The Casual Blog

Tag: Ezra Klein

Bears, happy Juneteenth, and a solution to poverty

On our way back from the Outer Banks, we took a detour through the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge.  We saw two mother bears, each with two cubs, a barred owl, a flock of white ibises, and various other interesting birds, reptiles, and plants.  We were excited, and also worried, to see a rare, critically endangered red wolf standing beside Highway 64 and looking at the traffic.  Hope he or she is OK.

I you, like me, have an affectionate interest in wild animals, I recommend Vesper Flights, by Helen Macdonald.  It’s a collection of short personal essays about the natural world.  Macdonald explores the thrill and peace that nature can bestow, and helps us appreciate its fragility.  The NY Times review is here.    

This week Juneteenth became a national holiday.  Some Americans are just now learning about the original event, June 19, 1865, when African Americans in Texas first learned that slaves had been declared emancipated.  The basic idea of the holiday is to celebrate the end of slavery and beginning of freedom.  

Most of us surely agree that this is a good reason for celebration, though not all.  As I was practicing my golf swing at the range, I overheard an older golfer speaking disparagingly of the new holiday, and adding that “they” were “taking over.”  I wondered how he could have such an ignorant and poisonous idea, and then I remembered:  “us” and “them” was the basic framework a lot of us were trained in from birth, and some still are.  These ideas have long, hard-to-pull-out roots.

Also, racial segregation is still the rule in most American neighborhoods, schools, and churches.  There’s room for discussion about the details of why this is true in 2021, but plainly a lot has to do with the legacy of slavery.  One consequence is that it takes effort to get to know people of a different race, which increases the difficulty of dislodging our early training in the caste system.

But there are also other forces at work.  This week Thomas Edsall’s NY Times column examined the causes of so-called populism of Trump and similar movements elsewhere.  Edsall quoted various thinkers who identified economic forces, including artificial intelligence and other technology, robotics, and globalized outsourcing, that continue to cause job losses and threats to status for many, causing increasing insecurity and fear.  

Demagogues whip up these fears and blame minorities and immigrants for these losses.  Those with good reasons to feel economically insecure are often latch on to simple solutions to their problems, especially when they resonate with their early racial training.  

Why don’t we just eliminate poverty?  It sounds like something we could all agree is a good idea.   But as Ezra Klein wrote last week, poverty is a well accepted part of our economic system, and eliminating it would threaten some valued privileges of the privileged. 

As Klein explains, Americans rely on low wage workers in order to have cheap goods and services.  In this light, it makes sense to resist raising the minimum wage above the poverty level, allowing workers freedom to organize, or extending jobless benefits.  If low wage workers were less desperate, they might well not take jobs that are mind-numbing or dangerous and pay barely enough to survive.  Employers would have to provide better working conditions, and better wages and benefits.  They’d lose some profits, and all of us would have to pay higher prices.

 

This aspect of American-style capitalism is seldom discussed, but worth discussing now.  We learned from the covid pandemic that our government can organize massive resources in a hurry to address economic distress.  We may have assumed before that there’s nothing we can do to help the mass of people who work at or below the poverty level, but we now have good evidence that that’s just not true.

Klein’s piece discusses a recent study out of the New School proposing a promising approach to mitigating poverty:  a guaranteed annual income of $12,500 plus an allowance for children.  The payments would phase out for those with incomes above the poverty level.  It would require a budget increase of about 20 percent, which could be paid with taxes at about the level of other wealthy nations.  

It’s an interesting idea, though it obviously runs hard against the grain of neo-liberalism.  Indeed, Republican leaders in several states are currently looking to cut emergency covid relief, including not only  money but also food programs, on the theory that workers won’t work as required unless they’re truly desperate.  We have here a very dark side of American capitalism.  Just as was true before 1865, some are willing to watch people starve, if that’s what it takes to force them to work.  

