When a caregiver leaves

For the fourteen years that I knew my mother-in-law Janice, she would sit at her computer for hours doing her bookkeeping working or just playing solitaire. Her son Vincent would sit quietly beside her, keeping her company. Then Janice passed away. Pretty soon, he kept Veronica and I company in the same way, for the time he lived with us. More recently, for the almost-six years that he has lived in a group home near our house, he has sat quietly beside the night manager Carol, while she has done her own computer work and play. Carol and Vincent have a special relationship.

Carol has firm opinions about things. She and Vinnie squabbled frequently, often when he was caught cutting corners on some rule. We sometimes squabbled with her, too. There’s awkward negotiation and role conflict regarding various details of Vincent’s care. She was away for awhile on sick leave after some surgery. The guys missed her terribly.

We called her last weekend to get a phone number. She surprised us with the news that she will be leaving her position. Like so many black women caring for other people’s loved-ones, she’s had to move on. Not for the first time, no one quite knows the right thing to say. “Thank you for everything” is essential, but leaves so much unsettled and unsaid.

Through circumstances that were beyond her control, she would not be able to say goodbye in person. So she asked one thing: Would we please tell Vincent that she will miss him terribly, but that she won’t be able to see him anymore. Would we also say goodbye to my two daughters, whom she has come to know? Veronica and I spoke with Vincent about it. A staff member had already gotten the guys together. She broke the news to them, rather in the way one tells small children about the death of a close relative.

Vincent is resilient and hungry for human connection. So he will soon find a new person to keep company with before he kicks in for the night.

Vincent’s not saying much about it. That’s his way. I’m helping him pen a goodbye card, as we’ve done when others have passed through his life. Given the low pay and the difficult working conditions in direct care work, he’s experienced this before.

At some random moment long in the future, he’ll say: “I miss Carol.” I’ll say: “Me, too, Vin. Me, too.”

Weekend Film Recommendation: Hobo with a Shotgun

Back in 2007, Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino released a pair of ’80s exploitation revival feature films under the combined title of Grindhouse. They also held a competition for directors to submit trailers of imaginary films, consistent with the theme of the genre, that could be screened beforehand. One such trailer was eventually turned into its own feature length film four years later, and is this week’s movie recommendation. It’s Jason Eisener’s Hobo with a Shotgun (2011).

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Have “black sites” come to Sweet Home Chicago?

The Guardian and The Atlantic have now both reported that Chicago police maintain a site at which they interrogate suspects without booking them or letting them talk to their lawyers.  On the Huffington Post, this is what I have to say about that.

As it turns out, this news doesn’t come too late to have an impact on the race for mayor in Chicago.  Perhaps we can use the six weeks before the runoff election to ask Rahm what he knows about these sites, and when he knew it.

Labour’s Scottish Message vs. Ramsay MacDonald

With Britain’s two main parties running neck and neck in a race in which neither is expected to get an outright majority of seats, each is trying to persuade minor party voters to “come home”. For example, to help stanch Labour’s Scottish losses to the Scottish National Party, Labour advocate Jim Murphy is arguing that a vote for the SNP is a vote for the Tories:

It is a simple fact that the single biggest party gets to form the next government.

I couldn’t square this claim with my recollection of UK political history (more on that in a moment), so I consulted Southampton University Professor Will Jennings, who blogs at the excellent site Politics Upside Down. I asked Will what David Cameron could do if the Tories didn’t get a majority, but eked a few more seats than Labour (say 290 vs. 286) because the SNP managed to grab a number of seats (say 40) that otherwise would have gone to Labour. If Labour and SNP wanted to form a majority coalition of 326 seats, could Cameron stay on anyway on the basis of his being the single biggest party?:

the incumbent government has the right to attempt to form a government. However, the government would still need to command a majority in a vote of no confidence, and that would depend on the arithmetic of the opposition parties. So if the Conservatives won with the seat permutation you suggest, it would quickly become apparent they would lose a vote of confidence, and would have to step aside for an alternative government.

Ramsey MacdonaldI was grateful to Will for confirming my suspicions, which funnily enough come straight from my recollection of the founding of the Labour Party by Scottish politicians, most notably Ramsay MacDonald. Having read up a bit over the weekend, I can now relate the intriguing story.

