On Poverty

I’ve been here in Quito, Ecuador for 3 days now and it’s really made me think a lot about poverty. Growing up I had a much different perspective on this topic. I thought everyone could get straight A’s in school because I did and helping people through charity didn’t make sense because they should be helping themselves. My, have I changed over time.

When I think about the United States, I think about all the people I know who deride poor people as dumb and/or lazy. It’s their own problem — they should take the “personal responsibility” to solve their problems. But it’s not just their problem, it’s a problem that involves everyone. Increasingly I think there is a problem with the gap between the haves and have-nots in the US. Have you seen the resurgence in the Dow, but unemployment doesn’t budge?? Part of that is companies have learned to deal with less through the recession and with new “technology” it reduces the number of people you need to hire. But also, companies are stockpiling cash and returning it to the shareholders as opposed to some of the people who work on the front-line in the company. As a result, all the CXOs get paid more and more, while the blue-collar workers continue to struggle. Hence, more wealth gets concentrated in the top 5% of society.

For some of my more conservative friends this is no issue — the CXOs worked for their money. But I think the problem happens when society is too skewed and there are not realistic opportunities for those in poverty to move out of it. It reminds me of a Malcolm Gladwell book ( I think Outliers) that talks about the differences between kids from affluent families and those from low-income families. As it turns out, the differences in kids between these groups lies with the summer enrichment that they receive. Whereas kids from affluent families go to summer camps, have books to read at their disposal, etc — kids in low-income families don’t have such opportunities. Basically, poor kids forget more stuff than rich kids over the summer break. For me, that’s where the problem lies — if our rich are too rich and our poor are too poor, then I think society breaks down because people don’t have a realistic chance of making it up the economic ladder. Our country was built on the concept of the “self-made man” — anyone who works hard enough can move up in society. I’m afraid we’re headed the opposite direction.

Coming back full circle, what should we do about poverty? As I sit here in Ecuador, it’s obvious that the poverty here is much different than in the US. Kids in poverty in the Us have a better chance of moving up than kids here. Even so, poverty is prevalent everywhere because it is inevitable in a roughly capitalistic society. Poverty is simply defined as those who live in the bottom 5/10/15% of society. Therefore anyone with the specific goal of eliminating poverty will always fail. You can raise the standards and prospects of people, but there will always be people at the bottom. However, it’s not to say that even though people will always be in poverty that we shouldn’t help them. In fact, I think a lot of people in the US have the mentality that we shouldn’t give a lot of aid to foreign countries — why should we spend money on those who live outside our borders and don’t pay taxes? It’s not realistic to say that we should be helping everyone, but I think we should help more people because while everyone is not a US citizen, everyone is a human. In addition, I understand we need to make sure incentives are aligned so we aren’t the welfare state for the rest of the world. We must help people who want to be helped and make sure they don’t take advantage of our charity.


On Cutting The Government

Over the past 6-9 months I've been thinking a lot about the changes that are happening in politics as some people get more agitated about the size and scope of federal and state governments. The biggest development is the rise in influence of all the "Tea Party" conservatives who are hell bent on reducing the size of government by cutting spending, eliminating "non-essential" services, and trying to "right-size" the government. 

As I've listened to all the rhetoric, I don't think it's all such a bad idea at it's core. The government should be run like a business. Like any business, you have revenue (taxes) and you have costs (services). If these two components get out of line for too long, it becomes an unsustainable situation. Somebody has to pay somewhere (or you just print more money -- but that's a different story). 

However, while I'm all for getting rid of "waste" in government, I don't think that some people really understand what happens when you cut "waste". Because when you cut parts of the government, you are cutting jobs. When you cut jobs, people get pissed. And when people get pissed, they change their votes. So while some might contend that the 2010 election was a indictment against President Obama for all of his "budget busting" bills -- I think the more realistic answer was that everyone was pissed because they didn't have a job. In his campaign he talked about changing healthcare -- it's not like weren't expecting changes in this area.

