Category Archives: Education

Cleverman, Season 2

Last Fall, I encouraged everyone to watch the Netflix series Cleverman.  This fall, the second season dropped.  It continues to be a great series with a strong anthropological focus.

Cleverman, Season 2

Season 2 focuses on forced acculturation.  Forced acculturation is a process driven by the group in power and is enacted on a group that is to be stripped of all power and cultural identity.  In the United States, white men in power did this to slaves and to the First Nations.  Forced acculturation continues to be used by those in power to maintain their control.

If you have not yet watched Season 1, set aside a 12-hour stretch because you will find it hard not to binge through Season 2.  Each season has six episodes.  I look forward to there being a Season 3 of Cleverman.

Africa and its 54 Countries

This is Africa

In recent years, an increasing number of students at my institution are either immigrants or children of immigrants from several different countries in Africa.  Some of them have discussed with me their concerns about what they perceive as an extreme lack of knowledge displayed not only by their fellow students but by staff and faculty about the continent of Africa and the 54 countries within that continent.   It also appears to these students that none of these individuals are particularly interested in improving their knowledge.

In large part, we can blame the educational system and the media which, intentionally or unintentionally, perpetuates the racism of the Colonial Era in which Africa was depicted, if depicted at all, as a place of exotic animals and backward, “uncivilized” humans.   Far too many people in the United States view Africa as a country (not a continent) dominated by poverty rather than as the second-largest landmass in the world filled with dynamism and an entrepreneurial spirit.  Too many in the United States do not care about Africa and do not see why they should care.

In my classes, I attempt to change this perception, but it is difficult when it begins in elementary school with students’ first exposure to world maps.   Below are several world maps.  Study the maps and choose the one that seems to be the most useful and accurate.

Political World Map

Political World Map

 

Social Science World Map

Social Science World Map

 

world map peters

World Map Peters Projection

 

Universal Corrective Map

Universal Corrective Map

 

You probably chose the one with which you are most familiar. Now watch this video.

The Boston, MA school system has realized that the world maps they were using in the classrooms are a problem.  They will now use the Peters Projection.

Given the indoctrination that diminishes the relative size of the African continent, True Size is both entertaining and educational in showing the true size  of countries and continents when compared to each other.   Note how tiny Greenland truly is in relation to the African continent.

Africa is a continent of 54 countries that differ dramatically from each other in terms of size, population, ecology, and economy.

Africa and its 54 Countries

Africa and its 54 Countries

While there are remote areas with little access to modern technologies, these are quickly becoming part of the past.  Even remote areas are gaining access to cell phones and the internet. Many of the cities are every bit as modern as those in the U.S.

Let’s focus on a few countries.  We will begin with Nigeria, the most-populous country in Africa where over 500 languages, in addition to English, are spoken.  In Nigeria, it is common to be multi-lingual.

Nigeria in Africa

Nigeria in Africa

Nigeria

Nigeria

Nigeria is larger than Texas.  Lagos, the world’s 10th largest city with a population of 21 million, is on the coast.  It is a dynamic center of trade, technology, and entertainment.  Nollywood produces more than 2000 films per year.

Lagos

Lagos

Our next country, Ghana, is a near-neighbor of Nigeria on the west coast of the African Continent.

Ghana in Africa Ghana-Map

Accra has a population of 2.3 million in a country of 26 million.  Ghana is about the size of Oregon.

Accra, Ghana

Accra, Ghana

Ghana will be at the forefront of making energy from ocean waves.  Young architects are infusing Ghanaian traditions into modern buildings.

Our next stop is Uganda, a Central-East African country.

Uganda in Africa

Uganda in Africa

Uganda Map

Uganda Map

Kampala is a city of 2 million in a country of 38 million.  Uganda is similar in size to Wyoming.

Uganda, “The Pearl of Africa”, has long been known for its dramatic and beautiful scenery.  The mountain forests provide sanctuary for gorillas which can be viewed on special treks.

One of the countries to the east of Uganda is Kenya, which is slightly smaller than Texas and has a population of over 46 million.

Kenya in Africa

Kenya in Africa

Kenya Map

Kenya Map

Nairobi, the capital of Kenya, has a population of around 3.5 million.

Nairobi, Kenya

Nairobi, Kenya

Nairobi  is the major tech center of East Africa.

‘ “The future will be built in Africa,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in Nigeria, before travelling to Kenya.’

The last stop on our tour will be the country of South Africa.

South Africa in Africa

South Africa in Africa

 

South Africa

South Africa

South Africa has a population of 54 million in an area about twice the size of Texas.  Johannesburg, with a population of about 4.5 million, is the largest city in South Africa.

Johannesburg, South Africa

Johannesburg, South Africa

However, for the current U.S. population, it may be best known as the home of Trevor Noah, host of The Daily Show.

Trevor Noah

Trevor Noah

There are still another 49 countries for you to explore on the Continent of Africa.  The odds are high that you or your children will work for someone who is from Africa, is an immigrant from Africa, or is the offspring of an immigrant.

If you click on this site, you can see how well you do identifying the 54 countries of Africa.  You can retry multiple times.

According to The Next Africa by Jake Bright and Aubrey Hruby, African immigrants and their children are the most-highly-educated group in the United States.

In 2015, Harold Ekeh, son of Nigerian immigrants, was accepted at all 8 Ivy League schools.

