I Can, Canoe?

Responding to the Supreme Court decision upholding the Affordable Care Act, President Obama declared that the purpose of government (he used the euphemism “public service”) is taking care of each other. His exact words included: “That’s when America soars, when we look out for one another, when we take care of each other. That’s why we do what we do. That’s the whole point of public service.”

I don’t disagree. But America also soars when government empowers people and then leaves them alone. My point here is pretty trivial. But I am thrilled by one particular government-insured freedom that I enjoy, and I want to talk about it. (Full disclosure: if it weren’t raining, I be out doing it instead of sitting here writing about it.)

Most rights we enjoy as Americans come with constraint. You can own and drive a car, but you have to pass a test and pay a fee first. You can march down the street shouting controversial slogans, but you have to get a permit first.  You can buy liquor, tobacco and other things that are bad for you, but only if you are a certain age.The Clash song, “Know Your Rights” provides a pretty accurate commentary about the balance between our rights and the hoops we have to jump through to exercise them.


And it is in contrast to these hemmed-in and whittled-down rights that my point comes in. Because our freedom to float down an American river in a canoe is vast and nearly unlimited. There is a long train of federal and state practices, policies, laws and customs surrounding inland navigation, and the effect of it all is an extraordinary freedom that is nearly unheard of in this “Land of the Free.”


Me and daughter Jenny on the Wabash River
Me and daughter Jenny on the Wabash River


Briefly, the highest laws in the land insist that people can use American rivers, full stop. Unlike most other human activities that come with the limits, prerequisites and fees mentioned by The Clash, inland navigation is truly free. You need a license to put a boat on a lake, but you need nobody’s permission to launch on a river. To understand this, we need to consider some of the specifics. The best brief source of information on this topic is this pamphlet from the National Organization for Rivers.

Rivers were tremendously important to the exploration and settling of America in the 17th and 18th centuries. To block a river was to hamper commerce and thwart the public interest. So the US has always insisted that rivers and streams be open to traffic. It is not that people can boat when and where government allows — but that people can boat on any river and government has nothing to say about it.

A court case dating back to 1874 found that, while (federal or state) government may create lists of waterways that it deems officially navigable, people are still allowed to go where they wish. If a boat floats, then the water it’s floating on is navigable whether the government says so or not.

Indiana has such a roster of officially navigable waterways. And there’s no harm in the list. But there’s no great significance either. Stretches of river that are not on Indiana’s list are navigable, too. If there is water, people may float. The people, in this one small area, are sovereign.

Does the rule saying boaters are free on the water also insist that they stay on the water and respect the private property alone the banks? Nope, the law doesn’t limit boaters to the water. It says they can use the banks, too, up to the high-water mark.


Campsite on the banks of the Wabash
Campsite on the banks of the Wabash


[R]ivers are subject to the federal navigational servitude, including the federal navigational easement for “the benefit of the public, regardless of who owns the riverbed.” This easement is similar to a utility easement or a rural road easement passing through private land. It includes public rights to portage around obstacles, rapids, or waterfalls, to engage in “sport fishing and duck hunting,” to walk on the gravel bars and beaches, and to walk above the high water line as needed when walking along the banks of these rivers. Landowner fences, cables, or “No Trespassing” signs across these rivers violate federal law, exposing the landowner to criminal prosecution as well as liability for wrongful death or injury.


All of this comes into law by way of the Constitution’s Commerce Clause. So you might expect it to protect barges carrying trade goods, but not fishermen and canoers. But, again, the law breathtakingly embraces all uses. The courts agree that the enjoyment of nature is a kind of commerce that should be protected. Nor is it protected only when money is changing hands. A man can put his own canoe in the water and float all day without paying anyone a dime. He’s free.

Each time I go for a float down Indiana’s Wabash River or Sugar Creek, I am grateful for this freedom. I am grateful for the majestic eagles above me, the startling Asian carp that leap out of the water right next to my head, and for the glimpses of deer, turtles, muskrats and other wildlife. I’m happy with the chance to exercise the skill I have to both propel and steer the canoe with a single balanced J-stroke. And I’m pleased with the chance to forget the clock for a few hours, which I do when I remember that around the bend that lies just ahead is another bend, and another and another and another. I know my ability to enjoy canoeing is based on accidents of good luck. I live in a place where water is plentiful, I can afford the gear, and I’m physically fit. But I’m nonetheless appreciative of government that stops landowners from stretching cables from bank to bank to stop me.

