Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The Other America

I am spending a few days in Hancock, Maryland, two hours west of Washington. Things don't seem so good here. There was only one restaurant in town nicer than the diner and the Pizza Hut, and it closed over the summer. The Subway has been converted to a convenience store by a guy who says the sign is still up because he can't afford to take it down. The Save-a-Lot is the most depressing grocery store I've seen in years, selling mostly off brands I've never heard of. At the visitors' center for the C&O Canal park they have several pictures of Hancock around 1900, and it's eerie how much still looks exactly the same. And, let me assure you, those buildings aren't still there because someone has lovingly preserved them, they are falling apart and they are there because there is no better use for the land.

You can get the wrong image of rural America from these forgotten towns. There is money out here, but the people who have it live on 10-acre spreads out in the country, and they drive 45 minutes to Hagerstown to do their shopping. But there is also poverty, and the low expectations that go with it. I met a guy from out here last year, and he joked that western Maryland is "the world capital of men living in shacks on half disability payments."

And it's sad to see these towns rot away.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

compassionate conservatism that works

Seen much about homelessness in the news lately? Neither have I. Not, of course, that homelessness has gone away. But the press only focuses on problems when they are getting worse, and the problem of homelessness in the US is actually getting better. Given the Bush administration's terrible record on almost everything else, and the overall increase in poverty in recent years, it is worth pondering why that has happened.

A big part of the answer is the administration's point man on homelessness, Philip Mangano.

Mangano was inspired by the example of St. Francis to give up his career as an agent in Hollywood and devote his life to helping the poor. He has made homelessness in the US his mission for 30 years now. But he brings a hard-headed, un-Franciscan, thoroughly modern attitude to his work. He sees his mission as not helping the homeless as ending homelessness altogether. He bases his approach on an understanding of homelessness developed by sociologists over the past 20 years, especially Dennis Culhane. As Malcolm Gladwell wrote in a great piece for the New Yorker:

In the nineteen-eighties, when homelessness first surfaced as a national issue, the assumption was that the problem fit a normal distribution: that the vast majority of the homeless were in the same state of semi-permanent distress. It was an assumption that bred despair: if there were so many homeless, with so many problems, what could be done to help them? Then, fifteen years ago, a young Boston College graduate student named Dennis Culhane lived in a shelter in Philadelphia for seven weeks as part of the research for his dissertation. A few months later he went back, and was surprised to discover that he couldn't find any of the people he had recently spent so much time with. "It made me realize that most of these people were getting on with their own lives," he said.

Culhane then put together a database—the first of its kind—to track who was coming in and out of the shelter system. What he discovered profoundly changed the way homelessness is understood. Homelessness doesn't have a normal distribution, it turned out. It has a power-law distribution. [i.e., the curve is shaped like a hockey stick.] "We found that eighty per cent of the homeless were in and out really quickly," he said. "In Philadelphia, the most common length of time that someone is homeless is one day. And the second most common length is two days. And they never come back. Anyone who ever has to stay in a shelter involuntarily knows that all you think about is how to make sure you never come back."

The next ten per cent were what Culhane calls episodic users. They would come for three weeks at a time, and return periodically, particularly in the winter. They were quite young, and they were often heavy drug users. It was the last ten per cent—the group at the farthest edge of the curve—that interested Culhane the most. They were the chronically homeless, who lived in the shelters, sometimes for years at a time. They were older. Many were mentally ill or physically disabled, and when we think about homelessness as a social problem—the people sleeping on the sidewalk, aggressively panhandling, lying drunk in doorways, huddled on subway grates and under bridges—it's this group that we have in mind. In the early nineteen-nineties, Culhane's database suggested that New York City had a quarter of a million people who were homeless at some point in the previous half decade —which was a surprisingly high number. But only about twenty-five hundred were chronically homeless.

It turns out, furthermore, that this group costs the health-care and social-services systems far more than anyone had ever anticipated. Culhane estimates that in New York at least sixty-two million dollars was being spent annually to shelter just those twenty-five hundred hard-core homeless. "It costs twenty-four thousand dollars a year for one of these shelter beds," Culhane said. "We're talking about a cot eighteen inches away from the next cot." Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program, a leading service group for the homeless in Boston, recently tracked the medical expenses of a hundred and nineteen chronically homeless people. In the course of five years, thirty-three people died and seven more were sent to nursing homes, and the group still accounted for 18,834 emergency-room visits—at a minimum cost of a thousand dollars a visit. The University of California, San Diego Medical Center followed fifteen chronically homeless inebriates and found that over eighteen months those fifteen people were treated at the hospital's emergency room four hundred and seventeen times, and ran up bills that averaged a hundred thousand dollars each. One person . . . came to the emergency room eighty-seven times.

