Friday, November 30

The Long View: How diffusion of responsibility supports torture

Crossposted to Daily Kos

Stanley Milgram began his research into obedience in the early 1960's. His original intent had been to demonstrate that "just following orders" wasn't a legitimate excuse for Nazis who committed atrocities during the holocaust.

It was his belief that only a select few people would engage in acts which could serious harm to others when ordered to do so. His belief was shared by the students he polled.

They were wrong.

Milgram's experiment was a simple one that involved three people:

  1. the Authority Figure/Experimenter (E);
  2. the Technician/Teacher (T);
  3. the Learner (L);

The experiment was set up as follows:

"E" would show up in a white coat and explain to two individuals that one of them would be playing the part of the teacher and one would be the learner and explain the rules. Then he would hand a slip of paper to each one. One would say "Teacher" and the other would say "Learner." The learner (L) would move to another another room and the teacher (T) would stay with the Experimenter.

Then they would get to work.

The Teacher would, through a microphone, read a question to the Learner. If the Learner got the question wrong, T would administer a shock. Each time the shock was administered, T would increase the voltage a little for the next time and L would scream in pain.

The dial went up to "450 volts." In many cases, this was marked as "DANGER" or "LETHAL."

The thing is, this experiment was a ruse. The "Learner" was part of the experiment, an actor along with the Authority figure. No one was shocked. No one was in pain. L wasn't being tested.

T was.

The idea of the experiment was to discover what our limitations are in terms of what we'd be willing to do to harm another, and how authority can influence those limitations. I'll get to the results soon, but first I have to explain something:

In social psychology, we talk about Diffusion of Responsibility, a problem that often occurs when people don't feel adequately responsible for the circumstances around them. Having an authority figure available to tell us what to do provides an immense amount of diffusion of responsibility.

In Milgram's experiment, E didn't use threats or cajole. If T didn't want to engage in the experiment, the experimenter would first say "please continue." If that failed, the next statement would be that "the experiment requires that you continue." If that didn't do the trick, E would say that "it is absolutely essential that you continue," and finally, "you have no other choice, you must go on."

If T still refused after those four statements, the experiment would end.

If the experiment didn't end through refusal, it would end after three "shocks" at the maximum level of 450.

There were no threats to E. There was no danger. No loss to refusal. It was merely those statements on the part of the experimenter.

It's easy for us to look at this and think, "I wouldn't ever go that far." It's easy for us to say "I'd never do that."

But the fact of the matter is, in Milgram's work and studies that have replicated it have shown a remarkable consistency: more than 60% of the sample has stuck with the study until the very end, even though they believed at the time that they might be doing serious harm to another human being.

So yes, I'd love to be able to say "I'd never do a thing like that." But I know enough about psychology and self-deception to understand fully well that I can't be certain how I'd behave if faced with such a dilemma. On the surface, it seems like a no-brainer and I honestly can't conceive of doing anything but walking out. But I don't know that I'm that much different from so many people who go along with the experimenter. I don't know that I'm better than they are and I don't know that I'm that strong a person.

I hope I am.

But I'm also fine with not knowing that I'm one of that 60+% who would buckle under the dread of the words "it is absolutely essential that you continue."


Now you know about Milgram's work. Some of you knew all this already. Some of you didn't.

But that's not the point of this piece.

The point is to talk about where we go from here.

In 1974, Milgram wrote an article for "Harpers," "The Perils of Obedience:"

The problem of obedience is not wholly psychological. The form and shape of society... have much to do with it. There was a time, perhaps, when people were able to give a fully human response to any situation because they were fully absorbed in it as human beings. But as soon as there was a division of labor things changed... The breaking up of society into people carrying out narrow and very special jobs takes away from the human quality of work and life. A person does not get to see the whole situation but only a small part of it, and is thus unable to act without some kind of overall direction. He yields to authority but in doing so is alienated from his own actions.

Even Eichmann was sickened when he toured the concentration camps, but he had only to sit at a desk and shuffle papers. At the same time the man in the camp who actually dropped Cyclon-b into the gas chambers was able to justify his behavior on the ground that he was only following orders from above. Thus there is a fragmentation of the total human act; no one is confronted with the consequences of his decision to carry out the evil act. The person who assumes responsibility has evaporated. Perhaps this is the most common characteristic of socially organized evil in modern society.

