Opinion

JEFF JACOBY

Arguable: Welcome, vernal equinox

Tourists wrapped up against the cold and light rain look at sea of daffodils blooming in Hyde Park in London, Wednesday, March 1, 2017. Wednesday is the first day of meteorological Spring. Astronomical seasons refer to the position of Earth's orbit in relation to the sun taking into account equinoxes and solstices. Meteorological seasons are instead based on the annual temperature cycle and measure the meteorological state as well as coinciding with the calendar to determine a clear transition between the seasons.(AP Photo/Alastair Grant)

AP Photo/Alastair Grant

A sea of daffodils blooming in Hyde Park in London on March 1, 2017.

In the Arguable e-mail newsletter, columnist Jeff Jacoby offers his take on everything from politics to pet peeves to the passions of the day. Sign up here.

Spring has sprung

Happy vernal equinox! Today is the official start of spring, the date when night and day are each 12 hours long, right? Actually . . . wrong.

Two parents are better than one

Last year, 140 million babies were born around the world. About 15% of them were born out of wedlock. While it is still almost unheard-of in many Asian and African countries for unmarried mothers to have a baby, in much of Europe and the Americas it has become only too common.

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In a new study published by YaleGlobal, demographer Joseph Chamie notes that of the 35 leading industrialized nations, only five — Greece, Israel, Japan, South Korea, and Turkey — still have out-of-wedlock birth rates below 10%.

By contrast, writes Chamie, who was formerly the head of the UN Population Division, “In the large majority of more developed countries, including Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States, more than one-third of all births take place out of wedlock.” And within individual countries, there are often wide differences between population subgroups.

“In the United States, for example, significant differences in out-of-wedlock births exist among major social groups. While the national average for the United States in 2014 is 40 percent, the proportions of births out of wedlock for whites are 29 percent; Hispanics, 53 percent; and blacks, 71 percent.”

Chamie doesn’t expressly judge the desirability of children being raised by only one parent — I’m sure he was conditioned long ago to stay away from that highly-charged debate. In many circles, political correctness and moral nonjudgmentalism make it virtually impossible to discuss the explosion in out-of-wedlock births — what used to be called illegitimacy — with candor.

The closest Chamie comes to acknowledging the risks parents take when they choose to bear children without providing an intact family setting is in his final paragraph:

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“In too many instances the children born out of wedlock are disadvantaged and fail to receive the necessary protections, support and assistance to ensure their health, development, and well-being. Unfortunately, this challenge, too often ignored to the detriment of the children, communities, and countries, must be addressed.”

Few topics in modern discourse are as emotionally, politically, and ideologically fraught as the choices people make in forming families. When the subject turns to raising children without two parents, civility often boils away in heated self-righteousness. This isn’t new: Think of the outraged reaction to Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s 1965 report on “the breakdown of the Negro family,” or the uproar over the Murphy Brown sitcom during the 1992 presidential race.

Of course not all children raised by single parents struggle economically or professionally. Barack Obama is a perfect example. He was two years old when he was abandoned by his father, yet rose to remarkable heights of power and influence. But as Obama himself stressed more than once, exceptions like him don’t disprove the rule. The data aren’t in question.

“Children who grow up without a father are more likely to live in poverty,” Obama said at a Fathers Day event in 2010.

“They’re more likely to drop out of school. They’re more likely to wind up in prison. They’re more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol. They’re more likely to run away from home. They’re more likely to become teenage parents themselves. And I say all this as someone who grew up without a father in my own life.”

As a rule it takes two parents to raise a child, however un-PC it has become to say so. The old stigma against unwed motherhood wasn’t always fair or kind. But it was realistic. And it was certainly better than blithely accepting a society in which 40% of American children are raised without knowing the love of two parents, or being sheltered in the home they make together.

Got Grammar?

Probably it was never literally true that for want of a nail, the kingdom was lost. But it is indisputably true that for want of a comma, a $10 million class-action lawsuit against the Oakhurst Dairy Company of Portland, Maine, was lost.

For Oxford comma sticklers like me, last week’s ruling by the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals was a thing of grammatical joy. The dispute involved Maine’s overtime statute, which exempts specified tasks from overtime pay. Among those exempted functions were these:

Oakhurst Dairy’s drivers claimed they were owed overtime pay for “distribution” of the company’s products. The company argued that the statute only exempted those involved in “packing for shipment or distribution” — not the drivers doing the actual distributing. If lawmakers had included a comma before the “or,” all would have been clear: Drivers employed in distribution would not be entitled to overtime pay. But without that final comma — known as a serial or Oxford comma — ambiguity was unavoidable. In resolving it, the appeals court ruled that the drivers had the better case, and so Oakhurst Dairy is out $10 million.

As far as I’m concerned, the case for the serial comma has always seemed obvious. I can’t understood why anyone would advise leaving it out as a matter of routine. A classic demonstration of the need for the serial comma is this (doubtless apocryphal) book dedication: “To my parents, Ayn Rand and God.” Without a comma before the conjunction, the author seems to be crazy or blasphemous enough to imagine that the author of Atlas Shrugged and the Almighty were his mother and father. But add a single comma — “To my parents, Ayn Rand, and God” — and clarity reigns.

