Tag Archives: life

The Nurture Assumption and Rebellious Behavior (Or Why Teens Are A**holes)

In my last book review of Judith Rich Harris’s “The Nurture Assumption” I made the following parenthetical comment: Teenage behavior is a complete mystery, for example, if the nurture assumption is true. I said this because JRH rightly points out that teenagers aren’t trying to become successful adults by copying their parents; they’re trying to become successful teenagers who are liked and respected by their peers. So far so good.

Earlier in the book, JRH describes the way that children have, until recent memory, been brought up: at about age 2, they’re handed off to their older sibling or cousin or whatever child is around in the village, and the child learns behavior from other children. In their teenage years, they would transition to adulthood through rites of passage, marriage, and child-bearing. At that point, children immediately acquire the rights and responsibilities of adulthood. Extended adolescence as it now exists in the world is a very new development.

This made me wonder about how this extended adolescence plays out, and JRH doesn’t spend much time on it. As we know, teenagers are notoriously combative with their parents and many go through a rebellious phase. That conflict makes some sense: teens want to rise to become the most popular teens in their peer group, while parents want them to become the best role-players in their wider family setup. However, that’s true of all family conflict; what, then, makes teenagers particularly rebellious?

If historically teenagers have been considered adults, and present-day teenagers definitely are not, we have a brain that desires to be taken seriously and a society that considers us a child. It’s natural rebel against that setup. More importantly, however, I think it’s simply that in today’s society, teenagers couldn’t possibly compete with adults on a level playing field. Perhaps a 17-year-old can be a successful hunter and warrior with the older men, since his physical characteristics are not that different, but today a 17-year-old can’t compete with a 24-year old in terms of money (or education, or other resources that matter). As a result, teenagers rebel because they want to set themselves off from the adult society: if you’re not part of their game, you’re not losing; you’re just playing a different game (that of being a teenager).

I think this works, as you’ll notice the rebellious spirit disappear as teenagers acquire the rights of adulthood and start playing the adult game in which they’re not competitive. (You will still notice subcultures divided by age, loosely enforced, that enable people to claim victory in their own group.)

Anyway, just a theory on why teenagers can be such a**holes.

Better Financial Habits: A Project-Based Approach

Let’s say you incur an unexpected wasteful expense – perhaps you forget to cancel a hotel reservation and have to pay a fee, or your car is towed because you didn’t pay attention to the signs (hypothetically ). It’s a frustrating experience, and one that most people would rather forget and move on from. However, I’ve found that that sort of unforced error can be a great motivator to make permanent changes to your financial habits. [This works even if you already have excellent financial habits and helps you squeeze that last bit of savings from your daily and weekly routines.]

Let’s work through the hotel example: you pay $700 more than you had to because you didn’t cancel and book someplace cheaper in time. If you’re like most people, unless your finances are completely wrecked by this* you’ll probably cut back on something for a couple of days and then return to your regular life. This is a mistake.

*(and they shouldn’t be – your cash cushion should be able to pay a few months rent, let alone a weekend in Jersey)(…hypothetically speaking).

Here’s what you do: Write the number 700 down in a place you keep notes and access regularly. I use a spreadsheet, though in the past I’ve used a dry-erase board. Notebooks, smartphones, anything you normally use works. 700 is your starting point. The goal is to get that number to zero by cutting your spending in small ways until the savings add up to 700. A couple of guidelines:

1. Don’t cut out big items. If you have another big trip planned, don’t cancel it to offset the first mistake. Your finances should enable you to live a good life, not hold you back.

2. Don’t go crazy with austerity. You can stay home eating Ramen for a few weeks and get the job done, but that’s not sustainable.

3. Look for new habits. Instead of big things, look for savings in places where you have been meaning to make a change, or where you can develop a permanent new habit.  (It’s easier to make one change at a time, but don’t let me stop you from trying for more.)

Perhaps you get a $3 coffee every day on the way to work, or you get a couple of diet cokes at the vending machine, or you buy the $7.99 salad special at lunch, or you pay for an expensive garage instead of a cheaper one three blocks away. Start making coffee at home, buy a case of diet coke for your office, brown-bag your lunch, and park further away and walk a few minutes. Every time you do, note your savings and update your running total.

That seems straightforward, but it actually does a few things:

1. You feel better. You just do, when you get to erase a mistake.

2. You hold yourself accountable. It’s easy to feel you’ve “done enough” to offset the error. This way, you actually get your finances back where they need to be.

