Friday, April 30, 2010
How significant is the Central Government Fallacy for today's public discourse? Very significant. If you're one of those people that thinks the United States is engaging in Keynesian macroeconomic policy, then you haven't been paying attention.
There's been a lot of talk about Keynesianism lately - and that's good. And there are a lot of policymakers that have been taking Keynes seriously lately - and that's also good. But if you think we've been practicing Keynesianism, you're quite simply wrong. How would I characterize our policy response to the economic crisis? Tepid monetarism. That works tolerably well in most circumstances, but not when nominal interest rates are at record lows, inflation is low, and demand is weak.
The section title was:
"The Integration of Catallactic Functions"
...or perhaps I missed the point of the comic :)
Ultimately, though, Stiglitz and Roberts come to wholly opposite conclusions from roughly the same initial critique of our current regulatory apparatus. The common ground only goes so far, but I think it's interesting that they're working from the same basic typology. The choice between Roberts and Stiglitz ultimately boils down to a question of the volatility of the market vs. the heavy handedness of government. Both are quite real concerns, and we do ourselves a disservice by ignoring either one of them. While I personally fall in Joe Stiglitz's lower-right hand quadrant of the typology I've presented, I definitely have my differences with him, as I certainly do with Roberts as well. Generally speaking, I worry that Roberts doesn't pay adequate attention to the market failures that I described, and Stiglitz doesn't pay adequate attention to the potential government failures.
Before closing, I'd like to provide a link and a disclaimer. First, I want to refer people back to my post on Hyman Minsky (which now has some very insightful comments from F&OST guest, Sebastian). My basic critique of Roberts is that he misses the Minsky insight of financial fragility. Indeed, to the extent he recognizes this sort of fragility, he lauds it as a virtue. In many cases it is a virtue. There is absolutely no doubt that failure is functional - that destruction is creative. The market is successful precisely because firms and individuals fail. That's not where Roberts disagrees with economists like Stiglitz (although Roberts would probably like you to think that's where the disagreement lies!). The point of disagreement isn't the necessity of letting people fail. The point of the disagreement is that Stiglitz sees both functional and unfunctional kinds of failure, whereas Roberts rarely mentions the type of destruction and failure that isn't functional or creative.
My disclaimer is that I haven't read Roberts's new essay yet. However, he's been working on it for a while, and I've read and extensively commented on numerous blog posts from Roberts on the issue and even on this essay while it was in its formative stages. I also did listen to his entire December testimony. So take this more as general thoughts on Russ Roberts's position, rather than on this essay in particular.
Thursday, April 29, 2010
Anyway, through all of these really great thoughts, I think the meaning of the initial "epistemic closure" concern has been lost. I count at least three versions of "epistemic closure" available to us - two of which are being addressed in this ongoing debate, and a third that I think is especially interesting to think about.
Version 1 (Wrong and Uninteresting): "Epistemic Closure" as shorthand for various and sundry bitching about conservatism
One of my biggest concerns, however, has been that this whole debate has degenerated into complaining about conservatism, rather than providing a clear critique of conservatism. For Bruce Bartlett, conservatism's alleged epistemic closure amounts to: "They don’t think there are any new ideas of particular interest to them. Their philosophy is fully formed. The only question is how best to implement conservative ideas in the political debate". His concern seems to be the increasing activism of conservatism, and the rigidity of their value system. Others have talked about the "conservative cocoon" phenomenon, where conservatives (allegedly) have restricted interactions with those who don't share their views (in a similar vein, a friend from college shared this this interesting research with me on the closedness of the conservative blogosphere). Douthat focuses on the point of whether there are internal debates in conservatism, a question that is especially salient in light of the Frum Affair. But none of these address the more fundamental point of epistemic closure that was originally raised.
Bartlett's concern about activism and values is beside the initial point. Marxists, for example (at least the early Marxists) were unalloyed activists with a completely closed value system, but they were very thorough in thinking through epistemological questions. As for the "cocoon", the phrase "the ivory tower" is definitive of the cocooning of a group of thinkers - and yet no one accuses the academy of having an underdeveloped approach to epistemology. Douthat's concern with internal debate also has nothing to do with epistemic closure. There is no debate to speak of that 2+2=4 or that the Earth revolves around the Sun. Does that mean it is supported by a suspect epistemology? As I say, I haven't read all of this in great detail, but a lot of the debate seems to simply be a random assortment of complaints about conservatism, with the fancy phrase "epistemic closure" thrown in as a catch-all.
