On One Hand

December 8, 2014

Why we need basic understanding of feminism to talk about sexual assault

Filed under: culture,media,policy,social justice — ononehand @ 4:55 pm

I’m seeing a lot of conversations stir up around victim advocacy and feminism in policy and reporting regarding the recent Rolling Stone story about campus sexual assault. A lot of it is the appropriate review of journalistic standards after a story that, at this point, has definitely not gone well for anyone. Some of it is veering into a critique on whether sensitivity to victims should play a role in reporting at all, or responding to a situation in which such sensitivity was misapplied to launch a campaign against victims.

For anyone who’s still confused or anxious about the need for feminist perspectives, allow me to put it this way.

One of society’s challenges addressing sexual assault is that dealing with a real story will almost automatically entail some cognitive dissonance. When you are speaking to and about victims who talk about sexual assault, your presumption (based on overwhelming statistical likelihood) should be that they are being truthful and potentially traumatized — yet when you are speaking to and about offenders, all who are implicated in a crime are presumed innocent until found guilty. Both of these are in some ways “liberal” principles and both are necessary to prevent irreparable harm to people. Yet they are cognitively dissonant. It can be confusing to understand how you can empathize totally with victims and at the same time remain fair on matters of due process.

This is why society needs a mindful and sophisticated system for dealing with sexual assault. That includes victims advocates (who are in a separate role from judge and jury, incorporating some elements of the role of a mental health professional and some elements of the role of a personal attorney) and why the public and media should strive for a similarly mindful and sophisticated attitude towards it.

What else should be part of that sophisticated system? Part of it addresses the bullshit, shaming and contradictory expectations we pile on women regarding their sexuality.

Rape is wrong because it violates a person’s bodily integrity, privacy, and trust in others — it does so in principle, but also with likelihood to do psychological damage. (You’ll notice that this is completely neutral towards a victim’s gender.) In the eyes of traditional society, however, rape is wrong because it tarnishes a woman’s sexual purity and innocence (which is a gendered interpretation). Therefore, society tends to asses harm done to women by sexual assault by evaluating a victim’s state of purity and innocence prior to being sexually assaulted, and continues to question their purity and innocence afterward by evaluating whether they display too much or too little trauma to be trustworthy. Society also tends to be distrustful and patronizing toward women’s memories and interpretations — this can include police, investigators and prosecutors, who are usually men. That’s utterly immoral and damaging to put a victim through.

Identifying these gender-based double standards, and shifting towards gender equity, is feminism. I don’t think society’s approach to sexual assault can be considered sophisticated, or even competent, without universal understanding of feminist perspectives.

Campaigns to change attitudes towards sexual assault are often challenged by skeptics speaking as if there are “two sides” to the issue. Granted, on any topic, every individual has her or his own experience and so there is an unlimited number of “sides.” But I think it’s very ironic when one cause, seeking to improve general understanding of what sexual assault is and the harm it does to victims so that the incidents don’t happen in the first place, are asked to consider the other “side” — the experience of the accused. Mind you, the main goal of anti-rape activists, who are painfully aware that many offenders are said to “seem like nice guys” who for whatever reason fail to register the humanity of a person they victimize, is to change the culture to prevent there from being victims or offenders in the first place.

We are universally educated about due process — yes even feminists are — so we don’t need to lecture women, feminists or victims advocates about due process. They all know what it is. But feminist perspectives, though diverse, still face misunderstanding and resistance. So, yes, you need to learn about feminism to speak competently about sexual assault, because in the absence of that knowledge there is bias. There’s room for different viewpoints when you get there, but you have to have that basic groundwork of knowledge to play a positive role.

July 3, 2014

A simple trick to stop ‘arguing’ and be really persuasive

Filed under: culture,science — ononehand @ 2:07 pm
Tags: , , , , , ,

There’s a tendency to think of persuasion in terms of winning an argument or debate. You’re trying to be rational: you’re thinking that if you defend your position with logic and evidence, and prove that the counter-arguments are false, the other person is now obligated to switch to your view.

If only life were so simple. In your mind you have proven you are right, but the other person is just thinking she or he needs to do some homework to come up with a better rebuttal tomorrow. Once you set someone up as your intellectual adversary they are not going to cross the line to join you.

