Thursday, January 1, 2015

Tabs for a New Year

They've been piling in, the tabs too good to close but too numerous to make it as a single post. What a way to start a new year.

First, in case you read the latest scare that an MIT scientist says autism will affect half of all babies born by 2025, and that the herbicide glyphosate (Monsanto's Roundup) is responsible -- it's not true. And it's also not true that wheat farmers drench their fields in Roundup just before harvesting.

Economists have a term for the monetary amount lost when a gift is given that the receiver doesn't value as much as its cost: dead-weight loss. Based on surveys, one researcher says the amount is a tenth to a third of the money spent on gifts each holiday season (which is $40 billion in the U.S.) -- so somewhere between $4 and $13 billion annually, just on Christmas/Hannukkah/Kwaanzaa alone. (Hey, that's even more than we spend on Halloween each year.)

I never became a McSweeney's reader, but this product review of the Invisible Backpack of White Privilege from L.L. Bean makes me reconsider. "The backpack...includes one or more upwardly mobile forefathers who had special opportunities to garner and accumulate family wealth during times of legalized overt discrimination against people without Invisible Backpacks. According to the L.L. Bean catalogue, my great-grandfather was 'A poor country boy who put himself through Harvard in the 1800s and worked incredibly hard to build a fortune on nothing but his own merits.'"

Chicago gave hundreds of high-risk kids a summer job. Violent crime arrests plummeted. Who would have thought it? Duh.

Somewhere, I ran across this paper that looks at the facts of whether public-private partnerships (vs. public services) are actually more efficient ways of delivering public good. Many people assume that getting the private sector involved will make things more efficient, right? Not so much:

...efficiency is not the same as cutting costs. Lower costs may simply mean lower quality of service; or they may mean that the company is taking its profits by cutting the jobs, pay and conditions of its workers, without improving systems of work. This does not increase efficiency, it just redistributes income to the company at the expense of others.
The report reviews research on the privatization of transit, water and electricity systems, ports and airports, health care, waste management, and prisons.

Two stories about the importance of experiences in early childhood: Emotional health in childhood ‘is the key to future happiness’ (from the Guardian). And Baby Brains: The First Year (from National Geographic). The latter story focuses a lot on language acquisition, though not exclusively.

Newsweek, of all publications, takes on motivated misinterpretations of the Bible. The article touches on the many versions of the text over time (and how important parts -- like "let he among you who is without sin cast the first stone" -- were added by scribes in the Middle Ages), the troubles with translation, and the purposeful insertion (and interpretations) that bring us to this day:
...suppose for a moment that 1 Timothy was written by Paul, and that “defile themselves” does refer to homosexuality. In that case, evangelical Christians and biblical literalists still have a lot of trouble on their hands. Contrary to what so many fundamentalists believe, outside of the emphasis on the Ten Commandments, sins aren’t ranked. The New Testament doesn’t proclaim homosexuality the most heinous of all sins. No, every sin is equal in its significance to God. In 1 Timothy, Paul, or whoever wrote it, condemns the disobedient, liars and drunks. In other words, for evangelicals who want to use this book of the Bible to condemn homosexuality, most frat boys in America are committing sins on par with being gay. But you rarely hear about parents banishing their kids for getting trashed on Saturday night.
In Romans and Corinthians, Paul condemns homosexuality, but less than he does debating, criticizing the government, pride, and lying. Whew. What an article.

If you were wishing for an overall explanation of implicit racial bias, Vox has supplied this one.

What Christmas is like for a working poor family earning $10,000 a year (from Huffington Post). That's $10,000 net (not gross), by the way. One parent works an $8 an hour part-time job, cleaning at Walmart, which recently cut his hours. The other takes care of her chronically ill mother. (They live in Virginia. If they lived in Minnesota, the care-taking parent could probably be paid to take care of her mother.) The Walmart worker has recently completed a course in welding, but can't find a job in that field yet. No mention is made of the Earned Income Tax Credit's presence in their lives. Of course, the response to this story was an outpouring of donations to them specifically. They sound so deserving, after all. They will be better off for it, of course, but it doesn't address the structural problem of poverty despite work and the often racially tinged idea of the "undeserving poor."

Private interests are coming to a public school near you (from The Atlantic). Keeping in mind the link above to the summary of research showing that privatization doesn't improve services, let's guess how that will work out. Big profits for private companies, I'd guess.

Why do we have less leisure time (which is not just a perception, but a reality, according to sources provided in the article)? "The returns on work are...potentially much higher in America, at least for those with a college degree. This is because taxes and transfer payments do far less to bridge the gap between rich and poor than in other wealthy nations, such as Britain, France and Ireland. The struggle to earn a place on that narrow pedestal encourages people to slave away for incomparably long hours. 'In America the consequences of not being at the top are so dramatic that the rat race is exacerbated,' says Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel prize-winning economist. 'In a winner-takes-all society you would expect this time crunch.'"

On that note, here are ten ways to combat upward distribution of income in the new year, from progressive economist Dean Baker.

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently ran a lengthy synthesis/book review of how the rise of capitalism was firmly grounded in the exploitation of slaves:
In the first 300 years of the expansion of capitalism, particularly the moment after 1780 when it entered into its decisive industrial phase, it was not the small farmers of the rough New England countryside who established the United States’ economic position. It was the backbreaking labor of unremunerated American slaves in places like South Carolina, Mississippi, and Alabama.

When we marshal big arguments about the West’s superior economic performance, and build these arguments upon an account of the West’s allegedly superior institutions like private-property rights, lean government, and the rule of law, we need to remember that the world Westerners forged was equally characterized by exactly the opposite: vast confiscation of land and labor, huge state intervention in the form of colonialism, and the rule of violence and coercion. And we also need to qualify the fairy tale we like to tell about capitalism and free labor. Global capitalism is characterized by a whole variety of labor regimes, one of which, a crucial one, was slavery.

Finally, a group of atheists put out a call for a new list of Ten Commandments. Nominations poured in, and they were narrowed down to this list:
  1. Be open-minded and be willing to alter your beliefs with new evidence.
  2. Strive to understand what is most likely to be true, not to believe what you wish to be true.
  3. The scientific method is the most reliable way of understanding the natural world.
  4. Every person has the right to control over their body.
  5. God is not necessary to be a good person or to live a full and meaningful life.
  6. Be mindful of the consequences of all your actions and recognize that you must take responsibility for them.
  7. Treat others as you would want them to treat you, and can reasonably expect them to want to be treated. Think about their perspective.
  8. We have the responsibility to consider others, including future generations.
  9. There is no one right way to live.
  10. Leave the world a better place than you found it.
I would move numbers 4, 6, 7, 8 and 10 to the top and find some way to combine items 1 through 3 (for instance, number 1 is part of the scientific method, is it not?). Not sure if number 5 needs to be on there at all (it's not exactly a commandment). I don't disagree with number 9, but again, it doesn't seem like a commandment as written. I think I would bring back the prohibitions on killing (enforcing it for governments as well individuals) and stealing.

But still. B+ effort on the new list. Lots of good ways to run a world in there.

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