Category Archives: Freakonomics

Vilified but Charitable?


Freakonomics, The Most Vilified Industry in America Is Also the Most Charitable

This episode of Freakonomics comes with a pre-made rebuttal that I was disturbed to discover that Dubner didn’t cop to at some point during the lengthy interview segments. That perfectly reasonable rebuttal takes this form; Since the pharmaceutical industry sets the value of their products independently, and since the vast majority of their generosity is quantified in the value of in-kind charitable donations of their drugs, their charity is really of their own creation. Large or small, high price or low, they dictate what that value is and they expect us to thank them for their generosity.

As if they couldn’t just alter the price of all the drugs they make to make them affordable in the eyes of every person who needs them, while at the same time not bankrupting the people who have to pay for their drugs out of their own pockets.  Heaven forbid they not milk every available dollar out of every unsuspecting customer while at the same time giving away a product at something closer to its actual value. This was a point that Dubner did make during one of the connective segments, but he never actually goes on to fully explain, that the value of in-kind charity is completely within the control of the manufacturer, rendering the reported numbers essentially meaningless.

Don’t get me wrong, here. I don’t want any of the Big Pharma conspiracy fantasists or the naturopathy profiteers they go to to think that I’m somehow on their side in this argument. The fact of the existence of the identifiable label Big Pharma Conspiracy proves that the pharmaceutical industry is unjustly vilified in the general public. It’s just that their insistence that they aren’t profiting to a maximal amount at the expense of the general public rings a little hollow when their prices are so demonstrably fluid in value.

Jack Welch Freakonomics Feedback

Dear Freakonomics,

The minute that it became clear that Jack Welch not only supports Trump, but thinks he’s doing a great job, that was the minute I deleted this podcast from my queue. I have no need to dilute my thinking with the thoughts of someone so blind as to think that the Orange Hate-Monkey (OHM) has done anything right on purpose. It is possible that the actions of the OHM may lead to something good, such as women stepping forward and claiming the leadership roles that should rightfully be theirs; but anything good that occurs will be IN SPITE OF the OHM’s actions, not something that he can be credited for.

The OHM is and will be remembered as the most corrupt president in the history of the United States. Providing, of course, that we as a nation and a species survive his time in the White House. That is still not a foregone conclusion.

Comment left on Freakonomics.com: Extra: Jack Welch Full Interview

The Myth of Bootstraps

There have been several podcasts in my feed over the last year dissecting and observing the subject of poverty. This is probably because of the over-hyped evidence that the majority of Trump (OHM) supporters were poor, rural whites. The podcasters in their turn feel they need to address the issues raised by these people. The issues that made these poor, rural whites feel so desperate that they would hazard the welfare of us all on a known liar and con artist.

I say over-hyped with no intention of belittling the plight of the poor, or the fact that poverty runs rampant in the modern United States. Poverty is more widespread and more painfully felt now than it has been at any point since the end of World War Two. The disparity between rich and poor today is comparative to 1929, in the time leading up to the crash and the Great Depression. People are poorer now and paid worse than at any point in modern American history.

But it isn’t trade deals that are causing this problem. It isn’t illegal aliens in the US taking our jobs. It isn’t any of the things the OHM says is causing poverty; and his solutions to fix poverty are solutions that not only have been tried before but failed to work previously. So why do them again?

No, I say over-hyped because the rural poor more than likely voted for Trump because the rural poor have been the largest viewing block for reality TV. The rural poor have little other entertainment they can access aside from television. The Apprentice was popular with the same people who voted for Trump. Why is it so hard to admit that these people thought that the character on that show was the guy they voted for in the election? That the lack of broadband access in the rural areas of the US have lead to an information gap that resulted in the election of a con artist to the presidency? That poverty is merely a factor in the larger problem of inequality in America?

All of these podcasts have struck a chord with me. I have blogged both directly and tangentially about this subject in the past. It is not a subject I like writing about. The nerves are raw and the wounds are kept fresh in my current situation of disability and poverty. The series from On the Media, Busted: America’s Poverty Myths brought me to tears. I recognized so many tropes from my own childhood. Things family members and friends both have uttered in my hearing. Things that I have been guilty of believing in the past. In this article I will take a more purposeful walk down that  memory lane, painful as it is. I want to do this in the light of these discussions by scholars, writers and journalists.

…and I will start this journey of introspection with the writer/journalist Stephen Dubner and his podcast Freakonomics,

James Truslow Adams, born in 1878 to a wealthy New York family, became a financier and, later, an author. He won a Pulitzer Prize for a history of New England; and later he wrote a book called The Epic of America. Even though it was written during the Great Depression, Adams took a fundamentally bullish view of the United States. 

His book was hugely popular, and as best as we can tell, it introduced the phrase “The American Dream.” Adams defined this as “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.”  The phrase caught on, and not just a little bit. Especially among our presidents…

…The Stanford economist Raj Chetty has been working with large data sets to try to understand why so many Americans are no longer living the American Dream. When it comes to economic opportunity, Chetty and his colleagues found huge regional and even local differences throughout the U.S.

As he told us, kids growing up in San Francisco have about twice the chance of living the American Dream as kids from just across the bridge, in Oakland. Why? One easy explanation would be that the people in those different areas are just different – they have different abilities, different cultures, different job opportunities. And that certainly has some explanatory power. But Chetty and his colleagues found the story isn’t that simple… 

…This is hardly a new idea – that growing up in a poor neighborhood isn’t the best launching ground for economic success. This idea, in fact, led the Clinton Administration to experiment in the mid-1990s with a program called Moving to Opportunity. 

