Toren as Torena

I’m a sociologist.  I’m all into trying to raise my boy in a non-stereotypical fashion.  I won’t be pushing sports or cars on him.  To that end, I insisted that we buy Toren gender neutral onesies.  Light green works great.  Even light browns are fine for both girls and boys.  But, um, yellow… Well, you decide:

Toren as Torena 8-29-2009 6-30-31 PM

So, Toren or Torena?

He’s a cute girl!  But every time we put him in an outfit that pushes his gender just a bit over the line to female, I start calling him a girl.  Debi, of course, isn’t a fan of me calling our boy a girl.  And, frankly, I’m a bit astonished by my own inability to not stereotype.  I guess this is a good lesson for me to learn: It’s one thing to criticize those who clearly demarcate their child’s sex, but it’s quite another to have a child and not present the child in a fashion which clearly demarcates his/her biological sex.  Society’s power over gender socialization is strong enough that even someone who is aware of it can’t help it.

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You disagree with me? LAAA LAAA LAAA

As a social scientist I’m fully aware of the fact that people tend to listen to, observe, and even seek out media and information that support their existing beliefs (this is a subset of both confirmation bias and self-justification).  Along with this is the tendency of people to avoid, criticize, and even demean any media or information that disagrees with their existing beliefs.  The result of such behavior, of course, is extreme polarization and a reduced ability to see the perspectives of people with whom you disagree.  In layperson’s terms: Once you stop listening to people with different opinions, it becomes nearly impossible to accept the idea that they may have something worthwhile to say.

Enter Barack Obama.  This Tuesday he plans to speak to the nation’s school children.  Thanks the polarizing efforts of Fox News’s scallywag blowhards, the parents of the nation’s school children are freaking out.  Now, turn the clocks back almost 20 years and George H.W. Bush (the dad) did the same thing.  I was in high school at that point.  Was there an uproar?  Did the parents of the nation’s school children freak out?  Were liberals running through streets demanding that their “socialist” children not listen to this god-fearing capitalist propagandist?  Um… No…

This raises two questions:

1) Should the President of the U.S. be allowed to talk to school children?

I’m pretty sure the Rush Limbaugh’s, Sean Hannity’s, and Glenn Beck’s have conveniently failed to mention the fact that Presidents of the US regularly visit schools and classrooms.  In fact, George W. Bush was reading a kid’s book to students in an elementary class when the September 11th terrorist attacks took place.  I wonder how many of the parents of those kids threw fits when they found out THE PRESIDENT OF THE U.S. was coming to visit their kids and talk to them?

While George Bush was President, I regularly used him as an example of someone with power.  I would tell my students that, if he were to suddenly walk into my classroom, regardless of how important I considered the topic of discussion at that moment, I would turn the floor over to him.  I’m not a fan of George Bush and I disagree with him politically on just about everything.  But because of his position (i.e. “status” in sociology), I would still listen to him and assume that what he had to say to my students would be worth hearing.

Additionally, I am a believer in listening to people who disagree with you precisely because it forces you to rethink what it is you believe (this is why we went to see Mitt Romney and John McCain speak during the election last year).  If you only ever listen to people who agree with you, you fall prey to groupthink.  And, your views are often ill-founded and not carefully developed.  In short, you think what you think not because it is a well-developed argument but because you’re afraid to think and have not considered thinking anything else.

So, the short answer to this question: Parents should be ecstatic that the President of the U.S. is taking time out of his schedule to talk to their children, regardless of his politics.  That he is doing so reflects the importance he puts on school.

2) What has changed to result in this type of a response?  While I’m not an expert on this particular social psychological phenomenon, my guess is that the media is playing a particularly large role in this.  While having a free and mostly unrestricted press (George Bush certainly didn’t give the press free reign in Iraq or Afghanistan during his wars there) is a hallmark of a liberal and open country, this also means the press can work to undermine the leadership of the country.  You would likely not find such criticism in the media in Venezuela, where Hugo Chavez has cracked down on the press.  So, I fully support the right of the media to say what they want regarding Barack Obama’s address to the nation’s school children.  I’d even die for their right to say what they are saying.