"If it's a medical admission, it's likely to be the guys with the really complex pneumonia," James Dunford, the city of San Diego's emergency medical director and the author of the observational study, said. "They are drunk and they aspirate and get vomit in their lungs and develop a lung abscess, and they get hypothermia on top of that, because they're out in the rain. They end up in the intensive-care unit with these very complicated medical infections. These are the guys who typically get hit by cars and buses and trucks. They often have a neurosurgical catastrophe as well. So they are very prone to just falling down and cracking their head and getting a subdural hematoma, which, if not drained, could kill them, and it's the guy who falls down and hits his head who ends up costing you at least fifty thousand dollars. Meanwhile, they are going through alcoholic withdrawal and have devastating liver disease that only adds to their inability to fight infections. There is no end to the issues. We do this huge drill. We run up big lab fees, and the nurses want to quit, because they see the same guys come in over and over, and all we're doing is making them capable of walking down the block."

Once you understand what homelessness is, you can develop programs to fight the problem. Most people who end up in homeless shelters are just going through a rough spot -- divorce, job loss, mental breakdown -- and what they need is some transitional assistance to get back on their feet. Since over the past 15 year we have re-oriented our whole welfare system around providing such assistance (rather than long-term benefits), help is available for many of these people.

The hard core homeless need much more help. Part of Culhane's insight was in recognizing that these people already cost the government so much in medical care that getting them off the street, at almost any price, still saves money. So, says Mangano, let's give them free apartments and all the other help they need, spending whatever it takes, because that's what they need and what we're doing effectively pays for itself anyway. People have resisted Mangano's approach to helping these chronically homeless people because it seems unjust. Why give those who have only moderately screwed up their lives a meal voucher and a pat on the back while giving those who have really screwed up free apartments and intensive help from social workers? But, to quote a certain out of fashion philosopher, to each according to his needs. I don't need special help from the government and I don't want any. Some people need a little help from time to time, and I think that help should be there for them. Some people need a lot of help, all the time. Unless we are going to let these people die at the hospital door (which I hope we won't), we are going to be paying out a lot of money for them anyway, so I agree with Mangano that we ought to be spending that money in a way that will help at least some of them put together livable lives.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

The California Academy of Sciences

Gazing around me at all the modernist buildings that depress me with their functional plainness, and all the copies of ancient masterpieces that I like better but have to admit are out of time and place in the 21st century, I have often wondered what sort of architecture could be contemporary without being grim. What has occurred to me is a sort of return to nature. I was fascinated by some of the architectural details at Disney World -- columns like trees, squirrel-tail capitals, carved animal heads -- and that set me wondering about how such an aesthetic could be rendered fully grown-up.

Renzo Piano, it seems, has been wondering the same thing. The New York Times loves his new building for the California Academy of sciences, and I have to say it does look interesting.

On the other hand it combines natural vegetation with some very spare modernist elements. What is not glass or greenery is mostly plan steel or stone. There is still this affection modern architects have for vast, bare, rectangular surfaces, plain tubular columns, industrial lighting fixtures, and the like.

I also wonder about the museum's highly touted "green" design. The dirt and plants on the roof are supposed to be great insulation, but they're no better than fiberglass. The museum has solar panels, but they will only produce 5 to 10 percent of its electricity consumption. (Of course, it is in San Francisco.) They have a recharging station for electric cars, but wouldn't it have been better to put the museum near a metro or streetcar stop? The interior insulation is made from recycled blue jeans, which is kind of cool, but if you've ever read about recycling you know that the energy costs of collecting and transporting heavy materials often outweighs any savings from recycling them.

Still, they're trying, and that can only be a good thing.

When reading was best

From an article in the City Paper on reading:

"You know, I'm an English lit major, but I've never loved any books like the ones I loved when I was 12 years old."

Ray Bradbury once said that 10 or 11 is the best time of life because that is when we can completely disappear into a book and forget anything else. I know I could. In the sixth grade I spent two solid weeks reading The Lord of the Rings, thinking of nothing else the whole time. Not long before then I read Lloyd Alexander's Prydain Chronicles and the Narnia books. In the seventh and eight grades I read stacks of fantasy novels but little that really grabbed me; what I remember best is the science fiction, especially Heinlein, Clarke and Asimov.