Now, as I said above, recreation is trivial. It is not as important as someone’s life, health, education, or safety. I would not judge government a success because it allowed me my canoe while it deprived others of more urgent needs.

I think the lesson here is that freedom and enjoyment are very high and worthy goals. The extraordinary freedom and enjoyment that I and others get from canoeing belies the arguments of those who say that getting government off our backs is necessary and or sufficient. Because often strong government makes freedom possible.


I’ll leave you with the wisdom of John Hartford:

Well I sure do love the Tennessee River, the Ohio and the Illinois
And I love the old Mississippi River, It’s a good old place for a boy
Just to step on board a steamboat, ride all the way to the sea
Where else but a muddy old river, would a person want to be?
Would a person want to be?




One post about sports

I don’t pay much attention to sports. At other times in my life I’ve been pretty fervent. But not lately. This one post about sports may be the only one I ever do.

I’ve accumulated what seems to me a sufficient batch of sports related memories and “I was there” moments. I was watching when the Heidi game happened. I saw the helmet catch.  I saw the Immaculate Reception.


Steelers’ Franco Harris after making the Immaculate Reception


I saw Indiana Pacer’s Reggie Miller’s playoff heroics against the Knicks. Probably the most amazing thing about Miller’s accomplishment is that it goes down in memory as “eight points in nine seconds.” But it wasn’t. It was nine seconds of game clock, maybe. But the announcer on the spot describes it as “eight points in the final 32 seconds.” And if you run your own stopwatch you’ll see that no less than two minutes and 24 seconds of actual earth time passes from his first 3-pointer to the last free throw.

I’m not saying I was in attendance at these events. I saw them on TV. Probably the greatest thing I every saw in person was  Rickey Henderson of the As breaking the all-time career record for stolen bases at Camden Yards in Baltimore in the summer of 1991. Experts will say Henderson passed Lou Brock’s record in Oakland in May of 1991. But he set another new all-time record every time he stole another, including the game I saw. Also, in person, I saw Willie Mays get a base hit, and Tom Seaver notch a career win.  I saw Indy 500 wins by Al Unser and Bobby Rahal. I attended the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympic Games. And I saw Indiana Pacers stretch forward Troy Murphy hit something like seven 3-point shots in a row, and get booed for it.

My favorite sports memory is from Bush Stadium where the minor league Indianapolis Indians played. It was a Sunday afternoon game sometime in the early ‘80s.I don’t remember anything about the score or the opponent. What I remember is noticing, somewhere off in the crowd, an unusual shout rising up over the usual chatter. Studying the crowd, I eventually pinpointed the sound coming from the vicinity of a particular Cracker Jack vendor. He worked his way around to the third base side where I was sitting, and I saw more clearly that the vender (who was black) was surrounded by a pack of 6 or 7 white kids who were making all the noise. I thought they were harassing him.

Picture from a Yankees game — not the game I attended. [Source: flickr.com]

But then I realized the kids were acting as a back-up choir for the vendor’s sales banter. The kids had worked up responses to each of his calls, including, “Aaow eat ‘em Uup!” each time he said, “Cracker Jack!” The vender thought it was hilarious. And profitable. The kids let off a rousing cheer each time someone bought a box. It was heartwarming. To this day, when my wife asks if I’d like beef curry or ragout or grilled pork chops for dinner, instead of saying, “Yes, that sounds great,” I say, “Aaow eat ‘em Uup!”

Why am I “off sports?” Partly it is frustration with the design of the games. Few things in life are perfect and it isn’t reasonable to expect sports to be perfect. But all three of America’s great sports are entirely a function of specific details that cannot be regulated accurately and consistently. What am I talking about?

Every baseball game is shaped primarily by the home plate umpire’s balls-and-strikes calls. And are those calls accurate and consistent? No. Every basketball game is shaped primarily by the referee’s decisions to call fouls and other violations. Are those calls accurate and consistent? No. Every football game is shaped primarily by the placement of the ball after tackles and by referee’s decisions to call offensive holding sometimes. Are those calls accurate and consistent? No.