So old questions need to be asked again:  how much do we value human life?  How much suffering are we willing to inflict in the name of prosperity?  What are we willing to sacrifice to move towards a more just society?   I’m hopeful, though I wouldn’t say confident, that our better angels are ascendent.

On a completely different subject, I want to recommend a short essay on Elizabeth Bishop’s famous poem, One Art. The essay in the Times by Dwight Garner and Parul Seghal is beautifully presented, and gets straight to the point.  Even if you aren’t much interested in poetry, you might find something of real value.  

Animal friends and victims

Emu at Sylvan Heights

This week I visited the birds at Sylvan Heights Bird Park in the little town of Scotland Neck, NC.  There were a lot of them, doing pretty much what we do — eating, cleaning, preening, playing, mating, fighting, resting, exploring.  The emu (the second largest bird on the planet) took a strong interest in me, pressing against the fence as though wanting to be petted, or perhaps to kick or peck me.  The sandhill cranes also seemed affectionate — so much so that it was hard to get far enough away to photograph them.  Several of the birds seemed to like it when I talked with them softly.   

Sandhill crane

Ai Weiwei, the Chinese artist and dissident, was featured in the NY Times last week discussing his cats.  I like Ai’s art and his courage, and I like cats as well (though they should not be loose near birds, which they will kill). 

Ai said:

I’ve learned so much from animals. It’s important to be around another species that has a completely different set of instincts and intuitions. Humans are so rational. We are defined by our knowledge, and that blocks our emotions and understanding of ourselves. But anyone who opens their mind or heart to cats can experience something that can’t be found in human society. They teach you that you can have a happy life without knowing anything at all. They take care of themselves, and they make their own fun. To be an individual, to be self-content — those are nice qualities for a life. 

I’m with Ai on learning from cats, though I think he may overestimate the overestimate how rational (as opposed to emotional) humans are.  Our little cat, Rita, is both a friend and a teacher.  I’m sorry she dislikes being photographed, since she’s also strangely cute, and quite a good dasher and leaper for a 13-year-old.  

In other animal news, Ezra Klein’s new piece proposes that we include as part of the big Biden technology and jobs plan a program to speed the development and bring down the price of artificial meat.  This idea has merit.  As Klein’s points out, some of our biggest problems, including greenhouse gas emissions, the coronavirus pandemic, and antibiotic-resistant disease, are in significant part the work of industrialized agriculture, and especially the meat industry.  There’s also the massive cruelty, which could be stopped or reduced by substituting meat grown from animal cells, rather than hacked from slaughtered animals.  

Of course, it’s possible right now, without a new government program, to replace the meat we eat with plant-based food.  But most of us have been taught from a young age that we need to eat meat to be healthy, and the lesson got lodged deep.  There’s plenty of evidence that it simply isn’t true.  Indeed, it’s widely accepted that eating meat is not necessary to get adequate protein and other nutrients, but it increases your risk of heart disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes, and other illnesses.  

It is both sad and bizarre that the right wing has spun up a lie that the Biden administration wants to outlaw hamburgers. But the quick spread of the hamburger lie in the right-wing subculture is also telling.  Our early intensive training in meat eating, constantly reinforced by advertising, rituals, and habit, makes it hard to change how we nourish ourselves, or even to think about changing.  Indeed, even raising the subject of such change causes some to experience anger, fear, confusion, and detachment from reality. 

An irony of the new hamburger lie is that historically, and still today, the US government has subsidized and actively promoted raising and consuming animal products.  This is the subject of a new lawsuit brought by, among others, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, one of my favorite charities.  The suit challenges the US Department of Agriculture for its dietary guidelines encouraging heavy consumption of dairy products, which cause health problems for the significant part of the US population that is lactose intolerant.  (The complaint apparently does not discuss other health risks from dairy products, including heart disease and certain types of cancer.)

