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Obama and Race Relations May 31, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Culture, Dwight Furrow's Posts.
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This recent CBS poll is heartening regarding race relations in the wake of Obama’s election.

Fifty-nine percent of African-Americans – along with 65 percent of whites – now characterize the relationship between blacks and whites in America as “good,” according to a new CBS News/New York Times survey.
Less than a year ago, just 29 percent of blacks said race relations were good. The percentage of blacks who say race relations are bad, meanwhile, has dropped from 59 percent last July to 30 percent today.
Sixty-one percent of blacks say there has been real progress in getting rid of racial discrimination since the 1960s. That’s up from 37 percent in December 1996. Eighty-seven percent of whites say there has been real progress since the 1960s.

So has Obama’s election transformed race relations in the U.S as this recent article in Salon claims?

I suspect it will have some modest positive effect.

Despite Obama’s election, blacks in the U.S are systematically poorer, and have less access to the resources needed to alleviate poverty. Until this changes, I don’t think racial divisions will be healed.

But certainly Obama will inspire many young African-Americans to aim high and perhaps put the lie to many of the negative racial stereotypes that continue to infect racial dialogue in the U.S.


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Friday Food Blogging May 29, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Food and Drink.
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Via the Atlantic Food Channel blog:

Jamon Iberico de bellota is a Spanish delicacy routinely touted as one of the world’s finest cuts of meat. The influential critic Ed Levine urges anyone who can afford the $96 a pound delicacy to indulge, calling it “ham as God would make it.” The celebrated secret to Iberico de bellota’s succulence is pigs that roam oak forests to fatten themselves on a steady diet of sweet acorns.

But it turns out that Spain probably can’t produce enough acorns to feed their pigs, and a rumor has leaked that they are importing acorns from Tunisia, Turkey, and even the United States, although the charge is denied by Spain’s pig producers.

Needless to say, the charge is huge, challenging nothing less than the core identity of Iberico de bellota. Indeed, the image of rampant Iberico pigs living in a state of nature is, well, rampant. Just as much as they value its taste, consumers value the image of Iberico pigs eating a diet provided entirely by nature under all-natural conditions. Google up “free range” and “Iberico” and you’ll get the point.

I enjoy Spanish Jamon, but I don’t recall sampling Jambon Iberico de bellota. (I would remember paying $96 per pound). And sometimes the geographical details regarding soil composition, climate, and variety matter. (I have never tasted mozzarella cheese that rivals the buffala mozzarella produced near Naples for instance).

But suppose the imported acorns provide precisely the right flavor profile. Does it then matter that they are imported?

The same debate occurs in the wine industry regarding the concept of terroir (the soil and climate conditions in which the grapes are grown). The French, especially, believe a wine should reflect the unique characteristics of the growing region, and wines should not be processed in a way that masks the terroir. Thus, they have very strict laws regulating the production and labeling of wine to preserve that connection. (In the U.S. some wine makers emphasize this; others do not. And it is very loosely regulated.)

Is a good wine, a good wine regardless of its regional connection? Similarly for a good ham?




Possible Worlds and Misogyny May 28, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Philosophy of Gender.
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Brad Delong channels a friend who comments on conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat’s views on women:

Ross Douthat:

  1. believes that abortion is murder.
  2. thinks that women who use birth control should be stigmatized as (or perhaps are) unattractive sluts.
  3. thinks that single parents should be stigmatized too.

Don’t you only get to pick two of those three? Unless you’re a real p—- who thinks women should be locked up by their fathers until title to them is passed to their husbands, that is.

I suppose there is some possible world in which someone could, without contradiction, hold 1, 2, and 3. But not in this world.

Delong provides the analysis:

I agree. If you think birth control and single parenthood should both be stigmatized then you must be for abortion on demand. If you both forbid abortion and stigmatize birth control then single parents are valuable parts of society performing important work raising the next generation. If you forbid abortion and disapprove of single parenthood then women on the pill are Visible Saints.

Since there are possible worlds in which people think “women should be locked up by their fathers until title to them is passed to their husbands” Douthat’s beliefs are not quite unintelligible—but they are very close.

Empathy and Judges May 27, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, ethics of care, Political Philosophy, politics.
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When Obama first discussed his thinking about the Supreme Court nomination to replace Justice Souter, he mentioned empathy as a qualification. And that set off a firestorm of criticism from Conservatives. Republican National Committee Chair Michael Steele howled, “Crazy nonsense empathetic! I’ll give you empathy. Empathize right on your behind!”