That might be why political debates don’t have a significant influence on elections, no matter how well one side does or how eloquently the positions are argued. People root for the candidate they already support, and the arguments can stir up enthusiasm but they don’t “convert.” There’s a very different way that candidates vie for votes.

The reality is that people in the day-to-day world believe things because they want to. There are just far too many competing ideas and decisions to make to investigate each one objectively. Everyone is able to weigh different factors — pros and cons — to arrive at an opinion or decision, but the weight people grant to each factor comes down to how much they like and identify with it.
 

Persuading effectively comes down to this simple approach:

 

  • Identify an idea that you and your audience can already agree on. (Common values or principles, something you might both say is a problem, a universal need, etc.)
  • Validate your audience’s existing beliefs, observations and experiences.
  • Explain that those same reasons drive you to stand where you do.

 
And that’s basically it. People are very inclined to side with you simply because you are someone with similar concerns and reached the conclusion you did.

The main goals are to be relatable — the person you are trying to persuade is your peer, not inferior to you — and to emphasize your area of agreement so much that the other factors fade from mind.

Here’s the important part: DO NOT argue points where you disagree. Acknowledge them as valid points and then steer the conversation away from them. No matter how ridiculous you think they are and no matter how strong your evidence against them is, you’re not going to convince people their own interests or ideas are wrong. They will always be a factor, but you can say that a different set of factors (the ones that support your cause) are more compelling for you.

 


 

Think back to the last time you observed a political campaign. One thing you won’t see a candidate do is try to get voters to change their minds about their basic ideals and principles. They won’t try to convert liberals into conservatives or convert conservatives into liberals, but the candidates will jump and tumble over each other trying to validate the experiences and values of crucial swing voters.

They’ll say, “We know that families in Ohio are struggling.” (something that they’ve poll-tested to be sure the audience they’re targeting agrees). “Jobs have been shipped overseas, and too many people are worried whether the manufacturing industry — once the backbone of the American economy — is ever going to come back…” (validating the audience’s existing worries and experiences) “…which is why I have a plan to create more than a million new manufacturing jobs over the next five years.”

This candidate might disagree with the target audience when it comes to immigration policy, foreign policy or social issues, but isn’t going to try to sway their minds on those things. She’ll just keep hammering on areas where she and the audience agree, and try to make the election all about those things.

 


 

Now I call this a “trick” because that’s what it is; while it comes instinctively to many people, it’s a technique that can help you towards high-minded goals as well as goals that are very selfish and manipulative. If you’re trying to get people to turn against their own interests, eventually they’re going to figure that out and you might never gain their trust again. And if someone senses over time that you’re only feigning commonality to persuade them without being open to their ideas as well, they’re going to get really annoyed and stop listening to you. You’re better off if you’re looking to learn from people as much as to persuade them.

So be genuine and authentic, approach everyone by trying to find your common ground, and stop wasting your energy arguing! (Unless it’s something you really enjoy doing.)

July 1, 2014

Things I learned in my 20s

Filed under: opinion — ononehand @ 1:45 pm

Your 20s are your first decade as an “adult,” and most people in the U.S. are truly gaining financial and emotional independence somewhere around age 25. I still have close to a year to go before I’m 30, but it’s already amazing to think about how much I’ve changed in 9 years since I turned 20.

I started as an idealistic, ambitious college student working through hangups I developed in high school and earlier. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to be or do, but I sure as hell wasn’t going to let the world — or even my own personality — make choices for me. Most of the time my energy was geared towards doing and being the opposite of what I thought people had judged me for. I wanted to prove those things were wrong.

Some of my self-perceptions were accurate and some were way off; I was trying especially hard to be extroverted and conversational (not something I lacked in, but I thought I did) — I compensated with a lot of partying and drinking. It meant trying to be more masculine (definitely unnecessary), trying to be more involved in the community (a good thing) and trying to bring drama into my life because I hoped it disrupted the risk-averse way I had grown up (obviously not a healthy goal).

No matter what your teenage years or upbringing was like, I think we all pass through these struggles. By no means are any of us set for life by the time we turn 30 — but when hiccups do happen, we’ve become a lot better at dealing with them.

Here’s what I learned in my 20s:

 

People aren’t judging you as much as you worry they are. 

