Monday, October 24, 2016

#298 / The World Resumes At The Airport

Pictured is Emily St. John Mandel, author of a bestselling novel, Station Eleven. I read this book on my recent trip to Europe, and I do have to agree with the various (and many) laudatory comments found on the cover of the book (and also within). It's recommended!

The premise of the book is that an amazingly powerful flu sweeps the world, with this pandemic killing over 99% of the entire population of Planet Earth within about two weeks. Here's one observation, found on Page 178 of the Vintage paperback edition that I read:

On silent afternoons in his brother's apartment, Jeevan found himself thinking about how human the city is, how human everything is. We bemoaned the impersonality of the modern world, but that that was a lie, it seemed to him; it had never been impersonal at all. There had always been a massive delicate infrastructure of people, all of them working unnoticed around us, and when people stop going to work, the entire operation grinds to a halt. 

We live, in other words, in a "human" world, and we are "all in this together." These are two of the themes that I promote, relentlessly, here on my Two Worlds blog, so you can see how I'd like the book. Good premises, and a great story, too! 

If things are looking up, by the end, it's at least partly thanks to the fact that one of the main characters establishes a Museum of Civilization at a former airport near Detroit. History matters! That's another one of my best loved themes.

Let me repeat: recommended!

Image Credit:

Sunday, October 23, 2016

#297 / Utopia Makes A Comeback

The October 3, 2016 edition of The New Yorker has an article by Akash Kapur that is titled, "The Return Of The Utopians." I commend it to your attention. Just click the link.

Kapur is not, really, a big supporter of utopian thinking, stating that "contradiction and hypocrisy have always hovered over the utopian project." Kapur aligns himself with French philosopher and political economist Bertrand de Jouvenel, whom he quotes as follows:  

There is a tyranny in the womb of every utopia.

That is probably true, but I personally believe that contradiction and hypocrisy are inherent possibilities in just about everything that human beings do. I'd make de Jouvenel's statement a bit more general: "There is the possibility of a tyranny in the womb of every human project." 

Just consider, for example, our current presidential campaign. This year's presidential contest is certainly a non-utopian project, but one with some very dangerous indications that a tyranny may be hatching inside of what purports to be a democratic election.

I have, on several occasions, published my own view of utopia in this Two Worlds blog, and my conclusion is different from Kapur's. It is our task, always, to brave the danger that hypocrisy, contradiction, tyranny, and similar afflictions may be associated with any of the actions we take, as we construct the human world in which we most immediately live. Such dangers are the inevitabilities of our human situation. In a world that makes such possibilities an almost routine result of human action and error (and what religious thinkers call "sin"), utopian thinking can be a remedy, not a cause. To restate my earlier observation

I have always believed in "utopian" thinking; that is, I have believed in it since my undergraduate days, when I studied "Utopia" for two years, as a participant in an Honors Program in Social Thought and Institutions. 
The Honors Program was headed by Charles Drekmeier, and it was a life-changing experience for me. The lesson I took away was that the world we inhabit is not, truly, a "given," and that our individual and collective actions can transform reality.

Seeking to transform our human-created reality into something worthy of our highest aspirations is what utopia means to me.

If Kapur is right, and if the "return of the utopians" is at hand, that may mean that my kind of utopian thinking is making a comeback. 

That could be good news!

Image Credit:

Saturday, October 22, 2016

#296 / Nothing Is More Important

I finished this book in London on August 26th. It's a powerful book. I am still thinking about it. 

"What is more precious than independence and freedom?" That's a question in the book. That is the question that the Sympathizer has to answer, on pain of death.

"Nothing is more precious than independence and freedom." That's a statement that Viet Thanh Nguyen says is "almost the same [as the question] but not quite."

Read the book to solve the puzzle. Well, read the book and solve the puzzle if you can. I am still thinking about it.

And when the story is done (the story ends on Page 382) read on:

Some may see our family of refugees as living proof of the American dream - my parents are prosperous, my brother is a doctor who leads a White House advisory committee, and I am a professor and novelist. But our family story is a story of loss and death, for we are here only because the United States fought a war that killed three million of our countrymen (not counting over two million others who died in neighboring Laos and Cambodia). Filipinos are here largely because of the Philippine-American War, which killed more than 200,000. Many Koreans are here because of a chain of events set off by a war that killed over two million.
We can argue about the causes for these wars and the apportioning of  blame, but the fact is that war begins, and ends, over here, with the support of citizens for the war machine ... Telling these kinds of stories, or learning to read, see and hear family stories as war stories, is an important way to treat the disorder of our military-industrial complex. For rather than being disturbed by the idea that war is hell, this complex thrives on it. 

