Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Individual vs Group Success

Interesting article in the June National Geographic called "Greed vs the Common Good" written by Dylan Selterman, psychology teacher for undergrads at the University of Maryland.  The article is based on the reaction of Selterman's students to his offer of extra credit points on their term papers.

The origin of Selterman's exercise was inspired by an address delivered by Garrett Hardin 50 years ago which described what Hardin termed "the tragedy of the commons", which explains Hardin's belief that when many individuals act in their own self-interest without regard for society, the effects can be catastrophic.  (For more info, simply google "tragedy of the commons" and you will find many resources to read).

Selterman's exercise, which was developed by Professor Steve Drigotas of Johns Hopkins University (and which Selterman experienced as a student), offers each student of the class the option of choosing 2 points or 6 points, but with the proviso that if more than 10% of the students choose 6 points then no points are awarded to anyone.  The theory behind the exercise is to illustrate that extra credit points are analogous to any finite resource, water, land, fuel, etc, and that when too many people take too much of any resource, the community as a whole suffers, but when everyone takes just enough, the resource is sustainable and the society thrives.

Over the years, most of Selterman's classes received no points, as did Selterman's own class when he was a student.  Even after it became known that this exercise was part of the class, the reward was rarely achieved. 

Why can't his students put aside their greed and take the easy two points?  Selterman has concluded that, while he still believes that most people are willing to sacrifice for the common good, it can be very tricky to get people to cooperate, especially in large groups of complete strangers.  Combine that difficulty with the societal pressure to accumulate wealth, and the free market theory that if everyone strives for maximum personal benefit, society as a whole will thrive, it is easy to see why students aren't inclined to think of wealth accumulation as a cooperative goal rather than a personal goal.  It becomes a race to have more than others, not for all people to have more.

Selterman recently added a wrinkle to his exercise, to emphasize the point that despite the lack of cooperation among large groups, the group can still prosper if just a few more individuals act in its interest over their own.  To check this theory, Selterman gave the students a third option, to receive no points.  Each student choosing zero points would cancel out one who chose 6, thereby reducing the percentage, perhaps even to less than 10%.   So far, a higher percentage of classes have earned the extra two points than under the original premise, but this new option has only been used for a few years.  And, success in the classroom is a far cry from success on a global scale. 

Still, the point is clear that everyone can have an impact, that all actions are worthwhile and meaningful because one might never know when you represent the one action (or vote) that makes the difference.
It is a wonderful message that reminds us that we can solve our problems, even when they require a global approach, but that each one of us is responsible to do our part, regardless of how significant (or insignificant) our action may appear.

I too, remain hopeful that a more collective approach, one that attaches value and significance to how prosperity is gained, is achievable, despite the dual threats of America first, and the prestige associated with accumulating individual wealth. 

My hope is that a values based perception will gradually alter our adoration for those with riches beyond what any individual needs, resulting in a judgement of the super rich to include the harm that accumulated individual wealth does to society as a whole.  It seems obvious that there is no justification for one percent of a population to enjoy 50% (or more) of the fruits of a group's efforts, yet that is what capitalism without morals or restrictions can produce.  Add to that the popular viewpoint that tribalism is patriotism, and the motivation for any individual for self-sacrifice is limited at best, completely eliminated at worst. 

The unfortunate problem is that it is most often those with the most accumulated wealth, those for whom dog eat dog, or survival of the fittest, or any other such trite saying that rewards selfishness, backstabbing, and success no matter the cost, use that very same wealth and power to convince the everyday person that only the rich know how to handle money (trickle down economics), that only deals that advantage us should be signed (the art of the deal), and that all of our problems are the result of other groups (the Wall) which discourages cooperation, foments distrust, and makes solving the BIG problems of climate change, income inequality, and poverty all the more daunting.

Sometimes I wonder why Death is the not the great equalizer for theories that rejoice over individual accomplishments but downplay communal ones.  After all, in the end, everyone dies, regardless of how many homes, or cars or wives you collect.  And, very few religions teach that the richer you are, the better the afterlife you will earn.  One might even say that most religions teach the opposite. 