The government’s guidelines require that schools offer children cow’s milk, and generally forbid offering them plant-based alternatives.  The lesson that children or others need cow’s milk for calcium and other nutrients has been thoroughly debunked by science.  Even those unwilling to think about the dairy industry’s torturing of cows may be disturbed to learn that, to increase agribusiness profits, the government is endangering the health of many schoolchildren.   This is not right.

I got vaccinated! Also, why racial privilege is not good for white people

This week it was rainy and cold for several days, and then sunny and cold, and I’ve been on the comeback trail from my neck surgery.  Dr. K directed me not to drive or work out until he gives the OK, but he approved walking.  I’ve been taking some good walks through Raleigh along Hillsborough Street next to N.C. State, through Cameron Village, around Oakwood, and along West Street through the up-and-coming warehouse district.  Walking helps you see things you wouldn’t otherwise. Several businesses had closed, but I spotted some new little ethnic restaurants that looked promising.

After waiting several weeks, today I finally made it to the top of the waiting list for a Covid-19 vaccine, and got my first dose today.  I can’t remember ever being more excited about getting a shot!  I got the Pfizer vaccine, though I would happily have taken any of the well tested options.  It didn’t hurt at all! I encourage all to roll up sleeves as soon as manageable.

On another timely subject, I discovered Ezra Klein’s podcast, and listened to Klein interview Heather McGhee about her new book, The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together.  The transcript is here.

McGhee and Klein led with a discussion of thousands of municipal swimming pools that American towns built and enjoyed in the last century.  Most allowed whites only, and when the anti-discrimination laws of the Civil Rights era arrived, the local leaders closed the pools en masse.  McGhee explained that white people, indoctrinated with the false narrative of the supposed inferiority and dangerousness of Black people, chose to stop all that fun and healthy swimming, rather than allow Black people to use the pools.  

McGhee found that this kind of nose cutting self-inflicted wound in response to racial fears explains a lot of our otherwise hard-to-explain sub par public policies.  A drain-the-pool impulse led people of the higher castes to oppose public services that would have greatly benefitted themselves in order to avoid benefitting people of the lower castes.  This helps account for Americans’ lack of affordable health care, lack of child care, poor public transportation, poor public education, rising student debt, lack of affordable housing, increasing inequality, and environmental degradation.  

McGhee and Klein discussed how white Americans have been taught over generations to view groups in a hierarchical and zero sum way, so that any advancement of Black people threatened lower status for them.  This view is nonsense, but deeply ingrained, and the fear of loss of status is real.  That’s not the only problem.  The zero sum mindset (that is, thinking that even when there’s plenty for everyone, there isn’t, so when someone else gets something that means there may not be enough for me) also divides lower status white people from even poorer white people.  Thus we have the Hillbilly Elegy situation of white people barely able to pay their bills adamantly opposing government help for those whites who can’t make ends meet.  

Our racial caste system is built on and perpetuates the myths of rugged individualism, racial inferiority, and fear of the Other.  As the pool draining example shows, this mindset has been tremendously destructive, not just for Black people, but for everyone except the plutocratic elites.  

But, as McGhee pointed out that, because our racial caste system gives a privileged position to white people, they are generally not strongly motivated to change it.  With her book, she’s trying to show that white racial privilege carries with it enormous economic and social costs for white people, like the drained swimming pools. It’s possible that, even without calling on compassion, if more white people realized how the system hurts them, they’d support change.

Michelle Goldberg discusses McGhee’s book in her latest column in the New York Times.  There’s also a new interview with McGhee on the Fresh Air podcast.  

Speaking of hope, this week we saw three Netflix or Prime movies that were a bit off the beaten track and offered a welcome bit of calm and optimism. First, Paterson was about a city bus driver in Paterson, N.J. (played by Adam Driver, named Paterson in the movie) who writes poetry when he can.  The movie seemed to be about  the small joys of life (useful work, domesticity, love, waterfalls, artistic creation), and the inherent value that has nothing to do with fame or fortune.  

