Why Do Millions of Children Have to Die?

It is fitting that following my previous post on the growth in the global millionaire community, I decide to reflect on the moral travesty that is child mortality. I say moral because it is a problem that need not still exist to the degree that it does, and that only persists because our global economic system are not sufficiently guided by ethical principles.

Historically, around 43 percent of children died before the age of five; as fairly recently as the 19th century, every second or third child would perish, even in relatively developed Western countries. Although child mortality has declined rapidly over recent decades — down to 4.3 percent globally, compared to 8 percent in 2000 and 18 percent in 1960 — it is still far higher than it should be.

Nowadays, anywhere from 6 to 9 million children die before their fifth birthday, and nearly half of them die within a month of their birth. (This does not include millions more that die before adulthood.) About 42 countries, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa, account for 90 percent of these deaths. Two-thirds of these children die from causes that are easily preventable, namely diarrhea, pneumonia, malnutrition, and malaria. Continue reading

Troubled World

The world is beset by so many dire problems that it’s difficult to even comprehend them in the first place, let alone figure out how to solve them. During the past two weeks alone, I’ve read about our oceans being emptied of life and acidifying, climate change intensifying, a looming global food crisis brought on by said climate change, and persistent economic troubles that are worsening inequality and poverty in dozens of countries.

While the world has always had it’s problems – and as a history buff, I’m well aware of that – they’ve never been on this scale nor have they even been this existential (save for the threat of nuclear war during the Cold War). The human mind wasn’t evolved to deal with issues of this magnitude, which most people can’t even piece together let alone bring themselves to solve. Heck, we have so many intractable problems affecting us on the local, state, and national level that most people don’t even think to begin on the largest scale of all.

How do we bring together a disunited world that is overwhelmed with too many other concerns and manipulated by elites who care little about these issues? Where do we even start? I thought I knew, but now I’m not so sure.

Why Elites Fail and Meritocracy Crumbles

Much to the pride of many Americans, the United States has always had a reputation for being a country where success is based on merit, hard work, and individual initiative (personal responsibility, creativity, etc).

Indeed, aside from (re)introducing democracy (of a sorts), the United States’ other claim to fame was the development of an alternative to the then-prevailing system of aristocracy: meritocracy, by which our elites – businessmen, politicians, even religious leaders – earned their prestige and influence not through birthright, noble titles, or wealth, but through their own personal merits.

It seemed like the perfect combination: a society in which people had a voice in government while having access to the means of improving their condition. It was political, economic, and personal freedom all at once, which would in turn lead to the sort of synergy that made America exceptionally well-suited to innovation, creativity, and growth (witness our considerable cultural, technological, commercial, and scientific output, still among the highest in the world, albeit by a lesser margin).

Unfortunately, this proven formula for success is being threatened, and may very well already be waning (in fact, some would argue that it’s been in decline for decades now).

To most American’s general agreement, this country is at a point where nothing seems to be going right: every system – education, healthcare, and infrastructure, to name a few – seems to be failing. Our economy is in a seemingly permanent state of malaise, while our political system seems woefully inadequate in addressing any of these issues, (or doing anything right at all for that matter). Meanwhile, big businesses are racing to the bottom in terms of wages and benefits, and corrupting the public sphere with seeming impunity.

Even if you find these perceptions to be a bit hyperbolic or shortsighted, I think you’re still asking what most Americans are: where is the leadership? The wisdom? The vision? Why have are elites failed us, in spite of their purported skill and intelligence? They’re elites for a reason, after all: isn’t it because they earned their place at the top, and thus have the skills and knowledge needed to run things?

Christopher Hayes from The Nation has written an excellent piece that discusses the origins of this woeful lack of top-level leadership in this country. Unfortunately, though perhaps to no one’s surprise, his assessment is that the deficiency stems from systemic problems – and perhaps even from the very nature of meritocracy itself.

Hayes begins by describing the erosion of meritocracy in his own previously meritocratic alma mater, Hunter College, and wondering why his university – like so many across the country – is becoming increasingly elitist and inaccessible.

