Thursday, March 6, 2014
College and university faculty usually experience the defining dictum, "Publish or perish." Faculty progression toward tenure – for the fortunate few hired in a tenure track job instead of as an adjunct (cf. my previous Ethical Musings post, Supply and demand in the PhD labor market) – depends upon the individual successfully publishing peer reviewed articles and books.
Peer review, when it works well, entails a blind review of the draft of an article or book by peers, i.e., acknowledged, reputable scholars in the same discipline. One purpose of peer review is to prevent the publication (or rejection) of material based on reputation (or lack thereof). Another purpose of peer review is to promote the use of current data and the best available scholarly methods. In general, peer review is not the problem.
The problem with publish or perish is, first, the presumption that every faculty member is a skilled researcher whose new ideas will significantly advance her or his field. That presumption is obviously false. Yet the presumption is deeply embedded in institutions of higher learning and has resulted in a proliferation of scholarly journals filled with articles that make marginal (or no) contributions to the authors' discipline, contributions more accurately characterized as chaff than substance. This assessment is especially true in disciplines other than the hard sciences, but even in those fields, some scholars conduct research of little or no value in order to publish the results.
The second problem is more serious: faculty members have little incentive to teach well. Promotion and retention is contingent upon publishing, not teaching well. And once awarded tenure, some faculty members focus on researching (many times, this was their original preference but in many fields there are no jobs that pay for research without some teaching). Other faculty members use the free conferred by tenure to do perform at a minimally acceptable level, teaching poorly while doing little or no research.
Incidentally, the purpose of tenure for college and university faculty members is to give individuals the economic security, and hence the freedom, to teach what they perceive is correct, able to ignore political correctness, social pressures, etc.
Two hundred years ago, before the proliferation of PhD programs, much college and university teaching was done by individuals who held a Master's degree, i.e., by individuals who had mastered their discipline but not contributed to advancing that field through the research that culminated in a doctoral dissertation. As the supply of PhDs increased, individuals with only a Master's degree filled fewer teaching positions. The greatest cost of this shift has been a precipitous drop in the quality of pedagogy at even the best institutions of higher learning.
Degree inflation has become widespread. Large corporations routinely insist that many new hires have a college degree, regardless of whether the position filled requires the skills (e.g., writing well, problem solving, or working well with others) or the knowledge (e.g., of biology or math) that the degree supposedly signifies.
Society and individuals would come out ahead if our public school system (K through grade 12) emphasized giving people basic life skills and then preparing people either for low skill jobs (but keeping this track narrow!), decent paying skilled work (e.g., many of the trades, lots of positions in healthcare, first responders, etc.), and college/university. Persons in the latter track would face greater expectations (no more teaching of basic skills in college!), have better teachers, and in the four years of college, supplemented by however many years of graduate school a particular profession might require, truly master their field. Ideally, we would no longer have PhDs unable to write a grammatically correct sentence (I once had one with this level of grammatical ability work for me).
In other words, let's restore integrity to teaching at all levels and ensure that diplomas and degrees are worth the paper on which they are printed.
Wednesday, March 5, 2014
This year, I'm not offering anything new for Ash Wednesday. Instead, I hope you will take a few moments to read two previous Ethical Musings posts. The first, entitled Ash Wednesday, discusses the basic ideas behind the imposition of ashes and the other, Getting Ready for Lent, examines the practice of choosing a Lenten discipline.
The challenge of Ash Wednesday and Lent is not in finding something new to say (after preaching and writing for forty years, I don't worry about that!), but in hoping that people will take themselves, their spiritual lives, and their connectedness to God, others, and the world seriously.
May your Lent – the forty days of preparation between Ash Wednesday and Easter – be a spiritually beneficial time in which you strengthen your awareness of those connections.
Monday, March 3, 2014
Recently I have been mulling the problems of welfare, just social safety nets, and Christian perspectives on economics. Coincidentally, a friend sent me a link to Nick Spencer, ed., The Future of Welfare: A Theos Collection (London: Theos, 2014). Theos, for those unfamiliar, is a Christian think tank in the UK. The anthology is a reasonably quick read, bringing together a dozen essays on the British welfare state, the need for reform, and principles that should shape reform. Most of the essays are written from an explicitly Christian perspective; one, very informative essay, is written by a Muslim who offers an Islamic view on the problems of the welfare state.