Okay, so young kids who move out of a high-poverty neighborhood do much better later on. What, exactly, does this signify? What’s going on in the poor neighborhoods to depress income mobility and what’s going on in the better neighborhoods to increase it? Answering those questions has become a big part of Raj Chetty’s work. 

The above hits the high points without getting into the meat of the episode, which is excellent. The scholar Raj Chetty‘s five factors address my personal experiences of poverty directly. It was because of this episode that I felt the need to write more on this subject, but the title of the post comes from a segment of another podcast, which was introduced to me through this episode of Radiolab,

In a 5-part series called “Busted: America’s Poverty Myths,” On the Media picked apart numerous oft-repeated narratives about what it’s like to be poor in America. From Ben Franklin to a brutal eviction, Brooke gives us just a little taste of what she learned and shares a couple stories of the struggle to get ahead, or even just get by.

This episode features an excellent overview of the 5-part series; enough for the casually interested, but not enough for someone who remembers the shock of sudden poverty as a child. A now old man who lives in poverty due to illness, disability, a truly lackluster US economy, sexism/ageism in the workplace directed at the Wife, etc. But I don’t want to get ahead of the narrative, and discussing the particulars of my experience in poverty even in the general sense gets ahead of the introduction provided in the full five part series from On the Media.

“You had a population that wanted to cling to those things because it justified them not sharing.” – Jack Frech Athens County welfare director

As the Freakonomics episode mentioned, It is actually twice as easy to move up the income ladder in Canada as it is in the US. This is a travesty, an ongoing insult to America, this delusion we live under. What delusion is that? The delusion that the US is the best country in the world to live in, that we provide more access to social mobility than anyplace else in the world. It simply isn’t true. Hasn’t been true for a good, long time.

The first episode of the On the Media series is an introduction to the reality of poverty in America. It is the boxing glove on the fist of the next three episodes that drive home the fact that we Americans really don’t have a clue what it is to be desperately poor in the US. Even I only vaguely recognize the lives that the truly poverty stricken must live. The reason for this is; I profited from the status of my parents. My parents, in their turn, benefited from the status of their parents; white, working class, upwardly mobile christians with land. My paternal grandparents had enough property that they farmed at first, and then sold land to the city and to new families moving into the bustling township that Leoti, Kansas was after the dust bowl. They sold and profited as the town grew around them, just like the dreams of all Americans play out.

“Cultivation is at least one of the greatest natural improvements ever made by human invention. It has given to created earth a tenfold value. But the landed monopoly that began with it has produced the greatest evil. It has dispossessed more than half the inhabitants of every nation of their natural inheritance, without providing for them, as ought to have been done, an indemnification for that loss and has thereby created a species of poverty and wretchedness that did not exist before.” – Thomas Paine Agrarian Justice The Writings of Thomas Paine pg 331

The possession of land leads to wealth, if one is lucky enough to own the right piece of land at the right time. The Steele family in Wichita county, Kansas were those people. The fact of their ownership of land made them powerful within the township. The location near a then-growing town gave them a chance to sell off some of their property for cash, something that there is never enough of in any small town. People have to eat, after all. They have to have somewhere safe to sleep. All of this costs money in the modern economy, and the only way to get money is to work or be born into it. So I wasn’t born into poverty, at least.

I was born overseas to a father who was stationed there in the military, a mother who enjoyed being overseas for the first time but really didn’t enjoy the constraints of a military wife in the 60’s. She returned to the states not too long after my birth, and my father left the military as soon as his mandatory term of service was up. They returned to my father’s home on the high plains of Kansas as I mentioned. My father grew up in a little town named Leoti that would be so small you would miss it if you blinked, if only the main roads went anywhere near the place. My father’s family had settled there a few decades previously and Grampa had several thriving businesses in the town. One of those businesses was sold/given to my father when he left the military, and he settled down with my mother for the happily ever after that all young people believe in.

Did I say “happily ever after?” Yeah, that never showed up. Dad took to drinking a fifth of bourbon every single day as he struggled to deal with bringing in enough cash to support his growing family. Mother was unhappy because the family kept growing and her husband didn’t seem to be around much to help. The fighting got worse until it damaged the furnishings and frightened the children, and the divorce wasn’t long after that. Coming out of the 40’s and 50’s and the attitudes about women and families, the ridiculous notions of money and politics, wealth and poverty and the meaning of all these things all wrapped up together, the surprising part of this story is that some women put up with the way life was for them. They put up with it instead of leaving. Maybe they had better husbands?

The story of my pre-teen life was pretty common for the time. By the mid-70’s when the divorce happened fully half of all marriages went that way. Prior to World War Two women were expected to stay home, raise children and provide for the running of the household which encompassed pretty much everything you can imagine. Everything you can imagine, if you imagined a self-sufficient household operation that was a day’s horseback ride from the next nearest town, a train ride away from the nearest city with running retail businesses in it. A household without running water or electricity. That is what frontier life was like just two generations into the past for me, four generations now. My grandparents remembered towns without electricity, the introduction of indoor plumbing and the automobile.

Automobiles made the difference. This fact is spelled out in the heaps of rusted metal you can find dotting most older farmsteads. When the old car dies you leave it where it sits and buy another one, just as you did the tractor and the harvester. On the Wife’s family farm you can still see her dad’s first tractor, parked on the edge of the field where it died, rusting into nothing as the decades fly by. It still sits there even though the farm itself has changed hands twice since her mom sold it. Sold it because there just wasn’t any reason to keep it any longer.

