January 31, 2012
This image has been posted with express written permission. This cartoon was originally published at Town Hall.
Randy Lavallee is a proud member of the American working class. A New Hampshire resident, he works as a calibration inspector for a jet-engine plant just across the state line in Maine. Four years ago, the plant went through a downsizing that resulted in the layoffs of one-sixth of its 1,600 workers. After the cuts, Lavallee told me, the “CEO and management got big bonuses.”
I met Lavallee, 58, recently in Rochester, New Hampshire, where he lives. A registered Democrat who sometimes votes Republican in presidential races, he is exactly the kind of swing voter who will decide this November’s election. Moreover, given his recent workplace experience, he is exactly the kind of voter who should be receptive to attacks on Mitt Romney’s business history—namely, the layoffs he presided over at Bain Capital. So what, I wondered, did Lavallee think of Romney’s business record? When I asked, he just laughed. “I’d like to have his success,” he said. “I’m just not as ambitious as he is.” But what about the layoffs that followed many of Bain’s deals, even as Romney and his colleagues made big profits? “That’s just how business works. Would I like it if my business shut down? No. But that’s what businesses sometimes need to do.”
A few days later, I called Lavallee back and pressed further, but he held firm. “He’s a businessman, and, if I was a businessman, that’s what I’d do. I’d be in business to make money for me and my company,” he said. I was curious if he knew what Romney’s business involved. “Just from watching TV, it looks like his company would purchase other companies that were going bankrupt, reorganize them, get rid of what’s not needed, and keep the good part of the business,” he replied. But what about when the businesses failed and Bain made money anyway? “They did make an investment and had to recoup the money they could,” he said. If Romney didn’t snare profits like that for himself, Lavallee said sympathetically, he “wouldn’t be in business. He’d be working in a factory like me.”
Again and again on the campaign trail in recent weeks, I spoke to voters whose positive attitudes toward Romney’s wealth and business background surprised me—people who had every reason to resent his success but in fact were inclined to celebrate it. In Council Bluffs, Iowa, I met Dan Strietback, 32, a manager at a Panera café, who told me that, while he knew Bain had laid off plenty of workers, he saw the economic model it was part of as “the best method for the United States of America.” “Everyone’s going to fail now and then,” he said. “It’s when you pick yourself up and carry on.” But what about the sheer scale of Romney’s wealth? “I look at Romney as someone who got some help from his family but worked his butt off for it,” he told me. “It makes me want to work hard, too, and maybe get some money for myself, too.”
Then there was Anne Field of Concord, New Hampshire, a Barack Obama voter who is planning on switching to Romney in November. Field, 64, told me that business has been pretty good at the small plumbing firm where both she and her husband work and that, in any case, she did not blame Obama for the slow recovery. But she is worried about her retirement savings and her daughter’s difficulty finding a job, and she thinks Romney’s business experience is well-suited to a moment when “we need to be tough” and “cut things.” When I asked what she made of the less appealing side of Bain’s work, she shrugged. “That’s what his business was,” she said. “More power to him.”
As the campaign has unfolded, I’ve kept returning to these conversations in my mind. For weeks now, Newt Gingrich has been hammering Romney for having presided over leveraged buyouts at Bain. And, while it remains to be seen whether Gingrich can sustain the momentum from his South Carolina upset, it’s already clear that Obama’s reelection strategy will pursue a similar tack, assuming Romney eventually wins the nomination. The president, it appears, will seek to portray Romney as a plutocrat who made tens of millions of dollars by slicing and dicing companies, regardless of the collateral damage—depicting him, in Mike Huckabee’s memorable 2008 description of his then-rival, as “the guy who fires you.” Obama political guru David Axelrod recently provided a preview of this strategy when he told CNN: “Saving an industry, as the president did, is different than strip-mining companies in order to—in order to profit off of them, which is, in many cases, what Mr. Romney did. … The question is: Is that the philosophy that you want in the White House?”
