State of the Union

Americans Don’t See Ukraine as Their Cause

Sasha Maksymenko /  cc

When Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Empire an “evil empire,” the phrase reflected his conviction that while the East-West struggle was indeed a global geostrategic conflict, it had a deep moral dimension. If Americans did not see the Cold War as he did, a battle between good and evil, Reagan knew that they would indefinitely sacrifice neither the wealth of the nation nor the blood of its sons to sustain it. That is in the character of Americans.

Jimmy Carter had sought to remove that moral dimension by declaring, “We have gotten over our inordinate fear of communism.” But with his “evil empire” speech, Reagan re-moralized the Cold War in what Natan Sharansky called “a moment of moral clarity.” Here we come to the heart of the matter as to why Americans want to stay out of any Ukrainian conflict. Americans not only see no vital U.S. interest, but also no moral dimension to this quarrel.

If, after all, it was a triumph of self-determination for Ukraine to secede from the Russian Federation, do not Russians in Crimea and Donetsk have the same right—to secede from Kiev and go home to Russia? If Georgians had a right to break free of the Russian Federation, do not Abkhazians and South Ossetians have a right to break free of Georgia? Turnabout is fair play is an old American saying. Op-ed writers bewail Vladimir Putin’s threat to the “rules-based” world we have created. But under what rule did we bomb Serbia for 78 days to tear away Kosovo, the cradle province of the Serb people? Perhaps some history is in order.

Compare how Putin brought about the secession and annexation of Crimea, without bloodshed but with popular approval, with how Sam Houston and friends brought about the secession of Texas from Mexico, and its annexation by the United States in 1845. When the Mexicans tried to retrieve a disputed piece of their lost Texas territory, James K. Polk accused them of shedding American blood on American soil, had Congress declare war, sent Gen. Winfield Scott and a U.S. army to Mexico City, and annexed the entire northern half of Mexico, which is now the American Southwest and California.
Compared to the Jacksonian, James Polk, Vladimir Putin is Pierre Trudeau.

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Peter King and the Hawks’ Hysterical Attacks on Rand Paul

New York Congressman and potential 2016 presidential candidate Peter King put points on the soundbite scoreboard yesterday with a fiery appearance on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” Host Joe Scarborough was happy to escalate the intra-party war between the hawkish Republican establishment and Sen. Rand Paul.

“Let’s start with Rand Paul,” Scarborough said. “I take it that you would not be comfortable with Rand Paul being the commander-in-chief.”

“His views would be disastrous, Joe. I think he appeals to the lowest common denominator,” King said of the man who has assumed a contentious front-runner status for the Republican presidential nomination.

For advocates of a limitless global American military presence, Paul’s rising popularity is an existential threat to the GOP as we have known it for generations. The suddenness of Paul’s rise has unleashed a flood of conservative-on-conservative invective. Paul’s views have been described as “nakedly unacceptable … unhinged … lunacy” (Bret Stephens in the Wall Street Journal),  “fringe … extremism … hooey” (Jennifer Rubin at the Washington Post) and “dewy-eyed foolishness” that is “more appropriate to a dorm-room bull session than the Situation Room” (Rich Lowry at National Review).

And that was just last week.

Last month, former Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer told Time that Paul has “a naiveté that’s going to be a problem.” In the midst of Paul’s 13-hour filibuster protesting President Obama’s drone powers last spring, Sen. John McCain uttered what remains Paul’s most enduring label, when he called his younger senate colleague a “wacko bird.”

Paul’s policy deviations are significant, but the “wacko bird” wasn’t taken seriously until the polls showed that his message was catching on with voters. Now that he represents an unquestionable insurgency within the GOP rank and file, the establishment has finally roused itself into an organized counter-attack. Rubin is leading the media charge (she wrote four Paul hit pieces in the last four days), while anonymous donors huddled around a Time reporter to deliver a mafioso message in Las Vegas—they will bury Rand Paul’s candidacy in its infancy.

Paul is marching on, wrangling over the Reagan legacy even as his foes tar him as a strident leftist for remarks he made in a 2009 video where he seemed to implicate former Vice President Dick Cheney in wanton war profiteering. On ABC’s “This Week,” this week, Paul said that Cheney “loves his country.” And while he said that he does not question Cheney’s motives, he reiterated that the former veep’s role at Halliburton, a major defense contractor for Operation Iraqi Freedom, created “a chance for a conflict of interest.”