We weren’t farmers. We were never going to sign up for that life. The automobile made city life bearable because you could live in the outskirts of the city and commute downtown for work. In the city you don’t need to make your own clothes, you can go to the store and buy them. You can go to the store and buy them, that is, if you have the money. Money has been the limiting factor imposed on the poor for longer than any of  the now living can remember. Longer than those who came before us can remember. Further back than even our great-grandparents and their parents time.

Brooke meets Carla Scott, a young woman in Cleveland forced to sell her plasma for bus fare after a series of events derailed her life, as well as Carla’s nonagenarian grandmother, Grace, a hard-line believer in “personal responsibility.” 

Personal responsibility or paying for every mistake you’ve made for your entire life. That would be costly, and hasn’t been my experience. This is the privilege of white skin in the United States. It certainly hasn’t been luck that has seen me through to now. I’ve told myself all my life I make my own luck. I make my own luck because 50/50 chances almost never fall my way.  Even so, there are many behaviors that I have engaged in that would have resulted in imprisonment and probably death, had I been caught doing them while black.

While I was near homeless for a few years living in friend’s spare rooms and sleeping on enclosed porches, I never had to sell plasma. I didn’t have children of my own to tend to before I was ready largely because I knew what a pain children could be. That was one of the many lessons I learned being raised by a single mom.

The benefit of city living masques the machinery of poverty creation. Having everything you want or need available at a store for purchase makes the delusion of self-sufficiency seem quite real. Self sufficient, if you have the money to buy these things. Self sufficient, if you have work that pays money. I have always had work because I would do just about any job offered to me. White, young, male, with no tattoos and no piercings. This was important above all things; maintain the illusion of a fine, upstanding middle class status. That illusion kept me working.

Poverty waits for those who fail to maintain the illusion. Jobs that go to others. Careless sex that leads to children. Drug addiction. Tattoos and piercings that announce your rejection of white bread America. That inner-city poverty of slums and ghettos? The tattooed and the peirced? The drug addicted and the ne’er-do-well? That poverty that has moved out into the country from the cities. The rebellion that motivated the election of the Orange Hate-Monkey (OHM) was generated in rural America, in the persons of the last victims of a grinding poverty that has plagued the poorer neighborhoods of cities since their creation. I noted the rural American bellyaching rang hollow to me in the essay I named after him,

Listening to the people who attempt to defend their affinity for the Orange Hate-Monkey in the podcast isn’t helping. Oh poor, misunderstood me whining by rural whites strikes me as just this side of pathetic. As if urban blacks don’t have problems, haven’t had worse problems for the better part of two hundred years. The fact that the researchers on this podcast are so divorced from the truth of the matter, that the reality-disconnected people they have been interviewing actually turned out to be the ones who had the last laugh, that they got their American Psycho candidate on a collision course with the White House, in the face of the researcher’s own blithe belief that Hillary Clinton was a shoe-in for the presidency, isn’t helping with the surreality of this moment in time.

I know what grinding poverty looks like even though my experience with it was mercifully brief. That time was right after my parent’s divorce. For a time my mom made the best of life in rural Kansas. We got to keep the house. Dad moved into a trailer parked behind his service station. He managed to wrangle down his child support to $300 which wasn’t enough to cover the cost of keeping a roof over our heads, even though that roof had been home for as long as we could remember. Mom took her first job outside the house since going to college, a job teaching Head Start to Leoti preschoolers, a job that was taken from her because she didn’t have a teaching certificate. She left college to get married and had no saleable skills aside from homemaking, a job she couldn’t do anymore without a husband.

So mom remarried. He was a nice enough guy when we met in Leoti. As soon as we left Kansas and moved to Texas, the trouble started. The poverty got worse. Dad stopped paying the child support and only restarted it after mom sued him to get it. The stepdad started drinking heavily, and he was a mean drunk. There were a number of times where my mouth got me in trouble and I ended up on the floor. The last time I saw him was the day he brought another woman to the house. After watching him abuse my mother wordlessly for months, after being the victim of his abuse during that time, having him show up and flaunt his girlfriend in my mother’s face was too much. When mom sent us into the house and told us to hide, I waited behind a door I knew he would come through if he did come in for his stuff. I waited with a high vantage point and a heavy blunt object. I wanted to make sure that if the opportunity presented itself, there would be a near guarantee of killing him. I hated him that much.

Luckily for both of us, the opportunity never occurred. He left without his stuff. I was on a plane to stay with my father in Kansas within the week. Psychotherapy was part of that process. I was the lucky one. The luckiest of the four children who endured the stepfather. I had a room of my own in my father’s house. I had running hot water at the tap. I had a mother and father who were concerned for me. I never appreciated this fact, this blessing, until visiting my mother in Texas and seeing what hitching her cart to the stepfather’s wagon had wrought in the end.

The unlucky ones? They had one bed for the four of them to share. Mom went through another divorce, which means those three siblings went through it with her. The garage apartment they found in the tiny town they had ended up in didn’t have a reliable roof or much in the way of indoor plumbing. They had to heat water on the stove to fill the bathtub so that they all could bath each night. My mother had taken the next of dozens of jobs she would eventually hold, working the night shift running that blight of the American landscape, a convenience store. Virtually the only profitable business in yet another small town whose only claim to fame was being on the road to somewhere else.

When I saw how bad their living conditions were, I cried. We siblings then made the first of several pacts that followed over the years. After a few weeks of mutual badgering, our parents in their separate hostile camps were convinced to let the rest of the kids move back up with dad and his new wife. I didn’t appreciate having to share a bed with my brother again, but at least they had hot water to shower with. Television to watch. Decent schools to attend, back in the good old days, when Kansas still believed in investing in young people.

