A recent “60 Minutes” story explores whether babies are born with racial preference tendencies, quoting Yale University researchers who determined that children start to prefer items that are more like them even in their first few months of life.
While one of these researchers states that babies may be born as “bigots” because they disproportionately choose to be around those who are most like them, perhaps the real answer can be found by looking at how humans have behaved since the world started. Over the past 10,000+ years, people learned that those who don’t look like them or share their behaviors, language and views are more likely to destroy their life than those with whom they share many common bonds.
Does human genetic coding, perhaps the flight mechanism that causes deer to run away when I walk past them on hikes, predispose us to prefer those like us and avoid those with whom we have many differences? Interestingly, the Yale researchers found that early childhood biases are tamed as children grow up.
The lesson from this is that multi-cultural societies can work effectively as we learn to respect and trust those who differ from us. For this to happen though, we need to have enough reassurance — through education and/or interaction — to lose what the Yale research shows may be inherent tendencies. The need for interaction to reduce biases is one of the reasons I am greatly concerned with what I see as the re-segregation of America, where we increasingly live by people like us, listen to news that fits our existing view of the world, and rush to reject those who share a different perspective on an issue as being mean-spirited in having that view.
In the midst of the worst economic recovery in U.S. history, voters selected status quo as the way to move forward. That means that we will again have divided government in Washington, D.C. Generally, I prefer divided government. In Illinois, we see the traumatic damage that can be done when one party has total control of all branches of government (and in fact, one man has most of that control), but lacks the willingness to make hard choices to keep the State healthy. So I don’t quibble with the concept of divided government. I am concerned, though, that the people we sent back to Washington are largely the ones who were there during one of the most partisan and ineffective sessions of Congress in recent memory. It is my true hope that our elected officials in the White House, Senate and House will not interpret reelection as a mandate to continue to bicker, but instead to focus on solving the very real problems in America. Perhaps we will find a way to more productively distribute the $20K per person that the Cato Institute says we spend on poverty programs at the federal and state level (yes, that’s $60K a year for a family of three). I hope we will keep the good parts of President Obama’s health reform and rethink whether we really should spend $10s of billions more on health care bureaucracy. Regardless of what Washington works on, I hope those in charge spend more time solving real problems than preparing 2014 electoral strategy. We’re past deserving it. We’re at the point we need it.
“Circumstances change, and past primacy is no guarantee of future primacy,” wrote Professor Jared Diamond 20-plus years ago in his Pulitzer Prize winning book Guns, Germs and Steel. During a 6-hour Columbus Day drove, I thought again about why European descendants successfully overtook North America. Diamond attributed it to “food production, germs, technology (including weapons), political organization, and writing.” Interestingly, he also argued that organized religion played a role in many conquests, including those throughout the Americas. “The spreads of government and religion have thus been linked to each other throughout recorded history, whether the spread has been peaceful . . . or by force. In the latter case, it is often government that organizes the conquest, and religion that justifies it,” he wrote. Religion played a role in creating the United States. Should we be concerned that a religion could play a role in justifying its demise? What do we need to do as a nation to avoid being on the wrong side of germs, technology and other elements of conquest? How do we build a nation that does not contain divisions so clear they can readily be exploited? It is critical foundational issues like these that warrant more debate and serve as the reason for my writing.
Often, Americans are presented with either/or solutions – usually choices between what satisfies the Democratic party base and what satisfies the Republican party base. To me, good policy starts with sound principles. An upcoming book touches on the complex issues of immigration policy and language mandates. Following are several principles that impact my policy expectations in this area:
Societies have a better chance at success when people who comply with the law are more likely to succeed than those who break the law.
America was built by immigrants and needs a strong flow of immigrants bringing new ideas and work ethic to continue to be successful.
It’s easier to successfully interact with people who speak the same language.
Bureaucratic processes require constant review and streamlining to be effective.
So how to these principles play out to policy recommendations? That’s in the book. The recommendations as championed by a main character may surprise you.
In the upcoming book, Melting Point 2040, a lead character is identified as holding the David Laitin named professorship at the University of Chicago. While every other character is fictional, Stanford University Professor David Laitin is not. Professor Laitin, formerly a University of Chicago professor, is a recognized expert on the role of language, religion and ethnicity on national survival. His research, much done with other academics, is interesting for its conclusions about the ability of multi-cultural societies to survive. His findings are reassuring for multi-cultural societies like the United States, India and others, but the concepts do encounter challenge. My concerns are informed by looking at national boundaries over centuries and millennia rather than within a single century. Through history, few strongly multi-cultural societies lasted more than several hundred years. To ensure survival for 1,000 years or more (without more civil war), it’s critical to understand what triggers civil wars and then avoid these conditions. For more, I recommend http://www.ninetymeetingsinninetydays.com/Civil_War.html for an overview and http://www.uclouvain.be/cps/ucl/doc/etes/documents/12.Laitin.pdf for a more detailed look at the role of language on national survival. As an aside, who came up with the name for civil wars? The word “civil” is out of place.
As the author of an upcoming book, Melting Point 2040, I write stories about how our world could look in 2040 if we don’t solve our toughest issues. Having worked in Congress two decades ago, and then with Congress from the outside in many of the intervening years, I have become increasingly concerned that our political system is stacked against everyday Americans. Campaigns are too long. Money is too prevalent. Perhaps most importantly, the primary structure in most states forces candidates to adhere to political extremes to even get on the November ballot. There was a time when statesmen and stateswomen played key roles in policy decision-making. That time has passed. So, if I dwell on political system reform in this blog, it’s because I think systematic changes are a precursor to fixing many of these other issues.