Sunday, November 09, 2014

How much control do parents have?

I read a Facebook post this morning by a young woman I know - mother of two daughters - and found myself utterly surprised to find that I no longer agree with her position. She said:
"With few exceptions, kids are the way they are because that's how they're being TRAINED. If we don't like the current situation, we must do something differently."
I might have said that myself forty years ago as a young sociologist. We sociologists were trained to think primarily in terms of nurture, and to lay everything at the foot of the "socialization" process. But I've seen a lot in the past 40 years and what I've seen tells me that while  socialization is the primary contribution to  our development, parents and primary caregivers have far less control over the process than most people imagine. Parents really are not "trainers" of children. 

First, parents exercise very little control over the world in which they and their children live. Things happen that have deep and sometimes traumatic effect on children that are beyond the control of parents. Examples can include illness, death, accident, job loss, financial reverses, war, earthquake, flood, tornado, home loss, and many, many other things that may be completely beyond the capacity of a child to understand. Parents often make vital decisions, decisions necessary to survival and well-being of themselves, their children or their whole family, but a child understands nothing of those decisions and the reasons behind them. The child only knows how he or she is affected, they only know the fear, uncertainty, loss, anxiety, and other emotions that circumstances can create.  
When my brother was 2 he got pneumonia and had to be hospitalized. Back in the 1950's parents were not allowed to stay in children's hospital rooms, parents like any other visitors were limited to official visiting ours. The practice common today of parents sleeping in the hospital ward room was unheard of 60 years ago. It would not occur to the parents and even if it did it would most likely have been met by strong resistance by the hospital, even forcible removal. So a two year old little boy experienced severe trauma and great separation anxiety that translated into many "difficult" behaviors because his parents left him to health care professionals to prevent him from dying from pneumonia. 
Forty years ago a young woman I knew married her high school sweetheart and had two children with him, recognized the necessity of removing herself and her children from his increasingly violent and unpredictable behavior (including substance abuse and criminal activities).  But her small daughter only knew that her mother took her away from the father she loved with all her heart. The daughter acted out, became delinquent, used drugs, ran away, and got pregnant as a teenager, because she could only see her loss and hated her mother for it. 
It is not just the big events that make a difference. The necessity to "tighten the belt" even just a little in daily life to get past some rough economic times, can read to a young child as deprivation, as loss of security, and an unacceptable loss of predictability. The child cannot always understand how today's economies translate into better things in the future. 

Second, every child is unique and has their own temperament, their own way of relating to the world, and multiple children in the family are always at different stages of development. What works well with the 10 year old, is not necessarily right for the 8 year old, or the six year old.  This is true for all the many kinds of ways in which parents try to reach out to their children and teach them. 
Two years ago, shortly after my mother died, my slightly younger brother flew back here with our parents ashes to be interred at my father's Virginia home town. In one of our many conversations during his visit, I was shocked to discover that my brother viewed the many trips we took as children as miserable torture and hated them. These many excursions to learn how timber is turned into lumber, milk into cheese, water into electricity, etc. are some of my most cherished childhood memories. The very trips that underline my life-long passion for learning evoke only the most painful memories for him. It was as if we did not have the same experience at all. 
That is the key.  Every child experiences the world differently. What is pleasant for one child, can be painful for another. What works as discipline for one, may spark the opposition and rebellion in another. Just trying something different may not work either. 