In your early 20s you still probably worry whether people “like” you — not just friends, coworkers and family members but also strangers who don’t play a significant role in your life. It’s your imaginary audience: you’ll think about being attractive or about avoiding anything goofy or embarrassing that you think a person might reject you for. In your 20s you learn that people aren’t paying such close attention. The truth is, most people are just worrying about how you’re perceiving them.

I can’t count how many times I kept my distance from someone assuming that she or he was “out of my league” or didn’t like me, only to run into that person in a more relaxed setting and find out that they only kept their distance because they thought the same about me! In other words, we were both being standoffish out of fear of what the other thought.

At the same time, this means that some words of welcome, encouragement or compliments go an incredibly long way with anybody.

(more…)

December 19, 2011

This Blog

Filed under: Uncategorized — ononehand @ 7:29 pm

I’m going to make more of an effort to update this blog regularly to give folks who want to be up-to-date an easier way to do so. Nobody likes a dead blog hanging around, so even though I’m writing pretty intensively at other sites at the moment, I’ll try to keep a few things posted here so it stays fresh.

Thanks for your interest! To get in touch with me, find contact info in the “About OnOneHand” option on the right-hand toolbar.

July 30, 2011

Trees/plants “share” with competitors in nature through Mycorrhizal Networks

Filed under: Uncategorized — ononehand @ 4:32 pm

Woah.

I knew that sometimes multiple trees of the same species fuse their roots to share water and nutrients. Elm trees do this in urban settings; it’s one of the reason why a diseased elm needs to be “trenched” to sever its roots from surrounding elms, to keep the disease from circulating into other trees and killing a whole yard or park full of mature trees. Roses also graft together below ground and spread nutrients, as well as diseases, through a network.

In nature, Redwood trees are known to form massive conglomerated root systems combining hundrets of individuals – and whole forests – into nutrient-sharing systems. One demonstration of how thorough this network is, is “albino” trees; Redwoods are the only tree species in which individuals that are genetically mutated so can’t photosynthesize (and appear white) actually survive and grow in the nature because other trees feed them sugar through root connections.

(More info: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Albino_redwood … pretty cool huh?)

(In other circumstances, there are parisitic plants that don’t photosynthesize, but they cannot parasatize thier own species because none of the others photosynthesize either. In this case, it’s less like parasitism and more like welfare.)

But it goes beyond that. I JUST READ: in most forests, ALL trees connect to large underground mycelial (fungus) networks to pass minerals, water and sugars… through the networks… EVEN TO “COMPETING” TREE SPECIES!

Here’s one source for more info which in turn contains references to further scientific data: http://www.mykoweb.com/articles/MycorrhizalNetworks.html

Studies showed that seedlings that would have died ended up surviving when they tapped in to the mycorrhizal network and fed off competitors. But this isn’t “parasitism” because when they grow they end up giving back, and it’s much more than “symbiotism” because the whole forest is plugged in to the network.

Woah.

Take a minute to comprehend the implications of this. It basically undermines everything we were taught about the nature of… well, nature. Since Darwin we’ve thought of the wild as a cruel place in which aiding your competitors would mean disadvantage and even death, where the “fittest” survive and selfish motives drive success. Humans were a rare exception because many of us choose to care for the sick, the elderly, adopt children who are not our own, choose not to reproduce genetically, make altruistic sacrifices – even sacrifice our own lives for causes – and value the common good.

As it turns out, well yes competition still exists in nature (no one would deny that), but nature also “cooperates” and forms much more than occasional relationships. Entire eco-communities of common interest develop; civilizations basically.

Both competition and cooperation can aid survival through natural processes, and if your rivals are cooperating you’d damn well better get on board if you want to make it because they have a huge advantage in doing so.

And what if your willingness to cooperate was so thorough that you were willing to help anybody and everybody who would team up with you? Would that be the ultimate trump card in survival?

I did learn about symbiotic relationships in school biology (the classic example is lichens http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lichen ), but we were taught that it was an anomaly in nature. We never learned the “rare exception” would be an individual organism that is NOT in a directly-symbiotic relationship.

The movie Avatar IS TRUE. On Earth.

I have a hypothesis. I think an unexplored tendency in metabiology is that, over eons, ecosystems evolve from competitive to cooperative.

Think about how life “colonizes” a barren place like a new island or forest wiped out by fire; pioneering plants creep in and begin growing in a rough environment. They live, die and add organic material to soil, which in turn allows other plants to grow there. Slowly, ecological communities develop.

