The Decline of Foreign Languages in the U.S.

With English serving as the dominant lingua franca for everything from commerce to academia, Americans, as the world’s largest native Anglophones, are generally far less inclined to learn foreign languages than their European and Asian counterparts.

Indeed, as The Atlantic recently reported, cutting back on foreign language courses is not only a long-running — and steadily increasing — trend among elementary and middle schools, but it was even touted as a viable solution for freeing up time for more important lessons. Continue reading

The Invention of Universal Time and Global Consciousness

On this day in 1879, Scottish-born Canadian inventory and engineer Standford Fleming proposed to the Royal Canadian Institute the idea of establishing global standard time zones based on a single universal world time.

Up until that point, each (though not every) city around the world set up its own official clock based on the local position of the sun. Given that most humans, particularly in urban areas, did not travel long distances very quickly, this idiosyncratic and localized approach served well for millennia.

But with the introduction and mass utilization of railways and steamships, people began traveling fast enough over long distances to lead to some absurdly extreme variations in time; this required continually monitoring and resetting of timepieces as a train progressed across several municipalities in just a day. Hence Flemings’ suggestion, which he promoted at international conferences across the world.

And although his version of Universal Time was not accepted, the concept did catch on, and by 1929 most nations accepted a global standard of time. This proved to be one of those innovations that is taken for granted in modern society, but that reflected humanity’s unprecedented progression towards a globalized society.

The Murder Capitals of the World

According to a report by the Mexican NGO Citizens’ Council for Public Security and Criminal Justice (CCSP-JP by its Spanish acronym), the majority of the world’s most murderous cities — 42 out of the top 50 — are found in Latin America. A chart by The Economist breaks down these grim results in stark visual terms.

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El Salvador’s capital, San Salvador, home to around 1.8 million people, has seen its murder rate double in just one year to 1,900; the small Central American country subsequently beats neighboring Honduras as the country with the world’s highest murder rate. Latin America’s largest country, Brazil, accounts for 21 of the world’s most homicide-plagues cities, up from 14 just five years ago, when the report first began.
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Trauma Can Run In Our DNA

It is not surprising that the impact of trauma often transcends generations; after all, the psychological and behavioral consequences can easily rub off on one’s children. But a recent finding from New York City’s Mount Sinai Hospital strongly suggests that trauma is not just socially conditioned, but genetically inheritable.

As the Guardian reports, the study analyzed the genes of children born to Jewish men and women who, in some way or another, had suffered during the Second World War (as camp internees, torture victims, being on the run, etc.). The offspring of these survivors were already known to have an increase chance of stress disorders, and sure enough, results showed that the region of a gene linked to stress was altered in a way not seen in the control group. (The research team confirmed that the changes were not due to any trauma experienced by the children themselves.) Continue reading

To Improve U.S. Education, Look at the States

In the 1932 U.S. Supreme Court case New State Ice Co. v. Liebmann, Justice Luis Brandeis made the point that a “state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country”. Thanks to the federal structure of the United States, all fifty subdivisions of the country have considerable leeway in how they manage all sorts of economic, political, and social policies and institutions (though the extent of this power is a matter of perennial debate and jurisprudence.)

A recent report by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) has validated this idea, arguing that the best way to improve America’s educational outcomes is to look not abroad, as is so often done, but within, at the many individual states, counties, and cities that have managed to attain high results.

It is a long read and dense read, I unfortunately have not the time to reproduce its most salient points with my commentary. Suffice it to say, it is well worth giving a look, especially as it raises many questions whether the international rankings that are relied upon by performers are truly as accurate, and thus informative, as many believe. Continue reading

The Fortunate Optimist

Many will — and indeed have — rightly point out that the only reason I am a fairly optimistic person is that I have lived a comparatively easy and privileged life. But I think that is how it should be — why should I be so grim when I have been so lucky? Why should I squander my good fortune and opportunity when so many others — indeed, the majority of humans who have ever lived and who presently live — have suffered far greater hardship and injustice. I am grateful to even have a basis for hopefulness and enthusiasm, so I cherish and cultivate it accordingly. It is not about being starry-eyed, naive, and willfully ignorant, but trying to keep even the bad in one’s life, and in the world at large, in check however one can.

