Friday, August 29, 2008

Poverty Measure Proposals

Last month, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced the findings in the city's Center for Economic Opportunity's proposal for a new poverty measure to replace or supplement the measure used by the Federal government.  The Federal poverty measure was originally based on the cost of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's economy food plan that detailed the minimum nutritional requirements for a family in need.  The poverty threshold was calculate as three times the annual cost of the food plan, based on the average composition of family spending when the measure was developed in the 1960s.  Since its development, the measure has been updated only based on increases in the Consumer Price Index.  Advocates for the poor claim that the forty-year old measure is now out of date, and thus does not accurately represent the level of poverty in America.  To support this, the advocates claim that food spending now makes up only one-eighth (not one-third) of family expenditures, due to increases in other necessary spending such as shelter and health care.  Moreover, although the Federal poverty measure is used uniformly throught the nation, cost of living varies dramatically by location---for the cost of renting a studio apartment in New York City, one could buy a small house in a less-urban location.

In response to this, the NYC CEO has proposed adopting a more detailed measure developed by the National Academy of Sciences in 1995.  The new measure sets a threshold just under median family expenditure on food, clothing, shelter, and utilities in a particular geographic location.  Additionally, instead of counting only pre-tax income, the new measure includes both post-tax income and the value of near-cash benefits such as food stamps and housing subsidies, minus work-related expenses (such as child-care and transportation costs) and out-of-pocket medical expenses, which reduce a family's resources available for meeting its basic needs.

While this new measure makes significant strides in providing a more accurate picture of poverty in the United States, it suffers from at least two particular weaknesses.  First, the poverty threshold's calculation of expenditures for basic needs is based on the median expenditure among all families, and not on a family's actual needs for survival.  Over time, as the real income of median families increases, a significant number of these families are bound to choose to purchase more-expensive food items or more-expensive clothing.  As a result, median expenditures will increase beyond the cost of minimally adequate goods to meet basic needs.  Although establishing a budget of minimally adequate goods does depend on the judgement of experts, as the NAS panel points out, the solution to expert bias is to include more and varied voices in the deliberation of what constitutes minimally adequate.  Instead, the multiplier approach the panel recommends is based not on what consumers' needs, but simply on how consumers choose to spend their money, whether those choices are motivated by wants or needs.

Second, the new measure's proposal to include welfare receipts among a family's resources gives a misleading picture of the family's ability to support itself.  While it is certainly true, as the panel notes, that welfare services have "have made important contributions to reducing material hardship in the United States," the fact that families must rely on these services to make ends meet is itself an indicator of poverty, thus it makes little sense to reduce poverty figures based on the input of social services.  These services, while highly valuable and eminently necessary to relieve immediate suffering, merely treat the symptoms of poverty---they cannot and do not reduce it.

Bloomberg is not the only public official to recommend use of the new NAS-proposed poverty measure: Representative Jim McDermott has also drafted a bill based on the NAS panel's findings, though the bill has yet to be introduced in Congress.  While the new poverty measure is a step in the right direction, I believe more work is necessary before we arrive at a high-quality picture of poverty in the U.S.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

On Mystery

Mystery is a state of not knowing the answer to some question after a certain amount of effort in thinking about it.  Unlike not understanding fractions, mysteries involve curiosity, a sense of wonder, and a desire to know despite the hindrances.

In any sufficiently complex system, there will always be an element of mystery given our limited capacity to understand the world around us.  Science holds plenty of mystery: What was the universe like just after the Big Bang?  What did the beginnings of life on earth look like?  How much of one's personality is nature versus nurture? Confronted by these mysteries and others, the components of awe and a desire to know fuel scientists' zeal in pursuing scientific inquiry.  Just as in any good detective novel, the fact that something is a mystery today does not imply that careful investigation will not remove the cloak to reveal the hidden knowledge.

In spiritual matters, some people seem to relish in mystery: They are perfectly content not to know and even enjoy the hiddenness of the knowledge, possibly because it fulfills a longing in their hearts to know that something bigger than themselves exists.  I, however, view spiritual mysteries as those in science: They beg to be solved.  Now, this is not to suggest that all spiritual mysteries are solvable---God is certainly a complex system.  Indeed, sometimes, I may decide after careful reflection that no matter how much more I might think about an issue, the available data are simply insufficient to decide one way or another, and I become contentedly agnostic on that point.  However in general, I see the challenge of spiritual mystery as an invitation to delve deeper in my understanding of God so that with each mystery unveiled, I can marvel at his wondrous majesty.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

On the Interest in Love

We can take an interest in things for a number of reasons.  We might be interested out of a general desire to learn about the unknown (curiosity); for example, I might pick up a book about the Maori because I know little about New Zealand aboriginal people and have a general desire to learn.  We might attend to something due to an obligation we've accepted (duty); for example, I might read about presidential candidates, even if I hate political wrangling, because I feel a civic responsibility to elect sound leaders.  We might take interest for some anticipated ancillary benefit (mercenary); for example, I may go to a social event at a conference, not because I like to socialize, but in order to make contacts useful to my career.  Or, our interest may be fueled by the pleasure we receive from following or interacting with the object; for example, I may watch every baseball game of my favorite team, due to the strong positive affect I feel from a constructed (if not imagined) sense of group identity (talk about interesting phenomena).