Concurrently, I also stumbled across an article in the Wall Street Journal that reported wealth inequality in the United States is now slightly greater than the inequality that existed in Britain in 1929 between aristocrats (like Lord Grantham) and the working poor (like his servants at Downton Abbey). Every time that I watch an episode of Downton Abbey, I am struck by the long hours servants work and their need to work and the idle lifestyle that the Earl of Grantham, his family, and other aristocratic families can adopt if they choose.
On the one hand, I want to live in a society that ensures everyone has access to life's basic necessities (decent food, drink, shelter, healthcare, and education). It was William Temple, when Archbishop of Canterbury, who coined the phrase the "welfare state" to describe our obligation we have to care for one another.
On the other hand, every adult also has a measure of responsibility for self. Denying this element of individual responsibility demeans one's personhood, reducing the person to a dependent, i.e., living as a child rather than an adult. Work is important because work affords people an opportunity to contribute to the common good, individuals the opportunity to function with at least some degree of autonomy, and afford individuals a sense of self-worth and dignity.
Welfare states, like the US and UK, in which families subsist on government aid for multiple generations, have struck the wrong balance between individual and mutual responsibility. Conversely, welfare states like the US, which spends more on healthcare than any other nation in the world spends for worse outcomes, has also struck the wrong balance – for the opposite reason – between individual and mutual responsibility.
Among the ideas in the Theos document that I found intriguing and provocative are:
- Conceptualizing the welfare state in terms of reciprocity and risk-pooling, i.e., taxes that support entitlement programs are analogous to insurance payments that one makes, hopes never to need, and that make providing for potential catastrophe (e.g., a house fire or car cash) affordable. What people who contribute by paying their taxes but who never directly benefit from the scheme receive is (1) peace of mind from knowing that if calamity struck, they are covered and (2) the right to feel good from helping others. Calamity can strike all of us, whether in the form of unexpected disease, disability, economic collapse, or another hardship that individual cannot reasonably anticipate let alone prepare to meet alone. The welfare state expresses our concern for one another in ways that should expect all to contribute and that is reliable.
- One of the weaknesses of the current welfare state is that too many people do not contribute; another weakness is that top earners do not bear their fair share of the burden.
- Three key, overarching ethical values that should shape the welfare state are: fair, generous, and sustainable. Fair connotes a system that inclusive and treats all equitably. Part of treating all equitably is that the system should have incentives to encourage those who draw benefits to become self-supporting rather than indefinitely dependent upon the largesse of others. Generous connotes benefits that do not require people to live at a subsistence level. Sustainable connotes that the government must be able to afford the benefits its pays, generating sufficient revenue through taxes as well as having controls in place to prevent fraud and other abuses.
- Contributors to the Theos collection divided over whether benefits should be means tested. Means testing can help to keep the welfare state affordable and seems appropriate for insurance schemes (lack of means is equivalent to a house fire or car accident in other insurance schemes).
- What was not clear to me was how the welfare state can creatively and constructively address the issue of strongly encouraging, even requiring, both parents to support children. The UK, like the US, has experienced in the last half century a sharp rise in the percentage of children raised in single parent households; the nonresidential parent often contributes disproportionately little to the expense of raising the child(ren). Procreating a child entails responsibilities and expenses that both parents should share, regardless of the status of their personal relationship.
Both the United States and the United Kingdom can benefit from welfare reform. The welfare state, as found in both nations, is not only increasingly expensive (this, sadly, often appears to be the primary driver in calls for welfare reform) but also fails to provide adequate benefits for all (think of the growing numbers of beggars in our cities) while encouraging dependency rather than promoting healthy self-reliance in the context of mutual interdependence. As the Theos documents repeatedly insists, we can do better.
Thursday, February 27, 2014
An Ethical Musings' reader, Mary Mainwaring, sent me these thoughts on immigration after reading my previous post, offering provocative personal testimony as well as highlighting some of the reasons the immigration system needs overhauling:
As a double immigrant (I emigrated from Britain to Canada, then from Canada to the US), I have thought about this topic for many years. Both Canada and the USA were built by immigrants, literally. The architects, engineers, and laborers were all immigrants. Some were welcome to stay on; some (like Chinese laborers) were not so welcome.