Harold Ekeh

Harold Ekeh

In 2016, Augusta Uwamanzu-Nna, daughter of Nigerian immigrants, was accepted at all 8 Ivy League schools.

Augusta Uwamanzu-Nna

Augusta Uwamanzu-Nna

In 2017, Jude Okonkwo, son of Nigerian immigrants, was accepted at all 8 Ivy League schools.

Jude Okonkwo

Jude Okonkwo

In conclusion, please watch the following video and understand that it is important to become educated about the Continent of Africa and its 54 countries so that one does not appear ignorant to those individuals who are from any of those countries.

Underground Airlines: Did Slavery Really End?

Sometimes a novel really hits me in the gut.  That is the case with Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters.  This novel is disturbing, wrenching, powerful, and so terribly, terribly on-target.

Underground Airlines

Winters has written an alternate history that is not really alternate at all.  It is the 21st century United States of our reality thinly-disguised as from an alternate reality.

In the alternate history of Underground Airlines, Lincoln was assassinated in Indiana as he traveled East to his inauguration in 1861.  In order to prevent the Civil War, Congress agreed to the 18th Amendment which made slavery legal forever (or for as long as those states chose) in the then-current slave states.  No other states could become slave states.  Further, the Federal government, using the Federal Marshals, would be in charge of finding, capturing, and returning escaped slaves to their owners.  The Federal government would also monitor all slave operations to make sure that basic, minimum standards of care were maintained for the slaves.  Winters does an excellent job of weaving historical events in our reality of the past 150 years into the alternate reality.

In the alternate 21st century, only four states remain slave states: Carolina (North and South have joined into one state), Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana.  These states are fenced off from the rest of the US and have heavily-guarded entry/exit posts.  Due to pressure from abolitionists in the non-slave states, companies in the slave states cannot sell directly to non-slave states or most other countries.  However, holding companies with complex corporate structures manage to hide the ways in which they and their customers benefit from slave labor.

The One-Drop Rule has mutated into a precisely-delineated color chart with scores of skin-color shades marking an individual as “Black” and, therefore, suspected of being a slave, escaped slave, or, at best, a lesser form of human.

The protagonist in the novel is Victor, a former slave who has been coerced into working for the Marshals as a slave catcher.  His job is to hunt down escaped slaves and then notify the Marshals who will capture the individual in order to return him or her to the owner.  The story begins with Victor being given a case which feels ‘off’.  I won’t give any spoilers because I hope you will read the book.

The existence of slavery and the color chart prevents anyone who is not lightly-pigmented from being treated well and equally in the non-slave states, even if that person and his/her ancestors have been free for generations.  Those deemed Black are subject to intense scrutiny, must live in segregated neighborhoods that lack basic amenities, and must defer to the superior White individuals.  Even white abolitionists involved in the Underground Airlines view themselves as superior to non-whites.

In our own 21st century reality, many believe that slavery ended long ago, but that is only because they do not know our history of Post-Reconstruction share-cropping, which was slavery by another name.  They do not understand that the Jim Crow laws served to keep African Americans in an enforced, lower status with limited rights.  Anyone who was viewed as ‘getting uppity’ could be lynched. They do not see that racial profiling gives law enforcement and armed whites in stand-your-ground states almost unlimited freedom to treat and kill African Americans as if they were property rather than citizens with equal rights.  They are unaware of the vast number of goods sold in the U.S. that are farmed or manufactured by prison labor.  Nor that the U.S. has the world’s largest prison population; a prison population that includes a disproportionate number of African Americans, especially in the former slave states.

Underground Airlines makes it very clear that Black lives do not matter except as bodies to produce goods to enrich their owners.  How much does that alternate reality really differ from our own?  For those who wish to live in a reality where there is true equality and where Black Lives Matter as much as White lives, I suggest carefully reading this policy platform in order to consider how you can support it.

 

Bridges or Walls

I just finished reading Our Political Nature: The Evolutionary Origins of What Divides Us by Avi Tuschman, an appropriate topic for this election year.  While well-written, this  heavily-researched, scientific analysis of where and why individuals fall on the political spectrum of left to right might not be everyone’s idea of summer reading, so I will give a very brief summary of its main points.

Conservatives are extremely concerned with protecting their in-group from all those who are in the out-groups, which is the vast majority of the rest of the world.  Fear drives their ideology, leading them to want to build walls, both metaphorical and actual, to protect their in-group from ‘invasion’ and change.

Liberals are open to new experiences and groups.  They are drawn to those who are different from themselves and don’t really see the world in terms of in-groups and out-groups.  Rather, they see everyone’s humanity.  Because of their desire to connect, liberals build bridges.  They view change as a virtue rather than as something to fear.

As with all traits, physical and behavioral, genes and environments interact to produce a bell-shaped distribution curve.  Most individuals fall in the middle: they are conservative in some ways and liberal in others.  In political terms, this means that compromise is possible.  However, as one moves towards the tails (i.e. ‘right-wing’ and ‘left’wing’), individuals become more ideologically rigid and less compromise is possible.  In fact, at the extremes, compromise is disdained and vilified.

The ideologies of the extreme right (rigid hierarchies, extreme inequality, little individual freedom) and the extreme left (extreme equality, much  individual freedom, little hierarchy) are utopian in nature: both believe that they are creating the perfect world.  However, both become authoritarian regimes where the rulers are treated as semi-divine.  Tuschman considers communist regimes as exemplars of the extreme left.  Although he does not explicitly state this, it appears that he would place the social democracies of Europe more within the liberal section of the curve than the extreme left.

