Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Fortunately, I always choose an aisle seat.
Just to be contrary, here are a few reasons not to donate to the international relief effort for victims of the Indian Ocean tsunami:

  • The most significant damage from this tsunami has already been done. Money donated today would be better spent on establishing an early warning system to reduce the number of deaths next time.

  • Yes, the survivors endured a catastrophe that took tens of thousands of lives in one blow. But that doesn't make them any worthier of help than the thousands around the world who themselves die every day of easily preventable causes. Their misfortunes are no less tragic just because they are suffered at a steady rate over the course of many years.

  • As a result of the publicity, aid is already pouring into the affected areas. Many others in need elsewhere have gotten no such massive response.

  • The victims were disproportionately on the shore (including the beach) at the time of the tsunami. That likely makes them relatively affluent by the standards of their country.

  • India, Indonesia, and Thailand are considered third-world, but they are actually rather large, prosperous countries--5th, 16th and 22nd in the world by GDP, respectively. How wealthy does a country have to be before the rest of the world stops mounting international aid efforts to help them? Does aid pour in from the rest of the world every time a natural disaster strikes, say, a European country?

  • Sri Lanka really is a pretty poor country. But a country that pulls something like this....

  • North America has bigger problems to worry about.

  • Note that none of these reasons absolves anyone of the moral obligation to give generously to charities that help people in desperate need. (And, the above curmudgeonliness notwithstanding, there is no doubt plenty of desperate need among the tsunami's survivors.) However, if this recent appalling disaster triggers an urge to give, it might be worth remembering that the impulse can also be redirected to the cause of one's choice, with undiminished--and possibly even improved--positive consequences.

    Wednesday, December 22, 2004

    The Washington Post complains that insufficiently many women are dying in childbirth.
    Nor, apparently are enough of them dying of cancer or in car accidents. It appears that murder is a leading cause of death of expectant or "new" (whatever that means) mothers.

    Are more of these people being killed than other women, or other people, of the same age? Or of some other age? Is there a trend? In amongst the presentation of many different anecdotes, we are told that "no reliable system is in place to track such cases" and that we don't know "how often it happens, why, and whether it is a fluke or a social syndrome." We're told that in one state, "slightly more than 10 percent of all homicides among women ages 14 to 44 happened to a pregnant or postpartum woman". What is this supposed to mean? The Post investigated one group of 72 homicides. We are given no idea how this group was chosen, but we learn that "nearly two-thirds of the cases had a strong relation to pregnancy or involved a domestic-violence clash in which pregnancy may have been a factor" and that "nearly 30 percent were caused by violence that did not seem related to childbearing".

    The article is very long and tells us nothing we would like to know. Is a pregnant woman more likely to be murdered than a non-pregnant woman or than an old man? What if we investigate a specially selected group of rich women or poor men that were murdered; would we not find that in many cases the death was related to their wealth or poverty? Should we investigate, for example, the murders of ugly, conservative teenagers to see how much we can write on the subject without actually saying anything?

    Wednesday, December 08, 2004

    We all know the story: a grisly murder has unleashed a storm of controversy. The legal and procedural maneuvering aside, the killing has greatly heightened the tension and polarization between the population at large and the alleged killer's minority group. It is a group that has never integrated fully into the larger society, with increasing numbers of its members linguistically separating themselves from the majority, and embracing a grievance-based radical form of Islam. Among the majority, it has come to be associated with unemployment, poverty, crime and drug use. Its alienation level can be judged by the disturbing amount of support its more radical members have lent the alleged murderer.

    On the other hand, this alienation is also born of resentment of years of discrimination and hostility, as symbolized by the use of racial epithets that gained wide attention in the aftermath of the murder. There has been much talk of a massive, ugly backlash.

    So what were the long-term consequences of the O.J. Simpson case, anyway?

    One of the most remarkable non-events in contemporary American politics is the virtually complete disappearance of the issue of race from the national debate--only to reappear, with a vengeance, across the ocean, in Europe. Less than a decade ago, the O.J. Simpson trial--occurring three years after the L.A. riots, and 4 years after the Crown Heights riots--seemed to demonstrate a vast, impenetrable wall of hostility and fury along the American racial divide. Tons of ink and millions of pixels were used up discussing this divide, its causes, its implications and its possible solutions. Today, while Europeans grapple with the same thorny issues (with the same air of earnest gravity), Americans barely give the issue a passing thought. People on both continents would surely benefit from knowing how that remarkable transformation occurred.

    Some possible factors:

  • 9/11.Of course, nothing unites people like a common enemy. Both black and white Americans may feel less hostile towards each other now that they consider themselves equally threatened by terror. News and political debate about terrorism have also probably crowded out other issues, including race relations.

    On the other hand, racial tension seemed to be on the decline even before 9/11, and the actual evidence regarding 9/11's effect is ambiguous.

  • The drop in crime. Crime dropped fairly steeply during the 1990's, for both races, although blacks maintain their proportional lead in both victimization and victimhood. Crime may well have been an important source of racial tension, feeding feelings of resentment among whites (over disproportionately high crime rates among blacks) and neglect among blacks (over less effective crime control in black neighborhoods). Declining crime might therefore have led to improved race relations.

    On the other hand, isolated crime-related racial conflicts over racial profiling and police shootings (for example, in Cincinnati) have continued, despite plummeting crime rates.

  • Welfare reform. The 1996 welfare reform bill is widely credited with undermining the culture of inner-city welfare dependency that was a source of much white resentment and anger, and motivated no end of racially-oriented activism. Then again, it doesn't appear that perceptions of inner-city black culture have changed all that much.

  • Immigration. As a friend points out, immigration complicates America's racial mix, and may therefore have reduced the importance of the original black-white conflict. Of course, extra axes of racial interaction haven't always encouraged calm.

  • Time. Racial hostility may simply have continued the slow, gradual decline it began following the civil rights battles of the 1960s. The boom of the nineties, by reducing black unemployment and income inequality, may have helped matters by reducing the economic--and hence the social--distance between blacks and whites. Perhaps a tipping point of sorts was reached, at which tensions subsided enough to slip beneath the social radar entirely.

    On the other hand, racial integration--widely considered an indicator of long-term progress in race relations--increased only modestly, and in some ways actually decreased, during the 1990s.

  • As you can see, there are many somewhat plausible explanations, and none of them are without compelling counterarguments. Readers are encouraged to offer their own diagnoses, by posting comments. Perhaps our European onlookers will be able to use our ideas to help them identify possible solutions to their own version of the same problem.