3. When it gets to zero, you can stop – but you don’t have to. If the process took long enough, your habit becomes part of your new routine. You’ll instinctively put on a pot of coffee in the morning, refresh your diet coke stash weekly, pack a sandwich with carrots nightly, and routinely park down the street.

It won’t always work – it’s not magic – but some of these habits will stick with you. If they don’t, don’t worry. You’ll make another mistake soon.

Blog Note/Brain Dump

As you may have noticed, the blog has been very quiet until tonight, when I discovered a coding error and released a bunch of backed up reviews. The reason for the silence is my continued high workload, which is why I stick to reviews (easy) instead of commentary on current events (hard). Before I go back into hiding, scattered thoughts about recent events:

  • I once independently discovered Sam Harris’s question about morality of national governments, which is what they would do if they had the “perfect” weapon that could destroy their enemies. The United States, in my mind, had always done well in that measure, since it could have carpet bombed from Libya to India and never even came close to using its maximum firepower. With the torture report, however, the US can no longer get the benefit of that. The activities in the report are vile, and the fact that slight majorities approve of them are sickening reminders that us vs them is everywhere and always a bad influence.
  • The two grand juries who failed to indict the killers of Michael Brown and especially Eric Garner would not have done the same if the shooters were not cops. I think that’s clear. I also think it’s obvious that a prosecutor who works WITH the police every day shouldn’t also be in charge of investigating that same police. The fact that we let this happen (or that we let the chief of police be in charge of the unit that also investigates police corruption) is a sign that we’ve let a warrior caste arise in our midst that’s now violent and unaccountable, protected by both law and public opinion even at their worst.
  • It’s unfortunate that the fallout from the grand jury decisions has become so racialized, as exemplified here by Smith College president Kathleen McCartney who had to apologize for saying “all lives matter” instead of “black lives matter.” This is not to deny that black Americans suffer more of the consequences of the police state gone wild – they clearly do. The unfortunate aspect is that making race so salient is probably not the best way to effect change; paradoxically, by not emphasizing race one could reach the best outcomes for those discriminated against on racial grounds. By focusing on the universal aspects of police overreach, one could build more public support for reforms, the effects of which would be felt more strongly in those communities currently suffering the worst effects. By making it race-specific, you turn on the us vs them parts of the brain and just don’t reach certain people whose support is necessary for real change. It seems that the black community faces the unfortunate choice of solving the problem or being heard, but not both.
  • One in five American college students does not get raped. You know that if you’ve been near any college, which is not a constant scene of war-crime-level assault. Sexual assault is still too common (“too common” defined as “above zero”) but by emphasizing a wrong figure proponents are doing a disservice to the cause of minimizing the problem, once again by excluding reasonable people whose support is important.
  • Obviously the previous bullet was inspired by the Rolling Stone story that’s since been all but retracted. I think it’s obvious that most part of the story as reported were not true, and the Washington Post has done some excellent reporting on the issue. That said, it’s not like it proves that nothing ever happened to “Jackie.” I don’t have much sympathy for those who file false reports but I can’t help thinking that the best way to describe this young woman is “troubled.” Rolling Stone, of course, has no such excuse, and the Greek organizations suspended on the basis of this story have a legitimate beef with the magazine.
  • Of course we should have normalized relations with Cuba decades ago. Contact means exchange, of goods, services, and ideas. The Chinese are better off for participating in the world, the Vietnamese are, and the Cubans will be, too. As for us, try some Havana Club before you knock freedom.

Devil’s Advocate: Zealous Parenting

There has been a rash of news stories about parents arrested for neglectful parenting, and among many others, blog-favorite Megan McArdle can’t believe the state of affairs:

A week ago, a woman was charged with leaving her child in the car while she went into a store. Her 11-year-old child. This week, a woman was arrested for allowing her 9-year-old daughter to go to the park alone. Which raises just one question: America, what the heck is wrong with you?

I’m not interested in defending mothers who are under stress or are low-wage workers without a lot of great child-care options. I mean, fine, but these defenses should be unnecessary because what the heck are we doing arresting parents for things that were perfectly normal 30 years ago?

While I agree with McArdle (shocker, I know), much of the commentary about these cases fails to explain away an obvious retort while relying too much on “when I was your age” stories.*

*McArdle points out that she and her friends used public transportation as children and had an attrition rate of 0. One of my more morbid jokes as a standup pointed out to those who harked back to their golden age as a better time didn’t have their friends who were killed in riots or Vietnam or by polio here to dispute them. This is literal survivor bias.

