Sunday, May 3, 2015

Complexities of public transit planning

Here are two articles that seem to be saying different things about public transit in the big cities of the US.  This article is a rundown of the cities where large proportions of the population don't own a car.  The percentages they come up with (27.9% of Chicagoans with no car, and 26.3 commuting to work with public transit) seem to apply only to actual city residents, not the suburbanites (who in Chicago's and many other cities' case comprise a much larger population than the city proper).  So in some ways it tells an overly rosy picture of how many people are using public transit. 

This other article tells a very different story, showing that for most cities in the US, even those with good public transit systems, driving is faster than public transit.  There's a study where a team of researchers divided each city up into gridded squares, and then calculated square by square what the fastest way of getting to every other square in the city would be.  The results show that in the majority of cases, public transit is slower than biking or driving.  Now this study has a similar weakness to the other one, in that it doesn't look at the larger metro area.  If they did, the parts of the geographic area where it is easier to get to by car would look even higher.  But if they looked just at the city proper, but factoring in the traffic generated by the cars of the entire metro population trying to come in and out, public transit would look a lot more attractive, even in fact for many suburban commuters.  Which I guess explains why the public transit ridership described in the first article I cited is in fact higher than you'd expect from the second article's studies.

Another funny thing I noted--Chicago doesn't compare well to DC in terms of the area of the city where it's fastest to get by bike.  While most parts of DC you click show that a quarter to half of the city is best accessed by bike, no point in Chicago gives you much more than 8 or 10% of the city fastest reached by bike.  I assume this is due to a number of factors.  Chicago's grid layout really is an efficient way to get around by car, while DC has a grid that just doesn't quite work that well.  Furthermore, Chicago is almost four times as big geographically as DC, so much of the city is just inherently farther away from any given point.  Lastly, the proportion of Chicago that the researchers' program comes up with that is best covered by car includes a lot of sparsely-settled areas.  Population density in Chicago is overall a bit higher than in DC, but it is very unevenly distributed.  So you've got large sections of the North Side, lakefront, and near downtown that have really high densities of people and amenities (the type of stuff you'd be likely to be trying to get to), and then large swathes of the South Side with very low density of people, businesses, and other attractions.  So for most of the city's population, trying to do most of the things they're likely to want to do, the effective size of the city shrinks, and the percent of that smaller city that is accessible by bike would go up.

In any case, what these maps have shown me is that my anecdotal impression is right--Washington DC is a great place to get around by bike, and when I have the choice, I'll take bike instead of the Metro.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Exploring the superstructure

I recently read a book called New Ideas from Dead Economists, by Todd Buchholz.  As you might guess from its title, it is a witty treatise on Economics for the layperson.

Buchholz's book is a great general overview of Neoclassical economics, with a decidedly (and unfortunately) Neoliberal bent.  He will give you a pretty comprehensive understanding of the important ideas put forth by Adam Smith, David Ricardo, all the way through to Keynes and Friedman.  He also gives some personal and historical color to his accounts, with a witty, entertaining tone throughout.  Sometimes this tone serves to gloss over important complexities in the economists' ideas that may run counter to the gross caricature provided by the Neoliberal narrative.  He spends a page or two of copy in Alfred Marshall's or David Ricardo's chapters dwelling on their personal life, with the rest taken up by adroit explanations of their theories.  In Marx's chapter, on the other hand, there's nary a page describing any pertinent economic theories on the German's own terms, but rather almost an entire chapter devoted to Marx's dysfunctional marriage, slovenly housekeeping, and petty personal hypocrisies.  We get a good bit of detail on John Stuart Mill's intellectual and aesthetic evolutions and phases, even a fair amount about his nervous breakdown, but nothing about his avowed socialism.  Indeed, sometimes it seems that the personal stories and dime-store psychoanalysis serve mainly to distract us from the more difficult nuances of economic thinking that does not fit into the Neoliberal mold.  As it was originally written in 1989 and then lightly revised in 1999 or so, the book is also peppered with a few awkward paeans to supply-side economic policy (the nasty, incoherent mutilation of Smith that has been debunked by most economists ever since the Reaganomics era), subtle digs at immigrants and the poor, 90s-era predictions that private IRAs would be much more stable and secure than Social Security, or that Russia was entering an economic golden age after Communism, and absurd climate change skepticism.  Buchholz even gets in a few good digs at Keynes and Galbraith, essentially insisting that heavy government intervention in the economy had become obsolete by the unbridled laissez-faire growth of the 1980s and 90s (which of course in hindsight proved to be based largely on a series of bubbles and scams).