Let me tell you a story. A woman I know has a son who, in September of 2001, was in his early teens. He was at home with his father, when the first tower fell. They were watching TV at the time, glued to the set.

When the tower fell, his first comment was "cool!"

There was an awkward pause and at first he didn't understand what he'd just said.

Then there was a moment of realization on his part. He looked at his father, confused, and said "wait-- that was real, wasn't it?"

This kid-- a perfectly ordinary kid in so many ways-- no delusions, no dissociative disorders, no disconnect from reality-- said "cool" when one of the towers fell. He said this not because he was mean, or cruel or inhuman.

He said it because it happened on television. And when big, dramatic, things happen on television, they happen because of effects, because of writers, because of cameras and tricks and angles and stunt performers.

I'm going to break from this for a moment, because something big is going on:

As I write this diary, there's a hostage situation over at one of the Clinton campaign offices in New Hampshire. I don't know much more than that. No one seems to know much more at the moment. I wonder how many people watching it are feeling separated from it, and how many are taking it like it's something real and profound. Judging from a quick scan of (I will not link there), there are definitely people who seem to take it as though it's a game, and something worthy of jokes. I don't mean the sort of jokes that people make when nervous or disturbed. I mean the sort of jokes that people make when they are, in fact, completely separated from humanity.

I don't know what to say about this. I sometimes forget how bad the comments over there can be sometimes, and I shouldn't be bothered by them, but I just find it disturbing. I think we need to find a way to bring these people to light without allowing ourselves to be sucked into their twisted world. I have yet to figure out a way of doing that.

Obviously, I'm not going to be posting this diary at the time I expected to. There's no point at all in posting something like this until the current crisis is resolved, so by the time you're reading all this, we'll all know a lot more about what's going on here.

So, anyway: more from Milgram's article:

I will cite one final variation of the experiment that depicts a dilemma that is more common in everyday life. The subject was not ordered to pull the lever that shocked the victim, but merely to perform a subsidiary task... while another person administered the shock. In this situation, thirty-seven of forty adults continued to the highest level of the shock generator. Predictably, they excused their behavior by saying that the responsibility belonged to the man who actually pulled the switch. This may illustrate a dangerously typical arrangement in a complex society: it is easy to ignore responsibility when one is only an intermediate link in a chain of actions.

I'm going to mention another concept that I've talked about before: cognitive dissonance -- the condition that exists when our behavior contradicts our beliefs. When dealing with cognitive dissonance we sometimes change our behavior, but we sometimes also change our beliefs.

We do not want to think of ourselves as a country which supports or promotes torture. It contradicts our beliefs. So when we see that we have, in fact, engaged in torture, we have some choices:

  1. we can change our beliefs to convince ourselves that we think torture is ok;

  2. we can say "this has to stop" and change our behavior;

  3. we can say "this has to stop" and then convince ourselves that we've changed our behavior without actually doing it;

  4. we can say "we oppose torture" and then reclassify everything we do as something that's not torture.

It's not a difficult argument to make that we, as a nation, have adopted a combination of #s 3 & 4. We've not only moved our debate to treat torture as though it is worth a discussion over whether or not it's an acceptable approach, not through an open discussion but through a redefining of torture into something that ignores the reality behind it.

This denial of the reality behind it is so severe that someone who's experienced torture actually got lectured by, of all people, Mitt Romney on how he defines torture.

Here's the reality as I see it:

  1. we, as a matter of policy, torture people;

  2. we, as a matter of sense of self-integrity, don't want to acknowledge that we torture people;

  3. despite all this, some of us openly acknowledge that we torture.

We need a wave of action about this, pushing our media to reflect a truthful and accurate narrative about this. Therefore, every time we see a "news" article which:

  1. uses the word "waterboarding" but not the word "torture;"

  2. describes the act of "waterboarding" as "similuated" drowning;

  3. references without critique the claim that "we do not torture;"

  4. references torture on the part of lower-level military personnel without mentioning any higher ups;

  5. makes any reference to "torture" without acknowledging any history of torture on the part of the US...

we need to write letters. We need to bombard these papers with letters reminding them of the truth. We need to not let them get away with rewriting the narrative to dismiss torture. We need to eliminate diffusion of responsibility by forcing us front and center into the reality of what's gone on.