How and why does this happen? I think the best answer comes from the work of a social theorist named Robert Michels, who was occupied with a somewhat parallel problem in the early years of the last century. Born to a wealthy German family, Michels came to adopt the radical socialist politics then sweeping through much of Europe. At first, he joined the Social Democratic Party, but he ultimately came to view it as too bureaucratic to achieve its stated aims. “Our workers’ organization has become an end in itself,” Michels declared, “a machine which is perfected for its own sake and not for the tasks which it could have performed.”

Michels then drifted toward the syndicalists, who eschewed parliamentary elections in favor of mass labor solidarity, general strikes and resistance to the dictatorship of the kaiser. But even among the more militant factions of the German left, Michels encountered the same bureaucratic pathologies that had soured him on the SDP. In his classic book Political Parties, he wondered why the parties of the left, so ideologically committed to democracy and participation, were as oligarchic in their functioning as the self-consciously elitist and aristocratic parties of the right.

Sound familiar? The same has certainly be said about the Democrats, and from what I hear, leftist parties in many other countries suffer from similar problems. How do these presumed advocates for the little people morph into the very elites they claim to fight?

Michels’s grim conclusion was that it was impossible for any party, no matter its belief system, to bring about democracy in practice. Oligarchy was inevitable. For any kind of institution with a democratic base to consolidate the legitimacy it needs to exist, it must have an organization that delegates tasks. The rank and file will not have the time, energy, wherewithal or inclination to participate in the many, often minute decisions necessary to keep the institution functioning. In fact, effectiveness, Michels argues convincingly, requires that these tasks be delegated to a small group of people with enough power to make decisions of consequence for the entire membership. Over time, this bureaucracy becomes a kind of permanent, full-time cadre of leadership. “Without wishing it,” Michels says, there grows up a great “gulf which divides the leaders from the masses.” The leaders now control the tools with which to manipulate the opinion of the masses and subvert the organization’s democratic process. “Thus the leaders, who were at first no more than the executive organs of the collective, will soon emancipate themselves from the mass and become independent of its control.”

All this flows inexorably from the nature of organization itself, Michels concludes, and he calls it “The Iron Law of Oligarchy”: “It is organization which gives birth to the dominion of the elected over the electors, of the mandataries over the mandators, of the delegates over the delegators. Who says organization says oligarchy.”

This doesn’t bode well for the future. If oligarchy and neo-aristocracy are the inevitable, long-term consequence of the very systems intended to combat them, where do we go from there? Are the anarchists on to something when they suggest eliminating any sort of hierarchy altogether, in favor of a voluntary, consensual, and horizontal power structure?

Some may argue, rather distressingly, that elitism of some kind or another is intrinsic to human nature. Could it be that we’ll always gravitate towards bureaucracy and hierarchy? Is it something about our psychology and evolution that makes us incapable of dispassionate meritocracy?

Unfortunately, I don’t have the time to reflect on this any more than I already have in the past – thus I’ll leave you to decide. Hayes doesn’t offer much of a solution either, and I’ve yet to read of any viable way to fix creeping elitism other than to rally the masses to remake the system and change up its entrench favoritism – a solution that itself is difficult to implement.

Hayes article is long but well worth the read, so I encourage you to check it out in its entirety. The following are just a few of the excerpts that stood out most in my mind.

  • At least one third of the students at elite universities, and at least half at liberal arts colleges, are flagged for preferential treatment in the admissions process. While minorities make up 10 to 15 percent of a typical student body, affluent whites dominate other preferred groups: recruited athletes (10 to 25 percent of students); alumni children, also known as “legacies” (10 to 25 percent); development cases (2 to 5 percent); children of celebrities and politicians (1 to 2 percent); and children of faculty members (1 to 3 percent).

    This doesn’t even count the advantages that wealthy children have in terms of private tutors, test prep, and access to expensive private high schools and college counselors. All together, this layered system of preferences for the children of the privileged amounts to, in Golden’s words, “affirmative action for rich white people.” It is not so much the meritocracy as idealized and celebrated but rather the ancient practice of “elites mastering the art of perpetuating themselves.”

