What Genetics Does And Doesn’t Tell Us

I was looking at various articles and blogs on genetics, race, and IQ. I was also looking at the comments. It got me thinking about the quality of the public debate.

Much of the analysis and discussion is high quality. There are many people involved who are intelligent and well-read. But there still is a lot of misunderstanding and confusion about the issues of heritability, genetic inheritance, and shared environment. Without understanding these issues, there is no way to tackle all the related issues of race, IQ, etc.

This is a topic that I’ve posted about before. In that post, I offered many different perspectives from both online sources and books. If you check out some of the info from that post, you’ll realize how many complex factors are involved in a trait getting passed on and how difficult it is to determine causal relationships, specifically determining genetic influence.

This post is a continuation of what I shared there. I feel compelled to return to the topic because of its importance.

I’ll keep this post simpler, though. I’m only going to offer four articles for consideration, all of them from the website Science 2.0. There is no particular reason I’m offering these articles from this website other than that they caught my attention as I was browsing the web. The authors explain the issues well and I want to use this opportunity to promote their explanations.

* * * *

What Is Heritability?
By Gerhard Adam

“Heritability” is a term used in many articles and through much of the scientific literature and invariably promotes the idea that it relates specifically to inherited traits. As a result, it is often assumed that the heritability of a particular trait relates to how much influence genetics has on the trait manifesting in an individual.

However, that isn’t what it means.

Heritability attempts to address the relationship between nature (genetics) and nurture (environment), so that as each changes, the variation between individuals within a population can be estimated based on these influences. In this context, “environment” simply represents everything external to the genome that could effect expression.

Therefore the first significant aspect of heritability that must be understood is that it tells us nothing about individuals. It is strictly an estimate of the variations that occur within populations. If heritability is applied to an individual it is a meaningless concept [since an individual cannot be said to vary with anything].

It also doesn’t tell us anything about the specific influence of genes on any particular trait, since that would be the result of inheritance. We also need to understand that a trait is something that is “selectable”. In other words, there exists a possibility that outcomes can vary in the expression of a particular trait. This follows from the Mendelian view of inheritance where genes are represented as two alleles [dominant and recessive], so that particular combinations would produce certain outcomes. Therefore if there is no variation in the alleles, then everyone has the same genes and heritability would be zero. Adaptations like having a heart or a stomach are not selectable (too many genes and interactions) and therefore tell us nothing about heritability. The primary difference is that adaptations represent the cumulative effect of changes over time that have gone to fixation in a population. As a result, there is no “selection” that would determine “heart or no heart”. Therefore we can consider that the heart is an adaptation, while the risk of heart disease is a trait.

[ . . . . ]

One difficulty that arises with heritability is that any considered trait must be demonstrably linked to genetic transmission. This can become problematic when heritability is used to evaluate behavioral traits where the genetic link may be tenuous. In an effort to measure heritability, there is often a reliance on twin studies under the assumption that variances between them must be accountable to environment since they are effectively genetically identical. However, as previously mentioned, this can result in difficult interpretations when the traits in question are purely behavioral. Until such time as behavioral traits can be explicitly linked to genes, any statement regarding heritability must be considered suspect.

Heritability: A Primer
By Josh Witten

RED FLAG: If someone says the heritability of X is Y, then they probably don’t know what they are talking about.

Folks in the know, know that there are two kinds of heritability, broad sense and narrow sense. Those knowledgeable folks in the know are aware that it is extremely important to clearly state which heritability one is using, as the interpretation of each is different.

[ . . . . ]

Broad sense heritability tells us what proportion of the phenotypic variation is due to the genotypes of the individuals of the population. It tells us nothing about how similar the phenotype of a child will be to its parent. For that, we need the narrow sense heritability.

[ . . . . ]

Human behavioral studies, such as on IQ, have it much more difficult. Environmental variance is very difficult to control experimentally. Statistical methods can be used to correct for the effects of known environmental variables, but one cannot be certain that all variables have been accounted for. Without knowledge of the environmental variance, one cannot determine the value of Cov(G,E). Underestimating environmental variance and assuming, without evidence, that Cov(G,E)=0, will lead to an overestimation of Var(G), Var(A), and both broad and narrow sense heritability.

In this context, it becomes impossible to interpret either broad sense or narrow sense heritability rigorously. It is even questionable whether these metrics have any validity at all.

For a more thorough examination of the issue of heritability of IQ along these lines, I recommend dusting off a Science paper from 1974 by Layzer entitled “Heritability analyses of IQ scores: science or numerology?”.

What Our Genes Tell Us About Race
By Michael White

The debate over race and intelligence has a long and tarnished history, although that doesn’t mean it’s not a legitimate scientific question to address. However, the debate has taken place almost entirely outside modern genetics, falling instead within the realm of psychology (such as work done by Arthur Jensen). Some writers would have you believe that science is converging on a consensus that the ‘IQ’ gap between various races is genetic (and that liberal conspirators are trying to cover it up). That claim is false. Researchers have not identified a single genetic variant with an impact on intelligence that falls along population lines. In fact several studies have recently tested variants in genes that appear to be involved in controlling brain size. No correlation with intelligence was found. Yes, genetics does play a significant role in intelligence, and many other traits. But there is simply no genetic evidence (and I mean real genetics, not psychology) for genetic differences in intelligence between human populations.

Why is this so? Other traits, like skin color, obviously fall along population lines. While skin color is obviously not a 100% reliable predictor, skin color is a major indicator of race. Irish, Kenyans, Pakistanis, and Chinese populations all have clearly different skin tones.

It turns out, not surprisingly, that the genetic variation for some (but not all) skin color genes does in fact follow population divisions, in contrast with most other genetic variation. This is most likely because skin color differences end up being relatively simple – a single variant of a gene (causing lighter skin, for example) can easily become common in a population through natural selection. The result is that you have different human populations with dramatic differences in skin color.

Other traits, however, are much more complex than skin color. Physical differences which are determined not by one, but many different genetic variants, are unlikely to split neatly by population. Intelligence is probably one of the most complex traits humans possess. It is almost certainly affected by variants in many different genes, and many of those genes have other important functions in the body. That means this: two different human populations could have easily developed differences in skin color between them, but differences in intelligence would have been extremely hard to develop, by chance or by natural selection.

