21 April 2011

Mommy Wars: The Tiger Mother Throws Down the Gauntlet

Stephen Kershnar
The Tiger Mother at War
Dunkir-Fredonia Observer
April 18, 2011

In her bestselling book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother and her Wall Street Journal article, “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior,” Amy Chua defends her version of “Chinese Mother” parenting practices and the philosophy behind it. The publisher (Penguin Press) knew the book would be huge and paid her in the high six figures in advance for the book. Her book and article have created a firestorm that has been covered by the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post, Newsweek, National Public Radio, and the like. Chua has an endowed seat at Yale Law School (best in the U.S.) as does her Jewish husband who is less of a disciplinarian. Her family contains other similarly accomplished academics.

Her daughters were not allowed to attend a sleepover, have a play date, be in a school play, complain about not being in a school play, watch TV or play computer games, choose their own extracurricular activities, get any grade less than an A, not be the best student in any subject except gym and drama, play any instrument other than the piano or violin, and not play the piano and violin.

The “Chinese mother” philosophy, nicely summarized by Caitlin Flanagan in The Atlantic Monthly, consists of the following claims. First, children are inherently strong, not fragile. Because of this, parents can demand that their children work hard and excel at school without worrying about their self-esteem. Second, self-esteem comes from accomplishing difficult-and-worthwhile projects. Third, the better children get at doing something, the more they will enjoy doing it. Fourth, parents know better than their children what is in their interests. As a result they often override their children’s own preferences. That’s why Chinese daughters aren’t allowed to have boyfriends in high school or to waste their time being Villager Number Six in the school play. Fifth, Chinese mothers love their children. They are not content to let their children turn out badly and will make sure they have what they need to flourish.

Chua claims that “Chinese mothering” is not limited to the Chinese. She allows that Korean, Irish, and Ghanaian mothers can be Tiger mothers. This is likely politically correct cover. Her argument focuses on what she claims are the characteristic practices and attitudes of Chinese mothers. Perhaps she might include other East Asian mothers (that is, Korean and Japanese mothers). Other reviewers have also interpreted her in a similar way.

Critics have raised three main criticisms of the Chua’s thesis. First, Chinese parenting practices do not produce more successful children. Second, even if the practices produce more successful children, they are bad because they produce less happy children. Third, even if Chua’s practices do work and do not produce children who are less happy than those with Western parents, they still reflect some defect in Chua or the Chinese culture.

Consider the criticism that the Chinese parenting practices don’t work. One concern here is whether Chinese children do better because they have a genetic advantage. In her previous bestseller (“World on Fire”), Chua pointed out that the Chinese have dominated markets in a number of Asian countries outside of China. As Chua is surely aware, professors Richard Lynn, Arthur Jensen, J. Philippe Rushton, Richard Herrnstein, Charles Murray, and others have found that East Asians have on average a higher IQ than whites (5-6) points and other races. They argue that the difference is due in part to genetics. It has been argued that 40-80% of intelligence in populations is heritable. This view is quite controversial, but one now dated poll it reflected the plurality view of specialists in the field. If this is correct, then at least part of Chinese success is likely genetic. It is not clear how much, if any, Chinese parenting practices add to their genetic advantage. Furthermore, East Asians do better on math-related subtests. This would lead the heredity crowd to predict that they would do strikingly well in math and science fields. This is what we find.

The parenting-practice issue becomes less clear when we compare East Asians to Ashkenazi Jews (Jews of European descent). The latter have the highest tested IQ. On some studies, it is 112-115. They outperform East Asians in the various intelligence-related contests: earning money, attending Ivy League schools, winning the top intellectual prizes (for example, Nobel Prizes, Fields Medals, and Turing Awards). This is not to say that Jewish mothers don’t have special parenting practices (for example, guilt) or that Chinese parenting techniques don’t improve the performance of Chinese children relative to others, but it is to say that the quick inference from Chinese success (outside of China) to Tiger-mother practices is unconvincing.

Consider the criticism that even if Chinese practices work, they produce less happy children. The arguments to this extent tend to beg the question. Writing in the Atlantic Monthly, Christina Schwarz writes that during ages 3-12, play is good for children, despite its being disordered, unproductive, and unclouded by reason. She argues that this is what makes childhoods worth remembering. Her implicit message is that Tiger mothering lessens it and is therefore bad.