Version 2 (Wrong and Interesting): "Epistemic Closure" and the way that conservatives know what they "know"
Beneath the surface of these random complaints, there is real concern with and discussion of what Julian Sanchez initially meant by "epistemic closure" - namely, how conservatives derive knowledge about the issues that they pontificate on. Sanchez argues that accuracy of the knowledge inputs for the conservative movement are increasingly unimportant. Conspiracy theories, birth certificate skepticism, and crazy Beckesque guilt-by-association chalkboard flow charts have (so the argument goes) become sufficient factual fodder on which conservatives build their arguments.
The Manzi-Levin debate on the National Review is worth looking at as an example (well, at least Manzi's initial post is an example) of a genuine discussion of epistemological questions. Climate change is one issue where I think conservatives are pretty clearly ignoring the evidence to defend what is essentially an ideological position. Other issues, such as financial regulation, health reform, and fiscal stimulus are more dubious issues. I think it's hard to make a blanket statement that conservatives "ignore the evidence" more than liberals. Often they're taking the same evidence and simply applying a different set of values to it. Regardless, it's a fruitful question to ask - and there are a lot of conservatives, particularly in Washington, that do seem to be assuming their own conclusions rather than carefully reviewing the evidence.
Version 3 (Right and Very Interesting): The "Epistemic Closure" of Julian Sanchez's undergraduate subconscious
The New York Times reports Sanchez's confession that "he probably fished “epistemic closure” out of his subconscious from an undergraduate course in philosophy". Indeed he did. Sanchez used "epistemic closure" to describe the problem of "epistemological closed-mindedness", but "epistemic closure" is also a technical term in philosophy, which I only stumbled across recently while preparing for this blog post. The short definition of "epistemic closure" is:
"The principle that, where P and Q are propositions, if we know that P, and know that P logically entails Q, we know that Q"
In other words, "closure" refers to a closed system of knowledge, not closed-mindedness. I think it's fine that Sanchez didn't use "epistemic closure" in this technical sense, but it's interesting to think about the implications of this definition. The idea of "epistemic closure" is often closely associated with skepticism, because of the very real possibility that your knowledge of your initial statement (P), somehow (implicitly) presupposes the later statement (Q). The example given in this longer treatment of epistemic closure is:
"the proposition I have a driver’s license issued by the state of North Carolina entails that North Carolina is not a mere figment of my imagination"
The skeptical position would point out that your ability to make the initial statement presupposes the truth of the second statement. It's not exactly what Sanchez had in mind (and I should point out that I think what he did have in mind, while not exactly "epistemic closure", was also very interesting), but this does relate to a problem that I'm personally concerned about: the problem of deductively extended logical systems of thought. Theoretically, deductive logic is a fantastic source of knowledge. But it relies on two fundamental pillars: the accuracy of its axioms and presuppositions, and the validity of its deductions. The skeptical objection to arguments based on "epistemic closure" are very similar to my (perhaps less formalized) reservations about deductive logic and a disproportionate emphasis on rationality and reason in general.
Logical formality can amplify the errors of bad initial assumptions, while providing the veneer of incontrovertibility. As logical systems get increasingly extended, making broader and broader claims, the initial errors (which may have been negligible) can easily multiply into substantial errors. As Nikola Tesla once said: "Today's scientists have substituted mathematics for experiments, and they wander off through equation after equation, and eventually build a structure which has no relation to reality". In economics, I think the Austrian School and Real Business Cycle School are both excellent examples of Tesla's scientists who have "wandered off", confident in their deductive systems that bear no relation to reality. At least Real Business Cycle theorists will do empirical work to check up on things. The Austrian School explicitly refuses to do this check up.
I suppose I've wandered quite far from the point of conservative "epistemic closure" over the course of this etymological exercise. Are conservatives more likely to "wander off" with deductive arguments built from fallacious assumptions? Quite possibly. I think that's an open question.
Tuesday, April 27, 2010
Nick Rowe is contemplating the withered shell of the Eurozone that may be left after all this is over.