But despite his philosophical/political biases, Buchholz does a great job summarizing the corpus of orthodox economic theory for the layperson.  I would highly recommend New Ideas from Dead Economists as a primer to get your head around the major economic concepts, and then I'd recommend that people follow it with something by Ha-Joon Chang to throw a bit of heterodox questioning and complexity into your conception of how the world works.

If you really want to explore the nuances of economic thought and different ways of explaining the world, then Socialist Thought:  A Documentary History is the book for you!  As the title implies, it's a great overview of socialist thought, with key excerpts from all the important thinkers from Rousseau and Babeuf up to Gramsci.  Reading it was a real eye-opener for me (and I think a sufficient dose for now of the original sources, which I don't have much desire to read in their entirety!).

I was born during the Cold War.  It so happens that my childhood took place in the waning days of this Cold War, but nobody knew that back then--the Communists were still the undisputed champion bad guys in the US of my childhood.  This was of course confusing to me, since I grew up at once surrounded by the anti-Communist fervor in society at large, contrasted with a pretty radical leftist father, and a devout Catholic upbringing.  As I gradually learned about Communism, through my incomplete (or perhaps remarkably prescient) child's viewpoint, I didn't understand how people could be Christian yet at the same time rabidly anti-Communist.  Every time I asked people what the Communists were or did that was so bad, they would tell me things like, "The Communists think everyone should share their stuff, that no one should have their own things," or, "The Communists take things from rich people."  At least that was my childlike rendering of the arguments people were using to show me how bad Communism was.  And I didn't understand, because in Mass and the Bible and Sunday school, we learned that Jesus believed everyone should pool all their stuff together, and that the rich should give away everything they have in order to follow Him.  Not to mention the constant injunctions from teachers in preschool to always share and not be greedy.  Greed was a sin, so how could you be a capitalist and Christian at the same time?  I guess I still feel much the same way, and my discovery of Liberation Theology in my teens and 20s, crowned by my reading the original book on Liberation Theology just recently, have only strengthened my conviction that there is at least a fundamental tension, if not an outright incompatibility, between Christianity and the free market.

Anyway, as I grew up and started reading and listening more to the things around me, I found that I couldn't blame people for not being too sold on socialism.  The examples given to most of us in the US pitted ugly, sterile, oppressive Bolshevism against a more or less free, prosperous society.  Who would choose the socialist alternative given that dichotomy?  Later on, in college, I even read some Bolshevist writing, and it didn't speak to me at all.  The doctrinaire infighting between long-dead Russians, with a tone at times lugubrious and at times acerbic, was a far cry from the vital solidarity with the poor that could move my spirit.  Furthermore, it seemed like much of Soviet Bolshevist theory aimed to lay down on paper as unmoving laws things that were really just the result of random, fortuitous circumstances.  Lenin's victory in St. Petersburg has never seemed to me the inevitable result of well-understood forces and natural laws, but rather a lucky ball that dropped in the right place and the right time for the Russian Bolsheviks.  The same thing didn't happen in Haymarket Square, or 1848 Frankfurt, or 1918 Berlin, even though these moments seemed to have offered much more propitious circumstances.  So to try to extrapolate iron laws of how certain objective facts will always lead to a successful workers' revolt seemed like a waste of time, which is to say that much of Bolshevik writing seemed like nonsense to me.

Furthermore, the ambience that framed some of my most formative years was the Neoliberal circle jerk that followed the fall of the Iron Curtain.  Never since has there been such an outbreak of self-congratulatory theorizing about why Neoliberal capitalism is the inevitable, natural endpoint to the trajectory of all societies.  Come to think of it, Fukuyama and Huntington's theorizing about the iron laws that result in capitalist victory over state-controlled markets sound a lot like Lenin's lionizing of his group's having simply been in the right place at the right time seventy years prior.  In any case, my formal economic and historical education was filled with seemingly irrefutable demonstrations that collectively-owned enterprise is doomed to failure (while conveniently ignoring the many cases to the contrary, from efficient Medicare to self-supporting Social Security to state-owned enterprises in East Asia to public sector dominance in Scandinavia to major cooperative businesses like Land o Lakes or Fagor).

In short, the one-two punch of having Bolshevism presented to them as the only form of socialism, and having Neoliberalism presented as the only valid, correct way of understanding and running a society, probably predisposed most kids of my generation in the US firmly against socialism.  Even the contrarians who claimed they were socialists seemed to do so more to root for a losing cause, or to distinguish themselves from the crowd.  At least in my eyes, no one took socialism very seriously as a way to organize a society.  How could they?  Neoliberal capitalism (or maybe I will coin a new phrase and call it Ultraorthodox Economics) was an objective science.  It wasn't even a science--it was just what worked, how the world was naturally.  It had nothing to do with human values or preferences or social causes or philosophy, just rational, objective fact.  It was the closest thing to unimpassioned, impartial truth you could find in terms of running a society. 