Playing devil’s advocate for a bit, I’ll demand an explanation to this retort. The retort is this: children today are safer and better off in many ways than children from past decades – Bryan Caplan has the numbers here. At the same time, helicopter parenting and parental overprotection have also risen, as detailed here by the always-amazing Hanna Rosin. The obvious (and dangerous) conclusion is that parental involvement improved outcomes for children, reducing accidents and disease. Why, then, are McArdle et al against such parenting practices, and against societal enforcement of such parental norms?

Well, probably because this correlation is merely spurious. Parental overinvolvement just happened to coincide with the rise of vaccines, antibiotics, safer cars, etc. However, if that’s your claim, it needs to be proven, and the simple correlation must be dispensed with. I haven’t seen nearly enough people objecting to the stories I mentioned above explain away this simple correlation. Until they do, the lay audience probably won’t, and shouldn’t, trust them.

Politics Makes You Stupid, Part X

A baffling story:

One of the nation’s largest public-sector unions is severing its ties with the United Negro College Fund because the group accepted donations from the Koch brothers and its president spoke at a Koch-funded summit.

In a letter sent Tuesday, AFSCME President Lee Saunders wrote that the UNCF has taken actions “deeply hostile” to public employees, which he considers a “profound betrayal of the ideals of the civil rights movement,” and that the union will end its relationship with UNCF.

Saunders cited the UNCF’s decision to accept a $25 million grant from Koch Industries, Inc. and the Charles Koch Foundation as a reason for the split, as well as the decision by UNCF President Michael Lomax to speak at a summit hosted by the Kochs in California.

So…the Koch brothers are out $25 million which goes to black Americans, and this is a problem for the AFSCME? If they want to weaken the Koch brothers, having them donate money to causes AFSCME approves is a good way to go.

Cats v. Dogs On The Internet

Cats are widely acknowledged to have won the internet over dogs, which has prompted a lot of explanations as to why. This recent Australian piece argues that lower costs of producing and disseminating cat videos have resulted in a spike of such videos. Surely true, but hardly explanatory: same could be true of any other type of video – why the feline dominance? This cat lover invokes the cat lovers’ craving of community, humans’ innate tendency to like cats, and a jealousy of their lazy, independent lifestyles. Not really a falsifiable argument, and thus not verifiable either, but at least internally consistent. There are thousands of other articles, each presenting some version of the theories above. I’ve looked around a bit, but I haven’t seen my own theory:

Dog lovers are outside throwing sticks and frisbees. Cat lovers are at home, filming their cats.

Slate on Colorblindness, Part 2

Slate runs down Eric Holder’s recent speech about race and inequality, and I dissect it because it’s a long commute.

First came slavery:

I’ll bravely come out against it.

Then “overtly discriminatory statutes like the ‘separate but equal’ laws of 60 years ago,”

Even more bravely, I’m opposed.

Then policies that were officially neutral but affected whites and minorities differently, such as strict voter identification laws.

Ah, now we might run into trouble. Let’s take it case by case.

The first group, represented by the voter ID laws, includes policies that are objective in form but tainted by biased intent. The ID restrictions are “justified as attempts to curb an epidemic of voter fraud that in reality has never been shown to exist,” said Holder.

Politically motivated (since the Democratic base is more likely to be affected), so worth dismissing on those grounds alone. That said, I wonder if it wouldn’t be cheaper for Democrats to just make sure everyone has an ID instead of trying to get rid of these laws. Of course, that would cost them an important talking point come election time.

Another class of disparate-impact practices consists of subjective applications of law, which allow race to directly, if unconsciously, influence differences in outcome. In Holder’s speech, the clearest case was criminal sentencing. He cited a study by the U.S. Sentencing Commission, which found that black men “have received sentences that are nearly 20 percent longer than those imposed on white males convicted of similar crimes.”

Always a tough one, because “similar crime” is tough to define. That said, hard to argue that implicit bias isn’t at play here, and just as hard to remove it. Even if you try to classify crimes, for example, bias will just creep in at that stage: a black and a white man might get the same sentence for aggravated assault, but black men will be more likely to have their offense classified as “aggravated.” Hard to see how this one gets better, considering the massive subjectivity necessarily built into the law. This is where psychologists could make a worthwhile contribution – there’s probably a way to structure these analyses to minimize implicit bias.