Image Credit:

Friday, October 21, 2016

#295 / Small Talk

In an article published in the October 1-2 edition of The Wall Street Journal, freelance writer Jennifer Breheny Wallace says there are "big benefits" to a little small talk. The illustration above outlines her concept. We can grow our understanding by appropriating ideas and information we get from others, from others who are different from us.

According to Wallace, we miss our opportunity to expand the world in which we live if we focus in on what our cell phones are telling us. Almost always, the media and information sources we most frequently consult tell us things we already know, or give us information that reinforces our current understandings of the world. 

Successful "small talk," with those with whom we have "weak ties," will actually strengthen our own sense of well being. 

That's what Wallace says, and that's a "big benefit."

She's got some hints in her article. 

I think she's right!

Image Credit:

Thursday, October 20, 2016

#294 / Do Unto Others

I was stunned by the editorial that appeared in the October 19, 2016 edition of The Mercury News. I was particularly amazed by its headline and the editorial's first couple of paragraphs: 

U.S. must work to stop drone threats 

The news that the Islamic State utilized a drone with explosives to kill two Kurdish fighters should send chills down the spine of America. Terrorists must be salivating at the notion of suicide bombing without suicide.
The Islamic State has deployed drones for reconnaissance missions in the battlefields of northern Iraq, but last week’s attack marks its first documented use of a drone as a weapon in combat. 

Please note the use of the word "its" in paragraph two. The recent attack was the first documented use of a drone by the Islamic State as a weapon in combat. 

Where, I wonder, did the Islamic State get the idea that they could use drones as a weapon in combat? Maybe the fact that the United States has killed thousands of people using drones gave the Islamic State that idea. Could that be it? 

Click this link for a graphic representation of the deaths caused by U.S. drones in Pakistan. The estimate from this website is 3,341 deaths. The photo at the top of the page, from the Center For The Study of the Drone, at Bard College, indicates that drone victims in Pakistan have been begging the United States to stop the killing (with no positive response from our country).

How nice, then, for The Mercury News to advocate for the development of "international standards for use of lethal force outside traditional battlefields." It would certainly be a good thing to establish such standards, and to stop the use of drones as weapons. But let's be honest; the Mercury's outrage should be directed against the United States government, not the Islamic State.

We all know about the Golden Rule, right? The Golden Rule is most often articulated using words from the New Testament (Matt. 7:12):

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

There is a corollary to the Golden Rule, the sad truth of which is demonstrated by our historical experience through centuries of wars and depredations: 

When you do something to others, they're going to do it right back.

The Mercury got its headline wrong. The right way to put it is this way:

U.S. must work to stop drone threats 

Image Credit:

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

#293 / A Lesson From Abroad

Here is what The New York Times said in an editorial published on Saturday, October 15th:

The one lesson America should have learned in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last 15 years is that unless governments reduce corruption, calm sectarian divisions, integrate all groups into the political process and deliver services to their citizens, extremists are sure to rise again.

The Times was talking about "The Coming Battle for Mosul." The comments are certainly appropriate in that context, but I think this is a lesson that should inform our own politics, too. 

Image Credit:

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

#292 / On Voting

"One of the things I always try to tell people is when you vote, your vote doesn’t count for anything..."

I am quoting, above, from an article that appeared in the October 16, 2016 edition of the Santa Cruz Sentinel. The article reported on a meeting at which John Laird, California Secretary of Resources, and formerly Mayor of the City of Santa Cruz, provided information on the many ballot measures facing California voters on November 8th. 

And who was it who said, "your vote doesn't count...?" That would be Morgan Smith, "a 20-year-old Santa Cruz resident and recent political science graduate at UC Santa Cruz." While saying that "your vote doesn't count for anything," Smith does, I gather, advise voting nonetheless. It is Smith's contention that a person's vote "counts as a statistic," and that "the more statistics you generate, the bigger an impact it has on politicians when they're deciding what to do."

Please let me correct the record. Voting counts! It happens that I teach in the Politics Department at UC Santa Cruz, though I don't think I ever ran across Morgan Smith. I was also elected to the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors five times, and lost an election to the California State Assembly, so I have some practical experience. Believe me, when I campaigned for office, in elections that were always quite close, it became obvious to me that voting "counts."

