Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Path Through the Woods

When I was seven, my father cut a path through the woods for me to take to the place where the school bus would pick me up. The south grows thickets as well as the Amazon, but he had a scythe and he whacked through the jungle to the road where I would wait for the bus. He asked me if I knew what to do. I did not, but I told him I did. I had never been on a school bus. It was terrifying at first. After a while it was kind of fun. After a while longer it was boring.
That was the beginning of my life as I think of it, of my independence from my parents, of me learning to be me. I was on my own. I never stopped to wonder why the path didn’t grow wild again. My father must have kept it cut for me, but he never told me he did. He and my mother saved money to send me to college, but they never told me they did that either. That was another path they cut for me, one I thought I travelled on my own when in fact they might as well have been right there with me, holding my hand the way my mother had when I caught that first school bus.

My life is an accident of birth. I’d like to say I owe my success to my hard work and ambition, but I believe I owe it more to those paths my parents made for me. So what does that mean for those of us born to plenty? What obligation does that accident of birth impose upon us? Or does it create any obligation at all?

Over the long sweep of history, some prosper, but most do not. And those who prosper have the aid of not only their fortunate circumstances but also of the labors of their less privileged neighbors, the laborers who till the fields and man the assembly lines, the workers who create wealth but do not share in it themselves.

Luck does not compel generosity, but neither does it warrant smugness. At the moment of birth, none of us has done anything to set ourselves apart from children born in the slums. And yet we learn to accept that our privilege derives from our character rather than our good luck. When we give a beggar food at the back door or drop a few coins in the Salvation Army kettle, we feel we are acting from the goodness of our hearts, perhaps even from a sense of noblesse oblige.

But what if we thought we must return the favor that the fates have given us? What if we felt we should be path clearers ourselves, and not just for our children, but for the children of others. What if we truly believed that “there but for fortune (or the grace of god, if you wish) go I”? Would it make us feel lucky? Certainly. Would it make us feel obligated? I'm not so sure.

I don’t suspect many of us feel that being lucky at the craps tables in Las Vegas carries with it an obligation to use some of the money to help others. Maybe that’s all there is to it. If we are lucky, we feel lucky, not indebted. So if we hit the jackpot, we may put a little extra in the charity envelope and feel happy with ourselves for our unbidden generosity. Maybe nature has set it up that way for us. If you get lucky and come upon a fresh kill, drag it off and hide it for yourself and your children: that is the way to survive.

If that’s the case, be glad if you were born lucky. And try to not think too much about those who weren’t. It will just make you feel bad. This is the paradox of our humanity. To earn our place as moral individuals, we often must do things that our atavistic brains resist. We have to see through the rationalizations for our selfishness that our pre-frontal cortex has laid in to justify the primitive programming of our base brain.

Friday, January 27, 2012

A New Morning in America

Remember when Ronald Reagan parted the clouds of Jimmy Carter’s national malaise and told us it was morning in America? Reagan was something of a snake-oil salesman (Dr. Laffer’s supply side elixir), but he tapped into the national psyche of self-reliance. He made us believe we could strike gold again. He made us feel hopeful. If you can’t have what you need, hope is the next best thing.

After four years of the worst recession since the Great Depression, many of us today aren’t feeling so hopeful. It’s hard to be optimistic about the future when you can’t see the path forward. Politically, we’re dug in. Half of us want the government to get the hell out of the way, and the other half want it to step up and do its job of helping those who can’t help themselves.

Tough times make us fearful, and no one is at his best when he is afraid; anyone who looks like he might be in the way of survival is the enemy. But economic and social policy are not war. They are not zero-sum games. Someone doesn’t have to lose for another to win. Hunkering down in the trenches of our own self-interest is not going to help us. If we are ever to accomplish anything more than waging better war, we need to find a narrative other than “us or them.” We are all us. There is no them.

This country was founded on rugged individualism. We are all libertarians at heart. But we all need help sometimes. Family helps us. Friends sometimes. The government frequently. We ride on roads of government help, use the electric power of government help, peacefully go about our business under the protective care of police, firefighters and our military. If we lose our jobs, we collect unemployment assistance until we get back on our feet. If we need medical care, no emergency room will turn us away. We all rely on the infrastructure of a civilized society.