For the first time in my mother’s short life, she was free. No children to supervise. No husband to cook for or tend to. Free to try and advance her skills by returning to school. So she did that. She moved to a larger town in the area, a town called Sweetwater. It was a town with a school, a town big enough for a trade school, but not so big that it became expensive to live in. She took business classes and worked odd jobs. She was probably about as happy as she had ever been.

This happiness was short-lived. This is a section of the story that I wrote about at length here,

Dad had remarried, but found the chore of raising 5 unruly children too much to deal with so he sent us back to our mother in Texas to live. The 5 of us crammed ourselves into whatever housing she could afford on the wages for whatever jobs she could get.

…She just went back to working at fast food joints, bars and restaurants, the odd convenience store job as the demands for housing, clothes and food for her growing children required.

It was a point of pride to my mom that she never took food stamps. That she never had to go on welfare. Her memory is a bit more selective than mine. We may never have needed food stamps, but we certainly ate a lot of government bread and cheese. Drank a lot of government milk. I got a job as soon as I could after moving back in with mom. I knew even before she explained it to me, there was no way we’d survive if I wasn’t working. So I started sacking groceries and cleaning up at night at one of the two grocery stores in that mid-sized Texas town. I took a lot of food that the store was going to throw away home with me instead, one of the benefits of being the flunky who throws out the trash. We never went hungry, but that is just barely the truth.

I spent my senior year in high school as a stranger in a school I didn’t really want to attend. I preferred the Kansas schools of the time. Kansas’ investment in higher education (now abandoned) Kansas’ belief in better times ahead (ditto) Texas was meaner. Texas was harsher both in climate and attitude. That mythical Southern hospitality is the velvet glove over the iron fist of crony capitalism and repressive social structures designed to keep the poor in their place.

I attended the same trade school my mom had moved to Sweetwater to attend and I made the best of the illusions I had been fed as a child. That I could be whatever I wanted to be. That I had no limitations. That all I had to do was work hard and I would make the grade. That I could live happily ever after, too.

It’s not about IQ… it’s the context you inhabit

In the third installment of our series, “Busted: America’s Poverty Myths,” we take on one of our country’s most fundamental notions: that America is a land of equal opportunity and upward mobility for all. And we ask why, in spite of a wealth of evidence to the contrary, does this idea persist?

With the help of historian Jill Lepore, Brooke traces the history of the “rags to riches” narrative, beginning with Benjamin Franklin, whose 18th century paper manufacturing business literally turned rags into riches. We hear from Natasha Boyer, a young Ohio woman who was saved from eviction by a generous surprise from strangers… only for the miracle to prove fleeting. And we consider the efficacy of “random acts of kindness” and the fateful role of luck — where you’re born, and to whom — in determining success.

Much like Benjamin Franklin in reality, as detailed in this segment of the story, I moved away from the family that was a drag on my ability to succeed on my own. Their poverty making my poverty that much harder to ignore, that much harder to escape. After a brief, heartbreaking few months trying to establish myself in Kansas back living with my father, trying to make good on promises made to a girlfriend I had left in Kansas and failing at that rather spectacularly, I returned to Texas and moved up the road from Sweetwater to Abilene for a brief time, living on my own. Like everyone who transitions to life on their own, that was quite a shock. I think it was the month driving on a leaky tire because I couldn’t afford a new one that brought home just how hard it was going to be to make the grade. Just how remote the possibility that happily ever after might ever occur.

“It’s alright to tell a man to lift himself by his own bootstraps, but it is cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.” Martin Luther King Jr.

It was while living in Abilene that I noticed that I effectively had no boots and thusly no bootstraps to draw myself up by. I had limited education, most of which I provided for myself through voracious reading. I clearly had a problem producing work in my chosen profession, a barrier that I had never realized was mine alone until that time. There was no one with money in my immediate family. I knew no one in Abilene aside from co-workers at jobs I no longer had, and I wore out their welcomes in pretty short order. I even had to borrow mom’s pride and joy, the first new car she had ever bought for herself, just to get myself out of the rut I’d made in Abilene and move myself to a new, hopefully more promising locale, San Angelo.

It was in San Angelo that I met the Wife, working at one of the many odd jobs that came my way. It was there that I dragged the rest of my Texas family, after I finally found a job that paid money and had rented a house that would fit all of them. It was there that all of them eventually went to college. It was a long, hard struggle even getting to that level, the level where I felt I could attempt to repay a debt to my mother that I knew I still owed. But I was still poor, just not as poor as I had been. In order to not be poor I knew I was going to have to find a bigger city. Bigger cities require more architecture, more planning, more design, and I knew that was a demand that I could help satisfy if I could just get there.

In the fourth installment of our series “Busted: America’s Poverty Myths,” we examine the strengths and shortcomings of our nation’s safety net. Government assistance does help lift millions out of poverty each year — indeed, without it, poverty would be twice as high — but those in the most dire circumstances often slip through the cracks.

With the help of Linda Tirado, author of Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America, and Matthew Desmond, author of Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, we consider how anti-poverty programs can actually keep people poor and offer little hope for a way out.

Also, Brooke meets Margaret Smith, a Columbus woman made homeless after a violent crime derailed the life she’d carefully built with her six children. And we visit an Athens County food pantry that provides not just meals to the community, but also school supplies, clothing, furniture, job training, home repairs, disaster relief…even burial plots.

In the city there is no illusion about the temporariness of prosperity, of hearth and home. If there is any real difference between city life and country life, it is the illusion of permanence that country life affords. In the city you pay by the month for everything including hearth and home. You never stop paying for anything, ever. New cars, bigger houses, longer commutes, more roads, taller buildings, denser usage. The city is a meatgrinder, and the meat it grinds is human. Best not to watch it happen if you have a weak stomach.