Paul Krugman is bracing for "the mother of all bank runs"
and Ken Rogoff, the former IMF chief economist, said that it is unlikely that the sovereign bailouts would end with Greece.
And all these pronouncements of course feed into expectations, which makes the bad news even worse. We aren't out of the woods yet.
"To the extent to which the machine becomes itself a system of mechanical tools and relations and thus extends far beyond the individual work process, it asserts its larger domination by reducing the "professional autonomy" of the laborer and integrating him with other professions which suffer and direct the technical ensemble."
"The people recognize themselves in their commodities; they find their soul in their automobile, hi-fi set, split-level home, kitchen equipment."
Although we should be careful not to get too worked up about this sort of thing. Remember, Marcuse also said: "Not every problem someone has with his girlfriend is necessarily due to the capitalist mode of production."
Monday, April 26, 2010
- The private space industry took a step forward this month when Dulles-based Orbital Sciences bought General Dynamics' spacecraft development and manufacturing division. I think this is good for two reasons. First, we've known since Smith's Wealth of Nations that "the division of labor is limited by the extent of the market". The emergence of dedicated spacecraft manufacturing companies is a sign that the extent of the spacecraft manufacturing market is expected to broaden. It's also a good sign that space will not necessarily be utilized, explored, and eventually settled by defense contractors like General Dynamics.
- How many NABE firm surveys is it going to take to realize that hiring has been primarily limited by aggregate demand expectations, and not by taxes or regulatory uncertainty or the alleged generosity of the safety net? I really don't see what's so hard about this.
- The financial reform bill is moving through Congress, and I'm wondering how many people actually know what's in it. I haven't had the opportunity to follow this debate as closely as the health reform debate - and I felt like a lot of Americans had misconceptions about what was in the health reform bill (which was relatively easier to understand). How many know what is in this one? And yet how many people think we should just do nothing with this bill? This is a pretty good argument for representative government - but it simultaneously highlights the problems of any government solution.
- Paul Krugman talks about epistemic closure in macroeconomics. I don't know how to take this, really. It certainly sounds plausible - I'm not sure whether it's true or not. It reminds me of some awkward conversations I've had with my supervisor at work. We were talking about my plans for PhD programs, and she suggested I shoot high and that one of the places I apply should be Chicago (she went to Chicago for her masters' in public policy). Not only is that a ridiculously long shot, I had trouble explaining to her that while I'm sure I'd get a great education there I'm just not sure how balanced it would be. I think my brother Evan (a current PhD student in Chicago's Divinity School) is savvy enough to get the point without being offended, but I'm not sure this is on other people's radar. At a place like Harvard, you know you'll get a balanced position. You've got Greg Mankiw on the one hand and Robert Barro on the other. You're going to hear both sides of the issue. Maybe you would at Chicago too, I just couldn't say with as much certainty.
- I've had a decent opportunity to study this weekend because Kate has been watching Sex and the City, which doesn't always hold my attention. However, it did remind me of something I stumbled across this week that would have fit in perfectly with the show: a detailed review of John Maynard Keynes's sex diaries. I knew that Keynes had a promiscuous streak of homosexual encounters in his early years at Cambridge, but I had always thought these were more anecdotal. It turns out, he actually kept meticulous records on it. The earlier diary names names, including many men from the Bloomsbury Group. The later diary is a coded time series of encounters.
- My paper on the 1920-21 depression on SSRN. As soon as my PDE class is over next week I'm going to revisit this with gusto and then submit. Any thoughts are appreciated.
- Barro and Lee have an updated version of their global education dataset available now at NBER. It's a fairly interesting endeavor - I first came into contact with it in econometrics a couple years ago.
- Inside Higher Ed reviews the AEA's new sub-journal proceedure. I'm curious what other people think of this. My impression has been that the four sub-journals aren't as prestiguous as other journals in the field. In other words - they're not really a runner up to the AER. But then again, I haven't published in any journals yet, so I'm not necessarily the best person to ask.
Sunday, April 25, 2010
...Comte even creates a similar distance for the most pure science, putting off discussing mathematics until the very end of the introductory section and then explaining, "it is just because of its importance that I have not yet mentioned this great and fundamental science." It's often commented that our present milieu is pretty thoroughly Comtean, and I think that this is pretty accurate. The classification would come rather naturally to most folks.
