Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Houston, a Glimpse into America’s More Caring Future?

The 2011 Kinder Houston Area Survey took in a representative sample of 750 Harris County residents—including 240 respondents contacted by cell phone. The University of Houston administered the survey. Survey author, Stephen Klineberg, co-director of the Kinder Institute and professor of sociology, said:

Houston is where America’s four major ethnic communities—Anglos, Asians, blacks and Latinos—meet in more equal numbers than almost anywhere else in the country. The challenges and opportunities of creating a more unified and inclusive multiethnic society will be seen here first.

As a city at the forefront of the country’s demographic revolution, Klineberg thought that Houston offers a glimpse into America’s future, and the survey’s assessment of the city may offer important lessons for strengthening the rest of the country:

  • create policies that moderate the inequalities
  • nurture a far more educated workforce
  • develop cities into environmentally and aesthetically appealing destinations
  • empower all members of a multiethnic society.

Though Texas is a red state traditionally wanting less government, a majority of Houstonians today (52 percent) said that government has a responsibility to help reduce the inequalities between rich and poor in America (up from 45 percent in 2009). This year 48 percent said that “government should do more to solve our country’s problems” (up from 36 percent in 1996). 72 percent of respondents thought most poor people in the US today are poor because of circumstances they can’t control (up from 68 percent in 2007, and 52 percent in 1999). Although 86 percent agreed “if you work hard in this city, eventually you will succeed”, 67 percent also think “people who work hard and live by the rules are not getting a fair break these days”.

Respondents are a bit more upbeat in their personal economic outlooks—26 percent (up from 20 percent in 2010) report improving personal financial conditions—but remain pessimistic about the long term national prospects—only 31 percent (down from 43 percent in 2007) believe that young people will eventually have a higher standard of living than adult Americans today:

Houstonians feel that the bleeding has stopped, but a robust recovery is not yet on the horizon.
Stephen Klineberg

78 percent disagreed with the statement “A high school education is enough to get a good job”. The percent of people who spontaneously mentioned education when asked to name the biggest problem facing people in Houston jumped to 7.6 percent this year from just 1.7 percent in 2009 and 2 percent in 2010:

There’s a new awareness that this is now a high tech, knowledge based economy and there aren’t many good jobs for people without a college education. Education is more important than ever. Long gone are the days when you could get a job out of high school, work hard and make enough money until you retire. The resources of the knowledge economy are not found in factories, they are situated between the ears of the best and brightest, who can live anywhere.

Public support for new initiatives to improve the quality of life in Houston has remained firm or grown stronger across the 30 years of the survey. Area residents support measures to enhance the city’s green spaces and bayous, revitalize and preserve urban centers and improve air and water quality.

Though most respondents (52 percent) said they would prefer to live in a single family residential area, a large minority (45 percent) would choose an area with a mix of homes, shops and restaurants. In 2010, 41 percent said they’d prefer a smaller home within walking distance of shops and workplaces, rather than a single family home with a big yard “where you would need to drive almost everywhere you want to go”.

Asked how they would feel if a close relative of theirs wanted to marry a non-Anglo, 8 percent of the Anglo respondents this year said they would disapprove, down from 13 percent in 2002 and 23 percent in 1995. Among the Anglo respondents under the age of 30, 93 percent said they would approve of such intermarriage, compared with 69 percent of those 60 or older. Seventy percent of Anglos under 30, but only 35 percent in the older group, said that the increasing immigration into this country today mostly strengthens American culture. 73 percent of the younger respondents, compared with 52 percent of those 60 or older, said they are in favor of granting illegal immigrants a path to legal citizenship if they speak English and have no criminal record.

So, older Houstonians’ attitudes toward diversity, which will continue growing rapidly, are in conflict with younger Anglos more comfortable with the demographic trends.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Shopping Addiction—Thinking it Can Change Your Life!

People who overuse credit have different beliefs about products from those who spend within their means. Professor Marsha Richins says many people buy products thinking that the items will make them happier and transform their lives. Simultaneously such consumer materialism induces in them a disregard for debt. These two forces work together to increase credit abuse and overuse.

Wanting to buy products becomes a problem when people expect unreasonable degrees of change in their lives from their purchases. Some people tend to ascribe almost magical properties to goods—that buying things will make them happier, cause them to have more fun, improve their relationships—in short, transform their lives. These beliefs are fallacious for the most part, but nonetheless can be powerful motivators for people to spend.

Materialistic types hope for four kinds of changes when making purchases, but earlier research shows that these expectations are often not fulfilled. The four kinds of transformations expected are:

  1. Transformation of the self—the belief that a purchase will change who you are and how people perceive you. This is commonly held by young people and people in new roles. Example—a woman wanted cosmetic dental surgery to improve her appearance and self-confidence.
  2. Transformation of relationships—the expectation that a purchase will give someone more or better relationships with others. Example, a woman wanted to buy a new home because she thought it would enable her to entertain more often and make more friends.
  3. Hedonic transformation—a purchase will make life more fun. Example, a man wanted a mountain bike because he thought it would give him more incentive to get out and go on “an adventure”.
  4. Efficacy transformation—the expectation that purchases will make people more effective in their lives. Example, some people wanted to buy a vehicle because they thought it would make them more independent and self-reliant.

In proportion, none of these are a problem. They can be for people who have strong and unrealistic transformational beliefs, for then they are more likely than others to overuse credit and take on excessive debt. Other research by Fang and Mowen, 2009, and Netemeyer, et al, 1998 has also shown a relationship between materialism and gambling, and yet more by Mowen and Spears, 1999, and Ridgway, Kukar-Kinney, and Monroe, 2008, between materialism and compulsive consumption.