Let me be clear about this point. Imagine how unsatisfactory and ridiculous geometry would be if the number of degrees in a circle was not precisely 360 in all cases, but was decided on the fly depending on the teacher, and the student, and the situation. Imagine how unsatisfactory and ridiculous the Indy 500 car race would be if the number of laps was not fixed precisely at 200 but was left to the judgement of the man with the checkered flag in his hand. As long as American sports depend on impossible-to-call rules, I maintain they are that ridiculous, too.

And then there’s this:

[Source: xkcd.com]

Randall Munroe’s webcomic, xkcd, is brilliant. Sports talk, whether on ESPN or around the office water cooler, is mostly nonsense with little relationship to what has happened.

Exhibit A: There has been a decades-long debate as to whether basketball players get “hot.” This debate occurs at all levels, from the bleery remembrances of fans who were drinking beer and checking out women all game long to sober-minded geeks studying databases of tens of thousands of shots.


How about a little love for Orphan Black’s Scott?


Thomas Gilovitch and colleagues at Cornell University did the first serious analysis of the “hot hand” question in 1985, and concluded, “[T]he frequency of streaks in players’ records did not exceed the frequency predicted by a binomial model that assumes a constant hit rate.”

According to Bleacher Report, “[H]otness and coldness are determined randomly and balance out over the course of the season, especially when shot distance is taken into account.”

But there are also many reports that conclude hot streaks are real. The best, I think, is from  Andrew Bocskocsky, et al, of Harvard. Here’s what they have to say:

For thirty years, the empirical consensus that the “Hot Hand” in basketball is a fallacy of the human mind has been confirmed time and again. In the same way that evolutionary biologists might regard creationists as completely misguided, economists, psychologists and statisticians have viewed the persistent belief in the Hot Hand as entirely fallacious. Amos Tversky, co-author of the canonical paper on the subject, typifies this view when he says, “I’ve been in a thousand arguments over this topic, won them all, but convinced no one” (Bar-Eli, Avugos and Raab, 2006).
In this paper, thanks to SportVU’s optical tracking data, we are able to show that the key shot selection independence assumption is not a good one. Players who have either simply made more of their last few shots, or done better than expected on those shots, tend to take more difficult shots. Additionally, hot players are much more likely to take the team’s next shot and thus are not choosing shots independently.
We then extend our analysis to ask if the Hot Hand exists once we control for this dependent shot selection using a regression framework that controls for past expectation and finds a small, positive, and significant Hot Hand effect. This conception of the Hot Hand as exceeding expectations is different from the popular conception of absolute outperformance.


Shorter version: There seems to be proof of a small “hot hand” effect for basketball players. You can find this effect if you use statistics to control for the player’s choice of shots and for changes in the opponents’ defense. But even after you’ve done all this, the “hot hand” effect is very small.

I’m happy to acknowledge that players sometimes make several shots in a row. Even pretty ordinary players (the aforementioned Troy Murphy) sometimes do that. And that either proves or doesn’t prove that an individual player got “hot”, or that the “hot hand” exists at all, depending on what a “hot hand” is.

But there’s another point to make, and it is very much more black and white that the nuanced statistical analyses. And that is that the fans and sports analysts are never justified in the rhetoric they use. A player might score more points in a game than usual. He may make several shots in a row. But he never, ever “single-handedly wills his team to victory.” He never, ever “carries the whole team on his back.” He never is “red-hot, on fire, unconscious or automatic.” He never shoots “lights out” and he never “rains threes.”

Much as I hate to acknowledge the existence of soccer or to mention it in the same post as real sports, I’ll leave you with this:




Trade Hurts Indiana; Rokita Favors Trade

“Free and fair trade is good for all Hoosiers and I believe Indiana is a state that works and does best when our businesses have great economic opportunity.  In 2013, Indiana exported $34.2 billion in goods and $8.7 billion in services.  More than 50 percent of these goods went to countries where the United States has Free Trade Agreements (FTAs). “


Congressman Rokita

This and much more appeared last week on the official website of Indiana Congressman  Todd Rokita.