Research on obedience has shown that we comply easily when we feel removed from the situation. We ignore the reality of things we can not easily control, assuming that someone else will take responsibility. We find it easier to push a button that will kill someone five miles away than to pull a trigger that will kill someone who will look into our eyes. We find it easier to ignore an act of atrocity and pretend it is not our problem than to take responsibility for it.

Torture can only be supported through obfuscation and lies. We will not stop this until every one of us choose to actively challenge these lies and until we push ourselves to not just bemoan the use of torture but fight it, every of the way. Fight it when someone claims we need it to get information. Fight it when someone pretends it isn't real. Fight it when someone refuses to acknowledge it. Fight it when someone obscures its meaning.





Friday Bird Blogging: The Common Redpoll

Redpolls are small finches (about 5-6" long) with a bright red patch on the front of his head. Males are marked by a distinct black goatee-type beard, giving them the look of a beatnick who likes to paint using his forehead.

I'd been hearing about irruptions of them all over the region so I'd been on the lookout: checking out birch trees (which they love) and any other spot which might hold unusual finches. I was surprised, Wednesday afternoon, to see one just hanging out on our tray feeder, but not so surprised as to miss the shots. This common redpoll marks another life bird for me.

Wednesday, November 28

iBrattleboro sued for libel by moron

Based on something said in their COMMENTS section.

More from J.D. Ryan.

I don't care if she sues me or not for this, so I'll just say it: the woman suing them is a moron.

Anti Gay Mass Resistance Shows its True Colors

Hat tip to Pam's House Blend for this.

The anti-gay group, MassResistance, is clearly off its rails. It hasn't been updating its web site for awhile, and one of the last posts they made involved a great deal of personal detail about the daughter of one of the of the group's members. This includes some specifics about the kid's special needs history. It's beyond horrible:

ACTON, MASSACHUSETTS (NOV. 7, 2007) Homosexual activists - possibly in cooperation with school staff -- have viciously targeted a 17-year-old special-needs student, the daughter of Amy Contrada, a MassResistance staffer. (It's outrageous that a parent is now forced to reveal once-private information in order to stop this assault.)

I love that. They fully admit that they're revealing "private information" but pretending that they've been "forced" to do so.
Their statement continues:

Claudia Contrada was born in Korea and was adopted by Amy and her husband as an infant. Claudia's special needs include psychological/emotional issues and learning disabilities. Amy and her husband had Claudia enrolled in private parochial schools until her special needs exceeded those schools' abilities to deal with them. Thus, in seventh grade, they had no choice but to enroll Claudia in the Acton-Boxborough public school system.

But Claudia is talented in singing and especially acting. She has a beautiful voice and a fantastic memory for lines and lyrics. She has won awards for her acting. Her therapists said that Claudia's participation in the school's drama program is directly related to treatment of her special needs.

While the group is welcome to have whatever opinions it wants about the school, the events involved, etc., it's unconscionable to air the kid's personal details in public like this. By engaging in this sort of behavior, MassResistance verifies what many of us have known all along-- they're not trying to defend anyone from anything. They're a group of hateful, bigoted people, who don't understand the difference between political activism and personal destruction.

There's a lot more here in the link I provided which suggests not just invasion of privacy, but desperation and fear on the part of MassResistance. The daughter in question came out of the closet during the whole event outlined and they, of course, blame activists for this and treat anyone who's come in contact with the daughter as a group of predators.

This isn't just awful. It's sad and pathetic.

Saturday, November 24

"I Saw The Best Minds of My Generation Destroyed by Madness..."

I first encountered Ginsberg's work in high school, when someone read "Howl" at an open mic and got heckled by the audience.

I think of this poem often.

I think about it every time I hear about a soldier's suicide.

I think about it every time I hear about a child's murder.

I think about it every time I see someone lose hope.