Racial conflict has long been a part of human societies. Along with that conflict has come frequent speculation (most famously, but not exclusively among whites with European ancestry) that one race is inferior to another. Some have been worried that modern genetics would substantiate that belief, but our best genetic evidence to date shows those worries unfounded. Genetics does play a large role in the diversity we find among human beings. That diversity, in spite of some dramatic but superficial exceptions like skin color, is shared in common among all races.

Why Race Is Pseudo-Science
By Gerhard Adam

However, the premise is quite simple. If you can’t actually define it in scientific terms, then it cannot be science. Therefore any claims that derive from it are not science. Similarly, we cannot claim that “race” is valid by simply engaging in arm-waving arguments based on the fact that there are genetic differences between various population groups. “Race” must be fully quantifiable as specific heritable trait(s) that serves to identify the group in question.

[ . . . . ]

If the concept of race is to be scientific, then it would need to specifically identify the genetic criteria that is to be used for that differentiation. Merely claiming some external trait isn’t going to do it.

Such simplistic thinking is insufficient to raise the idea of “race” beyond anything except another convenient [or inconvenient as the case may be] cultural grouping.

[ . . . . ]

So, if we really want to pursue the topic of “race” or designating subspecies of humans, then lets do so on a scientific basis, and not some arbitrary socio-cultural designation. If “race” is going to be based on genetics, then it should be intuitively obvious that people will have their “racial” classification changed based solely on their personal family history. As a result, the designation of any particular “race” could actually change from generation to generation. Therefore any claim at racial knowledge that is based on arbitrary external traits rather than the specific genetic traits, is, by definition, wrong 7.

Show me the genes.

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15508004

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15510170

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1446406/pdf/11076233.pdf

The IQ Conundrum

Cato Unbound has a set of essays about the issue of general intelligence, its measurement, the Flynn Effect, and racial inequalities. I don’t have any commentary to add. I just wanted to post some quotes from two of the essays, both by Eric Turkheimer. I appreciate intelligent exchanges such as this, and I hope it raises the level of public debate.

Race and IQ
By Eric Turkheimer

“But the intuitive view turns out to be incoherent on more than superficial examination. A point of view that is sometimes called developmentalism points out that absolutely no aspect of biology or genetics comes into being automatically without rich interaction with the environment. Ducks raised in the complete absence of auditory input from other ducks don’t quack, and in general organisms raised in the absence of environmental inputs don’t do anything at all. So the difference between learning to play the oboe and learning to walk is not that the former requires environmental input while the other does not, being in principle innate. They both emerge from a complex interplay of genetics and environment, and thinking of walking as innate is a distraction from the real scientific question of how the extraordinarily complex process actually comes about. Once you start to think this way, it gets difficult to say that any difference between two organisms is innate. The contention about Africans and IQ has to be that their genetic makeup is such that they will be lower than other races in IQ not only in the current environment, but in all imaginable alternative environments, and how could we possibly know that? [ . . . ]

“If the question of African IQ is a matter of empirical science, exactly what piece of evidence are we waiting for? What would finally convince the racialists that they are wrong? Nothing, it seems to me, except the arrival of the day when the IQ gap disappears, and that is going to take a while. The history of Africans in the modern West is roughly as follows: Millennia of minding their own business in Africa, followed by 200 years of enslavement by a foreign civilization, followed by 100 years of Jim Crow oppression, followed by fifty years of very incomplete equality and freedom. And now the scientific establishment, apparently even the progressive scientific establishment, is impatient enough with Africans’ social development that it seems reasonable to ask whether the problem is in the descendants of our former slaves’ genes. If that isn’t offensive I don’t know what is.”

The Fundamental Intuition
By Eric Turkheimer

“So let’s return to Flynn. He thinks that g used to hold together, as long as our focus was on relations among tests at a single point of time, and has only come apart once he started to examine differential changes in the components of ability over time. But the coherence of g was an illusion, founded on the false intuition that positivity of relations among ability tests was sufficient evidence of unidimensionality, In fact, pace Gottfredson, it would be possible to define separate ability domains for abstract thinking and practical knowledge within a single time point, and these traits would then correspond closely to the courses of generational change that interest Flynn. Such traits would not be the correct way to divide up ability, any more than g is. They would be a plausible solution in a domain where a certain amount of indeterminacy is part of the scientific landscape, and they would be a convenient tool for studying the Flynn effect. In the same way, g is useful for many things, especially for broad-stroke prediction of outcomes like job performance. The trick is not to get hooked on any particular way of dividing up the pie, because it is a short step from there to trying to find the Greenwich Meridian at the bottom of the North Atlantic.

“Actually, psychologists don’t look for lines of longitude in the seabed; they look for mental factors in the brain and genome. Flynn’s over-commitment to the reality of g leads him to be distressingly cavalier about how human ability might be represented neurologically or genetically. “General intelligence or g,” he says, “has something to do with brain quality, and good genes have a lot to do with having an above average brain.” That sounds safe enough, but wait a minute: How do we know a quality brain or a good gene when we see one? And presumably not only general intelligence but abstract reasoning ability has something to do with the brain, the environmental Flynn effect notwithstanding. When we start looking for human intelligence in the brain and the genes, what exactly should we look for? General intelligence? Specific abilities? Morality? Which way do those lines really run again?

“There is nothing wrong with studying the neurology or genetics of differences in ability, but these investigations will proceed on their own neurological and genetic terms, and we should not look to them for biological vindication of the psychological expediencies that help us tame the nearly overwhelming complexity of human behavior. Literal-mindedness about the details of psychological statistics may seem harmless when the discussion is just about what goes with what and when, but history has shown us only too clearly what can happen when simplistic views of human ability make poorly informed contact with biology and genetics. I am by training a behavioral geneticist, and as such I am too well-acquainted with the ugly places oversimplified thinking about human ability and genetics can lead to let the phrase “good genes” pass without a shiver. It is best to be careful from the beginning.”

The Midwest, Is It Great?

I’m a big fan of the view that regions in the U.S. are more or less culturally distinct, although with plenty of overlap at the borders. As a Midweseterner, I have pride in my region, along with significant criticisms, but for the moment I’ll focus on the positives.

I’m not offering a serious analysis here. I just came across an article about the Midwest that offered some data and so I thought I’d share it. The article is This Is Why It’s So Great To Be A Midwesterner, According To Science by Sara Boboltz. It is a HuffPo fluff piece, but some of the data is nonetheless interesting.

