From the aptly named

Many humans on this planet aren’t so fortunate to have the opportunities we do. We should never take the beauty we experience and see for granted. That can’t be stressed enough, since we often forget it.


Why Nations Fail

One of the most consistent facts of history is that all great empires come to an end. Every powerful nation that has ever existed, from the very first to the most recent, has eventually fallen – sometimes violently and spontaneously, most times gradually.

While the span, strength, and decline of each major civilization has varied wildly, there is almost always a similar convergence of factors at work: political decay or instability, outbreaks of disease or famine, economic stagnation, foreign aggression (many times by an upstart nation that eventually replaces the previous one), and even environmental degradation (states growing beyond their means isn’t as recent a concern as think)

But another argument has emerged from Daron Acemoglu, a professor of economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and author of the book, Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty.  He claims that there is another contributor to decline that supersedes the rest, as an NPR report explains:

Why do nations rise, and why do they fall?  For centuries, explanations have rained down on us.  It’s geography.  It’s culture.  It’s climate.  Free markets.  Colonization.  Military might.

A whopping new study of the ultimate question says it comes down to this:  Whether it’s ancient Rome or Venice or China or the United States of America right now, the wealth of a nation is tied most closely to how much the average person shares in the overall growth of the economy.  That it really is about the ninety-nine percent.

This hour, On Point:  the hottest economist on the planet on why nations fail.

Needless to say, this point is pretty topical, given the stagnant and unequal socioeconomic conditions of the US today. Click the report hyperlink to listen to the interview, as it’s well worth your time. You can also read his blog at Finally, check out a video of his lecture on the topic:

As always, leave your feedback and reflections. I’m still absorbing the argument myself, so I’ll probably be getting back to it later. So far, it’s been resonating with me, but I’ll wait to pass judgment.


2012’s Worst Colleges for Free Speech

The following comes from Greg Lukianoff, President of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, who’s writing in HuffPost:

Free exchange of ideas is the lifeblood of any university, and for the second year in a row my organization, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), presents its list of the worst colleges and universities for freedom of speech.

Many of the 12 are repeat offenders for refusing to undo serious punishments of what should be clearly protected speech on campus, while others are new additions that have shown particular hostility to student criticism and, in one case, limiting free speech to a tiny zone on campus. Also bound to raise a buzz, Yale and Harvard, two of the most iconic colleges in the country, top the list for disappointing but ongoing retrenchment against the principles that are supposed to animate higher education. Also, check out our short video below about the list.

Let us know in the comments if your college has overachieved in censorship but did not make the list. To address some common questions last year: first of all, we do not include schools that let students attending know full well that you have limited rights once you get on campus. Sorry, students who choose Brigham Young University or Liberty University know what they’re getting into, and we explain our position here. And, yes, there isn’t perfect geographical distribution of the worst colleges, but if you look at FIRE cases you will find that we fight battles all over the country (it just seems that a disproportionate number of schools on the East Coast are the ones least willing to back down when caught censoring).

The schools are presented in no particular order. Lastly, yes, we are all too happy to work with colleges to get them off the list before next year.

Click the first hyperlink to read about the offenders, which disturbingly enough include a number of reputable Ivy Leagues. Remember, this list is hardly exhaustive: despite an atmosphere of free inquiry being the traditional (and rather obvious) foundation of any institution of learning, a lot of schools are surprisingly draconian towards students and faculty alike. If even universities can’t be bastions of free-thought and expression, where else can we expect innovation and new ideas to emerge?