Among Beltway liberals, there is currently an unquestioned assumption that these attacks will work in the general election: that Romney’s wealth and business background are indeed major political liabilities. But talking to people like Lavallee, Strietback, and Field made me wonder: Would such attacks really stick? Is it actually possible to win an election by portraying your opponent as a plutocrat? Or will many American voters respond to Romney’s financial success with a simple shrug?
AMERICANS are of famously mixed minds when it comes to matters of wealth and fairness. We venerate economic freedom and the self-made man, yet we also harbor populist suspicions of wealthy elites and big business. In a volatile time, our ambivalence on this point has remained remarkably steady: A Pew study released in early January that found a sharp increase in the perception of class conflict also found that respondents had barely budged from four years earlier on the question of whether the rich “are wealthy mainly because they know the right people or were born into wealthy families” or “mainly because of their own hard work, ambition or education.” Forty-six percent chose the former, 43 percent the latter. “What this adds up to, to me, is a public that’s paying attention to these issues and is cross-pressured on these issues,” says Pew’s Paul Taylor. “There is some part of the American public that loves the free enterprise system and believes that the ability to get rich is part of the American Dream, and there is a part of the American public that cares about issues of fairness and that believes that, when things gets out of whack, it’s time to say, ‘Whoa, that’s too much.’”
Research on Americans’ instincts about money and class has mostly been left to social psychologists; but political scientists have started branching into this area, hoping to better understand how wealth and class inform voting. Recently, Meredith Sadin, a doctoral candidate in politics at Princeton, set out to try to gauge how voters respond to candidates’ class backgrounds. She asked voters to rate some imagined congressional candidates, each of whom had been assigned different origins (son of a factory worker or son of a surgeon) and different adult backgrounds (works as an ambulance driver or works as a cardiologist). Not surprisingly, she found that Democratic voters were more likely than Republican voters to attribute negative characteristics to a GOP candidate’s privileged origins or current upper-class status. But her most interesting finding was that independents—those crucial voters who invariably seem to determine the outcome in close races—tended to act like Republicans when it came to candidates’ origins and current wealth.
Both independents and Republicans, for instance, perceived a GOP candidate with current upper-class status as slightly more intelligent than a Republican of unknown status. Independents and Republicans also did not seem to hold an upper-class candidate’s wealthy origins against him. That is, if they knew both the origins and current status of a Republican or Democratic candidate, they didn’t see many differences between one who’d worked his way up and one who’d been born rich—whereas Democratic voters strongly favored one who’d climbed the ladder.
There was one caveat to this last finding: When independents were only given information about a Republican candidate’s origins, and not current class, they felt more warmly toward a candidate with humble roots. But presidential elections are “high information”—voters learn a lot about the candidates—and, in the upcoming general election, voters will know both where the candidates started and where they ended up…
The ability to speak multiple unrelated foreign languages fluently counts among a short list of showstopping talents, like the ability to play a Bach fugue or fly a helicopter (assuming one isn’t a harpsichordist or pilot by profession). It impresses in part because it suggests discipline, time, and effort — and, perhaps, other hidden skills.
But what if the languages came effortlessly? There are, in the history of polyglottism, a few examples of people who seem to have found a way to cheat the system and acquire languages so easily and quickly that what would normally appear a feat of discipline and erudition looks instead like savantism. These hyperpolyglots chitchat fluently in dozens of dialects, and they pick up new ones literally between meals. For the rest of us who have to slave over our verb tables, their talent resembles sorcery.
Michael Erard’s Babel No More is about these hyperpolyglots. It is not about concierges or mâitre d’s who can charm guests in Japanese, English, and French, or about diplomats who get along without a translator in Moscow, Cairo, and Shanghai. Such people are strictly amateur compared to, say, Harold Williams, a New Zealander who attended the League of Nations and is said to have spoken comfortably to each delegate in the delegate’s native tongue, or the American Kenneth Hale, who learned passable Finnish (one of about fifty languages he was reputed to speak convincingly) on a flight to Helsinki and allegedly learned Japanese after a single viewing of theShogun miniseries.
