Category Archives: Opinion

Can Poverty Change You Genetically?

This is a fascinating article, written by a former investment manager and current Truman National Security Fellow, who escaped abject poverty in Appalachia, that looks at the early (as of now) research showing the potential link between poverty and genetics. Basically, the stress of poverty might change your body in a way that can be passed to your children and grandchildren.

Even at this stage, then, we can take a few things away from the science. First, that the stresses of being poor have a biological effect that can last a lifetime. Second, that there is evidence suggesting that these effects may be inheritable, whether it is through impact on the fetus, epigenetic effects, cell subtype effects, or something else.

This science challenges us to re-evaluate a cornerstone of American mythology, and of our social policies for the poor: the bootstrap. The story of the self-made, inspirational individual transcending his or her circumstances by sweat and hard work. A pillar of the framework of meritocracy, where rewards are supposedly justly distributed to those who deserve them most.

What kind of a bootstrap or merit-based game can we be left with if poverty cripples the contestants? Especially if it has intergenerational effects? The uglier converse of the bootstrap hypothesis—that those who fail to transcend their circumstances deserve them—makes even less sense in the face of poverty epigenetics. When the firing gun goes off, the poor are well behind the start line. Despite my success, I certainly was…

Why do so few make it out of poverty? I can tell you from experience it is not because some have more merit than others. It is because being poor is a high-risk gamble. The asymmetry of outcomes for the poor is so enormous because it is so expensive to be poor. Imagine losing a job because your phone was cut off, or blowing off an exam because you spent the day in the ER dealing with something that preventative care would have avoided completely. Something as simple as that can spark a spiral of adversity almost impossible to recover from. The reality is that when you’re poor, if you make one mistake, you’re done. Everything becomes a sudden-death gamble.

Now imagine that, on top of that, your brain is wired to multiply the subjective experience of stress by 10. The result is a profound focus on short-term thinking. To those outsiders who, by fortune of birth, have never known the calculus of poverty, the poor seem to make sub-optimal decisions time and time again. But the choices made by the poor are supremely rational choices under the circumstances. Pondering optimal, long-term decisions is a liability when you have 48 hours of food left. Stress takes on a whole new meaning—and try as you might, it’s hard to shake.

As the author points out, this research calls into question the whole concept of poverty as choice, or poverty as the result of laziness, and asks us to reconsider how we address poverty. One thing’s certain: whether or not you agree that poverty has a biological impact, you have to acknowledge that the programs we’ve depended on to fight poverty until now have not worked. Whether it’s because the programs are misguided, or there was a lack of political will to follow through on those programs that exhibited promising results, or some combination of those factors and more, we’ve failed to pull a huge chunk of our population out of poverty and if we want to change that then we’re going to have to make substantial changes. Soon.

A Letter to Some of My Recently Smug Conservative Friends

Dear Recently Smug Conservative Friends,

I get it. You’re feeling pretty satisfied. After eight years under the reign of progressive terror that defined the Obama era your time has come. The progressive agenda, what with its political correctness, high taxation, misguided health care reform and redistribution of wealth to the seemingly lazy and undeserving is finally being confronted by reality. Almost as importantly, those friends and family who for almost a decade have smugly derided your conservative values as antiquated and out of touch now have to face the reality that there are a LOT of people out there who think like you do. Together you’ve elected the most improbable candidate ever, Donald Trump, to the office of the President of the United States, and on top of that have returned a Republican House and Senate and an almost unbelievable number of state legislatures and governors office to the red side of the aisle. Yep, your side has spoken and loudly proclaimed that conservatism is thriving in these United States.

You’re elated and, yes, feeling a little smug. After suffering through ten years of liberal policies and holier-than-thou attitude, the place you call home suddenly feels more like your own neighborhood. And honestly how can the liberals seem so surprised that Trump would win after putting forward a candidate who lies, deceives and acts so,so, so pompous? Yes, I get it. In fact I’m more than sympathetic because I too got tired of being told by progressives that they knew better than me, that their policies were the One Way to make our country great. I can only imagine how tempting it must be to turn up your nose at them and declare that this country has spoken and it’s gonna be run your way and they can just stick their ideas where the sun don’t shine.

But here’s the problem. Many of you are making a grievous mistake by thinking that the election of a highly flawed, and I would argue dangerous, candidate is a free pass to completely dismiss the more liberal citizens in our midst. I’m not talking about your Facebook posts deriding liberals for backing “Killary” (which by the way is pretty juvenile), or your insistence that liberals just accept Clinton’s loss and stop whining about it after you spent eight years whining about Obama, or your calls to put protesters in jail. Those displays of public disagreement are as American as apple pie and a cherished right we should always defend.