I am not a sentimental person. I do not believe that all of humanity is good, if given a chance, and I do not believe that Everything. Is. Going. To. Be. Fine. But I believe in hope and I believe in grace, wisdom, and courage.

This feels like a type of heresy-- splitting out any one excerpt from this poem, but I can't post the whole thing here, and so much of it is relevant: recreate the syntax and measure of poor human prose and stand before you speechless and intelligent and shaking with shame, rejected yet confessing out the soul to conform to the rhythm of thought in his naked and endless head, the madman bum and angel beat in Time, unknown, yet putting down here what might be left to say in time come after death...

So there is something about this poem that drives me deep and I don't think I can articulate it well. Reading it is like listening to 5,000-year old music rendered through gravel, blades of grass and mummified bones, accompanied by tenor sax. Trying to talk about it is like trying to get a 5-year-old to explain Stravinski's "Firebird," by playing it on a xylophone.

"I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness."

When Ginsberg wrote that, he wasn't referring to elites, or the most brilliant. He was referring to outcasts, diamonds in the rough, the disaffected, the homeless and the drug addicts. He was referring to those of us whom mainstream society would prefer to forget. He was speaking openly about hallucinations, about his own history, about encounters (especially with Carl Solomon, whom he met during a stay in a mental institution) with friends and lovers.

"I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness."

Doctors Scramble to Handle War Veterans' Brain Injuries:

Medical experts are witnessing an increase in the number of brain injuries sustained by soldiers fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, prompting Veterans Affairs hospitals to set up special centers to handle the severe cases.

"I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness."

The madness I'm talking about today: part of it is suicide and brain damage. But more of it is the madness of war, the madness in which soldiers are in a war that soliders neither understand nor respect:

...nearly one-fifth of the soldiers surveyed said they felt the situation in Iraq had not been worth going to war over. In another poll... 54 percent of households with a member in the military said the war was the "wrong thing to do"; in the population as a whole, only 48 percent felt that way. Doubts about the war have contributed to the decline of troop morale over the past year—and may, some experts say, be a factor in the 40 percent increase in Army suicide rates in Iraq in the past year. "That’s the most basic tool a soldier needs on the battlefield—a reason to be there," says Paul Rieckhoff. "...When you can't articulate that in one sentence, it starts to affect morale. You had an initial rationale for war that was a moving target. [But] it was a shell game from the beginning, and you can only bullshit people for so long."

More from Howl:

...with dreams, with drugs, with waking nightmares, al-
cohol and cock and endless balls,
incomparable blind; streets of shuddering cloud and
lightning in the mind leaping toward poles of
Canada & Paterson, illuminating all the mo-
tionless world of Time between...

"I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness."

Someone tell me again what we're fighting for?

Wednesday, November 21

Friday Thanksgiving Bird Blogging: Cattle Egret at Parker River

While you might have expected me to go for some form of turkey (wild turkey, turkey vulture, turkey in the straw), I decided instead to go for my most recent awesome sighting.

Cattle Egrets are common birds in the Southeast, but in the Northeast they're an unusual (though they do show up during migration season) sighting. This one in particular was not only visible, but actively feeding very close to the parking area at Parker River Wildlife refuge's North Pool overlook.

The best part of taking pictures of this Cattle Egret was how it apparently decided that I didn't have enough good shots of it, so it flew directly across the parking lot so as to land on a fence three feet from my car and then let me move around to photograph it a bunch more from a better position and angle.

I swear: People who want their pictures taken are not as cooperative as this bird was.

Saturday, November 17

More Light Drawings

As usual, clicking on the images brings you to the full-sized versions:

How Can I Keep From Singing?

I originally posted this on Daily Kos. It got lots of great feedback and comments, so I figured I'd post it here as well

On August 18th, 1950, Pete Seeger was called to testify before the House Unamerican Activities Committee. But first, just because it's amazing, here's Pete Seeger on the Smothers Brothers show from 40 years ago.

The relevance?

First, a sidenote: I do not sing, because I know my strengths and I know my weaknesses. But I'm an evil genius with the guitar and stick to the things I know. But the title of this diary is still appropriate because Seeger never gave up on his music or his activism.