Perhaps the answer to why Selterman's students don't often take the easy two points is the same for why we delude ourselves into thinking that during the 80 or so years we exist in our lifetime, as compared to all eternity, he who has the most toys wins is a valid hypothesis.  This may simply be a function of the fact that homo sapiens have only existed a few hundred thousand years, as compared to a universe billions of years old.  We are infants, still understanding our role in the cosmos, still exploring our relationship with ourselves, our fellow travelers, and our Creator.

Let's hope we give ourselves the time and the chance to discover some real answers and develop some longer lasting priorities.

Thursday, May 17, 2018


This morning I encountered a sidebar discussion called The Rights of Things in the Laphams Quartterly called Rule of Law.  It reviewed 10 situations in which the rights of "things" were debated, either through theoretical articles or actual law suits.

The 10 things were: Artificial Intelligence, the Whanganui River, frozen embryos, apes, trees, corporations, cetaceans, a monkey selfie, autonomous cars, and zombies.

A few thoughts.

Obviously, those that involved lawsuits for "things" that were not human, the monkey selfie, apes, cetaceans, the Whanganui River, and the frozen embryos, were filed on behalf of those things by humans in an attempt to acquire rights for those things. 

In the case of the river, a New Zealand court granted legal personhood thereby giving the river recognized rights as to how it is used, or abused, and which led to other rivers receiving personhood as well, something I did not know.

The rights of Great apes were first recognized, also in New Zealand in 1999, and in Spain in 2008.  A number of lawsuits aimed to protect specific cetaceans, and the entire class as a whole have been unsuccessful in the United States.  The monkey selfie was ruled to be "owned" by neither the monkey or the human who owned the camera used by the monkey.

The bit on trees was from a comment by a legal scholar who believed that trees might be an example of a natural object that could be recognized as having legally protected interests, an opinion reflected in the fact that there is a white oak tree in Athens, Georgia that, legend claims has ownership of itself, and for which that status is recognized by the local government, not state or federal, however.

In the case of the frozen embryos, Louisiana, in 1999,  designated that ex utero embryos are "judicial persons" that can sue and be sued.  When a group attempted to sue, on behalf of the embryos, the woman from whom the embryos were harvested because she decided not to use them (decided to destroy them, in other words), the courts ruled against the group, but only because the embryos had been created in California, and were therefor citizens of that state.

The paragraphs on AI, zombies and autonomous cars were comments by legal theorists on the possibility that some types of rights or personhood may eventually be granted to these "thing". For AI, perhaps some form of First Amendment protection, for autonomous cars, a legal recognition as nonhuman entities so they might carry insurance like human drivers, and for zombies a similar designation, perhaps suspended personhood, which might protect and hold them to certain legal obligations,

And then there is the corporation.

First, it seems to be the ultimate expression of arrogance by humans that, while granting rights or personhood to "things" that God created, such as rivers, apes, cetaceans, and trees, most likely seems ludicrous to a majority of people, granting the same rights to a man made entity, the corporation, doesn't provoke the same befuddlement. 

The idea that the corporation can hold property, enter into contracts, sue and be sued seems almost second nature, even though if you think about it for a second, you realize that the idea that one can divert responsibility for ones actions to an entity created out of nothing seems much more ridiculous than a monkey owning a picture of itself.  Why then do we accept this fact as obvious, even indisputable?  First, it might surprise you to know (it surprised me) that the Supreme Court established in 1886 that corporations are protected under the 14th Amendment of the Constitution.  (To refresh your memory, the 14th Amendment addresses citizenship rights and equal protection laws and was proposed in response to issues related to former slaves following the Civil War.) 

I know it is fashionable to pretend to know what the founders were thinking when they created those wonderful documents, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and its Amendments so I won't engage in such speculation.  I feel very certain that this amendment was conceptualized in the smoke filled rooms of the super rich of the late 19th century who required a legal way to continue to amass their fortunes, a legal way, set in what one might call the stone of our democracy, the Constitution.  In essence, an iron clad way for rich people to protect their wealth and property.  And, even more insidious, to protect them from their greed and incompetence when the corporation fails or engages in illegal acts. 

Wow, what a coup!