But I can’t help but see the media that is pushing this as remarkably hypocritical.  They demand the right to criticize the President and even try to get students to avoid listening to him give an innocuous speech about staying in school.  But if anyone were to criticize their right to say what they are saying, they would be up in arms about Constitutional Rights.  So, they support peoples’ rights to listen to them, but not to anyone who disagrees with them.  This is hypocrisy 101.

As for why this response now?  I think it does reflect both a growing divide in the U.S. between conservatives and progressives.  Luckily for those of us who are somewhat in touch with reality, it appears as though progressives are winning some of these battles.  The Republican Party is shrinking.  Religious fundamentalism is shrinking.  People are realizing that you can’t fight progress forever.  Doing so will ultimately doom your society.  So, my guess as to why this is happening now is because the religious right and conservatives in the U.S. are feeling increasingly marginalized (because they are), but they retain control over much of the media (most of the CEOs of media conglomerates are wealthy white men with vested interests in maintaining the status quo).  So, as wealthy white men lose a little bit of their power and control, they are fighting back, using the tools they have – the media and the unfailing loyalty of those who are too closed-minded to listen to anyone with whom they might possibly disagree.

Perhaps I’m being optimistic, but it seems like what we are hearing are the death throes of conservativism in the U.S.  It may be a long, loud, and painful death, but I’m hoping it is a death nonetheless.  That death may lead to the rise of Libertarians, but I’m guessing Libertarians wouldn’t run away from the opposition with their hands over their ears screaming at the top of their lungs so they can’t hear the opinions of those who disagree with them.

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prevent cavities with lollipops?

If you regularly follow this blog, you’ll know that I’m not a fan of alternative medicine.  In fact, I think it would be fair to say that I despise alternative medicine.  But, there are occasionally legitimate advances that come out of what is traditionally considered alternative medicine.  Those advances, of course, become part of the legitimate scientific mainstream once subjected to scientific scrutiny.  In this case, the alternative medicine turned legitimate science had it’s roots in herbal medicine.  I read a news article about a year and a half ago about a new lollipop that is sugar-free and includes an herbal extract that targets streptococcus mutans, the causative agent of dental caries.  I’ve had lots of cavities over the years (I attribute them to bad teeth I inherited from my father’s side of the family).  So, when I saw the claim that eating these suckers could substantially reduce cavities, I looked into it.  The research associated with the lollipop has been published in legitimate scholarly publications (here’s another one) and was conducted by Wenyuan Shi, a professor at the UCLA School of Dentistry .  The research was monetized by a separate company specializing in microbiology.

Since this looked legitimate, I went ahead and purchased some of the lollipops in May of 2008 and proceeded to follow the directions (2 per day for 10-12 days, then 4 per year after that).  Granted, it’s only been 1 year and a couple months, but I’ve been cavity free since then.  I regularly tell my students that a sample of one is not really useful when it comes to science.  So, I’m not going to say that the lollipops are guaranteed to work.  Also, I don’t know that there have been any clinical trials on the effectiveness of the lollipops in preventing cavities (couldn’t find that research).  But they do seem promising from the information I can gather.

So, if you are a cavity sufferer like I am, I am tentatively going to recommend Dr. Johns’s Herbal Lollipops.  If, however, a blog reader can find evidence that these lollipops do not work for reducing the odds of getting cavities, I’d be very interested in seeing it.

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circumcision justification

Scanning through my news this morning I caught this article in the NYTimes about circumcision. Turns out, public health officials in the US (people at the CDC) are considering making a recommendation that baby boys and even high risk adults get circumcised to reduce their risk of contracting AIDS.  I’m likely just using this as a bit of self-justification for having Toren circumcised, but I thought it might be of interest to others considering this issue.

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Why we won’t see real healthcare reform

The answer is simple: $$$$

The St. Petersburg Times ran a good story this morning looking at donations to politicians in the state of Florida by… Health insurance companies and other groups who stand to see a decline in their windfall profits if the Federal Government actually reforms healthcare.  Now, you may be saying, “But the insurance companies aren’t making that much money…”  Um, right!  Has anyone actually looked at how much they make?  Why don’t I see this in the news?  Here’s just one company’s profits (one that insures me) – Humana:

  • 2008 profit: $647,000,000
  • 2007 profit: $834,000,000

Where does that profit come from?  Overcharging people like you and me for their medical needs and paying out less in costs than they receive in premiums.