We also liked Loving, a biopic about Richard and Mildred Loving, whose marriage violated Virginia’s laws against interracial relations, and whose 1967 case in the Supreme Court resulted in such laws becoming unconstitutional.  The movie makes its large points about discrimination and the possibility of racial harmony very simply, without hectoring.  It was quietly powerful, and touching.  

Finally, the new documentary Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution is about an upstate New York summer camp for disabled teenagers that seeded the modern disability rights struggle.  Camp Jened brought together kids with all kinds of physical and mental problems, including limited mobility and coordination, severe speech impediments, deafness, blindness, and developmental issues. At the camp, these kids did ordinary summer camp things, like making campfires, boating, singing, and making out.  It was a profound experience in normalcy for the campers.  It led some of them to become activists whose protests helped achieve the Americans with Disabilities Act.  The film was really cheering and inspiring.

Herons, virtual cocktails, and depolarizing

I got in a couple of trips  to Jordan Lake dam before the big shutdown.  There were quite a few great blue herons standing together and periodically flying into the river to catch fish.  I saw a few squabbles over food and fishing spots. The birds were surprisingly comfortable with me, with one flying in to stand for a while just 20 feet away.  I was looking forward to getting to know them better. But with the park closed, that likely won’t be happening this spring.  

In the Raleigh area, we’re now under orders to stay home if possible.  I’m fortunate not to be in danger of starvation or homelessness, but there are other challenges and disappointments.  In addition to missing the birds and the spring flowers, I’m missing my exercise routine. I usually get to the gym or a yoga class six days a week, and have come to think of that as an important element of my mental health, as well as my physical well being. I’ve been trying to do more running, but I have concerns that too much will hurt my knees.  Anyway, I did five miles yesterday.

We’ve heard that gun shops are doing a booming business.  Apparently, the self-defense crowd is worried that desperate hordes will be attacking their homes, and they will need extra guns and ammo to shoot them.  I think we’re a long way from a Mad Max dystopia, but it’s telling that those fears are here.  

In the spirit of making the best of things, we had our first virtual cocktail hour on Friday.  We scheduled a half hour starting at 5:30 for video chatting and drinking with Jocelyn and Kyle in New York.  We used Google Hangouts, which cut out a couple of times, but mostly worked. We commiserated about the pandemic, compared notes on streaming movies and series, and had some good laughs.  We agreed we would all be in deep trouble psychologically if the internet stopped working.

This week I finished reading Why We’re Polarized by Ezra Klein.  I recommend it to all who are interested in understanding why American politics seems to be working so badly.  Klein contends that political parties have become markers of identity rather than matters of ideology. That is, whichever group we’re in, the group’s policies aren’t as important to us as our being part of the group.  Those who aren’t part of our group are seen as enemies.  

Klein sees race as a central factor in our politics.  During the civil rights movement, Republican politicians used coded racial appeals to pull in working class white people. It seemed like that couldn’t work for long, but it’s still with us.  This isn’t a new revelation, but Klein does a good job putting it in context.  

Recently I discovered a good podcast called Scene on Radio that discusses American history and culture with a focus on issues of race and gender.  It’s now in its fourth season, which reexamines the place of slavery in the formation of the American political system. The founding fathers had strong disagreements about slavery, so there’s not a single, simple narrative.  But the wealthiest of the founders were wealthy because of slavery, and they made sure to protect their wealth, through the design of the Constitution and otherwise. Good podcast.   

It was heartening that faced with a real emergency, last week Congress managed to pass a stimulus bill on a bipartisan basis.  Perhaps it will mark the start of less polarization. But it appears that some at Fox News and extremist evangelicals are still taking the view that the pandemic is a liberal hoax designed to undermine President Trump.  Apparently some reverends are summoning the faithful  to attend their services on the grounds that there is no coronavirus.  We all know that human powers of denial and self deception are great, but even so, with tens of thousands of people already dead, this is amazing.  It’s a long way back from there to unpolarized reality.