Rokita supported the Trade Promotion Authority bill that President Obama wanted and that was beaten down by a wide margin in the House of Representatives. Rokita has not had much good to say about the President in a long time, but he sided with him on this losing effort because . . . trade!

Let’s consider: Is that $34.2 billion in goods and $8.7 billion in services Rokita mentions a lot? What share of Indiana’s total output is that? Most readers wouldn’t know, and Rokita’s website doesn’t tell.

In fact, it amounts to about 14% of the state’s 2013 gross domestic product of $294 billion. (There’s some wiggle in these numbers because some sources consider goods and services, and other only goods.) But there is a bigger problem with the congressman’s information. Rokita’s analysis leaves out the whole other side of the trade balance: how much does Indiana lose through trade because foreign sellers take jobs away from Indiana workers?

Looking only at the benefits is an easy way to sell an idea. But honest assessment means looking at the costs as well as the benefits. Consider the following cost-only analysis of my job: Working at Purdue is a tremendous drain on my finances. Fuel is the single largest regular non-household expense in my family’s budget. Each week, I spend over $60 on gasoline and use most of it to commute to work. I believe my household works best when large expenses are trimmed and therefore I ‘d be much better off if I stopped driving to work five times every week.

That is clearly a bogus way of considering the benefits and costs of driving to work. If I quit my job to save gas money, I’d lose my whole income and be much worse off. But Rokita’s message about trade is equally flawed, because he considers only the benefits and not the costs.

Let’s correct the congressman’s oversight, and find out what free trade actually means to Indiana. There aren’t many resources for a true benefit/cost analysis, especially not from a pro-business perspective. Free-trade proponents never consider the costs. They believe (or pretend to believe) that trade is always advantageous, so they don’t bother totting up the pluses and minuses.

This tract from the National Association of Manufacturers  is a remarkable example of what you get from the free trade, pro business side. There’s not a word anywhere about the costs of jobs lost from trade; just the upside.

One more balanced resource I found was a 2007 report from the Economic Policy Institute about the effect of trade with China on each American state. It says Indiana gained some jobs through trade with China — but it lost over 45,000 more jobs than it gained. And that’s just during one five-year period. EPI says:

Growing trade deficits with China have clearly reduced domestic employment in traded goods industries, especially in the manufacturing sector, which has been hard hit by plant closings and job losses.


This resource is partial and outdated. I wouldn’t recommend drawing any conclusions from one report that focuses on one country. To really know if Rokita’s enthusiasm for trade is justified, we’d need to see more up to date figures of  Indiana’s total imports and exports. And since some sources are more reliable than others, let’s use the same source Rokita appears to use in his announcement, which is the US Census Bureau. Here’s the link to the Census data on Indiana exports. It shows the same $34.2 billion figure that Rokita’s website mentions. Now here are the Census figures for imports into Indiana, showing the state spent $45.7 billion on foreign goods in the same year.

Indiana loses quite heavily from trade. The state lost $11.5 billion in 2013, and $13.3 billion in 2014. Year in and year out, despite growth in the amount exported, Indiana loses more than it gains from trade. Most other states are the same, as you can see for yourself by browsing the Census Bureau trade data here.

[Source: US Census Bureau]
[Source: US Census Bureau]

Why would Congressman Rokita defend free trade when Indiana (and most other states) are clear losers? I think there are three  possible answers. First is the “true believer” explanation. There are plenty of economists, politicians, educators, business people and media voices who have never doubted that trade is always beneficial and protectionism always harmful.

David Ricardo [Source: www.britannica.com
Their thinking is founded on the work of David Ricardo (1772-1823), who justified free trade at a time when many countries had high tariffs and import quotas. Ricardo published a treatise with a very simple example of advantageous trade. He posited only two countries (England and Portugal) and only two products (wine and cloth). In Ricardo’s example both countries ended with more of both after trading than when each made both commodities for itself. Despite the fact that the example is extremely simple, the idea of comparative advantage has been used to justify free trade for nearly two centuries. His proof that trade can sometimes be beneficial has been used to insist that trade must always be beneficial.