Of course, this is not to say that people do not have good reasons to be cynical, regardless of their seemingly positive circumstances and experiences, or that pessimists are categorically ungrateful and ignorant. Like almost any person that has ever lived, I have seen and experienced enough to know that there are reasonable grounds to feel hopeless, misanthropic, and even nihilistic — indeed, I struggle regularly with bouts of those feelings as well. But for practical and philosophical reasons, I try to balance it out by valuing whatever flicker of hope I can find (be it in my life or among humanity as a whole).

What are your thoughts?

 

Polling The World’s Poorest People

All too often, the world’s poorest denizens are dealt the added blow of being invisible to their wealthier neighbors, governments, and even many of the humanitarian groups keen on helping them. Furthering worsening the plight of the poor, according to Claire Melamed of Aeon, is the shocking lack of information about what they think, feel, and experience everyday. Without these data, it is more difficult to connect to the human side of poverty, let alone to devise evidence-based solutions to alleviating it.

The World Bank recently did a brave and very revealing piece of research. They asked their own staff to what extent they imagined poorer and richer people in three countries would agree with the statement: ‘What happens to me in the future mostly depends on me’. Bank staff predicted that around 20 per cent of poor people would agree with the statement.

In fact, more than 80 per cent of poor people felt that what happened to them in the future depended on their own efforts – four times as many as the World Bank staff had predicted, and about the same proportion as richer people. It’s worth letting that sink in. Here we have staff in one of the most powerful development agencies in the world, freely assuming that the people whom they are employed to work with, and for, feel passive and helpless when in fact the opposite is the case.

If more people — from the average citizen to policy makers and development agencies — knew exactly what poor people believed and how they behaved, a lot more progress could be made towards eliminating this scourge once and for all. Continue reading

The Poor Are Neither Corruptible Nor Ill-Disciplined

To add further insult to the many injuries of poverty, those struggling to get by often face the heavy stigma of being perceived as lazy, irresponsible, and even immoral. Being poor is a less a product of bad circumstances and environmental factors, and more the result of stupidity, ill-discipline, and personal failing.

But as the New Republic reports, various studies are finding that the very nature of poverty makes seemingly irrational decisions perfectly reasonable.

The very definition of self-control is choosing behaviors that favor long-term outcomes over short-term rewards, but poverty can force people to live in a permanent now. Worrying about tomorrow can be a luxury if you don’t know how you’ll survive today.

Research supports this idea by showing that poor people understandably have an increased focus on the present. People who are among the poorest one-fifth of Americans tend to spend their money on immediate needs such as food, utilities and housing, all of which have gotten more expensive. In this situation, the traditional definition of self-control doesn’t make a lot of sense.

Working toward future rewards also requires trust that those rewards will be waiting for you when you get there. To shed light on this we can look at the the classic experiment about self-control–the “marshmallow game”. Researchers use this experiment to measure how well children can delay gratification. They put one marshmallow on a table and tell a child that she can eat the marshmallow in front of her, or wait a while and the experimenter will bring her two marshmallows.

It turns out that children don’t wait as long for a promised larger reward if they first learned that the experimenter was unreliable compared to other children who played with a reliable experimenter. And, of course, instability and unpredicability are hallmarks of life in poverty.

People who grow up in poverty quickly learn that it doesn’t pay off to save for an uncertain future if the reward they are waiting for sometimes isn’t there after the wait.

Indeed, if you don’t see a future, why bother saving or investing what little income you could spare, if any. The harsh and uncompromising demands of poverty make it so that short-term considerations are practically all that matter.