  • One of the most distinctive aspects of the rise in American inequality over the past three decades is just how concentrated the gains are at the very top. The farther up the income scale you go, the better people are doing: the top 10 percent have done well, but they’ve been outpaced by the top 1 percent, who in turn have seen slower gains than the top 0.1 percent, all of whom have been beaten by the top 0.01 percent. Adjusted for inflation, the top 0.1 percent saw their average annual income rise from just over $1 million in 1974 to $7.1 million in 2007. And things were even better for the top 0.01 percent, who saw their average annual income explode from less than $4 million to $35 million, nearly a ninefold increase.

    It is not simply that the rich are getting richer, though that’s certainly true. It is that a smaller and smaller group of über-rich are able to capture a larger and larger share of the fruits of the economy. America now features more inequality than any other industrialized democracy. In its peer group are countries like Argentina and other Latin American nations that once stood as iconic examples of the ways in which the absence of a large middle class presented a roadblock to development and good governance.

  • This is evidence that the Iron Law of Meritocracy is, in fact, exerting itself on our social order. And we might ask what a society that has been corrupted entirely by the Iron Law of Meritocracy would look like. It would be a society with extremely high and rising inequality yet little circulation of elites. A society in which the pillar institutions were populated and presided over by a group of hyper-educated, ambitious overachievers who enjoyed tremendous monetary rewards as well as unparalleled political power and prestige, and yet who managed to insulate themselves from sanction, competition and accountability; a group of people who could more or less rest assured that now that they have achieved their status, now that they have scaled to the top of the pyramid, they, their peers and their progeny will stay there.
  • This kind of corruption is everywhere you look. Consider a doctor who receives gifts and honorariums from a prescription drug company. The doctor insists plausibly that this has no effect on his medical decisions, which remain independent and guided by his training, instincts and the best available data. And he is not lying or being disingenuous when he says this: he absolutely believes it to be the case. But we know from a series of studies that there is a strong correlation between gifts from pharmaceutical companies and doctors’ willingness to prescribe their drugs.

    This basic dynamic infects some of our most important institutions. Key to facilitating both the monumental housing bubble and its collapse was the ratings agencies’ habit of giving even extremely leveraged, toxic securities a triple-A rating. The institutional purpose of the rating agencies (and their market purpose as well) is to add value for investors by using their expertise to make judgments about the creditworthiness of securities. Originally, the agencies made their money from the investors themselves, who paid subscription fees in exchange for access to their ratings. But over time the largest agencies shifted to a model in which the banks and financial entities issuing the securities would pay the agencies for a rating. Obviously, these new clients wanted the highest rating possible and often would bring pressure to bear on the agencies to make sure they secured the needed triple A. And so the ratings agencies developed an improper dependence on their clients, one that pulled them away from fulfilling their original institutional purpose of serving investors. They became corrupt, and the result was trillions of dollars in supposedly triple-A securities that became worthless once the housing bubble burst.

  • In her book Shadow Elite, about the new global ruling class, Janine Wedel recalls visiting Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall and finding the elites she met there—those at the center of building the new capitalist societies—toting an array of business cards that represented their various roles: one for their job as a member of parliament, another for the start-up business they were running (which was making its money off government contracts), and yet another for the NGO on the board of which they sat. Wedel writes that those “who adapted to the new environment with the most agility and creativity, who tried out novel ways of operating and got away with them, and sometimes were the most ethically challenged, were most rewarded with influence.”

    This has an eerie resonance with our predicament. We can never be sure just which other business cards are in the pocket of the pundit, politician or professor. We can’t be sure, in short, just who our elites are working for.

    But we suspect it is not us.

So the question again is, where do we go from here? I know informing more people about this and other issues is the start. But then what? Please, weigh in with your own thoughts and propositions.