In fact, voting can be seen as an amazing kind of "trick," by which we, as a collective group of individuals, mobilize our small increments of individual power (our individual ability to do work) into the kind of massive power that builds dams and bridges, goes to war, and determines what the rules will be that govern our common life. 

Each of us has the ability to do work and to accomplish things. We mobilize our personal power, individually, in all of our daily activities; none of us, however, using only our individual power, has the ability to accomplish any large project. If we, collectively, want to build a dam or a highway, to go to war or to make the peace, we need to act in common. And how do we actually do that, in fact?

Here's how. We agree that we will transfer most of our individual power, subject to the limitations imposed by the Constitution, to elected representatives, who will then be granted the right to "govern" us. Political science students and professors sometimes call this the "social contract." It's a bargain we make with each other. We give up a large part of our "personal" and "individual" power so as to be able to conjoin our individual power with the individual power of others, and by doing so, we achieve a larger, common power, capable of doing great things, and accomplishing large projects, collectively.

The money we individually earn can be collected from us, as our elected representatives set taxes, high or low, and specify from where the revenue comes. That money will be spent on the projects that our elected representatives determine are worthy, and that they decide will benefit us all. Our physical labor, in fact, can actually be "conscripted," because we have given our elected representatives the right to send us out to kill for our country. And to die for it, too, of course. The rules that govern our personal relationships (like what does "marriage" actually mean?) are also established by the elected representatives who govern us. 

As I pointed out, yesterday, the future growth and development of the City of Santa Cruz, the kind of community we will collectively create, will largely be determined by the City Council representatives we select on November 8th. Those representatives will be selected by counting the "votes" that each one receives. The four candidates with the most votes will win; they will then have access to governmental power, as delegated to them by the voters, and that means the persons we elect will have the power to make decisions in our name. When important decisions are made by counting up votes (and that's how elections work), it ought to be obvious that every vote "counts." In Santa Cruz, no individual person will decide the future of our City. WE will decide its future, and we will decide it by "voting."

Thinking that our vote is only valuable as some sort of "statistic" is profoundly to misunderstand the immense power that we, collectively, have at our command, and that we mobilize and direct through the representatives we select. 

Whether at the local level, or the national level - and in terms of all those state propositions - voting "counts."

So, cast your own vote. Put your power to work. And...

Tell your friends. That's really what politics is all about. We tell our friends what we think, and seek to persuade them to our point of view. The more persuasive we are, the more votes we will have for what we want.

We vote. Our friends vote. Other people vote. Everyone who is eligible can vote. And when that's done, we "count" the vote.

Make no mistake. Voting "counts!"

Image Credits:
(1) -
(2) -

Monday, October 17, 2016

#291 / Slates In The City

Voters in the City of Santa Cruz, who will be voting for a new City Council this November, are being presented with two different "slates." One of them is the "Brand New Council" slate (Chris Krohn, Steve Schnaar, Drew Glover, and Sandy Brown). That is the more "liberal" or "progressive" of the two slates, and is associated with the ongoing efforts of Bernie Sanders' supporters to bring a Sanders' style of progressive politics to electoral issues at the local level. A recent Opinion Editorial by Michael Urban, an emeritus politics professor at UCSC, outlines the case for the Brand New Council.

The other slate is supported by the Santa Cruz Sentinel and by The Democratic Women's Club (see the picture below). Just to be clear about the Democrats, The People's Democratic Club, the more liberal of the two local Democratic clubs, is supporting the "Brand New Council" candidates. 

The "Sentinel/DWC slate" is more or less the "establishment" slate. It is headed up by well-respected and longtime Mayor Cynthia Mathews, and includes a former Sentinel reporter, J.M. Brown. Click the link for the Sentinel's editorial, which makes the case for its four chosen candidates. 

The Sentinel/DWC Slate: Cynthia Mathews, J.M. Brown,
Martine Watkins, and Robert Singleton
On last Friday evening, October 14th, I attended an "East Of The River Santa Cruz City Council Forum, to see the candidates in person. The forum was extremely well run, and was sponsored by the Branciforte Business Association and the Branciforte Action Committee. The forum started at dinnertime, 5:00 p.m., and the day was rainy. Frankly, I wasn't expecting much of a turnout, but I was surprised. There was a huge crowd, with I think close to 300 persons in attendance. That told me that voters "East Of The River" are taking the upcoming election very seriously. All the members of the audience were obviously quite engaged with and familiar with the issues, and audience members were both polite and attentive. Unfortunately, Martine Watkins from the Sentinel slate was not in attendance, and neither was Drew Glover, from the Brand New Council slate, whose mother had just passed away a day or two before the forum.

