Category Archives: Society

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.

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.

 

 

Do We Really Want To Be the United Whimps of America?

In the aftermath of the terror attacks in Paris we’re seeing some predictable reactions from a segment of our American crowd. They can be boiled down to the following:

  1. If France didn’t have such strong gun control, in other words was more like American, then there’s no way the terrorists could have killed so many people indiscriminately.
  2. If France and the rest of Europe had closed their borders to refugees then the terrorists couldn’t have gotten into the country to do the damage.
  3. We need to immediately stop taking any refugees lest we let in terrorists.

I’m going to tackle these one at a time:

  1. Terrorists who will wear suicide bomb vests, who aren’t afraid to die, won’t be dissuaded by locals with guns. And it’s not like they wear shirts that say “Terrorist!” on them, so the element of surprise is kind of a given. Basically your average gun-wielding citizenry is likely to die quickly or inadvertently kill innocent bystanders in their efforts to fight the terrorists.
  2. Closing the borders might make it more difficult for the terrorists to get in the country, but since these are extremists who spread their ideology like a virus you will never be able to prevent them from recruiting people who are already in the country. In other words these folks are like an airborne virus and closing the borders would be the equivalent of fighting it with band aids.
  3. This is the big one. As a nation we profess to be a safe harbor for the tired, huddled masses. It’s literally inscribed on one of our greatest symbols. Why then, when the time comes to deal with a huge number of desperate people fleeing their homeland as it goes up in flames thanks to a geopolitical catastrophe that we played a large role in creating, do we endeavor to turn them away?

    Using the logic in #1 above, we of all nations should be the most prepared to accept refugees who may be infiltrated by some terrorists. We are absolutely armed to the teeth here, so if anyone is (literally) armed to deal with this crisis it’s us. Why then does our armed citizenry, many of whom are avowed Christians who should be chomping at the bit to help these desperate souls, seem so eager to turn them away? There’s only one answer I can think of and it’s fear, and that’s what boggles my mind. Many of the very same people who insist that profligate gun ownership makes us safer are also screaming that we need to close our borders. If we leave it up to them we will come to be seen as the United States of Whimps and personally I prefer that not to be the case.

    Don’t get me wrong; I don’t think you just open the gates and let everyone in without doing everything you can to screen out potential terrorists or other threats. What I do believe is that as a nation that is supposed to be a world leader we should show true bravery by welcoming those desperate souls, providing them with a shelter in the storm while we lead the world in doing the hard work necessary to annihilate the cancer that is extremism, Islamic and otherwise.

    Leaders don’t shy away from risk, danger and hard work and America now has a choice to make – lead bravely from the front or bolt our doors, turn off the lights, hug our guns and pray that the bogey man outside tries to get in our neighbors’ houses instead of ours.

Living in a World of Red Herrings

Every time we have another gun-related tragedy in the United States, like yesterday’s killing of a reporter and her cameraman live on air during a morning news broadcast, we are all fed a predictable diet of red herrings. It’s tiresome and, worse, prevents us from even starting to address the problem. For those of you not from these parts here’s how things currently work:

  1. On a daily basis some Americans die of gunshot wounds for a variety of reasons, but on a fairly regular basis multiple people are killed in such a way that it makes the news.
  2. Before the gun smoke has even dissipated people in favor of gun control cite the story as a prime example of why we need <fill in the blank gun control proposal>.
  3. At the same time gun rights advocates invoke the mental health argument, i.e. “The shooter was mentally ill, and if he didn’t have a gun he would have found another way to kill him”, or the “if the victims were armed they could have killed the attacker” argument, or the “gun control only takes the guns out of the hands of honest citizens since criminals would still find a way to get them” argument, or some combination of all three.
  4. Everybody argues about it for a couple of days.
  5. We move on.
  6. The next tragedy happens.

Quite frankly both groups are right and wrong. They’re also being manipulated by various constituencies – the most obvious being the NRA – in those groups’ attempts to avoid any kind of rational approach to dealing with what everyone agrees is a national problem yet might require them to make some kind of compromise from their entrenched positions.

