Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Job Loss Not So Bad?

Thomas Riggins

Most people would just assume that losing your job would have grave psychological effects, depression, worry, feelings of helplessness, doubts about the future, and a general attitude of frustration and unhappiness about one's conditions. But a new study reported in Science Daily for 12-27-2010 ("Recovering from Job Loss: Most Report Few Long-Term Psychological Effects") challenges this bleak view. The study, put out by the American Psychological Association, says most people bounce back and end up just as satisfied with their lives as they were before they lost their jobs. This is good news for bosses who can send out pink slips without having to feel so bad.

Dr. Isaac Galatzer-Levy, the lead author of the study, points out that "Unemployment rates continue to be historically high in the United States and other countries. There's a real concern that this will have long-term implications on the mental well-being of a large portion of the work force. But this analysis suggests that people are able to cope with a job loss relatively well over time." Well, let's see what this is all about.

You might think, since the unemployment rate in the US was mentioned, that the study might have included US workers. It did not. The study was conducted in Germany and involved 774 German workers who had lost their jobs. They were asked how satisfied they felt about their lives and well being during the three years before and the four years after they lost their jobs. Dr. Galatzer-Levy said, with respect to the German workers, that "Just like in the current climate, these are people who are losing jobs not due to [any] fault of their own, but because they're the victims of large market forces." Beyond pointing out that working people under capitalism have no control over their destinies and thus no real democratic control of their lives, I am not sure we can extrapolate the German findings to the US.

After going over all the responses and dividing the groups into different categories the researchers came to the following conclusions. First, they say previous analysis of "the same data" revealed "that people never really returned to pre-unemployment levels of life satisfaction." This seems intuitively correct. However, the researchers used "a different analytical model" and their new model they think is more representative of how people respond to unemployment. Using the new model, on "the same data", they arrived at the following conclusion: "most people cope well with this event [job loss] and report few long-term effects on their overall well-being."

The authors think this shows the "resilience" of workers to job loss. It is similar to reactions to "other traumatic events" such as "the death of a loved one, terrorist attack" or "traumatic injury." Well, I'm glad to see they understand what getting a pink slip means to working people.

By the way in Germany 27.6 % of GNP is dedicated to social insurance, including health and unemployment insurance as opposed to 16.2% in the US. German workers get 60-67% of their wages in unemployment insurance while US workers get about 36%-- this might have something to do with feelings of "satisfaction."

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Scientists Say We Need Power and Corruption

Thomas Riggins

We all have heard of Lord Acton's dictum that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. We see it at work every day in our social life and politics. The police abuse their powers by racial profiling and even gunning down minority people with seeming impunity. Elected officials are seen selling out the interests of the people who elected them for lobbyist money and the promise of future favors from the giant corporations that actually rule the country.

Well, it turns out that all this power and corruption may not be so bad after all. Just last week Science News reported on an article recently published in the science journal Evolution which indicates that power and corruption may be good for us ["Power and Corruption May Be Good for Society" SD 12-14-2010]. I hope they are right because we have such a concentration of power and corruption in our society that it would justify our claim that "USA is Number One."

Let's see the evidence. Two professors, Francisco Úbeda at the University of Tennessee and Edgar Duéñez at Harvard say that while "Moral corruption and power asymmetries are pervasive in human societies... [they] may play a role in maintaining overall societal cooperation." Society needs cooperation in order to function. We all know the horrors that can happen if workers fail to cooperate with bosses or regular soldiers with their officers, or debt ridden unemployed people with the banks and credit card companies.

There have to be some groups that punish noncooperators and, the professors remind us, there are government officials and law enforcers who have that happy task. However these very groups often fail to cooperate among themselves and with each other because they abuse their power and are corrupt. It's the old problem of who polices the police. The professors also discovered the startling fact that these "law enforcers, by virtue of their positions, are able to sidestep punishment when they are caught failing to cooperate." Who would have thought it?

The bright side is that the vast majority of society does try to play by the rules since they don't want to be punished by the enforcers. Now the important thing is to maintain the optimum amount of social cooperation. We have a Goldilocks problem. Too much abuse of power and corruption and society begins to break down. Too little and the enforcers would not do a good job because they don't enjoy the perks of office (shooting you and getting away with it-- not paying for their donuts, etc.) "Law enforcers often enjoy privileges that allow them to avoid the full force of the law when they breach it. Law enforcing results in the general public abiding by the law. Thus law enforcers enjoy the benefits of a lawful society and are compensated for their law enforcing by being able to dodge the law." A pay raise might be a better compensation for doing your job.

The professors tell us that society is better off with abuse of power and corruption than without it since with it the law enforcers have more incentive to do their jobs. So the occasional shake down, bribe taking, unjustified shooting, illegal war even is actually good for society and keeps us safe-- it evens saves us paying higher taxes in salaries; even an illegal war creates jobs, although this bit of corruption and abuse of power may be from papa bear's bowl of porridge.