Regional Differences In Personalities Confirmed In New Study

“Their findings: Friendly and conventional were the most common traits among people living in the South and north-central Great Plains region, while relaxed and creative were the most common traits for those in the Western and Eastern seaboard areas. New Englanders, on the other hand, were most likely to possess the traits of uninhibited and temperamental.”

Yeah, friendly and conventional. That sounds about right. This might seem strange in some ways, though, for these same parts of the Midwest are also historically known for their progressive and socialist politics. So, it is conventional in its own way, but not in the way the MSM media portrays what is conventional in the US.

By the way, there appears to be one state that is a good balance between Midwestern and West Coastal predispositions. That state is Wyoming. It rates moderately high on friendly and conventional while it also rates moderately high on relaxed and creative. Colorado also looks fairly balanced between the two.

Volunteering in America: Research Highlights

“Highest volunteer rate: Since 1989, the Midwest region of the United States has had the highest volunteer rate among U.S. regions for all adults, with a rate of 23.9 percent in 1989, and 30.2 in 2008. This is a shift from 1974 when the West had the highest volunteer rate.

“Largest number of volunteers: Since 1974, the number of volunteers in the South has almost doubled from 10.5 to 20.7 million, giving the South the largest number of volunteers of all the regions. Just between 2006 and 2008, the South has gained almost 300,000 volunteers. The Midwest comes in at a distant second in volunteer numbers at about 15.6 million.”

Two other regions need to be given credit. The West region doesn’t have the highest rate of volunteers, but apparently those who do volunteer make up the difference for they win the award for most volunteer hours on average. In the Northeast region, they are dedicated to fundraising and so at least they put their money where their mouth is. As for specific states, Utah and Alaska deserve respect in their volunteer activities.

Route 66, Midwest culture charm international tourists, study finds

““When Europeans travel on Route 66, most of their feedback is that it’s a very different experience from the big cities like Los Angeles, New York and Washington, D.C., which can all seem very much alike,” Huang said. “Route 66 reveals the inner beauty of the U.S. Midwesterners are friendly, easygoing and enthusiastic. They’re proud to tell you what they have in their community and are willing to share their heritage, their history and their stories. A lot of tourists enjoy that.””

I’m not so sure about this study. It seemed rather limited and self-serving. Route 66 extends way beyond the Midwest.

Montanans, Alaskans Say States Among Top Places to Live

“Residents of Western and Midwestern states are generally more positive about their states as places to live. With the exception of the New England states of New Hampshire and Vermont, all of the top 10 rated states are west of the Mississippi River. In addition to Montana and Alaska, Utah (70%), Wyoming (69%), and Colorado (65%) are among the 10 states that residents are most likely to say their state is among the best places to reside. Most of these states have relatively low populations, including Wyoming, Vermont, North Dakota, and Alaska — the four states with the smallest populations in the nation. Texas, the second most populated state, is the major exception to this population relationship. Although it is difficult to discern what the causal relationship is between terrain and climate and positive attitudes, many of the top 10 states are mountainous with cold winters. In fact, the two states most highly rated by their residents — Montana and Alaska — are among not only the nation’s coldest states but also both border Canada.

“With the exception of New Mexico, all of the bottom 10 states are either east of the Mississippi River or border it (Louisiana and Missouri). New Jersey (28%), Maryland (29%), and Connecticut (31%) join Rhode Island among the bottom 10.”

This seems less about the Midwest. It is only parts of the Midwest that show this pattern. What this actually shows is that the Midwest is split between Eastern and Western Midwest and between Lower and Upper Midwest. This corresponds to the parts of the Midwest that were settled earlier and those settled later, which corresponds to the concentration of populations in rural areas and big cities.

Pinterest Hits 10 Million U.S. Monthly Uniques Faster Than Any Standalone Site Ever -comScore

The popularity of Pinterest in the Midwest isn’t necessarily a good thing. I don’t have any strong opinion about Pinterest, but I’m not sure what value Pinterest adds to the Midwestern quality of life.

America’s Most Affordable Cities

“But the Midwest dominates when it comes to affordability, with 11 metro areas making the list, including five in the state of Ohio alone: Cincinnati (No. 3), Dayton (No. 4), Akron (No. 6), Toledo (No. 11), and Columbus (No. 20). Michigan landed three cities on the ranks: Grand Rapids, Detroit, and Warren. Even as Detroit languishes in the wake of banruptcy, the suburban hub of Warren, half an hour away, is experiencing an auto manufacturing renaissance of its own.”

The real story in the data is that it is extremely expensive to live in the West. That probably has to do with the combination of large populations and low availability of water. Many Western states are dependent on immense government funding to maintain their massive infrastructures.

Air Quality Better in Northeast, Midwest

“While a decade of efforts to reduce air pollution in the United States has improved air quality in many cities in the Northeast and Midwest, 175 million people are still exposed to dangerous levels of smog and soot, a new report reveals.”

Once again, the real story is that it sucks to live in other places. Having clean air shouldn’t be something that gets praise. Rather, clean air should be seen as a basic human right. The Midwest simply has less polluted air, relatively speaking. But we all share the same freakin atmosphere and so we all end up breathing the pollution, just that some get more of it than others.

Utahans Least Satisfied With Air Quality

“Meanwhile, residents of the northern Midwest are the most likely to be satisfied. South Dakota, North Dakota, and Wyoming top the list, with 96% satisfied in each state. Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska, and Wisconsin are also among this group, as are far away New Hampshire and Vermont. These regional similarities may be related to the climate or geography in these disparate parts of the country, or a matter of population density, or some combination of the three, as in Utah.”

Of course, it is nice living in low population states so that you aren’t constantly sucking on heavily polluted air. This is probably a large reason for why people living there love their states so much. However, those people in those states indirectly contribute to the pollution in the rest of the states by products they buy that are made and transported from elsewhere. It’s the old problem of costs being externalized onto others.

It is strange, though, that Utahans complain about their air quality. I wouldn’t think that Utah has higher rates of pollution than the coastal states. Maybe they are a sensitive group of people. The article blames it on a weather phenomenon that traps the smog where most of the residents live. Could that possibly be worse than some of the bigger cities famous for their smog? Maybe so.