None of this was true, of course, but this narrative framing of Neoliberalism successfully served to separate the descriptive aspects of economics from the normative aspects, prizing the former and downplaying the latter, as if the economy were some creature like an ant or a meteor, totally independent of human influence and best studied without interference from the observer.  Once you've accomplished this mental separation, it doesn't seem ridiculous to maintain a reverent remove from what is in fact an eminently human creation.  Once you've separated description of economic phenomena from their shaping, it doesn't seem absurd or immoral that some people are served well by the free market and others are not.  It is not ours to change the economy, only to ensure the smooth, oiled functioning of its whirring machinery.  Indeed, once you believe in the sacred ideal of a pure, undistorted market, you will never think to step in and correct market failures and suboptimal social outcomes; you will never even realize that the rules governing the economy are in large part rules that we humans create ourselves, and that we are free to change! 

Neoliberal economics even presented its major weakness, namely an impractical and unrealistic proliferation of abstract models and theories, as a virtue.  Neoliberal thinkers could pride themselves on describing very small pieces of the economy with great precision, even while having few answers for the larger, socially relevant questions of what should or should not be.  (In fact, even the supposedly accurate description of how economies work that Neoliberalism claimed to offer proved itself fleeting in many cases, as country after country collapsed under austerity, privatization, and structural adjustment, instead of experiencing the renaissance the Neoliberals often predicted.)  At the same time, the Neoliberal high priests criticized socialist thought (cynically equated with decadent Bolshevist systems) for not describing the exact technical details of the watchwork functioning of the microeconomy; the high priests didn't concern themselves with the question of whether these same, theoretically imperfect socialist systems actually delivered preferable real social outcomes.  How dare anyone pretend that the economy is in fact intimately linked to other fields like the natural environment, social relations, law, morality, belief, culture, tastes, ideas, propaganda, violence, war, power?  Those things might mess up the divine clockwork of abstract models!

Reading "Socialist Thought" opened me up to a whole world of richness and nuance that I hadn't known existed.  Socialism is NOT only Bolshevism (I knew that before reading the book), but it is neither even just the mixed welfare states of Europe and the US.  There are two and a half centuries of thought that fits more or less under the label "socialist", and while all these different ideas and traditions bear in common certain aspects and a unified spirit, they are a diverse and illuminating pool to delve into.  Within socialism there are abstract musings on the ultimate origins of human inequality, as well as schemes to improve physical wellbeing through technological innovation that hardly touches inequality itself.  There are discussions of how we know and experience the world (even a questioning of Descartes's "I think, therefore I am"), how we change the world and the world changes us, really deep ontological reflections.

The proletariat as a defined, coherent group only comes along after decades of socialist thought, and of course Marx was the one to lay out a unified consideration of what the proletariat is and why it exists.  But even after Marx, whose authoritative works seem to have quelled out some of the prior obscure schools of thought (many of which are very compelling to me, and which I think would have benefited humankind had we explored them further), there are countless differences within the universe of socialism.  There are debates on whether the poor are a benighted class needing outside revolutionary help, or the noblest of classes forging their way to their own inevitable liberation.  Can socialists work within the existing State, or must they destroy or usurp that State and build a new one?  Or maybe any State at all is bad? 

Is Marx correct when he says that capitalism must become exceedingly decadent and oppressive in order to inspire the socialist revolution?  If so, should socialists work not for the betterment of the living conditions of the working class, but rather for their debasement so as to hasten the revolution?  Should we work for change or wait for crisis?  (This last question is relevant for anyone contemplating desperate situations that must change, not just the abuses of capitalism but global warming, racial injustice, even the coming of the Messiah!).  If living conditions are improving, does that mean that capitalism does not in fact hold the germ of its own destruction?  Is gradual, democratic legislation the best way to improve the lot of the downtrodden, or is it sudden, violent action?  If a materialist interpretation of the world is true, that is a belief that history arises from the interaction between humans and their surroundings, what is the place of idealism, of thoughts that arise sui generis, not simply from material conditions?

I hadn't known that all this nuance existed.  It has helped me to learn better how the world works--not as a single, absolute theory, but as different facets that seem to describe certain aspects of what I've seen in my life.  In this sense, socialism can never vie with Neoliberal certainty in terms of accurately explaining the world using a single, narrow criterion.  But I think that socialist thought in all its threads can offer us a good understanding of the world's complexity, because it, like the world, includes not just economic laws but normative philosophy, history, power struggles, and the very mix of objectiviey and subjectivity that defines the human experience.