The most famous hyperpolyglot is Giuseppe Mezzofanti, the nineteenth-century Bolognese cardinal who was reputed to speak between thirty and seventy languages, ranging from Chaldaean to Algonquin. He spoke them so well, and with such a feather-light foreign accent, according to his Irish biographer, that English visitors mistook him for their countryman Cardinal Charles Acton. (They also said he spoke as if reading from The Spectator.) His ability to learn a language in a matter of days or hours was so devilishly impressive that one suspects Mezzofanti pursued the cardinalate in part to shelter himself from accusations that he had bought the talent from Satan himself.
Babel No More takes Erard (who has only modest linguistic ability of his own) to Mezzofanti’s library in Bologna, and then on the trail of modern Mezzofantis. Not one can match the ability of the cardinal himself. Many alleged hyperpolyglots turn out to be braggarts — one of them, Ziad Fazah, is now best known for appearing on a Chilean TV show and failing to respond coherently to speakers of half a dozen languages he claimed to know — and the rest are impressive but tend to need practice to keep up their skills. Their languages recede with disuse, and no one succeeds in switching from Abkhaz to Quechua to Javanese in the way Mezzofanti was said to.
Among the more impressive workhorses is Alexander Arguelles, who, at the time of his first meeting with Erard, is an unemployed academic and jogging enthusiast living in California. Arguelles reads novels in Dutch, writes and reads classical Arabic, and translates Korean for cash on the side. But he also spends twelve hours every day learning languages and obsessively cataloguing his progress. In his case, the hyperpolyglottism appears to be simply compulsive behavior.
And so it goes with virtually every hyperpolyglot Erard meets. His book ends up being less an exploration of modern Mezzofantis than a fairly convincing (if uninspiring) brief denying their existence, at least in the mythologized form that their reputations have assumed. Literally thousands of people tested Mezzofanti’s abilities and came away satisfied, so it might seem improbable that he was anything less than a linguistic monster. And yet earwitness testimony is notoriously unreliable, and many people set an absurdly low bar for fluency. (I was once accused of speaking Russian, on the basis of successfully having read a train schedule and bought a ticket in Irkutsk.)
All this is not to say that hyperpolyglots are all frauds. Both Mezzofanti and Kenneth Hale were reluctant to enumerate their languages, and although both conversed happily with many visitors — who were gratified and enchanted by the gesture of linguistic respect — they denied that they were doing anything remarkable or praiseworthy. Hyperpolyglots argue that what they do is not fluent speaking but instead a sort of mechanical reproduction, a robotic trick rather than a human skill. Hale, an MIT professor who died in 2001, is quoted as disputing the idea that he “spoke” fifty languages, limiting his claim to only three, one of them being the Australian Aboriginal language Warlpiri. He distinguished “saying things” from speaking a language and really understanding it. The ability to pretend to converse in a language, and get by, isn’t the same as speaking it fluently…
Charles Murray is back, and the debate about wealth and inequality will never be the same. Readers of the political scientist’s earlier work, especially The Bell Curve and Losing Ground, might assume that with his new book he is returning to the vexed subject of race. He is, but with a twist: Murray’s area of intensive focus (and data mining) is “the state of white America”—and it’s not what you might think.
According to Murray, the last 50 years have seen the emergence of a “new upper class.” By this he means something quite different from the 1 percent that makes the Occupy Wall Streeters shake their pitchforks. He refers, rather, to the cognitive elite that he and his coauthor Richard Herrnstein warned about in The Bell Curve. This elite is blessed with diplomas from top colleges and with jobs that allow them to afford homes in Nassau County, New York and Fairfax County, Virginia. They’ve earned these things not through trust funds, Murray explains, but because of the high IQs that the postindustrial economy so richly rewards.