How We Measure Prosperity

As someone who studied economics (both formally and personally), I’ve never liked the way financial analysts, economists, and policymakers rely on GDP growth as an indicator of economic health or social well-being. While the measure may sometimes help to determine … Continue reading

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The Self-Victimization of the Religious Right

In the Washington Post’s “On Faith” forum, columnist Paula Kirby takes politicians to task on their use of person suffering, or that of loved ones, as an appeal for being elected. The piece is a bit old, and partly references the GOP faith forum held in Iowa back in November, but its message is no less relevant:

Imagine that the year is 1932 and presidential candidate Franklin D. Roosevelt, instead of addressing himself to the economic paralysis that has gripped the nation, talks endlessly about the polio-induced paralysis of his own legs as some sort of unique qualification for the presidency. He blathers on about his deep faith in God as the reason he should be elected, weeps at the memory not only of his struggle with polio but of his own sins, and generally talks to the Americans as if they were choosing a Confessor/Penitent-in-Chief instead of a president.

That was exactly the spectacle presented last Saturday by Republican presidential candidates at a forum stressing faith and family in Des Moines, Iowa. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rich Santorum and the pizza impresario Herman Cain broke down when they spoke, respectively, about the brain tumors of a friend’s son, the birth of a daughter with a severe genetically determined disability, and being diagnosed with cancer.

Boo-hoo, gentlemen. Having endured the ordinary vicissitudes or the extraordinary and unfathomable tragedies of life and having sought the help of whatever God in whom you believe has absolutely nothing to do with your suitability for the nation’s highest office. An atheist would face the same tragedies without invoking God’s help and that, too, would have nothing to do with his or her fitness for the presidency.

The Iowa forum was a triumph of the union of psychobabble and public religiosity that has come to dominate American politics. President Obama’s refusal to engage in this kind of faith-infused psychological exhibitionism is one of the main reasons why the media (and not only conservative media) have tagged him as a cool professorial type who does not know how to make a connection with ordinary people. . .

Suffering does not always ennoble but, on the contrary, can sometimes create a grandiose sense of entitlement. . . .

While I would never advocate a return to the days when photographers would, out of misplaced deference to the office of the presidency, agree not to take pictures of the president in a wheelchair, being in a wheelchair (metaphorically or literally) tells you nothing about whether a man is an effective leader. It reveals a good deal about the character of a candidates, however, when they think that they deserve votes because they’ve had cancer or a brain-damaged child. This use of personal faith and personal suffering in politics is nothing less than an obscenity.

Kirby then contrasts this view of suffering with the GOP’s increasing diffidence towards alleviating, or at least properly acknowledging, the suffering of other Americans (though some would disagree with her prescription of government intervention).

I’d also add that the problem is hardly unique to religious conservatives – just about everyone in a position of power tries to play up their “credentials” as a man (or woman) of the people, since they ostensibly endured the same experiences and suffering. Some of it is clearly opportunistic self-promotion, but a lot of it may be a genuine attempt  to convince oneself that they aren’t as disconnected or selfish as they’re made out to be. 

But from the way the Christian Right portrays it, one would think this country was enduring some atheist-led witch-hunt against the religious. Religion is under assault, the values we hold dear are being eroded, and some sinister cabal of secular-liberal elites is out to destroy Christianity, it’s values, and with it, America. This mix of paranoia, intransigence, and self-victimization has become the bedrock of religious conservative rhetoric and identity.

Never mind that Christians comprise the overwhelming majority of the population, that a good chunk of Americans define themselves as moderate to conservative, and that religious convictions, though greatly secularized, are still strong. Apparently, Christianity is an oppressed minority that must fight for its survival.

Granted, some of this is partly drawn from some understandable concerns about this country’s future prospects and the grave problems we face. But clearly it’s being taken too far. Comparing our president to murderous dictators, and invoking notions of revolution and war (sometimes explicitly) lead us down a very dangerous path. At the very least, we’re polarizing society to the point of political and ideological stagnation.

Leaving aside the political basis for this mentality, it’s clear where the religious sentiment is drawn from – the fact that religion no longer has a monopoly on public opinion and social values. To be sure, Christianity remains influential and well-resourced, especially in the realm of politics (where you have to feign piety just to get elected). By some accounts, the Christian Right is growing in both numbers and power, just as the liberal Mainline Protestants continue their precipitous decline.