Comte does, however, divide "physics" into celestial and terrestrial categories, putting the celestial physics (astronomy) between mathematics and "physics" (which he uses as shorthand for terrestrial physics). That would look different today, although I'm not clear enough on what "terrestrial physics" is to know exactly how... is this just geology? In that case, our "physics" may be more like what Comte meant by "astronomy".
Friday, April 23, 2010
To add insult to injury, Comedy Central censored the episode that Trey Parker and Matt Stone submitted. This isn't a first amendment issue, of course. Comedy Central had every right to do what it did. But in my opinion, they tarnished themselves by abandoning Trey and Matt, who have worked tirelessly to deconstruct shibboleths and taboos. You may not enjoy the show, but to a certain extent you have to respect the satirical mission.
Militant fundamentalist Islam is more than a security threat. It is a step backwards in human evolution - a regress to a time before modernism and humanism - as is every militant fundamentalism. Perhaps the only difference between Islamic militant fundamentalism and other varieties is that its toxic combination of revealed truth, liberal textual appeals to violence, and an explicitly global sense of its own jurisdiction imbues the movement with a unique animation and activism. Nationally based militant fundamentalisms (such as national fascist movements), or militant fundamentalisms based on other epistemologies than revealed truth (such as international Communism) are certainly disturbing, but in many ways they are less disconcerting. More reasonable epistemologies can be reasoned with or disproven. More limited jurisdictional claims can be isolated or even simply appeased. Militant fundamentalist Islam is a different beast that is only further complicated by the fact that there most definitely is (and we can never forget this) a considerably more widespread non-militant, non-fundamentalist Islam.
I can only speak for myself, not Evan - but I want to offer this post in solidarity with South Park and all the other artists, film makers, and writers that have faced or even suffered death at the hands of these people.
A.) The Insane Clown Posse
B.) Christopher Hitchens
Here's a tougher quiz. Who is more entertaining and offensive to the tender, mild-mannered mainstream:
A.) The Insane Clown Posse
B.) Christopher Hitchens
"Finally, it is of course true that I cannot control how my ideas are used, either by those who advocate similar but more intrusive policies, nor by those like Whitman who criticize them by mischaracterizing them. When we say that we only want to help people make better choices as judged by themselves, we mean it. Really. And it is frustrating to constantly have to respond to those who criticize something we do not say or believe."
Thursday, April 22, 2010
"By 2050—earlier, probably—all real knowledge of Oldspeak will have disappeared. The whole literature of the past will have been destroyed. Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Byron—they'll exist only in Newspeak versions, not merely changed into something different, but actually contradictory of what they used to be. Even the literature of the Party will change. Even the slogans will change. How could you have a slogan like "freedom is slavery" when the concept of freedom has been abolished? The whole climate of thought will be different. In fact there will be no thought, as we understand it now. Orthodoxy means not thinking—not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness."
That was the real terror of Newspeak; not that it was a tool of deception, but that it was a tool of destruction and devaluation. It didn't simply hide truth - it destroyed truths.
That is Orwell's Newspeak, and commentators are always on the look out for it. Branding your opponent as a "Big Brother" or "Orwellian", or identifying something they say as "Newspeak" is always a winning rhetorical strategy (well... at least a winning punditry strategy). But something interesting I saw today on the BBC website highlighted actual political manipulation of language and made me think that perhaps instead of Newspeak, Orwell should have offered us "Mustspeak". Newspeak's ability to frame contradictory ideas as consistent, and its blighting of the English language certainly makes for good fiction, but Mustspeak - a form of political language that compels people to action - is probably more pervasive in real life than Newspeak will ever end up being.
BBC created a "word cloud" of British political party platforms from 1945 to the present. The regularity of the appearance of the word "must" really struck me. Politicians certainly try to hide the truth, don't get me wrong. But in a free society that can be a challenging task. Sometimes what's more effective is for politicians to try compel people to action, before they have time to reflect on the truth. In a society with a free press, a strong education system, and a literate populace there's only so much truth you can hide. But what you can do is manufacture a sense of urgency or duty that blunts or retards critical thought.