Our Political Nature was published in 2013, well before the current election cycle, so I am extrapolating from Tuschman’s analysis for the remainder of this essay.  While the US has yet to devolve into either extreme form of authoritarian control, the current US House of Representatives is under the sway of individuals who express an extreme right-wing ideology.  Compromise is evil and their patron saint is the semi-divine Ronald Reagan whose name has been plastered everywhere.

Until this election cycle, the US has not had an extreme-left candidate who managed to obtain national prominence, but this changed with the candidacy of Bernie Sanders who has a utopian, leftist ideology of revolution leading to extreme equality.  As with right-wing extremists, left-wing extremists are unwilling to compromise.  Their ideology is right and just; therefore, compromise is not possible.  I imagine this is why Sanders and his staunchest followers are finding it almost impossible to accept defeat.  It also explains the cult of personality Bernie has engendered.  If he somehow became president, I would expect that his name would be plastered everywhere.  Fortunately for the US, Bernie Sanders will not be president as, according to Tuschman,  the extremes always lead to an authoritarian government no matter what their utopian intentions were.

Compromise is not a dirty word.  It is what enables liberals and conservatives to work together to create a functioning, democratic government; one where there can be tariffs (walls) to protect the country while also having treaties (bridges) to bring differing groups closer together.

 

 

Criminal Injustice

I recently read a book that presents a disturbing analysis of the criminal justice (actually, injustice) system of the United States.  Unfair: The New Science of Criminal Injustice by Adam Benforado is extremely well-written and well-reasoned.  It can also be viewed as the companion volume to Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy which I reviewed in a prior post.  This post will include a number of direct quotes from Unfair.

Criminal InjusticeUnfair: The New Science of Criminal Injustice

We want “…to see the world as a fair place where people receive their just deserts.  When confronted with an example of a seemingly ‘good’ person, like a virgin, suffering a terrible outcome, we experience a strong dissonance.  And we eliminate that discomfort–and maintain our perception of justice–by finding fault with the victim.” p. 17

Benforado discusses research about why cops see threats where there are none.  The research study showed that research subjects who were holding a gun were more likely to perceive an individual shown on a screen as threatening (no matter what the individual on the screen was doing) than research subjects who were not holding a gun.  “…having a gun at your fingertips can make the world seem a far more threatening place, with potentially deadly consequences.” p. 61

Later, Benforado analyses the flaws of police lineups. “…studies of actual police lineups show that eyewitnesses select innocent people more than 30 percent of the time.  Would we as a society tolerate the sale of a car whose brake lights malfunctioned on every third trip, or a hospital that handed out the wrong medicine to every third patient? Obviously not; we would demand immediate change. So why do we accept the claim that the legal system works just fine as it is? p. 129

Judges lack training in analyzing expert testimony and don’t grasp the importance of scientific literacy.  “Federal and state judiciaries should commit to rigorous training of judges in assessing expert testimony…A lack of proficiency can bring devastating consequences…making scientific literacy mandatory doesn’t demean judges; it’s a testament to the importance of what they do.” p.155

Why do we punish those convicted of crimes? “[T]here is a growing scientific consensus that it is a desire for retribution–not deterrence or incapacitation–that has the strongest influence on why we punish. [T]he motive to deliver payback to the perpetrator operates as a sort of automatic default.” p.191

“[W]e often seem to be driven to punish first and seek justification second.” p.194

“[O]ur desire to find a culprit and reset the moral scales by inflicting punishment may sometimes override our commitment to fair treatment…[R]etaliatory acts look far less like accidents, anomalies, and collateral damage.  They look like reflections of our true nature–who we really are.”  p 196-7

Punishment that is meted out differs by the ‘race’ of the perpetrator and the ‘race’ of the victim.  Example [p. 197]: Pete murders a woman who spurns him. If the woman is white, Pete is more likely to face than death penalty than if the woman is black.  If Pete is black, his odds of facing the death penalty are far higher than if he were white.  Black men “…also receive higher bails, face a greater incarceration rate, and are subject to longer sentences than white defendants.”  They “are also more likely to actually be executed.”  p. 197

Research has shown that stereotypes and bias affect views of guilt and punishment.  Study participants read a story about a boy with prior juvenile convictions who committed a violent crime.  “The texts given to the groups were identical, aside from one word: for the first group, the defendant was described as black; for the second group, he was described as white. Participants who had read about the black teenager express more support for the severe sentence and for the notion that kids are as blameworthy as adults.” p. 198  That is: white boys are boys, but black boys are men.

“It’s not just whether you are black; it’s how black (italics in original) you are. The broadness of a defendant’s nose, the thickness of his lips, and the darkness of his skin have all been correlated with capital punishment decisions: in cases where the victim is white, the more stereotypically black a defendant’s facial features, the more likely he is to receive the death penalty.” p. 199

Religious views also affect the severity of punishment meted out by the judicial system. “[I]f you believe in the existence of pure evil…you will tend to support harsh punishment and view efforts at reforming offenders as pointless.”  p. 203   You will be more likely to support the death penalty and less likely to appreciate nuance and “…the various forces outside of an offender’s control that may have led him to commit a terrible act.” p.204

Slavery existed in what became the United States since the 1600s. The US is still dealing with the effects of enslaving millions of its residents.   “A country that abolished slavery 150 years ago now has a greater number of black men in the correctional system than there were slaves in 1850 and a greater percentage of its black population in jail than was imprisoned in apartheid South Africa.” p.209  The US prison system is essentially a continuation of slavery.

