March Recommended Reading

noaaAt the end of each month I compile links to articles I found thought-provoking over that month, categorized with pull-quotes for your perusal and edification. Each of these is a story that made me stop and think, and hopefully one or two of them will do the same for you.

Continue reading

Advertisements

September Recommended Reading

At the end of each month I compile links to articles I found thought-provoking over that month, categorized with pull-quotes for your perusal and edification. Each of these is a story that made me stop and think, and hopefully one or two of them will do the same for you.

Racism:

Cops: Texas Man Vandalized His Own Truck, Blamed It On Black Lives Matter – Caitlin Cruz

“A disabled veteran told Whitney, Texas, police on Sept. 8 that his pickup truck was vandalized by Black Lives Matter activists. As a result, he raised almost $6,000 from the public for repairs, according to a report from Dallas-Fort Worth television station KDFW.

But footage from the television station’s initial report told police a different story. On Friday police arrested Scott Lattin on suspicion of making a false police report.”

Sexism:

New Census Data Shows The Gender Wage Gap Hasn’t Improved In 7 Years – Bryce Covert

“The average woman working full time, year round in 2014 made just 79 percent of what a similar man made, according to the latest data from the Census Bureau. That’s not statistically different than last year’s 78 percent figure, and there hasn’t been a significant reduction of the wage gap since 2007.

Men earned $50,400 at the median in 2014, while women earned $39,600. both not stat from 2013. Neither gender has seen a significant increase in their median earnings since 2009, and women’s 2014 median earnings were not statistically different than what they made in 2007.”

Online posts about killing feminists prompt University of Toronto to increase campus security – Tristin Hopper

In the letter, Regehr says the university was the target of ‘anonymous threats made on a public blog,’ but provides no details. However, a later statement by CUPE 3902, the union representing University of Toronto academic staff, said the posts ‘were gendered threats made specifically toward women and feminists.’

‘We can also add that the threats specifically encourage violence and target our members in their workplaces,’ it reads. ‘Specifically mentioned are those working in Sociology and Women’s Studies classrooms.’ ”

Classism:

Wages Have Been Stagnant For 40 Years But It’s Not The Fault Of American Workers – Bryce Covert

“Stagnating wages aren’t workers’ fault. ‘People have been told that the economy isn’t doing well and therefore that’s why people haven’t done well,’ Lawrence Mishel, president of EPI and a co-author of the report, told ThinkProgress. But economic growth has kept increasing at a healthy rate. ‘Everybody’s wages could have grown substantially. But they didn’t.’

This isn’t accidental, either. ‘We haven’t been in an economic tsunami where people aren’t able to move ahead,’ Mishel said. ‘This is a man-made phenomenon.’ ”

Climate Change:

Secretive donors gave US climate denial groups $125m over three years – Suzanne Goldenberg and Helena Bengtsson

“The secretive funders behind America’s conservative movement directed around $125m (£82m) over three years to groups spreading disinformation about climate science and committed to wrecking Barack Obama’s climate change plan, according to an analysis of tax records. The amount is close to half of the anonymous funding disbursed to rightwing groups, underlining the importance of the climate issue to US conservatives. The anonymous cash flow came from two secretive organisations – the Donors Trust and Donors Capital Fund – that have been called the “Dark Money ATM” of the conservative movement.”

How I Came To Jesus On Global Warming — Dan Vergano

“It took a jolt from someone I trusted before my mind started to change. Jim, another aerospace engineer, had started working with the Energy Department, which funded climate scientists. He had quickly discovered that these researchers were not the addled souls of our imagination, but a crusty and sharp-minded breed (something that I can attest, after two decades of interviewing them, is still true).

So, when I casually voiced something sarcastic about global warming, Jim said: ‘Have you checked the data?’ In engineering speak that translates as, ‘Dude, are you high?’

That stung. Not enough to actually engage seriously with the idea that I might be wrong. But enough to open the door to real thought.”

Environment:

“A Big Deal… A Big Move”: the U.S. Wind Industry’s New Plan for Protecting Bats – John Rogers

“The new voluntary industry guidelines involve wind project operators operating their wind turbines differently when they’re not generating power during peak bat migration time. Wind turbines can pose threats to bats at wind speeds that are too low for generating electricity. Under this agreement, turbines will have their blades turned, such that they spin very slowly, or not at all, when they’re not needed.”

Media:

Book Publishing, Not Fact-Checking – Kate Newman

“Fact-checking dates back to the founding of Time in 1923, and has a strong tradition at places like Mother Jones and The New Yorker. (The Atlantic checks every article in print.) But it’s becoming less and less common even in the magazine world. Silverman suggests this is in part due to the Internet and the drive for quick content production. ‘Fact-checkers don’t increase content production,’ he said. ‘Arguably, they slow it.’

What many readers don’t realize is that fact-checking has never been standard practice in the book-publishing world at all.”

Politics:

Stop Comparing Donald Trump And Bernie Sanders – Nate Silver

“Trump is a much greater threat to his party establishment. It would be a mistake, however, to conclude that Sanders is as threatening to the Democratic establishment as Trump is to the Republican one. Sanders’s policy positions, as I’ve mentioned, are about 95 percent the same as those of a typical liberal Democrat in Congress. And where they diverge, they push Democrats further to the left in a fairly predictable way,3 acting as a ‘supersized’ or slightly exaggerated version of the Democratic agenda. Indeed, while Sanders lacks support from elected Democratic officials, he has some backing from other influential constituencies within the party, such as some labor unions and liberal media outlets.”

