Sunday, January 26, 2014

"What Happens When the Poor Receive a Stipend"?

In “What Happens When the Poor Receive a Stipend,” Moises Velasquez-Manoff, a science writer, reports on a remarkable study of a “natural experiment” in the impact of giving poor people more money. (I learned of this study from an email to the law clinicians' listserve from Francine Lipman of UNLV's William S. Boyd School of Law; she's a close observer of poverty issues.) It’s clear that poor people have many problems which make it hard for them to break out of poverty, and from that proposition it can be argued that money won’t actually help them, because those other problems will prevent them from using their new resources to change their lives.

But this natural experiment, studied by Professor Jane Costello of Duke University and others, suggests otherwise. The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in North Carolina, opened a casino in 1996 and decided to “distribute a proportion of the profits equally among its 8,000 members.” By 2001, “casino profits amounted to $6,000 per person yearly.” That’s a lot of money, and in fact by that year “the number of Cherokee living below the poverty line had declined by half,” apparently from approximately 20 % of the Cherokee population to 10 %.

But weren’t the no longer poor Cherokees still subject to all the ills that had plagued them before? Well, no. “[J]ust four years after the [cash] supplements began, Professor Costello observed marked improvements among those who moved out of poverty. The frequency of behavioral problems declined by 40 percent, nearly reaching the risk of children who had never been poor.” The effect continued in subsequent years: “Minor crimes committed by Cherokee youth declined. On-time high school graduation rates improved.” And it turned out that “[t]he earlier the supplements arrived in a child’s life, the better that child’s mental health in early adulthood.”

Why was this? One possibility is that it wasn’t money alone that changed things, but rather the combination of money for individual households plus social programs that the Cherokee government also created using additional casino revenues. Another of the social scientists studying these events, Randall Akee of UCLA, thinks otherwise, however, since apparently the social indicators began improving even before many of the social programs got under way.

Why would more money make so much difference? No doubt that’s a big question but here are two straightforward possible answers. One is that what makes the poor different from the rich is, after all, mostly just one thing: the poor have less money. Many problems that the rich have can be solved with money. Similar problems that the poor have cannot – because there’s no money. In particular, as Velasquez-Manoff suggests, the stress that parents feel when they can’t provide for their families – stress that likely affects their parenting in many ways – may simply go away when they can provide for their families after all.

The other answer is that what giving each household money did was to enlist the ingenuity of every household in improving its lot. It would take a really ardent believer in paternalism to imagine that the government could think better for each of these households than the households could for themselves. The cash enabled the people to do what they otherwise could not, namely to seek the good for themselves.

One natural experiment is not enough to settle a complex social question. A decline in mental illness to almost the levels of better-off children still leaves plenty of mental illness, and plenty of need for other programs to address it. I’m certainly not arguing that people always make good choices, even when they have the resources to do so. But people – rich and poor – are both flawed and powerful, and it’s always right to keep in mind how much people can accomplish if they actually have the chance.

The missing words in a new book about the Holocaust

The New York Times today, January 26, 2014, has a front-page story titled "Holocaust Told in One Word, 6 Million Times." The word is "Jew," and the story is about a newly published volume that consists solely of the word "Jew," repeated six million times. Whether this is the best way to convey the sheer enormity of the Nazis' crimes against the Jews I'm not sure. But one thing is certain: the people killed by the Nazis included more than Jews. Here's what the US Holocaust Museum says about what happened in those same years to the Roma, or Gypsies:

It is not known precisely how many Roma were killed in the Holocaust. While exact figures or percentages cannot be ascertained, historians estimate that the Germans and their allies killed around 25 percent of all European Roma. Of slightly less than one million Roma believed to have been living in Europe before the war, the Germans and their Axis partners killed up to 220,000.

This isn't news, actually, but I hadn't grasped it until I heard about it on Friday at a conference honoring the great civil rights lawyer Jack Greenberg, who 60 years after helping argue Brown v. Board of Education in the Supreme Court is now deeply involved in advocating equal rights for the Roma.  

Once one knows this, it is hard to feel comfortable with a definition of the “Holocaust” that is limited to Jews. Many more Jews than Roma were killed, and a much higher percentage of Jews as well (two-thirds of Europe’s Jews), but it appears the Nazis set out to destroy two ethnic groups rather than one. It would have been better had the new Holocaust book included, after roughly every 30 repetitions of the word “Jew,” the word “Roma” as well, 220,000 times in all.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

The startling power of the culture

In The New Yorker issue of January 13, 2014, Evgeny Morozov writes in “Making It” about the allure of craft as a form of liberation – from the Arts and Crafts movement of the early 20th Century to the Whole Earth Catalog (first published in 1968) to the digital revolution to, most recently, the “maker era.”

Stewart Brand of the Whole Earth Catalog applauds the “Makers,” who he says “take whatever we’re not supposed to take the back off of, rip the back off and get our fingers in there and mess around. That’s the old impulse of basically defying authority and of doing it your way.” Morozov explains that the Makers “include 3-D-printing enthusiasts who like making their own toys, instruments, and weapons; tinkerers and mechanics who like to customize household objects by outfitting them with sensors and Internet connectivity; and appreciators of craft who prefer to design their own objects and then have them manufactured on demand.”

The Makers are intriguing, but I was most struck by another Brand comment that Morozov quotes: 
            Around Berkeley, it was Free Speech Movement, “power to the people.” Around Stanford, it was “Whole Earth Catalog,” Steve Wozniak, Steve Jobs, people like that, and they were just power to people. They just wanted to power anybody who was interested, not “the people.” Well, it turns out there is no, probably, “the people.” So the political blind alley that Berkeley went down was interesting, we were all taking the same drugs, the same length of hair, but the stuff came out of the Stanford area, I think because it took a Buckminster Fuller access-to-tools angle on things. 
Morozov is pretty skeptical about all this, and emphasizes the essential importance of politics. He comments that “[t]he lure of the technological sublime has ruined more than one social movement ….” No doubt he is right.