On a different tack, Chinese-American women quoted in Psychology Today, charge that Chua’s practices are cruel and abusive. They don’t cite any studies or conceptual arguments to support their charge. Ayelet Waldman writing in the Wall Street Journal points out that Asian-American girls aged 15-24 have above-average suicide rates, but she does not make it not make it clear whether this is true for East Asian families, let alone high-achieving ones.

On one study, East Asians were somewhat less happy (satisfied with their lives) than other relatively wealthy and free peoples. It is not clear to what degree this results from culture, genetics, or something else. Also, if the Chinese parenting practices work, they likely result in a greater chance at marriage, employment, and higher occupational status, some of the factors that correlate with greater happiness.

A third group of critics provide arguments that appear to be a series of anecdotes and personal attacks against her or the Chinese culture. They claim she is sadistic, racist, narcissistic, a banana (yellow on the outside, white on the inside) who knows nothing about Chinese culture or language, and that she doesn’t respect or cherish her daughters. The plural of anecdote is not data (not my line). In the anecdote-war, Chua has a powerful ally: her oldest daughter. Writing in the New York Post, Sophia Chua Rubenfeld publicly thanked her mother for helping her to have a meaningful life. She claims that she finds meaning in pushing herself to the limit of her potential and exalting in the feeling of doing more than she ever thought she could. “If I died tomorrow, I would die feeling I’ve lived my whole life at 110 percent. And for that, Tiger mom, thank you.”

Why then did so many mothers savage the book? One explanation put forth by Flanagan is that the liberal upper class mothers (read: rich and well-educated white mothers) who want their children to have a carefree, creative, and effortless childhood will soon discover that their children are going to get spanked in the competition for admission to elite colleges, medical schools, top music conservatories, and so on. She posits that Chua and other Chinese mothers are forcing them to choose between the childhood and the future they want for their children and they resent it. Another explanation, implicit in Waldman, is that Chua makes Western feel guilty because they expend less effort on parenting and are more preoccupied when compared to the Tiger moms. I’m not sure I put much stock in either explanation, but am also unsure what accounts for the rage the book has unleashed.

06 April 2011

Obama's War & Congressional Authorization

Stephen Kershnar
The Libyan War and the Constitution
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
April 3, 2011

There are many reasons to oppose the current U.S. war on Libya. First, this war is expensive. Reuters reports that we’ve already spent $550 million on it and we just got into it. The federal government is currently borrowing roughly 43% of what it spends (roughly, we will likely borrow $1.6 trillion on a $3.7 trillion budget) and hence a country mired in debt is putting the war on the credit card. We’ve already spent $800 billion on the Afghanistan and Iraqi wars. The total costs of these other wars may go as high as $3 trillion if the estimate by Nobel-Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz is correct.

Second, because our goals are not clearly defined, mission creep has occurred and likely will continue to do so. The war was initially sold to us as imposing a no-fly zone to keep Moammar Gadhafi’s air force from killing the rebels. This could be accomplished by taking out his air force and air defenses. The mission then changed to protecting civilians. The new goal might explain why we’ve killed Gadhafi’s soldiers, destroyed his armor and command-and-control centers, and even bombed his residence. The recent discussion of arming the rebels suggests a new mission is on the way: regime change. If this mission succeeds, we’ll likely have yet another mission: nation building. In Afghanistan and Iraq this has been expensive and gone poorly, but President Obama rushed in anyway.

Third, the war makes U.S. policy unpredictable to both U.S. citizens and foreign countries. The U.S. attacked forces in Serbia, Bosnia, Iraq, and Libya, in part for humanitarian purposes, but did nothing in Sudan, Congo, and Rwanda. Given the lack of U.S. interests in Serbia, Bosnia, and, arguably, Libya, the pattern is arbitrary. This arbitrariness can also be seen in the U.S.’s muted response to protesters being killed in Bahrain and Yemen. Because both Republicans and Democrats jump into humanitarian wars, U.S. voters have no way to end this type of foreign adventurism. Other countries are also left to guess at what we’ll do next.

The main reason to oppose this war is that it is unconstitutional. Obama didn’t bother to get Congressional approval for his war. He did, however, get U.N. permission. Apparently, that’s what’s important.