And, of course, we come to the 2010 Citizens United decision which, based on the precedent that corporations have legal rights, rules that restrictions on campaign spending is a violation of the first amendment, freedom of speech.

The coup de grace!!

I am not sure how I feel about granting personhood to animals or rivers.  Clearly, it seems that we need some type of legal protection for the various entities on planet Earth, and the planet itself, due to the rampant greed that has created an entire legal cottage industry whereupon mankind uses and abuses whatever is necessary to make a profit.  If we assume our planet, our universe was made by the Creator, and that all the inhabitants, human as well as animal, the plants, the land itself, then one would think that it follows that we would revere the scope and breadth of this creation and not need laws to prevent us from spewing harmful vapors into the atmosphere and garbage into the oceans. 

Perhaps, some day, as we evolve to truly understand the gift that She has given us, we might consider such times when the existence of the Environmental Protection Agency was even necessary, yet alone assailed by its purported administrator and his president, as a time of great barbarism and backwardness.
For now, I applaud all those idealists who fight for legal protections of our fellow inhabitants on Earth, and our environment, who file lawsuits on behalf of the life all around us who do not have access to and representation within our legal system, and I vehemently disagree with those who expect me to accept the current state of the law of the land that has granted personhood to the corporation, an entity that can be created merely with a piece of paper and a signature.


Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Women in Charge

Not sure if I have mentioned it, but the Spring Edition of Lapham's Quarterly is titled Rule of Law.  So many interesting reflections on this topic, but today's post concerns two excerpts, one from a book and one from an address at the Third National Conference of Women of Color and the Law at Stanford University, written by women.

The first is from Birth Control Laws by Mary Ware Dennett,  For those of you unfamiliar with Dennett (and you can count me in that group), she was a contemporary and often time critic of Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood.  While both women advocated birth control for women, Sanger favored women accessing such control through the medical profession, while Dennett feared this restriction would limit access, especially among women in lower economic situations. 

Dennett's book attacks birth control laws from two fronts; that controlling the size of one's family, and all the issues involved in having children, economic, social, religious, etc, suggests that there should be no laws against birth control, and second, most birth control laws, especially those that prevent the dissemination of information about contraception by labeling them pornographic, are much more about society's perception of sex than about family planning.  (Dennett was arrested and convicted of mailing obscene material under the Comstock Act, but the ruling was overturned by a judge who deemed her pamphlets educational and scientifically accurate). 

The excerpt from the address is from Angela Y. Davis', activist and professor who spent time in jail while on trial for murder.  Her reflections about the law and the justice system make a number of points about how the law is used disproportionately against those of color, and those of the female gender.  Her time in jail, and afterwards in meeting with incarcerated women, paint us a picture of far too many people who, while guilty of criminal activity, are subjected to far more severe sentences than those with money or influence.  And worse, that the circumstances that might compel such criminal activity, again, while not justifying the action, remain ignored so that a woman with few, if any positive choices, turn to crime to support their families, or drugs to mask the nature of their impoverishment.

Davis was attempting to remind those future lawyers that it is not enough to understand the law.  One must understand the social conditions that define those people of color that find themselves at odds with the justice system. 

Which brings us to Pennsylvania politics.

Yesterday was primary day in Pennsylvania, a day like most others except that perhaps one if five registered voters also stopped at their local polling center.  For those of you who live in Pennsylvania, you may already know the dismal facts about the dearth of elected women in our political system.
For the rest of you, the statistics are disheartening. 

No woman has ever been elected Governor.  (Pennsylvania is among the majority here, as only 23 states have elected a female governor),

No woman has ever been elected Senator.  (Again, Pennsylvania is not alone; only 24 states' electorates have seen fit to elect a woman Senator.  However, Pennsylvania is one of only 14 states to have never elected either a female Governor or Senator).

Only seven women have been elected to serve in Congress, in the US House, and three of them were chosen in special elections after the death of their husbands.  Currently there are zero women representing Pa in Washington, the last being in 2015.

Woman don't fare much better in Harrisburg either.  Currently, Pa ranks 38th out of 50 in terms of % of women serving in office in state legislatures.

It is truly sad that in a nation which celebrates its stand for freedom and equality, that our record on female leadership in government is so dismal.  We barely crack the top 100 in rating I found.  And, of course, we have never elected a female president.  So, why is this so important? 