Public Service

A few days ago, I was walking through Overtown, a rough and mostly Black part of town that everyone in faraway suburbia – myself once included – seems to fear even driving by. I felt oddly at ease, and most residents were friendly, if not a little perplexed at my presence (a lot of people asked what I was up to or where I was going, in a mix of politeness and curiosity). After all, how often do they get outsiders, especially from the more well-off and insular suburbs?

At one point, I was approached by a casually dressed but well-kempt man who shook my hand and welcomed me to the neighborhood. He was sincere and professional. He apologized for the litter lining the sidewalks and assured me he’d get it clean right away. He eventually introduced himself as the city official responsible for administering the area, and wished me a pleasant visit. I wish I had remembered his name, but I think I was too shocked by the revelation.
 
This man wasn’t what we imagine a public official to be, especially in these cynical times. He wasn’t in a crisp suit working in some cloistered high-rise office. He looked and behaved like the common man, walking the streets of his neighborhood with his constituents, wishing them well and exhorting them to clean up after themselves. I saw him directing others to tidy up the area, partaking in the dirty work himself without hesitation.
 
I couldn’t have asked for a more inspiring encounter. I know it’s not much to go by, but I still feel hopeful that there are good people out there working for the public good. I hope I can be one of those people some day.
 

Is a Loss of Morality to Blame for the Poor’s Problems?

According to Charles Murray’s book, “Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010,”that is precisely the problem. Not only are poorer people losing their values – which is bad in its own right – but in doing so they’re condemning themselves to further misfortune.

The book identifies some troubling trends among low-income whites, namely a lack of educational attainment, low marriage rates, fewer males in the labor force, and a growth in births out of wedlock. Poorer whites, despite popular belief, are apparently less religious than their wealthier counterparts too, whichMurrayalso sees as problematic. Though he focuses strictly on one race, his data broadly applies to most low-income people inAmerica.

By contrast, well-off whites are better educated, more pious, have adhered to the conventional nuclear family, and have a stronger work-ethic. Essentially,Murraybelieves that traditional values are the key to success inAmerica. If the poor were to follow the principled example of their wealthier peers – and he explicitly advises that they do – they might be better off.

There are many problems with this argument, even putting aside its disparagement of the poor (a sadly widespread attitude among the right). But I’ll start by sharing Times columnist Paul Krugman’s take on it:

Mr. Murray and other conservatives often seem to assume that the decline of the traditional family has terrible implications for society as a whole. This is, of course, a longstanding position. Reading Mr. Murray, I found myself thinking about an earlier diatribe, Gertrude Himmelfarb’s 1996 book, “The De-Moralization of Society: From Victorian Virtues to Modern Values,” which covered much of the same ground, claimed that our society was unraveling and predicted further unraveling as the Victorian virtues continued to erode.

Yet the truth is that some indicators of social dysfunction have improved dramatically even as traditional families continue to lose ground. As far as I can tell, Mr. Murray never mentions either the plunge in teenage pregnancies among all racial groups since 1990 or the 60 percent decline in violent crime since the mid-90s. Could it be that traditional families aren’t as crucial to social cohesion as advertised?

I would argue that no, their not as vital as their vaunted status suggests, and I say that as someone who comes from just such a family.

For starters, “traditional families” aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. There’s nothing about a nuclear family unit that necessarily guarantees a healthy and productive upbringing. Plenty of these families had – and continue to have – patriarchal fathers that operate like virtual tyrants. Age-old problems like infidelity, domestic violence, and spousal abuse have always bedeviled families, even before single-parent households and the like became common.

Many such families keep the appearance of stability only out of social and religious pressure – divorces and pre-marital relations are only prevalent nowadays because they’re actually allowed. Had those options existed in the past, without the social and even legal consequences that would follow, it’s likely that just as many people would’ve engaged in them. Heck, in some cases divorces are higher among religious couples than non-religious ones, so perhaps there is merit to holding off on marriage.

Besides, many areas of the world, and within this country, have fewer traditional families without sacrificing their social prosperity (think Scandinavia or the American Northwest), . Even within the US, states that are more secular and less conservative are mostly better off by comparison. There’s clearly more to social cohesion than a nuclear unit.

But I digress.