Back to people being pissed -- when you cut the government, you are cutting jobs. Right now the unemployment rate stands at 9.1%, while the "real" unemployment rate stands to be much higher -- at some something like 15%-20% after you factor in all the people who have quit searching for work and those who are underemployed.  Let's say you get the chopping block out and start cutting programs (jobs) -- where do you think that unemployment number is heading?? It's certainly not going to be a good number. 

The other way to "right-size" the government is to reduce the benefits that it gives to people. Everyone loves to say they want to cut government spending, but when you actually give them some options, they won't touch any program that will have an effect on them. And that's the problem -- Medicare and Social Security are the biggest drivers of the future budget, but no one has the desire to make a real change to them, because they affect so many people. In the end, you have everyone cursing any potential tax increase, but nobody wants to pay. It's not a good combination.

I think people need to be realistic and pragmatic about how to reduce the deficit. The bi-partisan group in Obama's fiscal commission recommended spending cuts and tax increases that draws ire from both sides of the aisle.

Will someone finally listen to them?


In The Mirror -- Poem

Originally written in 4/2010

New Republicans in the House
They're all so conservative
Off that George Bush shit
Stickin' to what Palin says

Palin's on Fox
Yeah that's the hot news
Got up and left her state
Right out of the blue
Hit the book tour with the one she didn't even write
Ghostwritten by others who haven't lived her life
Soaking up the spotlight, living in the fame
Going rogue
Sparking movements
Charging people money that's insane

On to the Tea Partiers, who hate on Obama
Putting 'staches on his face
Sparking up the drama
One jab, two jabs, they think he's going down
Little do they know that they're just a bunch of clowns
Throwin' him under the bus
Callin' him socialist
When you say those words
Dude you're so ignorant
They're led by GB
Yeah I'm talking Glenn Beck
Callin' Obama all the names
Just to get the ratings check
All day it's Maoist, Socialist, Marxist, Progressive
All Barack is doing is helping the most oppressed men
Yeah he's on the left, but not way in left field
Look at the fighting in his party on the healthcare deal
Public option's out. Abortion restrictions tightened.
This was a centrist bill, whether or not you like it

Back to Glenn Beck, no I'm not done yet.
Always putting progressives down from his TV set
What's wrong with the prospect of a better place?
Clean water, clean Earth, let's clean up this place
Somehow that makes me a Maoist controlling everyone
Let me turn the tables on this one troubled man

He tells me man is fallen
Points to the Holy Book
He says all of our laws come from these ideals
If you don't believe in them
You're an enemy of the people
How is that any different from a theocracy?
Imprinting on minds how life's gotta be
That's not the nation that I grew up in
Read the Founders words
It's in plain text man


On Abortion Among Black People


I've been thinking about this article for almost a month now. I don't even know where to start.

Basically anti-abortion people are reaching out into the black community in order get more "inroads with black audiences". They hired a black woman as their minority outreach coordinator. After that, they posted billboards around Atlanta that say "black children are an endangered species" and started a website. They call abortions "womb lynchings". Apparently, since 40% of black pregnancies end in, Planned Parenthood is "preying" on these people.

This might be my conservative side (if that really does exist), but this whole situation is an issue of personal responsibility with black people. Pulling out the victim card and calling it a "conspiracy" is beyond reckless. Nobody told you to have sex. Nobody told you to have unprotected sex that leads to children. Nobody told you to not use birth control (maybe because Planned Parenthood doesn't exist in your area). You made your own personal decision. You have to live with the consequences.

If you end up with an unplanned pregnancy, you're making your own decision on what you want to do. Nobody can force you to have an abortion. Even if someone were to "mislead" you into an abortion, in the end it's your own decision. Maybe your information was flawed, but again, that's your own problem. People know what they're getting into with abortions. It's pretty transparent. Instead of complaining about a conspiracy, maybe these people should advocate for more birth control or just general sex education (since we can't teach that in schools without the right wingers going crazy).