Religion:

Everything That Claims to be Christian – Shaun King

“Without fail, the people who harass me daily (I don’t mean genuine critiques) with the ugliest racist words and threats, all claim to be Christian. The people who openly hate Latino immigrants and even state that they’d like to shoot and kill them almost always claim to be Christians. The people who make life difficult, daily, and mock my LGBT friends, are almost always Christians. Those who are calling the Black Lives Matter movement a ‘terrorist organization’ or a hate group…so-called Christians.

For me, I’m at a point where I just don’t want to be anything that those people claim to be and here’s the greater point that I want to make…

We can’t both be Christians.”

Medicine:

The Human Cost of a Misleading Drug-Safety Study – David Dobbs

“Count this as shocking but unsurprising, for GSK has been admonished and fined many times since 2001, including once for $3 billion, for exaggerating Paxil’s safety and marketing it improperly for use in adolescents. Yet this BMJ study deals an especially sharp blow, for it’s only rarely that researchers are able to crack open the tightly sealed file cabinets of drugmakers and look at raw trial data. This illustrates why they want to do so: It appears to be a direct demonstration of how a company and researchers can misinterpret the data to make a bad drug look good.”

Science:

Perplexing Pluto: New ‘Snakeskin’ Image and More from New Horizons – NASA

“The newest high-resolution images of Pluto from NASA’s New Horizons are both dazzling and mystifying, revealing a multitude of previously unseen topographic and compositional details. The image below — showing an area near the line that separates day from night — captures a vast rippling landscape of strange, aligned linear ridges that has astonished New Horizons team members.

‘It’s a unique and perplexing landscape stretching over hundreds of miles,’ said William McKinnon, New Horizons Geology, Geophysics and Imaging (GGI) team deputy lead from Washington University in St. Louis. ‘It looks more like tree bark or dragon scales than geology. This’ll really take time to figure out.’ ”

August Recommended Reading

At the end of each month I compile links to articles I found thought-provoking over that month, categorized with pull-quotes for your perusal and edification. Each of these is a story that made me stop and think, and hopefully one or two of them will do the same for you.

LGBTQ Rights:

When Public Servants Refuse to Serve the Public – Garrett Epps

“Is it possible to agree on what religious freedom is not? It’s not a right to wear a Marine uniform but refuse to fight. It’s not a right to be a county clerk and decide which citizens you will serve and which you won’t. Religious “accommodation” doesn’t mean what Liberty Counsel thinks it means. If a person can perform the duties of a job with some adjustment for religious belief, that’s an accommodation. If they’re not willing to do the job, they have to leave. That’s not just a requirement of law; honor requires it as well.

Government in particular has an obligation to dismiss any employee who claims a right to discriminate against citizens. It’s not good enough to say, “Go to another county if you want a license.” It’s not good enough to say, “I won’t let anyone get married.” Those aren’t a clerk’s decisions to make.”

Racism:

Black American lives are being erased. The victors still rewrite history. – Lindy West

“There is nothing intrinsically wrong with paying tribute to a big, beautiful lion whose life was sacrificed on the altar of white male insecurity. There is nothing intrinsically wrong, I suppose, with devoting column inches to an apparently dangerous racist publicly confirming that he is a dangerous racist. But we must remember that when we use the phrase “History is written by the victors”, we are talking about moments like this. This is what that looks like. The victors (ie the beneficiaries of the status quo) are writing history, in front of our eyes, in real time – deciding what will endure and what will fade away. This isn’t necessarily an overt, explicit or even conscious process – it’s often just a series of seemingly innocuous choices that add up to a slow, grinding erasure.”

Tracking Police Violence A Year After Ferguson – Donovan X. Ramsey

“Over the past few months, The Guardian and The Washington Post have published reporting projects that measure the number of civilians killed by police. The Guardian’s count for 2015 stands at 690, and the Post’s, which tracks deaths from police shootings in particular, is at 581. Both projects rely on data provided by news outlets, research groups, and the open-source reporting projects Fatal Encounters and Killed By Police. The Guardian’s and Post’s projects have captured the public’s attention, but Sabol says they lack the rigor needed to provide lasting answers. The projects are, after all, works of journalism designed to offer estimates based on available data, not official measurements.”

Sexism:

Why Can’t the FBI Identify Serial Rapists? – T. Christian Miller

“That’s what’s striking about ViCAP today: the paucity of information it contains. Only about 1,400 police agencies in the U.S., out of roughly 18,000, participate in the system. The database receives reports from far less than 1 percent of the violent crimes committed annually. It’s not even clear how many crimes the database has helped solve. The FBI does not release any figures. A review in the 1990s found it had linked only 33 crimes in 12 years.

Canadian authorities built on the original ViCAP framework to develop a modern and sophisticated system capable of identifying patterns and linking crimes. It has proven particularly successful at analyzing sexual-assault cases. But three decades and an estimated $30 million later, the FBI’s system remains stuck in the past, the John Henry of data mining. ViCAP was supposed to revolutionize American law enforcement. That revolution never came.”

It’s Weird How People Correct Me When They Think I’m a Woman – Jef Rouner

“It went on and on and on. I even saw one person (who I blocked because I don’t need to see this sort of nuttiness) on a friend’s Facebook share refer to my work as “typical white women liberal logic”, whatever the heck that means. Time after time, I was assumed to be a woman, and those who did so were usually the ones who immediately tried to mansplain away every seed of logic and well-sourced information that I had planted.”