The second argument for free trade is that well managed trade can be beneficial. The US trades with most countries in the world, and some have a deficit and other have a surplus. Indiana in 2014 had a trade surplus of $4 billion with Canada, and a trade deficit with China of nearly $8 billion. It seems sensible to suggest that we just need more of the kind of trade we have with Canada, and less of the kind of trade we have with China. Congressman Rokita concurs:

 One of the best tools that Congress has available to promote free trade is Trade Promotion Authority (TPA). . . . If the U.S. does not act, we will allow countries like China to set the rules of global trade. 

A careful reader will see a problem here. Setting rules is not the same as free trade. The argument for free trade is not made stronger by suggesting that trade should be negotiated and managed. Free trade is sometimes just an empty word. Many of the people who talk about free trade are really urging trade deals with conditions and quotas and rules and restrictions. And winners and losers.

Which brings us to the third reason why someone would be eager to sign up for more trade despite evidence that the US loses more than it gains. And it is simply that the same deal that might be a mixed blessing for the US, or a clear loss for the US, might well bring a big gain for multinational corporations. To the extent that an elected official, or an academic, or anyone else conflates the interests of companies located in a district with the district itself and the people living there, free trade has appeal. In Washington, those corporations make their wishes known far more aggressively and effectively than voters do.

The trade deal we’re looking at now, called the Trans Pacific Partnership, certainly has winners and losers.  According to some sources it isn’t a trade deal at all, but a new framework for stronger intellectual property rights. One important element allows corporations to sue countries more easily in the event those countries passed laws that might curtail profits.

According to the government’s website, TPP promises more jobs, expanded markets for US exports, and more. Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren responded to this by issuing a report  (Broken Promises) showing that the US doesn’t (and can’t) enforce the terms of trade deals in other countries: Obama’s promises are empty. Vox offers a detailed explainer with more about the TPP. According to Resilience, the TPP sacrifices national sovereignty in favor of corporate profits.

Free trade can and does hurt people and communities. Only the corporation is really free. It can shift production to where labor is cheapest and sell where the price is highest. People have to live where they live, take the jobs that are available, and buy what they can afford.

Oops. All I’m doing here is repeating someone else’s idea. I hate to quote the guy. But he’s right:

What is free trade under the present condition of society? It is freedom of capital. When you have overthrown the few national barriers which still restrict the progress of capital, you will merely have given capital complete freedom of action.  – Karl Marx, 1848


The liberal writer Michael Tomasky wrote back in 2012, “Marx would be completely dead if we didn’t have the Republicans around to prove him right every so often.” Congressman Rokita seems determined to keep Marx alive a while longer.






Thoughts on the pool party

We read this morning that police officer Eric Casebolt from McKinney, Texas has resigned. Casebolt was involved over the weekend in an ugly scene at a pool party that was filmed by bystanders and posted on YouTube. Casebolt is seen frantically racing through the crowd, commanding some people to sit down, others to get away, and others to lie on their face. No one was killed, but the incident fits a pattern of earlier, deadlier cases of police overreach.


[Source: screen grab from YouTube video]
[Source: screen grab from YouTube video]

I have two observations:

Everything might have been better if the police had stayed away. Casebolt’s resignation makes it easy to focus only on him, as the camera mostly did. But there were other officers on the scene and I’m not sure they were needed either. (The local police chief says only Casebolt misbehaved. I don’t know.)

What would have happened if the police had just stayed away? It is not hard to imagine an escalation to knives and guns, given that Texas has the most liberal open-carry gun law in the country. (Yes! The right to possess a gun is a liberal policy!) But injecting guns into the pool party would be an act of pure imagination.

The video evidence shows two fat, catty women slapping and pulling each other’s hair. Those women could have gone at it ‘til they were out of breath (probably less than a minute) and then walked away with abrasions and contusions. The rest of the people gathered on the scene behaved well. It was the police officers who were running, pushing people and raising the anxiety level. So I suggest that the incident might have come off better without police. Certainly better with one fewer.

I hasten to add that had only fit police officers arrived, they might have done some good. Proper-minded public servants could have separated the brawling women, determined that no crime had occurred and that the people on the scene had a right to assemble. And then they could have warned off the racist white people and driven away. But the McKinney Police Department didn’t have only proper-minded public servants, so they sent what they had, including Casebolt.

