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Health Care Kabuki February 26, 2010

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, politics.
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President Obama had his health care summit yesterday, inviting Senators and Congress persons from both parties to put their ideas on the table; and the results were predictable.

The Dems and Obama explained why our health care system is broken, why individual mandates and subsidies are necessary to fix it, and why banning pre-existing conditions without mandates will not work.

The Republicans prattled on about interstate insurance, health care accounts and high-risk pools. And the Democrats explained why none of those will do anything to reform the system and will cause insurance costs to sky-rocket.

The good news was that there was very little nonsense about “death panels” or socialism, although Republicans stuck to their goal of misleading the public by bleating about government take over of health care, abortion subsidies, and strong arm Democratic tactics.

If we had a rational public discourse in this country, the debate about health care would be over and we could expect overwhelming public support for the Democratic plan.

But we don’t have a rational public discourse, in part, because the press will not report what is actually happening.

Although the Democrats rightly emphasized how many Republican ideas were in their proposal, anyone who listened closely or who has been following this year-long debate knows that Republican demands to start over are a thinly disguised attempt to derail any reform. They have one goal, which they have stated explicitly, and that is to make sure the Democrats don’t get credit for another policy that will help people.

But you will not hear the Washington Press corps tell it like it is. And 30 second clips on the nightly news are likely to show the “reasonable” Republicans pleading for bi-partisanship, giving the casual viewer the impression that the mean Democrats are up to their old arrogant tricks.

I suppose we have made some progress. Opponents can no longer claim their ideas have not had a fair hearing, and the Democrats have put health-care reform back on the agenda.

Democrats need to stop timidly worrying about Senate decorum, use the reconciliation process, and pass the damn bill.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com


Losing A Generation February 24, 2010

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, politics.
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According to Pew Research, as of November 2009, “Only 46 percent of 16-to-24-year-olds are employed, which is the smallest share since the government began keeping track in 1948…”

Via Brian Leiter, The Atlantic lays out the disturbing long-term consequences of our current recession and the failure to provide adequate stimulus to the economy—both, by the way, the consequences of a conservative ideology that may be back in power in 2010. Who better to put out a fire than an arsonist?

[I]n fact a whole generation of young adults is likely to see its life chances permanently diminished by this recession. Lisa Kahn, an economist at Yale, has studied the impact of recessions on the lifetime earnings of young workers […] She found that, all else equal, for every one-percentage-point increase in the national unemployment rate, the starting income of new graduates fell by as much as 7 percent; the unluckiest graduates of the decade, who emerged into the teeth of the 1981–82 recession, made roughly 25 percent less in their first year than graduates who stepped into boom times.

But what’s truly remarkable is the persistence of the earnings gap. Five, 10, 15 years after graduation, after untold promotions and career changes spanning booms and busts, the unlucky graduates never closed the gap. Seventeen years after graduation, those who had entered the workforce during inhospitable times were still earning 10 percent less on average than those who had emerged into a more bountiful climate. […]

When Kahn looked more closely at the unlucky graduates at mid-career, she found some surprising characteristics. They were significantly less likely to work in professional occupations or other prestigious spheres. And they clung more tightly to their jobs: average job tenure was unusually long. People who entered the workforce during the recession “didn’t switch jobs as much, and particularly for young workers, that’s how you increase wages,” Kahn told me. This behavior may have resulted from a lingering risk aversion, born of a tough start. But a lack of opportunities may have played a larger role, she said: when you’re forced to start work in a particularly low-level job or unsexy career, it’s easy for other employers to dismiss you as having low potential. Moving up, or moving on to something different and better, becomes more difficult….

The article goes on to provide evidence that people who don’t establish themselves in the job market within two years tend to suffer long-term psychological and physical damage that continues to inhibit their careers even if they eventually find steady work, suffering from increased rates of alcoholism, depression, mortality, and apathy.

I hope things turn around before our students hit the job market.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

Haiku Culture? February 23, 2010

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Culture, Dwight Furrow's Posts.