To Have and to Hold: Reproduction, marriage, and the Constitution – Jill Lepore

“The coincidence of the fiftieth anniversary of the Court’s ruling in Griswold and its anticipated decision in Obergefell makes this, inescapably, an occasion for considering the past half century of legal reasoning about reproductive and gay rights. The cases that link Griswold to Obergefell are the product of political movements that have been closely allied, both philosophically and historically. That sex and marriage can be separated from reproduction is fundamental to both movements, and to their legal claims. Still, there’s a difference between the arguments of political movements and appeals to the Constitution. Good political arguments are expansive: they broaden and deepen the understanding of citizens and of legislators. Bad political arguments are as frothy as soapsuds: they get bigger and bigger, until they pop. But both good and bad constitutional arguments are more like blown-in insulation: they fill every last nook of a very cramped space, and then they harden. Over time, arguments based on a right to privacy have tended to weaken and crack; arguments based on equality have grown only stronger.”

‘This isn’t right’: New York City rape victim blasts police who asked if she was a drunk ‘party girl’- David Ferguson

“Having to recite her story repeatedly to openly skeptical police officials was a humiliating and degrading ordeal, Ellett said. “I had to keep retelling my story to a dude who didn’t even care, and who kept asking me to prove that I wasn’t some whore who forgot that I said that this guy could have sex with me,” she recounted.

She was then taken to the city’s Fifth Precinct headquarters where five more male police officials interrogated her. “[The officer] said, ‘Maybe you led him to believe it was okay in some way?’ I kept repeating myself and I got so frustrated. He told me, ‘If it’s his word against yours it’s gonna be years of an uphill legal battle, a lot more strife.’ He was basically deterring me from doing anything about it. I just asked him, ‘Well isn’t rape a crime? Isn’t it a felony?’” she said.”

Classism:

The Teen Who Exposed a Professor’s Myth – Ben Collins

“The theory picked up traction over the last decade, but seemed to reach an unexpected fever pitch in the last few months. Explainer websites this year used it to highlight popular myths of persecution complexes that are, as Vox put it, “stand-ins for an entire narrative about how immigrants are treated in America.” That’s from the lede of an article printed in March called “‘No Irish Need Apply’: the fake sign at the heart of a real movement.” Here, of course, is the problem: After only couple of hours Googling it, Rebecca, a 14-year-old, had found out these signs had, in fact, existed all along. Not only in newspaper listings—in which they appeared in droves—but, after further research, in shop windows, too.”

Haunted by Student Debt to the Grave – Mary Green Swig, Steven L. Swig and Roger Hickey

“Many people, including many student debt holders, may be surprised to learn that people can be pursued for student debt even into their elder years. In fact, the government is withholding Social Security payments for some retirees because their student loans have not been fully repaid. This is a growing problem that Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) have asked the government to study in greater depth. “Garnishing Social Security benefits defeats the entire point of the program – that’s why we don’t allow banks or credit card companies to do it,” said Sen. McCaskill. “Social Security is the sole means of retirement income for tens of millions of Americans, and allowing those benefits to be garnished to collect student loan debt cuts a dangerous hole in our safety net.” ”

Climate Change:

Hurricane Katrina, Ten Years Later: How a Country that Bore Witness Still Plays Business as Usual – Erika Spanger-Siegfried

“The default, our reality, is still business as usual along much of our coasts. And business as usual—that is, acting as though the sea hasn’t risen and won’t keep going—is risky business. Let’s consider New Jersey, which has the memory of Katrina and the punishing first-hand experience of Sandy to guide its coastal decision making. Just last month, New Jersey adopted major changes to its Coastal Zone Management Rules that, according to the New Jersey Association for Floodplain Management, “do not consider the effects of sea level rise; incorporating sea level rise into the permitting process is critical if it is to meet its goal of not putting the inhabitants of the New Jersey shore at risk.” This follows on a trend of rapid re-development in highly vulnerable places, such as the Barnegat Peninsula.”

Science:

Would You Rather Lose Your Morals or Your Memory? – Vlad Chituc

“This view, that our memory is what’s most essential to our identities, is most often credited to John Locke, a 17th century British philosopher. It’s difficult, though, to test this directly—after all, you can’t really ask someone who’s lost their memory whether or not they’re the same person as someone they no longer remember. To get around this requires some thought. In past work, Strohminger and Nichols tested Locke’s hypothesis with hypothetical scenarios: imagine someone seriously injured their head and lost their memories, or they lost their sight, or they lost their moral compass, and so on. Strohminger asked people to rate how different someone would be after these kinds of accidents. “What we find consistently, really no matter how we ask this question,” Strohminger told me, “is that moral traits are what matter the most.” ”

Scientists replicated 100 recent psychology experiments. More than half of them failed – Julia Belluz

“Consider the newest evidence: a landmark study published today in the journal Science. More than 270 researchers from around the world came together to replicate 100 recent findings from top psychology journals. By one measure, only 36 percent showed results that were consistent with the original findings. In other words, many more than half of the replications failed.