Paul is being careful with this messaging, but only to a point. He is not holding back his belief in what constitutes “realism” in foreign policy, a worldview that he maintains is the more authentic conservative and Reaganesque model. In the weekend interview, he pointed to what he sees as the hypocrisy and recklessness of diplomatic bellicosity. To hawks who claim that the United States will not accept a nuclear Iran under any circumstances, Paul offered a historical comparison.

“We woke up one day and Pakistan had nuclear weapons,” he said. “If that would have been our policy towards Pakistan, we would be at war with Pakistan.”

In an op-ed in Wednesday’s Washington Post, he distilled the point:

“If, after World War II, we had preemptively announced that containment of nuclear powers would never be considered, the United States would have trapped itself into nuclear confrontations with Russia, China, Pakistan, India and North Korea.”

To Peter King, these are the views of “an isolationist wing from the 1930s.” In his bulldog appearance Wednesday morning, King said that Paul’s views on foreign policy, drones, and domestic surveillance are at “a hysterical level” that is “feeding into paranoia.”

This is the same Congressman King who, in a 2004 radio interview with Sean Hannity, said that “80 to 85 percent of mosques in this country are controlled by Islamic fundamentalists.” American Muslims, King said at the time, are “an enemy living amongst us.”

It seems apparent that, of the two men, King has engaged in the greater fear-mongering. While Paul may have entertained some far-fetched hypotheticals about drones wiping out a Starbucks, the Pentagon would survive a Paul presidency. He is far more moderate on defense spending than his father ever was, and skepticism of government overreach is arguably a core American value. One of these men may be prone to paranoid hysteria, but it isn’t Rand Paul.

Michael Ames reports on politics, culture, and land issues. He lives in Brooklyn, New York. Follow him on Twitter @mirkel

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Rousseau’s American Heirs Fight the Final Prejudice

Joseph Bottom’s An Anxious Age has stirred up quite a debate over his thesis that progressivism has recently switched from setting reason and science as first principles toward eradicating prejudicial beliefs as its prime ideological imperative. The left has always had an attraction to both, however. Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s romanticism has always challenged Rene Descartes’ rationalism, but after the bureaucratization and failures of the rationalized welfare state in recent times, the former’s aesthetic critique has become the more attractive argument for modern progressives.

What both strains of leftism had in common was repulsion against tradition. A typical dictionary defines prejudice as “a preconceived opinion that is not based upon reason or actual experience.” Descartes and the rationalists objected to tradition’s irrationality, and Rousseau and the romantics objected to tradition’s experience. It is curious that both rationalist and emotive progressivism first validated prejudice in the movement’s early eugenicist days. The progress in progressivism was from traditional prejudicial socialization to future reason, or social accord, or hopefully to both. So it is not surprising that prejudice became their common political target.

In the postwar United States, legal segregation in public schools and accommodations was outlawed, and the civil rights acts of 1957, 1960, and 1964 promoted equal treatment and voting. Antidiscrimination regulations were extended to sex and ethnicity. Feminism won the right to vote in 1920, an Equal Pay Act in 1963, no-fault divorce in the 1970s, sexual harassment protection in 1986, and guaranteed free contraception in 2010. With the 2013 Supreme Court decisions, same sex marriages were granted equal federal benefits with traditional marriages and it appeared that the same thinking would also void traditional state marriage laws. The Violent Crime Control Act of 1994 set criminal penalties for hate crimes committed on the basis of the actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, ethnicity, or gender of any person.

This year’s 50th anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act illuminates the value of shifting to a focus on the elimination of prejudice. Yes, the left itself questions these laws’ success, complaining that racism, sexism, and gender discrimination are still rampant—but that is efficacious for the cause. Certainly, access to voting is now universally available and overt discrimination has decreased, although formal discrimination complaints have actually increased. There is a large African-American middle class. Women lag male average income but, when wages are controlled for time and type of work, they have mostly achieved equality of income. Never-married women actually out-earn single men.

But there is another side to the story. The ratio of black to white income in 1947 before the civil rights laws was 52 percent; this increased to 60 percent in 1969 by the end of legal segregation—but before the mass government antipoverty and affirmative action programs had effect. By 2012 the ratio was only 57 percent, no improvement in 40 years. Worse, black unemployment has been twice as high as that of whites ever since data has been collected. Racial workforce participation rates are equally dramatic. Some of these disparities were offset by government welfare programs, though in absolute numbers whites received more funds.

