Friday, May 27, 2011

Bonanza Column 238 - It's All About the Brain

The eminent scholar and public policy advisor Jeremy Rifkin makes a compelling case that the history of the history of the human race is characterized by the development of wider and wider circles of empathy – starting in the hunter-gatherer days with the tribe, then affiliated groups (e.g. religions) and progressing toward the nation-state. Hence today, Americans feel closer to Americans than to, say Germans or Saudis, and this feeling extends to some very real material results such as the outpouring of aid to the areas struck by Hurricane Katrina and the oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. We’ve even seen what Rifkin calls natural empathy transcend national borders after the earthquake in Haiti, the tsunami in Southeast Asia, and the more recent earthquake in Japan. For Rifkin, greater levels of civilization are marked by expanding circles of empathy and compassion, and he cites both biological and social data to back up his contention.
On the other hand, we have House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) saying he will block aid money for Missouri tornado victims unless Democrats agree to an equal amount of spending cuts. As Steve Benen points out in the Washington Monthly, “When part of the country is devastated by a deadly natural disaster, federal lawmakers "are expected to put aside politics and ideology" and help, not hold the victims "ransom" to their pet causes,” and I would add particularly in the case of a disaster such as happened in Missouri where the timeliness of aid will make a difference that could save families, properties, and lives.
Cantor and the GOP leadership have interpreted the results of the mid-term elections last year as a wholesale mandate to cut spending and damn the consequences. Republicans gave up "compassionate conservatism" as a Bush-era failure, and their renewed passion for small government essentially means "you're on your own," even in the face of disaster.
So how do we explain this seeming contradiction – as a human race we seem to be evolving in the direction of, as Einstein put it, “widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.” On the other hand we have Mr. Cantor and the GOP taking this regressive position, putting a political bargaining ploy ahead of the real need of people, many of whom are presumably in their political base.
Just as Rifkin’s research on empathy and compassion began with neuroscience, and particularly with the discovery of so-called “mirror neurons” in the 1990s, we can begin to look for an answer in the brain. A study was published last month by researchers at University College London that, the researchers say, links personality traits of liberals and conservatives to differences in brain structure and, presumably, function. The study was based on 90 young adults who reported their political views on a five-point scale from very liberal to very conservative, and then submitted themselves to brain scans using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), a well-established method for studying both brain structure and activity.
The study found that self-described conservatives had a greater development in an area of the brain called the Amygdala, while liberals had greater development in an area called the Anterior Cingulate Cortex. The functions of both these brain areas have been well-established. The Amygdala is a brain stem structure that is, essentially, a threat-detection sensor. When the Amygdala is activated, the result is the familiar “fight or flight” response. So people with a highly developed Amygdala will be more sensitive to threat and more likely to respond to threat aggressively.
The Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACC) is a region that responds to uncertainty and conflicts. The researchers said “it is conceivable that individuals with a larger ACC have a higher capacity to tolerate uncertainty and conflicts, allowing them to accept more liberal views.” They go on to say “Our findings are consistent with the proposal that political orientation is associated with psychological processes for managing fear and uncertainty.”
It is also well-established that a big part of the fight or flight response is to see the world, temporarily at least, in binary terms – good and bad, black and white, and to avoid uncertainty or shades of grey. Now none of this is my opinion – the London study was published in Current Biology, a peer-reviewed journal, and 90 is a good-size sample; Cantor’s remarks and the support of (and non-repudiation of) his position by other Republicans is a matter of record. I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions, but I’m just sayin’…

Friday, May 20, 2011

Bonanza Column 237 - The End is Here (or It Isn't)