Since people can’t seem to be rational about this issue, and since I’ve long since grown tired arguing about it, I’m starting to take the following approach when people bring it up to me:

If a gun rights advocate uses the “he was mentally ill and would have found a way to kill them” argument I simply ask: “Given the choice of being confronted with a nut-case armed with a gun or knife (or hammer, or crossbow, or bottle full of acid, etc.) which would you prefer?” If any of them answer “gun” then I stop talking to them because they either aren’t interested in having a rational discussion or they shouldn’t be allowed to walk without a helmet.

If a gun control advocate invokes an “it’s all about the guns” arguments then I ask, “If confronted by a mentally deranged man armed with a handgun would you rather have a gun or a knife (or hammer, or crossbow, or bottle full of acid, etc.) to defend yourself?” If they answer anything but a gun then I react the same way I do to the answer from the gun rights advocate.

My purpose in asking these kinds of questions is to try and move the discussion away from the red herrings thrown out there by the gun rights/control advocates and toward a discussion about how we might take a rational, comprehensive approach to solving a very serious societal problem. Of course that won’t work with those who firmly believe that ONLY gun control or ONLY absolute gun ownership rights are the solution, but those folks could never be part of the solution anyway. The people who can and should come up with a solution are those who believe the answer is somewhere in between.

The Make Me Barf League

This might be the single most nauseating thing I’ve seen in recent memory. It’s a Business Insider story about something called The League and as I read it I kept trying to find the “Parody” sign, both for the story’s subject matter and writing that’s so bad you want to believe it’s purposeful. Sadly, I suspect it’s real. Here’s a taste:

The League, a selective dating app for successful people, launched in San Francisco earlier this year, and a few months ago it launched in New York City.

Stanford graduate Amanda Bradford founded The League and raised $2.1 million to match up highly motivated and interesting single professionals.

The League founder Amanda Bradford, pic from Business Insider

On July 31, The League held a party out in Montauk, exclusively for its selective group of New York users. Actress Mischa Barton was among the party’s attendees…

The attendees had a lot in common — good schools, similar jobs — so conversation came easy for them…

During the first hour of the party, League guests were given an open bar. This undoubtedly made people loosen up…

So what does it take to get into The League? Its users often hold degrees from prestigious schools

To get in, The League uses a secret algorithm that looks at both your LinkedIn profile and your network of friends.

Secret algorithm? Good Lord, all you have to do is check out the article and its accompanying pics to figure out that the service’s secret sauce is based on a time-tested recipe concocted eons ago by a bunch of teenagers. I suspect the algorithm involves a bunch of perfectly coiffed folks sifting through profile pics and saying, “She’s, like, hideous. Oh, he’s dee-lish. OMG, look at that hair!”

I wish I could find something redeeming here, but honest to God it makes me want to move to a desert island.

Long-term Recovery

Friend Kim Williams has written an important opinion piece for the Winston-Salem Journal and I highly recommend you check it out. Here’s just a snippet:

Being an addict means so much that is negative in our lives. Lies, stealing, distrust – we wrap addicts in all of these things. However, I would like to believe that that is only part of the truth.

One of the major obstacles to recovery is public stigma. The stigma comes, in part, from the way we talk and think about recovery. Addict. Junkie. Druggie. These terms carry with them the Hollywood scenes and dramatic memories of the underbelly of alcoholism and addiction. These words cause us to ignore the people like myself who are living in recovery. These words and prejudices cause us to objectify the addict and the alcoholic. We can then easily place them in the box with the “town drunk” as too often incurable. As a result, when I sought help, the help that was available to me existed only in church basements, amid bad coffee, smoke-veiled doorways and broken stories of destruction and carnage…

According to the 2012 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 23.1 million people ages 12 and older needed treatment for an illicit drug or alcohol use problem last year, but only 2.5 million received treatment at a specialty facility. About one-quarter of those who need treatment but do not receive it lacked insurance, according to the article…

There are an estimated 23 million people in the United States who are living in long-term recovery. I am an addict, but I’d prefer to say something different. I am a person in long-term recovery. What that means to me is that I haven’t had alcohol or other drugs since July 10, 1999. This has allowed me to become a better person, a loving father, grandfather and husband. I have established myself as a productive member of my community and a successful business leader.