The last author in my book of socialist thought is CAR Crosland.  He attempts to lay out five factors that are common to the body of thinking that might be called socialist.  They are:
  1. "a protest against the material poverty and physical squalor which capitalism produced"
  2. "a wider concern for social welfare--for the interests of those in need, or oppressed, or unfortunate, from whatever cause"
  3. "a belief in equality and the classless society, and especially a desire to give the worker his just rights and a responsible status at work"
  4. "a rejection of competitive antagonism, and an ideal of fraternity and cooperation"
  5. "a protest against the inefficiencies of capitalism as an economic system, and notably its tendency to mass unemployment"
Crosland, writing in the postwar boom of mid-century Europe, dismissed points one and five, saying that they were responses to the excesses of early capitalism that had since been made irrelevant by economic growth and a redistributive state.  But in the 21st century, as US food pantries do a bustling business and jobs disappear across the developed world, these points seem just as relevant, if not more so, than the other three.  I think Thomas Piketty might agree.

One intellectual thread that runs throughout the socialist writings since Marx is the materialist idea that the economic and social surroundings you live among largely determine your way of experiencing and seeing the world, and even your thoughts and tastes.  I had long known about this current of socialist thought, and it always made intuitive sense to me, but it didn't seem like that profound or powerful of an insight.  But lately in my daily life I've really been seeing a lot of how the social superstructure determines people's actions.  People's race, politics, geographic origins, and economic status are such powerful determinants of how they act and think.  Indeed, it sometimes seems as if people are fully conscious that what they're doing is like a scripted, automatic response, but they almost relish adopting that predetermined role.  Maybe folks are just afraid to break the mold, even when they know it's there. 

I consider myself a pretty open-minded person, and it seems to me that I and others I know really make an effort to go beyond just a narrow, pre-defined set of allowable thoughts permitted to us by our social position.  I guess that is why for a long time I didn't lend much credence to the idea that class is such a dominant, overpowering determinant of outlook.  But as I live longer and meet a broader range of people, I don't think that this open-mindedness is how most folks operate.  Frankly, it may not be the way I myself operate--I may just be giving myself too much credit for free thought, when I too am in fact one more cog in the superstructure.  Or even if I and my friends are in fact true free thinkers that to some extent transcend the rigid limitations placed on the rest of society, maybe this role is itself accomodated within the superstructure.  Maybe I can flatter myself by thinking that we are the source of the shocks and challenges to the superstructure that topple one system and set up another.  For this is part of Marx and Hegel's scheme as well--people and thought are shaped by their material and social surroundings, but they also in turn shape these surroundings, particularly in bursts of change when the social arrangement is no longer a viable way to organize the existent material reality.

Regardless of my own lofty pretensions, for most of us in society, in so many ways and places, it seems that people are preordained to think a certain way, to ask or not ask certain questions, to prefer or not prefer a very narrow range of things.  I've seen this in many parts of the world, but at least in my contact with people from different social strata in Colombia (and more limited contact with people elsewhere), they seem interested and willing to change their ways if someone else shows them a new idea that makes logical sense.  In the US though, the social superstructure seems to be more stubborn--if I do something in a way that goes against the preconceived "right" way of acting, people will not only not be open to discuss the merits of my ideas, but they actively, hostilely reject the very possibility of veering off the well-trodden path offered to us by social norms.  There is at times a paralyzing dread of going off-script.  It's a sad, stark contrast that in Colombia and other developing countries, where for most of their history externally-imposed political and socioeconomic arrangements kept the masses marginalized and muzzled, people who haven't had the benefit of a liberating education are at least capable of recognizing and separating nonsense from sound reason, if they're given a chance; while in the nominally free and egalitarian US, we the people seem to take charge of muzzling and policing ourselves, even to the point of actively restricting our own free thought.

I was reminded of this recently when my wife and I hired a babysitter from a service to take care of our kids on a day when their school was unexpectedly canceled, and we both had to be out of the house.  It turned out that my stepdaughter, who is currently living with us, had her plans unexpectedly canceled that day too, so she ended up staying at home while the babysitter was there.  (In fact, my stepdaughter ended up doing most of the babysitting herself, but that's another story).  My stepdaughter at one point offered the babysitter a mandarin orange or something, and the babysitter sort of chuckled to herself and shook her head, as if it were ridiculous that anyone would think that she would or could eat a mandarin orange.  Now there was no physical barrier to it--the oranges were there for the taking.  There was no objective physiological barrier--mandarin oranges are delicious to everyone I've ever met who's tried them.  I mean, everyone likes sweet flavors, and mandarins are sweet.  But something was keeping the babysitter from allowing herself to eat a mandarin orange.  Something similar happened with the salad my stepdaughter prepared, and even the suggestion that they take the kids outside to the park.  On the other hand, the babysitter was very enthusiastic about showing the kids movies and stuff on her cellphone, despite the fact that there are well-publicized campaigns that little kids need to watch less, not more TV.  Apparently she had a very rigid scheme of "normal", acceptable things to do, like watching TV or having the kids watch it, and other things that were prohibited, like eating fresh food or going outside.  As it so happened, the social superstructure was prescribing for her precisely the opposite of what we value in our family.