A discussion of crime and public safety started off the forum, but the real debate focused on land use and planning issues. The City's current plans are steering the City towards a future that is distinctly different from the City's past and present. Specifically, the current City Council is moving plans along that will result in huge high-rise buildings on Pacific Avenue (up to 95-feet high), with high-rise development planned for Front Street, too. Current proposals are for a high-rise reconstruction of our historic Wharf, and the City's proposed "Corridors Plan" is aiming for dense, high-rise development on all of the City's major transportation corridors, including Mission Street, Water Street, Ocean Street, and Soquel Avenue. 

On the Eastside, particularly, the impacts of the City's current planning policies are already obvious. They are already being implemented. The current policies facilitate development over preservation, and place a low priority on maintaining the integrity and character of our existing neighborhoods. Check the photos below for a couple of examples (the high-rise hotel approved on residentially-zoned land on Broadway, where the traffic is already at gridlock, and a large development next door to modest single family homes on Seabright Avenue):

I served on the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors from 1975 to 1995, and when I ran for office, which I did five times, the key issues were always about growth and development. It seems to me that we are now at a time when those issues are, again, the most critical ones for the local community.

"Affordable housing" issues, of overwhelming importance, are directly related to the kind of growth and development that Santa Cruz is experiencing. The City Council makes the final decision on all significant new development proposals, and the developments currently being approved are NOT designed to serve the working families already living in our community. Thinking that the "market" will solve our affordable housing crisis, and that we can "build our way out" of the current crisis, is a common mistake. Increasing "supplies" will not, in fact, lead to lower prices. New "supplies" of housing, if prices are set by the "market," follow the "Golden Rule" of politics: "those with the gold make the rules, and "those with the gold get the goods." The kind of housing currently being built in Santa Cruz, and the kind of housing currently planned, will definitely not fill the genuine "demand" in our community for housing that can be afforded by an average or below average income person.

I never had to run on a "slate," and I'm glad I didn't. Voters either voted for me, or my opponent, and the choices were clear. The current election for the Santa Cruz City Council, though, is different. Each voter can vote for up to "four" candidates, and they can "pick and choose." That "pick and choose" strategy will work for voters if they are generally happy with the direction that the City is taking, since the current Council has seven members, and three of them are going to be continuing. Four members of a seven-person Council is a majority, so even if only one of the "establishment" slate wins, voters should expect that not much will change. If voters want to change the City's direction, it's probably true that a "Brand New Council" is needed. 

My advice to the voters? Figure out if you are, or are not, basically satisfied with the current planning and development policies of the City. Then, vote accordingly!

The stakes are at least as high as those 95-foot high buildings that are being proposed for Pacific Avenue downtown.

Image Credits:
(1) -
(2) -
(3) - Gary A. Patton, personal photo
(4) - Gary A. Patton, personal photo
(5) - (DeCinzo archive cartoon; October 10-16 Edition)

Sunday, October 16, 2016

#290 / Subscribe

In These Times has now been publishing for forty years. It is a magazine for democratic socialists, devoted to the support of movements for democratic political change. A most notable example of the democratic socialist species is pictured on the cover photo, above. Reportedly, Bernie Sanders may be the "most popular politician in America."

In These Times is modeled on the Appeal To Reason, a weekly newspaper published in the Midwest from 1895 to 1922, a publication that helped support and bring about many of the political successes of the Progressive Era

I just read the 40th Anniversary issue of In These Times, the November 2016 issue, and I say, click this link: Subscribe!

"Subscribe" means, literally, to "sign up." 

"Signing up" means getting engaged.

Unless you think that the outcome of this year's presidential election is going to solve this nation's problems (and I sure don't), then you will have to conclude that there is a lot more work to be done before we can achieve the kind of "political revolution" that is absolutely necessary if democracy is to survive, if income and racial inequalities are to be overcome, if we are to stop our destructive addiction to perpetual war, and if we are to terminate our blind assault on the Natural World, which is now a most clear and present danger to the continued existence of human civilization.

I'm feeling optimistic.

Times are changing, and it's time for us to make the political changes we need, instead of letting the momentum of past political mistakes "make us" (miserable, poor, dumb, and downtrodden).

To coordinate our efforts, we need to "read all about it," even as we work to "just do it."

I am feeling really optimistic.