Want a three-car garage? You’re more likely to find it in the Midwest

“For one, housing hasn’t grown evenly in all regions of the country. New homes are largest in the South, where the median floor area last year was 2,469 square feet; they’re smallest in the Midwest, at a median 2,177 square feet. (The median for the whole country is 2,384 square feet.) But over the past four decades, home size has grown the most in the Northeast: The median floor area of a new home there was 61% above the corresponding median in 1973. [ . . . ]

“Midwesterners, by contrast, appear more interested in garage space than living space: 38% of new homes in that region have garages built for three or more cars, well above all other regions. (Perhaps they need the room for their snowblowers and other winter gear?)”

I’m not sure why Midwestern homes would have less floor area. But it is understandable that Midwestern homes have larger garages.

Midwesterners do need more winter equipment. Plus, in my experience, Midwesterners simply love to do manual labor, such as doing their own yardwork or building things. Midwesterners love to have equipment that can be used to accomplish things, whether blowing snow or sawing wood. There is a self-reliant streak, which seems to make Midwesterners reluctant to hire out work, even among those with the money to afford it.

That is just a hypothesis. But I would like to see data about it.

States in West and Midwest Lead Nation in Teacher Respect

“Residents living in several states in the West and Midwest lead the nation in saying teachers in their communities are well-respected. Nevadans and Louisianans are among the least likely to say this about their local teachers — slightly more than six in 10 residents in each state say their teachers are well-respected.”

The differences are worthy of note. In some states, it is nearly 9 in 10 residents who say teachers are well-respected. But pointing that out misses the fact that the majority of all Americans say teachers are well-respected. But you wouldn’t know that by paying attention to right-wing media or listening to conservative politicians.

Buying lunch out? Survey shows Midwesterners spend less than others

“The credit card company found that Americans typically buy lunch out almost twice a week and spend about $10 each time. Specifically, average national spending was $18 per week, or $936 per year.

“But spending patterns varied by region, and Midwest diners spend less on lunches out than people in any other part of the country, the results showed. They went out 1.7 times per week and spent only $8.90 each time, for a weekly average of $15.13.

“Southerners led per-week spending, going out twice a week and spending $10 each time, or $20 a week. Westerners spend $10 per lunch 1.8 times a week for a total of $18.

“Northeasterners lunched out the least, but spent the most when they did, dining out for their midday meal 1.5 times a week but dropping $11.40 each time, for a weekly total of $17.10.”

I don’t know what could possibly explain this. Maybe this relates to the Midwest being a more affordable place to live. So maybe it is also a more affordable place to operate a restaurant, and so cheaper prices for meals served. But it is hard to say. There could be many factors involved.

Anyway, I’m not sure this is evidence for Midwesterners being cheap or thrifty.

The Midwest Accent

“The examples of the cot/caught merger and the Northern Cities Shift serve to contradict the perception that Midwestern speech lacks any distinguishing characteristics. However, both of these developments have been in operation for several decades at least. Why haven’t they entered into popular perceptions about Midwestern speech? Perhaps they will come to be recognized as features of the dialect in the same way that dropping of /r/ serves to mark Boston speech or ungliding of long i (‘hahd’ or hide) marks Southern speech. But, considering the general stereotypes of the Midwest, it seems more likely that they might never be recognized. One thing about linguistic stereotypes is certain: they have less to do with the actual speech of a region than with popular perceptions of the region’s people. As long as Midwesterners are viewed as average, boring or otherwise nondescript, their speech will be seen through the same prism.”

This article is about a shift that is occurring in the Midwestern dialect, a shift that few seem to be noticing at present. It is a change that may lead to larger changes in American English. The Midwest has for a long time been a source of what is considered Standard American English. As Standard American English changes in the Midwest, it likely will shift across the nation.

I don’t know why this matters all that much. It does imply something culturally important about the Midwest. This is the Heartland and it is called that for a good reason. The Midwest has always been central. It is central in terms of geography, in terms of population concentration, and in terms of infrastructure. It is the crossroads of the country.

Who Moves? Who Stays Put? Where’s Home?

“Both the survey and Census data indicate that the biggest differences in the characteristics of movers and stayers revolve around geography and education. In the Midwest, nearly half of adult residents say they have spent their entire lives in their hometown. That compares with fewer than a third of those who live in Western states. Cities, suburbs and small towns have more movers than stayers, while rural areas are more evenly split. Three-quarters of college graduates have moved at least once, compared with just over half of Americans with no more than a high school diploma. College graduates also move longer distances — and move more often — than Americans with a high school diploma or less, and employment plays a greater role in their decisions about where to live. By income group, the most affluent Americans are the most likely to have moved.”

That is interesting in a number of ways.

There are differences between more rural and more urban states. But many of the farming states still have most of their populations concentrated in urban areas. So, a rural state isn’t necessarily the same as having a majority rural population.

Something else that came to mind is that the Midwest tends to highly value education. But maybe the Midwesterners who get the most education tend to move away from the Midwest. I don’t know. There are a ton of college towns all over the Midwest, although I’m sure they don’t represent most of the population.

Anyway, it does fit the stereotype of the Midwest. One thinks of the region as a settled place with relatively stable communities. This would follow the aspect of the friendly and conventional Midwestern personality.

 

Paranoia of a Guilty Conscience

A big issue in the city I live in, Iowa City, is the racial disparity in arrests. This is a problem all across the country, but the data shows that this town has one of the highest disparities in the country. That contradicts the liberal self-image of this middle class white college town.

This relates to the majority white population here being freaked out about black people from Chicago. White people and wealthy people from Chicago, however, are perfectly fine. Just not those low class gangbangers and welfare queens.

When my parents moved back to town in 2008, there was an unusual spike in criminal activity or at least a spike in the media’s attention on criminal activity. I always wondered if there was any real change in crime, though. There was some youth gang activity, but it mostly seemed like high schoolers pretending to be in gangs.

The black issue became all the buzz, despite the fact that the spike of murders that year all came from middle class white people, including a banker and a mother who separately killed their families. Of course, no one fear-mongered about the dangers of middle class white people going berzerk. But some black youth shoplifting sure did get a lot of attention.

A recent article in the local alternative media (Study Shows IC Police Stop Minority Drivers At Disproportionate Rates) cleared up something I’ve been wondering about for some years now:

“However, despite the 2008-2009 uptick, data show violent crime has still trended downward over time, even in those so-called high-crime neighborhoods.”