Third, parents may be the most important influence in children's lives but they are far from the only influence. Siblings, grandparents, neighbors, Sunday school teachers, school mates, teachers, television, books, and many other sources affect children. All of those other people and other sources of information with whom children interact, even briefly. We teach children to read, and then they proceed to socialize themselves within fictional worlds.  I think that I may have learned as many lessons from "Marmee" along with Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy as I learned from my own Mama. About a decade ago, I was re-reading Little Women and found this passage: 
"Jo, dear, we all have our temptations, some far greater than yours, and it often takes us all our lives to conquer them. You think your temper is the worst in the world, but mine used to be just like it." 
"Yours, Mother? Why, you are never angry!" And for the moment Jo forgot remorse in surprise. 
"I've been trying to cure it for forty years, and have only succeeded in controlling it. I am angry nearly every day of my life, Jo, but I have learned not to show it, and I still hope to learn not to feel it, though it may take me another forty years to do so." The patience and the humility of the face she loved so well was a better lesson to Jo than the wisest lecture, the sharpest reproof. She felt comforted at once by the sympathy and confidence given her. The knowledge that her mother had a fault like hers, and tried to mend it, made her own easier to bear and strengthened her resolution to cure it, though forty years seemed rather a long time to watch and pray to a girl of fifteen.
"Mother, are you angry when you fold your lips tight together and go out of the room sometimes, when Aunt March scolds or people worry you?" asked Jo, feeling nearer and dearer to her mother than ever before.
"Yes, I've learned to check the hasty words that rise to my lips , and when I feel that they mean to break out against my will, I just go away for a minute, and give myself a little shake for being so weak and wicked," answered Mrs. March with a sigh and a smile, as she smoothed and fastened up Jo's disheveled hair."
Alcott, Louisa May.  Little Women (Kindle Locations 1670-1685).  . Kindle Edition. 
And suddenly I knew where it was that I learned to stifle and stuff down all feelings of anger as a teenager and young woman until those denied feelings found their way out in migraines and suicidal feelings. This was no lesson learned from my own parents, who had little trouble expressing anger.  Indeed the anger of expressed by my parents motivated me to seek a different way, offered by a beloved book character. 

The world often socializes children in ways that cause parents despair despite every effort to block the world.  A favorite social psychology professor in graduate school told us this story: he and his wife (a biologist who earned her doctorate before her husband earned his) made every effort to raise their children, a boy and a girl in non-sex stereotyped ways. They often took their daughter at three to watch her older brother play soccer and made sure to point out the girls on the team, and talk about the skill of those girls as well as the skill of her brother. They offered their daughter stories and images of girls who were adventurous, athletic and brave. So they were totally unprepared for the moment when their three year old daughter announced that she wanted to be a cheerleader when she grew up because they were pretty. 

Children are people, who from their first moments in the world accrue a unique life history.  Influences from all the people the child encounters, all the events in the child's world, all the books, movies, TV, and other media that touch the child's world are woven into a personal tapestry, a self, that is unlike that of any other child, even an identical twin. That self will not always express it self in ways that are pleasant for those around the child or for the child him or herself. 

Last, even the most self-conscious, aware adult human being is to some extent still influenced in subtle and less than conscious ways by his or her own history...and let's be blunt, MOST adults are not particularly self-conscious and aware. There are subtle psychic  undercurrents, hot buttons, feelings of fear, loss and anger from the past, that can be evoked in a second by the right triggers.  Parents act out of their own losses, griefs, fears, and anxieties. We cannot always train ourselves to respond to the world the way we think, when we are thinking, is the right way to respond.  This does not absolve parents of responsibility for the effort to shape their children, but it does absolve them of absolute responsibility for the outcomes. 

There are times when parents genuinely have exhausted all the alternatives and options that are available to them at a given time.  It does not mean they have given up, but rather that they must take a respite, regroup, and sometimes wait with love and tolerance for the child to change within him or herself. 

Saturday, September 06, 2014

confessions of a former optimist

I have always been an optimist. Or perhaps I should say I was always an optimist until the last few years. This has little or nothing to do with my personal life experiences. I maintained an optimistic outlook during unemployment, poverty, cancer, divorce, and many other personal trials, and recent years have been kind to my husband and I in many ways. 

Moreover, my optimism  was not based on ignorance of the worlds problems and issues. My parents brought me up to be highly aware of the dire circumstance of poverty, war, brutality, pain and suffering that others in the world suffered. I was brought up to care about and fight for equality, freedom, and opportunity for others. I was a realist optimist. 