In more temperate tones, Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah warned that if a judge were to show empathy, “politics, preferences, personal preferences and feelings might take the place of being impartial and deciding cases based upon the law, not upon politics.”

But conservatives misunderstand empathy and legal judgment.

Empathy refers to our capacity to feel what others feel, to know what it is like to walk in someone else’s shoes—and it is absolutely essential to sound legal judgment.

As I pointed out yesterday, judges have to interpret the law and apply the law to the facts that constitute the case on which they are ruling. Supreme Court justices are making decisions that will set policy and legal standards for the entire nation. So their decisions have consequences. But most judges are wealthy, well-educated elites, insulated from the struggles less privileged people must endure. And their occupation gives them a unique outlook on the world not widely shared by people outside the legal profession. If their conception of the impact of their rulings is bounded by the cloistered, privileged parameters of their own lives, the result will not only be bad law, it will be law that is partial to their social and economic class. It is simply a myth that there is some standpoint, from which a judge can rule, shorn of values and divorced from the circumstances of life. The belief that there is such a standpoint is itself an ideology and a pernicious one at that.

So how can judges rule impartially? Through empathy—our ability to feel what others feel, the moral capacity that conservatives are so quick to ridicule

As Obama points out in The Audacity of Hope: “Empathy … calls us all to task, the conservative and the liberal, the powerful and the powerless, the oppressed and the oppressor. We are all shaken out of our complacency. We are all forced beyond our limited vision.”

Empathy is a necessary condition of impartiality—at least the kind of impartiality that humans (as opposed to machines) are capable of—because empathy makes us imagine, and thus come to know, how our actions affect others.

Stanley Fish, in commenting on this flap over empathy in the New York Times, is  alive to the role of values in applying the law but also seems to misunderstand the role of empathy. He writes:

“Rather than reasoning from legal principles to results, an Obama judge will begin with the result he or she desires and then figure out how to get there by what only looks like legal reasoning.

This is the answer to Dahlia Lithwick’s question, what’s wrong with empathy? It may be a fine quality to have but, say the anti-empathists, it’s not law, and if it is made law’s content, law will have lost its integrity and become an extension of politics. [Ed. Lithwick’s article is here]

Obama’s champions will reply, that’s what law always has been, and with Obama’s election there is at least a chance that the politics law enacts will favor the dispossessed rather than the powerful and the affluent.”

Fish seems to think a judge is on the horns of a dilemma—either she feels empathy and thus allows her preconceived moral ideology to govern her understanding of the law, or she coldly applies the law as written and thus enables her privileged position as advocate for the ruling class to be smuggled in disguised as objectivity.

But there need not be such a dilemma. Responsible judges begin with the law as written, constrained by precedent and legislative history. But then they ask whether the law so interpreted has the effect intended by lawmakers.

One needs empathy to answer this question. Empathy is not a conduit through which we splatter our preferences on an otherwise autonomous law. Empathy helps us discover the facts—it is fundamentally epistemological, not ideological.

 Cross-posted at Reviving the Left.


Judicial Activism May 26, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Political Philosophy, politics.
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Obama’s nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court has already provoked complaints that she lacks the intellect to be a Supreme Court Justice. These complaints are coming from intellectual giants in the Republican Party such as Karl Rove and Rush Limbaugh. I’m sure we will hear, also, that she is a threat to white men everywhere from the same deep thinkers.

But after the silliness, racism, and sexism scurry under a rock where they belong, the opposition is likely to focus on charges that she is a judicial activist. This is standard Republican fare whenever a liberal is nominated to a judgeship.

It is also utter nonsense.

This idea of judicial activism has been paraded in public since courts were forced to deal with issues of civil rights in the 1950’s and 60’s and abortion in the 1970’s.Striking down Jim Crow laws was unpopular in the South, forced busing was unpopular everywhere, and the abortion debate required the court to deal with issues that could not have been anticipated by the people who wrote our Constitution.

People who didn’t like these decisions argued that the court was making law, not interpreting it—hence the charge of judicial activism. It means going beyond the constitution in order to achieve some political end.

But the distinction between making laws and interpreting laws is not precise. The constitution contains nice sounding clauses such as “equal protection of the laws”, “due process”, “freedom of speech”, “separation of powers” etc.

But the constitution doesn’t tell us what these phrases mean and it doesn’t tell us how to apply them. No text is self-interpreting and the very fact there is a case before the Supreme Court entails that there is disagreement on a question of interpretation. If the plain meaning of the text was sufficient, there would be little reason to have a supreme court.