Since the advent of new computer and network technologies, commentators have been worried that the “web” was changing our intellectual abilities, distracating us with superficial facts in short bursts of information, rather than engaging with lengthy analyses that require focused thought and longer attention spans.

Via Ars Technica, The Pew Internet & American Life project polled 895 Internet experts to see what they thought of such doom-laden prophecies.

Here is a smattering of opinion:

Peter Norvig. Google’s Research Director, not surprisingly, defends the merits of skimming, saying that it sets the stage for more prolonged mental effort. As to whether people want to make that effort, it remains up to them.

“My conclusion is that when the only information on the topic is a handful of essays or books, the best strategy is to read these works with total concentration. But when you have access to thousands of articles, blogs, videos, and people with expertise on the topic, a good strategy is to skim first to get an overview. Skimming and concentrating can and should coexist.”

Dean Bubley, wireless industry consultant, says that the Web is merely the extension of a process that has been going on for millennia: using technology to free up our minds for other tasks.

“I think that certain tasks will be ‘offloaded’ to Google or other Internet services rather than performed in the mind, especially remembering minor details. But really, that’s a role that paper has taken over many centuries: did Gutenberg make us stupid?”

Andreas Kluth, a writer with The Economist, agrees. “This is the continuation ad infinitum of the process launched by abacuses and calculators: we have become more ‘stupid’ by losing our arithmetic skills but more intelligent at evaluating numbers.”

Sandra Kelly of 3M says that whether “Google makes you stupid” or not is up to you. “I don’t think having access to information can ever make anyone stupider. I don’t think an adult IQ can be influenced much either way by reading anything and I would guess that smart people use the Internet for smart things and stupid people use it for stupid things in the same way that smart people read literature and stupid people read crap fiction.”

But there are those who endorse the “doom and gloom” scenario:

Andrew Nachison, cofounder of We Media, argues that access to so much digital knowledge might be edging out other kinds of knowing, leaving us to drown in a sea of facts.

“It has confused and overwhelmed us with choices, and with sources that are not easily differentiated or verified. Perhaps it’s even alienated us from the physical world itself—from knowledge and intelligence that comes from seeing, touching, hearing, breathing, and tasting life. From looking into someone’s eyes and having them look back into ours. Perhaps it’s made us impatient, or shortened our attention spans, or diminished our ability to understand long thoughts. It’s enlightened anxiety. We know more than ever, and this makes us crazy.”

Nick Carr. Carr sticks to his guns. It’s not that IQ scores are going down, but that the change in mental activity promoted by long exposure to Google and the Web has real problems.

“What the ‘Net does is shift the emphasis of our intelligence, away from what might be called a meditative or contemplative intelligence and more toward what might be called a utilitarian intelligence. The price of zipping among lots of bits of information is a loss of depth in our thinking.”

As someone who engages in focused, lengthy analysis for a living I can’t say the new technologies have influenced my cognitive “style”. But the real danger I suppose is that these technologies could influence our reading preferences. If we get “intellectual payoff” from short bursts of information will we want to engage in deeper analyses anymore?

Some of the people interviewed predict we will lose our interest in longer pieces that require focused attention:

Clay Shirky, a professor at NYU and a prolific author himself, says that over the next decade, “Long-form expressive fiction will suffer (though this suffering has been more or less constant since the invention of radio) while all numeric and graphic forms of rendering knowledge, from the creation and use of databases to all forms of visual display of data will be in a golden age, with ordinary nonfiction writing getting a modest boost. So, English majors lose, engineering wins, and what looks like an Up or Down question says more about the demographic of the answerer than any prediction of the future.”

I’m not convinced that we will lose our interest in in-depth analysis or long-form expression. Anyone who seeks to genuinely understand something will be dissatisfied with superficial analyses. And the pleasures of long-form expressive fiction are distinctly different from the pleasures of brief narratives. The often reported decline in the reading of fiction today has more to do with the lack of time and a wider variety of options for relaxation than an inability or unwillingness to concentrate. (The condensed narratives of film have their own virtues)

On the other hand, we may lose patience with lengthy stories or analyses that don’t repay the effort. This may make us less willing to invest the time in authors with no track record. New writers may have difficulty getting noticed.