Seeger's been a protester and an activist for his entire life, and that activism got him blacklisted in 1950's. When he was called before the House Unamerican Activities Committee, he gave them quite a run, being serious, while still being funny, and refusing to ever give them a thing they wanted, without ever being anything but civil and polite.

Bear with me. This quote is a bit long, but the original testimony is a bit longer:

MR. TAVENNER: You said that you would tell us about the songs. Did you participate in a program at Wingdale Lodge in the State of New York, which is a summer camp for adults and children, on the weekend of July Fourth of this year?

(Witness consulted with counsel.)

MR. SEEGER: Again, I say I will be glad to tell what songs I have ever sung, because singing is my business.

MR. TAVENNER: I am going to ask you.

MR. SEEGER: But I decline to say who has ever listened to them, who has written them, or other people who have sung them.

MR. TAVENNER: Did you sing this song, to which we have referred, "Now Is the Time," at Wingdale Lodge on the weekend of July Fourth?

MR. SEEGER: I don't know any song by that name, and I know a song with a similar name. It is called "Wasn't That a Time." Is that the song?

CHAIRMAN WALTER: Did you sing that song?

MR. SEEGER: I can sing it. I don't know how well I can do it without my banjo.

CHAIRMAN WALTER: I said, Did you sing it on that occasion?

MR. SEEGER: I have sung that song. I am not going to go into where I have sung it. I have sung it many places.

CHAIRMAN WALTER: Did you sing it on this particular occasion? That is what you are being asked.

MR. SEEGER: Again my answer is the same.

CHAIRMAN WALTER: You said that you would tell us about it.

MR. SEEGER: I will tell you about the songs, but I am not going to tell you or try to explain-

CHAIRMAN WALTER: I direct you to answer the question. Did you sing this particular song on the Fourth of July at Wingdale Lodge in New York?

MR. SEEGER: I have already given you my answer to that question, and all questions such as that. I feel that is improper: to ask about my associations and opinions. I have said that I would be voluntarily glad to tell you any song, or what I have done in my life.

CHAIRMAN WALTER: I think it is my duty to inform you that we don't accept this answer and the others, and I give you an opportunity now to answer these questions, particularly the last one.

MR. SEEGER: Sir, my answer is always the same.

MR. SEEGER: I shall he glad to answer about the song, sir, and I am not interested in carrying on the line of questioning about where I have sung any songs.

MR. TAVENNER: I ask a direction.

CHAIRMAN WALTER: You may not he interested, but we are, however. I direct you to answer. You can answer that question.

MR. SEEGER: I feel these questions are improper, sir, and I feel they are immoral to ask any American this kind of question.

MR. TAVENNER: Have you finished your answer?

MR. SEEGER: Yes, sir.

MR. TAVENNER: I desire to offer the document in evidence and ask that it be marked "Seeger exhibit No.4," for identification only, and to be made a part of the Committee files.

MR. SEEGER: I am sorry you are not interested in the song. It is a good song.

MR. TAVENNER: Were you present in the hearing room while the former witnesses testified?

MR. SEEGER: I have been here all morning, yes, sir.

MR. TAVENNER: I assume then that you heard me read the testimony of Mr. [Elia] Kazan about the purpose of the Communist Party in having its actors entertain for the henefit of Communist fronts and the Communist Party. Did you hear that testimony?

MR. SEEGER: Yes, I have heard all of the testimony today.

MR. TAVENNER: Did you hear Mr. George Hall's testimony yesterday in which he stated that, as an actor, the special contribution that he was expected to make to the Communist Party was to use his talents by entertaining at Communist Party functions? Did you hear that testimony?

MR. SEEGER: I didn't hear it, no.

MR. TAVENNER: It is a fact that he so testified. I want to know whether or not you were engaged in a similar type of service to the Communist Party in entertaining at these features.

(Witness consulted with counsel.)

MR. SEEGER: I have sung for Americans of every political persuasion, and I am proud that I never refuse to sing to an audience, no matter what religion or color of their skin, or situation in life. I have sung in hobo jungles, and I have sung for the Rockefellers, and I am proud that I have never refused to sing for anybody. That is the only answer I can give along that line.