“[I]n every state, we imprison people for relatively minor, nonviolent crimes–like using drugs or passing a bad check–that would receive a slap on the wrist in other countries.  While no more than 10 percent of those convicted of crimes in Germany and the Netherlands are sentenced to prison, in the United States it’s 70 percent.” p.209

Solitary confinement is more cruel than corporal punishment.  “The notable thing about isolation, of course, is not the infliction of direct suffering; it’s the withholding of the things people need in order not to suffer–in particular, human contact.” p. 217  In addition, solitary confinement “…frequently aggravates the symptoms of mental illness.  More egregious still, when that person’s psychological condition deteriorates–leading him to throw food or feces or act out against guards–we punish him with more isolation, adding years or even decades onto his sentence.” p. 220

“If we really wanted to deter crime, we would stop wasting our time with harsh mandatory minimums, three-strikes laws, and life without the possibility of parole, which have a minimal or nonexistent impact on offending…A punishment needs to be distasteful, but it doesn’t need to be long.” p. 226

Harsh treatment by guards and warehousing with little or nothing to do is a prescription for violence within correction facilities.  “In Georgia between 2010 and 2014, for example, there were thirty-four murders that occurred inside [italics in original] state prison.  Our correctional facilities are incubators for brutality.” p. 228

“Depriving people of normal human contact does not eliminate criminal behavior; it eliminates the capacity to engage in normal human contact…it leaves them unprepared to get a job or interact with the outside world when they are released.” p.229

“[T]he extreme harshness of our punishments may actually increase the likelihood of malfeasance because they suggest that the law is not worthy of respect.  If a couple of garage break-ins over the summer and a stolen car can land a nineteen-year-old in prison for life, then it is hard to trust the system, believe in its rules, and rely on its processes and officers.” p. 230

“The total bill for our correctional system is some $60 billion each year…The irony is that spending money on education–in particular to keep male high school students from dropping out–appears to be a far more effective way to combat crime.” p. 231

There are solutions to the unfairness of our judicial system. Norway has a far-more-humane way of treating its prisoners.  “A monstrous prison will create monsters. And what is the point of that?”  p. 232

Germany is also concerned about the humanity of its prisoners.  “Germany’s Prison Act, for example, makes rehabilitating the inmate the sole aim of incarceration; protecting the public is simply a natural outgrowth of ensuring the inmate’s successful transition back into society upon release.” p.233

What and who we choose to protect or punish is wildly unfair.  “We will fight tirelessly to protect the rights of those who spew hate in the public square, stockpile weapons capable of wiping out classrooms of children, and flood our airwaves with lies to sway elections, but we draw the line at permitting a man convicted of stealing videotapes a door to his toilet, the chance to spend a night with his family, or the experience of preparing his own dinner in his own shirt.  If ensuring freedom for those who may harm us is worth the risk when the costs are high, that must certainly be the case when protecting their rights leaves us safer.” p. 235

“[P]owerful individuals and institutions are already exploiting the weaknesses in our legal system for their own gain.  What does that mean in practice?  If you are rich and connected, you go free.  If you are poor and uneducated, you go to prison.”  p. 248  As Bryan Stevenson has said, “The opposite of poverty is justice.”

“There’s a reason that this book about unfairness hasn’t talked about white-collar crime: those who engage in corporate self-dealing, illegal accounting schemes, and securities fraud get more than a fair deal.

For those at the bottom, by contrast, the lack of access initiates a devastating downward cycle.  You can’t stop losing, because every time you return from prison, you are in a worse position to gain the help you need…And you pass on the curse to your children…Entire inner-city communities become locked into this self-reinforcing inequity, while gated ones across the river are able to secure wealth and success for generations to come.”  p. 252

A major part of the problem in policing and justice is implicit racial bias. “[I]mplicit racial bias puts unarmed blacks at a significantly greater risk of being shot than unarmed whites…One successful approach [to reduce implicit bias] is to show people images of well-known blacks with strong positive associations (like Martin Luther King Jr.) and well-known whites with strong negative associations (like Charles Manson) in order to disrupt racial stereotypes.”  p. 258

Trials do not necessarily achieve a just outcome.  Prosecutors can tilt a trial in their direction by failing to give the defense team all the evidence.  As a solution, “…we could have forensic reports automatically sent from the crime lab to the prosecution and defense at the same time, or have all police reports entered into an open-access file with no input or revision by the prosecution.” p. 261

There are a number of methods that are being used in some jurisdictions to ensure that crimes are properly investigated and that negate reliance on faulty witnesses, intuitions, and biased memories.  These methods include cameras that are triggered by gunshots and record the scene.  Panoscan which records a complete view of the crime scene that allows detailed inspection even months after the fact.  Smartphone apps that give responding officers details about any prior incidents at that address.  To reduce deaths, officers should have trauma kits and know how to use them.  This could save thousands of lives each year.

