CRF Blog

Monarchs, milkweed and the spirit of Rachel Carson

by Bill Hayes

In Monarchs, milkweed and the spirit of Rachel Carson for the Los Angeles Times, Gary Paul Nabhan looks at the plight of the monarch butterfly, and in the process, profiles Rachel Carson.

Carson’s 1962 book, “Silent Spring,” didn’t just kick-start the modern environmental movement, it also suggested that better protection for pollinators and plant life was required for healthy people and healthy agriculture. Without her intelligence and eloquence, we would already be living in a world of unspeakable impoverishment, one with silent springs and fruitless falls.

Carson was a quiet, unerringly private, modest person. And yet, as a moral voice and a skilled scientist, she challenged U.S. agriculture to confront its devastating addiction to the pesticide DDT. [more]

For a related free classroom lesson titled “Rachel Carson and the Modern Environmental Movement,” visit our Bill of Rights in Action Archive. It is currently only in PDF and you will have to register (if you haven’t already), which is free.

Poll of the Day: How Americans Feel About Religious Groups

by Bill Hayes

The Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project has released a new report on How Americans Feel About Religious Groups.

Jews, Catholics and evangelical Christians are viewed warmly by the American public. When asked to rate each group on a “feeling thermometer” ranging from 0 to 100 – where 0 reflects the coldest, most negative possible rating and 100 the warmest, most positive rating – all three groups receive an average rating of 60 or higher (63 for Jews, 62 for Catholics and 61 for evangelical Christians). And 44% of the public rates all three groups in the warmest part of the scale (67 or higher). [more]

Pew Warm

Man of the World

by Bill Hayes

In Man of the World, the American Scholar reviews John Quincy Adams: American Visionary by Fred Kaplan.

Few if any men were ever better qualified, at least on paper, to serve as president of the United States than John Quincy Adams. A diplomat several times over, lawyer, senator, and secretary of state, he had grown up in a household with parents who had been center stage at the creation of the American union. By example and exhortation, John and Abigail Adams instilled in their precocious and talented son a deep faith in, and enthusiasm for, the American experiment. Significantly, from an early age, John Quincy saw the beginnings of the country from both inside and outside its borders. When the Continental Congress sent John Adams to Paris to replace Silas Deane on a joint commission that included Benjamin Franklin and Arthur Lee, the Adamses decided that their 10-year-old—the eldest son of their five children—would go along. As Fred Kaplan writes in this insightful and engrossing biography of our sixth president, “Europe would be his school.” [more]


Crash Course #9, U.S. History: Where US Politics Came From

by Bill Hayes

Part of a series: Crash Course #9, U.S. History: Where US Politics Came From.

Sharif versus Sharif

by David De La Torre

In Sharif versus Sharif, The Economist looks at the battle between Pakistan’s prime minister and its generals.

WHEN he romped to victory in Pakistan’s general election last summer, Nawaz Sharif looked to be the man who might finally bring to heel the over- mighty army that, 14 years earlier, had deposed him during his second stint as prime minister and sent him into exile. Taming the army was always going to be a tall order in a country that generals have ruled for almost half its history and whose (often self- defeating) foreign and defence policies they have always controlled. But Mr Sharif had advantages which no previous civilian leader had enjoyed: an outright parliamentary majority; an independent- minded media; and an opposition that was unlikely to be beguiled by military plots, having suffered from them itself.

Yet a year on, his attempt to make Pakistan into a country where civilians are supreme is foundering. [more]

Euro Illusions Force Weaker Nations Into High Unemployment

by Bill Hayes

In Euro Illusions Force Weaker Nations Into High Unemployment for Bloomberg Businessweek, Clive Crook looks at how the euro weakens Europe’s economies.

The basic contradiction was foreseen many years ago. In a single-currency system, policymakers lack the most powerful tool for helping individual economies adjust to setbacks: interest rates set according to national conditions. To succeed, a single-currency system needs either large fiscal transfers (so fiscal policy can do what monetary policy can’t) or highly integrated labor markets (so the unemployed can move to stronger markets to find work), and preferably both. The euro area has neither, and its governments, even after an epic sovereign debt crisis, have no plans to do much about it. This leaves the EU’s weakest economies with no choice but to restore their prospects through the brutality of “internal devaluation” — using high unemployment to force down labor costs.