The story reminded me of one of those great exchanges that for years made William F. Buckley’s “Notes & Asides” — the column in which he regularly reproduced his exchanges with colleagues, readers, and other correspondents — the best part of National Review. From December 1972:

“A ukase. Un- negotiable. The only one I have issued in seventeen years. It goes: “John went to the store and bought some apples, oranges, and bananas.” NOT: “John went to the store and bought some apples, oranges and bananas.” I am told National Review’s style book stipulates the omission of the second comma. My comment: National Review’s style book used to stipulate the omission of the second comma. National Review’s style book, effective immediately, makes the omission of the second comma a capital offense!”

Among the responses was this lament from D. Keith Mano, a National Review columnist, to the magazine’s managing editor, Buckley’s sister Priscilla:

“I have read with dismay WFB’s ukase on the serial comma. I can’t do it. No way. It’s just plain ugly. WFB says this is un-negotiable. . . . How serious is he? Can I arrange a dispensation?

“Look: I’ll compromise. There should be peace in the family. Instead of “John went to the store and bought some apples, oranges, and bananas” — how about if he just buys oranges and bananas? Or a head of non-union lettuce. You see what this sort of restriction leads to. And they ask me why fiction is dying. Erich Segal, I bet, uses the serial comma.

“You may tell WFB that, from now on and as ordered, I salute the red and white.”

OK, OK, maybe you have to be a grammar nerd to bliss out to this kind of thing. Back in the day, I confess, I was the sentence-diagramming champion of Mrs. O’Brien’s 7th-grade boys’ English class at the Hebrew Academy of Cleveland. But even you don’t know a gerund from a present participle, you ought to be careful about commas. Leave one out, and it could cost someone $10 million.

Or, perish the thought, even worse.

The cost of feminism

What would you pay for a plain white cotton T-shirt, printed with the words “We Should All Be Feminists”? $7? $17?

In fact, at Saks Fifth Avenue, that Dior T-shirt will set you back $710. Or would, if it weren’t already sold out. A sucker really is born every minute, and some of them are women. Dior is happy to take their money and let them think they’re making a social statement.

How to be a jerk with snow

Perhaps you saw the story over the weekend by the Boston Globe’s Steve Annear, who described how a snow plow driver in Brockton, Mass., went out of his way to be a schmuck — and lost his job as a result.

Out of spite and rudeness, the driver deliberately plowed a heap of slushy snow into the end of a driveway that a 21-year-old resident had nearly finished clearing. Then the driver backed up, reloaded, and shoved even more snow on the pile. Then he did it again. The resident, it seems, had made the mistake of asking the snowplow operator to bypass the driveway because he was trying to clear the way so his father to leave. The driver decided to teach the young shoveler a lesson — “not to mess with the plow man.”

Happily, the driver swiftly got his comeuppance. His abusive behavior was captured on a cellphone video, posted to Facebook, and shown to Brockton’s mayor. Long story short, the snowplow driver was tracked down and fired. Good riddance.

But snowplow operators with an attitude aren’t the ones out there who are jerks about snow removal.

Almost as boorish and inconsiderate as the plow driver in the Globe’s story are property owners who can’t be bothered to clear the snow from their sidewalks after a snowstorm. Shoveling isn’t optional; it’s a legal requirement, like paying property taxes and fixing known hazards. Clearing the snow and salting against ice aren’t mere niceties, either. All it takes is one or two selfish non-shovelers to make an entire block impassable — and to inflict misery on a parent pushing a stroller . . . or a handicapped senior struggling with a walker . . . or someone confined to a wheelchair.

Homeowners, landlords, and shopkeepers who ignore their obligation to make their sidewalks passable often leave pedestrians no option but to walk in the street, which can be unpleasant, dirty, and dangeorus. When sidewalks are blocked by snow or ice, people often are left with no choice but to take to a busy roadway made even more congested and perilous by the snow massed along the curbs, along with the blaring of drivers’ horns and the constant threat of being drenched by slush and icy water.

Non-shovelers are a menace to their neighborhoods, and city hall should throw the book at more of them. Start with stiff fines for the first couple of offenses. If that doesn’t do the trick, perhaps some jail time will.

Only 364 days until the next wearin’ o’ the green

He was kidnapped at age 16 by pirates, he was forced into slavery as a shepherd, he is the patron saint of Nigeria . . . and other interesting things you never knew about St. Patrick.

Looking backward

My column yesterday argued that the only meaningful way to “replace and repeal” Obamacare is to pull the law up by the roots — and then keep going. Two generations of health-care “reform” have wrecked what could be a robust free market in medical care and health insurance, with vendors and providers competing to offer better and better products at lower and lower prices.

In Wednesday’s column I noted that climate-change models have been consistently wrong. If scientists cannot yet make accurate predictions about the degree to which climate will change, the logical conclusion is that their understanding of the science is still incomplete. I agreed with Scott Pruitt, the new EPA administrator, who told an interviewer that “we need to continue the debate and . . . the review and the analysis” before making irrevocable changes to the economy.

Wild Wild Web

What’s a scary sight? Dwight Eisenhower in a bathing suit is a scary sight.

“Love padlocks” on fences and bridges are lame. Umbrellas on trees are cool.

This video is not in reverse:

The last line

“But they never learned what it was that Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which had to do, for there was a gust of wind, and they were gone.” Madeleine L’Engle, A Wrinkle in Time (1962)

Arguable will be back next Monday. Have a great week!

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Jeff Jacoby can be reached at jacoby@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby.
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