In order to reduce judicial bias and replace self-serving amicus briefs, Benforado suggests the creation of an independent panel that would provide neutral data on the relevant points in a particular case.  “This simple fix could combat judicial tunnel vision and ensure that all of the justices have access to the same data, which would make it harder to ignore conflicting evidence. ” p.264

Surgery errors and pilot errors  have been dramatically reduced through the use of checklists.  A smartphone app that guides officers through the proper steps of managing a crime scene would also reduce errors and the chance of a wrongful conviction.  “[I]t seems misguided to fret about the impact of such technology when the consequences of a mistake are so high.” p. 266

Benforado proposes a radical, but sensible idea: trials should be virtual with neutral avatars representing all involved individuals. This would eliminate all biases based on an individual’s behavior or appearance.  If juror’s don’t know what a person looks or sounds like, their focus is then directed solely to the evidence.  Lawyers and judges wouldn’t know anything about the jurors and so would also have to focus on the evidence and witness statements.  Witnesses wouldn’t have to worry about their safety. Trials would be more efficient, rapid, and cheaper.  Therefore, more cases could go to trial rather than being pleaded out, which would benefit poor defendants, many of whom, although innocent, plead out in order to avoid remaining in jail, sometimes for years, until their case is tried. The current system may make for high drama, but with limited justice.

Another proposal by Benforado is the creation of a virtual corrections environment in which “[t]hose convicted of crimes might continue to live in their homes and work at their jobs but be required to spend two hours every day in an immersive online space tailored to serve whatever ends we deemed best, whether deterrence, rehabilitation, or something else.  The eventual payoff could be enormous.  For one thing, we would no longer have to house, feed, and clothe most inmates, which would drastically reduce correctional costs.  More critically, only the convict would experience the punishment, not his children, spouse, parents, and friends, as in the current system, and it would be only the punishment that we directly intended, not the assaults that plague today’s prisons.” p.271

“We need to stop viewing the people we arrest, prosecute, convict, and imprison as evil and less than human, for that toxic combinations drives us to hate and hurt, makes our brutish treatment seem justified, and does little to make us safer.  We must challenge the structures that prevent us from seeing our commonalities, hide our shared goals, and dampen our empathy for our fellow human beings.  And we must build new mechanisms that encourage us to understand the perspectives and situations of others.” p. 271

“The arc of history does not bend toward justice unless we bend it.” p. 286

 

The Bandwidth Tax

The brain has limited bandwidth.

Scarcity is the limiting factor that can make life more difficult whether the scarce resource is money, time, energy, etc.  It becomes more difficult to make appropriate decisions when the brain’s cognitive capacity is focused on that scarce resource.  Thinking of cognitive capacity as ‘bandwidth’ allows us to realize that there is only so much bandwidth available.  If we are already heavily using it, for instance, by trying to figure out how we will pay this month’s bills, there is little left over for other important decisions, such as planning how to save for a college education.

This issue of scarcity and how it affects decision-making is taken on by authors Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir in their book Scarcity: The New Science of Having Less and How It Defines Our Lives. A major point of the authors is that scientific research has shown that scarcity actually reduces IQ: when scarcity pressure reduces bandwidth, there is too much going on to effectively process all that needs to be done or decided.

Mullainathan and Shafir devote a large portion of the book to discussing poverty and its relationship to scarcity and bandwidth reduction.  Many of those who are poor may appear to make unfortunate decisions.  It is not because they are incapable of making better choices, but because their cognitive bandwidth is over-taxed due to their inadequate resources.  In one experiment, “The poor responded just like the rich when the car cost little to fix, when scarcity had not been rendered salient.  Clearly, this is not about inherent cognitive capacity.  Just like the processor that is slowed down by too many applications, the poor here appear [italics in original] worse because some of their bandwidth is being used elsewhere.”  p. 52   “We would argue that the poor do have lower effective [italics in original] capacity than those who are well off. This is not because they are less capable, but rather because part of their mind is captured by scarcity.” p. 60

Poverty is a serious issue for the future since it affects the children.  “Nearly 50 percent of all children in the United States will at some point be on food stamps.  About 15 percent of American households had trouble finding food for the family at some point during the year.” p.147  Not only are children going hungry, but their parents have trouble parenting due to reduced cognitive bandwidth.  “Being a good parent requires many things.  But most of all it requires freedom of mind.  That is one luxury the poor do not have.”  p. 137  How can children do well in school when their cognitive bandwidth is occupied with hunger and a chaotic home life?   “An overtaxed bandwidth means a reduced ability to process new information…Our data…suggest that much of the correlation between income and classroom performance may be explained by the bandwidth tax… Absorbing new information requires working memory.” p. 158

Many of the poor are striving for  better lives for themselves and their children.  A college education is now considered a basic requirement for many jobs, but the cost of a college education has sky-rocketed at the same time as grants and scholarships have become more difficult to obtain and/or cover less of the cost.  Students are then forced to go heavily into debt, work while taking classes, or both.  These students are experiencing scarcity of money and of time. “…the financially strapped student who misses some easy questions looks incapable or lazy.  But these people are not unskilled or uncaring, just heavily taxed.  The problem is not the person but the context of scarcity.” p. 65