The countries at the center of the crisis — Greece, Ireland, Portugal, and Spain — have all made heroic efforts to improve their competitiveness in the past four years, but they have more work to do. Meanwhile, their unemployment rates are 26 percent, 11 percent, 15 percent, and 26 percent, respectively. [more]

Paul Ryan’s Poverty Plan

by Bill Hayes

Vox explains Paul Ryan’s Poverty Plan in 8 short cards. Below is the first card.

What is Paul Ryan’s plan to expand the EITC?

by Dylan Matthews

Ryan would greatly expand the Earned Income Tax Credit for childless workers, who currently receive very little benefit from the policy. He cites a Congressional Research Service analysis suggesting that while the poverty rate for single parents of two is cut by 16.65 percent by the EITC, and the rate for married parents of two is cut by 26.86 percent, the rate for childless single and married households is cut by 0.14 percent and 1.39 percent, respectively.

Ryan’s plan would specifically:

• Double the maximum credit for childless people, from $503 to $1,005.

• Double the phase-in and phase-out rates from 7.65 percent to 15.3 percent. That means lower income workers get bigger benefits, but that those on the high end of eligible incomes see the credit fall away more quickly.

• Moves up the income at which phase-out begins to compensate for the faster phase-out, Ryan would have the credit start phasing out at $11,500 for single childless people and $17,000 for married childless households, as opposed to $8,220 and $13,720, as is current policy.

• Decrease the minimum age for childless households claiming the EITC from 25 to 21.

Ryan’s plan is less generous than Senate Budget Chair Patty Murray’s plan to expand the EITC for childless workers, and unlike Murray’s plan does nothing for two-earner households. But Ryan’s proposal is almost identical to President Obama’s, included in his current budget; the only difference is that Obama would also increase the maximum age one can claim the EITC from 65 to 67.

Murray and Obama fund their plans by tamping down on tax benefits for corporations and high-income individuals, respectively. Murray would equalize the tax treatment of stock option compensation and wage compensation (the former is currently tax-advantaged) and crack down on the use of corporate tax havens like Bermuda and the Cayman Islands. Obama would close the “carried interest” loophole (which lets hedge fund managers and other professional investors pay lower capital gains tax rates on their income) and the Gingrich-Edwards loophole (which lets self-employed people avoid payroll taxes by classifying their income as profits being distributed to them rather than as wages).

Ryan would instead cut a number of existing safety net programs and other spending to pay for his plan:

“To pay for an expanded EITC, this proposal would eliminate a number of ineffective programs, such as the Social Service Block Grant, the Fresh Fruits and Vegetables Program, the Economic Development Administration, and the Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program. It also would reduce fraud in the Additional Child Tax Credit by requiring the use of Social Security numbers.”

“To make up for any shortfall, this proposal would further eliminate corporate welfare. For example, the Department of Agriculture’s Market Access Program costs taxpayers billions merely to help the interests of a select few businesses. Energy companies also receive a number of subsidies. The Department of Energy, for example, spends billions annually to subsidize corporations’ efforts to commercialize favored energy technologies and sources picked by the Congress and the bureaucracy. Corporate executives and shareholders reap the benefits, and the taxpayer picks up the tab”

It’s unlikely that Democrats are going to be willing to accept a lot of these proposals. Requiring Social Security numbers for the child tax credit would deny its benefits to many low-income immigrant families, and low income advocates vocally oppose eliminating the Social Service Block Grant. While Ryan is not explicit that he wants to cut subsidies to companies investing in green energy, it’s doubtful any policy with that effect would go anywhere in the Senate or White House. [more]

Public Schools for Sale?

by Bill Hayes

In Public Schools for Sale?, Bill Moyers interviews Diane Ravitch on the effect of charter schools on public education.

List of the Day: Turan’s 54 favorite movies

by Bill Hayes

In A critic shares 54 favorite movies, the Los Angeles Times’ movie critic Kenneth Turan lists, be decade, his favorite movies.