Still, something is clearly happening to the traditional working-class family. The question is what. And it is, frankly, amazing how quickly and blithely conservatives dismiss the seemingly obvious answer: A drastic reduction in the work opportunities available to less-educated men.

Most of the numbers you see about income trends in America focus on households rather than individuals, which makes sense for some purposes. But when you see a modest rise in incomes for the lower tiers of the income distribution, you have to realize that all — yes, all — of this rise comes from the women, both because more women are in the paid labor force and because women’s wages aren’t as much below male wages as they used to be.

For lower-education working men, however, it has been all negative. Adjusted for inflation, entry-level wages of male high school graduates have fallen 23 percent since 1973. Meanwhile, employment benefits have collapsed. In 1980, 65 percent of recent high-school graduates working in the private sector had health benefits, but, by 2009, that was down to 29 percent.

So we have become a society in which less-educated men have great difficulty finding jobs with decent wages and good benefits. Yet somehow we’re supposed to be surprised that such men have become less likely to participate in the work force or get married, and conclude that there must have been some mysterious moral collapse caused by snooty liberals. And Mr. Murray also tells us that working-class marriages, when they do happen, have become less happy; strange to say, money problems will do that.

Basically, Murray is mixing up the causality here. It’s not that a lack of morals has led to a collapse in socioeconomic fortune, but the other way around: without steady jobs and opportunities, working-class people will have a harder time maintaining social stability. Financial distress isn’t exactly conducive to one’s psychological or physical well-being.

This isn’t to say that all poor people, by nature of their impoverishment, are doomed to depravity and insecurity. They’re just working with the hand they’ve been dealt. Societies change in response to material and economic conditions – the present-day rise of single-person households, for example, wouldn’t have been feasible at a time when most people were engaging in agriculture, which required intensive labor (hence the larger families). But it’s perfectly suited for a society that is increasingly urban, services-oriented, and mobile.

To be sure, the lower-classes clearly have their problems. Their socioeconomic status places them at higher risk for physical and mental health problems, low educational attainment, and other ills. Being poor places considerable stresses in other areas of your life, but that isn’t because you’re negligent, immoral, or have otherwise “lost your way” as far as values like hard-work and personal accountability.

If personal wealth was any indicator of morality, then hedge-fund managers and bankers wouldn’t have contributed to this catastrophic recession (after which most of them have still remained prosperous). Drug abuse wouldn’t be as high as it is among richer people either; our politicians, many of whom are well-off, should be paragons of virtue and competence, as should the CEOs who pocket millions while laying-off workers.

We need to end this cultural tendency to view poverty as a sign of inherent personal and social failing; conversely, we need to stop pretending that anybody who becomes financially successful in this country did so through honest hard work. One’s fortune is shaped by many factors, many of which are beyond our control (the family we’re born into, the genes we have, etc).

One more thought: The real winner in this controversy is the distinguished sociologist William Julius Wilson.

Back in 1996, the same year Ms. Himmelfarb was lamenting our moral collapse, Mr. Wilson published “When Work Disappears: The New World of the Urban Poor,” in which he argued that much of the social disruption among African-Americans popularly attributed to collapsing values was actually caused by a lack of blue-collar jobs in urban areas. If he was right, you would expect something similar to happen if another social group — say, working-class whites — experienced a comparable loss of economic opportunity. And so it has.

So we should reject the attempt to divert the national conversation away from soaring inequality toward the alleged moral failings of those Americans being left behind. Traditional values aren’t as crucial as social conservatives would have you believe — and, in any case, the social changes taking place in America’s working class are overwhelmingly the consequence of sharply rising inequality, not its cause.

There’s a good amount of data demonstrating a correlation between high inequality and increased social dysfunction. While correlation doesn’t equal causation, it’s still something to keep in mind in light of the widely divergent level of prosperity between the richest and poorest Americans.

It used to be the case that a college degree, or even a diploma, wasn’t necessary to live comfortably. There were plenty of available jobs that didn’t require much, if any, academic background, especially in manufacturing. And thanks largely to unionization, this sort of work could be financially sustainable.