Even as the media obsessed over violent crime incidents, the actual rate of violent crime was going down. This has been true nation-wide. Many people think violent crime is worse right now in the US, despite it being at the lowest point in my lifetime.

How can we have a rational public debate when the public’s view of reality is so distorted by media? This irritates and frustrates me.

I did find some data on crime rates in Iowa City (from usa.com). It even breaks it down, although not in as much detail as i’d prefer. It only includes data between 2005 and 2012 and so, unfortunately, the larger trends can’t be seen.

Within that limited timeframe, it shows Iowa City’s crime rates are about the same as for all of Iowa. And Iowa’s crime rates are generally low by national standards.

For example, Iowa City’s murder rate is extremely low for most years. But there was that temporary jump in the murder rate for 2008. The murder rate for that particular year stands out as the murder rate for years before and after it are so low, typically at zero for most years. Iowa, in general, has one of the lowest homicide rates and one of the lowest gun homicide rates in the entire country, and that should be put in the context that Iowa has a high gun ownership rate.

The only Iowa City crime rate that is above the national average is for rape. And that is probably because it is a college town. I would guess that all college towns with on average younger populations have higher than average rates of rape. Whereas towns with on average older populations probably have lower rates of rape. Young people tend to rape more than old people. Also, as other data shows (from insideprison.com), the high rate of rape in Iowa City is mostly rape by acquaintances that occur in residences/homes, not roving gangs of Chicago black thugs randomly defiling young white maidens.

The violent crime rates have been going down in this town, in this state, in this country, and across the world. We haven’t seen such low rates of violent crime since a half century ago when it dropped down from a high rate earlier in the 20th century. What is this obsession with imaginary violence? And why are real blacks getting blamed for it?

As the data shows, blacks are less likely to commit crimes such as using illegal drugs, carrying illegal drugs, and carrying illegal guns. Yet blacks are more likely to be stopped, searched, arrested, harshly judged, and imprisoned for these crimes. Most of the murders in this country aren’t committed by blacks. Besides, most of the murders by blacks are committed against blacks, just as most murders by whites are committed against whites. In a majority white place like Iowa City, why are people so worried about blacks who are a tiny percentage of the population?

It is hard to see how this can be explained by anything besides racism. In Racism: A Very Short Introduction (p. 11), Ali Rattansi puts it in the context of one particular piece of data:

“It is even more difficult to decide exactly how racism might be involved in, say, the fact that in the USA black men are 10 times more likely to go to prison than whites, and 1 in 20 over the age of 18 is in jail. Or, as revealed in an Amnesty International report of 2004, why black defendants convicted of killing whites have been sentenced to death 15 times more often than white defendants convicted of killing blacks. Also, blacks convicted of killing other blacks in the USA are only half as likely to suffer the death penalty as when they are convicted of killing whites. Is this racism at work? Where does this and similar instances fit into the American, and indeed general, narrative of racism?”

One should be forgiven for jumping to the conclusion that American society puts a lesser value on the lives of blacks. I sometimes wonder if the real fear that many white Americans have is that the maltreatment and injustice committed against blacks might one day come home to roost, that blacks would do the same to whites if given the opportunity. Basically, it seems like the paranoia of a guilty conscience.

* * * *

6/22/14 – I came across something that fits this post perfectly.

It is a review of a book about racism and the media in Iowa City. That is awesome that someone went to the trouble to write a book about it. Now if only Iowa City residents would read it and learn something about the community they live in.

The book is A Transplanted Chicago: Race, Place, and the Press in Iowa City by Robert E. Gutsche, Jr. The review is How the Media Stokes Racism in Iowa City – and Everywhere by Eleanor J Bader (source: Truthout). Here is part of the review:

“His answer: Unabashed racism. In fact, Gutsche concludes that virtually every news item about the southeast conforms to stereotypes depicting African Americans as lazy, uneducated, dependent on government handouts and prone to criminal or immoral behavior. To make his case, he cites a newspaper article about the opening of a new shelter for homeless families. The story was illustrated by a photo of a black woman leaning against a window. The caption identified her as a Chicago native who had been living in the shelter with her five children for nearly a year. “Just that single sentence says it all,” Gutsche writes, “Poor blacks (especially mothers) continue to come to Iowa City with their children, (far too many for the woman to care for) and take advantage of the city’s good will and resources (by staying in the shelter for nearly a year) . . . The caption was wrong. The woman and her children had only been living in the city – and at the shelter – for a couple of months . . . What is interesting about this caption and photograph is how it matches with dominant discourse surrounding Iowa City’s southeast side and the migration of folks from Chicago to Iowa City.”

“Central to this discourse, of course, is the belief that low-income women, aka “welfare queens,” are taking advantage of government programs and feeding at the trough of public generosity. “Chicago has come to mean more than just another city,” Gutsche concludes. “It signals the ghetto, danger, blackness – and most directly, of not being from here.” That two-thirds of the low-income households registered with the Iowa City Housing Authority were elderly and disabled – not poor, black or from Chicago – went unacknowledged by reporters. Similarly, the drunken escapades of mostly white University of Iowa students have been depicted by reporters as essentially benign and developmentally appropriate. “Just as news coverage explained downtown violence as a natural college experience, news coverage normalized southeast side violence as being the effect of urban black culture,” Gutsche writes. “News stories indicated that drunken packs of college students were isolated to the downtown, whereas southeast side violence was described as infiltrating the city’s schools, social services and public safety.””

* * * *

6/23/14 – Another article compares the safety of states:

“By safety, we’re not referring exclusively to protection from violence and crime. The term encompasses various categories, among them workplace safety, natural disasters, home and community stability, traffic safety and, of course, financial security.”

Both Iowa and Illinois are in the top 10 safest states in the country. Illinois is even ranked at number 3 for the lowest number of assaults per capita. Many people think of Illinois in terms of the media image of Chicago. It turns out that overall Illinois is one of the safest states in the country, even with all those supposedly dangerous inner city blacks. Maybe it is because these are such safe places to live that any act of violence stands out.

 

Reform as Fear of Revolution

It is easy to focus on the victim while ignoring the victimization.

Let me explain. Narrowing our focus too much on a specific group, as is common with identity politics, can cause us to miss the forest for the trees. A culture of victimization is something that impacts everyone. It is easy forget this simple truth.