[I]t was the drive to have my book be of use that convinced me not to go the maximalist “one thousand films to see before you die” route and instead keep the number chosen much more manageable. Like anti-tax zealot Grover Norquist, eager to make government small enough to drown in a bathtub, I wanted my list small enough so that even a busy person like Mr. Norquist could reasonably decide to see them all if he or she so chose. Something in the 50s felt right. [more]

Here are his picks from the 1960s:

  • “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” — 1962
  • “The Gospel According to St. Matthew” — 1964
  • “Point Blank” — 1967
  • “Le Samourai” — 1967
  • “Kes” — 1969 [more]

The Second Coming of Sigmund Freud

by Bill Hayes

In The Second Coming of Sigmund Freud, Discover magazine reports that some of the famous psychoanalyst’s insights are making a comeback in the age of neuroscience.

Although many details of Freud’s theories are wrong, some of his major ideas have been borne out. One of those trailblazing observations concerns the scope and influence of unconscious thought. Freud put the unconscious on the throne of the mental kingdom, but the subjectivity problem led brain scientists to ignore the plentiful evidence of unconscious mental processing for nearly a century. How could they measure mental activity that subjects weren’t even aware of themselves? It wasn’t until the 1980s that researchers began to solve this conundrum.

In a study that is now legend, cognitive scientist Benjamin Libet asked people to press a button whenever they felt like it while he monitored the electrical activity in their brains. He could see that movement-controlling brain regions become active about a quarter of a second before subjects said they’d consciously decided to push the button. Some unconscious part of the brain decided well before the conscious mind did.

Since then, thousands of studies have proven that people process most information, especially social data like other people’s behavior, unconsciously. We also make many decisions without much input from conscious thought. If anything, Freud underestimated the power and sophistication of unconscious thought, says social psychologist Timothy Wilson of the University of Virginia. The nature of unconscious thought that emerges from contemporary experiments is radically different from what Freud posited so many years ago: It looks more like a fast, efficient way to process large volumes of data and less like a zone of impulses and fantasies. But he was absolutely right to put it at the center of psychology.

Another Freudian premise that reappears in current science is that our minds are inherently conflicted, the terrain of a struggle between instinctual impulses and inhibitory mechanisms. Instead of the Freudian terms id and ego, biologists use neuroanatomical descriptions: Motivations like pleasure and reward arise from circuits in the limbic system, a center of emotion, loosely parallel to the id. The prefrontal cortex handles self-control and the override of habitual responses, sort of like the ego. The difference isn’t just a matter of terminology; Freud’s id was a chaotic zone that inspired barbaric, unpredictable behavior, whereas the limbic system is tightly regulated, the origin of rigid and inflexible emotional reactions. But the big picture — of a mind at war with itself — is fundamentally the same, says Bradley Peterson, chief of child psychiatry and director of MRI research at Columbia University, who also trained as a psychoanalyst.

Freud revised his ideas many times, and even his most prescient insights only roughly anticipate scientific findings. Plus, he was often simply wrong, for example in his theories about the elaborate mental lives of infants. “The guy often makes not only errors but outlandish errors,” says Matthew Erdelyi, a cognitive psychologist at Brooklyn College with a long-standing interest in psychoanalysis. “But he also comes up with ideas that absolutely nobody else would come up with,” ideas worth further consideration.

The difficulty is selecting the ones that have merit, and testing them in a way that provides concrete answers. [more]

The Sarajevo Syndrome

by Bill Hayes

In The Sarajevo Syndrome for Bloomberg Businessweek, Peter Coy looks at the similarity of today to 1914, when World War I began.

The cataclysmic chain of events that ensued has troubled political and military thinkers to this day. Austria-Hungary made severe demands of Serbia, which it correctly suspected of involvement in the assassinations. Serbia rejected the ultimatum. When Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, a web of alliances began to ensnare the entire continent. Russia, as an ally of Serbia, declared it was fully mobilizing its armed forces. Germany, an ally of Austria-Hungary, preemptively declared war first on Russia, then on France, Russia’s ally. The guns of August began to sound. By the time World War I ended in 1918, roughly 17 million combatants and civilians had  died, with nothing to show for their loss.

Change 1914 to 2014, and Sarajevo to Homs or Mosul or Donetsk or Kashmir or Panmunjom or the Senkaku Islands or the Spratlys or name-your-own conflict zone. Now as then, fights over small places whose names belong on a quiz show threaten to embroil the world’s most powerful armies. [more]

Thomas Piketty Revives Marx for the 21st Century

by Bill Hayes

In Thomas Piketty Revives Marx for the 21st Century for the Wall Street Journal, Daniel Shuchman critically reviews Piketty’s book Capital in the Twenty-First Century.