As Robert Rector has noted the greatest differences are in education and marriage, both of which are important social supports for earned income and employment. Most black urban education is dysfunctional, but marriage makes the biggest difference in poverty levels: the poverty rate for married blacks is only 7 percent compared to 36 percent for unmarried blacks and 22 percent for unmarried whites. Yet, to the left traditional marriage seems part of the problem. Indeed, fighting prejudice against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered citizens by traditionalists is at the top of progressivism’s present agenda. Read More…

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Building Conservative Prison Reform

Talk of bipartisan prison form has rallied spirits in Washington in recent weeks, and was a topic of hope at CPAC last month. Though American politics may suffer schismatic divides in many issues, maybe—just maybe—we can find agreement here.

But it’s interesting how many are framing the debate—while the left’s motivation is largely viewed as humanitarian, the right’s motives are seen as decidedly pragmatic: prisons are costing us too much. Let’s change that.

Of course we can appreciate this pragmatism, but where is the principle and conscience in our prison reform views? Do conservatives only think in dollar signs?

In a conversation with Idaho Rep. Raúl Labrador some weeks ago, he agreed that prison reform makes fiscal sense—but expanded conservative interests into the ethical sphere. He argued that as a Christian and defender of justice, our system ought not consign so many people to rotting in jail. “Because of the fear of crime,” he said, “We keep making it easier and easier for the state to take away your liberty and your freedom … we shouldn’t be throwing people in jail for long periods of time over non-violent offenses.”

Is this something other conservatives should be on-board with? Take solitary confinement, for instance: as conservatives, should we support it—and to what extent is it also deserving of reform?

A Wednesday piece by Lisa Guenther for Aeon provides some good philosophical reasons to oppose solitary confinement. She argues that, since man is (as Aristotle put it) a “social animal,” it is spiritually, emotionally, and psychologically deleterious for him to be alone. We depend on “the other” to undergird and reinforce our experience, our reality. Without that, the soul and mind are cut loose:

When we isolate a prisoner in solitary confinement, we deprive him of this network of perceptual and existential orientation. He might still have an experience of the table that is bolted in place in his cell, and he might still have the memory of what tables mean for other people. But the lived experience of these objects as both for-me and for-another is, by and large, denied to him. The ‘there’ that would otherwise anchor his experience of the world from ‘here’ has been pulled up, casting him adrift without a clear view of the horizon.

We may live in a rather individualistic society—but we never have to experience life in total solitude. “Only the prisoner in solitary confinement is forced to occupy the position of an isolated individual, and to bear the full weight of his existence alone,” writes Guenther. Traditional conservatism opposes individualism—it upholds the important and reforming nature of community. Should this principle extend to our penal system?

It depends, to some extent, on what you think prison is for. Those who believe in “locking up prisoners and throwing away the key” have a good, strong understanding of human depravity. But their belief in redemption is somewhat lacking. This is, perhaps, the largest problem I see with solitary confinement: it leaves absolutely no room for reform of the person. Instead, it turns the soul further toward its inner depravity, and keeps it locked there, away from “the other.” This may keep the individual from harming others—but it also leaves no room for the soul to grow or emerge from its inner prison.

True conservative prison reform should consider the impact such measures have on the human psyche and soul—not merely their monetary cost.


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When Seized Land Lies Fallow

The now-vacant Fort Trumbull neighborhood where Kelo's house once stood. Daniel /  cc
The now-vacant Fort Trumbull neighborhood where Kelo's house once stood. Daniel / cc

When then Justice John Paul Stevens handed down his now infamous ruling in the eminent domain case Kelo v. New London, he insisted that the seizure of a Connecticut neighborhood “was not intended to serve the interests of Pfizer, Inc., or any other private entity, but rather to revitalize the local economy by creating temporary and permanent jobs, encouraging spin-off economic activities and maximizing public access to the waterfront.” The public use taking he approved was a public enterprise designed to serve the city and its people, not the state seizing and transferring private property for the benefit of other, wealthier, more powerful private hands.

Should Justice Stevens make it up from his Florida retirement to the town of New London, he could behold the revitalized local economy, with its temporary and permanent jobs, encouraged economic activities and maximized public access to the waterfront. He’ll have to squint, though. There’s nothing there.

As Charlotte Allen found on her tour of the area a few months ago, the Fort Trumbull area of New London is now “a vast, empty field​—​90 acres​—​that was entirely uninhabited and looked as though it had always been that way.” You see, the private entities whose interests were not the core justification of New London’s taking pulled out of the project: the developers failed to find funding; Pfizer engaged in a merger that allowed it to close its New London facilities, not expand them, and to get out just before the tax incentives the city gave them ran out and they would have had to pay full fare for their property.