It’s true, there are more opportunities in the city if you can afford to go there and look for them. I took that leap almost thirty years ago now. Left what I see now as a quiet little town of a hundred thousand people; ten times the size, and more, of my hometown of Leoti at its peak. Austin boasts more than a million citizens now. if you incorporate its far-flung suburbs, there is something closer to two million people who work and live here because of Austin being here and pretty much for no other reason. It certainly isn’t for the weather, which is Texas hot nine months out of the year.

There is a little joke in Austin that if you move here and don’t have allergies, wait five years. You’ll have them, just wait. I had allergies before moving here and I never intended to stay here. Fate has kept me here, year after year in spite of my intentions to leave as soon as I was assured of an ability to provide for my family. I was ill before I got to Austin, and my illness has gotten worse every year I’ve been here. The symptoms which had no name eventually got so bad that I found a name for them, Meniere’s. Finding that my symptoms had a name is the only reason I’m alive to write this uplifting little post today. Having a name for what keeps me from working is what gets me disability payments that kept my now-grown children fed while they were still growing. The disability made me worth more alive than dead; so I’ve kept living, to the consternation of many.

Disability isn’t a carefree life of freedom and bliss. Ill health is generally hard to endure even without the grinding poverty that accompanies it in most cases. The poverty is inflicted on those of ill-health by the system itself, not as a function of their relative worth. The cost of treating illness is itself a function of building the wealth of countless millions of healthcare professionals, people who would be as poor as I am without people like me coming to them for treatment. Without Social Security and Medicare paying my bills, I’d have taken my own life years ago. All those thousands spent to educate my children, house, clothe and feed them, would never have existed. Their promising careers, the careers of my Texas family who went to college because I brought them somewhere that had a college, all of the people who benefitted in some way from the work that I’ve done if not by the simple existence of my health issues, none of them would be where they are now had I simply not existed. Had I been cast aside like the poster-waving homeless visible on every city street corner in the US.

Nothing hits so hard for me as being in my car pulling up to an intersection, and having someone come to me with their hand out. I can’t look because I know that if I give in to my desire to help everyone around me, I will soon be the one standing on the street corner holding a sign. See to your own needs first, as any properly trained triage attendant knows. You can’t help others if you end up needing help yourself. I have clung to the top edge of a vertical drop into non-existence for more than a decade now. Every single cent of every dollar spent in the last ten years having to be justified in some way. Kicking myself for ever frivolously spending anything in the years that I had money, not realizing that those years would be the briefest of all.

When reporting on poverty, the media fall into familiar traps and pundits make prescriptions that disregard the facts. So, in the fifth and final installment of our series, “Busted: America’s Poverty Myths,” we present a Breaking News Consumer’s Handbook: Poverty in America Edition. It’ll equip you with the tools to spot shoddy reporting and the knowledge to identify coverage with insight.

With help from Jack Frech, former Athens County welfare director; Kathryn Edin, co-author of $2.00 A Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America; Greg Kaufmann, editor of TalkPoverty.org; Matthew Desmond, author of Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City; and Linda Tirado, author of Hand To Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America.

This brings me full circle. From bootstraps to bootstraps. How can you lift yourself with your own bootstraps when you have no boots? Casey Gerald asks that very question in a TED talk that I favorited over a year ago. I love this talk. It makes me cry and laugh and cry.

“The gospel of doubt does not ask that you stop believing, it asks that you believe a new thing: that it is possible not to believe.”Casey Gerald

Like him I really don’t have any answers aside from the plain observation that what we have attempted so far in the realm of aid to the poor has failed, utterly.  We must begin again if we ever hope to improve the human condition. The only sane way is to approach the problem with the knowledge that we don’t know what will work before we try it. So it will profit all of us to make sure that what we are attempting can be tested for effectiveness before we embrace it as true and real. 

No Hollywood Ending for Special Effects Companies

Freakonomics

The Wife & I always sit through the credits. The reason for this is not only professional interest (CGI is a hair’s breadth away from CAD and Sandra has worked on dozens of films) but also stress relief. Read the credits, miss the mad rush to go elsewhere.

It is mind blowing that all those thousands of names listed under “special effects” are people who aren’t making that much off of the films we’ve just enjoyed. That most of the firms only make a few films before going bankrupt.


Freakonomics, No Hollywood Ending for the Visual-Effects Industry

In their chase for a global audience, American movie studios spend billions to make their films look amazing. But almost none of those dollars stay in America. What would it take to bring those jobs back — and would it be worth it?

Facebook Status Update backdated to the blog.

Abortion; As Natural as Life Itself

I keep getting hung up on the fact that the subjects of abortion and when does human life begin? are still an issue. I am genuinely baffled by this because it has never (and I do mean never) been something I suffered moral quandaries about.  The reason it has never been an issue for me is the subject of my soon to be completed chapter on EPHN which goes into the murky world of what human life is and why most opinion on the subject is completely wrong, but since that chapter will not be about abortion but the distinction between life and human life, that leaves me with a ton of text that I’ve written over the years on the subject of abortion itself that really needs to be published or republished under its own heading.

