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September 2012 posts

Cheating Scandal

Jonathan B. Wight

Apparently, cheating is rampant at New York's flagship high school that prepares elites for leadership roles (New York Times, "Stuyvesant Students Describe the How and the Why of Cheating." Other schools across the country may be in similar shape. If so, times are indeed very bad.

Students justify cheating by blaming the teachers, blaming the culture, and arguing that the greater virtue of collegiality and collaboration should win out over cutthroat competition. The article noted:

"All this makes for a culture in which many students band together, sharing homework and test advice in a common understanding that they simply have to survive until they reach their goals: dream colleges and dream jobs."

So the ends justify the means… How sad for these students to think that life happens at some "future" point at which they can then lead honorable lives as whole human beings. They are living a lie. We pursue false goals and wonder why we have such high suicide rates, alcoholism rates, divorce rates, and other measures of social alienation. We claim to value education but elevate grades over learning.

Standardized testing plays a big part of the cheating culture. Smaller class sizes and emphasis on critical thinking could help. De-emphasizing grades and emphasizing the life skill of centering and character might also help. What made me want to cry were the comments by teachers who said administrators sided with students and parents when cheating was discovered.

To all educators: please read this article and make sure you get through the posted comments.

[Thanks to colleague Bob Nicholson for forwarding this article.]

Wisdom from Bertrand Russell

Jonathan B. Wight

The philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) was one of the 20th century's greatest minds and liveliest writers. In this video he reflects on what he learned over his lifetime.

His main point:

"Love is wise, hatred is foolish. In this world, which is getting more and more closely interconnected, we have to learn to tolerate each other. We have to learn to put up with the fact that some people say things we don't like. We can only live together in that way."

"And if we are to live together and not die together we must learn a kind of charity and a kind of tolerance, which is absolutely vital for the continuation of human life on this planet."

I always felt a bit sorry for Bertrand Russell. Yes, it takes particular arrogance on my part to say this. But after reading Why I Am Not a Christian and Other Essays on Religion and Related Subjects (first published in 1927 and still in print) I remember thinking, "He just doesn't get it." I agree with his scathing indictment of the hypocrisy in the church of his times. But why confuse that with wisdom and truth?

The part Russell misses is the rich spiritual life and the rich life lessons that come out of religious thought. I do not believe Christians—or any religious group—have a monopoly on truth or that Christians are privileged with ideas not available from other sources. We can take the religious dogma and screed out of religious life and find much remaining to be of value.

My feelings are very much in line with Bishop John Shelby Spong, an intellectual's intellectual, who doesn't feel the need to throw the baby out with the bathwater. If you are a virtue-ethicist, then studying The Bible, The Koran, The Talmud, or other religious texts may offer ways of understanding how to live a flourishing life that go far beyond a list of literal commandments. An interior life of prayer and meditation does not mean abrogation of reasoning—quite the opposite, as shown by Thomas Aquinas, Teresa of Ávila, and in the modern era by Thomas Merton and many others like Spong.

I don't know if Russell's views on religion changed over his lifetime. The video certainly suggests that in the end he adopted tenets that are well articulated in the New Testament: stories of turning the other cheek, the commandment to love our neighbors, and to follow the example of the Good Samaritan who affirms that our neighbors are of a different race, class, and culture than our own. With globalization closing in on us, Russell's end-of-life thoughts are worth considering.

[Thanks to Judith Staples for linking to this video.]

Loving the Market

Jonathan B. Wight

For only $98,000 plus tax, you can buy from Tesla Motors a gorgeous all-electric sports car (see photo) that goes from 0 to 60 in 4.4 seconds and can reach a top speed of 130 mph.

I'm not a fan of drag racing, or speeding. I'm not even convinced about electric cars—after all, pollution avoided in the tailpipe is just being replaced with pollution at the power plant. And I could never justify paying $100 K for this car when a gasoline luxury model sells for two-thirds less.

But that's not the point. Markets work to solve problems and create innovations. This expensive $100 K car will be copied and economies of scale will eventually make the technology available in the mass market for substantially less. Indeed, that is Tesla's stated objective.

What helps drive much innovation is of course the expectation of a financial pay-off. But Adam Smith was a bit more astute when he observed: ""It is not ease or pleasure, but always honour, of one kind or another, though frequently an honour very ill understood, that the ambitious man really pursues" (The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Liberty Fund, 1982, p. 65).