In our society, hardly anything is more adverse to survival than poverty. It would be foolish to spend precious mental resources thinking about solving a problem that won’t occur for a month when you can’t afford dinner tonight. A series of studies in 2013 on scarcity among people in the lab and farmers in the real world found that being deprived of money caused the equivalent of a 13-point drop in IQ. That kind of a handicap will make it hard for anyone to engage in the high-level thinking required for self-control.

Like any other kind of thinking, self-control can be taught. Children do better at self-control (and in school) when their parents teach them to solve problems independently and to participate in family decisions. But that kind of involved parenting takes time, and financially poor parents are often “time-poor”, too.

Family factors, like nurturing and stimulation, are directly linked to mental development and can be limited by time poverty. And parents living in poor, dangerous neighborhoods don’t give their children as much autonomy as parents who live in less dangerous neighborhoods. This doesn’t mean that poor working parents aren’t choosing to teach their kids self-control. It means they may be prevented from teaching self-control to their children.

Needless to say, poverty creates dire conditions for impressionable and developing minds. Poverty’s capacity to embed itself into the minds of young people is perhaps what is most pernicious, as perpetuates the psychological and physical consequences for generations.

A child born in the bottom fifth of the income distribution has less than a one-in-10 chance of moving to the top fifth, and even the brightest poor children are still less likely to complete college than average wealthy children. Evidence supports the commonsense conclusion that children in poverty have little reason to have high self-efficacy about self-control based on observing those around them.

Working out of poverty is an uphill struggle. The extra work required of people at the bottom to move up takes its toll on health. Poor children who succeed in school and life, particularly members of minority groups, often have worse health than those who fail, showing at least a 20 percent increase in a biological measure of heart disease risk.

A recent study found that adolescents from poor backgrounds with higher self-control did better psychologically but actually aged faster at the molecular level than those with lower self-control. Self-control and achievement require poor people to overcome a number of structural barriers and obstacles. This is stressful, and stress takes a toll on health. Navigating this difficult terrain causes wear and tear on key parts of the body such as the immune system and ultimately deteriorates health.

With all this mind, the article rightly points out the need to change how we frame the issue of self-discipline in the context of poverty.

We tend to think that focusing on long-term goals is always a good thing and satisfying short-term needs is always a bad thing; we say that “self-control failure” is equivalent to focusing on the near term. This definition works well for people who have the luxury of time and money to meet their basic needs and have resources left over to plan for the future. But self-control as currently defined might not even apply to people living in the permanent now.

Meanwhile, an article in the New York Times tackles the equally pervasive myth that the poor, being so weak-willed and negligent, are susceptible to further laziness and degradation when given assistance. So not only do the poor face ostracization and shame for their condition, but they are deprived of any help for reasons of weak character.

Abhijit Banerjee, a director of the Poverty Action Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, released a paper with three colleagues last week that carefully assessed the effects of seven cash-transfer programs in Mexico, Morocco, Honduras, Nicaragua, the Philippines and Indonesia. It found “no systematic evidence that cash transfer programs discourage work”.

A World Bank report from 2014 examined cash assistance programs in Africa, Asia and Latin America and found, contrary to popular stereotype, the money was not typically squandered on things like alcohol and tobacco.

So across widely distinct cultures and societies, handouts generally have no ill effect on work ethic or financial responsibility. Nevertheless, the myth of the corruptible poor remains widespread, if not intensifying. The culprit?

Professor Banerjee suggests the spread of welfare aversion around the world might be an American confection. “Many governments have economic advisers with degrees from the United States who share the same ideology”, he said. “Ideology is much more pervasive than the facts”.

Some would argue that the U.S. is a different story, because we host certain ethnic, social, and cultural groups that are more prone to laziness than other societies. But decades of evidence from domestic welfare programs do not justify this hypothesis.

Already in 1995, an analysis of rates of birth to unwed mothers by Hilary Hoynes of the University of California, Berkeley, found that welfare payments did not increase single motherhood. And the experience over the next 20 years suggested that ending welfare did not reduce it.