So by all means, keep looking for Newspeak ("new" came up in the word clouds a lot as well). But be on the look out for the less publicized examples of Mustspeak. And if you ever read about Mustspeak in a dystopian novel, just remember: you heard it here first.
Wednesday, April 21, 2010
However, as I click through Evan's links, I get the impression that Goldstein herself offers a far more institutional and historical perspective on the post-revolutionary concept of selfhood, which honestly interests me more. Goldstein argues that the post-revolutionary quasi-resurrection of Descartes served as a sort of prop for the new regime. This is the blurb for the book:
"In the wake of the French Revolution, as attempts to restore political stability to France repeatedly failed, a group of concerned intellectuals identified a likely culprit: the prevalent sensationalist psychology, and especially the flimsy and fragmented self it produced. They proposed a vast, state-run pedagogical project to replace sensationalism with a new psychology that showcased an indivisible and actively willing self, or moi. As conceived and executed by Victor Cousin, a derivative philosopher but an academic entrepreneur of genius, this long-lived project singled out the male bourgeoisie for training in selfhood. Granting everyone a self in principle, Cousin and his disciples deemed workers and women incapable of the introspective finesse necessary to appropriate that self in practice.
Beginning with a fresh consideration of the place of sensationalism in the Old Regime and the French Revolution, Jan Goldstein traces a post-Revolutionary politics of selfhood that reserved the Cousinian moi for the educated elite, outraged Catholics and consigned socially marginal groups to the ministrations of phrenology. Situating the Cousinian moi between the fragmented selves of eighteenth-century sensationalism and twentieth-century Freudianism, Goldstein suggests that the resolutely unitary self of the nineteenth century was only an interlude tailored to the needs of the post-Revolutionary bourgeois order."
My guess is that like me many readers will find this description of Goldstein's work as a historical project more interesting. But please click through and read Evan's post - it's a good read that focuses more on the substance of the understandings of the self, rather than the function that they served.
Amidst the ongoing sex abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church, an open letter from no less than Hans Küng has been published, blasting the Catholic hierarchy and especially Benedict XVI for all manner of evils, and making his own call to the bishops for reform. A laundry list Syllabus Errorum makes the case... or something approximating a case, I guess.. against current problems. It strikes me as rather simplistic, and typical of Küng's more recent media interactions. That's not to say that there aren't critiques to be made here (Daniel I'm sure will be quick to bring them up, and I don't disagree that the Catholic Church is facing some major challenges of legitimacy and morality). Nor is it to say that Küng hasn't done a good deal of benefit to the Church during his career as a theologian. But amidst the pain of global abuse and the serious concerns that this raises for church leadership, a manifesto that heaps on unrelated and often incoherent criticism just strikes me as rather ill-conceived. Yes, I know the letter is written as an exhortation to the bishops for reform, and that it has a pastoral intent. But with all due respect... bullcrap. I just don't buy it. Not that I think Küng is uninterested in these things... but this letter is primarily about him and Benedict rather than about the bishops or the faithful.
In response (lucky us) we have an open letter from George Weigel to Küng. Am I happy about this? Well, it calls Küng out for some of the very issues that I find problematic, so in that sense I suppose I'm glad that someone who can put a sentence together is putting one together against him. But no, not really. Amidst the flashes of points well-taken (Küng had some of those, too), we've got the predictable insistence upon protecting the pope from all slander and harm. Priority #1 is, not to get to the bottom of real problems that are present, but to create new fake problems by bothering to respond in kind to some of the initial fake problems propagated by Küng.
While the complaints raised in the first open letter are at least interesting in a culture-war-train-wreck sort of way, Weigel's complaints have to do with the hermeneutics of the reception of Vatican II. This is perhaps equally as interesting to me as Küng's culture-war line of argument is, but it will probably come across as merely pedantic to most anyone who isn't already invested in these conversations. This explains why Küng's open letter circulated so widely, and why Weigel's probably won't make it quite so far past the conservative echo chamber. I want to be clear, though, that in both cases we're dealing with stuff that is probably a waste of your time to read. Küng is right about a few things that the Vatican gets wrong, although he's mostly petty and predictable... Weigel is right about Küng being largely unhelpful and even unfair, although he's probably even more petty and predictable than Küng is as he goes about pointing out the errors of the Küngian Syllabus Errorum.