My point here isn't to demonize the babysitter, but rather to marvel that certain things in the social structural framework around her were determining what she did or didn't do in life, even to the point of overriding natural impulses like taking kids outside, limiting TV, or following your tastebuds to sweets.  I assume the babysitter was from a relatively low economic stratum--you don't take precarious positions in the on-call, day-laborer staff for a home care company if you're economically privileged.  But many of the idiosyncracies I'm noting in her are not limited to the poor.  Indeed, being stuck to your phone, wary of natural food offered in friendship by others, and reluctant to pursue active entertainment seem to be traits exhibited by many people in the US, from varied economic and racial strata.  But they are very specific to the US, or perhaps to the post-traditional, consumerist way of life that the US is always at the vanguard of, with other developing countries soon to follow.

When I was in high school and college, I used to get really frustrated with these eminently irrational (and ultimately self-destructive) tics I noted in US society.  An attraction to the synthetic, a rejection of simple, human pleasures, an uncontrolled addiction to all manner of consumption and fads.  I ultimately left the States and stayed away for a very long time in large part because of these things.  But the years have perhaps softened my outrage, and now I'm more inclined to see these idiosyncracies not as personal shortcomings, but rather as social afflictions that my fellow citizens are subjected to.  When I think of it that way, my response is no longer to scorn and condemn these people, but rather to sympathize and seek out solutions to the aspects of the sociocultural superstructure that are holding people back from attaining their highest potential.

This framing of simultaneous outrage at unjust, inefficient social arrangements yet sympathy for the brothers and sisters suffering from those arrangements (even as they themselves also perpetuate the arrangements by their own behavior) makes me think of Malcolm X's autobiography.  A constant challenge and dilemma for Malcolm, perhaps the principal challenge of his life and ministry, was how to deal with the collective, widespread shortcomings and pathologies of the people he loved.  He often decried the addiction, the criminality, the aggression towards the weak and submission to (or collusion with) the powerful, exhibited by the black underclass of his Harlem home.  But at the same time he was profoundly aware that these pathologies were not simply personal failures, but rather conditions imposed on his flock by a larger superstructure.  Malcolm is keenly tuned in to which people are ready to hear the truth at a given moment and snap out of their established, oppressive routines, and which ones are still "brain-washed Negroes" that wouldn't be able to hear what he's saying.

Anyway, for a time I was reading the Socialist Thought book on my daily train commute, and reading Malcolm X to my son at night (he's now old enough to make me uncomfortable with questions about white devils).  I saw a lot of commonalities between Malcolm's vision of the white suprmacist superstructure and the socialists' descrition of the economic superstructure.  A recent interview I read with a black post-Marxist philosopher named Charles Mills has further solidified my view that both race and class are part of the superstructure shaping most people's actions in the US.  And the only thing more omnipresent than the superstructure is people's willing blindness to it, what Mills calls an "epistemology of ignorance".

The epistemology of ignorance combines with the meritocratic ur-narrative that we tell ourselves in the US, to yield an ugly trend of blaming the marginalized for their lot.  Whether it's angry white folks insisting essentially that unarmed young men deserve to die simply for appearing black and menacing, or the Neoliberal status quo blaming the poor for their unfortunate lot in life, the epistemology of ignorance leads the powerful to overlook their own shortcomings or flaws while simultaneously emphasizing the foibles of the oppressed, as a way of justifying the way things are.  This from Fabian Socialist Sidney Webb:
"When we have bound the laborer fast to his wheel; when we have practically excluded the average man from every real chance of improving his condition; ... then we are aggrieved that he often loses hope, gambles for the windfall that is denied to his industry, attempts to drown his cares in drink, and, driven by his misery irresistiibly down the steep hill of vice, passes into that evil circle where vice begets poverty, and poverty intensifies vice, until Society unrelentingly stamps him out as vermin.  Thereupon we lay the flattering unction to our souls that it was his own fault, that he had his chance; and we preach to his fellows thrift and temperance, prudence and virtue, but always industry, that industry of others which keeps the industrial machine in motion, so that we can still enjoy the opportunity of taxing it."
But to those who would sanctimoniously scold the victims of an unjust system, Brecht and Weill warn,  
"Your vices and our virtue are so dear to you,
So hear the simple truth of this our song. 
Wherever you aspire, whatever you may do,
First feed the face, and then talk right and wrong. 
For even saintly folk may act like sinners
Unless they've had their customary dinners!"

