Abortion, Again.

May 19, 2009 at 5:21 am (By Amba) ()

A blogfriend sent me the link to a Chicago Sun-Times column by Neil Steinberg, titled “What’s Behind the Anti-Abortion Frenzy?”, which revives the old canard that pro-lifers are really anti-sex.  More interestingly, it links to Beliefnet editor Steven Waldman’s essay “Safe, Legal, and Early,” which maintains that the legal question about abortion shouldn’t be “Yes or no?” but “When?”  This was my response.


Obviously, Waldman’s position (I read through the link) is the one the great majority of people hold, myself included.  I’d like people to be a lot more conscious of the real stakes when they consider having an abortion at any stage (or, a significant step back, having unprotected sex risking an unintended pregnancy), but most traditions (the Jewish tradition certainly) have long recognized a continuum on which the woman’s (or family’s) decision prevails early in pregnancy and that shifts as the fetus develops.

I don’t know that it matters whether the abortion debate is a proxy for a desire to make sex safe, legal, and rare (LOL).  I used to think that, but second-guessing and psychoanalyzing pro-lifers’ moral convictions has come to seem condescending and insulting to me.  What matters is whether they can impose their own choices, noble as they may be, on everyone else, and whether, if they can’t, they view it as an utter defeat by a satanic society.  (The rhetoric around Notre Dame’s invitation to Obama — from some of my own blogfriends, I might add — was so overblown, it was really depressing to me.)

Maybe no change happens without absolutist fervor (as a commenter says here, “Seriously, it’s nice to be civil, but Obama has to realize that it took a wild-eyed extremist (John Brown) and the death of 600,000 Americans to end slavery and make it possible for him to be President”), and without the feminist push for “abortion on demand” all abortion would have remained illegal and dangerous, and without the pro-life movement people would have blown off the moral momentousness of the decision and settled down in a very degraded place.  To the extent that I’m getting my wish of people being more conscious of the stakes, the push-back by pro-lifers is largely — no, almost solely — responsible.  Thanks to free speech they’ve done a beautiful job of dragging our attention back to the gravity of wishing away a unique human being.  Thanks to that, we are within reach of finally getting the legal balance right.  If the absolutists on both sides will let it happen.  Which requires the vast middle to finally speak up.

Thanks, maybe I’ll even post this, although the whole topic hits me on my broken heart.  I will repeat that I’m grateful for the change in the culture the pro-life movement has wrought, and that it is culture, not law, that could have tipped my own decision the other way.  Just living in today’s culture, instead of on the condom-littered beach where the tide of the ’70s had just begun to creep out, would have been enough.  I want us to continue moving, voluntarily, in that direction.

P.S. Steinberg coins a rather chilling term for abortion:  “murder lite.”  Here is what I think is the most literal and accurate description of what early abortion is and what it does:  nipping a human life in the bud.


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My Mom Writes a Book Review

May 17, 2009 at 3:36 am (By Amba) (, , , , , )

My mother has always been a good writer, but now she’s at the top of her powers.  She’s 85.  So I guess there’s hope for the rest of us.

It took me all these years since this book was published (2005) to get up the courage to read it. It is pretty remarkable. For those acquainted with grief–and who isn’t?–there is insight to be gained as you recognize the overwheming humanity of loss and the bewildered responses of the newly bereaved. We do negelct the mourning and grieving that has always been part of existence. Whether this book compensates for that or not, I can’t say.

“Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it.” In The Year of Magical Thinking, her account of a life upended by her husband John’s sudden death, Joan Didion chronicles the craziness, the jumble of events, emotions, memories she endures as she tries to make sense and order out of his death and her life. But what sets this book apart is Didion’s meticulous documenting of her mind’s twists and turns, her application of magical thinking to escape the inexorable rules of time and place and create a different ending for what has already happened. But all the king’s horses can’t repeal the law of the Democratic Republic of Death and alter an outcome. It is her straightforward narration, in all its dignity, complexity, and pathos that makes this such a riveting story. Not a “comfort book” in the conventional sense, it is a saga for explorers into the human heart and spirit, the Marco Polos, the Walter Raleighs, the Shackletons who enter unknown territory.