Poverty will be a multi-generational trap that is impossible to escape if nothing is done to reduce the load on cognitive bandwidth.  The poor have to constantly re-certify to get food stamps and other government programs. But the neediest often fail to do so because of the bandwidth tax: they forget.  This is a tax on poverty.  “To see the logic of taxing bandwidth, think about it this way.  Imagine we imposed a hefty financial charge to filling out applications for financial aid.  We would quickly realize that this is a silly fee to impose; a program aimed at the cash stretched should not charge them much cash.  Yet we frequently design programs aimed at people who are bandwidth-stretched that charge a lot in bandwidth.” p. 222   “…the bandwidth tax was sizable: roughly thirteen to fourteen IQ points, with an equally large effect on executive control.  These are … very large effects on cognitive function… the bandwidth tax plays a similarly large role in the lives of the poor everywhere.”  p. 161-62

Benefits to the poor, such as food stamps, should be paid weekly rather than in one lump sum at the beginning of month.  This smooths out the boom/bust cycle.  We need to “…create long periods of moderation rather than spurts of abundance followed by heightened periods of scarcity.”  p. 223   “The failures of the poor are part and parcel of the misfortune of being poor in the first place.  Under these conditions, we all would have (and have!) failed.” p. 161

There are a number of ways in which government and business could reduce the bandwidth tax on the poor.  If you are poor and have kids, having highly-subsidized day care frees up lots of bandwidth and makes life easier. “We’d be taking a cognitive load off.  As we’ve seen, this would help your executive control, your self-control more broadly, even your parenting. It would increase your general cognitive capacity, your ability to focus, the quality of your work… [H]elp with child care…is a way to build human capital of the deepest kind: it creates bandwidth.” p. 176-77

Jobs paying minimum wages require those with children to work two or more jobs in order to be able to pay the bills.  This situation is aggravated when these jobs do not provide consistent work schedules.  “In the United States, something as simple as inconsistent work hours…can cause juggling and perpetuate scarcity.  A solution would be to create the equivalent of unemployment insurance against such fluctuations in work hours, which to the poor can be even more pernicious than job loss.”  p. 178

In order to solve poverty, we must realize that simply having a job is inadequate.  “Now, rather than looking at education, health, finance, and child care as separate problems, we must recognize that they all form part of a person’s bandwidth capacity.  And just as a financial tax can wreak havoc in one’s budget, so can a bandwidth tax create failure in any of several domains to which a person must attend.” p. 179-80   Social programs and employment structure need to be redesigned: “…a better design will have to incorporate fundamental insights about focusing and bandwidth that emerge from the psychology of scarcity.” p. 181

Our cognitive capacity bandwidth is limited.  If it is taxed by inadequate pay, inconsistent work schedules, lack of childcare, unhealthy and/or insufficient diet, a polluted environment, inadequate social services and infrastructure, among many other scarce resources, it should not be surprising if the poor seem trapped in a cycle of poverty.   Mullainathan and Shafir have provided a method for reframing and solving this crisis.  Will we care enough to implement it?

Inequality Faultlines


I recently finished The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap by Matt Taibbi.  Instead of paraphrasing Taibbi’s words, I’ve decided to post a number of what I consider the most pertinent quotes from this extremely important book.

“We [Americans] have a profound hatred of the weak and the poor, and a corresponding groveling terror before the rich and successful, and we’re building a bureaucracy to match those feelings.” (p.xx)

“…the rule of law has slowly been replaced by giant idiosyncratic bureaucracies that are designed to criminalize failure, poverty, and weakness on the one hand, and to immunize strength, wealth, and success on the other.” (p. xxii)

“So the only time RICO was used to fight mortgage fraud was when the criminal was a black gang member and the victims were banks. (Ironically, nobody thought to wonder how it was possible for a Lincoln Park gang member to buy 222 houses with no money down.  Heading into that particular rabbit hole would have led to the larger crime, but nobody did.)  (p. 44)

“In 2011…New York City police stopped and searched a record 684,724 people.  Out of those 88 percent were black or Hispanic.  The ostensible justification for the program is looking for guns, but they find guns in less than 0.02 percent of stops.  More often, they make people empty their pockets and find nothing at all.”  (p. 57)

“…the very lowest kind of offender in the illegal drug business, the retail consumer at the very bottom of the drug food chain, had received a far stiffer sentence [jail for smoking half a joint] than officials of HSBC [an international bank where no one went to jail] who were hundreds of thousands of dollars deep into the illegal drug business, not for any excusable reason but just to seek profits to pile on top of profits.”  (p.63)

“There are two important concepts here that work hand in hand.  One, there’s the idea that failure to follow a police order, no matter how stupid or unreasonable, is cause for an arrest or a summons.  The second idea is that the prosecutor can essentially turn any misdemeanor case against almost anyone into a de facto conviction, simply by filing charges and following through long enough with pretrail pressure to wrest a plea out of the accused.”  (p.130)

“Ultimately this all comes down to discretion.  If they want, the police can arrest you for just about anything.” (p. 132)

“Here it’s the same thing.  Police make bad arrests, a settlement comes out of the taxpayer’s pocket, but the officer himself never even hears about it.  He doesn’t have to pay a dime.  And life goes on as before…You can’t secure an officer’s dismissal, can’t get a policy change, and can’t get anyone brought up on charges.”  (pp. 134-135)

“This small Georgia city [Gainesville] is ground zero for enforcement of a ferocious federal immigration rule called 287 (g) that essentially deputizes any and all state and local law enforcement officials to arrest undocumented aliens on behalf of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE).”  (p. 200)

“In recent years, the residents of the ballooning Latino neighborhoods growing up somewhere on the other side of the tracks of your town–the places where factory workers and housecleaners and similar manual laborers live–awake in the mornings to find police checkpoints strategically placed on the major thoroughfares to and from the white-people sides of town.”  (p.201)