New London’s latest mayor has another plan in the works for Fort Trumbull, as the city’s coffers remain empty thanks to a missing tax base, this time “a national first​—​a green, integrated mid-rise community. There would be green tech, LEED-certified buildings, solar power. It would be a green, self-sustaining neighborhood.” Even that remains in the wispy aspiration phase at the moment, however. The only actual occupants of the Fort Trumbull development area since the seizure, and the clear-cutting, have been piles of garbage and waste, piled there in the aftermath of Hurricane Irene. Oh, and there have been reports of feral cats. Read More…

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Give Kerry a B for Effort

State Department photo, January 2, 2014

Is John Kerry’s effort to negotiate an Israeli-Palestinian “framework” for peace (i.e. not an actual peace settlement) finally done? It seems to be, though one should not be surprised to see a last ditch formula allowing Kerry to continue. Not, to be sure, to continue actual negotiations between the parties, but to continue doing what he has been doing: trying to win Israeli agreement to some proposal vaguely hinting perhaps at some kind of Palestinian state in a middling future, then rushing over to Ramallah to try to sell it to the Palestinian Authority.

Everyone involved with the “peace process” fears what will happen when negotiations stop. The process, which began before Oslo in the 1980s, succeeding in getting the the Palestine Liberation Organization to rewrite its charter, recognize Israel, and commit itself to a two state solution, seems finally to be over. Most politicians the world over know of no other way to even think of the Middle East. Giving up on it is to step into an unfamiliar dark room, which is why one can’t rule out some absolutely-final-last-call-this-time-we-mean-it effort to breathe new life into the corpse.

There was a good reason why the peace process was American-sponsored. While the actual number of Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs residing in historic Palestine has been roughly equal for some time, the balance of power between the two sides—in terms of wealth and weaponry—may have been 100 to 1 in Israel’s favor. One reason for the imbalance is that Israel was sponsored by the United States, provided with American weapons and money and diplomatic support to a degree that literally has no parallel in the history of statecraft. The theory was that this support gave the United States “leverage.” which it could use to persuade Israel to embrace a two state solution which the Palestinians, as the much weaker party, couldn’t manage by themselves. The solution would lie along parameters which everyone knows and has known for nearly two generations. (They are succinctly summarized in Tuesday’s New York Times editorial, which calls for Kerry to finally “move on” to other pressing diplomatic matters.) But this leverage, it has turned out, was fanciful. The United States could never actually use it; both Democrats and Republicans felt too vulnerable to the political consequences. The one president who came closest to using it—the first President Bush, was a one term president. Democrats, probably more dependent than Republicans on campaign funds linked to the Israel lobby, backed off from using it as well. President Obama’s humiliation by prime minister Netanyahu in 2010 taught him a lesson in the realities of American politics.

So the peace process was left to cajoling. It is difficult not to respect John Kerry’s efforts and the doggedness of his pursuit. He understood the issues well, and was willing to raise rhetorical points about the costs to Israel of continued occupation to the extent that the Israeli Right came seriously to hate him. But he never had the real power of the American state behind him: he could never say to Israel, fine, do what you want, but America is not going to subsidize it any longer, nor have your back in the United Nations. The “special relationship” of American unconditional support for Israel was never up for negotiation. Kerry was a diplomat without any of the tools in the diplomat’s kit, remarkable since he was supposedly representing a superpower.

At this point, who can wish to revive the corpse? Israel doesn’t have a political majority that favors a genuine Palestinian state with contiguous territory, control of its own borders and its capital in Jerusalem; that is now beyond dispute. (Though certainly many Israelis, perhaps 40 percent, do favor such an outcome.) Since a pro-settler fanatic assassinated Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, every successive Israeli government has become more under the sway of settler ideology and political power. If Israelis once thought of the West Bank as a terrific bargaining chip, to be swapped for peace and acceptance in the region, that was long ago: most Israelis think of the territories as Judea and Samaria, inextricably part of Israel. And John Kerry and Barack Obama have established, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that they aren’t willing or able to do anything about it.