I’ve lost several Facebook friends over the years because of this subject, largely because I cannot let falsehoods stand unchallenged.  This argument goes back to the dawn of my internet experience (much like the subjects of gender and homosexuality) and spans complete shifts in most of my other opinions on other subjects.  This one, though.  This one I know what reality is on the subject.  Reality is harsh, it is brutish, and it isn’t fair.
Reproduction slideshow

The natural world doesn’t worry about those things. In evolutionary terms, procreation is fundamental to an organism’s success. It really doesn’t matter how many of the species is killed just as long as a mating pair survives long enough to mate and produce offspring. That is the reason that sex exists, and that is the reason that sex feels good. Any other interpretation of the reasons for the process are a matter of individual delusion or group ritual (which is phenomenally about the same as mass delusion) there are social reasons to engage in sex outside of procreation (pair bonding as one example) but those reasons do not negate the actual purpose of the act.

After a similar fashion, the natural world has no problem with abortion.  Three quarters (or thereabouts) of all fertilized eggs do not produce live offspring.  Half of all pregnancies end in spontaneous abortion. The vast majority of potential human lives never see the light of day with human eyes, because nature is a harsh judge of viability.

Until very recently in the civilized parts of the world, infant mortality was astronomically high. It was commonplace for women to have 8 to 10 children and yet only 3 or 4 make it to adulthood. In some parts of the world these deathrates still occur.

It is the mark of several decades of arguing this subject that I can rattle off these facts without having to consult reference material to back it up. The links to this information have long slipped my mind, and searching for the current location of it is time-consuming and largely pointless.  If you doubt the facts, please take the time to verify them. Here is your fair warning in advance; If your source has anything to do with the anti-abortion industry, I will reject it.  They have been shown to be lying time and time again.

So abortion and child death are the normal state in nature.  Predators single out the sickly young animals as their first targets for consumption. They are easier to take down, and the herd animals will leave them behind.  Predators that live birth large litters of young will frequently eat the smaller, sicklier young themselves. Nature is brutish in this way.

Into this world we too are born.  But as the lucky few of the lucky even smaller few, we exist in a world of science. We have science-based medicine to thank for the dramatic reduction in child deaths, mothers dying in childbirth, epidemics that halve the populations of entire nations of people. We have government to thank for civilizing the vast majority of the world’s population, enforcing laws that are (Hopefully. As the future continues to regress into the past I remain hopeful) grounded in common sense and science.

At the very least, the courts which try laws and the violators of law have rules based on solid science and evidence. Which is where we get to the issue part of the abortion issue.

Among the generally reasonable people who just want to get through their day so that they can have time at the end of the day to relax, there is a very large section of the population who don’t understand how much of our society is actually based on science; don’t realize that the very technology used to write this blog, the technology you used to get here to read it, means that science is based on objective reality.  That the existence of this technology means that the real world is as I’ve described it, for the most part.  These people are magical thinkers. I haven’t written that blog entry (one day I will) but for the purpose of this article suffice it to say that these people are not satisfied with reality as it exists. They’d like very much to believe that reality is something which can be bypassed or altered.

These people see that they want their children. They see that they love their children, and they cannot conceive of a world where children are not wanted at best, and are a liability at worst. They are outraged at the notion that people might engage in sexual activity without intending to have children. They are inflamed with righteous indignation that women are avoiding the punishment of having to raise the children that they’ve created because science and medicine have created an escape for them from harnessing the powers that nature already uses to get rid of the majority of offspring in the first place.

Largely the magical thinker is a member of a religion; and in the US that religion is overwhelmingly one of the hundreds of variants known colloquially as christianity. Christians are convinced that their god is opposed to abortion even though the natural world (which he also made if he exists) utilizes abortion on a much greater scale than we humans could ever achieve. Attempting to show these christians that their holy book makes no mention of abortion is largely a futile effort. Most of them accept Catholic dogma on the subject, even though the majority of US christians are protestants whose ancestors spent precious blood escaping from Catholic rule.

Most of them are also unswayed by arguments that Judaism (the precursor to christianity) rules the beginning of life as the taking of the first breath; that the soul enters the body with that breath of air. Why this argument doesn’t sway is anybody’s guess, because science tends to agree with the idea that breathing air allows for consciousness to occur. Consciousness which is the hallmark of human life;

…Consciousness requires a sophisticated network of highly interconnected components, nerve cells. Its physical substrate, the thalamo-cortical complex that provides consciousness with its highly elaborate content, begins to be in place between the 24th and 28th week of gestation. Roughly two months later synchrony of the electroencephalographic (EEG) rhythm across both cortical hemispheres signals the onset of global neuronal integration. Thus, many of the circuit elements necessary for consciousness are in place by the third trimester. By this time, preterm infants can survive outside the womb under proper medical care. And as it is so much easier to observe and interact with a preterm baby than with a fetus of the same gestational age in the womb, the fetus is often considered to be like a preterm baby, like an unborn newborn. But this notion disregards the unique uterine environment: suspended in a warm and dark cave, connected to the placenta that pumps blood, nutrients and hormones into its growing body and brain, the fetus is asleep. 

Invasive experiments in rat and lamb pups and observational studies using ultrasound and electrical recordings in humans show that the third-trimester fetus is almost always in one of two sleep states. Called active and quiet sleep, these states can be distinguished using electroencephalography. Their different EEG signatures go hand in hand with distinct behaviors: breathing, swallowing, licking, and moving the eyes but no large-scale body movements in active sleep; no breathing, no eye movements and tonic muscle activity in quiet sleep. These stages correspond to rapid-eye-movement (REM) and slow-wave sleep common to all mammals. In late gestation the fetus is in one of these two sleep states 95 percent of the time, separated by brief transitions. 

