Thursday, December 15, 2011

Christopher Hitchens

We've lost a thinker, one not afraid to say the truth as he saw it. Literate, reasoned, passionate about his causes, never one to shirk from a fight or to back down when principle was at stake. Restless, curious, erudite. His knowledge sometimes seemed encyclopedic, and some of his articles were on topics I knew nothing about--but his writing made it clear, and why it mattered.

I suspect he would have been alternately infuriating and inspiring to have working in the office next to you.

He's been taken from us too soon.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

McArdle on Poverty II

She is on a roll...! Seriously. Go read it. This should be required reading.


I couldn't let Andrew's latest hilarity pass without mentioning it...

Here's the setup:

I left the conversation hanging a while back, after my post about God being the most powerful force in the universe, rather than the anthropocentric notion of an old man with a gray beard in the sky. I left it because it felt like an impasse, with my view hovering in mid-air next to that of many readers, who insist that Christianity conform to what they think it must be (mythical piffle).

Yes, just because many, perhaps most, practicing Christians take their mythical piffle quite seriously and get rather upset when you try to point out the mythical-piffleness of it. And note that the problem is that his readers are insisting that Christianity conform to "what they think it must be," (emphasis mine), a nicely dismissive phrase that makes it clear that they just haven't thought it through like he has.

Here's the pitch:
But my view is certainly orthodox Christianity, as long as you ascribe consciousness andcaritas to the universal creative force. Anyway, that is a roundabout way of saying I read something this week that seemed more persuasive than my flawed efforts.
Then he quotes another source:
What’s true of us is true of nature. If we are conscious, as our species seems to have become, then nature is conscious. Nature became conscious in us, perhaps in order to observe itself. It may be holding us out and turning us around like a crab does its eyeball. Whatever the reason, that thing out there, with the black holes and the nebulae and whatnot, is conscious.
And here's the punchline (still quoting that secondary source):
One cannot look in the mirror and rationally deny this. It experiences love and desire, or thinks it does. The idea is enough to render the Judeo-Christian cosmos sort of quaint. . . .It works perfectly as a religion. Others talk about God, and I feel we can sit together, that God is one of this thing’s masks, or that this thing is God.

And remember, gang, there's absolutely NO mythical piffle here! Because...because...well, there just isn't, because he said so. That Nature developed consciousness as a means of observing itself? An interesting idea...but hardly self-evident or impossible to deny, and it is by no means self-evident that Nature 'experiences love and desire.' Insisting it does, with no evidence (Nature seems to have an awful lot of random cruelty and wanton destruction as well) is...well... mythical piffle.

More on Poverty

Following up on yesterday's post...

One of the most pernicious aspects of poverty is touched on by a post over at Sullivan, relating to what the deterrent effect (if any) of the death penalty (news flash: There doesn't seem to be one).

The issue relates to what's called locus of control: Basically, do you see what happens to you as the result of choices you make that are under your control, or the result of events outside your control.

As Megan McArdle pointed out in the post I linked yesterday, there's no margin for error when you're poor. A careless, frivolous expense early in the month may mean you live on PBJ (or just skip a few meals) by the end of the month. Yes, you can save for something--but an unexpected car repair can wreck your plans completely. (And of course, since a beater was all you could afford, it's more likely to break down in the first place.) There was an NPR interview I heard a while back of someone trying an experiment of living on food stamps for a few months, and then writing about it. What she described was interesting--she said she expected money to be tight, but she wasn't ready for how exhausting it was. You couldn't just decide "that looks good, and it's on sale, I'll get it." You still had to think through how much you had left, what else you needed to get, what other expenses you had this month...on and on. Day after day.

Or, as my mom once said, "There's no shame in being poor, but it's damned inconvenient."

And eventually, the grind wears you down. And you stop considering possibilities. You saved up for the class at the community college but then your car broke down the 4th week of classes and by the time you got it fixed you'd missed two weeks of classes and couldn't catch up. You tried to get into that training program but your job changed your schedule and you couldn't go. The kids got sick and you couldn't get anyone to care for them so you had to stay home, and that got you fired.

And eventually, it really does seem as if life is happening to you rather than being under your control. Your locus of control has been externalized; and once that's happened, changing that way of thinking is very difficult. The narrowing of possibilities, the not even considering certain options because "that isn't for people like me" or "that wouldn't work anyway" or "I'd never be able to afford it," the lowering of ambitions and goals until it's "Just make it through to the weekend." Keep your head down, don't make waves.

Unfortunately, the "ground down and kicked around until ready to just give up" state can also be interpreted as "some people just prefer poverty to getting off their butts and doing something about it." Because, of course, when an unexpected $500 car repair bill is inconvenient but not catastrophic, when a day's work doesn't involve backbreaking labor--in short, when you're comfortably middle class and have convinced yourself it's all entirely because of your own achievements--it's plainly self-evident that anyone else could do it too. And as Heinlein pointed out, "Anytime 'everyone knows' thus-and-such, it ain't so, by at least a thousand to one."

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

McArdle on Poverty

A few weeks back I mentioned in passing that the Atlantic's Megan McArdle has an occasional habit of falling back into glibertarian hand-waving. Fairness demands I point out that when she avoids it--as this post on the intractability of poverty certainly does--she's first rate.

She points out that there are environmental constraints, but also bad choices, and (what too many writers on this subject don't get, but if you've ever lived in poverty you learn real quick):

It isn't that people can't get out of this: they do it quite frequently. But in order to do so, you need the will and the skill--and the luck--to execute perfectly. There is no margin for error in the lives of the working poor.
And that many decisions made out of fatigue, hopelessless, lack of information, or simply different priorities, lead to perpetuation of the problem.

It's a hard problem. Really hard. I don't have an easy answer any more than she does. But it's nice to see someone on the internet recognizing both sides of the problem, at least.

As adults they are the products of everything that has happened to them, and everything that they have done, but they are also now exercising free will. If you assume you know the choice they should make, and that there is some reliable way to entice them to make it, you're imagining away their humanity, and replacing it with an automaton.

Public policy can modestly improve the incentives and choice sets that poor people face--and it should do those things. But it cannot remake people into something more to the liking of bourgeois taxpayers. And it would actually be pretty creepy if it could.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Logic that you only hear in faculty meetings

Our school requires PhD faculty to teach 2 courses per semester.

Many top research schools require 1 course per semester, or less, from their top researchers.

Therefore we should reduce our teaching load.

Hmmmm, how many hidden assumptions can you find in that statement?