Want and Need

I have blogged several times over the years about the important distinction between what we want and what we need. I usually couch the discussion in the context of education where I note that children should be taught what they need in order to become autonomous adults rather than what they want as children with passing whims. The distinction has always seemed to me to be at the heart of education and a possible suggestion as to why the United States now trails many of the other “developed” countries in educating the young. Our schools (and our parents, by the way) are focused on what the young want and afraid to demand that they study those subjects they will need later on in life. The parents give into their kids for a variety of reasons, but largely because  they think it will buy their children’ love or because that is what the so-called experts have told them is the proper thing to do.

Now comes the coronavirus and the following story tells us that the chickens seem to have come home to roost — at least in Wisconsin:

Wisconsin saw a record number of new coronavirus cases and deaths reported in a single day on Wednesday, two weeks after the state’s Supreme Court struck down its statewide stay-at-home order.

The state reported 599 new known COVID-19 cases on Wednesday with 22 known deaths, according to Wisconsin’s Department of Health Services, the highest recorded daily rise since the pandemic began there. As of Wednesday, the state had more than 16,460 known cases and 539 known deaths, according to the department.

In a word, the folks in Wisconsin were disturbed enough about being told they must be quarantined in order to help control the virus that they went to court to have the regulation removed so they could go about their business as usual. Well, they went back to business as we can expect it when we take off our rose-colored glasses.

I dare say the same results will or would happen in Michigan where armed protesters stormed the governor’s office to demand that the quarantine be lifted in that state. It’s what we want.

But it is not what we need. When will we learn?

I am not a big fan of the government telling us how to live our lives, but in this case we are talking about older folks and folks with previous medical conditions whose lives are at stake if we simply continue to act on impulse and pretend that the virus isn’t there. Even John Stuart Mill, the arch-defender of libertarian values would agree that where the health and well-being of others is involved laws and  regulations are required — and morally justified.

So many of the young (especially) believe that the virus will not affect them seriously and have decided that they will take a chance. They forget, or ignore the fact, that they might carry the virus to a grandmother or a grandfather, or someone they are close to who suffers from, say, asthma. And those persons may well die because of the kids’ determination to do what they want.

But that’s what they have been taught in the home as well as in school. Just tell those in positions of authority what you want and they will deliver it to you. If they pretend not to hear, shout louder or, possibly, bring a weapon.

The chickens, as I said, have come home to roost.


Pascal’s Wager

I am re-blogging a (slightly modified) post from over a year ago in light of the fact that our president-elect is convinced that global warming is a hoax and the Wisconsin D.N.R. has declared that global warming is merely a “subject of scientific debate.” Both of these positions are irrational and, worse yet, a gamble with the lives of countless folks who will be affected if and when the scientific community is proven to be correct. In the meantime, I argue here that we should all err on the side of caution: it is the only sane position to take in light of the probable consequences of being wrong about a situation that is so deeply serious to us all.

I have remarked in the past, as have others, that it makes good sense to “err on the side of caution” when it comes to the issue of climate change. If we suppose that the scientific research is all wrong, or mostly wrong, or that humans have had nothing whatever to do with global warming (both of which are extremely unlikely), we should still act as though the threat is very real. While it would require that the Congress get out of the pocket of Big Oil, for most of us it would involve minimal personal sacrifices — such as lower temperatures in our houses in the Winter or higher temperatures in the Summer. But if we were to rely on renewable energy, drive smaller cars, walk or ride a bike, we might just begin to reverse the trends that science has shown are now taking place. In a word, we would, perhaps, avoid a calamity of global proportions that is otherwise almost certain to take place. If we are unwilling to do these small things, and continue to deny the evidence that is considerable, the consequences will almost certainly be dire.

Thus, it simply makes good sense to err on the side of caution. It costs us little and could help preserve the planet and if we turn out to have been wrong (or the science was wrong) it has cost us little. Those who refuse to take this line of reasoning are making a huge gamble that they are right and 97% of the scientific community is wrong. This is a gamble that no human being should take upon himself or herself, and those who are in positions of power to mandate remedies and refuse to do so assume a huge responsibility; they are being just plain stupid, if not immoral.

I am reminded of “Pascal’s wager” which the mathematician/philosopher recounts in his Pensées where he suggests that it would be wise to bet that God exists because even if He doesn’t we would still lead better lives than if we insist that He does not exist and pursue a dissolute life and risk all. And if we accept that He does exist, we might enjoy the joys of heaven after we die — rather than the awful alternative. Pascal insists it is simply a matter of common sense. As he puts it in his somewhat terse style:

“But you must wager. It is not optional. . . Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is. . . “

The issue, again, as Pascal saw it, is pressing: we must wager. So is the issue of global warming, except that the gamble in the latter case involves the entire planet whereas Pascal is only concerned about an individual soul. If we lose, we lose all.


Poor Loser

After the recent upset of Kentucky’s basketball team by the University of Wisconsin, one of the Kentucky players was heard to mutter a racial slur under his breath. While the slur was barely heard, it was the most highlighted moment of the interview — perhaps the game itself, as the following story suggests:

An open microphone and a frustrated Andrew Harrison made for a dangerous combination Saturday night.

When a reporter asked Karl-Anthony Towns what made Frank Kaminsky so difficult to defend in Wisconsin’s 71-64 victory over the previously undefeated Wildcats, Harrison appeared to mutter “F— that N—-” under his breath at the mention of the Badgers forward. Harrison tweeted an apology early Tuesday morning and said he’d spoken to Kaminsky.