Then there’s a third class of disparate-impact policies: those that exacerbate racial gaps even when they’re objectively designed and applied. In this category, Holder cited “zero-tolerance school discipline practices that, while well-intentioned and aimed at promoting school safety, affect black males at a rate three times higher than their white peers.”

Well, now we’re in real trouble. Conceding the assumption that these rules are “objectively designed and applied,” I’m not sure what the proposal here would be: have different standards for different races until their rates of offense have equalized? Probably not the wisest idea , especially when it comes to public safety. (Would we have to do it for murder, too?) I suppose the reasoning is that the black offenders aren’t responsible for their circumstances which lead them to violate school rules at higher rates, so a fair rule in school will exacerbate pre-existing societal problems of racial inequality. If so, the solution isn’t to relax rules on safety, but to work on the infinitely more difficult pre-existing problems.

I think this gets us to the major division to which I alluded yesterday: given a history of unequal and unfair treatment, even fair rules starting today are going to affect groups differently.* The difficult question is whether the right thing to do is enforce the fair rules, hoping that the groups reach equilibrium in the long run, or to change to rules to engineer the equilibrium sooner, even at the cost of unequal treatment in the present. I know which I’d choose, but also biased in favor of myself.

*I strongly object to the members of my race being disproportionately represented among those convicted of insider trading.

The Meaning Of Privilege

Julia Fisher has an insightful essay summarizing a lot of recent posturing regarding privilege and the checking thereof, including an article from my alma mater. The whole thing is worth a read, but I want to focus on Fisher’s closing:

Told to check your privilege, it’s pretty easy to feel shut out of conversation; an advantage in life might be turned into a disadvantage in debate. “Check your privilege” can come across as an expectation that a person be repentant for sins he has not committed. In its most generous usage, of course, “check your privilege” isn’t meant to make anyone feel guilty—only to make them recognize their privileged position. But it has the effect of invoking guilt, in large part because the phrase is so often used ungenerously, as a weapon rather than a gentle reminder. This is partly what outraged Fortgang, who refers to the phrase as a reprimand that “threatens to strike down opinions without regard for their merits, but rather solely on the basis of the person that voiced them.” He concludes, “I have checked my privilege. And I apologize for nothing.”

This disconnect stems from confusion about what “check your privilege” really means, which results in accusations and defensiveness rather than a reasonable debate about—well, whatever subject the debate was originally about. Who can remember? But the problem isn’t just the phrase “check your privilege,” or even the concept of privilege. It’s rooted in a basic disagreement over the weight of identity in determining a person’s role in social discourse. And that’s why Fortgang’s opponents and supporters will continue to talk past each other.

As regular readers know, I often point out that words are susceptible to similar but different meanings, and how that often leads to unproductive conversations as people talk past each other. Fisher’s article points out how the word can be used to mean many things, and thus everyone is simultaneously right and wrong in arguing their positions.* I’m heartened that someone with more readership than me** is pointing this out, as small step toward a less polarized world. A good next step would be for people who (non-ironically) say “check your privilege” to figure out what to do after that.

*Ditto for “inequality” in the present day. If someone complaints to you about it or says it’s not a problem, make them explain to you what they mean by “inequality.”

*Meaning “having more than six readers.”

Hypocrisy In Action

A paraphrased but substantively accurate conversation between my dad and me that actually happened.

Me: I’m going into town to grab something. Do you need anything?
Dad: Yes! Glad you’re going. I need some wood screws.
M: Wait, we have wood screws. We put all the old tools and things in those boxes in the shed so we’d have them for later.
D: Yeah, but those boxes are full of stuff. It’ll take forever to get to them in there, and then again to find the one box of wood screws. It’s like $2, just buy a new box.
M: So we kept those to save money and now we’re buying more because we can’t go through all the stuff we kept to save money?
D: Yes.
M: This was stupid.
D: Why are you going into town in the first place?
M: I need to get a USB cable for the computer.
D: Don’t we have all the old cords and cables somewhere?
M: Yeah, but who can find that?

No one called me on it, so I’m doing it here, publicly.