Kim’s focus here is on the price that individuals pay for their addiction and the lack of resources many of them find when they look for help, but we should also keep in mind the impact that the lack of resources have on the rest of us. Our prisons are full of people put there for drug crimes, we have foster homes filled with children who are a product of homes broken by addiction and we have friends and families who suffer the agony of watching their loved ones kill themselves slowly and abuse those around them in the process. In one way or another addiction takes a tremendous toll on everyone, not just the addicted, and we long ago passed the point where we need to change how we address the issue.

You should also check out Kim’s blog and his ebook Wishful Preaching.

The Guilty Mumble and Run

The Greensboro News & Record’s Joe Killian had an interesting interaction in downtown Greensboro last week:

As I was handing it to him and he was thanking me, a guy walked past who was dressed basically as I was — dark, pressed suit; button-down collar; well-shined shoes. He looked at me and at this homeless man and stopped in front of us suddenly.

“You really shouldn’t do that,” he said to me.

“I really shouldn’t do what?” I said.

“You really shouldn’t buy them food,” the guy said, speaking to me as if the homeless man wasn’t there.

“If you give them money, they buy drugs,” he told me. “If you buy them food, then they spend the money they’d spend on food on drugs.”

“OK,” I said. “Thanks for the input. Have a nice day.”

I began to tell the homeless man good luck and to take care when the other guy broke in again.

“No, really,” he said, more insistently now. “You don’t know how they are. Giving them food isn’t your smartest option.”

Finally, I just ran out of patience.

“Your smartest option is to mind your own business and get out of my face,” I said to him.

Apparently surprised that one guy in a suit would speak to another like that over — you know, just this homeless guy — he looked spooked and quickly moved on.

The homeless guy thanked me and went on his way.

This is the kind of story that will strike a cord with everyone, but not in the same way. Most, if not all of us have had to make the decision on whether or not to help a person who is asking for help. Personally it used to be a lot easier for me: if I had money, I gave some and if I was buying a meal I would just add an item for the person who said she was hungry. It never occurred to me that the person asking might not need it and that I might be getting taken for a ride.

As I got older that changed. Partly that was the result of bad experiences, like the multiple times I was asked for money, offered to buy the person food and was told in no uncertain terms that I could keep my f***ing food if I didn’t have any money for him. Then there are the incredible number of times I’ve been approached at a gas station by someone with the same sob story we’ve all heard about needing to borrow a dollar or two to help buy “just enough gas to get home to <fill in the blank city about 100 miles away>.” Some of the change was the result of hearing from multiple sources, including experts who deal with the homeless, that giving them money was a bad idea because it just enabled their addictions. The end result is that I became hesitant and that hesitance has often led me to do what I call the Guilty Mumble and Run.

The Guilty Mumble and Run is exactly what it sounds like in that when I’m asked for help I divert my eyes, say something like, “Sorry, got nothing on me” and then speed up my walk to escape the situation. The guilty part is the following time period where I feel guilty about it, but it’s not for not giving them anything, but for not having the guts to just say I don’t want to or don’t feel I should and instead lying to the person and not giving them the common courtesy to look them in the eyes.

Quite frankly this didn’t use to bother me that much because I let myself believe that my actions were justified, that I didn’t owe these people anything, and that they were actually being rude to me by coming up unbidden and asking me for something. But that changed over the last few years when I started doing things that brought me into contact more often with people who had hit hard some hard times, but who had an incredibly difficult time asking for or accepting help. It made me realize that as hard as it was for me to handle being asked for help it had to be infinitely harder for the person asking for help to find themselves in that position.

So that’s what has sealed the deal for me. Sure there are the folks out there running a scam like the folks at the gas station, and there are those who are on the street who will take whatever I give them and turn it into their next fix, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t at least do the right thing for me. That is to help those I can and look the others in the eye and tell them exactly why I can’t. At least then I can live my life without ever having to do the Guilty Mumble and Run again.