Exciting times are ahead, and it won't necessarily be the Fords and the GMs leading the way.

The Tiger

Jonathan B. Wight

Why would a man leap from a protected monorail into the cage of a 400-lb Siberian tiger, where he was quickly mauled?

Fortunately, the young man survived to tell us. He had "a desire to be one with the tiger," according to a news report. "Mother Earth" was his religion and his Facebook page features photos of lions, tigers and other wildlife. 

It turns out this reverence is not that unusual, especially among those who live among Siberian tigers. One summer book I thoroughly enjoyed was The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival (2010) by John Vaillant. The book deals with the harrowing true tale of a tiger gone bad, who attacks and kills humans in Russia's Primorye Territory in the Far East near the border with China.

Surprisingly, tigers and indigenous people have co-existed peacefully there for centuries, as long as each treats the other with appropriate respect according to the author. If a tiger kills a prey, humans can take a piece of that for survival, but must leave most for the tiger. There is a "spiritual" harmony of understanding and mutual acceptance. In recent decades, however, poachers have invaded the forest not to coexist but to exploit the high demand for contraband tiger parts in China. Poachers injured this particular tiger and the vengeful tiger stalked and killed the perpetrators.

What surprised me most about this story is how ineffective bullets are at stopping a lunging tiger. Autopsies show tigers sometimes full of old lead. [Spoiler alert: What ultimately brought down this tiger in the tragic but thrilling conclusion were two sub-machine guns firing on automatic with special anti-armor rounds.]

Sadly, there may be only 400 Siberian tigers left in the wild. While zoos have breeding tigers, there is no way zoo-born tigers can be released into the wild. Mother tigers transmit huge amounts of learning to their young needed for survival and hunting. Temperatures in the winter drop to -40 F. While supremely adaptable, young tigers need years of training that humans have no way of providing. Once eradicated, there will be no resuscitation.

The Tiger reads like a "who-done-it" mystery and provides lots of fascinating information about nature and the spiritual explanations for why a young man would jump into a tiger cage. The bottom line is that the leaping man was lucky beyond belief; the tiger did not want to kill him.

[Thanks to Eryka Fiedler for suggesting The Tiger book.]

Reinventing Ethics—Wisdom of the Crowd?

Jonathan B. Wight

In the New York Times today, Howard Gardner writes about "Reinventing Ethics" in an age in which The Bible offers few answers to complex modern moral questions. Professional societies are scarcely in any better position. He notes:

"Ethical dilemmas are no longer going to be decided solely by those who wear certain clothing and who have a certain professional pedigree. How then should we go about deciding which of the alternative courses of action is the right one, or at least the one that is more ethical?"

Gardner's solution seems to be to engage people's moral imaginations in virtual communities:

"If we can draw on wise people across the age spectrum, and enable virtual as well as face-to-face discussion, we are most likely to arrive at an ethical landscape adequate for our time."

It sounds to me like Gardner is advocating something like the wisdom of the crowd. It's too bad his writing is not more analytical—by exploring, for example, how Smith's theory of moral sentiments works. In short, Gardner advocates a policy solution without providing any underlying theory for it. The result is less convincing than it might be.

The “Noosphere” is Working

Jonathan B. Wight

Read Paul Krugman's take on Romney posted yesterday and my take on the subject posted a day earlier.

Is Krugman reading this blog?

Not likely. More probable is that human thought shares itself via Teilhard de Chardin's theory of the "noosphere." As consciousness and complexity grows, people unknowingly inhabit a common thought-space.

Long ago I once had a marvelous idea for a music player than could be used while the listener was doing laps in the pool. I made sketches of the devise and was about to go the next step. Two weeks later Sony announced plans to sell such a devise. I don't recall reading or hearing about it before then. I am sure good (and bad) ideas pop into lots of heads at around the same time.

[Photo: Wallace Adams-Riley, https://www.facebook.com/wallace.adamsriley?ref=ts]

The Tongue

Jonathan B. Wight

Yes, I know religions have spawned wars and persecutions, and religious doctrine is used as a weapon today. Yet it is fascinating to read religious writings on the wisdom of right conduct and the ethical metaphors interlaid.

Here's a view on the tiny muscle in the mouth—the tongue—that miniature muscle that sometimes causes great wars and persecutions. I wish the spewers of the vile Mohammed video had bothered to read this.

James 3:13 (New Revised Standard Bible)

1 Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.