In my current relational theory, love involves taking on the interests of the beloved as one's own (to avoid equivocation, let this be understood to mean being interested in the beloved's well-being).  But which kind of interest?

The interest in love doesn't seem to be curiosity, since love usually implies a kind of familiarity. (In the case of "love at first sight"---the experience of strong affinity at first meeting---I would say that a certain kind of passion overwhelms what one would call mere curiosity.) Nor would many say that an interest from duty alone qualifies, since love implies a certain voluntariness that surpasses obligation. (Arranged marriage and patriotism are interesting cases: If I participate in some civic duty, the act counts as patriotism only if the duty is accompanied by a "love" of country.  In arranged marriage, if I may take on my spouse's interests merely out of marital obligation, one might say I have a kind of love, but this limited kind of love is not nearly as strong as if I am impassioned for my spouse.)  Mercenary interest certainly doesn't count, since I can't take an interest in the well-being of another if I care only for my own personal benefit.  Thus, love must involve interest that is motivated by the pleasure received from following or interacting with that interest (namely, the well-being of the beloved).

Selfless love, then, does not imply that there is absolutely no personal benefit.  Rather, the personal benefit is nothing other than enjoying the fulfillment of one's desire to see the well-being of the beloved.  In this way, the personal benefit received is predicated on the other, and not centered on oneself, which would turn the interest into something mercenary. There might also be another, stronger kind of selfless love---one in which the lover places the well-being of the beloved above all other personal interests.

This leads to the question: Is love diluted by ancillary interests?  If I take an interest in your well-being, is my love worth less if I also enjoy the fact that you give me a lift whenever I need it?  My inclination is to say no: The fact that I enjoy your generosity and hospitality does not necessarily diminish the fact that I enjoy seeing your well-being.  Indeed, it seems that these positive characteristics or ancillary personal benefits may enhance the enjoyment of the beloved and the associated desire to see the beloved's well-being.  In fact, I wonder if the mechanism of the growth of love in a relationship sometimes (many times?) makes use of these ancillary personal benefits, which then develop into an interest in the beloved's well-being.  The trouble comes when such a development never occurs, or when the ancillary benefits displace the more-important interest in the beloved's well-being.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Ethics vs. Righteousness

In my conversation this past Sunday, my interlocutor suggested than an ethical act and a righteous act (he seemed to be using the words synonymously) was not merely doing the right thing, but also having the right motivation, name what he called Christian motivation, which he said was based in love of God and love of neighbor. It struck me as a bit too restrictive to say that an act is not ethical unless it bears good motivation, even more so Christian motivation. There seem to be two separate components to consider in judging the goodness of reflective actions (I'll leave aside actions that are impulsive): the external event and the internal motivation. Either of these components (independently) can be in line or out of line with God's requirements. An external action in line with God's law, even if executed with an improper spirit, is certainly better than a wrong external action, though a right action with a right spirit is indeed better than both. It seems, then, proper to make a distinction between events where both the external act and the internal motivation are in line with God's law and events where the external act is in line with God's law, though the spirit falls short.

At first glance, it seems like "ethical" and "righteous" could suit this distinction well: A righteous act is doing the right thing for the right reason, and an ethical act is merely doing the right thing, even if it's with the wrong spirit. Under this distinction, all righteous acts would be ethical, but some ethical acts might not be righteous.

Stepping aside for a moment, ethics is also sometimes contrasted with morality. I have heard some people claim that an act could be ethical but not moral (or vice versa), but such a distinction doesn't seem appropriate to me. I'm not quite sure what definitions they are using to generate such a distinction. They may be using ethical to mean in line with codified norms for right behavior and moral to mean in line with a more stringent, uncodified set of norms for interpersonal behavior. Under this distinction, one might not talk about adultery in terms of ethics, though certainly in terms of morality. Although I can appreciate the distinction between judging acts against codified and uncodified standards of behavior, I am, in general, more interested in right behavior, whether or not standards for such behavior are codified, especially since human codes of proper behavior may be fallible. Instead, at the moment, I favor the distinction that morality discusses right human behavior in the abstract, and that ethics discusses right human behavior in concrete situations. Under these definitions, an ethical act is always a moral act.