But we shouldn’t underestimate the impact of the culture – including but not limited to those who seek the “technological sublime.” Rich and poor alike inhabit the culture, not one single unified culture, which no doubt the rich would shape to their liking, but something much bigger, faster and multi-faceted. So fast, for instance, that I’d never heard of the “Makers” before I read Morozov’s article – though I’m far from the cutting edge of culture, and will be happy just to sample some fraction of our cultural riches!

This isn’t just a matter of what music we listen to, though it is certainly true that a great many children of the rich listen to the music of the poor. It’s also a matter of how we live our lives every day (as I was also saying in my previous post). Once it was said that “the revolution will not be televised,” because it will be real, unlike the artifice of television; but now it’s obvious that the revolution, and everything else, will be televised, because the power to create video has been transferred, by technology, to everyone. There simply never were games that could be played by thousands of people simultaneously all over the world, until now. The “chattering classes” have been spoken of for many years – but the cacophony of Twitter and its progeny has amplified their voices tremendously. And it may yet turn out that Makers, or those like them, will wind up building the rockets that get us off Earth, not for NASA (or the Chinese army) but for private companies.

Politics and power matter a lot, of course. But even if Brand was wrong to call the Free Speech Movement a blind alley, and I do think he was, it’s clear that we’re living in a world being transformed by the other enthusiasts, the tool-users and hackers. There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our (political) philosophy, as Hamlet would have said.

Vanity of vanities (and a lot of fun!)

My wife and I receive the Bulletin of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and recently I found myself reading the Fall 2013 issue, “Vanities: Art of the Dressing Table,” written by a Met curator, Jane Adlin (with contributions by a research assistant, Lori Zabar). This Bulletin issue accompanied the Met’s exhibition of “vanities” (the name for this item of furniture, as well as for much human frailty).

Vanities? Well, yes. It turns out that vanities, or dressing tables, were a form developed and explored over 5 or 6 centuries. For most of that time, they were the showpieces of the rich, and so these seemingly prosaic pieces of furniture were remarkably elaborated over the years. And as art transformed, so did vanities, with remarkably inventive variations on the original form from Gaudi and others. All this may now have more or less come to an end – the catalogue observes that nowadays no one has time for the elaborate preparations that the dressing table facilitated (though I think that’s an exaggeration) – but much human ingenuity, money, labor and artistry went into the exploration of how to provide a setting for getting dressed up. And the tables are really beautiful!

But what’s true of vanities is true, more or less, of everything in our lives. The bookcases, chairs, tables, glassware, dishes, toilets and everything else we bring to our daily rounds have been made and remade over the centuries. We have devoted vast effort to shaping each of these items; there’s a whole tradition around each. Our world is almost overwhelmingly rich in these traditions.

Meanwhile, what seems to be happening now is that computers make everything faster. There is a tradition of fashion, for instance, and part of that tradition is precisely that tastes change, so that fashion never stays completely put. But now, my wife tells me, a Spanish clothing manufacturer she has admired no longer creates new lines of clothing every quarter; the cycle today is 15 days! 24 new rounds of fashion every year, and what’s to stop the speed from increasing? If fashions change because we gradually grow tired of seeing the same thing again and again, and if digital imagery means we can see the same thing again and again very quickly – or if the tremendous multiplication of things we can see shortens our tolerance for second views of anything – then the cycles must get shorter and shorter.

The 24-hour news cycle is another example of the same phenomenon. I’ve heard a government public affairs person talk about the critical importance of getting a statement out to the media a few hours early, because those few hours shape the hours that follow. Things move fast, and ever faster!

I realize I sound a bit breathless, and I do feel that way too. But I don’t feel bad about this profusion of culture. The world is unbelievably rich in the things that interest us, which we make more of every day. If we could spend our days exploring our rich world, we would be fortunate indeed.

It’s just too bad, and somewhat incredible, that while we multiply inventions, in poor countries and in parts of rich ones many other people are living lives of utter desperation.

Happy Birthday to my sister Maud!

In honor of my sister Maud Ellmann, who celebrated a birthday this week, here’s an excerpt from her introduction to a book she edited years ago, Psychoanalytic Literary Criticism (Longman 1994). Here Maud is discussing the work of another critic, Luce Irigaray. Maud explains that: 
In Irigaray's Utopia, where women would enunciate their own sex, rather than deferring to the phallus, their language would defy grammatical divisions, making words as warm and slippery as lips: 
"what a feminine syntax might be [Irigaray writes] is not simple nor easy to state, because in that 'syntax' there would no longer be either subject or  object, 'oneness' would no longer be privileged, there would no longer be proper meanings, proper names, 'proper' attributes. . . .  Instead, that syntax would invoke nearness, proximity, but in such an extreme form that it would preclude any distinction of identities, any establishment of ownership, thus any form of appropriation." 
A little later Maud responds: 

[I]t is troubling that Irigaray, judging by her style, can conceive of  female discourse only in the form of gush, as if incontinence were the  equivalent of liberation. To speak as women, it seems we are obliged to echo the unpunctuated rhapsody of Molly Bloom, in which the flow of words is ill-distinguished from the flow of bodily secretions; yet the notion that liquidity in discourse is superior to dryness is based on a bizarre confusion of the orifices. Whatever the future of women in language, it would be sad if Irigaray's ethics of 'mucosity' displaced the keener energies of women's wit, for 'brevity', as Dorothy Parker has observed, 'is the soul of lingerie'.
Hurray for Maud and the "keener energies of women's wit"!