Article I Section 8 states that Congress shall have the power to declare war. The best interpretation of this clause is that except in the cases where the country or its vital interests are attacked, the President cannot initiate war until Congress has declared it. Not only does the language of the Constitution suggest this, but the country’s fathers, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and George Washington, likely intended this. As writer Walter Isaacson notes, Washington said, “The Constitution vests the power of declaring war with Congress, therefore no offensive expedition of importance can be undertaken until after they shall have deliberated on the subject, and authorized such a measure.” Alexander Hamilton in Federalist no. 69 stated that the President is just the “first general and admiral” and just as generals and admirals may not initiate war, Presidents may not either.

The structure of the Constitution also supports this interpretation. Elsewhere in Article I Section 8, Cato Institute scholar Gene Healy points out, Congress has the power to initiate military action, specifically by allowing private American ships to attack other countries’ ships and to use militias to suppress domestic rebellion and repel invasions. In contrast, the Constitution grants to the President merely supervisory war-related powers. He may lead the army and navy only after Congress has created them and authorized their use.

As a side note, this was the position that Senators Obama and Biden held before they joined the executive branch. University of California at Berkeley professor and former Bush administration lawyer John Yoo notes that Biden opposed the nomination of Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito because he didn’t admit that the Bush administration would need congressional permission to attack Iran. Obama is on record defending a similar view.

Yoo provides the strongest argument for the claim that the President alone has the power to make war. Yoo argues that this claim can be seen in the nation’s history. The U.S., he notes, has used force abroad more than 100 times and only declared war five times. Even major wars like the Korean and Vietnam wars were fought without a declaration of war and Congress didn’t even authorize the former.

Yoo also argues that the drafting history of the Constitution supports his claim because the Constitutional delegates substituted in “declare war” for “make war,” suggesting that they didn’t view Congress as having the power to initiate war. He further argues that when the Constitution sets out a power that Congress and President share, such as enacting laws and entering treaties, it lays out a specific procedure. However, it does not lay out a specific procedure for war. He claims that a proper historical understanding also supports this interpretation. Constitutional delegates, Yoo claims, were following our English ancestry. In England, he notes, the King alone could initiate war and Parliament could undermine a war by refusing to fund it. Congress, Yoo notes, can stop a war via the purse.

The courts and the Clinton and Obama administrations have in effect adopted Yoo’s position. In Doe v. Bush (1st Circuit 2003), Campbell v. Clinton (D.C. Cir 2000), and Massachusetts v. Laird (1st Circuit 1971), which considered Constitutional challenges to the second Iraqi, Serbian, and Vietnam wars, the courts threw out challenges based on the fact that Congress had not authorized these wars. The courts reasoned that because Congress had not ordering an end to the wars or cut off funding, it was not at odds with the President. This reasoning makes sense only if Presidents can make war without Congressional approval.

If Yoo and the recent administrations were correct, then the Constitution permits Presidents to unilaterally start bloody and expensive wars with major powers like China and Russia without Congressional oversight. If Congress tried to stop the war by passing a law and the President vetoed it, Congress could then stop it only by forming a super-majority to override the President’s veto. In effect, Congress would have to act through hard-to-obtain super-majorities. This is likely not what the war-weary founders intended. It would also do little to slow down our repeated entry into unnecessary wars, especially with the pathetic specimens who populate Congress.

In addition to the Constitution, the War Powers Resolution, passed over the veto of President Nixon, prohibits the President from using the armed forces in a war for more than 60 days (with an addition 30-day withdrawal period) without Congress declaring war or otherwise authorizing the use of force. This resolution appears to be inconsistent with the Constitution on either of the above views because it transfers a power (war-making) from Congress to the President or vice versa. In any case, it’s still on the books and Obama has yet to satisfy it.

The best approach here is for Congress to follow Stanford Law Professor John Hart Ely’s suggestion to impeach and convict Obama for illegal war-making. Ely argues that violating the separation of powers to engage in an illegal war is a “high crime or misdemeanor” and far worse than, for example, Richard Nixon’s wiretapping and Bill Clinton’s perjury and witness tampering. Were this adopted earlier, this might have prevented Presidents from recklessly spending American blood and treasure in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Somalia, Serbia, Bosnia, and Libya.

Whether the military who took an oath to uphold the Constitution should refuse to fight is an issue for another day.