The Earth itself has followed that route as a whole: the biosphere has gradually expanded since life’s beginning, due to species aiding each other. It took a long time for any life at all to exist on land, and when it started, only wet swamps were hospitable enough for plants to grow or animals to live; the fossil record shows that even when life was evolving rapidly on Earth, huge expanses of dry land were barren. Nothing we now see as plains, deserts, or subarctic regions would have any species at all.

Slowly, a few plants moved in – plants that could better regulate their water and get through the heat of the day, plants with more developed roots so they could stay green long after rain, plants that could store water for weeks, months, even years. Plants that could go dormant in rough times and spring back to life when rare rains came. Even plants that could get water from the air.

Places we now know as plains, prairie, Savannah, and even some forests are actually quite dry in the scheme of things, and would be barren if not for innovative strategies.

Those plants improved soils, provided food sources, altered weather patterns to make them rainier, and diverged into even more species that filled even more niches.

I’d suspect that in another half billion years, the concept we currently term “deserts” will no longer exist on Earth. More adaptave species of plants will colonized them and be able to grow lush without water. You might find enormous canopies of the descendants of joshua trees and saguaros that grow so thick they shade the ground. Maybe plants will be able to extract water exclusively from the air and share it with other plants, or they’ll be able to purify salty water, or water from extremely deep underground reserves.

And perhaps in so doing they will cause rain to fall more often, or at least make rain more or less irrelevant to the ecosystem.

I don’t think there’s even anything far-fetched or speculative about what I am saying; it’s a pretty well-known concept that ecosystems can gradually tame adverse settings.

So to go along with my hypothesis – ecosystems evolve to become cooperative – perhaps Homo Sapiens, with our ability to domesticate & partner with thousands of plants and animals are unwittingly part of that process. We “cooperate” with our crop plants, our pets, animals we have domesticated, ornamental plants, bacteria and fungus we use in food processing as well as creating industrial products. I would suggest that human beings are probably the most symbiotic species on Earth, forming mutual relationships with new species all the time.

Maybe human beings are a natural process, of cooperation, that will someday allow Earth’s biosphere to expand into space.

Imagine it. By the same process that oceanic life came to live on land (species taking small steps and aiding each other), Earth’s life could grow and thrive in greenhouses on the Moon, on Mars, on Saturn’s moons, and beyond, because in this case, Humans had the survival strategy of technology, to transport, and build habitat for, other life forms.

That’s sort of an “expansionist” mindset that is very American; perhaps it’s more pertinent to talk about our species’ ability to symbiotize as a call to nurture and protect natural spaces in land that we already live in, to improve the quality of life for everybody, and to have the wisdom to check some of our worst impulses. But it’s worth noting that the most relevant criticism of American expansionism is that it wasn’t cooperative, but exploitative, and that doesn’t fit the arrow of nature’s natural process.

In a Darwinistic sense, though we aid other species by breeding them for slaughter or growing them as crops, we aren’t exactly doing very much for the organisms as individuals; it surely sucks to be a farmed chicken or pig. I’ll note that’s not what I’m talking about here, but there is still – interestingly – a process going on (a political one, albeit) to be more aware of these kinds of human impacts and reduce them.

…but even if we weren’t around, Earth’s biosphere would still be driven to expand as it becomes increasingly cooperative; to the poles, to deep crevices, to high altitudes, and so forth.

In conclusion.

1) Nature is secretly communist

2) AVATAR IS A TRUE STORY. (Not the “Cowboy/Indian” social commentary, just the part about the trees.)

3) Humans are the ultimate symbiote.

Or ignore all that, and just know that trees feed each other, which is still pretty awesome.

December 4, 2010

The Era of “Safe” Causes

Filed under: Uncategorized — ononehand @ 2:22 pm
Tags: ,

Maybe I lack the perspective of age, but it seems that politics are getting lazier and lazier.

It was only a few years ago – 40 at most – that people would take to the streets and protest or riot, putting themselves at major risk to express something, or try to change something that seemed impossible to change. Granted, even in the thick of the tumultuous 1960s, Suburban America was thriving in its quaint monotony, and most kids were going to school like ordinary kids and most dads worked and most moms stayed at home and cooked. So perhaps it is only the Left that has lost its spark in 2010.

