Looking For God

January 27, 2012

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The Chronicle Of Higher Education:

New research reveals that college freshmen hold increasingly liberal views on key social issues like same-sex marriage and rights for illegal immigrants. But the progressive viewpoints haven’t translated into significantly greater levels of activism or heightened enthusiasm for national politics.

Those findings, published Thursday in an annual survey from the University of California at Los Angeles, paint a complicated election-year portrait of the country’s newest prospective voters. Are they progressive-minded and eager to embrace more-tolerant social views? Are they cynical products of a sour economy and a fractious political era, bent on punishing the establishment by staying home on Election Day? Or are they simply more inclined to favor civic engagement on a local level—volunteering in their communities, say—over national politics?

Or are they all of the above?

The research, done each year by the Cooperative Institutional Research Program at UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute, along with other recent reports, provides some clarity, but only to a point. Consider these trends: In 1997, the year that UCLA researchers first began asking freshmen for their views on same-sex marriage, slightly more than half of all respondents said they supported it. In the latest survey, that percentage had reached an all-time high of 71 percent. (For more on how students’ views on social issues have changed over time, see related charts.)

Other findings from this year’s survey point to whether students act on those political beliefs.

Ten percent of respondents said they had worked on a local, state, or national campaign during the past year, placing them on the low end of a figure that has fluctuated between 8 and 15 percent over the past four decades.

At a time when angst over student debt and demonstrations linked to the Occupy movement have ignited some campuses, only 6 percent of respondents said they anticipated taking part in student protests while in college. (In the late 1960s, those numbers were, perhaps surprisingly, even lower: In 1968, 5 percent of respondents said they planned to take part in protests. The figure has never topped 9 percent.)

Numbers, of course, tell only part of the story. For every statistic that portends an apathetic future for today’s young voters, there is a student whose behavior augurs something quite different.

“I used to hate politics like crazy,” says Kavita Singh, the founder and lone member—so far—of the Youth for Ron Paul chapter at Southwestern University, in Texas. Growing up in a conservative Indian family in California’s left-leaning Bay Area, Ms. Singh said her view on politics during her early high-school years was simple: “What does it matter?”

“But I eventually I got into it,” she recalls. By the time she arrived at Southwestern in the fall of 2010, Ms. Singh, who is now 19 and majoring in economics, was a self-proclaimed libertarian.

She soon joined the campus’s libertarian group, did a marketing internship for a school-choice organization, and last month worked remotely to register voters for Ron Paul’s campaign in Louisiana. This semester, she is attempting to drum up support for Representative Paul on Southwestern’s tightly knit campus of 1,400 or so students.

In doing so, Ms. Singh has unwittingly acquired a reputation on campus as “the Libertarian.”

“People have been just very curious about me as a person,” she says. “They come up to me and they say, ‘You’re a woman and you’re not white and you’re not a racist or a bigot, so why are you a libertarian? Why do you believe what you believe?”

‘Politics Is Personal’

It’s a question that presidential candidates might well consider as they battle their way toward November. The recent research on freshmen, for starters, could provide hints on how to recapture the youthful vigor that defined the 2008 race.

Most freshmen responding to the UCLA survey will be eligible to vote for the first time in the forthcoming election. And they appear to have different views from arriving students in the past, says John H. Pryor, the report’s lead author

“What might be a more polarizing issue among the general population might not be polarizing for this population,” he says. “So even though more people are espousing these liberal views, they’re not necessarily thinking, ‘OK, I have this liberal view, therefore I’m a liberal.’”

Indeed, many of the hot-button social and political issues the survey asked students about yielded responses that lean liberal. Yet there have been no major shifts in the percentages of students who identify themselves as liberal or conservative.

The proportion who viewed themselves as “liberal” has varied from a high of 38 percent, in 1971 to a low of 19 percent, in 1981; in the newest survey, it was about 28 percent. “Conservative” students, who constitute about 21 percent of the 2011 respondents, have seen their representation fluctuate from 14 percent in the early 1970s to 24 percent in 2006.

