July 26, 2008


"Outside of a dog, a book is man's best friend. Inside of a dog it's too dark to read."--Groucho Marx

The staff of Goat Rope would like to introduce Arpad, a Great Pyrenees "puppy" whose job it is to protect the goats and various critters on the farm. The affection level between goats and dog is somewhat underwhelming, but, as the Bard noted, "the course of true love never did run smooth."

Coyotes, beware!


July 25, 2008


Diego the turkey is mostly influenced by love.

It often seems to El Cabrero that people who are interested in trying to make the world a little less violent and more just sometimes rely more on rhetoric than research. While there ain't nothing wrong with talking pretty, it probably won't get us where we need to go. Whenever possible, I recommend taking advantage of the relevant findings from the social sciences.

This is especially true when dealing with issues of violence and cruelty. Labeling something as bad is not the same as understanding what causes it or what can prevent or reduce it.

The last few weeks at Goat Rope have focused on how situations and systems can influence people to do things they would not otherwise have done, with a special tip of the hat (or goat horns) to Stanford psychologist Philip Zimbardo, author of The Lucifer Effect.

Suggestion: buy the book!

On the bright side, I think that understanding how these things work can help give people the resources to resist unwanted social influences. By way of conclusion, here's a link to 20 tips on resisting unwanted influences as prepared by Zimbardo and Cindy X. Wang.

It's pretty basic stuff--like not thinking it could never happen to you, being willing to admit mistakes, accepting responsibility for one's actions, resisting illegitimate authority--but then it's usually the basics that you can rely on.

MINIMUM WAGE. The newly-increased federal minimum wage trails behind many states, as the latest Economic Policy Institute snapshot reveals.

THE GLOBAL FOOD CRISIS is hitting Africa particularly hard.

SIGNS OF THE TIMES. The latest news about the US economy isn't good, but you already knew that. Here's something on the rise of unemployment claims and here's coverage of the latest Fed report on the state of the economy.


July 24, 2008


This man is easily influenced.

The theme at Goat Rope lately has been insights from the social sciences about human violence, cruelty and...well...evil. Once again, I highly recommend social psychologist Philip Zimbardo's book The Lucifer Effect and its accompanying website.

One of the themes that jumps out over and over again from all the research (not to mention history) is that people are extremely susceptible to situational and systemic pressures which can make them do things they would otherwise never have done.

The sad thing is that a lot of the things that can get us into trouble are basic human tendencies we all share, such the need for acceptance, the desire to be liked; reciprocity; the sometimes very useful trait of obeying authority (which is only as harmless as the authority itself); our tendency to take cues from the actions of others (social proof); etc.

While the focus at Goat Rope lately has been on violence and cruelty, we can all fall under different forms of social influence in less extreme settings, including the workplace, buying and selling, relationships, etc. Not to mention advertising and politics...

At the Lucifer Effect website, Zimbardo and Cindy X. Wang have a useful section on resisting social influence that covers most of the bases. It's worth checking out.

So like obey me or something...

WHAT WENT WRONG? Conservative thinkers are trying to figure it out. El Cabrero has an idea or two...

NEEDED: A NEW SOCIAL COMPACT. That's what she said. I concur.

SLOWING DOWN THE NEXT WAR. Here's a positive assessment of recent citizen efforts in the US to prevent war with Iran.

MINIMUM WAGE. The federal minimum wage is increasing to $6.55 per hour. Twenty three states and the District of Columbia already have laws mandating a higher minimum.


July 23, 2008


Image courtesy of wikipedia.

El Cabrero is fascinated by the idea of "moral luck." It's an idea that was first developed by philosopher Bernard Williams and later elaborated by Thomas Nagel.

I think it works something like this: We tend to praise or blame people for doing or not doing certain things as if the whole thing was up to the individuals in question. But in the real world, what people do or don't do is often as much a matter of chance and circumstances as choice.

Take the example of a soldier who commits atrocities in a war. Would he or she have done the same thing if a war never happened? Or what if people who supported a dictatorship and did bad things in its service happened to be born in a different country or under a different political system?

People who talk about moral luck often use the example of a car accident. Most of us have probably zoned out at a stop sign or two or neglected to obey a speed limit sign. Driver X runs a light and nothing happens, while when Driver Y does it, innocent people are killed. Both are blameworthy for not paying attention, but the results are vastly different. We tend to blame Driver Y more, but both their actions were the same. The main difference is luck.

All El Cabrero knows is that the main reason I didn't get into a lot more trouble as a kid than I did had more to do with luck than anything else. Virtue is often a matter of chance and opportunity.

Although he doesn't use the term "moral luck," Stanford social psychologist Philip Zimbardo (of Stanford Prison Experiment fame) sums it up pretty well in his book The Lucifer Effect:

If you were placed in a strange and novel cruel Situation within a powerful System, you would probably not emerge as the same person who entered that crucible of human nature. You would not recognize your familiar image if it were held next to the mirror image of what you had become. We all want to believe in our inner power, our sense of personal agency, to resist external situational forces... For some, that belief is valid. They are usually the minority, the rare bird, those who I will designate as heroic... For many, that belief of personal power to resist powerful situational and systemic forces is little more than a reassuring illusion of invulnerability. Paradoxically, maintaining that illusion only serves to make one more vulnerable to manipulation by failing to be sufficiently vigilant against attempts of undesired influence subtly practice on them.