This post is quite long. Congratulations if you made it to the end!

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

The Revolution Is Late February 21, 2010

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Political Philosophy.
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Unemployment is high, stubbornly high, and many economists, including Administration economists, think the employment situation will not improve quickly.

The New York Times on Sunday had a story about this chronic unemployment, which contains the following quote by Allen Sinai:

“American business is about maximizing shareholder value,” said Allen Sinai, chief global economist at the research firm Decision Economics. “You basically don’t want workers. You hire less, and you try to find capital equipment to replace them.”

Allen Sinai is no left wing academic—he has been for many years a prominent forecaster of economic trends for major corporations and governments.

As Brian Leiter asks:

“One wonders if Mr. Sinai knows the pedigree for this insight about capitalism?  Or if he understands the consequence of this logic?”

The idea that capitalism will destroy itself by seeking efficiencies that will ultimately throw the people who buy its products out of work was one of Karl Marx’s main ideas.

Now it is being confirmed by the capitalists themselves.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

Caring about Fairness February 18, 2010

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, ethics of care, Political Philosophy, Science.
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New research in neuroscience continues to have important implications for philosophical debates in ethics and political philosophy.

Via Colin Farrelly:

Political philosophers interested in abstract debates about equality vs priority and sufficiency should find this recent study in Nature Neuroscience of interest (as well as this News piece).

It is commonly assumed that the impulse to maximize one’s own self-interest is automatic and can be contrasted with the deliberative, reflective sentiments of prosocial actors who care about equality. But it seems that the decision-making of the latter is also automatic emotional processing. Here is the abstract of the paper:

‘Social value orientation’ characterizes individual differences in anchoring attitudes toward the division of resources. Here, by contrasting people with prosocial and individualistic orientations using functional magnetic resonance imaging, we demonstrate that degree of inequity aversion in prosocials is predictable from amygdala activity and unaffected by cognitive load. This result suggests that automatic emotional processing in the amygdala lies at the core of prosocial value orientation.

This is important research in support of an ethic of care and its political implications. It suggests that our concern for fairness and equality is rooted in the emotions, not in our capacity to reason impartially.

It supports my main argument in Reviving the Left.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

Was Descartes Murdered? February 18, 2010

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Criminal Justice, Culture, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Philosophy.
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A few days ago The Guardian reported that a new book by German scholar Theodor Ebert claimed that Descartes did not meet his end by being exposed to the harsh Swedish winter climate, as we philosophers have been fond of telling forever, but by arsenic poisoning.

According to Theodor Ebert, an academic at the University of Erlangen, Descartes died not through natural causes but from an arsenic-laced communion wafer given to him by a Catholic priest.

Ebert believes that Jacques Viogué, a missionary working in Stockholm, administered the poison because he feared Descartes’s radical theological ideas would derail an expected conversion to Catholicism by the monarch of protestant Sweden. “Viogué knew of Queen Christina’s Catholic tendencies. It is very likely that he saw in Descartes an obstacle to the Queen’s conversion to the Catholic faith,” Ebert told Le Nouvel Observateur newspaper.

In a letter written after his patient’s death, Descartes’s doctor, Van Wullen, described having found something wrong – which Ebert believes to be blood – in the philosopher’s urine. “That is not a symptom of pneumonia; it is a symptom of poisoning, chiefly of arsenic,” said Ebert, adding that Descartes asked his doctor to prescribe an emetic. “What conclusion is to be drawn other than the philosopher, who was well-acquainted with the medicine of his day, believed he had been poisoned?”