Have you heard? The end of the world began last Saturday. So by the time you are reading this, presumably there are signs of the end – maybe people have started disappearing, or worse yet appearing, maybe the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (not to be confused with the Four Horsemen of Notre Dame) are riding down Tahoe Boulevard right now.
As you probably know Harold Camping, a civil engineer who is a self-taught biblical scholar has been trumpeting this doomsday scenario on his Family Radio network, predicting Judgment Day on May 21st, a date he arrived at through a series of calculations that assume the world will end exactly 7,000 years after Noah’s flood. Believers (in what I’m not sure – Camping, I guess) are to be transported up to heaven as a worldwide earthquake strikes. Nonbelievers will endure five months of plagues, quakes, wars, famine and general torment before the planet’s total destruction in October. According to the New York Times, Mr. Camping said in 1992 that the rapture would probably be in 1994, but he now says newer evidence makes the prophecy for this year certain.
I don’t expect Camping to be right (it’s Friday night as I write this, so who knows?), and if he is it’s really going to annoy the folks who believe that the supposed Mayan calendar predicts the end in 2012. What is curious to me is how willing some people are to believe something like this. Friday’s New York Times carried a story about a family where the parents are Camping followers (Campingites? Campers?) but the teen-age children are not, and the kids keep trying to make summer plans while the parents say “why bother?” More poignantly, the mother has decided that some of the children will not be saved, and has told them so – not to get them to change their ways, just to let them know what’s coming.
I’m not going to argue the religious or philosophical merits of eschatology. If you believe in an end to the world and a last judgment, that’s your prerogative – religious thinkers are divided on this one right down the middle both within and between various religions. If the thought or fear of judgment keeps you on the straight and narrow, more power to you. But in my understanding, the judgment is supposed to be heavenly in origin, and most of these folks like Camping and his ilk seem to be very interested in judging those around them, particularly those who don’t think as they do. It boggles my mind that a parent could be so caught up in how right someone like Camping is that they will, in effect, reject their own child, but this happens in these doomsday cults, and it happens a lot.
So for me, Camping is in the same camp with Jim Jones, Osama Bin Laden, those crazies that picket servicemen’s funerals because they hate gays, that so-called preacher that finally got to burn his Quran, and all the other religious fanatics who seem to be multiplying these days, and I just don’t see that they’re adding anything useful to the social dialogue.
So I hope this column finds you, on Tuesday or Wednesday, or Thursday happy and healthy and unplagued by plagues, demons, or hellfire. If it doesn’t, well, then I bet on the wrong horse. My bad.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Bonanza Column 236 - Dissent in a Civil Society

All over the world governments that have been entrenched for many years are being challenged. In almost every case, those mounting the challenge have lived under the regime for most or all of their lives and have only recently awakened to possibilities that they had not imagined.
Here in the US the unrest is less dramatic, and yet our government seems to be clear that to ignore all but the fringes of, for example, the Tea Party movement would be a risky business. And the pressure is not one-sided – the protests in Wisconsin were very much in that state’s progressive tradition. All told, these seem to be times of great change, and as Bob Dylan said, it’s probably best not to “speak too soon, for the wheel’s still in spin.”
And of course here in Incline Village/Crystal Bay we have our own small-scale unrest, though the agenda behind the unrest seems unclear, at least to me. We had the long-running resistance to the Boulder Bay project which hopefully will subside now. We have Mr. Katz and his “organization” The Village People mounting challenge after challenge to the IVGID Board of Trustees, claiming to speak for many people, most of whom have not identified themselves. If such support exists, they seem content to remain in the shadows and let The Village People and a couple of others speak for them. Or, of course, the support doesn’t exist. You can’t prove a negative, so as long as this supposed group remains silent, the issue will remain in doubt.
For about twenty years a lot of (publicly identified) people have advocated a change in IVGID’s structure and governance. There have been attempts to form a county and a town, and other options have been researched, publicly discussed, and deemed unlikely to be better than the GID formed under NRS 318. In all these efforts local residents have made it clear that a majority prefer the GID system, so that’s what we have.
There is a widespread view that NRS 318 restricts GIDs to managing water, sewer, trash, and recreation, and it’s true that these four areas are called out specifically, NRS 318.116 lists 21 separate areas that are available for GIDs to manage, and 318.015 mandates that GIDs “serve a public use and will promote the health, safety, prosperity, security and general welfare of the inhabitants thereof,” which seems to include a great deal of latitude. The IVGID Board, like all GID boards, operates under the Nevada Open Meeting Law, which among other things means meetings are open to the public, include public comment, and agendas are published in advance.
Somehow, for The Village People, this amounts to a “lack of transparency,” which I understand according to the following definition: “Transparency is a general quality. It is implemented by a set of policies, practices and procedures that allow citizens to have accessibility, usability, utility, understandability and auditability of information and process held by centers of authority. Feedback mechanisms are necessary to fulfill the goal of transparency.” It seems to me that both the Nevada Open Meeting Law and the practices of the IVGID Board meet this standard, so I wonder what the so-called Village People want.
More disturbing is the constant imputation of dark, and by implication criminal, motives to the IVGID Trustees and the IVGID Staff. I don’t always agree with the Trustees – as is the case in most areas of politics, I agree with some of them most of the time, some of them some of the time, and some of them never. However, having gone through the process of running for the Board some years ago and knowing many current and former Trustees, I cannot imagine what nefarious motives anyone would have or what they would stand to gain by serving in this largely thankless job. Similarly over the past 15 years I have gotten to know many IVGID staff members and to a person have found them to be hard-working, dedicated, and honest, from the Executive Director to those staff who work “on the line” at facilities, etc.
Every citizen has the right to question their government and to hold officials to account. In a civil society, though, it behooves each of us to do this in a civil manner, and in that the recent activities of The Village People have fallen short.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Two Contrasting Political Cases