And I'm not one that is saying people should be having abortions left and right. We can reduce the number of abortions by giving people contraception and giving them the education on how to use the correctly. In the end, you would have fewer "womb lynchings" since black women wouldn't have as many unplanned pregnancies. But, aren't condoms an endangerment to the "black species" as well??? Aren't they "killing" black people as well?

On Theories

I will try to make this one short. This post was inspired by Chapter 1 (Only A Theory?) in "The Greatest Show On Earth" by Richard Dawkins.

Somewhere along the way people got confused on what the word theory means. There are two general uses of the word. One is in a scientific setting, while the other is used in the general vernacular. If you look at the Oxford Dictionary, you will find the precise definitions for the meaning that I'm referring to.
  • Theory (Scientific) - A scheme or system of ideas or statements held as an explanation or account of a group of facts or phenomena; a hypothesis that has been confirmed or established by observation or experiment, and is propounded or accepted as accounting for the known facts; a statement of what are held to be the general laws, principles, or causes of something known or observed.
  • Theory (General Vernacular) - A hypothesis proposed as an explanation; hence, a mere hypothesis, speculation, conjecture; an idea or set of ideas about something; an individual view or notion.
After looking at these two definitions it is apparent that they mean completely different things. For example, in the scientific realm there exists the theory of gravity, which is the set of facts and observations that make up our views on the laws of attraction between bodies. On the hand hand, if one of your friends has an interesting theory on why his or her significant other broke up with them, then that person is using the term theory as more of a conjecture. You can see that while the words are the same, the meanings are not interchangeable.

Therefore, when people try to label certain scientific ideas as "only a theory", they reveal their ignorance for using the proper meaning of the word. Who in their right mind would call the theory of gravity "only a theory"? While it is true that our ideas on gravity could be proved false at any time, our ideas on gravity are called a theory because they have withstood all the challenges that scientists have put against it. There are NO scientific facts. Anything can be disproved at any time. Therefore, putting forth the argument that something is "only a theory" and until it is proven as a "fact" it is just a conjecture, is meaningless. Arguments like that reveal an ignorance about the scientific method.

If you're going to use the word theory, please use it in the correct context and don't try to use it to falsely slander well-established scientific ideas.


On Healthcare Reform & Civil Rights History

A lot is being made about the Democrats plan for health-care reform. One minute it looks like they have their filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, which means they can push through whatever they want. The next minute, they lose Kennedy's seat, and everyone says healthcare is dead. The next minute, everyone starts talking about reconciliation as a way to only need 51 votes in the Senate to get the bill. Then, you have Republicans calling reconciliation a "back-room deal" even though they used those tactics when GWB was in office.

It's apparent that something needs to change with healthcare. I'm not going to sit here and tell you that the bill needs to have this or that. I haven't looked at all the numbers. And most people haven't. So, it annoys me when people cling to their Glenn Becks of the world and just repeat what they say (ex: public option is bad), when they haven't performed the analysis themselves. I'm not saying the public option is good either. I'm saying I DON'T KNOW. Is that such a novel concept?

Now, people are looking at the polls and saying that less than 50% of people are in favor of the health plan. These are the same citizens that hated the stimulus, but loved all the individual tax breaks and incentives that it created.