I can remember reading Linda Goodman's Sun Signs in high school and she had this very apt description of Aquarius that fit me to a "T": 
"Lots of people like rainbows. Children make wishes on them, artists paint them, dreamers chase them, but the Aquarian is ahead of everybody. He lives on one. What’s more, he’s taken it apart and examined it, piece by piece, color by color, and he still believes in it. It isn’t easy to believe in something after you know what it’s really like, but the Aquarian is essentially a realist, even though his address is tomorrow, with a wild-blue-yonder zip code." 
Goodman, Linda (2011-02-23). Linda Goodman's Sun Signs: Aquarius (Linda Goodman's Sun Signs Set) (Kindle Locations 175-178). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition. 
Later few years later in college I read Yevegeny Yevtushenko's A Precocious Autobiography  and identified strongly with this passage: 
"My optimism which had been all pink, now had all the colours of the spectrum in it, including black, this is what made it valid and genuine." 
I made my career in sociology a discipline focused on understanding the realities of social life; and I focused on topics of inequality (wealth and poverty), economic and political power (its uses and misuses), and environmental problems. I became more and more versed in what was wrong with human societies, and still I retained optimism that if people properly understood the sources of those problems they could struggle together to make a better world. 

But some where in the past decade, perhaps just the past five years I lost my way. I have come to believe that many of the problems the world is facing can not be fixed, at least not in a way that allows human societies to move forward from where we are now. The inequalities have become so huge, the gaps in power so large, and the many of the environmental problems irreversible without immediate, dramatic reversals in energy, transportation, and food policies that I know will not happen because of those overwhelming inequalities and power differences. 

It feels to me on a daily basis as if those in control of the multinational corporations and the worlds' wealth are deliberately driving humanity towards the edge of destruction, because they believe that there is more profit and more power in creating impoverished and powerless masses, and that the accumulation of vast wealth will some how exempt them from the disasters to come....and who knows, enormous wealth provides a lot of cushion against catastrophe so perhaps they are right. Whether they are right or wrong they are acting as if they, and their children and grandchildren will be immune. 

I do not believe humans are headed to extinction - even as we drive many other species to extinction - but I do believe that we are headed to a lot of hunger, disease and death, and the break down of much of modern industrial society.  

I also believe that within that disaster lies the possibility for vibrant, localized, lower tech, sustainable communities to come out from the other side of the disaster - perhaps many decades on the other side. I also believe that there are people around the world who are doing enormously good things to build social capital, make connections, create local food webs, advance new forms of spirituality  and environmental awareness, and to create support networks that may be the tenuous bridges that we will need to reach that sustainable future on the other side of disaster. 

I know some of those people doing good work and dreaming good dreams. Most of them are far away from me and I only have contact with them through Facebook. It is this lack of direct connection that I think has given birth to my despair.  I want to be part of the bridge building, but no longer know how to make the connections.  I no longer feel it in my soul the way I once did. I feel weighted down by the presence of so many whose response to the uncertainty and fear that they feel in their bones is to cling to a mythical past that never existed and demand that nothing change or that changes should be to a more restrictive, narrower, meaner, less inclusive future. 

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Why the Rich Hate Obama

This morning I ran across an article "The Best Worst President Ever" by Mark Morford in SF Gate.  Morford observes a wealthy beneficiary of the economy under Obama proclaim Obama the "worst president ever." Morford then proceeds to give a litany of economic facts that provide ample evidence that this wealthy individual is almost certainly benefiting greatly from the economy during Obama's presidency. In the end Morford just laughs, and shakes his head at the "bizarre lament" of these crazy rich bastards. His only explanation is simple racism - rich white guys can't stand it that a black guy could actually run the country, so they'll simply deny that he has done so. 

I think that Morford and almost all the other defenders of the Obama presidency are missing something truly important, something that the wealthy feel in their bones, even though few of them can allow themselves to recognize it consciously. There has been a seismic shift in this country during the Obama presidency, one that has nothing at all to do with Obama's actions as president, but everything to do with what a black man in office means to American people. It is not what Obama has done, but what Obama has inspired (including fear) that makes him "the worst president ever." 

The seismic shift to which I refer is the cosmic decline in the legitimacy of the existing American social system, in all its economic, political and social dimensions, in the minds of Americans. The fact of an Obama presidency, the presidency of a Harvard educated, progressive black man of mixed racial and cultural heritage is the catalyst that turned the already existing cultural divergence of America into a chasm of Grand Canyon proportions. It is not about what Obama has done or will do, it is all about who he is and what he represents to the various factions in America. 