“ICE even has a UPS-style tracking system that allows immigrant families to punch in a number and see where their deported relative is in his or her serpentine journey through the detention system.  In the real justice system, you get habeas corpus; in the shadow system, you get a tracking number to see where your familial ‘package’ is.”  (p. 202)

“So the undocumented alien who kills a room full of Rotarians with an ax has a right to counsel, a phone call, and protection against improper searches.  The alien caught crossing the street on his way to work has no rights at all.” (p. 203)

“Over and over again, we hear that if you owe money in a certain way, or if you receive a certain kind of public assistance, you forfeit this or that line item in the Bill of Rights.  If you’re a person of means, you get full service for all ten amendments, and even a few that aren’t listed.  But if you owe, if you rent, you get a slightly thinner, more tubercular version of the Fourth Amendment, the First Amendment, the Fifth and Sixth Amendments, and so on.”  (p. 319)

“For instance, while the San Diego District Attorney’s Office spent more than a decade sifting through thousands of dresser drawers and bringing felony cases all the way to court for frauds as small as four hundred dollars, executives in the same general area of Southern California, at companies like Countrywide and Long Beach Mortgage, were pioneering the brilliant mass fraud scheme that involved the sales of toxic mortgage-backed securities… Twenty-six billion dollars of fraud: no felony cases.  But when the stakes are in the hundreds of dollars, we kick in 26,000 doors a years, in just one county.”  (p. 323)

“…the poor have always faced the sharp end of the stick.  And the rich have always fought ferociously to protect their privilege, not just in America but everywhere…What’s different now is that these quaint old inequities have become internalized in that ‘second government’–a vast system of increasingly unmanageable bureaucracies, spanning both the public and private sectors.  These inscrutable, irrational structures, crisscrossing back and forth between the worlds of debt and banking and law enforcement, are growing up organically around the pounding twin impulses that drive modern America: burning hatred of all losers and the poor, and breathless, abject worship of the rich, even the talentless and undeserving rich.”  (p. 324)

“…there’s a direct correlation between need and rights.  The more you need, the more you owe, the fewer rights you have.”  (p. 325)

“…our legal system does not make sense.  Our legal system is insane.”  (p. 328)

“Month after month, Riverside County runs the same ad [on welfare fraud] and picks six new names each month to advertise.  Like welfare recipients in general, the guilty are overwhelmingly female, and usually nonwhite. ‘They don’t do this to rapists or murderers,’ says Robb.  ‘Not even to pedophiles.  It’s incredible.’ ”  (p. 349)

“If they turned life in the projects into a police state, they turned life on Wall Street into its opposite.  One lie in San Diego is a crime.  But a million lies?  That’s just good business.”  (p. 352).

“…the bulk of the credit card collection business is conducted without any supporting documentation showing up or being seen by human eyes at any part of the process.  The meat of the business is collecting unopposed default judgments from defendants who either never receive a summons or receive one and never appear in court… once the bank or debt buyer has that default judgment in hand, it can legally do just about anything to the cardholder.  It can put a lien on his property, it can attach her salary, it can even take his car or her office furniture.”  (p. 376)  ” ‘They make more on lawsuits than they make on credit interest,’ says Linda.”  (p. 382)

“Plenty of people–consumers and merchants both–are probably glad that so much credit is available, but they don’t realize that systematic fraud [by banks and debt collectors] is part of what makes it available…Legally, there’s absolutely no difference between a woman on welfare who falsely declares that her boyfriend no longer lives in the home and a bank that uses a robo-signer to cook up a document swearing that he has kept regular records of your credit card account.  But morally and politically, they’re worlds apart.  When the state brings a fraud case against a welfare mom, it brings it with disgust, with rage, because in addition to committing the legal crime, she’s committed the political crime of being needy and an eyesore. ”  (p. 383 – 384)

“Banks commit the legal crime of fraud wholesale; they do so out in the open, have entire departments committed to it, and have employees who’ve spent years literally doing nothing but commit, over and over again, the same legal crime that some welfare mothers go to jail for doing once.  But they’re not charged, because there’s no political crime.  The system is not disgusted by the organized, mechanized search for profit.  It’s more like it’s impressed by it.”  (p. 384)

“[The] Financial Crisis Inquiry Committee was given a budget of $9.8 million… Meanwhile, that same year the federal drug enforcement budget leaped from $13.275 billion to $15.278 billion.  That meant that just the increase [italics added] in the national drug enforcement budget for the year of the biggest financial crisis since the Depression was roughly two hundred times the size of the budget for the sole executive branch effort at formally investigating the causes of financial corruption.”  (p. 407)

“…in this period of extreme crisis, we not only didn’t allocate funds to investigate the [financial] crash, we actively did increase the budget to tackle street crime, incidentally at a time of declining street violence.”  (p. 408)

If you read all these quotes, you should now be furious at a system that ignores wealthy criminals, evens rewards them, while actively harassing and jailing the poor, quite often for simply being poor.  While disgust of the poor certainly plays a role in their harassment, so does a tax policy that favors the rich.  When local governments do not receive enough money from taxes, they have to make up the loss somehow.  What better way than harassing the poor with nuisance arrests?  It’s a giant scam.