Murray creates a fictional town, Belmont, to illustrate the demographics and culture of the new upper class. Belmont looks nothing like the well-heeled but corrupt, godless enclave of the populist imagination. On the contrary: the top 20 percent of citizens in income and education exemplify the core founding virtues Murray defines as industriousness, honesty, marriage, and religious observance. Yes, the elites rebelled against bourgeois America in the late 1960s and 1970s, but it wasn’t long before they put away their counterculture garb. Today, they work long hours and raise their doted-upon offspring in stable homes. One of the most ignored facts about American social life is that the divorce rate among the college-educated has been declining since the early 1980s, while their illegitimate children (as they used to be called) remain as rare as pickup trucks in their garages. Murray deems some of the Belmontians’ financial excesses “unseemly,” but for the most part, he finds them law-abiding and civically engaged—taking their children to church or synagogue, organizing petitions for new stoplights or parks, running Little League teams and PTA fundraisers.
The American virtues are not doing so well in Fishtown, Murray’s fictional working-class counterpart to Belmont. In fact, Fishtown is home to a “new lower class” whose lifestyle resembles The Wire more than Roseanne. Murray uncovers a five-fold increase in the percentage of white male workers on disability insurance since 1960, a tripling of prime-age men out of the labor force—almost all with a high school degree or less—and a doubling in the percentage of Fishtown men working less than full-time. Time-use studies show that these men are not using their newly found leisure to fix the dishwasher or take care of the kids. Mostly, they’re watching more television, getting more sleep—and finding trouble. The percentage of Fishtown men in prison quadrupled after 1974, and though crime rates declined there in the mid-1990s, mirroring national trends, they’re still markedly higher than they were in 1970. (Belmont, on the other hand, never experienced significant changes in crime or incarceration rates.) Fishtown folks cannot be said to be clinging to their religion: Murray finds a rise in the percentage of nonbelievers there. In fact, he found the same in Belmont. The difference is that Belmonters continue to join religious institutions and enjoy the benefits of their social capital. About 59 percent of Fishtowners now have no religious affiliation, compared with 41 percent of Belmonters.
Most disastrous for Fishtown residents has been the collapse of the family, which Murray believes is now “approaching a point of no return.” For a while after the 1960s, the working class hung on to its traditional ways. That changed dramatically by the 1990s. Today, under 50 percent of Fishtown 30- to 49-year-olds are married; in Belmont, the number is 84 percent. About a third of Fishtowners of that age are divorced, compared with 10 percent of Belmonters. Murray estimates that 45 percent of Fishtown babies are born to unmarried mothers, versus 6 to 8 percent of those in Belmont.
And so it follows: Fishtown kids are far less likely to be living with their two biological parents. One survey of mothers who turned 40 in the late nineties and early 2000s suggests the number to be only about 30 percent in Fishtown. In Belmont? Ninety percent—yes, ninety—were living with both mother and father. Many experts would define the cause as a dearth of “marriageable” men (see above). The causation goes the other way as well. Men who don’t marry don’t work—or at least, they work less hard. Severed from family life, they don’t attach themselves to community organizations, including churches, and in greatly disproportionate numbers they engage in antisocial, even criminal, behavior…
January 31, 2012
Jonathan Haidt is occupying Wall Street. Sort of. It’s a damp and bone-chilling January night in lower Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park. The 48-year-old psychologist, tall and youthful-looking despite his silvered hair, is lecturing the occupiers about how conservatives would view their ideas.
“Conservatives believe in equality before the law,” he tells the young activists, who are here in the “canyons of wealth” to talk people power over vegan stew. “They just don’t care about equality of outcome.”
Explaining conservatism at a left-wing occupation? The moment tells you a lot about the evolution of Jonathan Haidt, moral psychologist, happiness guru, and liberal scold.
Haidt (pronounced like “height”) made his name arguing that intuition, not reason, drives moral judgments. People are more like lawyers building a case for their gut feelings than judges reasoning toward truth. He later theorized a series of innate moral foundations that evolution etched into our brains like the taste buds on our tongues—psychological bases that underlie both the individual-protecting qualities that liberals value, like care and fairness, as well as the group-binding virtues favored by conservatives, like loyalty and authority.