The tricky part is how to pay for that infrastructure and how to get the help where it is needed in the most efficient and humane way. In a large, diverse society, there are no practical alternatives to taxes as the method of payment and government as the means of assistance. The only real questions are who should pay how much in taxes, and who should receive how much in aid. The answer to the first question is self-evident: those who can best afford to pay are the ones who should. The answer to the second is equally unambiguous: those who need help are the ones who should receive it.

Not so fast, you say. Why should everyone get help? What if they’re malingering? Why should I support someone who is too lazy to work? It’s a fair question. To even the most charitable, it doesn’t seem right for some folks to sit back and do nothing while others work hard to support them. We spend a lot of time in the bureaucracy trying to sort that out who is trying to find work and who is free-loading, and we don’t do a very good job. What if we could conclude that that kind of inquiry is neither necessary nor desirable? What if we could convince ourselves we would all be better off if we let no one go hungry, even the lazy, that we should feed our neighbor not because it is the moral thing to do, but because it is in our own economic self-interest to do so.

In a recent New York Times an op-ed piece titled “The True Cost of High School Dropouts,” Henry Levin and Cecelia Rouse pointed out that for every dollar spent to keep kids from dropping out of high school, the gain to society is $1.45 to $3.55, depending on the educational intervention strategy (earlier preschool, smaller class sizes through high school, higher teacher salaries). “Studies show that the typical high school graduate will obtain higher employment and earnings — an astonishing 50 percent to 100 percent increase in lifetime income — and will be less likely to draw on public money for health care and welfare and less likely to be involved in the criminal justice system.”

I cite this one example because the facts are handy and compelling. There are similar examples across the width and breadth of the social safety net. Better wellness care leads to fewer long-term health issues; better health insurance leads to fewer costly emergency room visits; better prenatal care leads to healthier infants; better childhood nutrition leads to better students and healthier adults. And so on, and so on.
John Kenneth Galbraith

Over a half-century ago, the respected economist John Kenneth Galbraith made the case for guaranteeing to all at least the minimum income needed to live. He acknowledged that some would choose to live off the dole rather than work, but he believed that most would not want to accept a subsistence lifestyle and would strive for more. He made the argument not on moral grounds, but on the same kind of practical grounds that Levin and Rouse use to make the case for spending more to reduce dropouts: over the long term, society gets back more than it spends to help people have enough to eat, stay healthy and gain an education.

We all understand that if we neglect to maintain our homes or our cars, we will pay more to repair them in the long run. The same is true for our collective selves. Sooner or later we will bear the costs of neglect of our neighbors. There is no way to opt out of those costs. If we are wise, we will do the maintenance now that will keep the costs reasonable over the long term. If we are wise, we will pay a little more now so we can pay far less later.

The trouble is, now is now and later always seems like much later. It’s a normal human response. It’s the way every child thinks. For a five-year old, immediate gratification trumps deferred gains. We’re not children though, and we don’t need anyone to show us the way. Each of us has the power within us to plan for a better future.

Take a look at the candidates in the next election. Ask yourself who among them will look to those who can afford to pay taxes to do so. Ask yourself who among them will invest in our human capital by offering adequate nutrition, health care and education to even the least fortunate among us. These are the women and men who will usher in a new morning in America.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Thursday's Child

Here in Palo Alto we have a school program called Tinsley, under which about five hundred kids from East Palo Alto, which is a mile away and is predominantly Hispanic, are brought into Palo Alto schools, which are mostly white and Asian. This isn’t something our community did voluntarily; it was forced on us twenty-five years ago by a Brown v. Board type lawsuit. So, while many applaud the program, others resent it, believing it diverts resources from Palo Alto kids and doesn’t do the kids from East Palo Alto much good.
A Stanford graduate student studying that last point—how much the East Palo Alto students are benefited---recently reported significant gains in science and history and small gains in math and English. She also noted important up-ticks in student self-confidence. Tinsley kids “felt comfortable talking to anybody, of any social class. They felt they could operate in a broader social world even if that process is sometimes hard.”

When the Stanford study was reported by a local online news site, an intense community discussion followed. Passions, it seems, have not cooled.