Think for a minute about this: here's a man with everything to lose. A working musician who knew who and what he was facing and just decided he was going to do exactly what the right thing was. What's more, he did it with humor, with passion, with grace and with dignity.

Can you imagine going before Congress and offering to sing for them when they ask you about a song, and when they question your patriotism, telling them you're sorry they're not interested in the song?

And he suffered consequences for this::

Seeger, Arthur Miller, and six others were indicted for contempt of Congress by an overwhelming vote in the House of Representatives. In 1961 he was found guilty of contempt and on April 2 he was sentenced to ten years in prison. The following year his ordeal ended when the case was dismissed on a technicality.

The video clip above is from Seeger, years after these events. Blacklisting, contempt charges, threats, intimidation, and yet still...

I saw Pete Seeger at Clearwater a few years ago. A tall, skinny, grizzled old man without the voice he used to have and without the banjo chops or the vocal resonance he once had, but still present, powerful and magnificent.

Seeger is pushing 90, but his voice, his power, his resonance make a difference today.

Even something as simple as coming onto a prime time TV show and singing about war and being accurate about war and what people are like during it, paying attention to history-- I don't think we see much of that any longer and it's something that saddens me-- it's not just that Seeger's anti-war: he's anti war, and incredibly articulate about it.

And Seeger's refusal to bow to HUAC-- this is relevant, because he was willing to stand up to them and take the challenge directly to them. He refused to plead the fifth in front of HUAC. He instead pled the 1st: freedom of speech and freedom of association. This was a much bigger challenge to the committee than simply refusing to self-incriminate. As Jim Musselman put it:

...Everyone else had said the Fifth Amendment, the right against self-incrimination, and then they were dismissed. What Pete did, and what some other very powerful people who had the guts and the intestinal fortitude to stand up to the committee and say, "I'm gonna invoke the First Amendment, the right of freedom of association...." "

"...The case of Seeger v. United States... changed my life, because I saw the courage of what he had done and what some other people had done by invoking the First Amendment, saying, "We're all Americans. We can associate with whoever we want to, and it doesn't matter who we associate with." That's what the founding fathers set up democracy to be. So I just really feel it's an important part of history that people need to remember."

What we do today can cause ripples into the future. The rights we stand up for today can influence the next generations, and the cowardice we show today will affect our children and our grandchildren.

What Seeger showed us was that any one of us can challenge the power of the system around us. Any one of us can stand up and say "we have the right to be who we are, speak to the issues that are relevant to us and the government has no business intervening in any peaceful act."

Seeger may not be with us a lot longer (like I said, he's 88), but he'll be a part of my life long after he's gone.

UPDATE, from the comments, a great stanza from "Wasn't That a Time:"

The wars are long, the peace is frail, the madmen come again.
There is no freedom in a land where fear and hate prevail.

Thursday, November 15

Friday Bird Blogging: Evening Grosbeaks

I haven't been doing as much birding in the last couple weeks, as I've been focused on other projects, but I was thrilled to spot a pair of evening grosbeaks in one of our yard trees the other day.

I've posted about Evening Grosbeaks before, but with new pictures, I feel the need to occasionally revisit old birds. Cornell's doesn't have any particularly new information about the bird, so I'm just going to rely on saying "oh. What a pretty picture!"

Wednesday, November 14

More Drawings With Light

These were done off my front porch. In that last one, in the background, a car drove by as I was in the middle of the shot, creating an interesting effect.

Of course, from the driver's point of view, they just saw this little light wand being waved around in my front yard.

My neighbors probably think I'm nuts.

As usual, clicking on the images brings you to a larger photo.

Friday, November 9

Friday Bird Blogging: Pileated Woodpecker

This bird has been hanging around our yard as of late. I've only spotted it a couple times and every look has been exhilarating. It's the largest woodpecker in the Northeast, about the size of a crow, and right after I took this picture it flew off, about 15' directly over my head.

Yesterday I got home, with my camera still inside the house, and it landed on a tree right on the edge of the yard. It started its call (which I can't even begin to describe), flew off and then came back a minute or so later. We've had these birds around for some time now, but it's only recently that I've had any good looks at them.