But a growing number of Americans, especially the younger generations, are starting to move away from established Christian mores – there is greater acceptance of homosexuality, gay marriage, other faith traditions, and non-traditional families. Attitudes towards sex, marriage, and religious doctrines have liberalized. Religion is still influential, but comparatively less so, especially as it’s taken on a more spiritual, non-denominational, and individualized character.

So for the most part, all of this thundering rhetoric is reactionary. Any time a dominant institution finds itself the least bit threatened, especially after a long period of privilege, it starts to become fearful and indignant. Raising so much ire about a loss of sociocultural hegemony is not a sign of confidence and security.

In all fairness, however, this mentality isn’t limited to the Christian right. Both leftists and atheists are prone to this behavior as well, albeit not with the same sense of flair or rhetorical skill (the political right is far better at framing issues or invoking the powerful symbolism of the Bible or American history). Everyone feels threatened, and the mood in this country is of palpable and intractable conflict between hardened factions: left vs. right, religious vs. secular, 1% vs. 99%, and so on. I discussed most of this at length several posts back.

I think that the same problem afflicts part of the atheist movement, the part in which any real or ostensible offense— offensiveness being the mildest form of suffering — is seen not only as a badge of honor, but as a plea for self-affirmation, a kind of affirmation that, I think, detracts from the goals of our movement.  How does it advance our agenda to heap tons of opprobrium on a misguided purveyor of gelato—especially one who immediately apologized—or to blame our personal failures on discrimination against atheists?  We know we’re a reviled minority, so let’s accept that, call it out when it seriously impedes our mission, and get on with the job.



Public Service

A few days ago, I was walking through Overtown, a rough and mostly Black part of town that everyone in faraway suburbia – myself once included – seems to fear even driving by. I felt oddly at ease, and most residents were friendly, if not a little perplexed at my presence (a lot of people asked what I was up to or where I was going, in a mix of politeness and curiosity). After all, how often do they get outsiders, especially from the more well-off and insular suburbs?

At one point, I was approached by a casually dressed but well-kempt man who shook my hand and welcomed me to the neighborhood. He was sincere and professional. He apologized for the litter lining the sidewalks and assured me he’d get it clean right away. He eventually introduced himself as the city official responsible for administering the area, and wished me a pleasant visit. I wish I had remembered his name, but I think I was too shocked by the revelation.
This man wasn’t what we imagine a public official to be, especially in these cynical times. He wasn’t in a crisp suit working in some cloistered high-rise office. He looked and behaved like the common man, walking the streets of his neighborhood with his constituents, wishing them well and exhorting them to clean up after themselves. I saw him directing others to tidy up the area, partaking in the dirty work himself without hesitation.
I couldn’t have asked for a more inspiring encounter. I know it’s not much to go by, but I still feel hopeful that there are good people out there working for the public good. I hope I can be one of those people some day.

The Sanctity of Sperm

It’s often joked about that religious conservatives care more about the unborn than the already-born (see George Carlin’s humorous take on this trope). But there is a lot of data to back up this observation, courtesy of an article in Common Dreams titled “Pro-Life or Just Pro-Sperm?,”by David Morris. In it, he cites a disquieting ethical contradiction:

Consider that all but one of 47 Republican Senators voted in favor of a bill allowing any employer to deny coverage of birth control in the company’s insurance policies.  In any event, it is clear that pro-life Republicans seem remarkably unconcerned with the health of newborns. A comprehensive review of abortion and child welfare policies in all 50 states found that states with the most restrictive abortion laws spend the least on education, on facilitating adoption and on nurturing poor children. These states also have fewer mandates requiring insurance providers to cover minimum hospital stays after childbirth.

So for all their concern about fetuses, the GOP doesn’t make life any easier for them once they’re born. The same areas that restrict reproductive services nonetheless make having a child as undesirable as possible, especially if you’re among the poorer classes that are most likely to seek preventative or terminative services.