Image Credit:

Saturday, October 15, 2016

#289 / Step This Way For Freedom

Candidate Obama promised voters that he would close the Guantánamo prison. President Obama is finally getting around to that job, during his last few months in office. The picture above is from a New York Times article published on August 16th. The article documents the transfer of fifteen Guantánamo detainees to the United Arab Emirates, the single largest transfer of the entire Obama administration. If you'd like more background, I recommend an article in The New Yorker, published on August 1st. That article, by Connie Bruck, is titled, "Why Obama Has Failed To Close Guantánamo."

I am referencing the article from The Times because I wanted to share the picture. I don't think I had previously seen what the gate to "Camp America" looks like. If I had previously seen a picture, it hadn't made an impression. This picture did make an impression.

In Guantánamo, the United States government has incarcerated persons that the government says are "terrorists." However, the government has never revealed the basis upon which it has made these charges, and have never given those locked up the chance to be confronted by their accusers or to contradict what evidence, if any, the government may have against them. Moreover, it is well known that at least some of the prisoners in Guantánamo have been subjected to torture. Torture above and beyond the years-long indefinite imprisonment that is the basic condition of all those who are detained there.

A government that does this is not "defending freedom." It's doing the opposite.

If the people of the United States want freedom for themselves, and for their posterity, they must demand that the principles of freedom be applied in every case. Those who can walk in and out of "Camp America," under that sign, are operating in our name. It's unconscionable. It's intolerable. No imprisonment without a trial! That's a basic requirement of freedom.

Shame on the United States government!

Image Credits:
(1) -
(2) -

Friday, October 14, 2016

#288 / Unnatural Capital

My purpose today is to refer readers to an article that appeared on the Resilience website. Just click this link

The article, by Sian Sullivan, was originally published by The Conversation on September 13th. It is titled, "Nature is Being Renamed ‘Natural Capital’ – But is it Really the Planet that will Profit?"

Sullivan notes that "Nature" is now frequently being characterized as "Natural Capital." This is an attempt to reconfigure reality to suggest, linguistically, that "Nature" is a category within the human realm, whereas the truth of our situation is exactly the opposite: our civilization, and the "human world" that we create, is located within, and depends upon, the World of Nature, which we did not create, and which sustains our existence. 

Trying to make the Natural World a subset of economics is definitely not going to "profit" the Planet. It is also not going to profit human beings, because no matter what sort of linguistic tricks we might employ to pretend otherwise, the economic realities of the human world are that we depend on Nature. Nature does not depend upon us. 

If you think that words don't matter...

Read the article, and think again!

Image Credit:

Thursday, October 13, 2016

#287 / A Nice Question In A Nasty Debate

The second of this year's presidential debates, which was held on Sunday, October 9th, was properly called "nasty." Here's a place you can watch the entire thing, if you missed it in real time. Here's a link to the debate transcript, if you'd like to read through the various (nasty) exchanges and nail down the details.

I want to point out what I thought was an important question posed to the two candidates. It was the last question, and it came from one of the citizen participants, a Mr. Becker. His question was the opposite of "nasty," because it called for a non-nasty response. Here it is:

RADDATZ: We’ve sneaked in one more question, and it comes from Karl Becker. 
QUESTION: Good evening. My question to both of you is, regardless of the current rhetoric, would either of you name one positive thing that you respect in one another? 

I think that this is an important question, because it goes to the essence of what our democratic politics is supposed to be all about. We have differences, and very profound differences, and yet we are "one nation." We think so, at least. We hope so. As the Pledge of Allegiance says, citing to the "original" version of the Pledge, before "God" got imported into it, we are "one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."

This text is not about the "facts," that's for sure. The statement about "liberty and justice for all" is clearly aspirational, not descriptive. However, Americans have believed that we are "one nation," and that we are "indivisible."

Frankly, these two points of traditional agreement about our nation (post Civil War) are being called into question during this election. IF we are to survive this election as "one nation, indivisible," we must have "respect" for those with whom we have contended on the electoral and policy battlefield. 

Yes, for Hillary supporters, of whom I am now one, that even includes having respect for those voters who support Donald Trump, however much a person might disagree with Donald Trump and think of Mr. Trump as having "deplorable" personal characteristics and/or a "deplorable" set of policy positions. 

Mr. Becker's question invited the candidates to say something that could let their own supporters know that however divisive the contest might be now, amidst the "current rhetoric," we are still "one nation," trying to make up its mind about difficult questions, and still committed, together, to achieving "liberty and justice for all."