However, the biggest thing I think about is, who cares about public opinion? Obviously it is an election year and the Democrats are nervous about losing their seats, but sometimes on an issue you have to go above public opinion. Do you think when the Supreme Court made its decision on Brown v. Board of Education that >50% of citizens agreed with it? Hell no. It took 10 YEARS for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to finally become law. Why did it take so long?
By the early 1960s, the nation s congressional history contributed to growing legislative pressures for a comprehensive civil rights law. Although political pressures prevented President John F. Kennedy's administration from proposing legislation to Congress in 1961 and 1962, the President took steps to ensure minority rights in voting, employment, housing, transportation, and education by executive action. (link)
Political pressure = motherfuckers in Congress from the South + public opinion. That means that the public didn't want black people to have their Civil Rights, because if politicians would have voted for it in 1954, then would have lost votes in the subsequent election. It wasn't until the early 1960s that public opinion changed somewhat and allowed the legislation to go through.
The National Opinion Research Center discovered this change of attitude in a sample survey of northern whites in 1963. The Center determined that the number who approved neighborhood integration had risen 30% in twenty years, to 72% in 1963. The proportion favoring school integration had risen even more impressively to 75%. (link)
How does this all tie together? All I'm saying is that someone needs to grow some balls in Congress and pass something that going to rein in costs and create the incentives for lower-cost healthcare. I'm not saying that I know what the solution is, but the alternative (doing nothing) doesn't look too promising either.


On Free Will

I'm reading a very interesting book right now called "The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature" by Steven Pinker. I never really took any psychology classes in high school or college, so many of these concepts that the author discusses are new to me. Basically, the book hinges on the argument that you don't just come into the world as a "blank slate" ready to be molded into anything. According to Pinker, you come into this world with some predetermined tendencies (based on genetics) that interact with the environment to create the person you are.

You quickly come to the problem of free will. As a side note: I like to ask the various religious persons that I meet how they rationalize all the "evil" or "bad things" in the world. The typical response that I get is that God gave us free will and since we're inherently evil, humans choose to do bad things and create the evil in the world. To which I say, what about natural disasters?? I would say that things like the recent earthquake in Haiti are pretty "evil" or "heinous" acts that have no human component. No amount of me doing any number of bad things is going to create an earthquake. Or is it?? According to Pat Robertson, Haiti made a pact with the devil and that's the reason the earthquake happened. Wonderful.

Moving on to more logical arguments, I still wonder about the concept of free will. According to Pinker, identical twins are VERY alike. In traits such as verbal, mathematical, and general intelligence, introversion, agreeableness, and openness to experience. They are similar in behavior related gambling, divorcing, committing crimes, getting into accidents, and watching TV. And among various idiosyncrasies like giggling incessantly, giving interminable answers to simple questions, and dipping buttered toast in coffee, they are SIMILAR. And these traits are apparently whether they were separated at birth or not.

The question becomes: if there are certain traits that are ingrained in you, then how much free will do we have? Pinker paints this scenario:

"Imagine that you are agonizing over a choice -- which career to pursue, whether to vote, what to wear the day, how to vote. You have finally staggered to a decision when the phone rings. It is your identical twin that you never knew you had. During the conversation you find out that he or she has just chosen a similar career, has decided to get married at the same time, plans to cast a vote for the same presidential candidate, and is wearing a shirt of the same color -- just as the behavioral geneticists who tracked you down would have bet. How much discretion did the "you" have in making the choices actually have if the outcome could have been predicted in advance, at least probabilistically, based on the events that happened in your mother's Fallopian tubes decades ago?"

How much choice do you really have?

Secondly is the story of Phineas Gage. He was a railroad worker from the 19th century who survived a terrible accident that sent a spike into his cheekbone, through his brain, and out the top of his skull. He survived with his perception, motor skills, memory, and language intact. But as one of his co-workers said, "Gage was no longer Gage." A piece of iron had turned him into a different person, from courteous responsible, and ambitious to rude and unreliable. Years later we find out that the injury damaged a part of his brain that is related to reasoning about other people.

Let's say that after Gage's incident he went and killed some people. He did some bad things because he no longer had the faculties for reasoning with other people. But if we put him into jail and "rehabilitated" him, it would have made absolutely no difference. He was forever changed and not capable of reverting to his former self. Sending him to jail to "think about his sins" would been pointless.

The thing is, there are many people today who do some no so great things. We send them all to jail and when they are released, many people revert to their previous behavior. Maybe these people can't make their own decisions because of various genetic or environmental factors. What if they don't have the free will to change? And how does this reconcile with the typical Judeo-Christian view that a person exercises free will and is responsible for their own choices?