Both countries had mixed feelings about immigration. Whenever there was a substantial group of immigrants from somewhere, they tended to live together and continue to use their own language and customs. Sometimes this caused tension with others in the area. In the US, slaves were deliberately mixed with others so that they did not share a common language. Ghettos were made in cities out of areas where Jewish and other immigrants lived.
American theory became the ‘melting pot’. All were welcome as long as they would become ‘American’. School (in English) became compulsory and the myths about early American history, American freedom, and American enterprise were taught there. Independent men strode out to forge their own future in this story, making good out of nothing.
So in cities like New York, there were areas of the city that housed the poor recent immigrant community; the story was that these changed hands because the old group assimilated and ‘made good’. Once they had found the American way of life, they themselves or their children born here became real Americans.
In Canada, the situation was different because of the large group of French speaking Canadians (the origin of the name is French) who were there before most of the English-speaking immigrants. So there were two languages and two cultures in Canada from its founding. Latterly, the presence of Inuit and other First Nations people, particularly in the North, have been recognized. Canadians used the image of the ‘mosaic’.
Now that the US has a large number of Spanish-speaking immigrants so that parts of the country operate in Spanish, there is a different situation from the past experience of immigration. California and other areas in the West are now supporting Spanish populations. (Ironic, since many of the areas now doing so used to be part of Mexico). This means that the language of everyday life in these areas is no longer English. To some minds, ‘they’ have ‘taken over’.
The fear this brings to the English speakers is obvious in some of the rhetoric, often played out in the ideas about immigration being ‘legal’ and ‘illegal’. Unfortunately, the use of shorthand labels for the people involved such as illegal immigrant or undocumented immigrant devalue the person and make it easier to express extreme prejudice against them. They are taking ‘our’ jobs, for example. An experiment in employing non-Mexican farmworkers showed that the poor in America couldn't do the work even if they try. Most of the farmworkers in the US are not unskilled workers, but people with agricultural knowledge and skills. It’s not just surviving hard physical work in the summer heat out in the fields, but also knowing how to plant, care for, and harvest crops. (The same thing applies to the slave labor we once used; knowing about rice or indigo growing was what the ‘owners’ looked for in slave labor).
Since we brought in the strange notions about blocking people from entering our various countries because we wanted to protect those already here from upheavals and cultural changes, the American system of choosing those it approves to enter is badly flawed. The process is long, complicated, annoying, expensive, and makes life difficult for all involved. I talked to the judge in Charlotte when I signed in and she told me that she couldn't do the part of her job that involves supervising the rest of the staff because there was such a huge backlog that she did nothing but interview people every day. Some of these interviews are a waste of time because the person has already shown ability; for example, I had to take a primitive ‘test’ of English skills (easily copied from the person beside me if I had not known the answers) even though I had been teaching in English for many years in the US. Also, she told me that there were supposed to be more people working in the Charlotte office, but these positions were not funded as budgets were cut. Since the budget cutting has continued since then, it must be worse now. Nobody is going to protest about cuts to the staff in immigration offices.
The forms to fill in are byzantine, and the oath, which one has to take, like some of the questions, are archaic or sometimes laughable. (“Are you or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?” “Do you intend to overthrow the government of the United States?”) Once we were without permission to live here because the process was supposed to take a few months, but it took years. So our permission to live and work here ran out. We were told that as long as we were ‘in the process’ it didn’t matter. But we had no documents to get back into the country should we need to leave for some reason. These frustrations mean that many people are going to drop out of the system through no fault of their own, and then become ‘illegal’. Before attaining US citizenship, one may be deported at any time with no hearing and no need for explanation. This happens much more often to Mexicans and other Spanish speakers than it does to English speaking ‘desirables’. During all this time, we could not vote and taking part in the political process or speaking out might mean deportation.