Most cities have a staffing table specifying how many police officers they will hire. That number is determined by the size of the city and its budget. The number of truly qualified applicants isn’t considered. Now, no law under heaven assures that a sufficient number of people with the right temperament and aptitude will exist for any task of work that needs to be done. The scarcity principle of economics argues that there will never be enough of any valuable resource, and that would include people. So police departments hire unfit people, train them, and then give them a uniform and a gun and send them out into the streets. (Casebolt had 10 years of experience and 2200 hours of training, according to a Dallas news source. But he still wasn’t fit to be a police officer.)

The same thing happens with schools and churches. Some people are born to be teachers, but there aren’t enough true, natural teachers to fill America’s classrooms. So schools hire people who just want a job and have obtained an education degree, and inflict them on America’s children. Ditto for church pulpits. There are more pulpits than people with a true pastoral vocation. And woe to the flock that is led by such wolves in sheep’s clothing.

My second thought is that civil disobedience was called for in McKinney, Texas, and the people on the scene were not up to the task.

In espousing civil disobedience, I am not suggesting disrespect for proper authority. I’m personally predisposed to do what I’m told. Shakespeare’s character Bates rings true to me when he says, “We know enough if we know we are the king’s subjects.”  A popular teacher at my high school was disciplined for flouting the dress code, and it sparked a student protest. One day, all the kids in the school gathered in the gym and refused to go to afternoon classes — all but about eight who protested the protest by going to class as instructed. I was one of the eight.

But when authority clearly steps outside the lines, people ought to step in.

When I was a missionary in Central Asia, a Christian friend was arrested in a small village on a nuisance charge and jailed “pending investigation.” There is no habeas corpus there, so “pending investigation” could mean anything. (The arresting officer questioned me briefly and told me to go, and I was too naïve to realize what was happening. I should have refused to leave my friend’s side, but I did leave and he was carted away.) Immediately after, I went to a superior police officer and offered myself for arrest, explaining that I had been with my friend the entire time and that anything he did, I did also. But I should have acted more promptly while the injustice was taking shape.

Since cell phone cameras have become ubiquitous, there has grown an ethic and expectation that responsible citizens should use their camera to film police abuses. The principle is boiled down to If You See Something, Film Something. And that was done at the Texas pool party. More than one person had their cell phone camera out and going. (The “film something” principle isn’t just a curb to police abuses. We ought to be just as ready to record any crime, and we ought to be just as ready to film and share police officers doing their job well.)

But more should have been done in McKinney. This isn’t a case like the Walter Scott shooting, where one person glanced up from his own business and saw the police officer shoot a man. In that case, the photographer was doing good just to capture the image on camera. In McKinney, there were dozens of people standing around. The incident went on for several minutes. People should had done more than just gawking and yelling.

I suggest large numbers should have sat down right beside the few teenagers who were being harassed. The film shows Casebolt before at least five kids sitting or lying on the ground. None of them had done anything and Casebolt had no grounds for suspicion against them. I say concerned people – especially some of the white people across the street – should have walked up with their hands behind their back or on their head and taken a seat right next to those young men. They should have flooded the scene with more and more humanity until the kids were shielded from further abuse.

This wild idea was proven effective  by Gandhi, King and the earlier English suffragette movement. There was violence in all three cases, but also many peaceful responses by masses of protagonists.

Let me elaborate on the idea with scenes from two movies. In Witness (1985), a crooked police captain stands ready to gun down Harrison Ford. But the captain backs down. He’s quite willing to kill Ford to keep his corruption scheme going, but he’s not willing to kill every one of the dozens of Amish people standing nearby watching.

The second case is the 2006 crime drama Inside Man. Bank robbers take hostages and then force them all to put on the same nondescript painters overalls the robbers are wearing. Then, in a climactic action scene, everyone bursts out the door at once. The police have no way of knowing who is a perpetrator and who is a hostage. (To learn how the robbers get away with the loot, you should watch the movie.)



[N.B.: I am using the two movie scenes to illustrate a tactic for resisting excessive police actions. I am not advocating robbing banks. I am not implying that all police action is excessive.]