What is fascinating is the discovery that the fetus is actively sedated by the low oxygen pressure (equivalent to that at the top of Mount Everest), the warm and cushioned uterine environment and a range of neuroinhibitory and sleep-inducing substances produced by the placenta and the fetus itself: adenosine; two steroidal anesthetics, allopregnanolone and pregnanolone; one potent hormone, prostaglandin D2; and others. The role of the placenta in maintaining sedation is revealed when the umbilical cord is closed off while keeping the fetus adequately supplied with oxygen. The lamb embryo now moves and breathes continuously. From all this evidence, neonatologists conclude that the fetus is asleep while its brain matures.

These same magical thinkers rail against the decision of Roe Vs. Wade completely oblivious to the benefit that they gain from having a right to privacy established in the Constitution (amendment 9) granting them the privilege of private conversation with their doctors and attorneys. They are equally oblivious to the biology behind why the third trimester of a pregnancy is the only part of a pregnancy which the government should rightly have any say over; and then only on the presumption that more inhabitants of the state are good for the state.

With the passage of the ACA, the argument about abortion has devolved somewhat.  Now it isn’t enough simply to think abortion murder (which it demonstrably isn’t. But I’ll get to that) Now the opposition to abortion has lost a bit of it’s holier-than-thou mask and completely endorsed the Catholic dogma against birth control, morning after pills, and women’s healthcare in general.  Conservatives and the Religious Right (once derisively labeled the Reich. They can have the word right and the right side of the aisle for all I care now) have become well-nigh hysterical on the subject of abortion and women’s health choices, largely because of the dual nature of a record decline in the number of Americans who attend church and the fact that most resistance to abortion is religiously motivated;

In spite of the small shift toward opposition to legal abortion, the basic contours of the debate are still intact, with most major groups lining up on the same side of the issue as they have in the past. For example, most people who regularly attend religious services continue to come down in opposition to abortion, while the large majority of those who rarely or never attend religious services still support legal abortion.

The survey also reveals continued polarization over abortion. Even as the public expresses support for finding a middle ground, most Americans are quite certain that their own position on abortion is the right one, with only a quarter (26%) saying they ever wonder about their views on the issue. This is a slight decline since 2006, when 30% expressed doubts about their own view on abortion. Furthermore, many people on both sides of the issue say that the opposite point of view on abortion is not a “respectable” opinion for someone to hold. Nearly half of abortion opponents (47%), including 62% of those who say abortion should be illegal in all cases, say that a pro-choice view is not a respectable opinion for someone to hold. On the other side, 42% of abortion supporters (including 54% of those who want abortion to be legal in all cases) say the pro-life point of view is not respectable.

 Attend church services weekly; 73% favor making all abortion illegal. There’s your pro-life movement, and that movement is shrinking at a regular rate; is already smaller than it has been at any time in US history, and is only going to get smaller as time goes on.

Their declining numbers leads to attempts to tie resistance to abortion being legal to humanitarian feelings, but that is a lie perpetrated by the desperate;

The current secular consensus, however, is that all stages of human life do not merit equal protection. As mentioned above, it’s an uncontroversially easy choice to allow a woman to live, not her fetus, when that choice is forced by a dangerous pregnancy. 

 Which also addresses why abortion is not murder; because not all stages of life are protectable or even demonstrably human in any way beyond basic genetic makeup.  Human life is governed by several necessary components; volitional will, conscious mind, corporeal existence, breath and heartbeat. That abortion stops a beating heart is only an observation that the autonomic functions of the brain stem have been established.  The brain itself is not functioning in any meaningful way until well into the third trimester; and even then the brain (if it even exists) is in a sleep state until after birth.

In the first trimester (when the vast majority of abortions and chemical interventions take place) there isn’t even a beating heart yet.  This doesn’t stop the punishment obsessed from inflicting the requirement for ultrasound examinations and various other forms of near-torture on the woman who is contemplating an abortion;

Halfway through my pregnancy, I learned that my baby was ill. Profoundly so. My doctor gave us the news kindly, but still, my husband and I weren’t prepared. Just a few minutes earlier, we’d been smiling giddily at fellow expectant parents as we waited for the doctor to see us. In a sonography room smelling faintly of lemongrass, I’d just had gel rubbed on my stomach, just seen blots on the screen become tiny hands. For a brief, exultant moment, we’d seen our son—a brother for our 2-year-old girl.

Yet now my doctor was looking grim and, with chair pulled close, was speaking of alarming things. “I’m worried about your baby’s head shape,” she said. “I want you to see a specialist—now.”

My husband looked angry, and maybe I did too, but it was astonishment more than anger. Ours was a profound disbelief that something so bad might happen to people who think themselves charmed. We already had one healthy child and had expected good fortune to give us two.

Instead, before I’d even known I was pregnant, a molecular flaw had determined that our son’s brain, spine and legs wouldn’t develop correctly. If he were to make it to term—something our doctor couldn’t guarantee—he’d need a lifetime of medical care. From the moment he was born, my doctor told us, our son would suffer greatly.

That is how you can get to the second trimester and not act to terminate a pregnancy. It isn’t laziness or inconvenience or even wanton disregard.  It is that these things take time to determine. This poor woman’s story isn’t even rare or particularly hard to sympathize with.  Nor was it over;

“I’m so sorry that I have to do this,” the doctor told us, “but if I don’t, I can lose my license.” Before he could even start to describe our baby, I began to sob until I could barely breathe. Somewhere, a nurse cranked up the volume on a radio, allowing the inane pronouncements of a DJ to dull the doctor’s voice. Still, despite the noise, I heard him. His unwelcome words echoed off sterile walls while I, trapped on a bed, my feet in stirrups, twisted away from his voice.

“Here I see a well-developed diaphragm and here I see four healthy chambers of the heart…”

I closed my eyes and waited for it to end, as one waits for the car to stop rolling at the end of a terrible accident.