As usual, clicking on the image brings you to a photo twice its size.

Monday, November 5

Poverty: What Now?




Let me start by saying that, for a lot of people, it's going to get worse.

I don't mean it's going to get worse before it gets better.

I don't mean it's going to get worse unless we elect a Democratic president.

I mean it's going to get worse.

I'm not making a prediction here.

I'm just going with the odds.

What does this mean?

It's simple.

On Tuesday night, I attended one of the many forums Vermont is holding around the state on childhood poverty. There was a panel represented by a range of people, some of whom help distribute resources and some of whom are recipients of public assistance. Doug Racine (whom, incidentally, I think should run for governor again, but I'll talk about that in a whole other post) led the forum, discussing its goals as to reduce childhood poverty by 50% in Vermont over the next ten years.

And you know, I think we can do this. When we put our minds to creative solutions, we can find ways to transform our world. We can harness the power of children playing to run water pumps. We're very clever this way, and we're capable of introducing great change. And if we have the will, we can do it.

But in the meantime, many of us are struggling. Gas prices are going up. Medicine is getting more expensive. Food is becoming more expensive and use of ethanol may make it worse. The Water situation is not good.

And, really, most people do get by and manage, through various means, to tread water, for a good chunk of their lives. But for each and every one of those people, it only takes one significant event to kick them hard in the gut and force them into the ream of requiring public support or some other form of assistance.

And really, even that's a misnomer. We all receive public assistance. Do you use public roads without paying a toll? Congratulations. You're on public assistance. Are you using the internet right now? (hint: the answer is "yes"). You're receiving a public benefit. Yes. Even if you're paying for internet access, you're still receiving a subsidized benefit. Do you buy food with the hopes that it will be safe? That's because there are public officials who, in theory, regulate the production, storage and distribution of food. That way, we don't have to have a major salmonella breakout in order to find out that a company is using poor food practices.

These are public benefits for the public good. When someone tells you that it's wrong to take public benefits or that they've never had to receive any help from anyone and have made it all on their own, you know they're either lying or completely self-deceptive. We all receive public benefits.

From a financial standpoint, I'm doing reasonably well. I have a savings account with a decent buffer and I have the resources to pay my rent for four months in advance at a time. So I know that even if I were to lose a major client, I'd be fine for the immediate future and I have the skills and creativity that I could probably find work again long before my money were to run out.

One of the things I've learned in the last few years is that going from near poverty to a really nice income changes your perspective and changes your ability to allocate resources. When it came to buying a new washing machine, I chose the best one I could find: it was more energy efficient and would last longer. While other people end up getting washers which are more expensive in the long run, I can afford to buy one that's more expensive up front but much cheaper over the next ten years. Similarly, I could afford to buy a hybrid vehicle, meaning that while a lot of people I know are getting 25-35 mpg, I'm getting 45-55, making my fuel costs dramatically lower.

These options aren't available to people without as many resources.

The way my insurance works, there's an up front deductible. I have to pay $1500 out of pocket before the insurance starts paying for everything and, when it comes to medicine, I still have to pay up front and then I get reimbursements down the line. One of the medicines I'm required to take in order to prevent my diabetes from causing me long-term damage costs over $200/month. I can afford that, especially knowing that I'll get that money back. When I accidentally lost a supply of medicine once (left it on top of my car and drove off. Clever), it cost me $250 to replace it, and that was out of pocket.

When my car got broken into and much of my camera equipment was stolen, it ended up costing me over $1500 to replace, and insurance only reimbursed $500 of that. The cost of repairing the broken window was below the deductible, so that came entirely out of my pocket.

So I'm out these chunks of money and they're not painless, but they're not debilitating either.

But I think about this, and how these events would have affected me when I was making less than $20k/year. And really, the only reason I've got the work I have now is because I lucked into it. I got hired for a short-term contract, which led to a long term contract, which led to other contracts. One minor change in luck and this never would have happened. I'd still be living near the poverty level and I'd be in that situation where I made too much money to receive health benefits but too little money to afford my own health care. I'd be going on lower doses of medications in order to make them last longer, significantly affecting my long-term health and I'd have less control over my eating habits, opting for crap instead of good wholesome food, affecting my health once again and significantly impacting my quality of life.