Mr. Becker's question asked for a statement naming "one positive thing" that the candidates respect "in one another."

Hillary Clinton said, "Look, I respect his children. His children are incredibly able and devoted, and I think that says a lot about Donald."

Donald Trump, actually answering the question posed, said, "I will say this about Hillary. She doesn’t quit. She doesn’t give up. I respect that. I tell it like it is. She’s a fighter."

In other words, Donald Trump did note (and quite accurately) one of the greatest strengths of Hillary Clinton, and thus let his supporters know that his opponent was worthy of respect. Hillary Clinton didn't have such a response. She could not say one thing about what she respected in her opponent, or in his campaign, and I think that bodes very ill for all of us. 

I think Donald Trump's behavior, statements, and policy positions are, for the most part, "deplorable." I am definitely planning to vote for Hillary Clinton in the upcoming election. However, those who support Donald Trump are not all "deplorables," as Clinton once said. We all need to understand that we are "one nation," and that that this needs to be the firm ground on which we battle about how to provide "liberty and justice for all."

I respect the fact that Donald Trump has galvanized huge numbers of voters to care about this election, and to demand some kind of change that will make our government responsive to the ordinary people of this nation. I wish Hillary had said that, indicating that she will respect the concerns of those who now are supporting her opponent.

I supported Bernie Sanders in the primary because it was clear to me that he was demanding real change of a kind that I believe is the right way to turn this country around. A demand for real change is a demand we should all respect.

Let us respect our common project. All of us. There is a lot to do to achieve "liberty and justice for all," and we won't be successful if we can't work together, after the "current rhetoric" has been resolved in the election in November.

The problems and challenges we face as a nation are real, and a divided nation, leading to a divided government that can't act, will never solve them.*

*PS: The Nation has an article that explores this very topic.

Image Credit:

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

#286 / Self-Insurance

Speaking of The New Yorker (as I was in my posting yesterday), that September 5th issue had a lot of good articles, including one on our emerging health care crisis. 

As James Surowiecki noted in the September 5th edition of "The Financial Page," our current health care system is being threatened by the decision of major insurance companies to withdraw from participation in the Obamacare exchanges. 

I recommend the full article, but here is what I think is the essence of Surowiecki's message. He "defends," in one way of looking at it, the insurance companies that liberals like to blame for their greediness and rapacity: 

Conservatives point to Obamacare’s marketplace woes as evidence that government should stop mucking around with health insurance. In fact, government hasn’t mucked around enough: if we want to make universal health insurance a reality, the government needs to do more, not less. That doesn’t require scrapping the current system: the Netherlands and Switzerland both demonstrate that you can get universal coverage through private insurers. But their examples also show that to do so we’d need to make it much harder to avoid buying insurance, and we’d need to expand subsidies to consumers.

Alternatively, we could implement the public option, which Obama himself called for in that 2009 speech: a federal program, modelled on Medicare, open to anyone on the individual market. The public option would guarantee that there was always at least one good choice available in the marketplace, and would provide competition for private insurers. If it used the government’s bargaining power to hold down costs and expand access, it could offer good benefits at a low enough price to attract younger, healthier patients.

There are solid arguments for both of these models. Either would work, if there were a shift in the political mood and it were given a shot. Even if nothing is done, Obamacare will continue to limp along, probably turning into something akin to Medicaid. But the departure of big insurers like Aetna has made it clear that, if we don’t do more to help cover people in the individual market, the program will never make good on its original promise of truly comprehensive reform. So don’t hate the players; fix the game.

Of the two solutions that Surowiecki suggests, I personally prefer the "public option," which simply means that we, acting collectively, decide that we will insure ourselves. Large organizations self-insure all the time, because it just makes economic sense. If we choose to do so, our nation can well afford to make sure that everyone has the kind of health care that only those who are on certain employer-financed plans, and those on Medicare, are blessed with now. 

Image Credit:

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

#285 / Yes, And...

The September 5, 2016 issue of The New Yorker has an engaging article on the "Upright Citizens Brigade," which is a training center for those wanting to learn how to do improvisational comedy. The article was written by Emma Allen, who actually took the course. It is titled, "How The Upright Citizens Brigade Improvised A Comedy Empire," and is subtitled, "The art of making it up as you go along." It's a fun (and informative) article, which I definitely recommend. 

Life, in general, is largely about "making it up as you go along," and Allen's article thus provides some good advice that can benefit all of us, even if we're not trying to make it big in comedy. 