In 1969, the Stonewall riots sparked the modern gay rights movement when a bunch of drag queens and transvestites and a few gay men and lesbians battled the New York City Police Department for days in an all-out brawl. And the gays won – it was the moment they switched from being a deviant underclass to an oppressed minority. Just ten years earlier, freedom riders fighting for civil rights were yanked off of buses and beaten, and some were killed, in a fight to end the brutality of racial segregation.

Now, the Facebook “like” button is the venue for expressions of solidarity.

I get dozens of “causes” invites per week, and yes, I support the troops, yes I support repairing cleft lips in Thailand, yes I support ending breast cancer, yes I support feeding the hungry, yes I agree child abuse is bad, yes I support people with diabetes. To make that stuff easier to follow, can there just be one general button that says “I’m generally in favor of things that nobody in her right mind would oppose?”

How about this cause: “if you are against the Earth getting sucked into a gigantic intergalactic black hole, put a ‘<3 EARTH' in your Facebook profile."

❤ EARTH.

Imagine asking your friends about it; “well it’s not smart to talk politics on a first date, but I’m just curious where you stand on an gigantic intergalactic black hole swallowing the Earth.”

“I don’t know who I’m voting for for state representative, I’ll have to see how the candidates would vote on the Earth getting sucked into the intergalactic black hole.”

“You know Anderson I’d love to answer your question about the Senate blocking a vote on tax cuts for the middle class, but first I must take a moment to bring up an important issue and say that I absolutely condemn the idea of a gigantic intergalactic black hole sucking in the Earth.”

Thanks for taking a tough stance on a divisive issue, everyone.

What if we took it a step up in controversy: instead of saying “I support American troops not dying in war,” say “I support NOBODY dying in war, I support there not being a war.” Instead of saying “I support feeding the hungry on Thanksgiving,” saying “I support asking why the 1 in 5 Americans are jobless when corporations are turning record profits, I support asking why there are still hungry and homeless people who need psychiatric or medical attention for disabilities that keep them unemployed in a country that spends $2.5 trillion annually on healthcare.” Instead of saying “I think animal cruelty is wrong” which really only means pet cruelty, what if we said “I will only buy pets from shelters and refuse to eat animals slaughtered in factory farms” and put major institutions of suffering out of business. Instead of saying “I am against bullying,” saying “I will question every judgmental instinct that comes into my mind and will call out other people on their judgmental instincts against people they see as socially inferior, to stop the kind of culture that causes kids to kill themselves.”

Instead of saying “I’m against racism” as in not being a member of a hate group, saying “I’m against racism” as in being against a society that wants to call “truce” after hundreds of years of one-sided bullying, when the damage is still there, when a sense of cultural superiority is still there, and white people still enjoy higher income, more wealth, longer life expectancies, better representation in public office and better access to higher education than people of color.

So instead of putting cartoons in our profiles to protest child abuse, why don’t we protest it vows of nonviolence in our own lives. That means physical, verbal and psychological, towards our friends, our families, and ourselves. Lets make a sacrifice for what we believe in. Lets do something that takes effort and ask each other to do something that takes effort. Without effort there is no change.

Or, you know…❤ Earth.

August 10, 2010

Why President Obama is Going to Be OK

Filed under: Uncategorized — ononehand @ 3:08 pm
Tags: , ,

This is a short post, but I wanted to point something out that is quite important nowadays amidst howling opposition to President Obama and the perception, true or false, that our country as a whole has lurched to the Right.

First, some key statistics from Open Left:

In 2008, according to exit polls, 89% self-identified liberals voted for President Obama. Over the past four weeks, according to Gallup, President Obama’s approval rating among self-identified liberals has averaged 74%. That is a decline of 15 points.

In 2008, according to exit polls, 60% of self-identified moderates voted for President Obama. Over the past four weeks, according to Gallup, President Obama’s approval rating among self-identified moderates has averaged 54%. That is a decline of 6 points.

In 2008, according to exit polls, 20% of self-identified conservatives voted for President Obama. Over the past four weeks, according to Gallup, President Obama’s approval rating has averaged 24% among self-identified conservatives. That is an increase of 4 points.

President Obama got 53 percent of the vote in November 2008. His approval ratings are now about seven points lower, meaning that around fourteen percent of those who voted for Barack Obama are now claiming to “disapprove” of the President’s performance today (because 14 percent of 50 percent is 7 percent of the whole sample).