“The results are more or less consistent with what we’ve seen in other fields,” said Ivan Oransky, one of the founders of the blog Retraction Watch, which tracks scientific retractions. Still, he applauded the effort: “Because the authors worked with the original researchers and repeated the experiments, the paper is an example of the gold standard of replication.” ”

Science Isn’t Broken: It’s just a hell of a lot harder than we give it credit for – Christie Aschwanden

“Taken together, headlines like these might suggest that science is a shady enterprise that spits out a bunch of dressed-up nonsense. But I’ve spent months investigating the problems hounding science, and I’ve learned that the headline-grabbing cases of misconduct and fraud are mere distractions. The state of our science is strong, but it’s plagued by a universal problem: Science is hard — really fucking hard. If we’re going to rely on science as a means for reaching the truth — and it’s still the best tool we have — it’s important that we understand and respect just how difficult it is to get a rigorous result.”

July Recommended Reading

At the end of each month I compile links to articles I found thought-provoking over that month, categorized with pull-quotes for your perusal and edification. Each of these is a story that made me stop and think, and hopefully one or two of them will do the same for you.

LGBTQ Rights:

The Real Reason Why Conservatives Like Ross Douthat Oppose The Gay Marriage Ruling – Amanda Marcotte

“In this sense, Douthat isn’t wrong that “support for same-sex marriage and the decline of straight marital norms exist in a kind of feedback loop.” To accept same-sex marriage is to accept this modern idea that marriage is about love and partnership, instead of about dutiful procreation and female submission. Traditional gender roles where husbands rule over wives are disintegrating and that process is definitely helped along by these new laws allowing that marriage doesn’t have to be a gendered institution at all.”

Change Doesn’t Usually Come This Fast – Nate Silver

“I came along just a few years too soon (I was born in 1978) to really consider coming out as gay when growing up. There were no openly gay students in my high school. And there were few gay role models in American society: certainly not on television and in the movies, which invariably portrayed gay men as camp characters, or freaks, or AIDS victims.

If coming out was hard to contemplate, however, the possibility of gay marriage was unthinkable. At the time Andrew Sullivan wrote his now-famous essay in support of gay marriage in The New Republic in 1989, almost no polling firms even bothered asking questions about gay marriage. One that did — the General Social Survey — found that just 12 percent of the population was in favor of it.”

Racism:

If It Were Mega Churches, We’d Know Who Was Burning Them – Ingrid Cruz

“Having been raised in a devout Christian family, I ask myself, where are mega churches and their pastors when it comes to the burning of African-American churches? So many who would normally call these acts a desecration of sacred symbols are nowhere to be seen or heard. I’m certain that if mega churches, or predominantly white churches were burning, all TV networks would cover these fires and the perpetrators in charge of these arsons would already be caught, or there would be a strong strategy to catch them.”

Sexism:

Can We Just, Like, Get Over the Way Women Talk? – Ann Friedman

” “With men, we listen for what they’re saying, their point, their assertions. Which is what all of us want others to do when we speak,” Lakoff says. “With women, we tend to listen to how they’re talking, the words they use, what they emphasize, whether they smile.” Men also use the word just. Men engage in upspeak. Men have vocal fry. Men pepper their sentences with unnecessary “likes” and “sorrys.” I haven’t read any articles encouraging them to change this behavior. The supposed distinctions between men’s and women’s ways of talking are, often, not that distinct.”

Masculinity and Mass Shootings in the U.S. – Tristan Bridges and Tara Leigh Tober

“Mass shootings are a pressing issue in the United States. And gun control is an important part of this problem. But, when we focus only on the guns, we sometimes gloss over an important fact: mass shootings are also enactments of masculinity. And they will continue to occur when this fact is combined with a sense among some men that male privilege is a birthright–and one that many feel unjustly denied.”

Classism:

Dunkin’ CEO: $15 minimum wage is ‘outrageous’ – Jackie Wattles

“Fast food workers making about $12 per hour sounds more reasonable to Travis. He said that would be the living wage for a worker with family at home.

MIT’s Living Wage Calculator, however, indicates New York state’s living wage is currently $12.75 for a single adult. For a household with two working parents and two kids, it estimates each worker would need to make $18.30 an hour. The current minimum wage in New York State is $8.75 and hour.”

Activism:

Resilience Is Futile: How Well-Meaning Nonprofits Perpetuate Poverty – Melissa Chadburn

“We started to absorb this woman’s idea that changing people’s behavior was the solution to their problems, which meant absorbing the idea that people’s behavior was the source of their problems. But I knew at the core of me this was false. The problem had never been that I didn’t know the right number to call. It’s a lack of resources that produces a lack of resilience, not the other way around.

But the work of the initiative said otherwise. This is what we did: we gathered residents in the community and pointed out what their individual and community assets were. Nothing else. We didn’t provide services, or even find a way to coordinate between the different service providers.”

A Renegade Trawler, Hunted for 10,000 Miles by Vigilantes – Ian Urbina

“Industrial-scale violators of fishing bans and protected areas are a main reason more than half of the world’s major fishing grounds have been depleted and by some estimates over 90 percent of the ocean’s large fish like marlin, tuna and swordfish have vanished. Interpol had issued a Purple Notice on the Thunder (the equivalent of adding it to a Most Wanted List, a status reserved for only four other ships in the world), but no government had been willing to dedicate the personnel and millions of dollars needed to go after it.