According to the Upright Citizens Brigade, the key to "making it up as you go along" is always to say, "Yes AND," as opposed to "Yes, BUT." Only in that way can you make something worthwhile out of what may seem to be an unpromising beginning. 

As I say, I think that's good advice in general!

Image Credit:

Monday, October 10, 2016

#284 / Killer Cats

The September 29th edition of The New York Review of Books contained a review of Cat Wars: The Devastating Consequences of a Cuddly Killer. According to the headline, "The Killer Cats Are Winning!" The book is by Peter P. Marra and Chris Santella, and was published this year by Princeton University Press.

If you'd like another look at this topic, you might also consider the following article, by Travis Longcore, Catherine Rich, and Lauren M. Sullivan: "Critical Assessment of Claims Regarding Management of Feral Cats by Trap–Neuter–Return." The Longcore-Rich-Sullivan article was published in 2009 in Conservation Biology.

The upshot of both the book and the article is that domestic cats are devastating predators, destroying bird populations: 

The jaunty image of the house cat as a kind of lap-sized leopard and the powerful, almost parental love that cat owners feel for the increasingly popular pet obscure another, darker truth about Felis catus. Free-roaming domestic cats ... are an environmental menace of staggering and still-escalating proportions. They ... butcher tens of billions of songbirds, small mammals, reptiles, and lizards each year and push vulnerable species toward extinction. Cats hunt when they are hungry and hunt when they are full. "In the United States,” the authors write, “more birds and mammals die at the mouths of cats than from wind turbines, automobile strikes, pesticides and poisons, collisions with skyscrapers and windows, and other so-called direct anthropogenic causes combined.”

Until I read the article from Conservation Biology, which I did a number of years ago, I had never really thought much about this subject. Now that I have, I believe that our transformation of Felis catus into a domestic pet is a good example of how human beings make a mistake by thinking that they can ignore the World of Nature, as we create our own, human reality. 

The fact that domesticated cats are "an environmental menace of staggering proportions" ought to factor into our decision-making process. Maybe we ought to think twice before inviting these "pets" into our homes.

Image Credit:

Sunday, October 9, 2016

#283 / The Dictator's Dilemma

The Wall Street Journal published a review of a new book by Bruce J. Dickson, The Dictator's Dilemma. Reporting on the review, and not the book itself, I can inform you that the point of Dickson's book is to argue against the thesis that "the Chinese people are fed up with the Party, impatient for reform, and ready for democracy."

In fact, the opposite is true, says Dickson, who is a Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at The George Washington University, and Director of the Sigur Center for Asian Studies in the Elliott School of International Affairs.

The party’s strategy, according to Dixon, is “a mix of repression, legitimation, and co-optation.” 

The review of Dickson's book, by Benjamin L. Read, who is a professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, observes that "the repression has various flavors, which [Dickson] catalogs in some detail, from arrests of activists and lawyers to filtering the internet. All of this has gotten worse since President Xi Jinping took the reins in 2012–13."

However, to continue quoting Read's review: 

If repression were the primary experience of the Chinese people, the regime wouldn’t enjoy popular support. Mr. Dickson highlights what the party has done to win the hearts and minds of the people: raising incomes (not merely growth rates) by promoting economic development; implementing modest political reforms at the local level; providing increased access to education, health care and other public goods; appealing to national pride; and bringing into the party’s ranks many members of the wealthy and the well-educated classes. 
It seems to have worked. The book’s primary evidence for this claim comes from two surveys designed by Mr. Dickson and implemented by Peking University’s well-respected public-opinion center. In the 2010 version, researchers conducted face-to-face interviews with 3,874 randomly selected people in 50 cities around the country; the 2014 version reached 4,128 respondents. Both of these surveys found widespread support for and trust in the regime’s core institutions. Trust in the central party and government averaged between 7.5 and 8 on a 0-10 scale, for example. The book also reports respondents’ assessments of specific areas of public policy. The majority of those surveyed—75%—said that they were satisfied with their local government’s efforts on education and social order. (Only half said the same about food safety, a topic of intense concern.) ...
Most Chinese believe that their country already has a high level of democracy, are satisfied with the quality of current democracy, and are optimistic about further increases in democracy in the near future.”