This "new" theory on the benefits of having a corrupt society has "far-reaching implications": it could help us understand "corrupt behaviors in social insects"-- a pressing problem facing the American people. It may also give us "insights on how to harness corruption to benefit society." I'm sure the new Republican majority in the House will be working on this one.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Infanticide and Infelicity

Thomas Riggins

A disturbing, but unsurprising, article on infanticide has appeared in a recent issue of Science Daily (12-13-10: "Unlawful Killing of Newborns Soon After Birth Five Times Higher Than Thought, French Court Study Suggests.")

The technical term for this is neonaticide-- the killing of a baby within the first 24 hours of life. Research published in the Archives of Disease in Childhood indicate that the frequency of neonaticide in certain regions of France, where the research was focused, was five times higher than official estimates had anticipated.

We have all read about the horrific levels of infanticide, especially female infanticide, in some developing countries, and have been more or less told this is due to backward social conditions in such "semi-feudal" areas. So to find that even in bourgeois France, an advanced industrial country, there can five times the amount of neonaticide as officially predicted is an eye opener. And while there can be no doubt that the status of women and social context is a major factor, this just indicates that that the first world should not be complacent in thinking that infanticide is especially a problem of so called "backward" societies.

The authors of the study themselves have concluded that, contrary to expectations, it is not low social status or noticeable mental problems that are responsible for these killings in French society, but, rather, "low maternal self esteem and emotional immaturity" that is responsible. These are factors having to do with the status of women and their treatment in general, not only in "semi-feudal" countries, but also those of advanced capitalism.

Simone de Beauvoir pointed out long ago, in the The Second Sex, that "there is no such thing as maternal 'instinct': the word does not in any case apply to the human species. The mother's attitude is defined by her total situation and by the way she accepts it."

Going over the profiles of women who had killed their newborns, the researchers discovered "that the perception of a young poor, unemployed, single woman as the culprit was not borne out by the evidence." The women were mostly around 26 years old, had other children, did not show evidence of mental problems, had no record of being abused as children, and had regular jobs. Half of them were living with the baby's father.

They shared a common low level of self esteem [something you can get by the way your are treated by others], emotional immaturity [also a state contributed to by others including the society's depiction of the female] and a fear of being abandoned [definitely the product of a bad faith relationship on the part of the other creating an atmosphere of dependency].
The authors write: "Feeling very much alone, and for nearly half of them, depressed, [these women] probably did not have complete control over their lives or their sexuality." It not only takes a village to raise a child, it seems, it takes one to kill one as well.

The authors conclude, "Our findings suggest that preventive action, targeting only young, poor, unemployed and single women, or women in pregnancy denial, may not be appropriate." I also think we Marxists can conclude something from this study. We can conclude, with Simone de Beauvoir that "Only a balanced, healthy woman, conscious of her responsibilities, is capable of becoming a 'good mother.' The same, ceteris paribus, for the father. And what type of society are these good mothers and fathers most likely to flourish in? Madame be Beauvoir's suggestion seems correct to me: "A truly socialist ethic-- one that seeks justice without restraining liberty, one that imposes responsibilities on individuals but without abolishing individual
freedom-- will find itself most uncomfortable with problems posed by woman's condition."

Friday, December 10, 2010

Marxists and Marmots

Thomas Riggins

How often do we hear that socialism sounds like a good idea but it doesn't work in practice because of human nature. This is an old refrain. People are by nature selfish and so competition is the natural outcome with the most talented and aggressive people reaching the top and the mediocre masses down on the bottom. But suppose it is really the opposite. Suppose those who engage in friendly cooperation really are closer to what nature intends. In a cooperative society maybe even the victims of aggressive actions still have a better chance to thrive than they would in a completely competitive environment. Maybe the Ayn Rand world is not the world for us and socialism is more natural after all.

A recent article in Science Daily (12-8-2010) may provide a clue to the answer to these speculations ("Social Relationships in Animals Have a Genetic Basis, New Research Reveals"). Scientists at UCLA have been studying marmots living in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. Marmots are rodents who are a genus (Marmota) of the squirrel family (Sciuridae). Some marmots have a propensity, so we are told, to chuck wood and are known as woodchucks. Others can predict the weather (groundhogs) according to some.

The marmots I am linking to possible socialist ideas are the yellow-bellied marmots (M. flaviventris) studied by the scientists. The name refers to fur and not to their lack of valor.
The scientists found "that having many friendly interactions gave marmots fitness benefits--these marmots reproduced more," said Amanda Lea, one of the researchers and lead author of the paper. "Over a lifetime [about 15 yrs], a marmot that is very social will have more offspring than a less social one." Hmmmm. I wonder how much this applies to humans. This is one way of putting the "social" into socialism.