Maybe part of why I wanted first to make myself read that book and then to write something about it is that being old gives one a changing persepctive on death, maybe even on the act–or art–of dying, the part of the phenomenon of life that we don’t deal with very well. If being alive is a fulcrum, then life is one arm, death the other. I envision a seesaw. The death end is shrouded in fog and fear. Why?

~ Jean S. Gottlieb


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Roll Your Own.

May 16, 2009 at 5:06 am (By Amba) (, , )

(Wow!!  You don’t know how I love this feeling of not being able to keep up with “my own” blog.  What a luxury!*!*!*)

Via the Anchoress, John Podhoretz opines that mainstream, mass pop culture is dead.  That sounds right.  He and the Anchoress both speculate on the reasons.  I’d like to throw in mine:

People are now making their culture instead of consuming it. All these new devices and venues have been nothing but empowering, liberating.  We’re our own and one another’s pundits and publishers, storytellers and networks.  The audience has rebelled, risen up, and thrown off its chains of passivity.  The inmates are running the asylum.  And the resultant anarchy is creating a rich, deep layer of life, as fertile and self-organizing as soil.

(oh — it’s me, amba.)

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A Personal Illustration

May 15, 2009 at 3:30 pm (By Maxwell James) (, , )

Of what led us to today. Wow.

(H/T McArdle)

~ Maxwell

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Paying with Attention

May 15, 2009 at 2:40 pm (By Maxwell James)

Over on Slate, Farhad Manjoo announces an interesting new update to the Firefox plug-in AdBlock Plus. Apparently, the newest version of the program will encourage users to selectively display non-intrusive (i.e., non pop-up) advertisements from websites they frequently visit. Manjoo goes on to describe this change as a potential ethical advancement for humanity, making in the process what I would describe as an interesting ethical argument:

I’ve heard many convoluted justifications for ad blocking—”it’s my browser and my computer, so I can choose what I want to download”but it’s hard to make an honest claim that these programs are ethical. The Web is governed by an unwritten contract: You get nearly everything for free in exchange for the hassle of a few ads hovering on the periphery—and occasionally across the whole screen for a few seconds. Advertising probably supports a huge swath of the sites you regularly visit. It’s obvious how rampant ad blocking hurts the Web: If every passenger siphons off a bit of fuel from the tank before the plane takes off, it’s going to crash.

I’m a little perplexed by this argument. Manjoo seems to be claiming that the currency with which we pay for “free” content is by submitting our attention to the advertisers who subsidize the content. But it’s not our attention they actually want, it’s our money.

That doesn’t even get into the issue of whether, if I remove the ad-blocker software and go back to ignoring banners and swatting popups like flies (or for that matter, muting the TV during commercial breaks), I am simply committing an act of slower, less pleasurable theft. I’m still a free-rider on any particular corporation’s dime unless I actually allow its advertisements to change my purchasing habits.

Oh, I know to a lesser extent there’s the whole schtick about building brand equity, getting consumers to talk about the ads they’ve seen, and so forth. Moreover, I know that marketing experts will argue that the ads will affect purchasing behavior even if consumers refuse to acknowledge it. And that is probably true.

But here’s the thing: marketing campaigns have long been understood to reach supersaturation points beyond which markets no longer respond to additional advertising. Is it not possible that this is true for the advertising industry as a whole, and that internet advertising in particular is so supersaturated  and ubiquitous that it no longer has any net positive effect on economic growth? It may be that at best it can convince consumers to change their purchasing habits rather than to increase their purchasing habits – especially in the midst of a large economic downturn.

In the end, it doesn’t matter that much if I pay that much attention to the sponsors of the web sites I browse. What ultimately sustains them will not be my attention, but the dollars in my wallet. And the ways I choose to spend that money are going to be influenced by many factors other than the banner ads AdBlock Plus conceals from my gaze.