The question, of course, is what criteria should justices use when making interpretive judgments. In our legal system, judges are constrained by precedent. But that can’t be an absolute constraint. If it were, laws would never be overturned. So how much weight should legal precedent be given? There is no simple answer to this—both conservative and liberal judges are inconsistent regarding the weight of precedent.

Is the text more important than legislative history? Should the purpose of the law be considered? What about contemporary norms and practical considerations of whether the law is workable? What role should moral ideals such as liberty or equality play? Again, the constitution itself doesn’t answer these questions. They can be answered only by each individual judge.

In the end, every judge will use their moral sensibility, life experience, judicial philosophy, and political ideology to interpret the constitution. This is not because they are excessively enthusiastic about their political agenda—it is because there is no alternative. The notion that there is some impartial point of view that considers only the law as written is simple nonsense; and the idea that conservative judges alone occupy this point of view is self-deceptive blather.

In fact Media Matters reports that:

A 2005 study by Yale University law professor Paul Gewirtz and Yale Law School graduate Chad Golder indicated that among Supreme Court justices at that time, those most frequently labeled “conservative” were among the most frequent practitioners of at least one brand of judicial activism — the tendency to strike down statutes passed by Congress. Indeed, Gewirtz and Golder found that Justice Clarence Thomas “was the most inclined” to do so, “voting to invalidate 65.63 percent of those laws.” Those most frequently labeled “liberal” were the least likely to strike down statutes passed by Congress, according to the study.

A recently published study by Cass R. Sunstein (recently named by President Obama to head the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs) and University of Chicago law professor Thomas Miles used a different measurement of judicial activism — the tendency of judges to strike down decisions by federal regulatory agencies. Sunstein and Miles found that by this definition, the Supreme Court’s “conservative” justices were the most likely to engage in “judicial activism,” while the “liberal” justices were most likely to exercise “judicial restraint.”

So during the confirmation hearings when Senator Blowhard raises the specter of “judicial activism” be aware this is code for “liberal idea I don’t like”.


Why the Old Growth Won’t Return May 25, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, politics.
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One very straightforward way of thinking about the current economic crisis is that some investment bankers, seeking quick profit with little risk, developed some unusual and unworkable investment instruments. And because of a deregulated environment where no one was paying attention to what they were doing, these investment instruments enabled lots of bad loans, especially in the housing sector. This created a bubble—an inflated housing market—that burst sending the economy into a tailspin.

Once the bad loans are off the books and housing prices are stabilized we can return to the kind of growth rates that we had before the crisis.

I get the impression that lots of people expect something like this after the recession.

But there is another story to be told, one that is less optimistic. The alternative story is that easy credit is not something that appeared over the last few years but has been expanding over the past few decades, fueling what we now think of as modern consumerism—middle class people with the ability to buy lots of stuff. But this expansion of credit was not based on improving real wages for the middle class. Thus, for many years people were borrowing money that they had no realistic means of paying back, while paying exorbitant interest on that money to the bankers. The collapse of the housing market was just the “straw that broke the camel’s back”—an event that triggered the collapse of a financial bubble that had been building for years.

Via Kevin Drum, this chart suggests the alternative story is the right one.



The chart shows, since 1979,  an enormous leap in real income for the top 1%, some modest growth for the next 19%, and for everyone else almost nothing. Yet, this flat growth in real income for most Americans is accompanied by a plummeting savings rate for the middle class and an explosion in consumption fueled by credit.

The conclusion to draw from this is that the growth rates of the past 30 years were based on nothing but financial shenanigans and delusional spending. If so, we will not be able to return to previous growth rates even once there is a economic turn around.

This means a fundamental shift in how Americans conceptualize a good life. It also suggests that no matter how successful Obama is at ending the Great Recession, he will face a frustrated electorate in the future.


Friday Food Blogging May 22, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Food and Drink.
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Authenticity matters, to some degree, when sampling ethnic foods. (Why it matters is difficult to understand—perhaps the topic of a future post.)

I’m not a big fan of it , but I’ve always wondered where the ubiquitous Sriracha sauce comes from—that sweet, garlickly, hot, red sauce in a bottle with the rooster on it. You can find it in Thai, Vietnamese, and Chinese restaurants. I’ve seen in in Korean and Japanese restaurants as well.

It turns out it is as American as catsup.

John Edge in the New York Times interviews Sriracha’s creator, David Tran:

I made this sauce for the Asian community,” Mr. Tran said one recent afternoon, seated at headquarters, near a rooster-shaped crystal sculpture.