So Sea Shepherd did instead, stalking the fugitive 202-foot steel-sided ship from a desolate patch of ocean at the bottom of the Earth, deep in Antarctic waters, to any ports it neared, where its crews could alert the authorities. ‘The poachers thrive by staying in the shadows,’ Peter Hammarstedt, captain of the Barker, said while trying to level his ship through battering waves. ‘Our plan was to put a spotlight on them that they couldn’t escape.’ ”

Food:

How trans fats oozed into our diet and out again – Bethany Brookshire

“On June 16 the Food and Drug Administration made the final call: Trans fats are no longer “generally recognized as safe” for use in food. That means that food manufacturers have three years to ooze these cheap and useful fats out of their processed foods.

In fact, most of them already have. Trans fat —a big source of which is partially hydrogenated vegetable oils — has been the food villain of choice since 2006, when the FDA required companies to include trans fat content on food labels. Since then, the oily fats that used to lurk in everything from crackers to frosting have largely vanished — with a few exceptions, such as ice cream sprinkles and some doughnuts.

As trans fats went in and then out of style, some people blamed food companies for embracing the fats, which offered a cheaper alternative to animal products. But what trans fats brought to the world of microwave popcorn and Oreos was a bit more complicated than cost savings. And their fall from grace shows that nutrition — like any other scientific area — is subject to self-correction over time.”

The New York Times Gets It Wrong about Genetic Engineering – Henry Miller

“So what’s new? Not the genetic engineering of food, but only the techniques for accomplishing it. And the newest methods — recombinant-DNA technology, or ‘gene-splicing,’ and the new gene-editing techniques — are far more precise and predictable than their predecessors. They’re an extension, or refinement, of more-primitive techniques.

Here’s the take-home lesson: Because the techniques of molecular genetic engineering lead to greater control and certainty about the result, their use decreases the complexity of food production and the likelihood of what Spitznagel and Taleb call ‘unpredictable changes in the ecosystem.’ ”

Science:

Views of Pluto Through the Years

This is an animation showing just one little piece of the amazing data coming out of the Pluto system via New Horizons this month.

Sound Off – Peter Brennan

“Just how much noise has been added to the ocean has been revealed by the worldwide network of underwater microphones originally developed to eavesdrop on submarines. Hydrophones anchored to the continental slope off California, for instance, have recorded a doubling of background noise in the ocean every two decades since the 1960s. For whales, whose lives can be measured in centuries, the dramatic change to the environment is one that could be covered in the biography of a single whale. As a testament to that longevity, in 2007, during a traditional whale hunt, indigenous Alaskans pulled a bowhead whale out of the water with a harpoon embedded in its blubber that had been made in New Bedford, Massachusetts, in the 1800s – a type of weapon that might have been familiar to Herman Melville.

‘It’s very likely that the individuals that were being recorded in 1956 were the same ones being recorded in 2000,’ Parks said. ‘Some of these whales were born before there were motorized vessels in the water at all.’ ”

Sarcasm: How the ‘lowest form of wit’ actually makes people brighter and more creative – Roger Dobson

“Well, that’s just great. Sarcasm, often derided as the lowest form of wit, actually makes people brighter and more creative. People on the receiving end of sarcastic comments – and those who made them – were found to be up to three times more creative in a range of tests carried out by a team of researchers from Insead, one of the world’s leading business schools, and Harvard and Columbia universities.”

Ideas:

No, it’s Not Your Opinion, You’re Just Wrong – Jef Rouner

“There’s a common conception that an opinion cannot be wrong. My dad said it. Hell, everyone’s dad probably said it and in the strictest terms it is true. However, before you crouch behind your Shield of Opinion, you need to ask yourself two questions.

  1. Is this actually an opinion?
  2. If it is an opinion how informed is it and why do I hold it?”

Infinite Pie in the Sky

World_GDP_Per_Capita_1500_to_2000,_Log_ScaleThe ideology of economic growth is so entrenched an idea that it often goes unnoticed and unquestioned: the media, politicians, and businesses all frame more growth as good and less growth as bad. But “growth” in this proposition is ambiguously defined. In fact, our dominant national economic indicator, GDP, actually measures economic throughput, not economic growth—it measures the total value of services and resources used in a given year. Neoclassical economists assume that because a growing economy is correlated with a healthy society, a “healthy” neoclassical capitalist economy must always be bigger than it was before.

If you tried to apply this in your life, it would swiftly become ridiculous: for example, you would have to measure your bank balance by how much money you withdraw in a month instead of by how much is left. You would conclude that you were getting richer by spending more money every month, and ignore the rapidly shrinking balance until you had multiple overdrafts and the bank froze your account.

A rationale thinker may at this point ask how an economy can grow infinitely on a finite planet. The neoclassical economist’s answer is the proposition of infinite substitutability—that human ingenuity and technology will find the answer to any problems of scarce resources. In plainer words, the dominant economic view is that humans are infinitely smarter than natural limits and we will always find ways around them, so don’t worry about it.

Using my bank account analogy, this is the same as pretending your account is infinitely full of money, so you will never run out. If that seems like irrational, pie-in-the-sky thinking, it is: infinite pie in the sky. As economist and teacher Kenneth Boulding notably proclaimed, “anyone who believes that exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist.”

Infinite substitutability based on human ingenuity is effectively hubris laid down as an economic principal. It discounts limits of materials and energy, presuming that we will always find a new alternative. In practice, though, human society has chosen to draw down stored energy faster than it can be replenished in the form of coal, oil, and gas. No amount of human ingenuity has yet created free energy and the second law of thermodynamics tells us that it never can. Nevertheless, the idea of infinite growth goes mostly unconsidered in year-to-year economic policy.