~ Maxwell

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Here it is

May 15, 2009 at 11:32 am (By Maxwell James)

Via Tyler Cowen: Amazon is going into publishing. I’ve been wondering when this particular shoe would drop. Not surprisingly, they are focusing on unknown writers. And bloggers can apply!

This will be the first real test of whether the new media can come up with a viable business model. It’s about time.

~ Maxwell

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“Nonetheless, the incremental cost-effectiveness did not exceed $136,000…per life saved.”

May 14, 2009 at 1:48 pm (By Maxwell James)

That’s from the abstract of this 2005 study of whether mandatory nurse-patient ratios, as recently implemented in California, are a cost-effective means of improving mortality rates in hospitals. I believe the methodology of the study is relatively sound, though I’m a layman and you can judge for yourself. But their conclusion – that increasing nurse-patient ratios up to 1:4 is cost-effective – is a good illustration of the tensions at the heart of the health care debate.

One such tension is whether a life saved is actually worth $136,000. Is that a no-brainer? It really depends on how we value a  life – and how much life is really left in the person living it. It’s worth pointing out that the study only measures mortality in 30-day increments, and if a year of life is worth $129,000 as that article argues, it’s possible that’s often not as good a trade-off as it seems to be.

As Dave Schuler has often pointed out, the dramatic rise in health care costs over the last decade or three is a matter of supply and demand. Demand for health care services – especially towards the end of life – has grown dramatically. And if another 40 million or so Americans are added to national insurance rosters, it will grow dramatically again.

Meanwhile, the supply of doctors (especially general practitioners) has remained essentially static for years. Moreover at least until very recently there existed a well-publicized nursing shortage in the US, which could still reach 500,000 positions by 2025 (That estimate is based on a projection of advertised vacancies, not on an stated nurse-patient ratio; studies based on the latter often project up to 1 million positions by 2020).

The law of supply and demand suggests that, if supply remains static while demand continually increases, the per-capita costs of healthcare in the US will continue to rise dramatically. In my next post on this topic I’ll look at some of the phenomena that have led to the supply of doctors and nurses being as constrained as it is.

~ Maxwell

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Created Woman

May 13, 2009 at 8:53 pm (By Miles Lascaux)

Germany Prehistory Venus

AP photo caption:

“Maria Malina, scientific employee, presents the photo of a carved ivory female figurine during its presentation in Tuebingen, southern Germany, Wednesday, May 13, 2009. The figurine, found in 2008 in a cave in Schelklingen, southern Germany is allegedly the world’s oldest reproduction of a human with an estimated age of at least 35,000 years.”

-Miles Lascaux

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Is It Genuine?

May 13, 2009 at 5:30 pm (By Miles Lascaux)


Supposedly by Michelangelo, at age 12 or 13.

-Miles Lascaux

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Chutes and Ladders [UPDATED AGAIN]

May 12, 2009 at 10:03 pm (By Amba) (, , , , )

Okay, since economics is what we find ourselves talking about, I’ll bite:  here’s an aspect of economics, contentious and critical to economic policymaking, that strikes me as important and fascinating.

It’s the study of how impulses, incentives, and consequences shape human behavior.  I think it’s called behavioral economics:

Economic Man makes logical, rational, self-interested decisions that weigh costs against benefits and maximize value and profit to himself. Economic Man is an intelligent, analytic, selfish creature who has perfect self-regulation in pursuit of his future goals and is unswayed by bodily states and feelings. And Economic Man is a marvelously convenient pawn for building academic theories. But Economic Man has one fatal flaw: he does not exist.

When we turn to actual human beings, we find, instead of robot-like logic, all manner of irrational, self-sabotaging, and even altruistic behavior. […]

Nonetheless, neoclassical economics sidelined such psychological insights. As recently as 15 years ago, the sub-discipline called behavioral economics—the study of how real people actually make choices, which draws on insights from both psychology and economics—was a marginal, exotic endeavor. Today, behavioral economics is a young, robust, burgeoning sector in mainstream economics, and can claim a Nobel Prize, a critical mass of empirical research, and a history of upending the neoclassical theories that dominated the discipline for so long.