But a combination of technology, business innovation, and outsourcing has caused this venue to collapse, leaving many working-class people behind. The jobs that remain are low-paying, lack benefits, and don’t offer much upward mobility. Indeed, even jobs that require a degree don’t seem to pay as much as they used to, so racking up debt to get an education isn’t much of an option either.

Neither our economy nor our education system has caught up with this reality, condemning generations to poverty and hardship (in the US, the income of your parents is a much larger determinant of your own future income than in other countries).

I do agree that the problem may have a lot to do with our society’s values, but I think they’re a very different set of values from the one Murray and other conservatives are focusing on – our attitudes towards forging a just and prosperous economic and political system.

 

Anniversary of the Egyptian Revolution

A year ago today, the people of Egypt engaged in an unprecedented mass demonstration, which only 18 days later toppled their despot after three decades of rule. It’s hard to believe that it has been a year already. It doesn’t seem that long ago that the world was captivated by the courage and perseverance of the Egyptian people as they stood against certain death in the name of freedom and opportunity.

Even I became swept up in the hope and excitement, in spite of the intuitive caution that was tempered by my studies in political science and international relations. Enthusiastic as I was, I was well-aware of the mixed track record of many revolutions throughout history, especially in the long term. I knew bringing down an oppressive regime, difficult as it is, was still the easiest part of any sort of sociopolitical change. I knew enough about the political, social, and religious dynamics of Egypt to know that many obstacles would remain to meaningful democratic reform. However romantic and admirable the efforts of Egypt’s brave people, I knew – and still know – that they have a tough road ahead of them.
 
Of course, few people thought that Egypt would make significant progress within a year, or even several years. You don’t have to be steeped in politics and history to know that it takes a long time to go from stifling oppression, to a thriving and free society. It takes a while for any community to change, much less one of nearly 90 million people. No matter how ingenious and sincere your leaders, or how enduring and enterprising your people, it’ll take a lot of work to build a positive future for your nation.
 
The gains will be tenuous for some time, as the old guard and its former beneficiaries remain (we have a tendency to think that the people we overthrow, and their backers, simply dissipate upon losing power). Old ways of thinking, hardened by generations of stagnation and the suppression of free speech, will need to be overcome. Trust and cooperation, weakened through the decades of state surveillance by a network of informants, will need to be built up. The public, which has never had any sort of real voice in how they’re governed, will need to develop a sense of political identity. I haven’t even gotten to how you bring everyone together to hammer out a collective vision in the first place. 
 
Everything I’m saying could just as well apply to the other participants of the Arab Spring, as well as other revolutions past and present. Forging a consensus among a diverse body politic, making a better political system, and addressing a myriad of social ills – these are also the functions of a free and democratic society. It takes the same sort of mentality and dedication to make such a system as it is to run it. Any kind of change, incremental or revolutionary, is a constant process. American society is still trying to improve and rectify its various political and legal problems despite its established democratic traditions (which from the start were mired with imperfections that took some time to rectify, such as slavery). Even the most prosperous and stable of nations has to be ever-vigilant in maintaining and refining its people’s wellbeing, be it civilly, legally, politically, or economically. Egypt may be farther behind then most of the developed world in this regard, but it’s very similar as far as having to endure the same kind of constant challenges and reforms, albeit to varying degrees.
 
Revolutions never really end, and progress is always an incomplete enterprise.
 
Despite my cautious optimism, I’m confident that Egypt will get through the considerable obstacles before it. All I can do from my position is hope. Many Egyptians have understandably expressed ambivalence about their nation’s circumstances since the revolution: the military is still in control, and the hated state of emergency laws that underpinned decades of oppression still remain in place (albeit to a lesser extent then they once were). There are mounting concerns over the deteriorating economy, persistent corruption, sectarian clashes between Christians and Muslims, and a political struggle between secularists and Islamists; the latter have recently won parliamentary majority, to the consternation of many Western and Egyptian liberals who worry about their democratic credentials. The last several months have seen repeated clashes between young protestors and the state, invoking an unsettling déjà vu. And women remain marginal within the political process and feel forgotten in their role in the revolution.
 