There are several points I would make about this incident. To begin with, we are reluctant to say this Harrison was simply “wrong” to make the comment, excusing him on the grounds that he was “emotional,” “young,” “upset,” “thought he was off camera,” or whatever. One of the few I heard who actually said the man was wrong was Stephen A. Smith who reports for ESPN. But immediately afterwards Smith denied that it was a racial slur, though it would have been if Kaminsky had said it about Harrison. There’s your double standard: the “N word” is OK if used by blacks among themselves or toward a white player, but not if a white player uses it in reference to a black player.  The obvious profanity was ignored. Why do we make excuses for people instead of admitting that what they did was wrong and shouldn’t occur again? And why do we insist upon using a double standard to excuse what we know is simply wrong? Because, we are told, that would be “judgmental.” Fiddlesticks.

But if we take a step back and look at the larger picture, we must ask why a reporter on the air is not allowed to say or print what we now call “the N word.” It is offensive. I get that. But Bertrand Russell made an important linguistic distinction years ago between” use” and “mention.” If I use the word “bald,” as in “George Costanza is bald,” that differs from my mentioning the word as when I say, “Curtler just wrote that Costanza is ‘bald.'” In the latter case, the word gets inverted commas and we know that it is being mentioned, not used. The question I have is why in this politically correct age even the mention of “the N word” is considered offensive? I can see it if the word is used, though I would say it is offensive no matter who uses it.

But when a reporter has to continue to talk about “the N word” or print a bunch of spaces in the word (even though we know perfectly well what is missing!) then language takes a hit. And heaven knows our language has taken innumerable hits of late. We begin to realize we are reading or hearing a garbled report about an event that many regarded as important enough to talk about on a national network. In short, we have become so paranoid about certain words that even the mention of them is regarded as offensive. As a result, we skirt around the word and end up with a garbled report that is simply confusing. In fact, I heard this story several times before I learned what the words were that Harrison used — and I had to read the above story to learn that.

In itself it is not a big deal. In fact, it is a small deal. But as a reflection of an age that has become tongue-tied trying not to offend anyone, we have diminished our vocabulary and rendered communication problematic. And given that we think in words, this is a big deal. Words can be used and when used are, given the context, at times offensive. But when they are merely mentioned they should not be found offensive since they are not directed at anyone in particular and are employed to help us understand what is going on around us. And we need all the help we can get!

Bizarro World!

I always loved Jerry Seinfeld’s humor and my wife and I watched the re-runs of his sit-com until we could say the lines with the actors. One episode developed the notion of a “bizarro world” where everything is backwards. The idea is stolen from Lewis Carroll, of course, but many a good idea was stolen from someone else. In any event, I sometimes think we live in such a world — especially when I listen to or read some of the comments made by politicians. A case in point is a series of remarks by Mitt Romney quoted in today’s Yahoo News in which he made comments about tax cuts that John Sununu felt necessary to defend. (If we judge people by the company they keep we must be at least mildly concerned by Mitt’s new friends.)  In any event, Romney’s comments, in part, are as follows:

“He [President Obama] wants to hire more government workers. He says we need more fireman, more policeman, more teachers. Did he not get the message of Wisconsin?” Romney said, referring to the failed recall effort of Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker. “The American people did. It’s time for us to cut back on government and help the American people.”

Of course, we can expect the Republicans to play the Wisconsin card at every opportunity. Indeed, if Walker had been recalled the Democrats would have played the same card. But in any event, the notion that “America” has spoken is absurd: the voters in Wisconsin spoke on one issue that makes clear their desire to hang on to their money until their eyeballs pop out. It is, as I am fond of pointing out, a case of short-term thinking that plagues us all. We can’t see the forest for the trees. We think that by saving a few tax dollars we will benefit. We may in the short term, but certainly not in the long run: the cost will be irremediable.

There is simply no way reducing the numbers of firemen, police, and teachers can benefit this country. To say, as Romney apparently did, that “it’s time to cut back on government to help the American people” is oxymoronic, to coin a term. How is it going to help the American people to have a few more dollars in their pocket if there are not enough policemen to keep thieves from stealing them? Or if their house is burning and the remaining firemen are putting out a fire somewhere else? Or if their children grow up and keep electing the same damned fools their parents voted in?

I am aware that government has grown huge. But much of that growth has resulted from individual and, especially, corporate irresponsibility. Many of the government agencies that have sprung up are a direct result of the damage large corporations have done to the environment. Many more are the result of the fact that we all seem to lack foresight. But many, if not all, of these agencies are indeed essential to life as we have come to know it.  Making drastic cuts in essential services, especially at a time when the very rich do not pay their fair share of the taxes, is borderline crazy.

The idea that, as Sununu says (defending Romney), “there are too many teachers” is arrant nonsense. It is on the order of Romney’s notion that small classes don’t benefit the students — which I have discussed previously. Moreover, Sununu’s notion that teaching can be done on the internet is an idea that is catching on and I have also discussed that notion. It, too, is absurd.  Real teaching and learning cannot be accomplished on the internet. The suggestion that we need to reduce the number of teachers in this country is all part of the move to eliminate public schools altogether; it would leave more of our citizens uneducated than is already the case. We not only need more teachers, we need better teachers, and smaller classes.

But as long as we remain focused on reducing taxes by eliminating critical elements within this society such as teachers, firemen, and policemen [what are these men thinking?!], then we deserve the consequences that are sure to follow. Our society will become considerably more dangerous and its citizens even more stupid than they are now — judging by the remarks by these two politicians and by the recent vote in Wisconsin. Bizarro world, indeed: black is white, up is down, and we can make our kids smarter by reducing the pittance we now spend on education and our citizens safer by reducing the number of police and firemen.