So good luck!

GET HAPPY. As more economists and social scientists research the link or lack thereof between conventional economics and human happiness, some free market fundamentalists are getting nervous.

BUBBLE, BUBBLE, TOIL AND TROUBLE. Here's progressive economist Jared Bernstein on "the shampoo economy."

LOCAL FOODS, LAZY OR NOT. Here's another dispatch from the growing (no pun intended) movement to consume more local food.

SPEAKING OF WHICH, food banks around the country are increasing leaning on gleanings from local farms.

WELFARE FOR THE RICH was the subject of a talk by David Cay Johnston in WV last night.


July 22, 2008


He meant to do that.

In the 1950s, members of a UFO cult were convinced that the world as we know it was about to end at a given date (sound familiar?) When the date came and went, members were in a quandary.

They were in the distinctly uncomfortable situation of holding two conflicting ideas at the same time. On the one hand, they believed strongly that the aliens were going to come at a given time--except that the aliens didn't show.

They could have said, "Jeez, what was I thinking?"--but they didn't. Instead, they began to proselytise aggressively for their new religion, something they had never done before. After all, the saucer people were nice enough to spare us, right?

You can read about all this in psychologist Leon Festinger's engaging book, When Prophecy Fails.

Festinger called that conflicted state of mind "cognitive dissonance." It's a complicated idea but a commonplace reality. Here's the abbreviated Goat Rope version:

People don't like to think they were really, REALLY wrong about something and, as a way of avoiding that situation, they often construct elaborate rationalizations to justify things.

Let's take a hypothetical case. Suppose a national leader led his country to an unnecessary war and it turned out that the justifications for it were bogus. (Remember, this is just a hypothetical situation.) The leader could say "My bad." That would be a gutsy leader. Or, more likely, he could hold forth about "staying the course."

(Aren't you glad stuff like this never really happens?)

To use another scenario, suppose you have rounded up a bunch of prisoners and have begun to abuse them. Most people would be very uncomfortable thinking that they were abusing a random assortment of folks. It's a lot easier when you tell yourself and the world that these are dangerous terrorists.

For that matter, it's a lot easier to justify enslaving a group of people if you can construct an ideological justification for it. For this reason, some researchers have argued that slavery led to racism rather than vice versa.

In any case, cognitive dissonance and our attempts to escape from it contribute vastly to the world's violence, evil, and misery.

I'LL TAKE ONE! A British think tank is calling for a "Green New Deal" to confront the world's economic and environmental woes.

BULLY FOR YOU (NOT). Investigators have found a link between bullying and being bullied and suicide in children.

A SOCIAL DEMOCRATIC MOMENT? From the AFLCIO blog, here's a report from Netroots Nation about how the US may be on the edge of progressive reform.

NOT A MOMENT TOO SOON. Meanwhile, the BBC reports that the US is slipping on the development index in terms of life expectancy, health and other factors.

MIRROR, MIRROR. Take a look.


July 21, 2008


Salem witch trial, courtesy of wikipedia.

It would be nice to think that people who have experienced violence, oppression or discrimination would ever thereafter sympathize with people in similar situations. Sometimes it works out that way, but it could just as easily have the opposite effect.

El Cabrero has often shown the PBS documentary A Class Divided to sociology classes and other groups. It showed how elementary school teacher Jane Elliot tried to teach a group of white children what discrimination was like by segregating them on the basis of eye color. One day students with blue eyes are given top status and extra privileges, while the brown eyed students were marginalized.

On the next day, the roles were switched. One might hope that those who had been unfairly treated would refuse to treat others in the same way.

Not a chance. They couldn't wait to claim top status. It was only after a period of debriefing that students could begin to process the experience and learn from it.

Psychologist Philip Zimbardo in The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil puts it like this:

...what are the deeper lessons to be learned from such situations? Admire power; detest weakness. Dominate, don't negotiate. Hit first when they turn the other cheek. The golden rule is for them, not us. Authority rules, rules are authority.

These are also some of the lessons learned by boys of abusive fathers, half of whom are transformed into abusive fathers themselves, abusing their children, spouses, and parents. Perhaps half of them identify with the aggressor and perpetuate his violence, while others learn to identify with the abused and reject aggression for compassion. However, research does not help us to predict which abused kids will later become abusers and which will turn out to be compassionate adults.

Thus it is that in history the children of the oppressed can quickly become the oppressors and persecuted groups sometimes persecute others in kind when the opportunity occurs.

DEEP IN DEBT. The NY Times had an interesting item about the nation's debt crisis. Here's an excerpt:

Just two generations ago, America was a nation of mostly thrifty people living within their means, even setting money aside for unforeseen expenses.

Today, Americans carry $2.56 trillion in consumer debt, up 22 percent since 2000 alone, according to the Federal Reserve Board. The average household’s credit card debt is $8,565, up almost 15 percent from 2000.

College debt has more than doubled since 1995. The average student emerges from college carrying $20,000 in educational debt.

Household debt, including mortgages and credit cards, represents 19 percent of household assets, according to the Fed, compared with 13 percent in 1980

SELF HELP NATION. Also from the Times, here's an entertaining item about the burgeoning self help publishing industry.

OPPOSING THE NEXT WAR. People around the country are mobilizing to prevent a possible war with Iran.

STATE OF THE UNION. A new book makes the case for how labor unions strengthen working families. But the author says we need to help the general public connect the dots.