White males have relative privilege, but that doesn’t make poor rural white males feel any better about their lot in life. Rich people may amass great wealth in a society of great economic inequality, but research shows that even the wealthy are worse off in such societies because the increased social problems affect everyone. Middle class Westerners live relatively comfortable lives, but if you are a woman or homosexual you will still experience prejudice.

A society of violence and oppression doesn’t make for happiness for anyone involved. Pollution is breathed by all humans, rich and poor, white and minority, male and female, adult and child. We aren’t all impacted equally, that is true. Even so, we are all impacted.

We have difficulty in our society to think about problems from a more systemic perspective. We would like to improve things for those who suffer most, which is a noble endeavor. Yet, at the same time, we are reluctant to question too deeply the entire social order that made that suffering possible or even inevitable. We see problems as isolated issues that require isolated solutions. We are unable or unwilling to see how all the problems connect and magnify. We focus so much on minor reforms for fear of revolution.

This is as true for those on the left as for those on the right.

The line between victim and victimizer can at times be uncomfortably blurred. In our carelessness and unawareness, we are complicit in these ongoing injustices, for we are as responsible for what we don’t do as much as for what we do. No single person, group, or generation can be blamed for all the problems, and still the problems continue. Who is at fault? No one and everyone.

Taking responsibility is different than blame. To blame is to try to make others feel shame, but shame is rarely motivating. We take responsibility or we don’t, simply because that is what we choose. If we make that choice, we do so because we can.

 * * *

 

Earthbound Capitalism and the Frontiers of Space

I was debating with a guy from more on the right end of the spectrum.

I personally know him and so it is a different kind of debate than I typically engage in while online. Knowing a person allows for a more civil interaction. It also helps that we can agree on many things. We are both principled defenders of our preferred political visions, and surprisingly those visions come close together. Beginning from two different points, we both wouldn’t mind our society ending up in the same place, the world of Star Trek: Next Generation.

As often is the case, we were debating the problems of society and how we move toward a better society. It actually began with the issue of campaign finance reform, but expanded more generally to big money in politics and the related issues of plutocracy.

He is more of a libertarian type. In line with that worldview, he has more hope for a technological salvation to be found in the future and in outer space. He sees the main obstacle of the Star Trek society is our presently being stuck on earth. To be free of earth, means to him to be free of all the problems of earth. In the freedom of space, there will be freedom to explore and innovate, freedom from prying big government and social oppression. A near endless supply of planets to be terraformed and settled by every social visionary or economic entrepreneur.

I’m a fan of technology in general. For example, I’m a big fan of written text, bound books, and the printing press. Such technologies have transformed civilization, in many ways for the good. I wouldn’t want to live in an alternative reality where these technologies had been successfully suppressed and the society itself accordingly oppressed. Even so, I can’t quite get on board with what what seems to me to be a near blind faith in technological salvation. Technology is just as likely to lead to more oppression than less, as technology simply opens up new possibilities, but doesn’t morally limit any possibility of its use and implementation.

As I said to this other guy,

Even with your vision of an ideal society beyond Earth, how do we get there? And how do we prevent re-creating in space yet more oppression and victimization, yet more plutocracy and corporatocracy? If we don’t solve our problems on Earth, what will stop us from spreading our problems like a disease throughout the galaxy?

If we don’t solve our problems on earth, I don’t see why we will do so in space or on some other planet. Maybe we should first prove that we aren’t complete self-destructive fuck-ups before we go venturing off into the great unknown. Just my opinion.

He spoke of space as a frontier where people could escape oppression and could opt-out from the dominant social order. And let a million flowers bloom. He used the example of Jefferson’s vision of the early American frontier, to help explain the vision of what we could hope for on the frontier of space.

I responded that, 

I do like the idea of a frontier where opting out is possible. But frontiers don’t tend to last long or always work out well for all involved.

North America was once a frontier that was created through genocide. And after genocide, it was long before Americans set about creating a new empire. I fear like the American founders, good intentions aren’t always good enough. Jefferson is a great example, as he helped set the foundations for American empire in many ways more than maybe any of the other founders.

A million new experiments in the vastness of space would be an interesting opportunity for humanity. But if those experiments simply are variations of what we’ve already been doing, we will simply create ever new forms of oppression, dysfunction, etc. A wealthy individual who terraforms their own planet will likely just become another tyrant of that planet and any other planets he gains control of. Many a tyrant began their career as private citizens.

Space could just end up another Wild West with the equivalent gunfighters, robbers, cattle rustlers, railroad tycoons, oil barons, and privatized goons like the Pinkertons. What ended the violence and social disorder on the frontier in the US was centralized government, after killing off and rounding up all the free-spirited types and other troublemakers. These frontier people who didn’t fit the government’s plan were put in nooses, in prisons, and on reservations.

What is important to keep in mind is those who wanted big government most were the big business types. The wealthy elite wanted law and order, wanted the Native American’s land, wanted to get rid of the land squatters who settled the frontier.

Before Lincoln was a politician, he was a lawyer who worked for the railroads, which were as big business as they came back then. Lincoln’s job was to find legal ways to kick people off their lands so that the railroads could be built. Many people living on the frontier didn’t have legal rights to their lands or their legal rights weren’t clear, as paper work wasn’t always kept well and property lines were at times vague. Before big gov, the Great Emancipator began his vision of progress by working for big biz.

A large part of the Civil War was a fight about the Northern vision of an industrial economy ruled by big biz, big factories, and big railroads. Many Southerners were wary of this capitalist vision and for good reason. Much of the Southern rhetoric was a criticism of wage labor just being another form of slave labor, but for white men. And they were right to make these criticisms, as the hardworking farmer who could support his own family would be destroyed by big biz agriculture. The American Dream of being able to own and to make a living on one’s own land would become a thing of the past.

The events of the frontier and the events of the Civil War were intertwined. Many of the Confederate veterans headed West to escape this vision of collusion between big gov and big biz. The famous gunfighters and train robbers were often Confederate veterans and Southerners in general. They lost the war, but they went on fighting for their vision of independence. The frontier ultimately isn’t an escape from empire, but simply the outer edge of empire. Frontiers as we’ve known them in this society have been products of empire, locations of the clashes and violence of empires.

The same old frontier drama is likely to play out all over again on the frontiers of space. It is a very old story that seems to never end. I just wonder sometime if an alternative is possible. Might it be possible for us to escape this repeating pattern and create an entirely new society? That is the vision of Star Trek: Next Generation. It offers the hope that we might one day end this millennia-long tragedy.