As Garrett Hardin put it, “a society that pays attention to economists needs economists who pay attention to reality.” To recognize physical limits, however, is not a popular position. In the United States, at least, there is a major incentive to ignore the problem of infinite growth—namely, ignoring it lets us rest easy on issues of economic inequality. If there is always more to be had, no one with more wealth can be blamed for the lack of wealth of others.

When I wrote about the Rich Man’s Burden, I observed along the way that some people assume equal access to all the benefits of a growing economy. The proposition of infinite growth is one excuse for that assumption: if there is an infinitely growing pie, the size of your slice may have no relationship to the size of anyone else’s. The proposition of an infinite pie sets up a carrot on a stick for disenfranchised lower classes: work hard to get more, because there is always more to go around. Following that, if you make a lot of money, you must be smart, creative, and hard-working; if you make little money, you must be dumb, rigid, and lazy.

Within this Rich Man’s Burden framework, it is easy to say we should cut the social safety net because there are “too many on the government teat.” It is easy for Representative Allan West to argue for cutting programs for the poor because “we in Congress need to do our part to aid the struggle for more personal responsibility. We need to reduce government spending levels so we are taking less from America’s producers of economic growth.” It is easy for business columnist Elizabeth Macdonald to talk about the “feeding trough” and “government handouts,” as if the people who need the safety net are lazy pigs. As if our grandparents who worked their entire lives should be bankrupted by the high cost of medications, or as if our children who depend on food stamps should just buck up and earn some money themselves. Maybe those poor children should just become janitors so they can learn how to work harder—a suggestion actually made by Newt Gingrich during his bid for the 2012 presidential nomination.

That heaping disdain traces back to the idea that growth gives everyone equal opportunity—but really it is just another excuse to continue removing opportunity from the worst-off among us to benefit those who need it least.

And so we are always chasing growth, because many people are in need and supposedly growth will alleviate that. Yet the majority of “new” wealth in the economy is captured by those at the top, not those most in need. The idea of an infinite pie sets up a constant moving target of financial stability that keeps those most exploited by the system hopeful, while the well-off continue to benefit from their labor.

With an infinite pie, the idea that anyone might have too much, especially we in the United States, need never enter the discussion. There is no such thing as too much—instead, it is always about more.

The Rich Man’s Burden

via Flickr user David ShankboneThe argument that the poor are happily “sucking [the American] teat” evokes a self-satisfied group of freeloaders living like parasites on the stolen wealth of hard-working Americans—so it’s no wonder that it generates deep resentment of social programs. But the more I encounter this entrenched idea, the more I begin to realize that it is not just classist rhetoric; it is a the edge of an ideological statement about the role of the powerful in our society.

Consider the assumptions required to support this view. First we must assume that wealth from a growing economy is available to all and apportioned only by effort: that the son of a white multi-millionaire and the daughter of a poor black family have equal access to potential wealth. With that reckless presumption in place we can also conclude that those who have more have worked harder than those who have less. Finally we can assume that those hard-working folks who have more are the key to the health of the whole economy—that more given to the top will magnify and benefit the bottom, while anything given to the bottom will be squandered.

This is the Rich Man’s Burden: the idea that it is the inherent right and duty of the rich to guide and control society, for the benefit of everyone. The lazy poor should accept their lot and strive to work hard like the rest of us, not weigh America down with their basic needs. The Rich Man’s Burden carries with it all the old prejudices of the civilized over uncivilized, the manifest destiny of the powerful, and the duty of those blessed with more to take from the poor what little they have.

That naked classism might not stand, but fortunately there is a very old argument to prop it up—“it’s for their own good.”

The idea of trickle-down benefits crops up time and time again, and “job creators” is the latest incarnation, a reframing of the assumption that benefits given to the top inevitably magnify and support everyone. The phrase is bandied about on cable news, in political debates, in presidential races, and in the halls of government. Those who espouse this view do not argue that social well-being is unimportant, but rather that social well-being is not the business of government. “Market forces,” they claim, will translate the privilege of a few into the well-being of the many, and therefore one of the main available engines of equality—the government—should keep out.

This argument appeals to economics for justification, but it is merely an ideological claim couched in economic terms. Economist Thomas Sowell wrote with some irritation: “as someone who spent the first decade of his career researching, teaching and writing about the history of economic thought, I can say that no economist of the past two centuries had any such theory.”

The facts bear him out. If trickle-down ever had been an economic hypothesis it would have been long-since debunked. Emmanuel Saez, economist at the University of California, found that in the recovery from the 2008 financial crisis, 93% of the income generated went to the top 1% of earners. Richard Michel, who analyzed income data from 1982-1987 to determine if trickle-down theory had ever worked, concluded that “the rising tide may have lifted all yachts, but it has not lifted all boats.” Disturbingly, Michel also found that households headed by Hispanics, African-Americans, and single women—demographics often subject to prejudice-driven inequality—actually saw their income growth slowing when wealth was supposedly trickling down from the upper classes.

The evidence shows us that trickle-down economics has never accomplished its stated ends, but people are wedded to ideologies, and facts look fuzzy if you squint hard enough, and old ideas do not die easily or quietly.