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Marketing hype instead of health

This is an article about the drive of healthcare providers to focus more on "customer service" rather than good medicine.  Though the ostensible trigger to this shameful trickery are stipulations in US public health law that reward providers for patient satisfaction with their health care experience, only the private sector could come up with something so twisted as to try to pamper and smooth-talk patients into giving a good satisfaction score, as opposed to providing patients with actual high-quality healthcare.  This is what happens when you give the profit motive too central of a place in your healthcare system.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The Economics Anti-Textbook

A few months ago I stumbled across this textbook online, called the Economics Anti-Textbook.  It purports to teach the fundamentals of economics, but with a critical eye that draws readers' attention to the implicit and explicit biases in different frames of reference.  If I get time, I'd love to read it.

Quote from Einstein:  ‘Whether you can observe a thing or not depends on the theory which you use. It is the theory which decides what can be observed.’

Quote from Economics anti-textbook:  "Our point is not so much to claim that the ideology of the textbooks is wrong, although admittedly we do not share it. Rather, we want to remind readers that it [the ideology] exists. Students should be consciously aware of it – and that there are alternatives on offer."

Sunday, April 26, 2015

On Ferguson

For many months now, the news has been intermittently ablaze with the happenings in Ferguson.  I don't have much to say that hasn't already been said on the immediate issue, the murder by police of an unarmed young man.  I don't think there is much to say--as in the Trayvon Martin case years ago, I feel there is no justification for anyone to take the life of an unarmed boy, whether or not he was "a good kid".  I don't understand how this affirmation could be controversial; no one would want their child to be murdered by the police or by anyone else.  And if we believe in a shared humanity with the rest of the world, or at least with our fellow Americans, or in my case even just with my fellow Midwesterners, then we must see clearly that when any child is murdered, it's everyone's child.  My own biological children's skin color may make them more or less likely to suffer the same fate as poor Michael Brown, but I'd have to be crazy to think that any child's murder is somehow not my problem, not of concern to me and my family.

So again, my thoughts on the Michael Brown shooting are pretty straightforward.  I recognize the role that race played in his death, and in the Ferguson police department's use of excessive force to respond to demonstrators exercising their First Amendment rights.  If you want to read more about the very clear racial issues that enter into and that have been brought to the fore by what's going on in Ferguson, here is a decent breakdown of that.

But as I argued in a post in the aftermath of Trayvon Martin's murder, I feel that sometimes we in the US fixate so much on race that we are blinded to some other, parallel threads, or even to some trends and issues that are larger than race.  For instance, the above-cited article by Janee Woods seems to be implicitly arguing that racism is not only an evil affecting US society, but in fact the prime evil that trumps all others.  See for example her seeming advice to ditch any racist friends (point 10).  I can understand her focus on racism as a non-negotiable dealbreaker for a friendship, because her work and her passion is in the field of dismantling racism.  But if I or anyone else are to be consistent, we can't stick just to racism; no, we have to judge all wrong thinking, all intolerance, all oppression as invalid.  I am theoretically willing to commit to that.  However, if I am to cut off contact with all racists, and for that matter anyone who advocates directly or indirectly the oppressive status quo, I would have to cease interacting with just about everyone I know.  Woods rightly argues that, "you can be the popular person who stands with the oppressor or you can be the (maybe) unpopular person who stands for equality and dignity for all people".  But this is a false dichotomy, and for me it is almost as bad to stand with the oppressor as to be someone who adheres to all the right causes but isolates himself from the very humans he needs to join those causes (and whom he is ultimately advocating in favor of).  I have learned the hard way that I need to accept and work with the flawed humanity I'm surrounded by and a part of (just as others will hopefully accept my imperfections), not to insist on an impossible moral purity.  I've known corrupt people and alcoholics who were fierce enemies of institutionalized racism, and racists who were allies in the cause of economic justice.  You've got to work with the people around you, not the angels above.

On a historical and society-wide level, I'd actually agree with the assertion that racism is the fundamental sin that has been the primary shaper of problems in the US, if that is indeed the argument Woods is making.  Slavery and its aftermath of personal and institutionalized racism have defined yesterday's and today's US like no other force I can think of.  And Woods's 12 tips for white folks that want to dismantle entrenched racism are all spot-on.  My only gripe with her is that, while understandable, her couching her advice for dismantling a racist system in the context of Michael Brown's death risks missing all the other issues raised around this tragic event, issues that I would argue certainly include race but also extend far beyond it.

In short, I feel that the protests in Ferguson are highlighting many realities about race in the United States, but there are also lots of other things going on that can both inform and be informed by the current situation.  The two major trends I see other than race that have come to the fore are the militarization of the police and our society in general, and the interface of suburbanization and social problems in the US.