Most students, it is clear, see themselves as someplace in between: In the survey’s 45-year history, the largest proportion of students have consistently characterized their views as “middle of the road.” (In the latest survey, 47 percent do.)…

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Bogeyman Economics

January 27, 2012

National Affairs:

In this moment of economic challenge, it can be difficult to keep our problems in perspective. The scale of the financial crisis and the subsequent recession, the weakness of the recovery, the persistence of high unemployment, and the possibility of yet another shock — this time originating in Europe — have left Americans feeling deeply insecure about their economic prospects. Unfortunately, too many politicians, activists, analysts, and journalists (largely, but not exclusively, on the left) seem determined to feed that insecurity in order to advance an economic agenda badly suited to our actual circumstances. They argue not that a financial crisis pulled the rug out from under our enviably comfortable lives, but rather that our lives were not all that comfortable to begin with. A signal feature of our economy in recent decades, they contend, has been pervasive economic risk — a function not of the ups and downs of the business cycle, but of the very structure of our economic system. According to this view, no American is immune to dreadful economic calamities like income loss, chronic joblessness, unaffordable medical bills, inadequate retirement savings, or crippling debt. Most of us — “the 99%,” to borrow the slogan of the Occupy Wall Street protestors — cannot escape the insecurity fomented by an economy geared to the needs of the wealthy few. Misery is not a marginal risk on the horizon: It is an ever-present danger, and was even before the recession. But compelling though this narrative may be to headline writers, it is fundamentally wrong as a description of America’s economy both before and after the recession. When analyzed correctly, the available data belie the notions that this degree of economic risk pervades American life and that our circumstances today are significantly more precarious than they were in the past. Even as we slog through what are likely to be years of lower-than-normal growth and higher-than-normal unemployment, most Americans will be only marginally worse off than they were in past downturns. The story of pervasive and overwhelming risk is not just inaccurate, it is dangerous to our actual economic prospects. This systematic exaggeration of our economic insecurity saps the confidence of consumers, businesses, and investors — hindering an already sluggish recovery from the Great Recession. It also leads to misdirected policies that are too zealous and too broad, overextending our political and economic systems. The result is that it has become much more difficult to solve the specific problems that do cry out for resolution, and to help those Americans who really have fallen behind. Only by moving beyond this misleading exaggeration, carefully reviewing the realities of economic risk in America, and restoring a sense of calm and perspective to our approach to economic policymaking can we find constructive solutions to our real economic problems. INCOME AND EMPLOYMENTPerhaps the broadest measure of economic insecurity is the risk of losing a job or experiencing a significant drop in income. And the idea that this risk has been increasing dramatically in America over the past few decades has been absolutely central to the narrative of insecurity. It has fed into a false nostalgia for a bygone age of stability, one allegedly supplanted (since at least the 1980s) by an era of uncertainty and displacement. President Obama offered a version of this story in his 2011 State of the Union address:

Many people watching tonight can probably remember a time when finding a good job meant showing up at a nearby factory or a business downtown. You didn’t always need a degree, and your competition was pretty much limited to your neighbors. If you worked hard, chances are you’d have a job for life, with a decent paycheck and good benefits and the occasional promotion. Maybe you’d even have the pride of seeing your kids work at the same company. That world has changed. And for many, the change has been painful. I’ve seen it in the shuttered windows of once booming factories, and the vacant storefronts on once busy Main Streets. I’ve heard it in the frustrations of Americans who’ve seen their paychecks dwindle or their jobs disappear — proud men and women who feel like the rules have been changed in the middle of the game.

The tales of both this fabled golden age and the dramatic rise in the risk of declining incomes and job loss are, to put it mildly, overstated. But this popular story did not originate with President Obama: It has been a common theme of left-leaning scholars and activists for many years. The clearest recent example of this trope may be found in the popular 2006 book The Great Risk Shift, by Yale political scientist Jacob Hacker. Hacker’s fundamental argument was that economic uncertainty has been growing dramatically since the 1970s, leaving America’s broad middle class subject to enormous risk. Using models based on income data, he argued that income volatility tripled between 1974 and 2002; the rise, he claimed, was particularly dramatic during the early part of this period, as volatility in the early 1990s was 3.5 times higher than it had been in the early 1970s. Hacker’s conclusion — that the middle class has, in recent decades, been subjected to horrendous risks and pressures — quickly became the conventional wisdom among many politicians, activists, and commentators. As a result, it has come to define the way many people understand the American economy. But that conclusion turned out to be the product of a serious technical error. Attempting to replicate Hacker’s work in the course of my own research, I discovered that his initial results were highly sensitive to year-to-year changes in the small number of families reporting very low incomes (annual incomes of under $1,000, which must be considered highly suspect). Hacker was forced to revise the figures in the paperback edition of his book. Nevertheless, he again overstated the increase over time by reporting his results as a percentage change in dollars squared (that is, raised to the second power) rather than in dollars and by displaying his results in a chart that stretched out the rise over time. While he still showed an increase in volatility of 95%, my results using the same basic methodology indicated an increase of about 10%. In July 2010, a group led by Hacker published new estimates purporting to show that the fraction of Americans experiencing a large drop in income rose from about 10% in 1985 to 18% in 2009. But the 2009 estimate was a rough projection, and would have been a large increase — up from less than 12% in 2007. Then, in November 2011, an updated report (produced by a reconfigured team of researchers led by Hacker) abandoned the previous year’s estimates and argued that the risk of a large income shock rose from 13% or 14% in 1986 to 19% in 2009. Where did these assertions come from? The team’s 2010 claim was  again based on a failure to adequately address the problem of unreported income in the data. Their November 2011 claim, meanwhile, used a different data set that was much less appropriate for looking at income loss (because it does not identify the same person in different years, does not follow people who move from their homes, and suffers greatly from the problem of unreported income). In fact, the most reliable data regarding income volatility in recent decades (including the data used by Hacker in his early work and in 2010) suggest a great deal of stability when analyzed correctly. The chart below shows the portion of working-age adults who, in any given year, experienced a 25% decline in inflation-adjusted household income (a common definition of a large income drop, and the basis for Hacker’s recent estimates). Viewed over the past four decades, this portion has increased only slightly, even though it has risen and fallen within that period in response to the business cycle…