But that doesn’t put an end to the matter. The circumstances of Palestinian life in the occupied West Bank are, for the most part, horrendous. Authors Peter Beinart and Hussein Ibish made this crystal clear last week at a Columbia University event. Chronicling the roadblocks—physical and bureaucratic—that obstruct Palestinian life every day, Ibish told the audience that there’s not a single person in this room who would accept living in such conditions without resisting. Beinart added,

You cannot permanently hold people without a passport, without the right to vote for the government that controls their lives, and the right to live under the same legal system as their neighbors who are of a different religion or ethnic group. Israel either solves that problem, by giving Palestinians a state of their own which you and I both want or– or– Israel will ultimately have to give citizenship and voting rights to Palestinians on the West Bank in the state of Israel, which will mean the end of the Jewish state of Israel.

Irrefutable as is this logic might be, in the absence of an American-led peace process, what will happen next? One view, put forth by Tony Klug and Sam Bahour in Le Monde Diplomatique is that Israel must be forced to choose whether the West Bank is occupied territory, or whether—after fifty years—the occupation has become permanent. Of course this would have been clarified long ago had not the obfuscations of the “peace process” allowed Israel to pretend the occupation was temporary. Israel denies the territory is occupied on legal grounds, which are accepted by no other country (though Sheldon Adelson has apparently persuaded some American politicians of Israel’s viewpoint). But if the West Bank is not occupied, it is annexed and part of Israel, and Israel will become legally what it already is de facto—an apartheid state—one with different laws for its different ethnic groups. As the occupation approaches the 50 year mark, it is time, the authors argue, to clear up the ambiguity.

There are any number of observers who believe that only when faced with the real possibility of Palestinians demanding the vote will Israel realize that it is perhaps “more Zionist” to allow them an independent state instead. In any case, without the shield of the “peace process” Israel will become more exposed to the rapidly growing BDS movement, which already scares Israel to death, and to the growing pressures in American churches (mainline and, increasingly, evangelical) which shudder at American support for blatant injustice in the Holy Land. The stunning new study guide, “Zionism Unsettled,” produced by Israel Palestine Mission Network of the Presbyterian Church, would have been inconceivable a decade ago, and points to an inexorable reconsideration of Zionism in the light of Christian social justice teachings.

Basically, American diplomats have had a clear field for some 30 years to try to engineer a two state solution. One can respect their efforts—and we should all give John Kerry at least a B for tireless pursuit—and recognize that they would now do better to get out of the way.

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What Is Conservatism?

cover (extra light)

Though often mistaken for a partisan ideology, true conservatism represents a much richer intellectual tradition.

We’ve just published a new Kindle ebook, The Essence of ConservatismIt contains a series of classic essays written by thinkers like Andrew J. Bacevich, Roger Scruton, and Daniel McCarthy. The collection addresses the legacies of Irving Babbitt, Wilhelm Roepke, and Evelyn Waugh, examines forces of rising inequality and militarism, and points to local stewardship and “high church” conservatism.

These works help clarify and retrieve conservatism’s deepest insights, demonstrating their essential relevance to the present moment. Buy the Kindle e-book on Amazon for just $2.99!

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Don Draper Returns for One Last Shot at Salvation

After Sunday night’s premier of season seven of “Mad Men” aired, the critics agreed: this first episode of the final season, “Time Zones,” is a foil of the very first episode of the series, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.” It’s January of 1969, the nadir of bohemian ennui, a stark departure from Camelot’s straight-laced glamor at the top of the decade. But in “Mad Men”’s world, the emphasis isn’t on what has changed, but what hasn’t. Don’s is still tensely married to a (admittedly different) statuesque woman; Peggy is still frustrated at the office and in her personal life; Joan’s loneliness still undercuts her book-balancing, man-taming acumen. All these tropes were present in the very first episode, and nine years later, we can see how far these characters haven’t come.

But this season, there have been significant changes under the guise of sameness; the largest is that Don’s leave from his firm is an involuntary one. Don has played hooky before, but always on his own terms. Less and less of Don’s life, as we see, is within his control. Gone is the lean, mean advertising machine. He’s been replaced by a sallow sadsack, a shell of his halcyon days. Ashley Fetters at The Atlantic contrasts the Don from the first season and with this one in season seven:

The last shot of “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” is of Don’s home life, complete with a pretty young wife and children—which reveals that Don spends his days lying to and fooling other people. “Time Zones,” however, finds Don lying to everyone about how he “has to get back to work” and remaining somewhat deludedly optimistic about returning to SC&P, then ends with a closing shot of Don’s home life. This time, he’s sickly-looking and miserable, out alone in the cold with just his muddled thoughts. This time, it looks more like he spends most of the day consciously fooling himself.