Americans regularly told me to break the law and get a job when I was still unable to do that, not having a green card. It was evident that they had no idea what the rules were about emigration and thought that everyone elsewhere in the world would come to the US if they could. And that once you were here, of course you could work and build a life for yourselves. But that was when the rules applied to us, their neighbor. The story changed when it applied to poor immigrants who do farm work.
Like many other departments of the US government, the civil servants that do the work of sorting through immigration papers and getting people through to green card status or citizenship are undervalued and understaffed. The system is badly flawed and in need of overhaul, but, until it is properly staffed, nothing will improve.
Monday, February 24, 2014
Some thoughts about immigration:
- 2 million illegal immigrants have been deported since Obama became President, more than under any previous president and nine times the rate of nine years ago
- Technological changes are making low-skill, manual labor jobs less remunerative and less attractive. Consequently, many Americans decline to seek these positions, preferring to collect unemployment compensation while seeking a new job rather than to accept what our society widely perceives to be a dead-end job. Employers can continue to pay low wages for these jobs because immigrants, some of them in the country illegally, find the jobs offer better lifestyle if not employment prospects than they had before immigrating to the U.S.
- Foreign-born individuals earn half all PhDs in science and technology awarded by U.S. schools and are co-authors of four-fifths of the drug patents, i.e., foreign-born individuals, regardless of immigration status, contribute to U.S. technological progress and economic productivity. In other words, current immigration policies arguably harm rather than benefit the nation.
- Most U.S. citizens are immigrants or the descendant of immigrants.
- National borders are an attempt by nation states to define themselves in terms of geography and citizens. In the absence of strong border controls, numerous people relocate to improve their economic or social prospects, e.g., in the European Union (EU) with its relatively open borders citizens of less prosperous countries in Eastern Europe often grab an opportunity to relocate to a wealthier Western European country. Anecdotally, when I spent a week in London last autumn, eating in restaurants and staying in a hotel, I think only one of the service people spoke with a UK accent.
- God is no respecter of persons, i.e., God makes no distinctions in how God treats people based on their national identity or origin and desires that we similarly treat all people with equal respect.
- Entirely eliminating border controls would result in substantial numbers of people moving to the United States. Some would contribute greatly to our national ethos, bringing their entrepreneurial spirits, industry, ambition, skills, and native abilities. A few would come seeing an opportunity for criminal activity and a few would come seeking welfare benefits. These few collectively represent a distinct minority. Most people, regardless of where they live, are neither criminal nor constitutionally lazy.
- History suggests that the risky policy of allowing open immigration pays dividends in terms of social and economic benefits, e.g., the history of North America from the sixteenth through the imposition of immigration controls in the nineteenth century. If the U.S. opened its borders, would it spend less on additional policing and welfare benefits than it now spends in vain attempts to control its borders? (Notwithstanding the huge number of deportees, current border control efforts are largely in vain, given the presence of millions of illegal immigrants.)
- The best prevention of illegal immigration may be to promote human rights, liberal democracy, and economic prosperity abroad. Tellingly, a depressed U.S. economy causes fewer Mexicans to attempt to enter the U.S. illegally. Canadians, who enjoy their own prosperous liberal democratic nation, rarely try to immigrate illegally to the U.S. or elsewhere.
More specifically, the current U.S. approach to immigration benefits few:
- Deportation is an expensive, time-consuming process.
- Illegal immigrants brought by their parents to the U.S. as children (i.e., these illegal immigrants had no choice in their immigration status) may know no other language, culture, or identity. Sending such individuals back to their nominal country helps nobody and carries significant costs for society, e.g., an illegal immigrant recently was the runner-up in the election of the University of North Carolina's student body president and obviously a talented young man with much to contribute.
- Sending parents home while allowing a child born in this country to remain because the child is a citizen and the parents are illegal immigrants hurts everyone. Parents with sufficient initiative to come to want to be in the U.S. illegally so that their newborn will be a citizen have genes from which this nation can benefit.
I don't anticipate that the U.S. will eliminate its border controls in the near future. I'm admittedly uncertain about the full ramifications of such a radical change. EU member nations have struggled with their open borders, although many of the difficulties may be transitional rather than permanent if those relating from poor to wealthy nations bring disproportionate amounts of industry, ambition, and talent.