The MacDonald-led Labour party secured 191 seats in the 1923 election, well behind the Conservatives’ tally of 258. Under “Murphy’s Law”, this would have ensured a Tory government with Stanley Baldwin as PM. But H.H. Asquith of the third place Liberal Party threw his 158 seats behind Labour, which meant that Baldwin couldn’t possibly win a confidence vote in the Commons. Thus, despite coming in a distant second in seats, MacDonald became Labour’s first Prime Minister.

A vote for the SNP in Scotland is thus..a vote for the SNP in Scotland.

Fidelity investments wrote their own little investment card. Guess what is missing?

Fidelity Investments today tweeted “6 steps to pay off #debt while saving money at the same time.”


These are pretty good rules, nicely presented. Indeed they remind me of something I first posted here at Samefacts:


That index card is probably my most famous contribution to American financial journalism. It was featured all over the place, and has been copied, plagiarized, modified, even translated into Romanian.

Somehow, Fidelity omitted a few items. Consider these two… Continue Reading…

Obama, America, Christianity, and Islam

Does Obama love America?“ and “Is Obama a Christian?“ are both reflections of the same analytically absurd but politically potent winger theme song: “Obama doesn’t hate Muslims enough; he won’t say ‘Islamic terrorism.’ ”

Really, this gets much easier to understand if you recall that a President’s words are strategic choices rather than contributions to a seminar series. Strategically, it’s obvious that if you want some Muslims to help you fight other Muslims, then of course the last thing you want to do is define the common enemy as “Islamic.”

Even as a matter of pure analysis, there’s simply no true or false answer to the question: “Is ISIS an Islamic movement?” That question could mean either “Is ISIS an aspect of Islam?” - to which the answer is obviously “Yes” – or “Is the version of Islam adopted by ISIS the best or authentic version?” in which case the answer is equally obviously a matter of opinion or controversy rather than of ascertainable fact.

Consider the same analysis as applied to Christianity. Was burning heretics at the stake “Christian”? Well, of course it was, if by “Christian” you mean “Done by many Christians out of what they thought was loyalty to Christianity, and approved by many other Christians.” And of course it wasn’t, if you mean “Consistent with the views attributed to Jesus of Nazareth in the Gospels.” (See the Grand Inquisitor scene from the Brothers Karamazov.)

So the answer I ought to give to that question would depend on the context, the audience, and my purpose.

If I wanted to convince a Christian audience that persecution was wrong, then of course I would try to argue that burning at the stake was “un-Christian.” Since it’s certainly un-Christlike, I’d have a very solid basis for that argument. On the other hand, if I wanted to convince an audience of Buddhists or atheists that Christianity was evil, I’d want to argue that burning heretics at the stake, having been an uncontroversial part of actual Christian practice for more than 500 years, was mainstream Christianity, and that therefore the whole religion was manifestly the work of the Devil. Again, I’d have lots of evidence on my side.

The point is that “Christianity” names both an ideal of conduct (whose content is controversial) and an historical phenomenon with many strands, some of them mutually contradictory, and of course something that was an important part of the history could nonetheless violate some versions of the ideal.

Or take slavery or McCarthyism or the internment of the Japanese-American population during WWII. Were those phenomena “un-American”? Lincoln certainly thought so about slavery, which clearly contradicted the founding notion that “all men are created equal.”  And almost no one now defends the politics of McCarthy or the policy of internment, which were far more reminiscent of Nazi or Communist purges and deportations than of law-guided republican politics.

But of course slavery was deeply entwined with our national history – being almost as old as English settlement in the New World and being protected, directly if euphemistically, by the Constitution itself – and McCarthyism and internment weren’t the only moments at which the paranoid strand in American politics got loose: Know-Nothingism and the Palmer Raids reflected the same craziness.

So, again, if I wanted to persuade Americans to live up to the best this country has to offer the world, I’d want to claim that slavery, internment, and McCarthyism were deeply un-American, and that getting rid of them helped move us toward “a more perfect Union.” If, on the other hand, I were an America-hater, or alternatively if I wanted to defend the use of torture, I’d want to insist that all those phenomena, like violence, were “as American as apple pie.”