“He, over the last decade or so, has substantially changed how people think about moral psychology,” says Paul Bloom, a psychologist at Yale University.
Now Haidt wants to change how people think about the culture wars. He first plunged into political research out of frustration with John Kerry’s failure to connect with voters in 2004. A partisan liberal, the University of Virginia professor hoped a better grasp of moral psychology could help Democrats sharpen their knives. But a funny thing happened. Haidt, now a visiting professor at New York University, emerged as a centrist who believes that “conservatives have a more accurate understanding of human nature than do liberals.”
In March, Haidt will publish The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (Pantheon). By laying out the science of morality—how it binds people into “groupish righteousness” and blinds them to their own biases—he hopes to drain some vitriol from public debate and enable conversations across ideological divides.
Practically speaking, that often means needling liberals while explaining conservatives and religious people, and treading a fine line between provocation and treason. Haidt works in a field so left-wing that, when he once polled roughly 1,000 colleagues at a social-psychology conference, 80 to 90 percent classified themselves as liberal. Only three people identified as conservative. So hanging out in his lab can jar you at first. You’ll be listening to his team talk shop over boar burgers and organic ketchup in Greenwich Village, and then you think—Wait, did Haidt just praise Sarah Palin?
Indeed. “She’s right,” he says, that “it’s not left-right so much as it is the big powerful interests who control everything versus the little people.” And National Review? “The most important thing I read” to get new ideas. And Glenn Beck? “A demonizer,” says Haidt, but one who has “a great sense of humor, so I enjoy listening to him.”
Meanwhile, though Haidt still supports President Obama, he chides Democrats for a moral vision that alienates many working-class, rural, and religious voters. Though he’s an atheist, he lambasts the liberal scientists of New Atheism for focusing on what religious people believe rather than how religion binds them into communities. And he rakes his own social-psychology colleagues over the coals for being “a tribal moral community that actively discourages conservatives from entering” and for making the field’s nonliberal members feel like closeted homosexuals. (See related article, Page B8.)
“Liberals need to be shaken,” Haidt tells me. They “simply misunderstand conservatives far more than the other way around.”
But even as Haidt shakes liberals, some thinkers argue that many of his own beliefs don’t withstand scrutiny. Haidt’s intuitionism overlooks the crucial role reasoning plays in our daily lives, says Bloom. Haidt’s map of innate moral values risks putting “a smiley face on authoritarianism,” says John T. Jost, a political psychologist at NYU. Haidt’s “relentlessly self-deceived” understanding of faith makes it seem as if God and revelation were somehow peripheral issues in religion, fumes Sam Harris, one of “the Four Horsemen“ of New Atheism and author of The End of Faith.
“This is rather like saying that uncontrolled cell growth is a peripheral issue in cancer biology,” Harris e-mails me. “Haidt’s analysis of cancer could go something like this: ‘Sure, uncontrolled cell growth is a big concern, but there’s so much more to cancer! There’s chemotherapy and diagnostic imaging and hospice care and drug design. There are all the changes for good and ill that happen in families when someone gets diagnosed with a terminal illness. … ‘ Yes, there are all these things, but what makes cancer cancer?”
Other questions: What made Haidt go from a religion-loathing liberal to a faith-respecting centrist? And as the 2012 election approaches, will anybody listen?
Researchers have found that conservatives tend to be more sensitive to threats and liberals more open to new experiences. By biology and biography, Haidt seemed destined for the liberal tribe. He grew up in suburban New York as a secular Jew whose mother worshiped FDR. He attended Yale in an era when President Ronald Reagan was routinely mocked on campus. He relishes new adventures like interviewing Hindu priests and laypeople in India, a project that stripped away his hostility to faith and exposed him to a broader palate of moral concerns, such as community and divinity…