What I’m talking about is your knee jerk reaction to those who voted for Clinton. You call them socialists, free loaders, hippies and idiots. You seem to think they all belong to some monochromatic blob of citizens incapable of critical thought or having nuanced belief systems. That argument would hold much more water if it weren’t for the fact that so many people DID vote for Clinton. There’s just no way that many people can hold the same worldviews; there just aren’t that many people who are card-carrying members of the ACLU or other rights groups, attend the same community organizations or read the same magazines. But, it’s safe to say that all of those people had one thing in common  and that is that they felt that, for whatever reason, electing Donald Trump was the worst choice they could make to better our country.

And there lies the rub for you, my smug conservative friends. You can’t come to terms with the fact that so many people probably voted for Clinton not because they liked her, but because they really thought Trump would be the ruin of this country. You can’t seem to understand that they truly believe his rhetoric is inflaming already tense relations between people of different races and creeds, that his stated policy positions could assault our civil rights in previously unimaginable ways and that his temperament could threaten our international relations, and that for those reasons and more he is not the change agent we need in Washington. And, tragically, you fail to empathize with those people and instead judge them in a way that you rightfully reject when liberals judge and label your and your fellow conservatives.

So my request of you, my conservative friends, is this. Please harness your smugness and glee and use that energy to work towards effecting change that truly helps our society. Rather than sitting and passing judgment on those who voted for Clinton, in part because they weren’t offered a better choice by your side, try to understand why they voted for her and how you can work with them to find ways to address those issues. Please note that I’m not talking about the fringe elements who aren’t interested in dialogue, but rather the group of people who likely live right next door or are related to you.

So why am I writing to your my conservative friends, and not my liberal friends? I have a whole other set of arguments for them which I will make in a separate letter. So feel free to enjoy your win at the polls, but please be the bigger person by refraining from sitting in judgment and find a way to bridge the divide with the liberals in your life. That will be the first step in curing what ails us.

Best regards,
Jon

A Letter to Some of My Pissed Off Liberal Friends

Dear Pissed Off Liberal Friend,

I get it. You can’t believe your fellow citizens have somehow managed to elect Donald Trump to the office of President of the United States. Sure, you’ve been disappointed by their misguided decisions and beliefs in the past, but nothing on this scale. How could they do it? How could they not see what a morally depraved, narcissistic and dangerous man he is? How could they possibly think it’s a good idea to elect him to the most powerful office in the world? Put simply, how could they be so wrong?

You’re angry and scared, and understandably so. You feel like your country has been taken from you, that the place you call home has become dangerous and no longer reflects your values. Yes, I get it. In fact I’m more than sympathetic because I too believe we’ve elected the most unqualified and dangerous man for the office in my lifetime and probably the history of the country, but since I’m not a historian I can’t say that confidently.

But here’s the problem. Many of you are actually making the problem worse by not exhibiting any understanding for the views of those who voted for Trump. I’m not talking about protesting outside of Trump’s buildings, or booing our VP-elect at a play, or shining a “F*&k Trump” display on the side of a building (although I do think that’s sophomoric and counterproductive). Those displays of public disagreement are as American as apple pie and a cherished right we should always defend.

What I’m talking about is your knee jerk reaction to those who voted for Trump. You call them racist, misogynistic, homophobic and idiotic. You seem to think they all belong to some monochromatic blob of citizens incapable of critical thought or having nuanced belief systems. That argument would hold much more water if it weren’t for the fact that so many people DID vote for Trump.There’s just no way that many people can hold the exact same worldviews; there just aren’t that many people who are card-carrying members of the KKK or other hate groups, attend the same churches, or read the same magazines. But, it’s safe to say that all of those people had one thing in common and that is that they felt that, for whatever reason, electing Donald Trump was the best choice they could make to better our country.

And there lies the rub for you, my pissed off liberal friends. You can’t come to terms with the fact that so many people probably voted for Trump not because they liked him, but because they felt that despite his deplorable behavior he still offered the best chance to change a system they see as not addressing their needs. You can’t seem to understand that they believe he, a nasty, thin-skinned purported billionaire, is the closest thing we have to a populist candidate who can begin addressing the needs of the middle class. You refuse to accept that someone who voted for Trump isn’t a knuckle-dragging-white-supremacist-wife-beater, but is actually someone who wants to shake up the powers-that-be enough that they might do something to help them. And, tragically, you fail to empathize with those people and instead judge them in a way that you rightfully reject when conservatives judge and label you and your fellow liberals/progressives.

So my request of you, my liberal friends, is this. Please harness your anger and use that energy to work towards effecting change that truly helps our society. Rather than sitting and passing judgment on those who voted for Trump, in part because they weren’t offered a better choice by your side, try to understand why they voted for him and how you can work with them to find ways to address those issues. Please note that I’m not talking about the deplorables who are certainly part of his base – the racists, fascists, anti-Semites who have latched onto his campaign – but rather the very large group of people who likely live right next door or are related to you.