As was widely predicted, Governor Sandoval has appointed Dean Heller to the Senate seat vacated by the disgraced John Ensign. While the Nevada law on how to fill Heller’s House seat is notoriously vague in some ways, it clearly mandates a special election. Secretary of State Ross Miller has thrown that election open to all comers rather than having candidates selected by party caucuses, and as noted in an earlier column, we can expect a lively campaign between now and the special election in September, during which time the state’s Congressional delegation of two will be down to one, Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-Las Vegas), who has already announced her intention to run against Heller for election to the Senate seat in 2012.
While Sandoval’s appointment of Heller was expected, it was not the only possible way to go. The Governor could, for example, have appointed a respected Nevadan to fill Ensign’s seat until the 2012 election – Bill Raggio comes to mind as someone who would have been an excellent choice. This would have left our Congressional representation intact, but would not have given Heller a leg up in the election, which I suspect was at least a part of the Republican Governor’s motivation for the appointment.
Appointing what is sometimes referred to as a “placeholder” would also have saved the State an estimated one million dollars that could be used, (and is desperately needed) for other purposes in these difficult economic times. At the same time Sandoval is cutting jobs and programs, he seems blithely oblivious to the possibilities of using this money more wisely. To bring it closer to home, the special election will cost Washoe County about $350,000, and we will pay for that one way or another.
Sandoval has not said much about his thinking in appointing Heller, and of course under state law he can do pretty much what he wants in filling the seat. Still, in the absence of anything from him to counter the widespread view that the purpose of his appointing Heller was political, I’m inclined to take that view – that the Governor who was elected on promises of fiscal accountability has put politics ahead of good financial judgment, and that it’s worth a million dollars of our money to him to have his pal and his party get an edge in an election they probably would have won anyhow.
On a more bi-partisan note, Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) has put ideology second and is making common cause with the Right, including and Oklahoma Republican Sen. Tom Coburn have joined forces with Tea Party activists in an attempt to kill six billion dollars a year in ethanol subsidies, taking on the corn lobby. Ethanol is made from corn and has been promoted by corn growers as an alternative to dependence on oil. It has also been blamed by environmentalists for contributing to algae blooms in the Gulf of Mexico. Most importantly, corn used for ethanol production is corn that is not available to feed cattle, pigs, chickens, and other food sources which then have to be fed more expensively, raising food prices.
Feinstein and Coburn are garnering support from both sides of the political spectrum including the Tea Party Patriots group which noted on its Facebook page “When the Left and the Right agree…amazing things can happen.” Ethanol production accounts for 40 percent of the US corn crop and its value as a fuel is questionable given that fossil fuels are used both to grow corn and to refine it into ethanol and because ethanol yields less energy per gallon than gasoline. To add insult to injury, ethanol not only doesn’t save much energy overall, but may increase greenhouse gas emissions.
So we have two cases in point – a Governor who, for all his piety about cutting spending, is willing to spend much-needed money for political purposes, and two Senators who are willing to put partisan differences aside for the greater good. We can only hope that the latter is a harbinger of a more rational and intelligent political future.