“Busing,” as Tinsley type solutions used to be called, is a difficult and divisive issue. There are good arguments on both sides, but these facts remain:

1.     The nation’s schools have re-segregated to pre Brown v. Board levels.
2.     The education opportunity in schools with predominantly minority populations is generally inferior to those in white schools.
3.     Income inequality is growing. It is now much greater than during the Civil Rights movement, greater than any time since the 1920s.
4.     Income inequality makes upward mobility harder.

Palo Alto is not all rich folks, but we are very well off. Many here made their places by their own hard work and enterprise. That personal success, and the struggle for it, can make us think that if we can do it anyone should be able to. Economists tell us this is not true. Being born poor is a substantial impediment to upward mobility.

Maybe that’s just the way it is. Maybe those of us who are lucky (or have made our own luck) owe nothing to those who are not. I don’t think that is the way we feel toward one another, however. Times are a little tougher now, so perhaps we are a bit hunkered down, looking primarily after ourselves, and that is understandable. Our future, though, as a country, depends upon our children. Not just the ones born to us, or adopted by us, but those all around us. We cannot prosper if we do not educate them and give them real (not imagined) opportunity to become important parts of the economic fabric of our society.

Even if you doubt Tinsley works as well as the Stanford researcher reports, it’s hard to see how, in a community as rich as ours, with the resources to make significant private contributions to our public schools, our children are suffering because of support for the Tinsley program.

And then there are these questions: If not here, where? If not us, who? I don’t see how we can just turn away from the reality that poor kids need help.

Martin Luther King dreamed of a day when his children “will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” It is a fair thing to wish for, and a test we should all hope to pass.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

On the Warm Updraft

Salmon struggle upstream to spawn and die. The male praying mantis loses his head for sex. Little grey spiders, like Charlotte from Charlotte’s Web, spin their egg sacs, their magnum opuses, as Charlotte called them, with their last strength. Throughout nature, giving life to the next generation is, it seems, worth dying for.
I can’t decide whether I am Charlotte or Wilbur. Wilbur, I think, in those moments when he watched frantically as Charlotte’s children blew away on gossamer balloons in the warm spring breeze. Not quite Wilbur with his new friends, Charlotte’s daughters who stayed in the barn, who greeted him with “salutations,” just as their mother had. That’s the wonderful thing about children’s stories. At the end, the story begins anew.

For millennia humans lived no longer than the time it took to have children and raise them to an age at which they could survive on their own. Lately, we have been living longer, long past the time our kids go off on their own. Long past the time that, evolutionarily speaking, we are necessary.

I don’t know whether I’m thinking too much or feeling too much. Writers are in the business of reflection. It’s entertaining, but troubling too. The more I think about how the world works, how we live together, the harder it gets to understand. Or, maybe that’s not right. I think I understand it well enough, but I am discouraged by what seems to be our inability to live beyond our most basic instincts. On bad days, I think we are little more than big ant colonies, busy about the business of survival, some luckier than others, depending on one another in the same thoughtless way plants depend on sun and water.

So, that’s depressing, right? I mean we did have the Renaissance. I don’t think ants have had that yet. For all our high-mindedness, though, we are selfish. Except when it comes to our children. Like so many others in the animal kingdom, for our children we would without hesitation give up our lives.

So powerful is the protective instinct of a parent that it is nearly impossible to turn off. The problem is that after our children are out of the nest, the best way to help them is to back off. So here I am, watching the world turn, a world I have realized I cannot change, and watching my children from afar too, loving them from afar, if from such a distance what I feel can be called love, since for me love lives in the things I do for those I care for.

The years after your children are grown are unnatural years, years without a mortal purpose. Loving someone so much you would die for them is a little like actually dying. Everything else seems trivial. I imagine that’s the way soldiers returning from combat feel. In harm’s way they would have died for their buddies, but now they wander a tranquil landscape that is as deadly to their souls as the war zone was to their bodies.

You can’t always help how you feel. The rush of lust and sex. The spike of fear for a child in danger, the excruciating relief when the danger passes. The numbness of isolation. E.B. White gave us a happy ending, but then Charlotte didn’t have to sit home alone wondering whether her children had blown into a pond. I suppose he meant to give us more too: an illumination of the dreadful beauty of passages; a tender touch to brush aside the tears of loneliness; a warm updraft with a promise of new beginnings.