So why am I writing to you my liberal friends, and not my conservative friends? Well, for one I have a whole other set of arguments for them which I will make in a separate letter. For another I have listened to you preach acceptance, open mindedness and civility and so I implore you to practice that preaching. Feel free to be angry, but be the bigger person by refraining from sitting in judgment and find a way to begin to bridge the divide with the conservatives in your life. That will be the first step in curing what ails us.

Best regards,
Jon

 

You Can’t Find the Truth

Remember Jack Nicholson’s infamous dialogue from A Few Good Men? You know when Tom Cruise is grilling him on the witness stand and says, “I want the truth” and Nicholson’s reply is, “You can’t handle the truth!” That’s what pops to mind when reading this article titled The rise of the American conspiracy theory at The Week, expect instead of “You can’t handle the truth” it’s “You can’t find the truth.”

The article is basically about modern politics and how over the past generation there’s been a concerted effort by political conservatives to destroy the credibility of liberal institutions that were the gatekeepers of what we can call capital-t “Truth.” You know, institutions like the liberal media, the liberal government, the liberal faculty at fill-in-the-blank university, etc. Unfortunately instead of acting as a counterbalance to the liberal biases of those institutions – and yes they often were biased – or insisting on more objectivity, they simply cut them off at the knees. In essence they threw the objective baby out with the liberal bathwater.  Let’s let the article’s author describe what’s resulted:

Now how about this: We know that greenhouse gases are producing destabilizing changes in the Earth’s climate. And that human beings evolved from other species over millions of years. And that Barack Obama is a Christian. And that Hillary Clinton had nothing to do with the death of Vince Foster.

Large numbers of Americans deny those and many other assertions. Why? Because the trustworthiness of the authorities that make the claims has been under direct and continuous attack for the past several decades — and because the internet has given a voice to every kook who makes a contrary assertion. What we’re left with is a chaos of competing claims, none of which has the authority to dispel the others as untrue.

That sounds like a recipe for relativism — and it is, but only (metaphorically speaking) for a moment, as a preparatory stage toward a new form of absolutism. Confronted by the destabilizing swirl of contradictory assertions, many people end up latching onto whichever source of information confirms the beliefs they held before opening their web browser. Instead of relativistic skepticism they’re left with some of the most impenetrable dogmas ever affirmed.

One of the reasons it’s been so troubling to see traditional media implode the way it has is that we’ve lost the whole concept of the Fourth Estate. Of course there was always bias in the media, but there was also a great deal of effort put into trying to be as objective as possible. There was pride taken in holding the powers-that-be accountable no matter which party they belonged to. Unfortunately in order for a media outlet to be successful these days it has to pick a side, to be affiliated with one of the teams, and thus lose any chance of being considered an objective source of information.

And that’s just the media. When all institutions are undermined, when facts are successfully slain by articles of faith, we lose a most critical element of a functioning society – the belief that our institutions, as flawed as they might be, are in place to promote the common good. That in general our institutions can be trusted to eventually do what is right and best for our society.  Unfortunately our current political environment has killed that belief. As the author says:

This is what happens when the principle of democratic egalitarianism is applied to questions of knowledge and truth — when instead of working to reform institutions devoted to upholding norms of objectivity and verifiable evidence, critics turn them into a target for destruction altogether, transforming public life into an epistemological free-for-all in the process.

That things have degraded so badly is troubling. But it’s nowhere near as troubling as the realization that we haven’t got the foggiest clue how to reverse the damage.

 

 

The Victims of Memes

There are many things to love about social media, among them the ability to easily stay connected with friends and family, and there are many things to loath about social media, among them the ability to be repeatedly annoyed and angered by your friends and family and their friends a family. This is especially true when it comes to “big” events, like elections or mass shootings, that stoke emotions and raise the heat in the proverbial kitchen. Those events also tend to motivate “meme” makers to come up with a combination of images and text that, purportedly, reflect the beliefs of a segment of society and are easily shareable by members of the “tribe.” Here’s an example that was recently shared on Facebook:

Memes

If you hate Hillary Clinton, or consider yourself a conservative, you might look at this and nod your head in agreement and then with less thought than you’d give to picking the color of socks you’re going to wear you click “share” and let the world know you think this sentiment is right on. Fair enough; you’re entitled to your opinion. However, if you unpack this meme do you really think it’s fair?

Is she filthy rich? The average American would say so. Is she white? Our eyes tell us she is. Is she nominally Christian? Depends on who gets to determine where the line is between nominal and fully invested. If you think you’re a true Christian and are qualified to make that judgment then please remind yourself of the whole “throwing the first stone” thing. Does she get donations from big corporations? Undoubtedly, but who doesn’t in her position? Voted for the Iraq War? I assume there’s a record of it, and I seem to remember she did.