In a joking way, he offered this quote: 

“What makes wage slaves? Wages!”–Groucho Marx

I responded more seriously:

Actually, what makes both chattel slavery and wage slavery is the slavery part. I have no particular principled argument against either chattel or wages. Nor against wealth as property and capital.

For example, capital is basically just fungible wealth, which means it can be easily moved, transferred, and reinvested. Every society, even communist societies, include capital as part of their daily functioning.

Capitalism isn’t simply capital, but a particular kind of capital, a particular social order and class system revolving around capital, a particular emphasize and prioritizing of capital, and hence an economy and society centered around those who own, control, and influence the movements of capital (i.e., the capitalists).

In a capitalist society, everything is centered on and organized according to capital. The capitalists are those who run society. This is obvious to see with our society in how most politicians are people who have worked in or for big biz, big banks, investment firms, etc. It is easy for a lawyer to go from working for a corporation to working as a politician. American politics has become famous for its revolving door between big biz and big gov, and regulatory capture has become commonplace.

Those with the capital in the US aren’t just those with the wealth, but those with the power. It is a capitalist class of businessmen, CEOs, lobbyists, investors, government contractors, advisers, and the many people who move back and forth between the public and private spheres.

Capitalism isn’t the same thing as a free market. A society could have a free market capitalism, not that such a thing has yet existed in the world to any great extent, but it could in theory. However, capitalism as we’ve known it has never been all that close to an actual functioning free market. On the other hand, an actual functioning free market could be and maybe would more likely be centered on something other than capital.

There are many aspects of an economy that are necessary for it functioning well, specifically in terms of a free market. There is social ‘capital’, there are communities, there is land, there is labor, etc. Many people who have criticized capitalism do so not because it is a free market, but because as we’ve seen so far it isn’t a free market or not as free as its rhetoric claims. Yes, capitalism is relatively more free than oppressive economic systems of the past, but that is a very low bar to reach.

You asked me what my hang up is with wealth. I have no such hang up. My issue is with a limited understanding of wealth. There is a lot more to wealth than just capital. In fact, capital is the smallest part of wealth. The most tangible and fundamental forms of wealth are those that can’t be defined as capital, as fungible wealth.

I then added a thought about how capitalism relates to Star Trek:

Star Trek is a good alternative to capitalism. There are some capitalist markets for mostly non-essential goods. If you want some rare object or an original art piece, there are unofficial markets for such goods. But most of the economy has evolved past the need of capital as an intervening form of wealth.

Technology has become so abundant that the scarcity principle behind capitalism is nearly obsolete. No one is ever in need of any basic need, even if they do no work at all, for so much of traditional labor is also nearly obsolete.

Since capital is almost meaningless in such an economic system, the guiding principle of the economy has more to do with human capital and social capital, not capital as fungible wealth, not as we recognize it anyway. It is communities of people and social/political organizations that have primary values. It is knowledge and experience, not capital, that is the greatest personal wealth an individual can gain.

People work not out of need, but out of curiosity and aspiration, simply to live up to their potential and seeking the betterment of society. It is a much more optimistic vision of humanity than is found in contemporary capitalism that sees monetary reward as the only incentive to make people not be lazy.

As I always find interesting, he fundamentally agrees with me, even though technically we are coming from opposite ends of the political spectrum. I think it is the fact that at a more fundamental level we are both classical liberals.

However, our differences did show up in the worry he noted, which was that class warfare would derail and postpone the progress toward a better future. From his point of view, we have to be more tolerant of the failings of capitalism because capitalism is the only pathway to what is beyond capitalism. If we short-circuit capitalism in trying to fix the problems of capitalism, we will create even bigger problems.

From my perspective, I can’t help but repeating what many on the left have said. Many have argued that the capitalist class started the class warfare and they are winning it. The question we on the left always worry about is how do we stop the abuse of this class war of the plutocrats against the rest of us. Only those winning the class war care about continuing it, and most people in the world today, including those on the left, are on the losing end. If those on the right wish for the class war to end, they’d need to speak to the ruling elites in charge of the charade. Or else they can join us on the left and make sure it ends.

The problem is that our society was built on class war. There hasn’t been a moment in the history of the United States when a class war wasn’t a dominant force. It isn’t yet clear that we are even capable of envisioning a realistic and compelling alternative or have the capacity of making the needed changes. But to envision an alternative, we have to first acknowledge and understand the present reality.

Class and Race as Proxies

“Perhaps what binds them all together, though, is class. Rural or small town, urban or suburban, the extreme Right is populated by downwardly mobile, lower-middle-class white men. All of the men I interviewed—all—fitted this class profile. When I compared with other ethnographies and other surveys, they all had the same profile as well.

“In the United States, class is often a proxy for race. When politicians speak of the “urban poor,” we know it’s a code for black people. When they talk about “welfare queens,” we know the race of that woman driving the late-model Cadillac. In polite society, racism remains hidden behind a screen spelled CLASS.

“On the extreme Right, by contrast, race is a proxy for class. Among the white supremacists, when they speak of race consciousness, defending white people, protesting for equal rights for white people, they actually don’t mean all white people. They don’t mean Wall Street bankers and lawyers, though they are pretty much entirely white and male. They don’t mean white male doctors, or lawyers, or architects, or even engineers. They don’t mean the legions of young white hipster guys, or computer geeks flocking to the Silicon Valley, or the legions of white preppies in their boat shoes and seersucker jackets “interning” at white-shoe law firms in major cities. Not at all. They mean middle-and working-class white people. Race consciousness is actually class consciousness without actually having to “see” class. “Race blindness” leads working-class people to turn right; if they did see class, they’d turn left and make common cause with different races in the same economic class.”

America’s angriest white men: Up close with racism, rage and Southern supremacy
by Michael Kimmel
from Salon
November 17, 2013

Libertarian Failure of Principles

I came across a decent article by Will Moyer. I’ve never heard of him, but for the sake of amusement I’ll just assume he is the son of Bill Moyer. This piece is published in Salon with the title, “Why I left libertarianism: An ethical critique of a limited ideology“.

This interests me for a number of reasons. My criticisms of libertarianism, similar to this article, are motivated by my principles. I like aspects of libertarian rhetoric, but I see two problems. First, libertarian reality doesn’t live up to libertarian rhetoric. Second, libertarians don’t take their own rhetoric seriously enough to follow it to its inevitable conclusion. That last point is major part of the article.