To repeat one of Taibbi’s quotes: “…there’s a direct correlation between need and rights.  The more you need, the more you owe, the fewer rights you have.”  (p. 325)

 

 

Natural Parenting

I define “Natural Parenting” as that which humans did for at least 2 million years and which, until recently, most modern foragers also did.  If this type of parenting worked successfully for millions of years, maybe we ‘moderns’ should think about modifying modern life to better incorporate natural parenting.

Aka parents are considered among the best in the world.

Some parents are doing a modified version of natural parenting called ‘attachment parenting.’  Mayim Bialik has written a book (Beyond the Sling)which discusses attachment parenting in great detail using her experience and that  of her husband in raising their two sons, along with some anecdotes of their friends.  And, yes, this is written by ‘Amy’ from the Big Bang Theory. She is an actual neuroscientist with a PhD: she studied the hormones of attachment .  Both her education and experience provide credibility for advancing the idea that attachment parenting is the way children should be parented.

As can be seen in a comparison of what I wrote in Natural Parenting and what Bialik writes in Beyond the Sling,  we have many points of agreement, particularly that breast is best and co-sleeping is a great idea that encourages breast-feeding on demand.

If you are thinking about getting pregnant or already young children, I recommend this book on attachment parenting as the natural way to parent with 3 BIG caveats.

1. A vegan diet is not natural for humans. We need a diet with about 20% animal protein. The reason her kids nurse for 4 – 5 years is that they NEED the animal protein of her milk in order to be healthy. Clearly, she enjoys this type of attachment so much that she has not considered the biological reason her children are nursing well beyond the usual age of weaning.

2. Homeopathy ‘treatments’ are psychological (placebo), not physical.  If they do no harm and make you feel better psychologically, I suppose they are not a problem.  However, if you think they will actually cure an illness, think again.

3. I cannot believe that a neuroscientist would so foolish as not to vaccinate her children! The non-vaccinating crowd is too young (under 55) to have lived through the horrors of epidemic diseases and do not realize that their ‘choice’ could have devastating consequences not only for their own kids, but for babies, the elderly, and immuno-compromised individuals who cannot be vaccinated and who will become ill when exposed to her unvaccinated kids.

Those caveats aside, much of Bialik’s advice on parenting is very good.  Unfortunately, modern work situations do not provide the flexibility that Bialik, as an actress, has to fully implement attachment parenting.  She realizes this as she gave up the opportunity for an academic career because it would make attachment parenting almost impossible.

Women who want or need to work, but lack the flexibility that Bialik has, encounter tremendous difficulties in being the parents they would like to be.  Attachment parenting is not even an option.  Liz O’Donnell makes this clear in her book Mogul, Mom, & Maid: The Balancing Act of the Modern Woman. Twenty-five years after The Second Shift was published, women who work outside the home or as entrepreneurs are still doing the vast, vast majority of housework and childcare. This has to change. O’Donnell uses the stories of a wide variety of women to detail the problems and outline the solutions. One of the things that needs to change is the idea that childcare is a woman’s issue. It is a parental issue. Businesses and the school system must be modified so that both men and women can be fully-involved parents.

Attachment and natural parenting would have more of a chance to occur if parents in the United States were given paid maternal and paternal leave, as is the case in all other advanced countries in the world.  In fact, there are only 3 other countries in the entire world besides the US that do not provide paid maternal leave.  The United States also needs to provide better childcare options for parents. Having businesses and schools provide on-site childcare would be a tremendous help.  Expanding the childcare tax credit and updating the 1976 reimbursement levels to 2014 levels would also make life easier for parents.  It may also make sense to move from a state that does not support working mothers.

Natural parenting has been effective for millions of years.  If we want physically and psychologically healthy children, we need to modify modern society to enable natural parenting.

 

 

 

 

 

Positive Deviance

The Positive Deviance Initiative defines Positive Deviance as an approach that realizes “…that in every community there are certain individuals or groups whose uncommon behaviors and strategies enable them to find better solutions to problems than their peers, while having access to the same resources and facing similar or worse challenges.”

This methodology has been used by the Initiative in a wide variety of contexts.  One of the first initiatives involved improving child nutrition in Viet Nam.   Researchers to villages with high levels of child malnutrition found that not all children were malnourished.  They studied the mothers with healthy children to see what these “positive deviants” were doing differently and then asked those women to teach the other women.  Malnutrition was reduced.

Another action involved altering cultural perceptions towards female genital mutilation in Egypt and other countries.   When women and men  listened to stories of local women who had not been ‘cut’, were not promiscuous, and were able to marry, attitudes began to change.  Change was further propelled by women who told their stories of how ‘cutting’ had ruined their lives.

A major problem in culture of honor societies, such as those in Afghanistan and Pakistan, is the negative attitude of men towards women.  Misogyny is rampant and fierce.  How can positive deviance tackle this problem?  Fortunately, we have an important example of positive deviance in Ziauddin Yousafzai.  

Ziauddin Yousafzai

 

Although raised in a very traditional family in a small community in Pakistan, Yousafzai valued education so much he decided to become an educator and open schools for both boys and girls.  His first child was a daughter.  Instead of ignoring her, he made sure she knew she was valued and that she received a quality education.  Thanks to this positive deviant father, Malala has become a voice heard world-wide making the case for educating all girls everywhere.  

Positive deviance is dangerous in regions controlled by the Taliban and like-minded men.  What can we do to find and support positive deviants?