Now here comes the trouble, “I am everything liberals hate, and yet I am the one they want. If that’s not mental illness, what is it?” These two sentences epitomize what’s wrong with our state of discourse in this country, and why memes like this truly suck. Some points:

  1. Painting everyone in a group with a broad brush with a definitive statement like this is just wrong. I guarantee you there are plenty of liberals who don’t hate rich people, or white people (hell, there are a LOT of liberal white people) or someone voting for a misbegotten war. Just as there are plenty of conservatives who DO hate rich people, white people and people who voted for a misbegotten war.
  2. Ridiculing people on the other side of your debate will almost certainly create acrimony. Simply put, we can debate gun control reasonably up until the point we start calling each other names or questioning the others intellect or morals. Then we just have a fight and nothing constructive gets done.
  3. Reflexively sharing these things just makes the sharer look lazy. Have a point? Make it yourself. And this isn’t as much about the funny “shares” that you’ll see around an issue, unless of course it’s funny because it belittles those on the other side of the table. Here’s a simple test: if the meme is funny because you’re laughing AT your opposite, then it’s only funny to you. If you’re laughing WITH them, then it’s probably okay, but ridiculing your opposite only means you’re making yourself a part of the problem rather than the solution.

Think this is an over reaction? You’re free to disagree, but I would argue that every one of these memes adds one more pixel to the mural of distrust we are painting on the giant wall that our country is quickly becoming.

 

The Lonely Christmas Curmudgeon

This weekend my wife and I spent time with some friends and I was (pleasantly) surprised to learn that one of them was a Christmas curmudgeon. For years I’d always felt like I was alone in my sentiment towards the holiday, but lo and behold there was a comrade-in-curmudgeonliness in my own circle of friends.

The life of a Christmas curmudgeon is largely spent faking it. Pretending to enjoy all the trappings, like hanging lights, trimming the tree, hanging stockings, buying gifts, etc. When our kids were little I did truly enjoy watching their excitement build in the week before Christmas, the anticipation of Christmas Eve and their sheer joy on Christmas morning. Outside of that I’ve just never liked the rest of it. The stress of gift buying, of determining where you’re going to spend the holiday, of trying not to offend family or friends if you don’t spend the holiday with them and the accumulation of small annoyances like crappy music played endlessly and people getting their panties in a twist if you say “Happy holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” all conspire to cause me to view Christmas the way most people view an audit.

So it was kind of refreshing to meet someone who generally feels the same way. When it’s just you it feels like you’re abnormal; everyone else seems to love Christmas so if you don’t you must be broken or emotionally warped. I do think almost everyone gets stressed during the Christmas season, but the vast majority seem to think that the rest of season’s trappings far outweigh the stress.

Not me. I’d love to see us return to the days when it was all about the religious ceremony, the quote-unquote true meaning of Christmas, and not about the trappings of the season. Actually that might be the biggest annoyance of all – the pure hypocrisy of the people who complain about the commercialization of Christmas and then proceed to hang 8 gazillion lights around their house and buy new cars for each other as stocking stuffers.

So let this curmudgeon end on a high note: I do love the lights and I do love seeing family for any reason, so it could be worse.

PrettyTree

 

With Malice Toward None

A quote from Lincoln contained within an Esquire piece titled The United States of Cruelty:

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

That is a necessary reminder in this day and age, because the author of the Esquire piece is on to something with this paragraph:

We cheer for cruelty and say that we are asking for personal responsibility among those people who are not us, because the people who are not us do not deserve the same benefits of the political commonwealth that we have. In our politics, we have become masters of camouflage. We practice fiscal cruelty and call it an economy. We practice legal cruelty and call it justice. We practice environmental cruelty and call it opportunity. We practice vicarious cruelty and call it entertainment. We practice rhetorical cruelty and call it debate. We set the best instincts of ourselves in conflict with each other until they tear each other to ribbons, and until they are no longer our best instincts but something dark and bitter and corroborate with itself. And then it fights all the institutions that our best instincts once supported, all the elements of the political commonwealth that we once thought permanent, all the arguments that we once thought settled — until there is a terrible kind of moral self-destruction that touches those institutions and leaves them soft and fragile and, eventually, evanescent. We do all these things, cruelty running through them like hot blood, and we call it our politics.

Here’s the thing; our political debates lean towards us vs. them. We agonize over paying taxes that we perceive to be too high because we think that others are riding our coattails. Are some folks slackers? Sure, but many others are victim of circumstance just like those who are beneficiaries of circumstance. In the end what we need to remind ourselves is that a “common good” does exist, that in the end it is better for ALL of us if people have access to good healthcare, clean water, healthy food and a place to lay their heads. We can debate the details about how its done, but we shouldn’t be debating about whether it’s done. That, to me, is the definition of a divided and sick society.