Obama of course represents quite different things to those on the left and those on the right. For those on the left, Obama's presidency offers hope (yes that "hopey changy thing") that real change and reform can happen. If a black man can get elected in America, than perhaps real, progressive economic reforms are possible too. By raising expectations, Obama's presidency undermines the legitimacy of a Congress stalled in the morass of partisan bickering, and of a corrupt and massively unequal economy.  Decades ago historical research on revolutions suggested that the greatest danger for revolt occurred not when conditions were the worst in a society, but when small improvements gave people hope, but change did not come quickly enough to satisfy those hopes. 

Obama's presidency has done something that nothing before has been able to do: the fact of a black man in the highest office in the land has led masses of ordinary conservatives to question the legitimacy of government and law enforcement. Suddenly "law and order" conservatives are on the side of armed vigilantes protecting a law-breaking rancher (Bundy) in Nevada, who casually aim weapons at local, state and federal law enforcement officials. 

The most class conscious, educated members of the rich are fully aware of the disintegrating legitimacy of capitalism and the vastly unequal distribution of wealth and income in this country. A tiny handful of these economic elite think that it is possible to re-establish legitimacy as was done during the Great Depression by Roosevelt. Warren Buffet speaks openly and often about the need to reform the tax system to address rising inequality. Bill and Melinda Gates focus on pouring their wealth into reforming education with a goal of reducing inequality. Far more common however, is the headlong rush to accumulate more and more, claiming the moral superiority of capitalism (or getting toadying academic economists to do it for them), and blaming Obama for the rising numbers of Americans who seriously question the both  legitimacy of extreme inequality and capitalism. 

Their hatred of Obama is based not on anything that he as actually done to effect inequality, because in point of fact, Obama's actual policies and actions have fueled the growth of wealth and inequality.  Rather it is based on the fact that an Obama presidency has fueled more and more open disaffection with the existing order of things, and shaken the legitimacy of both government and economy. Their hatred is greater because they have more to lose. 

The Truths Hidden in Right Wing Survivalism

On a right wing web page, every other headline screams that Obama is responsible for impending disaster and doom to American society.  But hidden within the polarizing rhetoric is often startlingly accurate analysis of the real sources of the problems and the dangers facing America today: a capitalist economic system that enshrines greed and wanton wealth accumulation over economic and social stability and human needs. 

This short video is typical of the genre aimed at "patriots" and emphasizing individualism and family it provides a surprisingly fact based and astute analysis of coming food shortages around the world and their connection to social, economic and political collapse.

Of course this little video ignores important causal factors such as climate change, and the solution to social disintegration is a laughable attempt to by someone to make money within the capitalist mind set. Real solutions will have to be social, involving people in local communities where cooperation will be key.  But the video shows that many on the right, do have an accurate understanding of the very real fragility of our social and economic systems and recognize that food systems are the lynch pin.  Compare this to the discussion of food insecurity by major progressive environmentalists such as Lester Brown "Full Planet, Empty Plates" , and you see that the core analysis of the problem is the same. 

Friday, June 06, 2014

Zombie America - Installment 5 UPDATED!

America, the zombie nation that ONLY appears to be alive.  

Excellent article about how economic reality on the ground of everyday life for most Americans contradicts the economic fantasies theory of economic and political elites who argue for more tax cuts for "job creators," also known as voodoo "trickle down" economics.

See succinct article in Buzzflash
This is not debatable data: it is reality, like seeing rain gushing from the sky as proof that the sun is not shining. You can spin this reality, as The Wall Street Journal and The Financial Times - among other pro-Wall Street media - do but you cannot deny the facts of what is occurring. The US has two economies: a soaring stock market and wealth for the plutocracy, and a declining standard of living, lower pay, increasing debt and long-term joblessness for the rest of the United States.
This disparate reality breeds anxiety and fear in the ordinary person, who recognizes the inherent instability of their lives, families and communities, but doesn't fully understand the source of that instability. 

Media messages, from advertising to pundits to pulpits, send a message that nothing is wrong with the basic system of industrial capitalism, it is merely the presence of some out-group - socialists, immigrants (legal and illegal), "takers" (translate: "people different from me"), non-Christians (especially Muslims), and the poor in general - who need to be eliminated, controlled, sent home, or simply disenfranchised so that capitalism can get back to doing what it was designed to do.  The problem however, is that capitalism was always designed to increase capital. It was never designed to create jobs or build communities. 