I knew, after the Vietnamese resettled here, that they would want their hot sauce for their pho,” a beef broth and noodle soup that is a de facto national dish of Vietnam. “But I wanted something that I could sell to more than just the Vietnamese,” he continued.

After I came to America, after I came to Los Angeles, I remember seeing Heinz 57 ketchup and thinking: ‘The 1984 Olympics are coming. How about I come up with a Tran 84, something I can sell to everyone?’ ”

What Mr. Tran developed in Los Angeles in the early 1980s was his own take on a traditional Asian chili sauce. In Sriracha, a town in Chonburi Province, Thailand, where homemade chili pastes are favored, natives do not recognize Mr. Tran’s purée as their own. 

I knew there was a reason I don’t much care for it—it is not authentic. But why do I care about authenticity?

How Science Is Corrupted May 21, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Ethics, Science.
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It is hard to exaggerate the degree to which, in modern societies, we are utterly dependent on science. It profoundly effects almost every aspect of our lives, and our future is bound up with the continued success of science.

In the classroom, I put a lot of emphasis on the fact that scientific results have credibility only if the public, self-correcting mechanisms of science are allowed to function so that scientific objectivity is maintained. When they don’t function well, people are harmed.

So stories about Big Pharma’s attempts to suppress or distort research results are disturbing because, if those practices become widespread, part of the foundation of modern society will be at risk. The latest story involves the publishing industry as well.

A few years ago, the painkiller Vioxx was taken off the market because there was evidence it caused heart attacks. The manufacturer, Merck, was sued, and during the course of the lawsuits it was alleged that research results showing increase risk of heart attacks were ignored and kept from the public by Merck officials. Merck has never admitted wrongdoing, but they have paid out millions in damages to the families of victims.

Vioxx cases are still being litigated in Australia and these cases have produced new revelations, this time involving Merck and the publisher Elsevier, a major publisher of academic research in a variety of fields. From The Guardian via Brian Leiter:

The relationship between big pharma and publishers is perilous. Any industry with global revenues of $600bn can afford to buy quite a lot of adverts, and pharmaceutical companies also buy glossy expensive “reprints” of the trials it feels flattered by. As we noted in this column two months ago, there is evidence that all this money distorts editorial decisions.

This time Elsevier Australia went the whole hog, giving Merck an entire publication which resembled an academic journal, although in fact it only contained reprinted articles, or summaries, of other articles. In issue 2, for example, nine of the 29 articles concerned Vioxx, and a dozen of the remainder were about another Merck drug, Fosamax. All of these articles presented positive conclusions. Some were bizarre: such as a review article containing just two references….It turns out that Elsevier put out six such journals, sponsored by industry. The Elsevier chief executive, Michael Hansen, has now admitted that they were made to look like journals, and lacked proper disclosure. “This was an unacceptable practice and we regret that it took place,” he said.

Doctors, especially general practitioners, don’t have time to read every journal article regarding the latest research. They rely on summaries and brief surveys  looking for information relevant to their practice. Fake “Journals” published to look like the real thing by allegedly reputable publishing houses don’t help. Their only purpose is to deceive.

As Ben Goldacre, the author of the Guardian article says:

In a sensible world, countries would band together and pay for comparative research themselves, and the free, open distribution of the results, to prevent all this nonsense.

We do not live in a sensible world.

What If We Had an Election and Nobody Showed? May 20, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, politics.
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California faces a budget debacle of historic proportions, so Ahhnold gave us an election he said would fix it. Voters turned out in historically paltry proportions to turn him down. From the Sacramento Bee:

Preliminary semi-official returns from the secretary of state’s office indicate that just 22.9 percent of California‘s registered voters cast ballots.

Conservatives are trying to spin the vote against Ahhnold as an expression of anger at his feeble tax increases. If 23% (many of whom were liberals who support higher taxes) is all the anger they can muster I don’t think politicians have much to fear from the anti-tax crowd.

No, the big yawn was spawned by the incoherence of this package of “reforms” and mistrust of the process that produced them.

I’m in the middle of grading final exams so I will let Marc Cooper speak for me:

I think it fair to assign the bulk of the blame to one Arnold Schwarzenegger. He came into office in 2003, promising to break up the boxes of government and to make a clean sweep of business-as-usual. He prematurely drove out of office a pay-to-play, uninspiring Democrat who had let the state debt burdgeon to a staggering  $38 billion.  Nice work, Arnold. Today that debt tops $70 billion. Teachers are being laid off. Police forces are being shrunk. Health care is being slashed. And much more mayhem is right around the corner…

Everyone with an IQ above room temp has known for a long time that there can be no long-term economic viability in California without a radical, that’s right, radical retooling of our tax base.  That means a scrapping of the onerous Prop 13 which, essentially, gives business and corporate interests a near free ride on already ridiculously low property taxes.