This new field doesn’t just pick the brains of psychologists (to whom, one senses, it could give a whole new useful life), but those of neurologists, and, implicitly, of sociobiologists, who view these hard-wired behavioral mechanisms as winners of the competition to survive:

“Economists specialize in taking really complex things and boiling them down to simple principles,” says David Laibson. “So, rather than treat the brain as billions of neurons, or trillions of neurotransmitters, we want to ask, what is the right level of analysis? It turns out that the brain has two key subsystems. One, the limbic and paralimbic system, rules the intuitive and affective parts of our psyches. It’s shared by all mammals and seems to do a lot of emotional cognition—how we feel emotionally, how we respond to other humans, or to being treated unfairly. This system seems to function unconsciously; we don’t have access to it and maybe can’t even control it. It’s experiential and rapid in function.

“Contrast that with the analytic system, centered in the frontal and parietal cortexes,” Laibson continues. “It controls a lot of the thought processes we learn to do: calculated, conscious, future-oriented thinking. It’s not based on past experience; you could have the rules of a brand-new game explained and the analytic system would be able to figure out how to play.”

Brain researchers have shown that an interaction of the limbic and analytic systems governs human decision-making. The limbic system seems to radically discount the future. While the analytic system’s role remains constant from the present moment onward, the limbic system assumes overriding importance in the present moment, but rapidly recedes as rewards move into the future and the emotional brain reduces its activation. This explains impulsiveness: the slice of pizza that’s available right now trumps the dietary plan that the analytic brain has formulated. Seizing available rewards now might be a response pattern with evolutionary advantages, as future benefits are always uncertain.

There it is right there:  the seat of no-tomorrowism!

Strangely, even more interesting to me than the study of human motivation (which is only going to end up proving what the wise have always known, verifying millennia of maxims and canny clichés) is the engineering angle:  the study of how to motivate humans.  It interests me, I think, because it’s what so much of the disagreement between right and left comes down to.  What optimizes motivation?  Struggle or security?

America, relatively speaking, lacks a social safety net.  There’s a feeling — I’ve felt it — that you have to succeed to survive.  It’s very starkly Darwinian:  there isn’t much middle ground.  Is it this anxiety that spurs us on to great heights as a nation?  Or does it actually sap creativity, condemning all but the entrepreneurially fierce and fit to waste their lives and gifts struggling to get by?  Does assuring people’s basic survival, at the root of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, free them to climb that tree and be curious and creative?  Or does it take the edge off and make them lazy and dependent?  I don’t know the answer, but suspect it’s not totally either/or.  On the one hand, our nervous systems are tuned to peril and triumph.  On the other hand, beyond a certain degree of stress we lapse into “learned helplessness,” the depressed state of experimental animals that have learned there’s nothing they can do to predict, avoid, or prevent random electric shocks.  The Maslovian view posits way too much Rousseauian optimism about human nature.  The social-Darwinian view selects for manic extraversion, creating a bit of a one-note culture.  Introverts must medicate to keep up.

A related question is:  what is definitely in society’s collective interest to provide, overriding concerns about the effects on individual self-reliance and moral fiber?  The common defense, clearly.  The internal version of defense — law and policing, the maintenance of public order.  Sanitation, a no-brainer.  I think a strong case can be made for education:  not that the public sector should monopolize education, but that it should make it available to all as the default.  Very much in the collective interest — anyone care to count the ways?  Scientific competitiveness (from Sputnik to the new spur of globalization) is only one.

Far more controversial:  various forms of the basic income guarantee, and health care.  To many liberals it seems self-evident that providing single-payer health care is in the collective interest.  Conservatives say that market incentives make American health care, for all its problems, much more innovative and effective.  You saw the arguments that Natasha Richardson would not have died in the U.S.