Update: June 2014

An excellent AlterNet article provides links to sound research and statistical data that show that half of all Americans - yes, HALF! - meet the criteria for being "low income;" almost half of American's have zero (zilch) wealth; half of Americans lack the resources to survive even three months without income. 

Monday, April 28, 2014

How Increases in Income Inequality Undermine Social Security

I spent several hours today working on a detailed example for my Inequality class, and thought that I would share it: 

Social Security retirement benefits are one of the most important things that prevents millions of elderly Americans from being poor.  Social security has been one of the most successful and most popular government programs in the past 80 years.
As the baby boom generation ages and reaches retirement age (which began in 2011) and as the size of the younger generation of workers becomes smaller, people begin worrying about the solvency of the social security program. The discussion often pits the interests of young people against the interests of the elderly - totally unnecessarily. 
It turns out that the biggest problem facing Social Security is NOT the disparity between the size of the elderly group and the size of the younger working group, the REAL problem with Social Security has been the increasing disparity in income between low paid workers and higher paid workers.  As wages for MOST workers have stagnated and declined in value while wages for a very tiny (about 10 percent of workers) have increased hugely  this has dramatically reduced the amount of social security taxes that would have been paid into the system.

Here’s how it works.  In 2014 all workers who make any income up to $117,000 must pay social security tax on the full amount of their income.  But a worker that makes $500,000 a year (a many upper middle class executives, bankers, lawyers, doctors, etc. do) only pays Social Security taxes on the first $117,000 and pay nothing at all (in Social Security ) on the other $383,000 that they make.  So let’s imagine two different business A and B, where A has low inequality, with higher pay for all workers, and less difference between lowest paid and CEO, and B has high inequality, with lower pay for all workers and large differences between lowest paid and CEO. 

Business A with Low Income Inequality, Ratio of Lowest Paid to Highest Paid is  17:1
Category of worker Number of persons at level Salary Range Average Salary Total Salary Paid by Business Total subject to Social Security Tax Total Social Security Tax Paid
CEO 1 $530,400
Upper Management 10 $120,000 to $490,000
All other workers 5500 $31,200* to $115,000
Total Salary Paid
Total Social Security Taxes Paid
*lowest hourly wage paid $16.00 an hour times 40 hours per week
**all of this income is subject to Social Security Tax because all workers make less than $117,000.

Business B with HIGH Income Inequality, Ratio of Lowest Paid to Highest Paid is  300:1
Category of worker Number of persons at level Salary Range Average Salary Total Salary Paid by Business Total subject to Social Security Tax Total Social Security Tax Paid
CEO 1 $4,212,000
CFO, COO 2 $2,210,000 and $3,116,000
Upper Management 8 $118,000 to $643,000
All other workers 5500 $14,040* to $100,000
Total Salary Paid
$198,954 ,000
Total Social Security Taxes Paid
*lowest hourly wage paid $7.20 an hour times 37.5 hours per week.
**all of this income is subject to Social Security Tax because all workers make less than $117,000.

In the first business the total compensation of the top 11 workers is $2,670,400, and the total Social Security Tax paid is $159,588.
In the second business the total compensation of the top 11 workers is $ 11,954,000,but the total Social Security Tax paid is still just $159,588 because only the first $117,000 is taxed.  Because workers paid less than $117,000 are paid less overall (lowest pay of company B is less than half that of Company A), the total Social Security taxes paid are lower.

The pattern found in Company A was typical in the 1960's in the U.S. albeit at lower dollar figures. Today's business pattern is much more like Company B. The result of thousands of businesses holding down income for the majority of workers while increasing the disparity of pay between those at the top and at the bottom, has had the overall impact of reducing the percentage of total salaries/wages that are subject to social security taxes. 

Businesses have multiple motivations to increase inequality in this way, the decrease total salary wage costs and decrease their share of Social Security taxes as well. The top workers are motivated because their additional income is not subject to Social Security taxes, and with the concurrent decline in upper bracket income taxes since the 1970's there is little income tax disincentive for additional income beyond the bottom of the highest bracket. In 2014 the highest income bracket begins at $ 406,751 for an individual and $457,601 for a married couple. So whether one's income is $500,000 or 5,00,000 the tax percentage is the same.