 What Ebert contributes here, contrary to the buzzing assumptions on the Internet, is not the theory that Descartes died by arsenic poisoning—that story has been circulating for a long time, at least since 1980. I myself read about it in, of all places, an old popular account of conspiracy theories we’d picked up, serendipitously, in a used bookstore, and I cautiously put it into a footnote in Chapter 7 in my textbook, The Human Condition, in 2001. (Unsubstantiated theories should not go into textbooks, but footnotes referencing the unsubstantiated are acceptable!) The prevailing theory was then, to my understanding, that Descartes was murdered by Protestant bishops, not a Catholic missionary, for precisely the opposite reason: The conversion to Protestantism in Sweden had been long and bloody, and Protestant bishops feared that Queen Christina would revert back to Catholicism, helped along by what they perceived to be a very Catholic French philosopher. Hence the plot to get rid of Descartes.  Evidence in support of this theory was that Descartes never got to have any in-depth discussions with the queen, but  was put off with excuses for five months, until his death. A missionary would not have that kind of political power, but a bishop might. So who knows? I’m looking forward to reading Ebert’s book, to evaluate the level of research and the likelihood of his hypothesis. I’m thrilled that somebody is finally doing a (presumably) serious study of Descartes’ death, which might very well be an old unsolved mystery, a “cold case,” not because of chilly temperatures, but because of chilly politics.  I’m just not sure that his conclusion is the most likely one. If anybody has a lock of hair of Descartes that we can test for arsenic, would he or she please step forward? That would at least tell us the “How,” if not the “Why.

Philosophy Talk February 17, 2010

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, ethics of care, Political Philosophy.
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I am giving a talk on Friday for our Occasional Lecture Series at Mesa College.

The title is “How an Ethics of Care Can Transform Politics.”

It is open to the public so if you are interested in politics, ethics, and their intersection (and you live in San Diego) check it out.

The talk will be on Friday at 12:00 noon in LRC (Library Resource Center) 435.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

Learning the Wrong Lessons February 16, 2010

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, politics.
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Duncan Black is right:

If the Dems get thrashed in November, it’ll be because they failed to do enough to help the economy and generally do things for people. The lesson they’ll learn is that Obama the socialist did too much and what the people care about is “deficits.”
Madness, yes.

This is indeed madness but what would you expect given that the mad are in control of our media and our political discourse?

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

Who are the Tea Partiers? February 15, 2010

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, politics.
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The allegedly grass roots “tea party” movement has gotten lots of attention recently. Is it something new? A populist uprising against the establishment? A political force to be reckoned with?

It may be a political force but it is nothing new. A new CBS/Times poll does an in depth study of the movement. It is for the most part made up of conservative Republicans and conservative independents whose viewpoint is well to the right of most Americans; and it is a much smaller movement than the press has led us to believe.

18% of Americans identify themselves as Tea Party supporters; 55% say they know little about the movement. Since 62% view the GOP favorably and only 9% view the Democrats favorably, it is safe to say it is overwhelmingly made up of Republicans and a few independents. 80% have an unfavorable opinion of President Obama.

They are more likely than other Americans to oppose bank regulations, and less likely to blame the Bush Administration for budget deficits. Almost 50% believe, contrary to fact, that Obama has raised taxes.

They are, for the most part, conservative Republican voters, who have always been vocal and attracted lots of attention—but they now have a catchy new name.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

Time, the Universe, and Everything? February 15, 2010

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Philosophy, Philosophy of Human Nature, Science.
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I am always optimistic when I hear that a new Philosophy of Everything is making its debut. Why not? Why should the time of the great system builders be over? Let’s have some sweeping new thinking, to go hand in hand with the rapid expansion of the natural sciences. (Douglas Adams does deserve credit for at least trying.) And when I ran across Robert Lanza’s theory of Biocentrism in the Huffington Post recently, I thought I’d be in for a fun time. Robert Lanza is an interesting scholar; he’s been working with stem cell research and cloning, and is willing to explore radical new ways of thinking. But this article wasn’t nearly as much fun as I’d hoped for.