It’s no coincidence that abortion rates are far lower in areas that provide adequate assistance to mothers and infants, if their access to abortion services is much higher. Of course, it also helps that these places make it cheap and easy to obtain the birth control measures that prevent unwanted pregnancies from happening in the first place.

The contradictions become more interesting once you scrutinize one of the most fervent opponents of birth control and abortion, the Catholic Church.

The Catholic Church is fervently pro-sperm. Decades before the Church mobilized against abortion it mobilized against contraception.  As late as 1960, many states outlawed sales of contraceptives. The Catholic Church was the driving force behind these laws. In the 1940s, Connecticut legislators introduced bills allowing physicians to prescribe contraceptives only for married couples if a pregnancy would be life threatening.  The Catholic Church swung into action. One historian describes the process; “priests became heavily involved…Their efforts were not confined to anti-birth control sermons on Sundays.  They engaged in voter registration drives, they encouraged parishioners to support anti-birth control candidates for the legislature, and they actively campaigned to defeat any changes in the birth control laws”.  The bills failed.

Prior to 1930, all Christian denominations held that contraception was contrary to God’s will. Then one by one, beginning with the Church of England they began to accept birth control.

Many expected the Catholic Church to follow suit. In the mid 1960’s Pope Paul VI appointed a commission on birth control to advise him on the issue. An overwhelming majority of its members favored lifting the ban.

Indeed, as shocking as it may be nowadays, the Catholic Church came very close to accepting birth control. After all, the Bible wasn’t explicitly clear in its opposition to contraceptives, and it made practical sense to support the prevention of unplanned births, since it would reduce the demand for abortion, a far more unpleasant act comparatively speaking.

But despite the advice of theologians and cardinals, and the fact that most Catholics utilize birth control anyway, the Pope maintained the anachronistic ban on contraception, finding that it’s usage results in “an act of mutual love which impairs the capacity to transmit life which God the Creator, through specific laws, has built into it, frustrates His design which constitutes the norm of marriage, and contradicts the will of the Author of life.”

The reliability of this Pope’s decree is suspect when you consider the views of his infallible predecessors:

At the beginning of the 13th century Pope Innocent II declared that “quickening” (the time when the woman first feels the fetus move within her) was the moment at which abortion became homicide. In 1591, Pope Gregory XIV proclaimed that quickening occurred after 116 days, that is, into the second trimester. That guidance remained Church policy until 1869 when Pope Pius IX eliminated the distinction between the animated and non-animated fetus and required excommunication for abortions at any stage of pregnancy.

Imagine if all our policies regarding ethical matters were based on the divergent whims of authoritarian leaders. How do we determine which of these Popes were right if they held contradicting opinions in spite their mutual claim to moral and theological legitimacy? What are they basing their conclusions on? Even the majority opinion of Pope Paul VI’s greatest theological consultants was overruled, along with centuries of Church dogma.

The early Christians adopted Aristotle’s framework that embryos pass through three distinct stages and only become fully human in the last stage.  Saint Augustine, one of the most influential Catholic theologians, proposed that abortion in the first trimester should not be regarded “as homicide, for there cannot be a living soul in a body that lacks sensation due to its not yet being formed.

Consider that Roe v. Wade, the 1972 Supreme Court case that legalized abortion and gained the ire of so many Christians, eventually established the same guidelines as the traditional Church: women have full rights to an abortion within the first trimester (12 weeks), while states are allowed to restrict abortions in the third trimester, after 27 weeks.

Whether abortions during the second trimester can be restricted is a bit trickier, but that matters little, given that almost 90% of all abortionsoccur within the first trimester (60% as early as 8 weeks). Around 9% happen in the 2nd trimester, but that’s mostly due to financial and political restrictions; only .01% of abortions take place after the 20th week, let alone past the 27 week period that defines fetal viability.