Think about it.  If you took that money out of healthcare expenses, that would be $647 million less individual consumers would have to pay for their health care.  That is what a government, not for profit option would do: It would substantially reduce the cost of health care for individual consumers by cutting out the profit motive.  As long as there is a profit motive in health care, it will cost a lot more.  This is precisely why the US pays more in healthcare per person than any other nation in the world.  It has nothing to do with “the best” healthcare and everything to do with profit for insurance companies.

If Humana is at all representative of other health insurance providers, then it is no wonder that the coffers of politicians nationwide are filling to the brim as the health insurance providers, who have a virtual oligopoly on health insurance and get tax breaks as a result of legislation they lobbied for, are trying to save their windfall profits.

So, if the public option dies, know why: Health Insurance companires in the US killed it.  Not with bullets, but with money.  The very money that would be saved by consumers if we went with a public option.  Oh the irony!

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that wiley evolution!

I posted Debi’s and my newborn photos a while back and asked people to vote for who they thought Toren looked the most like. Turns out, 2/3 of those who voted (pretty small sample, people) chose me (I’m parent #2). Now I find out that Toren looking like me is probably an evolutionary adaptation.

Here’s how it works: There’s no question about Toren’s maternity. He came out of Debi; so unless she injected an embryo at some point, he is her biological offspring. But my contribution was, how do we put this delicately, rather small. And, frankly, that level of contribution could have been made by any number of people (of course I’m not saying it was; I’m just saying that the amount of time required means paternity is always more of a question that maternity). Ergo, evolution has tended to favor babies who look like their fathers. Why? Fathers will be more likely to care for the babies if they look like them.

This was kind of confirmed by the following photo of mine:

Ryan at about one
Ryan at about one

Now compare that photo with this one of Toren:

Toren looking like his Dad
Toren looking like his Dad

(It’s hard to argue that Toren’s mouth is basically identical to mine in this photo.  His eyes are pretty similar as well.)

Toren does look like I did when I was young.

But, here’s the ironic twist of evolution: Toren isn’t really likely to look like me by about the age of 20. When asked to match offspring with parents at 1, 10, and 20, people could match offspring with fathers very well at 1, okay at 10, but no better than chance at 20. Matching children with mothers was no better than chance.

Ergo, evolution has, once again, developed a nifty trait to ensure the survival of our offspring – babies look like their fathers, at least until they are old enough to fend for themselves. Pretty slick!

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The cost of a baby

One of the ideas I talk about every semester in my Introduction to Sociology classes is the declining birth rate in developed countries.  There are several factors that help explain the low birth rates, but one of them is the cost of children.  In agricultural communities, children can be a net positive for parents – they can be put to work on the ranch or farm to make the parents money.  But for most parents in developed countries, children simply cost money, lots of money.  I’ve seen various estimates, but most put the cost of raising a middle-class child to the age of 18 at around $250,000.  Because I consciously think about things like this, I will admit that it factored into our decision to only have 1 child; we can’t afford any more children.  So, I have a pretty good sense of how much Toren will cost us to raise.

But what I didn’t know is how much Toren would cost from conception to delivery.  I’ve spoken with several people who said that it was a $15.00 co-pay for their child.  Wow!  Lucky them!  Toren wasn’t nearly so cheap.  I tracked every single expense we had with Toren to get a sense of how much he actually cost to deliver.  Keep in mind, I have insurance through my work and I think it’s decent insurance – not the best, of course, but decent.  Here’s the rundown of expenses:

  • amount billed by insurance – $26,798.17
  • amount allowed by insurance – $19,565.21
    • insurance discount – 36.72%
  • amount paid by insurance – $13,802.83
  • amount we paid – $5,762.38

Now, keep in mind that both Debi and I have a debit card through our insurance plans that receives money every month to pay for medical expenses.  We used both of our cards to pay as much of the $5,762.38 that we could, but still ended up basically writing a check for about $2,000 when all was said and done.