Still, tangible changes have transpired despite this grim picture. A greater sense of accomplishment and possibility is still palpable among even pessimistic Egyptians. A glass-half-full outlook would suggest that such high standards for change are evidence of the people’s sense of democratic entitlement – they’re no longer the dispirited and broken people that the former regime tried to keep down. They’re going against a 7,000-year history devoid of representative government but rich in culture and spirit, and against all odds they led a historically unprecedented popular uprising within two-and-a-half weeks just one year ago. They just need more time. And hope.
 

The Biological Origins of Trust

Through the fields of neurology, biology, endocrinology (the study of hormones), and even genetics, we’re finding increasing evidence for a natural origin to human behavior and thought: certain developments in one’s genes, hormones, brain structures, neural network, and other physiological factors are found to alter or otherwise effect how we are and what we do.

This has vast implications about the way we treat criminals – who may have deterministic factors behind their criminality – or how we behave with one another: if someone can’t help but act a certain way, perhaps we need to approach them in a more forgiving and understanding manner, rather than place the blame on their lack of will. If this biological determinism were to gain widespread acceptance over several generations, it would completely alter every facet of society: economics, politics, personal relationships, law, and so on.

For this post, however, I’ll limit this broad and complex topic to one element: oxytocin and its relationship to trust. Oxytocin is a hormone found only in mammals that is increasingly being found to play a vast role in human behavior, including empathy, pair bonding, maternal love, and – of course – trust. It is for these reasons that it’s often known as the “love hormone” or the “moral molecule,” and why many scientists believe that morality does indeed have a physical origin.

The video below is from a TED Talks conference that expands on this topic. The speaker, Paul Zak, is noted for his part in exploring the significance of oxytocin; at the same time, however, there have been some questions raised about the accuracy of methodology. Still, he makes some pretty interesting points, and at the very least he’s raising more interest into this young but promising field of study.

As the video notes, while it may seem grim to imagine our morality as being contingent on external factors somewhat beyond our control, there is a lot to be hopeful about: it appears to suggest that there is actually an inborn capacity to be moral and ethical. Despite the dim view most of us have of human nature – rapacious, greedy, self-interested, dishonest – our biology displays an equal capability for being loving and altruistic, even to strangers.

Human nature is a very complex thing, derived from both nature and nurture. There is a lot of gray when it comes to discerning the how and why of human behavior and morality. But the more we’re learning about this exciting development, the sooner we can begin to adjust our social and organizational paradigms to better suit one another.

The 99 Percent Goes Global

The Occupy Wall Street movement has spread across the world, and not just through protests and demonstrations It’s iconic “99%” slogan -representing the inequalities between the masses and the elite (the 1% as it were) – has become viral across many nations, including those that lack any comparable issues. Again, this slideshow is courtesy of Foreign Policy.

The World’s 99 Percent 

It’s remarkable how such social and political phenomenon can quickly become ubiquitous across the world, managing to transcend linguistic, cultural, and political barriers. It’s a testimony not only to the great advances in technology – namely telecommunications, mass media, and the internet – but to a development of global consciousness. While nationalism, fundamentalism, and parochialism remain strong or even resurgent in many societies, there is no denying a steady –  if not often tenuous – growth in a sense of global community. Our cause is their cause, and visa versa.

On a less idealistic note, it may also represent a growing tendency to for things to go viral or become memes without any thought. Many people take hold of ideas, soundbites, and claims that sound catchy or applicable, but are otherwise meaningless. It’s just another manifestation of the modern-age consumerism and conformity – a sort of herd mentality that allows anything that seems appealing enough to take hold of our minds and spread like wildfire.

I’m not saying that this is the case with the OWS movement and it’s various affiliates, merely that it reminds me of the various ways in which political, social, and religious ideas can now reach a scale that was previously untenable. Anything can be a world-wide paradigm if it the dynamics are right – which can be a good or a bad thing depending on which side of said paradigm you’re on.