The charge that welfare will become a way of life reproducing itself down the generations is also dubious. Before welfare reform in 1996, some four in 10 Americans on welfare were on it for only one or two years. Only about a third were on it for five years or more.

And what about jobs? There is little doubt that welfare can discourage employment, particularly when recipients lose benefits quickly as their earnings from work rise.

Still, the effects are muted. For instance, in 1983 Robert Moffitt, then at Rutgers University, estimated that welfare reduced work by some four hours a week out of a total of 25.

“There is some disincentive effect consistent with theory, but the economic magnitude is not large”, said James P. Ziliak, head of the Center for Poverty Research at the University of Kentucky. “Oftentimes these disincentive effects are overstated in the policy discourse”.

Yet still these negative impressions of the poor — and the subsequent disapproval and gutting of aid — persists to punishing effect. Even when economic circumstances plummeted and people found themselves unemployed and financially unstable through no fault of their own, this already-baseless line of thinking persisted.

When the Great Recession struck, many of the poorest Americans found there was no safety net for them. “Extreme poverty was more affected by the shock to the labor market than in prior experience”, said Professor Hoynes at Berkeley.

Why is this debate still relevant today? The evidence has not caught up with the popular belief that welfare reform was a huge success.

The old welfare strategy … blamed for so many social ills died long ago. Its replacement is tiny by comparison, providing cash to only about a quarter of poor families and typically only enough to take them a quarter of the way out of poverty.

As long as we fail to accept the external and structural causes of poverty, in favor of blaming and shaming the poor themselves, the scourge of poverty, and its subsequent sociopolitical consequences, will continue for generations, squandering millions of lives in the process.

What are your thoughts?

Marvin Minsky, Pioneer of A.I., Dies

As the Information Age continues to yield exponentially more powerful computers and processors, the idea of artificial intelligence will become increasingly more relevant and serious in the coming decades.

But some thinkers saw this coming well in advance, namely American mathematician and inventor Marvin Minsky, who pass away earlier this week at the age of 88.

As the Christian Science Monitor reports, this otherwise obscure figure (outside of the scientific and academic community) was a major intellectual contributor to A.I., laying its conceptual, practical, and ethical groundwork. Continue reading

The Great Expense of Being Poor

Over at The Atlantic, Barbara Ehrenreich reminds us of just how burdensome poverty can be. One would think this is obvious, but far too many Americans prescribe to the notion that poverty is a product of bad behavior and character, rather than the natural outcome of bad circumstances, such as a dearth of well-paying jobs.

What I discovered is that in many ways, these [low paying] jobs are a trap: They pay so little that you cannot accumulate even a couple of hundred dollars to help you make the transition to a better-paying job. They often give you no control over your work schedule, making it impossible to arrange for child care or take a second job. And in many of these jobs, even young women soon begin to experience the physical deterioration—especially knee and back problems—that can bring a painful end to their work life.

I was also dismayed to find that in some ways, it is actually more expensive to be poor than not poor. If you can’t afford the first month’s rent and security deposit you need in order to rent an apartment, you may get stuck in an overpriced residential motel. If you don’t have a kitchen or even a refrigerator and microwave, you will find yourself falling back on convenience store food, which—in addition to its nutritional deficits—is also alarmingly overpriced. If you need a loan, as most poor people eventually do, you will end up paying an interest rate many times more than what a more affluent borrower would be charged. To be poor—especially with children to support and care for—is a perpetual high-wire act.

Most private-sector employers offer no sick days, and many will fire a person who misses a day of work, even to stay home with a sick child. A nonfunctioning car can also mean lost pay and sudden expenses. A broken headlight invites a ticket, plus a fine greater than the cost of a new headlight, and possible court costs. If a creditor decides to get nasty, a court summons may be issued, often leading to an arrest warrant. No amount of training in financial literacy can prepare someone for such exigencies—or make up for an income that is impossibly low to start with. Instead of treating low-wage mothers as the struggling heroines they are, our political culture still tends to view them as miscreants and contributors to the “cycle of poverty”.

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