The roles of the powerful and the powerless have been in contention in our society for some time, and possibly for as long as societies have existed. The White Man’s Burden bolstered the Western colonialism of the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, helped maintain the ruling class of Europe, and led to some of history’s most famous uprisings, the French Revolution among them. In the past it was the supposed duty of the White to civilize the Brown through religion and culture—and to take their resources along the way. Now, it is the supposed duty of the rich to civilize the poor through job creation—and to make money off their backs while they do it.

Consider the rhetoric that accompanied that old idea, itself a justification for imperialism, exploitation, and the enslavement of others. Powerful white men would speak unselfconsciously about the need to civilize the savages, to teach the less intelligent classes how to contribute to society, and to put to good use the resources squandered by dumb, lazy natives.

Consider in parallel this statement made by Newt Gingrich, 2012 Presidential candidate, on the work ethic of the poor: “Really poor children in really poor neighborhoods have no habits of working and have nobody around them who works. So they literally have no habit of showing up on Monday. They have no habit of staying all day. They have no habit of ‘I do this and you give me cash’ unless it’s illegal.”

Or this, even more explicit, from South Carolina Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer, who spoke against public assistance for the poor because: “[my Grandmother] told me as a small child to quit feeding stray animals. You know why? Because they breed. You’re facilitating the problem if you give an animal or a person ample food supply. They will reproduce, especially ones that don’t think too much further than that. And so what you’ve got to do is you’ve got to curtail that type of behavior. They don’t know any better.”

If we abandon the debunked economic arguments and look at these statements for themselves, it is hard not to see the echoes of what has come before. The Rich Man’s Burden enshrines selfish decision-making as beneficial to all, and justifies old prejudices by couching them in economic rather than overtly racial or cultural terms. And we naively accept the new forms, and repeat them, and encourage them; through some alarming rhetorical alchemy, those who take have come to be known as those who give. And yet, we keep waiting.

May Recommended Reading

At the end of each month I compile links to articles I found thought-provoking over that month, categorized with pull-quotes for your perusal and edification. Each of these is a story that made me stop and think, and hopefully one or two of them will do the same for you. This time I’m adding a “pick of the month” category for the best and most interesting story I saw this month.

Pick of the Month: 

The Wreck of the Kulluk – McKenzie Funk

This is truly excellent reporting, and incredibly informative. It’s a gripping story of Shell Oil cutting corners, hunting for arctic oil, and being hoist with their own petard. There is no one quote that will do this justice, but it is equal parts corporate desperation, intrigue and suspense, and action and heroism on the high seas.

On Baltimore and Racism: 

Black America’s Baltimore schism: Why the Freddie Gray tragedy demands serious soul-searching – Brittney Cooper

“The right of the people to revolt in response to unjust conditions is a founding principle of this Republic. But another founding principle of this republic is that Black people are not fully human. Therefore they are not legitimately “the people,” not a part of the “demos” in democracy. Thus revolution and rebellion remain the province and property of America’s white citizens. All other comers are illegitimate.”

De Blasio: Civil Disobedience Means Do What The Cops Tell You – Christopher Robbins

“In short: if you want to disobey the police, you have to make an appointment. It also helps if you’re a prominent, white, male, elected official running for higher office. Challenging the status quo sometimes means being a part of it. To the protesters who turned out on Wednesday to protest police brutality, whose friends and relatives were killed by the police, or whose skin color alone equates them with criminality in the eyes of the law, the mayor gave very clear advice: ‘Pay attention to the instructions of the police, and I think everything will go fine.’ ”

Media coverage of gang violence sure looks different when the perpetrators are white – Jenée Desmond-Harris

“Those who are using what happened in Waco to start conversations about stereotypes and media biases against black people aren’t complaining about the tenor of this weekend’s media coverage. They’re saying something a little different: that by being pretty reasonable and sticking to the facts, this coverage highlights the absurdity of the language and analysis that have been deployed in other instances, when the accused criminals are black.”

Classism: 

Wisconsin GOP Advances Bills Controlling How People On Welfare Eat And Pee – Arthur Delaney

“Legislation approved by the Wisconsin State Assembly on Wednesday would require drug screening for poor people in the state who want [need] public benefits and force food stamp recipients to spend most of their benefits on state-approved groceries.”

Feminism: 

Female McMaster professors getting a pay boost to same level as men – CBC News

“Female professors at McMaster University will get a pay raise under a new plan to make sure women faculty are paid fairly.The university will boost the base salaries of female faculty by $3,515 per year starting on July 1. The increase comes after a joint study between the university and the faculty association determined that female faculty make that much less than their male counterparts.”

“The Good Ones Say No”: Why Purity Culture and Rape Culture Are Two Sides of the Same Coin – Miri

“On one side of the coin is the idea that only ‘good’ women are worth anything, and only women who consistently refuse men’s advances can be ‘good.’ Of course, this creates a paradox: if women are only ‘good’ as long as they refuse, and men could only ever want to get emotionally (and materially) invested in ‘good’ women, what happens when a woman stops refusing? So either men are supposed to only have sex with virgins and only once, or they’re supposed to indefinitely stay in relationships that are not sexually fulfilling (because there is no sex), or they’re supposed to coerce and rape women. The latter option is the only way to have sex with someone who says no, by the way.”