I don’t know if libertarianism is possible on a large scale of running a society. Still, I wouldn’t mind seeing a society attempt it. The one thing libertarians pride themselves is on their principles, as if they are more principled than everyone else. Considering that, it is strange how they sell short their own principles. Some of the strongest criticisms of libertarianism come from within libertarianism, just as some of the strongest criticisms of liberalism come from within liberalism.

I’d love to see libertarianism succeed. My harsh attitude toward libertarianism is that it fails according to its own high ideals. I’m a classical liberal and I’m attracted to left-libertarianism. What this means is that I actually take seriously the values of the Enlightenment. When I hear libertarians go on about freedom and such, what makes me wary aren’t that I disagree with those values but that I don’t trust libertarians to live up to them. I don’t trust the Koch brothers to follow libertarian principles any more than I trust Obama to follow liberal principles.

Here is what I liked about Will Moyer’s analysis:

“Both Rothbard and Block accept that some degree of child abuse either violates the NAP (in Rothbard’s case) or delegitimizes parental ownership (in Block’s case), but what constitutes abuse represents a “continuum problem” for libertarians. Some attacks on children are okay but not too much. It’s a big gray area.

“It’s embarrassing that many libertarians have so little moral clarity on this issue. Especially when compared to a website like Jezebel, which has no problem taking a hard stance on aggression against children. [ . . . ]

“Besides all it leaves out, the framework also includes a facile conception of consent.

“Within the libertarian ethical framework, choice is binary. Either something was consented to voluntarily or it was not. This conception of consent marks the line between good and evil. On one side of the line are socially acceptable behaviors and on the other side are impermissible behaviors.

“Theft, rape, murder and fraud all lie on the nonconsensual side and are therefore not good. The other side includes all forms of voluntary human interaction which, again because we’re limited to a political ethic, we can’t really say much about. It’s all fine.

“But there is some gray on the good side. Is a rich CEO really in the same ethical position as a poor Chinese factory worker? In the libertarian view, yes. There are plenty of differences, but if that Chinese worker voluntarily chose to work for that factory, they’re not ethical differences.

“Like the starving-your-child issue, any moral objections you might have are outside the scope of the libertarian ethic. They reflect your personal morality, which has no business being used to dictate social behaviors.

“But choice isn’t binary. It’s a spectrum. There’s a gradient that we can use to measure how constrained a choice really is. On one end is outright force and on the other is pure, unconstrained freedom. But in between is a fuzzy gray area where economic, psychological, cultural, biological and social forces are leaning on human decision making.

“Most libertarians would admit that this spectrum exists, but there is still strong sentiment within libertarianism that any non-coercive relationship is good. And — within the political ethic — even if it isn’t “good,” it’s still permissible. That’s why you see libertarians defending sweatshops.

“A poor Chinese factory worker is far more constrained than a rich white businessman. His range of possible options is tiny in comparison. He is less free. The same may be true depending on your race, gender, class or sexual orientation. The way you were treated growing up — by your parents, teachers and peers — may contribute. The way people like you are represented in media and entertainment may contribute. Social prejudices and cultural norms may contribute. These factors don’t mean people are being outright forced to do anything, but simply that they’re constrained by their environment. We all are, in different ways.

“We don’t lose any ground or sacrifice any claims to a rational moral framework by admitting that. We can still say that one side of the spectrum — the unconstrained one — is good for human beings and the other side is bad. And we can still conclude that the use of force is only a legitimate response to human behavior that falls on the far end of that bad side (theft, rape, murder). But by accepting the spectrum we can examine other relationships that, while they may not include force, can be exploitive, hierarchical and authoritarian.

“As before, without admitting that this spectrum exists, libertarianism leaves an entire range of human social behavior off the table.”

Comedy of Truth and Politics of Comedy

I just finished watching The Campaign. It stars Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis. Considering those two, you know the type of humor to expect. It wasn’t a masterpiece of comedic genius or anything, but it was a lovely fantasy about honesty winning in corrupt big money politics.

It would be nicer if that fantasy were a reality, but fantasy has its purposes as well. It is easier to make such fantasies reality, if we can collectively imagine them. Comedy creates the space for imagining what we otherwise would consider absurd, such as honesty in politics.

Comedy is one of the rare mediums where cynicism doesn’t always prevail and that is a good thing. Oddly, a comedy like this is probably a better inspiration for the democratic impulse than all the serious dramas combined, all the serious drams that attempt to portray the dark reality of the problems we face. If we can laugh at our problems, they feel less overwhelming. If we can laugh at the corrupt fools running and ruining our country, then we can stop taking them and their bullshit so seriously.

We need to elect more comedians into politics. Even if the Three Stooges were running Congress, it couldn’t get worse. As for the president, I’d vote for Stephen Colbert. Or if we are to have a woman president, maybe our first one should be Sarah Silverman. Comedians in our country speak more truth than any mainstream politician or news reporter. Instead of a corporate stooge actor like Reagan, we could use a truth-speaking comedian as the leader of the free world.

Besides, politics is already a big show. Since politics is a national pastime and the most popular form of entertainment, it might as well be humorous and amusing.

What Africans Brought to America

African in American Ironwork
by Rashid Booker
from Noir Tickets

“African men with iron making skills were brought to the Chesapeake region of Maryland and Virginia to work as blacksmiths on plantations and in the developing iron industry of 18th century Colonial America.

“By 1775, the colonies were the world’s third largest producer of iron, a dominance built largely on slave labor. Those in the Chesapeake were the most privileged of African and African American workers. The most skilled worked independently in positions of authority, even paid for work done on their own time.”

Most people think of slaves as mere cheap labor. But the reality is that enslaved Africans included people who were in many cases highly trained and educated. 

They brought their knowledge, skills, and culture to colonial America and it became part of colonial society. The slaveholders had the military and political power to enslave others, but they lacked many practical abilities. These slaveholders were reliant on enslaved Africans in more ways than just manual labor. 

Like ironwork, rice cultivation was developed independently in West Africa. This rice cultivation, unknown to Europeans, involved a particular set of skills and knowledge embedded in a particular cultural social order. Slaveholders incorporated this, among many other things, into the plantation system.

Few Americans today realize how influential slaves were. Colonial America wasn’t just an English society, but a hybrid society.