However, current U.S. immigration policies and laws are broken and inconsistent with God's equal love for all. Incremental changes may represent the preferred answer, especially given Washington's polarized politics and widespread though biblically and historically unwarranted xenophobia.
Thursday, February 20, 2014
Jesus is the Prince of Peace who, in the Sermon on the Mount said, "Blessed are the peacemakers." Yet we Christians generally act as if working for peace is like tilting at windmills or that peace will arrive with no action required on our part. Both responses betray our identity as Jesus' followers. Consequently, we live in a more heavily armed and militaristic world than is morally or spiritually justifiable.
We best fulfill our vocation as peacemakers when we identify concrete steps that will move us closer to peace and then join with others to turn those steps from dreams into reality. Pushing the United States toward partial nuclear disarmament is one such step, once a seemingly impossible dream that now seems increasingly possible.
During the Cold War, the United States and Soviet Union were in a protracted nuclear standoff, neither nation willing to attack the other, both having subscribed to a policy of mutually assured destruction, convinced of the utter folly of a nuclear attack against the other, an event certain to trigger a war that would result in an uninhabitable planet.
The United States, for its part, invested heavily in a nuclear triad of land-based, submarine launched, and bomber launched nuclear warheads. The military justification for this triad was that it assured deterrence of a Soviet attack. A Soviet first strike might destroy one or two legs of the triad but could not destroy all three legs.
The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. No hostile nuclear-armed adversary now confronts the United States with a threat of similar magnitude. Furthermore, although the number of nuclear-armed nations has slowly risen, only Russia, which possesses significantly less military power than did the former Soviet Union, could seriously threaten, if it chose, the United States in a nuclear war. China critically lacks the systems (missiles, etc.) capable of delivering nuclear weapons to targets in much of the United States.
The diminished capacity of any potential foe to initiate a nuclear attack requires less of a nuclear deterrent. In 1991, President George H.W. Bush ended the 24/7 ready alert status of U.S. strategic bombers and many land-based missiles, effectively dismantling one and a half legs of the nuclear triad. Post-9/11, no subsequent president has reversed that order.
The threat of a terror group using a nuclear weapon against the United States is greatly overblown. Nations – think North Korea, Pakistan, and Iran – need years, spend billions of dollars, and utilize the efforts of thousands of people, some very highly educated, to develop a nuclear weapon. No terror group has similar resources. A terror group might conceivably steal a weapon, but would still face the daunting double challenge of getting the weapon to a target and then detonating the weapon. No terror group has even stolen a nuclear weapon. Any nation that has developed nuclear weapons values those weapons too highly to permit the theft of one.
Realistically, the only type of nuclear weapon that a terror group could either acquire or build is a dirty bomb, a conventional weapon that, when exploded, scatters a heap of collected radioactive material. A dirty bomb poses little actual threat. A conventional explosion would scatter, even in a stiff wind, radioactive material over a VERY limited area, probably a few acres and almost assuredly less than one square mile. The most easily obtained radioactive material (e.g., waste from medical and dental offices) emits relatively low levels of radiation that, when dissipated across an open area, is unlikely to cause significant harm. Authorities by moving quickly to control access to the contaminated area, decontaminate exposed individuals, and clean up radioactive material would limit direct harm. A dirty bomb's greatest cost would be from any public fear and panic that the attack caused, effects similar to what happened post-9/11.
Terror groups, unlike nations, do not have assets (the military forces and bases, industrial complexes, transportation hubs, etc.) that offer suitable targets for nuclear retaliation. The U.S. nuclear triad – regardless of whatever risk of nuclear attack that a terror group might pose – represents neither a deterrent nor a possible means of retaliation against non-state terror groups.
In the absence of any arguably valid national defense requirement, the United States continues to fund, maintain, and operate its nuclear triad. Doing so makes the world less safe, directly harms the United States, and keeps the earth and us from moving closer to the peace that God intends.
Quite simply, the world is less safe because nuclear weapons are dangerous. In general, the fewer nuclear weapons that exist, the safer the world is (e.g., terrorists cannot steal non-existent weapons). Entrusting nuclear weapons to military personnel who engage in the types of personal and professional misconduct recently disclosed in the media – behaviors symptomatic of widespread low morale, high levels of stress, and a dead-end career field – seems especially unwise. From my service as a military chaplain, I know that these problems are indicative of a broken system and not isolated cases of individual miscreants.