Lots of folks have lauded Küng's open letter as a good thing. I've stayed away from commenting about it simply because it struck me as unhelpful, but not significant enough to bother raising any sort of objection. Now, with the surfacing of a prominent open letter dissenting from one of the 20th century's most well-recognized Catholic dissenters, I think it's appropriate to speak my mind by means of a cynical dismissal of both sides of this non-debate as so much stupid commentary. The shame of it is, this is stupid commentary about a real and serious crisis that deserves better from those who presume to share their reflections in a public manner.
Tuesday, April 20, 2010
In the meantime, since we've gotten a lot more readers lately, I wanted to highlight two past posts on fallacies on this blog that I thought were both pretty fun.
The first is a post by Evan on a fallacy that he enjoyed coining: the fallacy of gravity as a mechanism of consciousness. As Evan suggests, it probably already has a name, but it's more fun to give it a new name that enables you to reference Wile E. Coyote. The post is very good.
I also have one on the fallacy of teleological thinking when we talk about evolution and the environment.
On April 17th, the chair of Obama's Council of Economic Advisors chairwoman (and W&M alum) Christina Romer set off a firestorm in the economics blogosphere with a relatively benign rendering of mainstream economics through the medium of a shout out to 1990s political culture. Namely, that: "it's the aggregate demand, stupid". Romer's case is that aggregate demand is driving unemployment as opposed to unemployment insurance. The Economist provides a general overview of the question, while a paper prepared for a Brookings panel and a San Francisco Fed paper provide some empirical structure to the debate.
Bloggers have lined up on either side. Menzie Chinn, Michael Derby (WSJ), Mark Thoma (here and here), and Brad DeLong take Romer's side. Arnold Kling and Megan McArdle are opposed to her position. Tyler Cowen and Bryan Caplan are also opposed, but their posts go down this strange rabbit hole of nominal wage rigidities, which is very unusual because (1.) Romer never mentions nominal wage rigidities, and (2.) nominal wage rigidities have exactly zero to do with aggregate demand deficiencies, although some economists are fond of referencing them.
Some of the more interesting posts on the issue get into alleged fallacies committed by the pro-Romer aggregate demand crowd. I'm going to call these "fallacious fallacies", because they miss the mark by a fair margin, they threaten clear thinking, but you hear them a lot because human beings (particularly bloggers) love to play "gotcha". So I'm gonna call "gotcha" on the "gotcha" guys. The fallacious fallacy in question is the "aggregation fallacy". While most economists content themselves with the fact that aggregate demand is real and job search intensity (which is lowered by generous UI benefits) is real, and we have to arbitrate between their relative importance, some economists flatly reject the validity of aggregating anything. Robert Higgs recently listed the "aggregation fallacy" first in his list of six alleged fallacies. The argument is that by aggregating a variable like income into a variable like GDP, or an individual price into an aggregate like the CPI, complex processes at a lower level of aggregation are glossed over. This critique can come in several varieties, but it's disconcerting for me that it is ever expressed in the all-encompassing way that Higgs presents it. Peter Boettke recently brought this aggregation debate into Romer's aggregate demand debate. In his comment section, after some debate on the question, Peter writes that he is "unpersuaded that aggregate concepts do much of anything to improve our understanding of an economic system".
Monday, April 19, 2010
Ralph Waldo Emerson
By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood,
And fired the shot heard round the world.
The foe long since in silence slept;
Alike the conqueror silent sleeps;
And Time the ruined bridge has swept
Down the dark stream which seaward creeps.
On this green bank, by this soft stream,
We set to-day a votive stone;
That memory may their deed redeem,
When, like our sires, our sons are gone.
Spirit, that made those heroes dare,
To die, and leave their children free,
Bid Time and Nature gently spare
The shaft we raise to them and thee.