Entering the Mind of My Rapist: An Exercise in Extreme Empathy – Deborah Copaken

“I didn’t even want him not to graduate. I wanted to confront him in a safe place in front of others. I wanted him to understand that what he did to me—penetration against my will—was wrong, really wrong! I wanted him to express remorse for having crossed a moral and legal line, so that if and when he ever raised a son, he could teach him not to cross it. I wanted, in short, an apology.

Am I delusional? Is this line of thinking the product of too much empathy and not enough rage? Maybe. But I don’t think so. No matter how my rapist (and I will always call him that, “my rapist”) told the story of what happened that night before graduation, the fact that one of us experienced it as a rape should have been enough to force an immediate discussion in which proving guilt, beyond a shadow of a doubt and at the expense of my reputation—a second rape, if you will—was not the goal.”

Incapacitated and Forcible Rape of College Women: Prevalence Across the First Year – Kate Carey, Sarah Durney, Robyn Shepardson, and Michael Carey

“Before entering college, 28% of women had experienced attempted or completed rape. During their first year, one of six female students had experienced [attempted or completed incapacitated rape] or [attempted or completed forcible rape]. The lifetime prevalence of attempted or completed rape increased to 37% by the start of sophomore year.”

In summary, 1 of every 4 women is assaulted in her first year of college, and 1 in every 3 women has been assaulted sometime in her life before her sophomore year.

LGBTQ Rights:

Alabama minister tried to marry a lesbian couple — now she’s on probation – Jin Zhao

“A minister arrested on a misdemeanor disorderly conduct charge for trying to perform a gay wedding in an Alabama courthouse pleaded guilty on Monday but will avoid serving time in jail, Montgomery Advertiser reports. Anne Susan DiPrizio, 44, entered the plea in Autauga County Circuit Court. A judge ordered her to pay a $250 fine and gave her a 30-day jail sentence, which was suspended later in place of a six months unsupervised probation.”

Government and Privacy:

Court rules NSA program illegal – Jim Acosta, Ted Barrett and Jeremy Diamond

“ ‘This decision is a resounding victory for the rule of law,’ said ACLU Staff Attorney Alex Abdo, who brought the challenge. ‘For years, the government secretly spied on millions of innocent Americans based on a shockingly broad interpretation of its authority. The court rightly rejected the government’s theory that it may stockpile information on all of us in case that information proves useful in the future. Mass surveillance does not make us any safer, and it is fundamentally incompatible with the privacy necessary in a free society,’ he said.”

Climate Change:

400 Again – Phil Plait

“There are people out there who still will pooh-pooh this, saying carbon dioxide is good for us, and plants love it. Let me be clear: This is the single dumbest thing climate change deniers have ever said, and that’s a deep, deep well of dumbosity. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, and the science on this is very basic, as basic as knowing a rock will fall when you drop it from your hand. At first blush 400 ppm may not sound like much, but it means we’re significantly accelerating planetary heating. And warming the Earth doesn’t just mean we’ll be able to grow pineapples in Canada. It means huge changes to global weather patterns, changes we’re already seeing.”

What if climate change is real? – Katharine Hayhoe

This one is a video—a TED talk by a conservative climate scientist from Texas.

Ideas and Beliefs: 

How Facebook’s Algorithm Suppresses Content Diversity (Modestly) and How the Newsfeed Rules Your Clicks – Zeynep Tufekci

“Here’s the key finding: Facebook researchers conclusively show that Facebook’s newsfeed algorithm decreases ideologically diverse, cross-cutting content people see from their social networks on Facebook by a measurable amount. The researchers report that exposure to diverse content is suppressed by Facebook’s algorithm by 8% for self-identified liberals and by 5% for self-identified conservatives.”

Canvassers study in Episode #555 has been retracted – Ira Glass

“Last month [This American Life] did a story about canvassers who’d invented a way to go door to door and, in a 22-minute conversation, change people’s minds on issues like same sex marriage and abortion rights. We did the story because there was solid scientific data published in the journal Science – proving that the canvassers were really having an effect. Yesterday one of the authors of that study, Donald Green, asked Science to retract the study. Some of the data gathered by his co-author seems to have been faked.”

I Don’t Want to Be Right – Maria Konnikova

“The longer the narrative remains co-opted by prominent figures with little to no actual medical expertise—the Jenny McCarthys of the world—the more difficult it becomes to find a unified, non-ideological theme. The message can’t change unless the perceived consensus among figures we see as opinion and thought leaders changes first.

And that, ultimately, is the final, big piece of the puzzle: the cross-party, cross-platform unification of the country’s élites, those we perceive as opinion leaders, can make it possible for messages to spread broadly. The campaign against smoking is one of the most successful public-interest fact-checking operations in history. But, if smoking were just for Republicans or Democrats, change would have been far more unlikely. It’s only after ideology is put to the side that a message itself can change, so that it becomes decoupled from notions of self-perception.”

This Is How Fast America Changes Its Mind – Alex Tribou and Keith Collins

“Eleven years after Massachusetts became the first state to allow same-sex couples to marry, the Supreme Court on April 28 will hear arguments about whether to extend that right nationwide. The case comes amid a wave of gay marriage legalization: 28 states since 2013, and 36 overall. Such widespread acceptance in a short amount of time isn’t a phenomenon unique to gay marriage. Social change in the U.S. appears to follow a pattern: A few pioneer states get out front before the others, and then a key event—often a court decision or a grassroots campaign reaching maturity—triggers a rush of state activity that ultimately leads to a change in federal law.”

With cool graphs!