the motivator.  Long but a great read.

NEXT WEEK: Do the genders really communicate differently?