This is the every day scenario for people in poverty. You need a medication or you need food so you make your choices. You need a car, so you find the clunker which constantly needs work and gets crappy mileage but it's what you can afford, so you just never have the time to build up savings and every little thing that happens makes things worse.

If you add a child into the equation, it gets worse, just in terms of simple allocation of resources.

Now imagine that you're not in poverty and that you have some means at your disposal, but you're keeping afloat. But you have to make choices. Get the better health insurance or live in the better neighborhood. Get the lower deductible for your car insurance or get the better school for your kids.

And you make choices the best you can, but then something happens. It could be anything. You're laid off. Your kid has diabetes. Your or your spouse gets into an accident and needs four months of physical therapy. Your house gets broken into. Some of what you lose can be recovered but not all.

So you have to make more complicated choices and things get tighter.

And then gas prices go up and you have to decide between the really good job that pays better and comes with great benefits but costs you an extra $50/month for the commute or the crappy job that's near where you live that doesn't pay as well and doesn't come benefits that are really as nice.

Or you've got a great job with great benefits and the company just decides that those benefits are too expensive.

And things get tighter.


Sometimes we luck out. Sometimes, in the midsts of all these difficult things, something gets better. We luck into a new job. We buy a lottery ticket and win $5k. We inherit something from a wealthy relative we'd forgotten we had.

But, mostly, it just gets tighter.

And then, when we do need care, we go to the emergency room, because our insurance won't provide for pre-screening.

And that's more expensive.

For everybody.

So things get tighter.

For everybody.

And then there's a drought in Georgia. And Florida and Georgia fight over how to handle it because now they're competing for precious resources.

And things get tighter.

For everybody.

So we've got this situation, with multiple levels of poverty causing multiple problems for people across the board. We've got this squeezing out the poor and the middle class and, whether they understand it or not, it will eventually squeeze out all but the richest of us. Those that have means which are so significant as to be almost untouchable will probably be generally fine, but even then won't have a food supply which is necessarily safe.

In the meantime, there are steps we can take that might not necessarily solve the problem but can, at the very least, help:

  • Universal health care. Until we're willing to see to it that everyone is fully covered (regardless of citizenship or legal status), we risk immense problems. Early screening and careful monitoring of health trends makes us safer as a country and as individuals.

  • Loans and grants for community resource projects. Providing resources to communities to build recycling centers, health clinics, composting systems and public transportation reduces strain on individual families and communities.

  • Creative energy systems. Imagine what we could do if we used the motion of people walking on subway platforms to help power the subways themselves. Imagine what we could do if we made a serious effort to invest in projects that find ways to take existing resources and make better use of them.

  • Invest heavily in early education. Research shows, time and time again, that early education is of immense benefit, not just to children, but to society as a whole.

  • Get Over It. People often seek public assistance when they don't want to. They receive social stigma for it. They're treated like dirt for doing so. We need to start respecting that people who receive public assistance don't want to be on public assistance and would avoid it if they could and just get them the help they need instead of constantly treating them like there's something wrong with them that could be solved if they simply worked harder.

What are your ideas for what we can do to improve upon things? How can we change our government, our people, our planet, to encourage true change that releases us from poverty? Where do we go from here?

Friday, November 2

Friday Bird Blogging: Savannah Sparrow

Savannah Sparrows can be easily mistaken for song sparrows, save for a distinctive yellow "eyebrow." They're prevalent throughout North America in large numbers but I very rarely see them as feeder birds; all my sights of them have been in migratory tracts such Dead Creek, Parker River and Herrick's Cove. They're gorgeous birds, with a great deal of variety between them. I'd never, for example, seen one as dark as the one shown here before.

Cornell reports that there are seventeen different subspecies of the Savannah, some of which are much heavier and paler than other varieties. This can lead to confusion in the field, but generally speaking, if you see a bird which bears close resemblance to a song sparrow but has a clear yellow eyebrow, you're probably dealing with the Savannah. White-throated sparrows often also have a yellow eyebrow, but the white throat is prominent and clear and seaside sparrows have a lot more greyish hues in the head.