If you want to see the actual expenses in spreadsheet form, you can download my spreadsheet here.

This illustrates some rather interesting points.  First, the fact that we have insurance means we only paid about 9% of the total amount billed us for the pregnancy and delivery.  There was a 36% discount off the top for having insurance, the insurance covered about 45% of the bill, our debit cards covered about 10%, leaving us with 9% to pay out-of-pocket.  If you didn’t have health insurance, rather than having to pay the $2,000 or so we did, we would have had to pay $26,800.  No wonder the single biggest cause of bankruptcy in the US is medical bills.  If you don’t have insurance I have no idea how you could afford to have a child.

The second point is – Wow!  It costs $27,000.00 to have a child?  The Obama Administration is currently trying to reign in the cost of healthcare in the US.  I’m certainly not lamenting the high quality of care we received – having a neonatologist on-hand when Toren was born very well may have saved his life.  And having an emergency C-section may very well have saved both his and Debi’s lives.  So, I’m not complaining.  But I wonder how much this would cost in other countries?

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Namesake Photos

One of my former students sent Toren a very thoughtful gift – Capital: Volume I (1st US edition to boot).  Capital (or Das Kapital) is perhaps Karl Marx’s most famous work.  Thus, the gift is Toren’s first book by his namesake. Ever since the book arrived I’ve wanted to do a photoshoot with Toren and his book.  So, here we go:

second photoshoot 6-29-2009 4-28-45 PM
The smile suggests he likes it...
second photoshoot 6-29-2009 4-28-08 PM
But it clearly is tiring for him (as I'm sure plenty of current and former graduate students out there can relate).

second photoshoot 6-29-2009 4-28-15

second photoshoot 6-29-2009 4-27-56

second photoshoot 6-29-2009 4-24-18 PM
I'm pretty sure he's struggling with the concept of "species being" here, which can confuse even the best of us...

second photoshoot 6-29-2009 4-23-44

second photoshoot 6-29-2009 4-25-39 PM
In the end, it was just too much for him at 4 weeks...

(Props to Steve K. for a very thoughtful gift!  I figure it will be a very effective tool at putting him to sleep in the not too distant future, until he understands it…)

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big government vs. little government

For all you fans of reducing government out there, maybe you should reconsider.  This NYTimes article gives a good illustration of situations when small government doesn’t make sense.  For years the government has allowed private companies to provide student loans at virtually no risk to the companies as the government insures the loans and provides the funding.  The companies just make money off that arrangement.  When the government makes the loans directly (even if it uses a private company to manage the loans), it saves billions.  In short, sub-contracting out to private companies services that government can provide directly only increases the cost.  It doesn’t decrease the cost, and here’s why: You introduce profit into the equation.

Do the math.  When the government runs the program, it looks like this:

cost of program = cost to provide the services

When government subcontracts programs, it looks like this:

cost of program = cost to provide the services + profit for corporation

In what situation can “profit for corporation” lead to lower costs of programs?  (It certainly hasn’t in healthcare; one of the primary reasons healthcare costs in the US keep going up is because insurance companies keep increasing their profits.  Take them out of the equation and healthcare costs will go down, not up.)

When I read that article this morning I remembered thinking about my father’s military experience. When he was in the military soldiers did the cooking and cleaning.  That was part of being a soldier.  Today, all of that is subcontracted out at ridiculous rates.  Soldiers don’t cook the food.  Why?  Can they not cook?  Of course they can.  The reason they don’t is because defense contractors see that as one more way to take money from taxpayers.  How could it possibly be less expensive to have soldiers cook their own food?

Don’t get me wrong; this isn’t a rant against soldiers having more leisure time.  It’s a rant about wasteful spending.  I’d love to pay less in taxes, just like everyone else.  But that means cutting out these ridiculous subcontractor scenarios where they simply add “profit for corporations” to the equation and then claim that it is cheaper for the American taxpayer because it “reduces government.”  That, of course, is crap!  It may mean bigger government to get rid of the subcontractors, but, ironically, bigger government sometimes means lower taxes.

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