The City Paper piece also discusses adolescent reading, things like Vonnegut, Salinger and Ayn Rand that captivate 16 to 20-year-olds. I missed that phase. Most of those books are cyncial, and by then I already regarded it as old news that adult society is hypocritical and corrupt. I was looking for something more positive, but on the other hand I had never patience for simple solutions like the one Ayn Rand peddled.

I feel it as a sort of character flaw that I have never been able to enjoy reading the kind of adult novels that deal with life in all its complexity. Tolstoy bored me, Dostoevsky repelled me, and I have never gotten around to Proust. The books I have loved most in the past twenty years have mostly been non-fiction. I can think of only one real exception, and that is 100 Years of Solitude. I bet one of the reasons that book has such a huge worldwide audience is that many grownups have been able, as I was, to disappear into its world in just the way they did with their favorite books when they were 11. For that, if nothing else, Garcia Marquez deserves his Nobel prize.

But, honestly, if I am down or burdened and need something to comfort me or distract me, I still turn to the books I loved when I was 11.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Russian playgrounds

It seems that in Russia making equipment and sculptures for playgrounds has become a folk art, and, also, that some Russians still adhere to the Baba Yaga / Big Bad Wolf school of children's literature.

I just love these, and these. And here's another.

Friday, September 12, 2008


“I’m ready,” Ms. Palin answered without any hesitation in an interview with ABC News on Thursday, saying she had felt no doubt about accepting Senator John McCain ’s offer to run as his vice-presidential nominee.

“I answered him yes, because I have the confidence in that readiness and knowing that you can’t blink,” Ms. Palin told her interviewer, Charles Gibson. “You have to be wired in a way of being so committed to the mission, the mission that we’re on, reform of this country and victory in the war.”

* * *

Is this sort of confidence a good thing or a bad thing in a political leader?

Certainly a lot of Americans are impressed by it. They like people who believe in themselves and radiant certainty about what they are doing. People loved W after 9-11 because he came across as absolutely certain that we are right, our enemies are wrong, and we will defeat them. And maybe it was good for the country, in that time, to have something to believe in. Come to think of it, Roosevelt showed the same kind of confidence in opposing the Depression, and in fighting fascism.

But W's confidence led us into the disaster of Iraq. His belief in the justness of his cause obscured the realities of world politics and led him to see close allies like the French and the Germans as enemies. His confident pose hid a deep ignorance of world affairs, of the nature of warfare, and of the difficulty of establishing democracy.

And what about Sarah Palin? Her confidence has carried her from hockey mom to mayor to governor to vice presidential nominee in a decade. People see her and think, wow, she is something, she is going somewhere, she can change things -- because that is how she sees herself, and she projects that self-image to the world. Actually, so far as I can tell, she has been a mediocre mayor and a worse governor, and the thought of her having any real influence on US foreign policy is chilling. But she won't blink.

I think she is a narcissist, maybe even a sociopath. She believes that she deserves to lead others because she is just that special. She is incapable of thinking that she has done anything wrong or of understanding her own faults.

But I don't think she is alone. I would say exactly the same thing about W, John McCain, Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, and Ronald Reagan. The reason I have a soft spot in my heart for Bush I is that I never thought he saw himself as a demigod. Now, there are some people who have good reasons to be full of themselves -- Churchill thought he was the man to lead the opposition to Hitler, and if this sometimes led him to interfere stupidly in the decisions of his generals, he really did show extraordinary leadership in one of the world's greatest crises. And there are a lot of politicians who think that mastering government policy is part of their job as leaders, which is why I always forgave Bill his outrageous vanity. He believed he was a man of destiny, but he saw his own very hard work as part of that destiny. I suppose that is part of why Hillary appeals to so many people -- she has always been willing to do the work that goes along with power. Other leaders attach themselves to causes and come to see themselves as the representatives of those causes, as Reagan saw himself as the leader of anti-communism.

But the whole lot of them, as far as I can see, are sociopathic narcissists. And maybe, really, that is almost a requirement for being a political leader. Who else would make decisions that might condemn thousands to death, or millions to poverty? The questions that hangs in the air whenever any leader makes an important decision for others is, "Who does he think he is?" And if he didn't believe himself to be some kind of superman, how could he do it?