I Knew Michael Sam’s Name Before You Did


“the SEC def poty came out tonight” came the message around 730 Sunday night. It seems that Michael Sam, a defensive lineman from the University of Missouri came out as gay after playing his last game as a Missouri Tiger and before the NFL draft scheduled for May. There has been the predictable outpouring of praise for Sam’s courage, and so far Twitter has been pretty positive on the development. Don’t worry: someone is already hunting for whatever anti-Sam tweets they are and you’ll see the links to “The 34 Worst Responses To Michael Sam” all over Facebook Monday morning.

Someone will also doubtlessly call out the unnamed team employees from this Sports Illustrated article. The Twitter backlash has already begun against quotes like these:

“I don’t think football is ready for [an openly gay player] just yet,” said an NFL player personnel assistant. “In the coming decade or two, it’s going to be acceptable, but at this point in time it’s still a man’s-man game. To call somebody a [gay slur] is still so commonplace. It’d chemically imbalance an NFL locker room and meeting room.”

All the NFL personnel members interviewed believed that Sam’s announcement will cause him to drop in the draft. He was projected between the third and seventh rounds prior to the announcement. The question is: How far will he fall?

“I just know with this going on this is going to drop him down,” said a veteran NFL scout. “There’s no question about it. It’s human nature. Do you want to be the team to quote-unquote ‘break that barrier?'”…

“That will break a tie against that player,” the former general manager said. “Every time. Unless he’s Superman. Why? Not that they’re against gay people. It’s more that some players are going to look at you upside down. Every Tom, Dick and Harry in the media is going to show up, from Good Housekeeping to the Today show. A general manager is going to ask, ‘Why are we going to do that to ourselves?'”…

An NFL assistant coach called Sam’s decision “not a smart move,” as he said it “legitimately affects [his] potential earnings.” It wasn’t lost on the NFL executives that former NBA player Jason Collins, who came out last April in a Sports Illustrated story, hasn’t been signed by an NBA team this year. …

To be fair, Jason Collins is pretty terrible.

“You shouldn’t have to live your life in secrecy,” the assistant coach said, “but do you really want to be the top of the conversation for everything without ever having played a down in this league?”…

The backlash has in fact already begun:

Unlike these tweeters, I struggle to find something wrong with anything said in the article. Should Sam’s sexual orientation matter to the team that drafts him? In an ideal world, no. But in an ideal world we live not. We live in the present day, where NFL teams have to take into account both public and internal reaction. There are two main reasons that Sam’s announcement would affect his draft stock:

  • Media attention: as the first openly gay player, Sam will draw an outsized media crowd wherever he goes, including mini-camps, practices, and movie theaters. His teammates and coaches will get asked about him every time they face the media. This is time and energy most teams would rather spent on preparation.
  • Internal dissension: it’s no secret that many players in the NFL locker rooms aren’t eager to have a gay teammate, meaning that Sam will be a distraction to the rest of the team. Any time spent on maintaining order and settling disputes is time not spent preparing for the next game.

Tim Tebow, in many ways the anti-Michael Sam, faces the same problems: the distractions created by his presence offset his skills, so he’s not a good deal for a team that can get a player of his ability without the accompanying distractions. The same may be true of Sam, a projected third-day draft pick. As a result, of course his draft stock should take a hit. He’s objectively less valuable to a team because of the public and media reaction.

Of course, this argument has been used before: blacks shouldn’t play baseball, or be in the military, nor should women be in board rooms – they’ll upset the dynamic. My favorite rebuttal to this is by Admiral Fitzwallace, the fictional Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on The West Wing: “The problem with that is that’s what they were saying about me 50 years ago – blacks shouldn’t serve with whites. It would disrupt the unit. You know what? It did disrupt the unit. The unit got over it. The unit changed.” The problem in the present situation is that one would be asking one team to take a short-term competitive hit to make gay players more acceptable, which would then benefit other teams (who could sign gay players without the associated costs). Some team might be willing to do it, but the odds are against it in each individual instance until the NFL’s locker rooms are filled mostly by people who don’t care whether they have a gay teammate or not. (The media issue will happen one way or another.) Given the changes in polling on this issue, it’s just a matter of time. This may be the beginning. Or not.

UPDATE 9:41PM: I forgot to note: I don’t blame a single person who spoke off the record on this issue. Look at the response they’re already getting for just saying what they think OTHER PEOPLE would do. As far as I can tell, no one has said “we don’t want a gay player,” they’ve just pointed out the distractions associated with having a gay player. I wouldn’t want to be in the position of having to defend myself against claims that I endorse these other views just because I am the one who pointed out that they exist. So yes, I have no issues with people speaking off the record on a topic like this.