Preserving its nuclear triad directly harms the United States because the triad is costly. A nuclear submarine, for example, costs $4.9 billion to build – real money by anyone's reckoning. Personnel and operating costs for Strategic Command (the military command responsible for the nuclear triad) are tens of billions of dollars annually. Eliminating one or two legs of the triad, or dramatically scaling back all three legs, would substantially cut defense spending, freeing those funds for education, healthcare, infrastructure repair, other needed programs, or deficit reduction. As President Eisenhower publicly remarked, spending one more dollar on national defense than is essential hurts the nation, depriving it of the good that spending the money in another way would achieve. I, for one, find it impossible to believe that the U.S., to be secure, must spend more on national defense than the next twenty nations combined spend.
Throughout the Bible, the word peace denotes not just the absence of armed conflict but also the fullness of well-being and prosperity. Whether one is a Christian pacifist or believes that in our present brokenness nations, particularly free and democratic nations, have a right to self-defense, spending money to develop, procure, maintain, and operate weapons not needed for defense is immoral. Christian peacemakers – and that should include all Christians – can faithfully unite in lobbying our government to eliminate nuclear weapons and delivery systems that no longer contribute to national defense.
Opposition to any reduction is strong. President Eisenhower warned of an emerging military-industrial complex. Today, the nation is in the firm grip of the political-military-industrial complex. Defense industries that build and maintain nuclear weapons wield much political influence. They give large sums to political candidates and employ people at facilities in a majority of congressional districts. Trimming the nuclear triad will eliminate jobs in defense industries, the military, and the civil service. Some defense hawks unfortunately object to any reduction in defense spending, ignoring the fiscal imperative to shape today's Department of Defense to counter today's threat, the moral imperative to care for the most vulnerable, and the spiritual imperative to work for peace.
Conversely, peace advocates wield relatively little political influence. In part, this is because peacemakers contribute relatively little to political campaigns. More importantly, peacemakers exert little political influence because they have not mobilized successfully.
The Episcopal Peace Fellowship, through its local chapters and national organization, offers people who have heard Jesus' call to be peacemakers and who want to obey opportunities to join with likeminded individuals in working for peace. Together, we can accomplish far more than the sum of our individual efforts. The arc of history is swinging toward peace and we, with God's help, can accelerate the pace at which it is bending.
Monday, February 17, 2014
"To violate your conscience is to commit moral suicide."
That provocative idea comes from an acquaintance of mine, Herman Keizer, a retired army (Colonel) Chaplain with forty years of military experience, whom the authors, Rita Nakashima Brock and Gabriella Lettini of Soul Repair: Recovering from Moral Injury after War quote.
Keizer has overstated his point. There is no recovery from suicide, but a person can recover from a moral injury. Hyperbole aside, Keizer is on target when he recognizes that violating one's conscience causes moral injury.
Moral injury is distinct from PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress). PTSD is an emotional injury for which mental health professionals, sometimes assisted by clergy and others, provide treatment that may appropriately include prescription medicines. Moral injury effects one's conscience, spirit, or soul (take your choice, depending upon your view of anthropology). Healing for moral injury occurs through telling one's story, knowing that one is heard, rebuilding trust, reconnecting with people, and eventually experiencing forgiveness, self-forgiveness, and healing.
Explicit recognition of moral injury is relatively new, although authors going back at least to Homer (cf. The Iliad, the story of the warrior Homer's return from the Trojan war). Like PTSD and unlike wounds for which American soldiers receive the Purple Heart, moral injury is not a visible injury. However, that does not make the wound any less real or diminish the need for healing.
Although work on moral injury centers on warfighting, I believe that moral injury can occur in any situation in which a person violates her or his conscience. Not attempting to intervene to stop something a person recognizes as evil, afraid of the personal consequences of acting, seems likely to result in moral injury.
If you are interested in learning more about moral injury, I commend Brock and Lettini's book, Soul Repair, Jonathan Shay's book, Odysseus in America.