But, here I run into a problem. Peter Strawson's account of moral responsibility, which I favor when speaking in secular contexts, bases the existence of moral responsibility in the expectation we hold on others---inherent in our normal, adult interpersonal relationships---to maintain a posture of goodwill (or at least to refrain from expressions of ill-will) toward us. Strawson points to resentment and gratitude as indicators of this expectation: If you step on my foot accidentally, I do not feel the same kind of resentment as if you do it purposefully, even though my physical pain is the same; and, if you do something that helps me as an unintended consequence, I do not feel the same kind of gratitude as if you did it with me in mind, though I am benefited in either case. Given this framework for understanding moral responsibility, we hold people to account, in part, for the motivations of their actions. I believe this would imply that a moral (and thus an ethical) act depends not only on the external event, but also on the internal motivation, meaning that formally there would be no ethical but non-righteous acts.

So, somewhere I have a definitional problem. Perhaps my ethical/righteous distinction isn't appropriate. Perhaps my ethics/morality distinction isn't appropriate. Or perhaps I'm inappropriately pushing Strawson's account too far to found a moral system, instead of merely supporting the existence of moral responsibility.

More to think about.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Christianization and Culture

In a conversation yesterday morning, a gentleman claimed that the Midwest wasn't very Christian, compared as the South. I found speaking of the Midwest as not very Christian a little odd, since in my experience (and I believe my ex-patriot Mid-Western friends in Boston would agree), the Midwest is, in general, more conservatively Christian than the Northeast. No, my interlocutor replied, in his view, the Midwest and the Northeast were on about the same level. To illustrate his contention about the great Christian inclination of the South, he pointed to Southern friendliness and hospitality, citing the particular example of greeting one another---even strangers---when walking down the street. If I found the first claim a little odd, I found this second claim absurd, and for two reasons.

First, a cultural practice such as greeting people when walking down the street is not an indicator of the level of Christian inclination of a region because there are warm, friendly cultures that are not particularly Christian. I would have to do some research to pinpoint an actual, specific example of such a culture, but baised on my impressions, I would imagine one could find such an example among the communal, food-pushing cultures in Africa or perhaps India. To rebut my claim, my interlocutor pointed out that for an act to be a righteous act, it must have Christian motivations, which he defined as motivations based in love of God and love of neighbor. I didn't press the issue, particularly because I didn't see the connection between whether or not acts are righteous and the possibility of inferring a region's level of Christian inclination from particular cultural traits; but after some careful reflection, I realized that his rebuttal only emphasized my own point: Because one cannot tell whether a person's motivations are Christian (out of love of God and love of neighbor, according to his definition) or whether a person's nice action is based on some other, non-Christian motivation, one cannot infer the level of Christian inclination of a region from somewhat arbitrary cultural traits such as greeting people on the street.

Second, and more to the heart of the issue, the kind of inference my interlocutor was suggesting about the level of Christian inclination of the South and the Midwest is inappropriate because extroverted openness, such as the kind exemplified by the cultural practice of greeting people on the street, is not a necessary trait of Christian commitment. To claim that it is, I feel, would be to fall in to pietistic legalism, where one's Christian commitment is measured solely or primarily by an arbitrary set of visible actions. Certainly, Christians are called to love their neighbors, but there is more than one way to express that love, and God has created different kinds of personalities that prefer to express that love in different ways. An introvert, for example, may love people very deeply, but in small group situations, instead of in large groups. (I suppose one could claim that introvertedness is a product of the Fall, but I imagine this would be rather difficult to support.) Some people enjoy expressing their love for neighbor through service, and others through giving; but, it would be inappropriate to say that the giver is less Christian because she doesn't volunteer at the soup kitchen, or the servant is less Christian because he isn't good at giving friendly and wise advice. Moreover, some of these acts are merely cultural conventions for the expression of love of neighbor, and are, therefore, not bound up in its essence. There are some cultures (I believe somewhere in Eastern Europe) where men greet one another with a kiss on the lips (in a non-romantic, non-sexual way). I have to say that the idea weirds me out, given the symbolic norms for kisses imparted to me by my American culture; but, the implications assigned a kiss in America (its reservation for romantic lovers or the parent-child relationship) are not inherent in the act itself. Are we going to say that cultures in which people greet one another with a kiss are more Christian than cultures in which people greet one another with a cold, sterile wave or handshake, since a kiss is more intimate and thereby expresses a greater love of neighbor? Hardly. Christian commitment (and the regional level of Christian inclination, which stems from trends in the degree of Christian commitment among the constituents of the region) is measured not by cultural conventions or an arbitrary set of expressions of piety, but by the disposition of the heart.