Some of that deficit has come from a drop in support among moderates. A lot of that deficit has come from discontent among liberals and progressives.

That doesn’t mean Democrats are not in trouble in the midterms: because young people and poor people often think midterms are too unimportant to vote in them, or they’re too busy with other issues in their lives, much of the Democratic base is gone, which is always a major boost to Republicans. Democrats tend to do poorly in midterm elections, especially when their party is in charge.

But it does mean that, things looking as they are now, the President will easily be able to shore up his support in 2008 against a Republican opponent. Progressives who think Obama hasn’t done enough for them aren’t going to turn and vote for Newt Gingrich or Mitt Romney.

Of course, the numbers that Gallup found and Open Left reported are a bit misleading when some “moderates” have switched to defining themselves as conservative, and some “liberals” have switched to defining themselves as moderate, since the election. As I have pointed out many times before, Americans are devils’ advocates and lovers of balance, and position themselves in contrast to whatever they see as the most powerful party. Still, one thing that is definitely true is that the numbers for Obama are not as bad as they seem.

Anti-Obama conservatives are numerous, are certainly loud, and they have grown in prominence and attention-getting ability since the 2008 election. But they aren’t more numerous than they were in 2008. Ask a few of Barack Obama’s most vehement opponents who they voted for in 2008: it almost certainly wasn’t Barack Obama, and the president will do just fine if only the people who voted for him in 2008 vote for him again in 2012. All things considered, when he comes head-to-head with a Republican candidate he will still have their support.

June 4, 2010

The Media Needs To Focus on Where Economy is Working

Filed under: Uncategorized — ononehand @ 9:05 pm
Tags: ,

Economies are mobs. Prices are set by the number of people who are willing to buy something and what they are willing to pay for it – they are determined by collective, rather than individual decisions. In times like these, they are increasingly characterized by mass panics and mass rallies – by emotions and fear.

As much as economists like to cite historic trends or graphs or abstract indicators about what is going to happen and when, there is no intrinsic rule that says oil will become less expensive in the month of June or that gold will skyrocket in even-numbered years. There is especially no intrinsic reason why all stocks should rise and fall together, like they did today, by news stories that have nothing to do with the individual companies being traded, but rather, the collective abstract sense of the entire economy’s well-being. They move together because of collective emotion. The prices of these things go up or down because of our collective choices, which essentially means they go up or down as much because of other peoples’ choices as our own, and under the premise that people tend to act alike under similar circumstances.

For all the Objectivist’s claims about the intrinsic ties between capitalism and individuality, there is no one less individualistic in this world than an investor in a volatile market.

Similarly, the rise and fall of the entire economy is determined, not so much by complicated graphs and hidden variables that nobody can understand, as much as by one simple thing: our collective actions.

So when you’re trying to figure out whether the economy is going to grow or shrink over the next six months, it boils down to one simple question: are people going to be more productive over the next six months than they are now, or less? That breaks down into two specific areas to look at: are people going to spend more money, or less? Are companies going to hire more employees, or fewer?

Businesses right now are in a place of hesitation. Collectively, when you read the stories you hear nearly all of them saying that they’ve been making more money than they were last year. On its face, that is proof-positive that the economy is growing. On the other hand, they’ve been saying that they don’t want to respond to this growth by hiring more employees – even when they feel they could use them – because they don’t know if the boost in sales is going to last. Sales are tied to the collective actions of all potential customers, choosing to buy or not to buy. They are tied to the entire economy.

In other words, Companies don’t want to hire and be more productive because they don’t know what the whole economy is going to do over the next six months.

Imagine the absurdity of that statement, considered simplistically. When businesses hire and do more, that is growth in the economy. If every company in America decided today to add 1 employee for every 10 employees currently working – a 10 percent expansion in workforce – the entire economy would roar ahead at a tremendous speed. Unemployment would plummet. Profits would skyrocket. The vast majority of the companies would almost certainly be able to profit from the investment, because more people working would mean more people would have money to spend, there would be more demand for goods and services, and on top of that there would be more work actually being done. So refusing to hire because you don’t know what the economy is going to do is literally stagnating the economy in case it stagnates. It’s circular.