It is further evidence that our economic system is damaging to us, and professor Ritchins seems to agree. She thinks finance and credit counseling should be revised to help people understand their motivations for purchasing goods better, and recognize that products are not a quick fix for improving their lives:

Many financial literacy programs seek to prevent people from getting into financial problems by presenting the facts about interests rate and loans, but few seek to influence behavior directly, or focus on why people purchase things they cannot afford, and go into debt.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Is the Wagon Rolling Against the Robbing Rich?

Amid the recent fiscal carnage in Washington several studies of the US have been published concerning the situation of the average American. First, IMF economists analyzed the US public deficit and debt levels, and their relation to the demands aging Baby Boomers will place on the government’s Medicare and Medicaid healthcare programs, while the birth rate lags at a record low:

The United States is facing an untenable fiscal situation due to the combination of high fiscal deficits, an aging population and rapid growth in government provided healthcare benefits.
IMF study, An Analysis of US Fiscal and Generational Imbalances:
Who Will Pay and How?

To “go a long way in returning the United States to a fiscally sustainable path”, the US government must cut the entitlement programs and especially healthcare—among the most expensive in the world—that face rapidly rising costs in coming years. Americans will have to pay more taxes and the government will have to cut spending on Baby Boomers—those Americans between about 45 and 65—and their immediate heirs.

To eliminate all current deficits and long term shortfalls on social plans for the current generation “would require all taxes to go up and all transfers to be cut immediately and permanently by 35 percent”, and “delay in the adjustment makes it more costly”.

Unless currently living Americans pay more in net taxes or unless government spending on current generations is curtailed, future Americans will face net tax rates that are about 21.5 percentage points… higher than those facing current newborn Americans.

Of course, the IMF is an arm of US foreign policy, or rather, an arm of the international policies of the US uber rich class who rule the world for the sole purpose of making themselves richer than their already obscene levels of riches. The IMF always makes the people pay whenever the rulers of any country get its finances in a twist by their greedy machinations. The ruling clique in the US are among the main beneficiaries usually. It is time they paid! Normally, they pay least, often nothing!

But the average Yankee seems amazingly placid, or gets worked up over the wrong enemy, all too often supporting the greedy manipulators because they are all too easy to fool. Often, they seem to think that they are themselves among the uber rich, but less than a single percent of the population are. That one percent have gotten three times richer in real terms over the last 30 years, while the average Yankee has got poorer once inflation is accounted for.

Not surprisingly, more Americans say that their financial situation is worse not better in recent years. For the first time since 1972, 31.5 percent of Americans are “not at all” satisfied with their financial situation compared with 23.4 percent who are “pretty well” satisfied (General Social Survey, NORC, University of Chicago).

Americans are also more insecure about employment. A record 16.4 percent thought it “likely” (fairly or very) that they would lose their job or be laid off. As few as 52.2 percent thought it “not at all likely” that they would lose their job or be laid off, easily the lowest confidence ever recorded by the GSS. Those who thought their standard of living was “much better” or “somewhat better” than their parents declined.

The General Social Survey—which NORC has conducted for forty years based on 2,044 interviews—is a biennial survey that gathers data on contemporary American society to monitor and explain trends and constants in attitudes, behaviors, and attributes.

On top of these, American “happiness” has been measured and took some blows, but some American stoicism shone through here. While only 28.8 percent of Americans, the lowest percentage since 1972, were “happy”, another 14.2 percent were “not too happy”. Happiness was hit mainly because of the economy and people’s own finances. Even so, 85.8 percent of Americans were “happy”.

Not all aspects of happiness fell during the downturn. 97 percent of marriages were judged to be “happy” (very or pretty), and 86.0 percent of Americans claim to be “very satisfied” or “moderately satisfied” with their work, a steady average since 1972.

If anything, it suggests that the average American lives in a cocoon. They are concerned for themselves and their immediate family, and are satisfied that they are not being repossessed like the family over the street, and still have a job to hang on to. Despite the hugely vaunted Christianity of the Christian nation, the average American is indifferent to his neighbour, as long as he’s all right.

The motto is not “Do unto others as you would be done by”, it is “I’m all right, Bud, You look after yourself”.

Fortunately, recent proposed cuts in public services have been firmly rebutted by encouraging united strength and purpose. Is the US sleeping Leviathan waking up? Let’s hope so, then you smug financiers, corporate bosses, bankers and bought men will have to watch out! Once enough of the people stop being taken in by the great Washington Repucrat-Demoblican farce, then the wagon of unity may be rolling, and the callous and greedy exploiters of the rest of us will be crushed by its irresistible momentum.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Empathy—the Hallmark of a Compassionate and Civilised Society

Science is beginning to unravel the mystery of why some people have less empathy than others and the implications are potentially far reaching, not least for the criminal justice system:

Empathy itself is the most valuable resource in our world. It might even have relevance for politics and politicians, so that when we try and resolve conflict, whether it’s domestic conflict or international conflict, issues about empathy might actually be useful. Given this assertion, it is puzzling that in the school curriculum empathy figures hardly at all, and in politics, business, the courts or policing it is rarely if ever on the agenda. We can see examples among our political leaders of the value of empathy, as when Nelson Mandela and FW de Klerk sought to understand and befriend each other, crossing the divide in Apartheid South Africa, but the same has not yet been achieved between Israel and Palestine, or between Washington and Iraq or Afghanistan. And, for every day that empathy is not employed in such corners of the world, more lives are lost.

Simon Baron-Cohen

Baron-Cohen adds:

The hallmark of a compassionate and civilised society is that we try to understand other people’s actions, we don’t try to simply condemn them. There is even a question about whether a person that commits an awful crime should be in a prison as opposed to a hospital. When people commit crimes, there may be determinants of their behaviour which are outside their control. No one is responsible for their own genes.

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