 

Migration

Hello everyone, I hope you’re all well.  Unfortunately, I’ve been hit with another hectic schedule lately, so I haven’t had time to post or write as much as I’d like. However, I figured that I could at least leave you all with an interesting video to watch, once against courtesy of RSA. This one covers a topic that I find to be sadly under-appreciated in it’s significance: migration (in case you couldn’t tell by the eponymous title).

Humanity has become increasingly mobile with the progression of time and technology, and the 21st century may come to be defined by massive movements of people to and from different parts of the world. All these journeys could have considerable influence on economics, society, politics, culture, and even religion. As people move, so do ideas, faiths, customs, and economic potential. Both the place of origin and the destination will be altered in some way, sometimes for good, for ill, or somewhere in-between. This has already begun, and the recession has done less to slow it down than we’d think.

As the video keenly but concisely illustrates, keeping up with the ramifications of all these exoduses  will require a lot of innovation: in the way we build and design cities; in the laws that govern property and travel;  and in how we think of and treat migrants of diverse backgrounds and socioeconomic statuses. Migration also allows us to experience the power of human ingenuity, willpower, and perseverance, as people travel vast distances and endure great hardships to improve their lives and that of their communities. Migration will be a definitive element of identity for millions.

While there’s much more I’d like to say on the topic, I must save it for future post. I’ll also leave you all with an interesting review of one of the few books to cover this fascinating topic. I hope you all enjoy reflecting on and exploring this issue as much as I do. Until next time. If I don’t get around to posting tomorrow, than have a fun and safe fourth of July.

A Rare Look at Human Progress

It’s painfully uncommon to receive any good news regarding the prospects of humanity and the future of the world. On the contrary, most of what crops out of media reports and scientific research seems to validate our increasingly intuitive pessimism concerning the profoundly troubling and unprecedentedly difficult times ahead of us. As an (albeit cautious) optimist, I cannot accept such a grim narrative so readily, not when the human race has come so far in terms of poverty alleviation, disease eradication, technological development, and other accomplishments that have made our lives – broadly speaking – better.

So I was quite pleased to find the work of another scientist who shares my inclination towards emphasizing the sadly understated achievements that humanity has made. Like me, Hans Rosling is someone who is well aware of the horrific misery and suffering that sill befalls most people in the world (indeed, unlike myself, he’s actually gained first hand experience through working in some of the most destitute and blighted parts of the world); but like me – and I hope many of you – he nonetheless can appreciate the immense progress that has been made in improving the human condition at a level never before achieved in our history. Best of all, he has scientific evidence, as opposed to woolly feel-good thinking, to prove it.

Of course, this isn’t to say that the world is best as it could be, or that we should be content and complacent with where currently are. Tremendous amounts of people are still living in terrible conditions, and this study doesn’t necessarily address how certain political, ideological, and religious factors also play a role in stagnating human development and well-being (although it’s interesting to note how many people living authoritarian, dogmatic, and otherwise “backward” parts of the world are still nonetheless living better than they did before, albeit relatively speaking and compared to a very low base).

The point of the study is to simply highlight something I’ve been at pains to convey to most of my (understandably) cautious peers: that in spite of all the vices, social ills, and existential threats that remain a great stain on our existence, we’re improving and developing at a rate and level that is as unprecedented as the problems we still face. Progress is not linear or unambiguous; we can stagnate in some ways and thrive in others. Ultimately, we have the potential to go both ways: to destroy ourselves and our planet, or to continue to grow and move forward. We’re at a point in time like no other with respect to prospects that can be disastrous or transcendently progressive. However grim the state of the world is, and could very well be (especially with respect to sustainability and the environment), we mustn’t ignore how far we’ve come.

To me, it not only reveals our potential for improvement, but most importantly it validates us as a species. Maybe we’re not so primal, primitive, and selfish as we believe. The more we improve the lot of ourselves, our fellow humans, and the world we live in, the more we can overcome the negative aspects of our nature that are so disproportionately focused upon.