One night I heard an excellent radio program about the militarization of police forces in the US.  Apparently municipal PDs can request used military-grade equipment for free from the Pentagon, as well as applying for federal funds to stock up on additional high-powered assault rifles, armored vehicles, and the like.  Much of these requests bypass the normal civilian control of the police department, and all this in a nationwide context of far less crime than there was decades ago.  According to the radio program, many police departments are now laden with this war machinery, and they put it to zealous overuse, using SWAT teams to serve warrants on suspects of nonviolent offenses, or placing snipers on buildings in response to protests like we are seeing in Ferguson, MO.  The radio host made the point that the mere possession of this heavy weaponry influences and shapes the mentality that the police force brings to its job.  It is the bizarre inverted machismo warrior culture gone haywire, where men-boys looking to prove themselves join a police force instead of (or after) the armed forces.  Valor on the battlefield consists in the annihilation of enemies, but this impulse is totally out of place for police in a democracy, whose job is to serve and protect fellow citizens, to keep the peace instead of waging war.

Apologists for this militarization of our police forces cite increasing, omnipresent danger from raging criminals.  This is patently false, since US society is by almost all measures safer today than at any point in its recorded history.  Beyond the flawed facts though, the more we as a society (and the police that form an important part of our society) succumb to this sort of paranoid, order-at-all-costs thinking, the more we chisel away at the foundations of our democracy, of a sense of shared purpose, shared values, shared humanity.  Totalitarianism could be said to be the quest for an absolutely perfect order.  Our democracy does not aspire to perfect order, but rather seeks a more perfect union, a direction to aspire in yet with the recognition that you will never get there.  Indeed, moving towards unity and harmony often goes hand in hand with a society that looks less quiet and orderly.  Democracy is messy and chaotic, not polished and clean.

In any case, if a recent study is to be believed, our polis is increasingly looking like a state run by the few at the expense of the many.  In this light, it makes sense that the powers that be (and even the rest of us) resort to increasing force, firepower, and secrecy to maintain order.

The second theme that really jumped out at me in the news coverage of Ferguson was the dynamics of race, class, and migration to the suburbs.  As this article and this article point out, Ferguson presents a case that doesn't conform to our typical mental scheme of black inner-cities juxtaposed with white suburbs, because Ferguson itself is a suburb, and a mainly black suburb.  To me this status of Ferguson as a marginalized black suburb speaks to a larger theme of how we in the US define our own wellbeing and prosperity, in short our human development.

The inner city came to be synonymous with decay and social dysfunction because of a long-standing custom in the US to define our own wellbeing and social status not positively in terms of the good things we have, but rather negatively in terms of who is below us on the social ladder.  This relative social position is composed by a shifting interplay of race and class.  In most Northern US cities, whites seem to have defined their own satisfaction in life by how much they could exclude and spit on nonwhites.  Newly-arrived immigrants were initially treated as nonwhites, but their economic and social advancement went hand-in-hand with their transitioning from oppressed to oppressors, as they physically moved away from the fellow immigrants, and especially the black migrants, they now considered inferior to themselves.  For a long time economically ascendent blacks in the Northern ghettoes were forced to live side-by-side with their poorer brethren, but as soon as changing legal and social mores allowed them to, black professionals left the inner city in droves, leaving behind the archetypal depressed black inner cities that pop to most people's heads when they think of Detroit or Cleveland or Oakland.

The common thread here is that the drive to feel like you are above some other slice of humanity has led to a recurring, never-ending cycle of migration to farther and farther suburbs.  First Anglo whites, then ethnic whites, then professional blacks, instead of identifying themselves with their neighbors, have sought to distance themselves from those neighbors that they believe to be inferior to them.  What else could explain the massive migration to suburbs that offer objectively lower living standards than most urban centers (more floods, longer commuting time, poorer infrastructure, less access to commerce and other community amenities, physical conditions that favor obesity and feelings of isolation)? 

This trend continues today, on large and small scales.  The inner city of today becomes less and less appealing for people to live in, thus making real what had been a silly conceit of those arrogant professionals who thought their neighborhoods to be beneath them.  Now many neighborhoods really are beneath the dignity of any human being.  There are few businesses, lots of violence, social dysfunction.  Hell, just mowing the lawn takes up all the time of anyone trying to keep up appearances, since each resident now has to take care of upwards of six vacant lots, none of which belong to them.  You'd be amazed at how much time the few remaining middle-class people in the ghetto spend on a rider mower!  Anyone remotely advantaged or motivated to live in objectively better conditions leaves these blighted areas as soon as they can, hence deepening their desolation.