So the overwhelming majority of abortions are performed during the period of time that was once accepted by the Church for centuries, before it was arbitrarily and unilaterally overturned by Papal whim. As if the grounds for which abortion and birth control are opposed aren’t capricious enough, keep this little-known fact in mind:

Consider that when artificial birth control or abortion is not used, more often than not God chooses death, not life.  A third to a half of fertilized eggs do not implant.  Some doctors believe this figure could be as high as 80 percent. A third of those that do implant end in spontaneousmiscarriages.  Does the pro-life movement believe this makes God a mass murderer?

I doubt it. Many would probably justify this on the grounds that it’s either part of God’s mysterious plan, or that he has no bearing on how life takes its course. How they could prove that, given that many of their own religious leaders can’t seem to figure it out, is another story altogether.

This is precisely why issues like birth control should not be influenced by religious dogma, especially within the political and legal arena. Religiously-based ethical and moral positions lack any empirical or rational foundation, and their epistemology is explicitly drawn from the notion that a supernatural authority should be accepted as a matter of faith, not evidence.

How we govern worldly concerns – be they reproductive services, the rights of homosexuals, and other matters – shouldn’t be contingent on centuries-old writings, or on competing religious authorities who all claim to speak on behalf of the divine. It’s illogical to care more about the pre-born than the post-born, and such a position is a telling example of what it’s harmful to base your position on something beyond reality (yes, I know that plenty of pro-lifers also seek to better the conditions of children, but I’m obviously not talking about those exceptions).

Going back to the overall point of the article, Morris ends with this savvy point:

It appears that today’s Republican Party will pull out all the stops to protect the rights of the sperm but all but turn its back on the rights and needs of babies.  This is what the term pro-life has come to mean in 2012, and the reason we need to change the language we use when we talk about the issues surrounding reproduction.

Indeed, I’d argue that a better “pro-life” position is one that provides accessible measures that avert pregnancy (and thus needless suffering) while ensuring that those who are born have better educational and healthcare opportunities. Like most people, I find abortions to be unfortunate – few people want to terminate a pregnancy. That’s why so many of us advocate for expanding options that would prevent such difficult decisions from having to be made in the first place.


Happy 126th Birthday to Ludwig Mies van der Rohe

The following comes form Huffpost:

Happy birthday to one of the principal shapers of our modern world, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.

Along with other post-World War I architects, such as Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier (Charles-Édouard Jeanneret), van der Rohe’s aesthetic came to define what “modern” looked like in the 20th century. The bare framework and open floor plan that van der Rohe frequently employed came to be known as “skin and bones” architecture, never employing even the slightest detail if it wasn’t necessary to the overall feel of the space. To see an example of his work, go to Google today and click on the iconic Crown Hall building.

Mies was not just an architect of physical spaces, but his own reputation as well. Despite not having a formal college-level education, the young man began getting his own commissions after successfully working under Peter Behrens from 1908 to 1912. He even redesigned his name, adding in the “van der” and “Rohe” (his mother’s surname) prior to becoming the architect that we know and love today.

Even though van der Rohe created such iconic designs as the Seagram building in New York and the Farnsworth House in Illinois, it is was his ideas that were his greatest contribution to society. He famously told the New York Herald Tribune in 1959, “Less is more” and “God is in the details.” With those simple words, van der Rohe’s ethos would permeate not just architecture and modern living, but fashion, cinema and the culinary world, igniting a newfound love of functionality throughout the world.

Mies van der Rohe was truly an architect of the future, not just of structures, and his words still resonate today. His was arguably a style that will truly never go out of style.

Happy Birthday, Mies van der Rohe!

Below is a video related to the Google doodle that honored him:

And here are are a few examples of Van Der Rohe’s functional and minimalist designs:

The Barcelona Pavilion

The Toronto-Dominion Complex

The Farnsworth House, Illinois

You can find a list of his works here. I know modernism, especially of the Bauhaus school, isn’t popular with everyone (though what style is), but I personally don’t mind it.