Sunday, April 18, 2010
My wife and I have maintained concerns about the medical profession primarily with regard to childbirth. When our daughter was born in May 2008, nurses from around the hospital came in to “see the woman who went through labor without any medication (epidural, etc.)”. While the attention was flattering (not that I did anything special), it’s appalling that simply giving birth to one’s child without severe anesthesia (with numerous risks and side-effects) was so surprising to the medical community. It's not as if women haven't been giving birth for thousands of years without it. Today, however, the medical community tends to advance both implicitly and explicitly a much more limited sense of women's empowerment and intelligence. The result is that people submit themselves to medical practice in a helpless and so relatively uncritical condition. We are used to hearing talk of "empowering women" within the abortion debate, but I worry sometimes that such lip service can be rather trivial and ignore the much more extensive sense in which people are kept ignorant about their own well-being and decision-making.
Childbirth in the United States is an odd thing. On the opening page of Marsden Wagner’s Born in the U.S.A.: How a Broken Maternity System Must be Fixed to Put Women and Children First, there is a delightfully provocative quote from the late Ronald Laing stating, “We do not see childbirth in many obstetric units now. What we see resembles childbirth as much as artificial insemination resembles sexual intercourse.”
While the WHO recommends an optimum cesarean rate of 10-15% of all births, in the United States over 30% of births are by C-section. This means that invasive surgery is being practiced in normal childbirth situations, where there is no good reason to do so. A culture of medical ignorance on the part of the public and failure to empower women on the part of the medical community is turning the most natural event of a person’s life into a clinical disruption of care for one’s body and one’s family. These are just a few anecdotes and data points; My wife is now working as a doula largely because of her childbirth experience, and could address the concern much better than I. The general problem, however, should be clear, and is probably familiar to most who have children, even if they didn’t recognize it as a problem.
My concern is not with invasive medical procedures for exceptional situations. At times, a vaginal birth is simply not possible or safe for the mother. Sometimes it really is necessary for an MD to be present in the room to attend to an emergency (and if only they were! More often we hear stories of nurses telling laboring mothers “don’t push!” because the doctor is down the hall at the vending machine, or chatting with the receptionist, or taking a leak). In the majority of pregnancies, however, nature works as it should. It’s not as if the human race is new to the experience of propagation. In certain parts of the “developed” world we’ve had a generation or two of amnesia brought on by the awe of new medical technologies (many now illegal and obsolete because of how dangerous they were), but it’s still within our capabilities, folks.
With the rise of the medicated and surgical extraction of our children, we’ve seen a decline in the practice of midwifery. There is a sense today that women and those who partner with them do not have the power or the ability to finish their pregnancies, and that specialized intervention is necessary. Oddly enough, this focus on specialization has also led to a decrease in attention from the very doctors who cling so strongly to their professional jurisdiction. Doctors see expectant and laboring mothers for minutes at a time; they are typically not available to work at length with the woman the way that midwives and doulas do. This is because their training isn't for maternity care, but for specific medical eventualities and procedures. It's no wonder that cesarean births and scheduled elective inductions are so prominent.
I'll close with another quote from Wagner's Born in the U.S.A. that sums up the present situation of childbirth and medical practice in the United States:
"The maternity care establishment in the United States has been seriously challenged by the trend toward evidence-based practice in medicine. Control, status, and, for many obstetricians, financial benefits have been threatened. The struggle is on, and place of birth has become a central issue. Why do obstetricians get so emotional about home birth? My own experience as a physician may shed some light on the situation.
The first time I attended a home birth, I was shocked. I had been a practicing physician for years, but this was the first time I had witnessed the full power of a woman in control of her own body. Believe me, it's a scary experience for a man. It took me a long time to come to grips with the truth: we men are afraid of women, whether consciously or unconsciously. We're afraid of unleashed nature, we're afraid of childbirth. We've all heard Freud's theory of "penis envy," but it isn't necessary to be an adherent of psychoanalytic theory to believe that many male obstetricians experience "womb envy," a term introduced by a German psychoanalyst, Karen Horney, to refer to an abiding sense of male inadequacy in the face of women's unique childbearing gift." (p. 131)
Below are some helpful resources for further investigation. Readers from Illinois should also read about the Home Birth Safety Act currently under consideration (and follow the news about it), and write to their representative in support of the rights of midwives to practice freely (our state has some of the most restrictive laws on midwifery in the U.S.)
Midwives Alliance of North America (professional association for all midwives, overseeing certification for CPM's)
American College of Nurse Midwives (professional association for CNM's)
ICAN: International Cesarean Awareness Network
The Business of Being Born