This would be really terrible advice if not followed in the way I intend. It would have to be the right sort of incident, and it would have to be the right sort of people. The Amish in Witness were the right sort of people. The bad police captain knew they weren’t armed and weren’t a threat to him. The all-exonerating claim that “I feared for my life” didn’t apply. And every one of the Amish felt that their personal safety was less important that ensuring justice in their community.


How does a normally peaceable, trouble avoiding, self-interested person approach civil disobedience? I offer these initial steps:

  1. Read Civil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau with discernment.
  2. Read Matthew, Chapter 5-7 with wholehearted faith.
  3. Travel light and unencumbered so you’re never in a position to think, “I ought to take action to save that person from harm, but I’ve got this mocha latte in my hand. “
  4. Cultivate a universal benevolence. Have a kind wish for every person, without exception. Be ready to act for justice regardless of who the victim is. Wish the best for the cop, too.
  5. Stop yelling.


The big round room with the crooked floor

In my job I wrestle constantly to make data sing to people. I am good at managing large volumes of data and analyzing the data with statistics. But that alone accomplishes little. More than once, I’ve found myself  living out the scene from the first X-Men movie, where Dr. Xavier escorts Logan/Wolverine into his magnificent, domed, high-tech, mutant-monitoring station.

“Welcome to Cerebro!,” cries Dr. Xavier.

To which Logan, who has no idea what he’s looking at, replies, “It certainly is a big, round room.”

[Source: www.gamesradar.com]

And so it is thrilling to see a really clear graphic depiction of data: a chart that, as I said, sings the message. Below is a chart from Jonathan Chait’s latest NYMag column. He’s writing about the social inequity and the limitation of the “Work Hard and Make Something of Yourself!” argument. Chait refers back to a 2012 report by the Pew Charitable Trust called Pursuing the American Dream: Economic Mobility Across Generations.  It is very good, and well worth looking at even three years after its release.

Let me talk you through it. What the chart describes is the extent to which personal effort to improve oneself (measured by college graduation), leads to success.

The five pairs of vertical bars represents the income of the families that the people grew up in. Going from left to right corresponds to poorer and richer people. The left-most pair of red-and-blue bars is the bottom 20% of American households. Most of these people grew up in poverty. The next pair represents people in the second quintile (21st to 40th percent) of households. And so on, up to the furthest-right pair representing the top 20 percent (richest) of all households.


[Source: Jonathan Chait / NYMag / Pew Charitable Trust]

The next thing to understand is that red means people who did not graduate from college and blue means people who did graduate from college. College graduation is not a perfect measure of “effort to improve oneself.” There are other ways to succeed. But it is a pretty basic path, and few would argue that college graduation is meaningless.

So we would expect to see more college graduates earning higher incomes as adults. And that is what the chart shows. Look at the red and blue vertical bars in the middle pair. These are all people who grew up in middle quintile families. The US median income was between $30- and $50-thousand a year during the relevant years.

The chart shows that 31% of the people in this group who went to college made it into the top income-earners bracket, while only 12% of the non-college graduates did. At the bottom, only 7% of middle-quintile college graduates dropped down into the lowest bracket, while 17% of the non-graduates fell to there. That seems like proof that efforts to better oneself pays off. And comparing each pair of red and blue bars confirms the message. In each pair, the blue bar (graduates) has more high earners and fewer low earners than the red bar (non-graduates).

But the chart has more to tell. Look first at the two bits that are highlighted in yellow. They contrast college graduates from poor families to non-graduates from affluent families. And the chart shows that starting out rich provides a greater boost than going to college does. The piece of the chart highlighted in red indicates 25% of people from wealthy families remain in the top income category even despite not finishing college. (Think Paris Hilton.) The blue highlighted bit shows that of the poorest who finished college, only 10% rose to the top. Ben Carson was one of them. But there aren’t many.

People who start out rich are two-and-a-half times more likely to stay rich than even the brightest who started without advantage. And that is before race is taken into account. The Pew report linked above shows that the odds are stacked even steeper against a black man. Only 15% of college educated black men from middle-income families make it to the top, compared to 31% of all Americans. They made the same effort. Less than half of them got the same payoff.

Effort is essential, of course. Almost everyone agrees that it should. I certainly do. But anyone who suggests that hard work is all anyone needs to succeed, or that in America anyone can succeed if they work hard enough ought to have a rat stuffed down their shirt.