I don't know about Obama. To believe, as a fatherless black man, that he could be President, he must have an extraordinary ego. People talk about how cool he has been throughout the ups and downs of the campaign, never getting upset when things look bad -- is this just the reflection of a belief in his own destiny? But he seems to like listening to advice, and he has a fondness for consulting the top academic experts in everything. His books suggest a degree of real self-reflection and a keen sense of his own deficiencies. So maybe, just maybe, he is that rare thing, a man who reaches the top without being in some way seriously deranged.

Which raises another question: if he really doesn't believe in himself at a positively made level, can he make the decisions necessary for a President? I suspect so, but I guess you never know.

But to get back to Sarah Palin and John McCain: I think they are a very dangerous pair. They are both absolutely certain of their own superior morality and judgment, convinced that their opponents are corrupt and wicked. McCain, at least, has a disturbing fondness for violence and war, and from what little Palin has said on the issue she also seems fond of acting out God's will on the battlefield.

I am not sure what disaster will befall the nation if they are elected, but I am sure it will be bloody and expensive.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Head Whacking

So I was reading an ok novel yesterday by a highly regarded author, and in the course of one chapter-long action sequence the good guys control three people by hitting them on the head and "knocking them out." Just like, bam, lie there for a while until we're done with our mission, ok? I put the book down. It was "Lost" soured me on the whole business. In the course of the first season half a dozen people must get "knocked out" and left to lie unconscious for a while. It is portrayed as something that anybody with a club can do, a super convenient way to get your enemies out of the way for a while without killing them. Nobody ever suffers any long-term consequences.

But this is fantasy. Really, getting knocked unconscious by a blow to the head is very serious. It often leads to severe brain injury or death. When a head injury patient comes into the ER, what do they ask? "Did he lose consciousness?" And if the answer is yes, they get ready for a really serious case.

Knocking someone unconcscious is also rather difficult to do -- people can be beaten to death without losing consciousness until the final blow.

I am sick of this trope. It is a lame cliche and an act of gross laziness on the part of the writer. Enough already.

Sarah Palin and Family Values

For the record, I despise Sarah Palin. I think she has all of W's faults: she thinks she's on a mission from God, she has no ability to question her own actions or admit that she is wrong, she lies, she is mean and vindictive, she pretends to be a fiscal conservative while spending lots of money and running up debt, and she hides her ignorance of the world behind folksy, regular girl mannerisms. She would be disastrous vice president. And Americans, having learned nothing from their experience with Bush, seem to be falling for her. Sigh.

But what I find most interesting in her story is what it tells us about the whole issue of conservative "family values." This phrase entered the national debate in the 1980s as a package deal. Opposition to abortion and gay rights was expressed as a defense of the stable nuclear family, which was under siege from divorce, drugs, and a general slide into immorality.

The praise heaped on Palin by evangelical conservatives exposes the contradictions in the family values program. Palin's family is frankly something of a mess. She is feuding with her ex-brother-in-law, her teenage daughter is pregnant, her husband left his job so she could have her unexpected baby and keep working at her own. The tabloids are saying she has had affairs. But all the evangelicals love her because she is living her opposition to abortion, keeping her own Downs Syndrome baby and pressuring her daughter to have her own baby and marry the father.

Haven't Palin and her admirers noticed that the divorce rate for 17-year-olds is over 50%? That girls who have babies before they turn 18 are much less likely to finish college or earn a good living? That children born to teen mothers, married or not, are much more likely to have trouble in school, take drugs, and end up in prison? Is that the kind of choice that really represents "family values"?

If what you want is for every child to be raised in a stable, two-parent family, then what you want is for everybody to wait until they are 25 to marry and wait until they are married to have children. We have moved a long way toward this goal in the past 30 years largely because of abortion. Without abortion there would be millions more unwed teenage mothers, millions more shotgun marriages ending in divorce, millions more troubled children. Opposition to abortion therefore undercuts other parts of the family values agenda.

I wonder whether understanding how this works would undermine support for repealing Roe vs. Wade among the kind of conservatives who long for an orderly society. Because in our world abortion is a force for order, not some sort of chaos agent.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

exotics and diversity

From the NY Times, some exciting research on the effect of introduced, exotic organisms on native species. We all have the impression that this is an ongoing catastrophe, but this is not necessarily so. Introduced predators sometimes wipe out native species by eating them, but otherwise introduced species rarely cause the extinction of natives.

As the authors of the study point out, 2,069 species of non-native plants have become established in New Zealand, and this has led to the extinction of exactly three native species. The net result of the introduction of new species has been a doubling of the number of wild plant species in the islands. Some native species have become much rarer, but that does not necessarily mean they will become extinct.