There is no “truth of the matter” to be found in any of these cases, because neither “Christianity” nor “Americanism” has an empirically ascertainable “essence,” and because in each case the practice might differ substantially with from the ideal, and the ideal itself will certainly be a matter of controversy within the tradition. I can prove from the Gospels that pious cruelty is evil, and from the Declaration of Independence that slavery is evil; but I can’t deny that St. Dominic and John Calvin loved pious cruelty, or that the God of the Hebrew Bible explicitly commands it [Deut. 13:6-18], nor can I deny that the Constitution protected slavery.

As an interpretive historian or cultural critic, I might try to say something serious about the central tendencies of Christianity or of  the American tradition, but those arguments aren’t likely to be conclusive; if someone makes them as part of a political debate, he is practicing rhetoric rather than dialectic: trying to persuade, not merely to elucidate.

What’s absolutely certain is that if I want Christians or Americans to behave well, I shouldn’t criticize the bad behavior of some Christians or some Americans as typically - or even “extremely” – Christian or American; instead I should point out how inconsistent that behavior is with the best parts of those traditions.

This seems obvious. So why should “Islam” be different?

ISIS is recognizably “Islamic” in the sense that its leaders claim the mantle of Islam and its followers think they are good Muslims. Moreover, there is support in some Islamic texts – including the Koran – and traditions for some of ISIS’s bad actions. If I were an ISIS recruiter, of course I’d want to stress those links. And of course I’d do the same if I wanted to incite hatred against Islam or stir up a “holy war” between Christians and Muslims, or merely incite hatred against an American President with a Muslim name.

If, on the other hand, I wanted to convince an Islamic audience to join with me in fighting against ISIS, the last thing I’d do is describe that group as “Islamic extremists.”

Last time I checked, Barack Obama wasn’t elected to a chair of  cultural criticism or comparative religion; his profession is statesmanship, of which rhetoric is a fundamental tool. When he denounces ISIS as “a perversion of Islam,” he’s not making a claim for scholars to debate; he’s making a rhetorical move and offering a call to arms. Denunciations of his remarks from intellectuals as too one-sided and insufficiently nuanced, and by wingnuts and anti-Islamic bigots as insufficiently anti-ISIS, are equally beside the point.

Can Deadly Urban Smog Save The Planet?

London Smog

London Smog

Support for emission limits on carbon, sulphur, methane etc. is often difficult to obtain because many voters believe that (1) The costs are certain and happen immediately but the benefits are probabilistic and occur far in the future, and (2) The benefits go to other people, even those who didn’t make any sacrifices of their own. As in many other policy areas, such voters therefore reward politicians who tell them that the can may be safely be kicked down the road.

However, a spate of horrific illness and death could help overcome these facts of human psychology. The Economist [gated] reports that air pollution has reduced average life expectancy in Northern China by 5.5 years and has knocked a stunning 2.1 billion aggregate years off of life expectancy in the Indian population. Such widespread morbidity and mortality is tragic, but this public health disaster could have a positive political effect by making the costs of uncontrolled emissions evident in the present moment and also showing voters that they themselves would benefit from emission controls.

It’s happened before. London was plagued by horrific smog after the war. The worst incident, in 1952, killed over 10,000 people in just 4 days. The coal ash-laden pea soup caused deaths from asphyxiation, accidents (e.g., stumbling blindly in front of moving buses and trains) and aggravation of pre-existing heart/lung ailments. The public outcry led Parliament to ban coal fires in urban homes, at a time when no voter had even heard of climate change.

Granted, the emissions that cause the most health damage and those that contribute the most to global warming do not overlap completely. But once visible and immediate health damage creates a broad constituency in a society for the principle of reduced emissions, it should be much easier for climate-minded advocates to place limits on emissions even in cases where the link to immediate health damage in less strong.

How 401(k) accounts widen race/ethnic wealth disparities

My latest Wonkblog column is based on a recent NBER working paper that examined 401(k) contributions and withdrawals among continuously-employed workers at a single firm between 2003 and 2010.

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Few workers at this firm set any land speed records for saving and investing. But the race/ethnic disparities in saving remained really striking. Ironically, minority workers contributed surprisingly similar amounts to their non-Hispanic white counterparts. Yet they were vastly more likely than their white counterparts to make withdrawals or to borrow against their 401(k) funds. Minority workers were also much more likely to invest their money in money market funds and other safe assets that bring really low rates of return.

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