But the scientists also found out that some marmots are the victims of aggression from their fellow marmots. Those who do not respond in kind, that is those inclined to turn the other cheek pouch, also have a better survival rate. So it seems that "a marmot that is getting picked on frequently" also will have more offspring. It is the family unit as such that is really important. Tolerating aggression as well as strengthening friendly cooperation keeps marmot society functioning. "Those relationships are important for social stability and reproductive success. I believe these ideas are generalizable well beyond marmots," said the study's co-author Daniel T. Blumstein.

What is important is that these behaviors have a genetic basis and are passed on through the generations. If such behavior is common to mammals as such then humans also have these inborn tendencies for cooperation and tolerance. These genetic traits are, I think, much more in accord with the ideals of socialism than the ruthless free market world of Ayn Rand and other capitalist apologists.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Arizona's Two Death Penalties

Thomas Riggins

First, I am not picking on Arizona, just using it as one example; it is standing in for any state that uses similar methods to try and balance its budget. Arizona currently has 126 felons on its death row awaiting execution. The national average cost for each prisoner from sentencing to execution is $2 million-- about 10 times the cost for life imprisonment.

But the 126 people on death row are not the only people the state of Arizona has sentenced to death. Arizona has cut its medicaid budget due to the on going collapse of the world capitalist system. To reduce its budget deficit low income people in Arizona will no longer receive organ transplants that had been paid for by the state.

The New York Times (12-3-10) refers to this as "Death by budget cut." The deaths of poor people due to the cut in medicaid is every bit as premeditated as those of prisoners given lethal injections by the state. The NYT reports that Francisco Felix, 32, will not get the liver transplant that would have saved his life. He is in the process of dying. The cost of the transplant was $200,000. It was his turn on the list but he was refused after the state ended this part of medicaid for the poor. If the governor commuted just one of the 126 people condemned to death he could have sentenced Francisco Felix to Life with his family and had $1,600,000 left over to save 8 more people as well; that what's left after the cost of transplant plus the $200,000 that the prisoner's life sentence will cost the state.

There are many other cases like that of Francisco Felix. These new rules took effect in October and no one has died yet. But the poor sick and needy are sitting on their own death row just as real as the 126 people legally under the sentence of death. They too have been legally given a death sentence. Sentenced to death not for murder but for being poor. A capital offense in Arizona.

If Arizona really wanted to save money the state would commute all 126 death sentences to life imprisonment. With the savings they could help save the lives of all their sick and poor citizens and residents who are in need of life saving medical procedures such as organ transplants. It is the only thing a civilized state can do.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Obama on the Fence?

Thomas Riggins

Matt Bai has an article in the Wednesday New York Times "Debt-Busting Issue May Force Obama Off Fence." Bai says that Obama's fiscal commission has given him the choice of ruling for the next two years either from the center left [allied with "traditional liberals" who want the rich to pay their fair share of the taxes and cuts in the military budget] or from the center right [both Democratic and Republican centrists who want to reform "entitlement" programs and taxes].

Bai indicates he has to choose between a "liberal renaissance" or continue his attempts to work with the Republicans in a "postpartisan" alliance. The choice he makes will shape the political landscape for years to come-- for better or worse.

Although many think that Obama is the opium of the Left we can still work with him for progressive causes on whichever side of the fence he falls. Who would have wanted a McCain-Palin administration-- we wouldn't even have a fence, just a ditch.

Bai doesn't know which side Obama will choose. His recent two year pay freeze for federal workers (who did not cause the economic collapse) while bankers and CEOs (who did) are raking the money in is not a good sign of things to come.

Bai gives us some hints which side Obama will choose. I will give three major ones he points out. 1. Obama's books and writings indicate he is a "whatever works" pragmatist with no particular ideological commitment-- a political chameleon perhaps. 2. Bai reports that in private Obama has sometimes called himself "essentially a Blue Dog Democrat." He didn't mention this during the primaries! 3. Although he voted against confirming John Roberts as Chief Justice he "castigated" Democratic activists who criticized those Democratic senators who did saying they threatened "thoughtfulness and openness to new ideas." Well, the "thoughtfulness and new ideas" of John Roberts are not leading us down the road to a more democratic country.

In any event Bai says Obama is "loath to publicly disown his base on any specific issue." I'm not sure I like the adverbial phrase. The proof will be in the pudding. Obama must decide, according to Bai, either for the left or the right once the Bowles-Simpson committee gives him its report. Social Security is the acid test. Bai says that if he accepts the commission's recommendations on Social Security the outrage from his base will be so great he could face a primary challenge in 2012.

The Republicans would love that: something like a Feingold-Obama fight (suggested in The Nation by Cockburn) to cover themselves while they self destruct over a Palin-Romney brouhaha. Obama has come to the Rubicon-- how will the die be cast?