In spite of Don’s unraveling, the culture critics at Slate feel Don’s self-deception can still work, at least at work, at least for a little while. One of the episode’s highlights is the “Accutron” pitch, delivered on the lips of Don’s former colleague Fred Rumsen, but with all the punch and power of a Don Draper masterpiece.

Regardless of whether or not Don still has the “it” factor that gets him out of every jam thrown his way, the cornerstone in Don’s rootlessness is Anna Draper’s absence, whose maternal guidance was an essential component of Don’s confidence. Read More…

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Filling Ideology’s Absence

PIxel 4 Images / shutterstock

On our TV talk shows and op-ed pages, and in our think tanks here, there is rising alarm over events abroad. And President Obama is widely blamed for the perceived decline in worldwide respect for the United States. Yet, still, one hears no clamor from Middle America for “Action This Day!” to alter the perception that America is in retreat. If a single sentence could express the seeming indifference of the silent majority of Americans to what is going on abroad, it might be the simple question: “Why is this our problem?”

If a Russian or Ukrainian flag flies over Simferopol, why should that be of such concern to us that we send U.S. warships, guns, or troops? If Japan and China fight over islets 10,000 miles away, islets that few Americans can find on a map, why should we get into it? And, truth be told, the answers of our elites are unconvincing. One explanation for America’s turning away from these wars is that we see no vital interest in these conflicts—from Syria to Crimea, Afghanistan to Iraq, the South China Sea to the Senkaku Islands.

Moreover, the prime motivator of a half-century of sacrifice in a Cold War that cost us trillions and 90,000 dead in Korea and Vietnam—the belief we were leading the forces of light in a struggle against the forces of darkness that ruled the Sino-Soviet Empire—is gone. The great ideological struggle of the 20th century between totalitarianism and freedom, communism and capitalism, militant atheism and Christianity is over. The Communist empire collapsed. Only the remnants remain in backwaters like Cuba. Marxism-Leninism as an ideology guiding great powers is a dead faith. The Communist party may rule China, but state capitalism has produced Chinese billionaires who do not wave around Little Red Books. Lenin’s remains may lie in Red Square, and Mao’s in Tiananmen Square, but these are tourist sites, not shrines to secular saviors who remain objects of worship.

The one region where religion or ideology drives men to fight and die to create a world based on the tenets of the faith is in the Islamic world. Yet, as CIA Director Richard Helms observed, the three nations that had adopted Islamist ideology—the Afghanistan of the Taliban, the Ayatollah’s Iran and Sudan—all became failed states. Read More…

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McArdle’s Guide to Failing Well

In The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success, Megan McArdle, a columnist with Bloomberg View, makes a compelling case that America has failed to find a way to cope with setbacks and upheavals. McArdle draws on business case studies, academic research, and, for perspective, anecdotes from her own life to identify the individual and institutional barriers to bouncing back.

She looks at high school students terrified of taking challenging classes, for fear that a B will scupper their chances at college, the inertia and fear that lead GM to delay their inevitable restructuring, and her own tumultuous attempts to restart a relationship with an old flame rather than admit defeat. In each of these cases, a bad relationship with failure has enormous costs, even before the failure has occurred. If failure is always catastrophic, we’ll try to protect ourselves by taking minimal risk and innovating as little as possible.

But, in Hawaii, she finds a failure success story in the Hawaii’s Opportunity Probation with Enforcement (HOPE) program. HOPE is a parole program that deals out small punishments reliably for every violation of parole. Most parole systems let minor infractions slide—due to negligence or overwork—until there’s a truly egregious problem, and the parolee is sent back to jail, sometimes for years.

The HOPE program gave former prisoners consequences to learn from, but made sure that a parolee could still recover from the initial penalties meted out. The reliability of the system helped parolees confidently anticipate the consequences of their choices. Prisoners randomly assigned to the HOPE program were three times less likely to have their probation revoked as those in the regular program. Jail time and drug use plunged as well; and, although increased oversight was more expensive, the state made the money back by not having to pay the costs of incarcerating these parolees.

But these reforms haven’t caught on in other states. McArdle hypothesizes that these parole reforms remain counterintuitive because of two cognitive biases: an overactive Agent Detection system and the the Just World hypothesis. Agent Detection refers to humans capacity to recognize other agents—creatures that are capable of having goals and pursuing them. It helps us distinguish the results of blind chance or impassive processes like the weather from actions that are the results of other humans’ choices. Pair that with the Just World theory, where most things happen according to some kind of fair plan, and it’s easy to see every instance of failure as the exposure of a secret fault in a rational actor, rather than the result of chance. Read More…

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