When the description was finally over, the doctor held up a script and said he was legally obliged to read me information provided by the state. It was about the health dangers of having an abortion, the risks of infection or hemorrhage, the potential for infertility and my increased chance of getting breast cancer. I was reminded that medical benefits may be available for my maternity care and that the baby’s father was liable to provide support, whether he’d agreed to pay for the abortion or not.

Most second and third trimester abortions fall into this category.  In fact, only 5% of third trimester abortions occur because of delay, even delay with a valid reason.  95% of third trimester abortions occur because of a defect in the fetus that would be life-threatening, and that couldn’t be diagnosed until this late stage of pregnancy.  So the overwhelming majority of women seeking abortion in the third trimester are needlessly subjected to shaming measures in the misbegotten hope that they will carry to term and deliver a child which will die shortly after birth.  The best outcome for these pregnancies if they were not aborted is that the child produced will grow up into an adult who will always be a burden on society.

This makes third trimester abortion resistance nothing more than a smoke-screen, and a harmful one at that. The laws which the well-meaning have gotten passed have only served to torment women who want to have healthy children, but have been unlucky enough to have a pregnancy that tests positive for birth defects. Most of them desperately wanted to have their children but have finally accepted the inevitable. They are then subjected to torment by protesters outside the clinics they don’t even want to go to, and then tormented by law by healthcare practitioners who are chained to requirements over which they have not control.

When I said reality is harsh, it is brutish, and it isn’t fair I wasn’t joking.  And I wasn’t even talking about abortion then.

I was talking about the ease with which it is to find oneself pregnant. The notion that all children are wanted, or that all women see their pregnancies as a blessing (or even a potential life) is soft-headed bullshit, just to be blunt.  Ask any poor child starving anywhere in the world (even in the US) if they felt their existence was valued, that life was worth living, and you are likely to be shocked by the answer.

…And that is today, when abortion is legal and generally available.  If you travel to Southern Asia or Africa or South America to regions where women are still treated as property, you will run into the kinds of offspring that used to be common everywhere around the world.  Children that women were forced to have because no alternatives were available to them.  Unwanted children who turn into criminal-minded adults that are a plague on society as a whole.

This is a statistical fact laid out by the authors of Freakonomics. the wiki page describes it this way;

The effect of legalized abortion on crime (sometimes referred to as the Donohue-Levitt hypothesis) is the theory that legal abortion reduces crime. Proponents of the theory generally argue that since unwanted children are more likely to become criminals and that an inverse correlation is observed between the availability of abortion and subsequent crime. Not only that, but children born under these conditions are usually less fortunate as enough preparation was not put in place for their birth and upbringing. In particular, it is argued that the legalization of abortion in the United States, largely due to the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade, has reduced crime in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Opponents generally reject these statistics, and argue that abortion has negative effects on society or decrease in crime is brought about in other ways.

If you don’t believe this, read the book.  I have read the book, and several books after that.  I have researched the counters and the later revelations on the influence of lead in gasoline on violence in society.  Nothing seen so far disproves the hypothesis that abortion had a noticeable effect in lowering crime rates in the US; and it bears thinking that perhaps freeing women from chattel states throughout the parts of the world where they are still deemed property, and providing them with access to modern healthcare including abortion and contraception might lead to more stable societies in those areas.

Because reality isn’t fair.  It makes sex irresistible to the people among us (the young) who are least able to provide for the offspring sex produces. The cost of raising a child is astronomical (projected as over $245,000 in 2015) where is the average 16 to 18 year old going to find that kind of money? Are we, as a society going to foot that bill?  Anyone?  Ready to ante up the cost of raising all the unwanted children all over the world as a means of stemming the plague of abortion? where will we house the extra millions who need to be housed, feed them, clothe them, etc., when the world population already tops 7 billion and the maximum projected supportable population (with current technology) is 10 billion?

No, I really want to know! You want to stop abortion, but you don’t want to pay for the consequences of removing that option from the table. Tell me how we stop people from having children they can’t raise without allowing them to decide if they can afford children or not.  Because any plan that doesn’t include those calculations is just magical thinking, and this is the real world.


Now to the personal; a bit of proof that I do understand where anti-abortionists are coming from.

I have two children of my own.  So when I say that people who oppose abortion fail to grasp objectivity on this subject (barring rock-solid counter evidence) my subjective, anecdotal experience with my own children bears this out.  

My children were persons from the time I knew they existed, and I would have been devastated if anything had kept them from becoming the people that they are today.  No amount of knowledge concerning the limited nature of their selves while in the womb and even several years after their birth could modify the way I thought of them, treated them.  They were always going to become adults, people, responsible humans if only I managed not to screw things up.
I got lucky.  Or maybe it was just plodding, methodical planning.  In any case, they’ve grown up well and I’ve never had to make the kinds of choices that other potential parents have had to make.  We could have waited and things could have been easier, but you play the hand you are dealt.  That is a mantra I’ve lived with all my life.
As for the rock-solid evidence that counters my understanding of reality, I know what form it would take.  Prove the existence of the soul.  I don’t mean have faith that we have one, I mean scientifically prove its existence.  That is the evidence that would counter court decisions and scientific evidence accumulated to date.  Ensoulment is what believers hang their hats on when they talk about personhood being a part of the fertilized egg.  Most of them have enough caution not to bring that up as proof these days.
Believers have been trying to prove the existence of the soul since science was discovered.  All of them have come up empty, and there were a lot more scientists who believed when science was young than there are now that we have progressed as far as we have today.  
But that is also another blog entry.