Arnold gave a lot of leeway on a lot of issues but he stubbornly stuck to his “no taxes” Republican mantra. At least until recently when, out of necessity, he began to approve a whole new tier of increased “fees.”

But it was all too little too late. Californians long ago grew bored by the annual budget deadlock in Sacramento. With new taxes needing a 2/3 super majority, the Repubs have just enough votes to gum up the works.  If Arnold had wanted to be remembered as an historic figure, instead of one more failed Governor, he would have shown the same courage on tax reform that he did on the environment he would have led the charge for change.

Instead, it was business as usual.

And now we will see if there is a shred of political courage left in Sacramento.

Cross-posted at Reviving the Left

Useless Philosophical Babies May 19, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Education, Ethics, Science.
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Developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik’s recent book, The Philosophical Baby puts the inner lives of babies in a new light. Via Seed Magazine:

One of the things we discovered is that imagination, which we often think of as a special adult ability, is actually in place in very young children, as early as 18 months old. That ability is very closely related to children’s ability to figure out how the world works. Imagination isn’t just something we develop for our amusement; it seems to be something innate and connected to how we understand the causal structure of the real world.

It has long been a puzzle why the long, resource-depleting developmental period of human beings was an evolutionarily stable strategy.

The evolutionary answer seems to be that there is a tradeoff between the ability to learn and imagine — which is our great evolutionary advantage as a species — and our ability to apply what we’ve learned and put it to use…if you’re always learning, imagining, and finding out, you need a kind of freedom that you don’t have if you’re actually making things happen in the world. And when you’re making things happen, it helps if those actions are based on all of the things you have learned and imagined. The way that evolution seems to have solved this problem is by giving us this period of childhood where we don’t have to do anything, where we are completely useless. We’re free to explore the physical world, as well as possible worlds through imaginative play. And when we’re adults, we can use that information to actually change the world.

And we probably shouldn’t be trying to teach calculus to Kindergarteners so no child will be left behind.

Both Piaget and Freud thought that the reason children produced so much fantastic, unreal play was that they couldn’t tell the difference between imagination and reality. But a lot of the more recent work in children’s theory of mind has shown quite the contrary. Children have a very good idea of how to distinguish between fantasies and realities. It’s just they are equally interested in exploring both.

And don’t let the drooling gibberish fool you.

These techniques show that children can work with very complex statistical information… But when you give kids these complicated sets of relationships and then just ask them to make the machine go or make the machine stop, they do the right things. Although they can’t consciously track how these conditional probabilities work, they are unconsciously taking that information into account. And they do this in the same way that sophisticated Bayesian network machine-learning programs do.

And if you thought kids learned moral behavior from authority figures telling them how to behave, you would be wrong:

Two-and-a-half-year-olds already recognize the difference between moral principles and conventional principles. You can ask them if it would be okay to hit someone at daycare if everyone said it would be okay, versus asking them whether it would be okay to not hang up your coat in the cubby if everyone said it would be okay. These children say it’s never okay to hit someone, but whether or not you have to put your clothes in the cubby could change from daycare to daycare. They already seem to appreciate the difference between the kinds of morality that comes from empathy and the kind that comes from our conventional rules…

A lot of moral psychology has been saying that we have these innate moral instincts, or innate moral grammars. When we look at children, we do see some of these innate moral intuitions, but there is also this tremendous capacity for moral revision. In some ways, I think those are some of the most distinctively human abilities. They give us the ability to say, “Oh wait, the way that we’ve been operating is not working, and that’s wrong.” And this gives us the ability to change those things that are wrong and get to better moral principles than we started out with.

Sorry about that social conservatives—you were wrong about that too.

The implications for philosophy:

Increasingly, modern philosophers say that we can learn about the big questions by looking at science. But science, especially developmental psychology, can also tell us about philosophy; it can tell us about what we start with, what we learn, and what the basic facets of human nature are. The kind of picture you often get from scientifically oriented philosophy is often very much in the vein of evolutionary psychology, with everything innate and genetically determined. But one of the more important things that has come out of developmental work is that there’s also a powerful capacity for change.