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Egypt’s Growing Pains

January 27, 2012

The National Interest:

The massive victory of the Islamist parties in the Egyptian general elections received its official imprimatur last weekend, and the country appeared headed for a major constitutional tussle between the ruling Supreme Military Council and the emergent parliament.

Egypt announced that, after three bouts at the polls and a number of individual run-off elections, the main 498-member lower house of parliament, the People’s Assembly, which convened this week, will have 235 representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood and 121 from the Salafist al-Nour party and its affiliates. Together they will hold 71 percent of the seats—47.18 percent for the Brotherhood and 24.29 percent for al-Nour). The house will contain another ten “moderate” Islamists from the New Center Party. The centrist and traditional al-Wafd Party will have thirty-six members, and the liberal bloc will have thirty-three seats. The “Revolution Continues” party, representing the leaders of the Facebook and Tweeter generation that featured so prominently in the demonstrations that ultimately toppled the old regime, won only 2 percent of the vote.

Given the nature of the gradual democratic takeover of the state by the Muslim Brothers, many observers see the victory of Hamas‚ the Palestinian offshoot of the Brotherhood, in the 2006 Palestinian general elections as the true herald of the revolutionary change in the Egyptian polity (and perhaps of the so-called Arab Spring in general, given its evident Islamist trajectory).

Fresh mass demonstrations are scheduled this week in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, marking the one-year anniversary of the demonstrations that overthrew the regime of Hosni Mubarak, who ruled Egypt since 1981. The demonstrators likely will press the army to relinquish its hold on power and subordinate itself to the popular will, meaning accept parliamentary oversight and control of its budget and operations. But many liberal Egyptians suspect that the Brotherhood and the army have already secretly struck a power-sharing deal that will sideline both the secularist liberals and the al-Nour Salafists. If so, the protests will be symbolic and pro forma and will pass quietly.

At the end of this week, Egypt will hold its first elections for parliament’s upper house, the Shura Council. After these are completed, the two houses are scheduled to set up a committee to formulate the country’s new constitution. The military, headed by General Tantawi, will likely seek to retain its independence from civilian control and possibly its actual control of the state. Elections for the presidency are scheduled for June. The Brotherhood months ago announced that it will not field a candidate from the party ranks—but, given its electoral success, there can be little doubt that it will either eventually put forward a candidate of its own or advance the cause of a straw man of its choosing.

Observers expect the Muslim Brotherhood, which is likely to form a coalition government with the small centrist-secular parties rather than with its Islamist competitors from al-Nour, to focus in the coming months and years on sorting out Egypt’s internal problems—consolidating its hold on power, battling the flight of foreign investors, reducing unemployment, shoring up crumbling infrastructure and reviving foreign tourism. Thus, it probably will forego its traditional foreign-policy agenda of breaking with the West and annulling the 1979 peace treaty with Israel. The Egyptian economy can ill afford the loss of the annual American foreign-aid subsidy of $1.5 billion…

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Trust Funds

January 27, 2012

This image has been posted with express written permission. This cartoon was originally published at Town Hall.

Empathy 101

January 27, 2012

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