This would imply that taking action, choosing to hire or invest, is good. The only downside of action, is being the only person to make the choice you are making. Companies are timid. In one sense, being first to act can be good; being first to buy stock that suddenly rises in value can be immensely profitable because you get it cheap and can sell it for more money. That’s part of why the stock market has done well over the last year, as the first segment of the economy to expand. Being first to come up with a product that people need has produced millionaires and billionaires throughout recent history. On the other hand, if nobody acts – if you attempt to be first in a trend and the trend never materializes, the outcome could be rocky and even a loss. Hiring ten people and not having sales increase means that everything you paid those employees is a loss for you. In other words, adding employees to your workforce only works when all other companies do so too.

Ideally, the best economic stimulus that the government could possibly offer is an order that every business expand workforce by five percent. This, of course, is illegal and unconstitutional. But it would work.

This is an extremely simplistic view of the economy. People don’t pay thousands of dollars and work for four years to learn economics in a form as simple as this, which is something a fifth grader can understand. Still, the fact that the economy is as much a matter of psychology as it is material remains true.

We are now in an economy ruled by fear. Growth boomed in April, but then in May, bad news abounded. A leaky pipe in the Gulf of Mexico is pumping millions of gallons of petroleum into the ocean, which is shutting down the fishing and tourism industries in the area. A bad financial situation in some of the smaller economies in Europe is creating a financial crisis there, which has the potential to impact the United States. It’s causing the Euro to decline in value, which causes the U.S. dollar to rise relative to other currencies, which causes a state of deflation in which stocks decrease in numerical value even if they are keeping the same absolute value. These things have little real impact on you and me. However, they have immense psychological impact in the U.S. American companies are saying maybe right now isn’t the best time to invest or hire, even as their bottom lines show that it would be relatively safe to make such an investment, just because, you know, we’re watching the news and it looks like it might be risky.

That is a self-fulfilling prophesy. If a huge number of CEO’s and managers decide it may be too risky to hire now, based on a slight possibility that the economy won’t grow, then the economy won’t grow. They will make it become true.

Right now it is those who are mediating the information that have all the power.

Optimism is the medicine that will save us right now. That can come from a number of places. One potential source of optimism is inflation. If the value of a rising dollar can create the perception that everything is worth less and less than it used to be (which can have a very detrimental effect when you are trying to sell your product or wondering if you should invest in a new home or in stocks), then it reasons that the alternative, inflation – the lessening of the value of currency so that people will have a sense that things are increasing in value – has a huge positive psychological effect. People get paid more than they were getting paid last year. People can sell their product for more money.

In a state of inflation, even stagnating wealth feels like growth. It’s an illusion, but a very effective one. That’s why the last ten years – an era of absolute stagnation for most middle-class Americans – wasn’t perceived as a total loss for Americans during those years. If you make a thousand dollars more this year than you did last year, you’re quite proud of yourself, even if it is exactly as much as the price of everything you buy increased.

Printing more money and causing inflation also has the effect of making a given federal debt less significant, and increases the dollar value of GDP so that current government expenditures shrink by comparison. Economic conservatives call it a hidden tax, but it’s hard to see how even economic conservatives want to stagnate the economy when deflation is part of what is destroying it.

Another thing that can have a huge difference is to focus on the good when it comes to media and news. That’s something that nobody, regardless of their ideology, should dispute. Newspapers and magazines should run regular features on businesses that have been thriving in spite of the recession; they should feature companies that choose to hire anyway, and root in favor of them. Give investors the sense that the economy is doing better, and it will.

My cynical suspicion is that secretly, a lot of people either want or think the economy will fail because the government is now run by Democrats, and they distrust the Democrats on economic matters. A lot of people with money prefer a divided or Republican government. Whether it be by desire or just circumstantial, they can refuse to invest right now out of distrust, and the economy will suffer.

Thus, my suspicion is that whatever happens, November 2010 will be a month of growth. The moment midterm elections are over, Democrats will have either won or lost. Conservative economists and investors may want to see Obama out of office, but they are not going to want to wait another 2 years until 2012 to move; they’ll act in November 2010. If Democrats win, conservative investors get over it and start investing anyway, and the economy will grow, because they aren’t going to sit around and get older without doing anything productive. If Democrats lose and Republicans take Congress, they will be elated that we now have a divided government that is now more favorable to the wealthy, they will start investing, and the economy will grow.

This, of course, is all psychological. They could choose to invest right now and the economy would grow.