We are a representative democracy, emphasis on representative.  If those who make our laws, who are lobbied to alter existing laws, who decide which laws even to consider to vote on, are one dimensional in their ethnicity, gender, background, economic standing, etc, then our government will only represent that particular bias.  If women, or minorities, or any subset of our democracy has little or no access to the workings of our government, then we the people will suffer for its lack of diversity.

But, the times they are a changing.  Whether we credit the election of President Trump and his seemingly anti-women persona and agenda, or the fact that women have begun to break the glass ceilings which limited their rise in business, or the belief that women should not be limited because they are the primary care givers at home, women are seeking office in rising numbers.

For me, it seems plain enough that if we are interested in electing officials who understand the day to day struggles that American families face, we must vote for the true multi-taskers of our society, those who are expected to nurture our children, stroke the egos of the men, and keep the economy and structure of the family intact.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

States of Mind

I thought I might touch one last time on the Lapham's edition called States of Mind.  It is odd, as I reflect and glance through the edition, that I was expecting more from the essays and excerpts collected therein, yet was not disappointed once I finished.  As if I absorbed a state of mind from reading reflections on the subject gleaned from the best attempts to discuss said subject, a state of mind that reminds me that while history might recall past events, it also changes as time passes due to a change in perspective of those writing and reading history, and that if we accept that history is not static but a dynamic and evolving picture of events that have already taken place, then situational disappointment or elation with a magazine or other piece of literature, or a movie, or an event that just happened or will happen tomorrow, may also turn into the exact opposite response in time.

For instance, one might rightly assume that the marches led by Dr King during the struggle for civil rights, the passage of the Civil Rights Act in the mid-60's, and the elimination of whites only signs on restaurants, toilets and water fountains, might have filled the hearts of many black Americans with the belief that the tide had turned and soon true equality would arrive.  And, one might even conclude that the election of Barrack Obama proved that hope was true.  Yet, we might find that taking the pulse of race relations from the perspective of those who were 30 years old or less in 1964, might indicate that the hoped for progress was surface in its nature, not deep rooted.  That, in fact, the even deeper roots of white supremacy could not be eradicated by demonstrations or a presidential election.  And, if one remembers that history proclaims that slavery ended in 1865, 100 hundred years before marches were still required to obtain equal protection under the law, it seems clear that our collective state of mind, while having evolved past the acceptance of public lynchings, is still restrained by the accumulation of prejudice that has passed through dozens of generations. 

Or perhaps one might examine the euphoria that embraced Germany in the 1930's and 40's, when national pride was successfully stoked by the rhetoric which glorified the fatherland and united German citizens by blaming all its ills on Jews, foreigners and other people "not like us".  And, when the German war machine found success after success in rolling though its neighbors, I imagine that the average citizen was happy that German power and dominance was in show.  Now, of course, the German perspective on the atrocities committed against humanity demonstrates a much different state of mind.

It is in this regard that I, at times, feel sorry for President Trump.  His early morning tweets, his lack of civility towards those that disagree with him, his clear belief that president equates to King, his obvious perception that a women's purpose is to provide sexual release and bear progeny all indicate a person with a state of mind which stalled in its evolution.  Rather than progressing with the majority towards an understanding that all men are created equal does not refer to only white men, he remains stuck in a Mad Men episode.  Worse, all his past successes, actual and manufactured, led him to believe that it was all him, no help from anyone else, which is reflected in his speeches where any accomplishment is his, no mention of any assistance, and any void where a success may not have transpired is filled with a made up one. 

It is almost as if the collective angst felt by white men who, aware of how horribly they have treated anyone not in their white skinned, XY chromosome club, and fearful of how they might be treated  when their majority has passed, drives Trump to proclaim his superiority at every step while degrading anyone who came before him. 

So, what will the state of mind of America look like in 5 years, or 10 or 50?  Will we shake our head at the antics of a president who believed that laws were made for those without the money and influence to sidestep them, or will the successful candidacy of President Trump be another step towards America's experiment with oligarchy at best, fascism at worse.   Hopefully, we will get a glimpse of the answer in 6 months.