Immanuel Kant declared in 1781 that space and time were real, but only indeed as properties of the mind. These algorithms are not only the key to consciousness, but why space and time − indeed the properties of matter itself – are relative to the observer. But a new theory called biocentrism suggests that space and time may not be the only tools that can be used to construct reality. At present, our destiny is to live and die in the everyday world of up and down. But what if, for example, we changed the algorithms so that instead of time being linear, it was 3-dimensional like space? Consciousness would move through the multiverse. We’d be able to walk through time just like we walk through space. And after creeping along for 4 billion years, life would finally figure out how to escape from its corporeal cage. Our destiny would lie in realities that exist outside of the known physical universe.

… Time is simply the summation of spatial states – much like the frames in a film – occurring inside the mind. It’s just our way of making sense of things. There’s also a peculiar intangibility to space. We can’t pick it up and bring it to the laboratory. Like time, space isn’t an external object. It’s part of the mental software that molds information into multidimensional objects.

 For one thing, this idea is not really new. What if Time is a fourth dimension? How might we be able to watch events along the arrow of time before they have actually happened ? Can we double back and watch ourselves from a higher vantage point? Can we travel back in time and change the present? Etc, etc. I can’t expect that everyone who speculates about the nature of time has read Henri Bergson, but since Bergson proposed the (at the time) ultimate critique of existing time theories, it would be appropriate to see his theory acknowledged by a scientist who apparently wants to take the connection between natural science and philosophy seriously. In his day, Bergson was considered one of the greatest philosophers who ever lived. In 1889 he pointed out in his watershed of a book, Time and Free Will (and continued with his analysis in the 1896 book Matter and Memory), that time is misunderstood because we assume that it is quantifiable into spatial units (like the hands of the clock moving—through space). We are taken in by the brain’s predilection for externalizing and spatializing our experiences—but the true understanding of time is an internal flow, a duration which belongs to consciousness alone, and which has no equivalent in the spatial universe. As such, Bergson’s time concept may actually not be too far removed from Lanza’s—but for Bergson, time is not “the summation of spatial states” any more than it is like “frames in a film,” because that, in itself, is a spatialization. According to Bergson, we can’t “walk through time just like we walk through space,” and time is not “linear” in any directional sense. These are merely metaphors for the brain to cope with the experience of time passing, useful metaphors—but with no bearing on the lived experience of our life-time. Einstein himself engaged in critiquing Bergson, but he really didn’t get Bergson’s point. Of course this doesn’t mean that Bergson is right and Lanza wrong, but for Lanza to launch a philosophical theory of time, apparently bypassing Bergson’s theory (he isn’t even mentioned in the index of Lanza’s Biocentrism book) seems insufficient and incomplete.

But there is an additional element to Lanza’s theory: narrative theory:

But most of these comprehensive theories fail to take into account one crucial factor: We’re creating them. It’s the biological creature that fashions the stories, that makes the observations, and that gives names to things. And therein lies the great expanse of our oversight, that until now, science hasn’t confronted the one thing that’s at once most familiar and most mysterious – consciousness.

And that caught my attention at least as much as his time theory did—because this is right down my alley, viewing storytelling (narrativity) as the human invention of meaning, superimposed on a chaotic life. Indeed we are the story-telling animals, as Alasdair MacIntyre said. We tell the stories, we make the observations, and we name things. Absolutely. However, it would be a mistake to assume that we therefore create our entire universe through storytelling. We create stories and theories, right—but we don’t create the universe that the theories are supposed to explain—not all of it, at any rate. Postmodern perspectivism is wearing a bit thin: we may choose how we view our world, but we’re still stuck in (or thrown into) a reality that we have little control over. I am willing to concede that I may be jumping to conclusions, reading more into Lanza’s article than his book may actually claim (because I have not yet read his book), but judging from Lanza’s comments below the article it appears that he hopes the narrative angle can open up for the possibility of God’s existence, at least as a reality created (co-created?) by the storyteller. Those are fine ideas to bat around for philosophers—but I’d feel much better if a scientist would please leave philosophy of religion out of his or her professional, scientific theories.

There is of course another possibility: that Lanza is a philosophical idealist more than he is a natural scientist, at least in this context. We haven’t had many of those, and it would be entertaining to have a philosopher with a scientific background claim that the world is mainly mind rather than matter…