Incentives and consequences are the most fascinating part of the picture, on every level.  The elusive preventive aspect of health care, for instance.  This is one of the areas where the limbic system presents a major stumbling block.  When the supermarket is packed with snacks and advertising issues perpetual siren songs for supersized this and that, how do you help the analytical forebrain override the impulse with remote concerns about longevity, economy, and even vanity, a limbic reward that requires an analytical abstinence?  The limbic brain doesn’t get the time lag between eating a pint of Ben & Jerry’s and gaining a pound.

And then, when there are penalties for good behavior, and rewards for bad behavior, what do you think you’re going to get?

Front page story of today’s NYT discusses the small, well managed, profitable, risk averse banks.

Indeed, as Chris Whalen has so frequently noted, the vast majority of banks in the United States are Triple A by his standards. Its just that these 6,500 banks hold a minority of the total deposits in the nation, with biggest dozen or so banks sitting on 65% or so.

Talk about burying the lead: The Times also noted — in the very last paragraphs — how the big incompetent banks and their very pricey bailouts are screwing these small healthy banks:

“At DeMotte [State Bank, an 11-branch operation in the northwest part of Indiana, Bank President] Mr. Goetz is bracing for a steep increase in a crucial overhead cost: the bill from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, which is basically an insurance fund underwritten by banks.

Last year, DeMotte paid $42,000 into the fund. This year, because of failures in other parts of the country and particularly among national banks, that sum will rise to $500,000 or more.

“Isn’t that the American way?” he says, folding his arms. “Whoever is left standing, whoever was prudent, is always the one who has to pick up the pieces.”

Thus, yet another reason why these bailouts are so absurd: They punish the risk averse and reward the irresponsible . . .

Why do we have different standards for large institutions and little guys?  I’ve long been fascinated by what I think of as “selective Darwinism” — applying the stringency of survival of the fittest to some categories while bailing out others.  (I guess you could argue that getting too big to fail is a form of fitness, a special case of the general point that mega-success is the surest path to survival.) Our thinking, both right and left, seems extremely muddled in this regard.  Incentives and consequences — chutes and ladders — are what it’s all about.  Both the sages and the neurologists will tell you that.

I wish I could do a better job of thinking this through, but I’ve already stolen too much time from work.  Please jump in.

UPDATE: And speaking of incentives, what do you think of paying kids to learn, promoted by Newt Gingrich?

[T]he Learning Makes a Difference Foundation […] focuses on innovative learning programs, such as Learn, Earn and Achieve, which offers students financial rewards for studying math and science.

[…P]reviously uninterested students not only improve their math and science scores but discover the thrill of learning for learning’s sake.

The pilot program is called Learn, Earn & Achieve.  It may not be idealistic — it turns my vestigial hippie stomach, sure — but it’s realistic, isn’t it?  Remuneration is one of the reasons why we do what we do.  Getting up, getting dressed, and “going to school” in the morning already trains you for getting up, getting dressed, and “going to work” in the morning.  School is a kid’s job.  It has the same structure.  For better or worse, it’s training for adult life in our society.  Why not teach them that good work brings good pay?  Instead of an allowance?  (And instead of the basic income guarantee?)  Of course, then parents would have to help them decide how much of it they should save for college tomorrow and how much they can blow on gear today.  That could be good training too.  What do you think?

I guess the part of it I might question is that last:  discover the thrill of learning for learning’s sake.”  Would kids who got paid for learning ever see any point in doing it voluntarily for free?  But then, school as it is today doesn’t exactly consistently convey the thrill of learning for learning’s sake.  Raise your hand if you enjoyed the Great Novels you had to read?  The thrill of learning for learning’s sake depends most on the quality of the teacher.

UPDATE II: @newtgingrich “Learning IS the most important civil right in the 21st century and it should apply to every american of all ages to compete with china”

And, as stated above, in society’s collective interest to provide, for many reasons, scientific competitiveness being only one.  Think of the advantages of having an informed, critically thinking populace — or more to the point, a populace with the skills to inform itself.  Or, even more to the point, think of the disadvantages of not having such a populace.

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