Or, we could talk up what’s going right with this country, try to put all the bad news in perspective, and watch growth and prosperity begin to return right now as people glean some hope and make an effort to do something with their time.

May 19, 2010

2010: The Era of Incompetent Punditry

Filed under: Uncategorized — ononehand @ 2:57 pm

I wanted to point out some the most absurd explanation for yesterday’s anti-incumbent storm that raged through the Arkansas, Kentucky and Pennsylvania primaries, which I came across on RealClearPolitics.com – a site that seems to be increasingly a spot for ridiculous ideas to be collected and disseminated.

Michael Barone’s first “lesson of the day” is that Americans are fed up with legislators who sit on the Appropriations Committee, because three losing incumbents were on it. That’s right, Barone thinks that the majority of Republicans and Democrats follow and give a shit about who’s on the Appropriations Committee, or even know what the Appropriations Committee is, and that this is one of their main issues as voters. Nonwithstanding that Specter’s primary challenge was founded on the fact that he switched parties and was not a true Democrat, Bennett’s challenge was basically a strategic “we can find someone slightly more conservative in this blood-red state of Utah,” and Mollohan lost the Democratic nomination for his congressional seat in West Virginia because West Virginia an “ethnic white” conservative state, and also a very Democratic state which throws back to the Dixiecrat era in the South, and the Democratic primary is essentially the general election where Black Big City Obama’s guy just lost to a Good Country Folk.

There isn’t some easy connection to explain what happened today on both sides of the aisle, when factors are very different from Republicans to Democrats. Republicans are still trying to prove that Bush was so unpopular not because he was conservative but because he wasn’t conservative enough (yikes!), so they’ve been punishing their establishment in favor of nontraditional candidates in what is an essentially a pipe dream that politicians who are dispositionally vitriolic, irrational and quick-tempered will lead them to political success. Rand Paul is as colorful a character as his father, so Republicans went for him as their senate nominee in Kentucky, over mainstream conservative Trey Grayson, who Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had endorsed. This also explains uberconservative JD Hayworth’s pending primary challenge of John McCain in Arizona, GOP senator Bennett’s loss in Utah and Marco Rubio forcing Charlie Crist to run as an Independent in Florida. (If you are a Democrat, you ought to be cheering these Republican efforts on because even if they are short-term successful, they will marginalize the party later on.)

Democrats, on the other hand, are probably just sticking their finger in the wind and realizing that incumbents are unpopular, so might as well defeat them in the primaries so they have at least a chance of winning a general election, and if they fail then it’s no sweat off their back. They aren’t running from Obama, who, with approval ratings of about 50, are one of the highest for any U.S. figure in a time of high unemployment and abounding economic trouble. Sitting Arkansas senator Blanche Lincoln is dead in the water whether she wins her primary or not. Her primary opponent Bill Halter will face an uphill battle in the general election if he wins the primary, but polls show him doing a little better against the Republican opponent than Lincoln, so Democrats abandoned Lincoln for Halter and now there will be a run-off contest because neither one got 50%. It was sweet revenge for Democratic progressives, who are still sore after Lincoln made herself a major stumbling block for healthcare reform in order to appear moderate, but Democrats in Arkansas wouldn’t have voted for Halter if he didn’t seem to have a better chance of winning than Lincoln. In Pennsylvania, Sestak beat former-Republican Arlen Specter because he was doing a little better in polls and voters are keen on anti-incumbent attitudes.

If you want an overarching narrative to explain all of this, it’s simply that Democrats won on the Change narrative in 2008, but now that narrative is over so both parties are looking for a new one, and their candidates can only guess at what the electorate will decide on so always risk being dumped.

May 15, 2010

Six Steps to Improve Urban Education

Filed under: policy,social justice — ononehand @ 1:11 pm

We’ve heard from teachers and policy advocates about what doesn’t fix the achievement gap in public schools. Programs designed to fire teachers who have low-scoring students is an example of a wrong approach to education. I’m sure you’ve heard teachers unions saying it’s because teachers are already doing all the work they can, which – whether or not that is the case – is probably not the politically effective argument. The real reason I think these policies are counter-productive is that they create animosity between teachers and low-performing students who drag scores down, and discourages teachers from working in the very schools that are hardest to recruit in. In other words, it stigmatizes troubled schools and, in particularly, troubled students. (more…)

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