There is no doubt that poverty, unemployment and unequal opportunity are major challenges for capitalist societies, and varying degrees of luck, hard work, sloth and merit are inherent in human affairs. Mr. Piketty is not the first utopian visionary. He cites, for instance, the “Soviet experiment” that allowed man to throw “off his chains along with the yoke of accumulated wealth.” In his telling, it only led to human disaster because societies need markets and private property to have a functioning economy. He says that his solutions provide a “less violent and more efficient response to the eternal problem of private capital and its return.” Instead of Austen and Balzac, the professor ought to read “Animal Farm” and “Darkness at Noon.” [more]

Previous reviews here, here, here, here, and here.

The Rise of Nationalism

by Bill Hayes

Fareed Zakaria looks at The Rise of Nationalism.

Mixed verdict on Supreme Court

by Bill Hayes

In Mixed verdict on Supreme Court for the Los Angeles Times, Jim Newton reviews two books on the current U.S. Supreme Court: Uncertain Justice: The Roberts Court and the Constitution by Laurence Tribe and Joshua Matz and Scalia: A Court of One by Bruce Allen Murphy.

The U.S. Supreme Court is majestic, immensely powerful and deceptively fragile. It commands by the power of reason, and its justices are, as the great Robert Jackson once observed, not “final because we are infallible, but we are infallible only because we are final.” And yet Americans today increasingly regard the court in an unfavorable light. In 2001, almost two-thirds of Americans approved of the court’s work; by last year, that number had dropped to less than half.

“Uncertain Justice: The Roberts Court and the Constitution” takes the measure of the court at this puzzling juncture. The book is full of bright and unconventional wisdom, as one might expect from its author, the venerable law professor Laurence Tribe, here teamed with a young collaborator, Joshua Matz. They portray a court tip-toeing into new areas of constitutional law, divided and without a clear sense of mission or purpose. [more]

Orwell’s war on the orthodoxies of left and right

by Bill Hayes

In Orwell’s war on the orthodoxies of left and right for Spiked, Bruno Waterfield reviews George Orwell: English Rebel by Robert Colls.

No book about Orwell can be perfect; the man was too contradictory, too contrarian and too bloody minded to be an easy study. But Colls (with some limitations) really gets it. Orwell refused ideology in a century defined by it, and that was his strength and brilliance. Setting out his stall, Colls, a professor of Cultural History at De Montfort University, puts his finger on why Orwell despised ideology as a ‘form of abstract knowledge which, in order to support a particular tendency or regime, has to distort the world and usually does so by drawing off, or separating out, ideas from experience. Ideology, in Orwell’s eyes, could never afford to get too close to the lives of the people. The more abstract the idea and the language that that expressed it, the more ideological the work and vice versa’, he writes at the book’s beginning.

‘[Orwell] knew that if he was saying something so abstract that it could not be understood or falsified, then he was not saying anything that mattered’, Colls continues. ‘He staked his reputation on being true to the world as it was, and his great fear of intellectuals stemmed from what he saw as their propensity for abstraction and deracination – abstraction in their thinking and deracination in their lives. Orwell’s politics, therefore, were no more and no less than intense encounters turned into writings he hoped would be truthful and important. Like Gramsci, he believed that telling the truth was a revolutionary act. But without the encounters he had no politics and without the politics he felt he had nothing to say.’

Orwell was on a collision course with the intelligentsia to which he, as a rebel and a modernist radical, instinctively belonged, but which, due to its embrace of social engineering, the state and Stalinism, he was starting to oppose. His dissidence appears early in The Road to Wigan Pier where, as Colls wisely remarks, ‘Socialism emerges not as the solution but the problem, and the unemployed and exploited emerge not as a problem but the solution’. Colls paraphrases Orwell: ‘The battle of the classes … will not be won in the abstract, or in some future state, but in the present, in how people actually are and what they actually think of each other.’ Orwell despised the ‘Europeanised’ intellectual British Left because they had become wilfully displaced and removed, uprooted from the lived life of their country. Even worse, the deracinated intellectuals, divorced from the majority, wanted to refashion the people in their image. In the world of Beatrice and Sidney Webb and Fabian socialism, gaining political power also meant using the state to engineer the people, through eugenics and public health. [more]