2 For all of us make many mistakes. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle.

3 If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies.

4 Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs.

5 So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire!

6 And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell.

7 For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species,

8 but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison.

9 With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God.

10 From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.

11 Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water?

12 Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh.

13 Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom.

14 But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth.

15 Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish.

16 For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind.

17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. 18 And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.

[Photo: http://www.freakingnews.com/Tongues-Out-Pictures--1147.asp]

Elections and Markets

Jonathan B. Wight

"If it looks like I'm going to win, the markets will be happy. If it looks like the president's going to win, the markets should not be terribly happy."

--Mitt Romney

Hmmm. Are markets irrational? That's what Romney seems to imply given the facts.

The prediction market in favor of Obama's reelection has risen substantially since October 2011 (chart 1).

Meanwhile, the Dow has generally been rising over that same period (chart 2).

I don't put much credence in anyone being able to predict the Dow and there are many factors at work. Still, one could say the market's rise that is coincident with Obama's re-election probability is perfectly rational.

Since the 1960s the stock market has generally done better under Democrat administrations, whose policies try to lift all boats and expand the middle class (chart 3). It's not surprising that profits might surge if businesses have more consumers to buy their products.

Obama on Redistribution

Jonathan B. Wight

In 1998, as a state senator in Illinois, Obama said:

"I think the trick is figuring out how do we structure government systems that pool resources and hence facilitate some redistribution because I actually believe in redistribution, at least at a certain level to make sure that everybody's got a shot.  How do we pool resources at the same time as we decentralize delivery systems in ways that both foster competition, can work in the marketplace, and can foster innovation at the local level and can be tailored to particular communities."

Competition, markets, innovation? If he's sincere, that doesn't sound too Marxist.

Pooling of resources always means redistribution, whether intended or not. When insurance companies pool the premiums of participants, it is to provide money to those with a valid claim and withhold money from the rest. That's redistribution. Of course, in this case people are voluntarily pooling, not like the health care mandate to pool.

Buying a house necessitates paying local property taxes, which are pooled and redistributed to fund education of some people's children but not to fund those who have no children.

The only type of government activity that does not result in some redistribution is that funded solely by a user fee. And that would be hard to assess and collect for many of the functions of government, like national security.

Romney’s Entitlements

Jonathan B. Wight

Romney went on the attack against the 47% of Americans who Romney thinks support Obama and are dependent on government.

Entitlements have indeed run amuck. Who are these greedy people disproportionately feeding at the public trough?

No, it's not mainly the ultra-poor, nor is it mainly the middle class earning below $100,000/year.

Tax preferences are give-aways from the government to certain people who qualify. The wealthy have legions of lawyers and lobbyists to create a labyrinth of loopholes for the benefit of their few. Here's one example, the average tax deduction—subsidy!—given by the government, broken down by income group.

The federal government is helping rich people pay their mortgages on large primary homes (plus their vacation homes), pay the premiums on worker-provided health insurance, accumulate wealth without taxes in sheltered retirement accounts, and many other tax preferences. It's a big handout. Romney's seems to think he deserves—is entitled to—this special treatment from government by nature of his economic class. I'd say he has become dependent on big government.

David Brooks notes that Americans, as a rule, are among the hardest working in the world. Many of those who do not earn enough to pay federal income taxes pay payroll and other federal, state, and local taxes. In sum:

"[Romney's] comment suggests a few things. First, it suggests that he really doesn't know much about the country he inhabits. Who are these freeloaders? Is it the Iraq war veteran who goes to the V.A.? Is it the student getting a loan to go to college? Is it the retiree on Social Security or Medicare?....

"The people who receive the disproportionate share of government spending are not big-government lovers. They are Republicans. They are senior citizens. They are white men with high school degrees. As Bill Galston of the Brookings Institution has noted, the people who have benefited from the entitlements explosion are middle-class workers, more so than the dependent poor….

"Sure, there are some government programs that cultivate patterns of dependency in some people. I'd put federal disability payments and unemployment insurance in this category. But, as a description of America today, Romney's comment is a country-club fantasy. It's what self-satisfied millionaires say to each other."

[UPDATE 9/19: John Stewart's staff discovered an old tape of Mitt Romney's mother, in which she disclosed that Mitt's father had been on welfare for several years when he first arrived to the U.S. from Mexico. Irony , paradox , and absurdity rolled into one.]