It even happens in relatively decent areas, as I've seen occurring in my mixed-income area in Arlington, VA.  Our neighborhood has lots of amenities like a library, parks, playgrounds, restaurants, supermarkets, schools, and churches, all within walking distance.  It is a perfectly fine place to live.  But many white parents, perhaps nervous about their kids' interacting too much with brown people, move to farther suburbs when their kids reach school age.  They obssessively check websites that grade schools based on how many dirty blacks and immigrants how they score on standardized tests or something, and these websites tell them that they must move to whiter suburbs with better schools.  This is of course bullshit, because most of these parents spend their time checking their iPhone or shushing their kids instead of developing their intellect and their capacity for critical thought, so I don't believe they're that concerned about real education (they are, of course, concerned about the type of exclusive credentials that will allow their kids to continue the cycle of finding personal satisfaction by stepping on others).

Anyway, the problem is that then the schools in my neighborhood do suffer somewhat, because the parents and kids with the most social capital and the highest disposable incomes (read investments in extracurricular enrichment) end up leaving.  Seeing this, and aspiring themselves to the lifestyle of excluding and stepping on others, the relatively upwardly-mobile Latino neighbors in our area then follow the whites to farther suburbs.  Many people close to us have succumbed to this logic.  Often they too are trying to get away from all the dirty brown people (which of course doesn't describe them--they're special, clean brown people).  We even had a Colombian-American friend who was lamenting the racism her kid encountered at his all-white school.  We asked her why she didn't move to a neighborhood with more Colombians, and she said, "No, they're disgusting.  Their dogs are always shitting on the sidewalk!"

At this point the schools really do start suffering, because all the middle-class people have pulled their kids out, and those who are left behind are the proletarian immigrant masses who don't have much time or resources to invest in their kids' formal schooling.  They, self-loathing and looking to get away from people who look and act like them, also move farther out as soon as they can.  At this point, the poor rich white folks have to move again, because the brown people they were trying to get away from ended up following them.  I imagine this is the same thing that happened in Chicago neighborhoods like South Shore that went from white mixed-class to black mixed-class to black underclass.  At each step of the way, the upwardly mobile subset of the socially "inferior" group moved closer to people they thought of as more in line with their station, but those people didn't want to be near these inferior souls, and so moved elsewhere.

One way to get around this silly game that has caused so much oppression and angst and suffering (and environmental destruction and needless construction and pathological moving from house to house!) would be if no one thought themselves superior to anyone else.  Such an attitude could give rise to a general solidarity among people, a recognition that the problems of MY COMMUNITY are problems I have a part in, and whose solutions I must have a part in, instead of our current attitude of running away from problems we blame on the other people around us.  If white Anglos had thought this way of ethnic white and black migrants, if immigrants thought this way of their fellow immigrants, if professionals and wealthy people thought this way of their less-fortunate neighbors, we would be able to develop the communities we live in, instead of a fleeting "development of ourselves" by moving elsewhere.  We wouldn't have so many problems of the concentrated poor (addiction, violence, deprivation, antisocial tendencies) or of the concentrated rich (also addiction, violence, deprivation, and antisocial tendencies).

Friday, April 24, 2015

Christians on immigration reform

This article describes the Evangelical Christian block that is at the vanguard of immigration reform.  This is one of the few times since the Civil Rights movement when I am aware of self-identified Christians actually acting as such in a meaningful way.  One of the central tenets of Libration Theology is Matthew 25:35, where Christ insists that whatever we to do help or harm our fellow humans, we in fact do to Him.  Apparently these Evangelicals also took that verse to heart.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Manual everything

Here is an article my cousin sent me recently about how people can hack a car's keyless entry system.  While the thieves' technological route of doing so is novel and creative, I wasn't surprised by it.  To me it has never seemed like a good idea to entrust the basic functions of your car, or any other important system you rely on, to remote-operation devices.  Keyless ignitions in particular have always seemed like a horrible idea to me.  As often happens, you're gaining some supposed convenience by sacrificing control over your own affairs.  On the other hand, if you opt to do more things for yourself, you will feel and in fact be more empowered, and leave fewer things open to outside tampering.  That's why, when given a choice, I will always opt for manual transmissions, real physical key-operated locks, even roll-down windows.  Such stripped-down features also drive down gas consumption and often car price.  The problem is that, in the US at least, these options are often no longer available to us.  Anyone who has gone to a car dealership and asked for a car with the theoretically available manual transmission option will understand what I'm talking about.  When the new "normal" is power-everything, TV screens in every seat, and a bunch of other flashy, needless features, it can be next to impossible to get something more simple--it can even end up costing more, since they need to special order it.  As I mentioned in a recent post, when you're living in a crazy society, it can be lonely, even impossible, to be normal yourself!