Real democracy requires individuals to renounce comfort for freedom, and to engage, themselves, in the arduous and perilous tasks of self-government. This is the message, in the end, of Dostoevsky's Grand Inquisitor, even though that wonderful disquisition, from The Brothers Karamazov, talks of the oppressions of clerical, not political, power:

No science will ever give them bread so long as they remain free, so long as they refuse to lay that freedom at our feet, and say: "Enslave, but feed us!" That day must come when men will understand that freedom and daily bread enough to satisfy all are unthinkable and can never be had together, as men will never be able to fairly divide the two among themselves. And they will also learn that they can never be free, for they are weak, vicious, miserable nonentities born wicked and rebellious. Thou has promised to them the bread of life, the bread of heaven; but I ask Thee again, can that bread ever equal in the sight of the weak and the vicious, the ever ungrateful human race, their daily bread on earth? And even supposing that thousands and tens of thousands follow Thee in the name of, and for the sake of, Thy heavenly bread, what will become of the millions and hundreds of millions of human beings to weak to scorn the earthly for the sake of Thy heavenly bread? Or is it but those tens of thousands chosen among the great and the mighty, that are so dear to Thee, while the remaining millions, innumerable as the grains of sand in the seas, the weak and the loving, have to be used as material for the former? No, no! In our sight and for our purpose the weak and the lowly are the more dear to us. True, they are vicious and rebellious, but we will force them into obedience, and it is they who will admire us the most. They will regard us as gods, and feel grateful to those who have consented to lead the masses and bear their burden of freedom by ruling over them—so terrible will that freedom at last appear to men! Then we will tell them that it is in obedience to Thy will and in Thy name that we rule over them. We will deceive them once more and lie to them once again—for never, never more will we allow Thee to come among us. In this deception we will find our suffering, for we must needs lie eternally, and never cease to lie!

There is, I think, some relevance to our contemporary American politics in Dickson's report on China, and on the people's acceptance of the repressive realities imposed by the Chinese Communist Party. 

Much relevance, too, in Dostoevsky's heart-wrenching and timeless challenge to us all.

Image Credit:

Saturday, October 8, 2016

#282 / It's That Shame Old Thing

I read The New York Times each morning, and I recently discovered a couple of copies that I had set aside. I think I must have done that because I had read something that I wanted to think about. 

For instance, David Brooks wrote about "The Shame Culture" in his column published on March 15, 2016. I wanted to think about that.

I kind of liked Brooks' column, at least for giving me something to think about. I am generally not much of a Brooks' fan. In his column, Brooks differentiated a "guilt" culture from  a "shame" culture by referencing the anthropologist Ruth Benedict. "In a guilt culture," he said, "you know you are good or bad by what your conscience feels. In a shame culture you know you are good or bad by what your community says about you." Brooks went on to talk about how the all-pervasiveness of social media has "created a new sort of shame culture." Social media, in other words, has stepped into the role of community, and lets you know what you should be ashamed about.

Brooks pretty much deplores this new reality, and he ends up coming down hard for what might be called "traditional morality," which I think means that Brooks is opting for the desirability of a "guilt culture."

If we’re going to avoid a constant state of anxiety, people’s identities have to be based on standards of justice and virtue that are deeper and more permanent than the shifting fancy of the crowd. In an era of omnipresent social media, it’s probably doubly important to discover and name your own personal True North, vision of an ultimate good, which is worth defending even at the cost of unpopularity and exclusion. 
The guilt culture could be harsh, but at least you could hate the sin and still love the sinner. The modern shame culture allegedly values inclusion and tolerance, but it can be strangely unmerciful to those who disagree and to those who don’t fit in.

I, personally, don't think that either guilt or shame should be the basis of our "culture." How about acceptance and forgiveness (for both ourselves and for others)? 

I could go for a culture based on that!

Image Credit:

Friday, October 7, 2016

#281 / Rilke Versus The Machine

Rainer Maria Rilke's "Eighth Elegy" contains these lines: 

O bliss of tiny creatures
which remain always in the womb which carries them;
o happiness of the gnat, which still hops within,
even on its wedding: for womb is all.
See the half assurance of a bird,
which almost knows both through its origin,
as if it were one of those Etruscan souls
received by space out of a corpse
whose silent figure is its lid.
And how dismayed is one which must fly
out of its native womb. As if it is
afraid of itself, it zigzags through the air, like a crack
running through a cup. So the track
of a bat rends through the porcelain evening.

David Gelernter, professor of computer science at Yale University, wrote about artificial intelligence in an article that appeared in the March 19-20, 2016 edition of The Wall Street Journal. In that article, titled, "Machines That Will Think and Feel," Gelernter wonders how it was that Rilke came up with his comparison of "the flight of a small bird across the evening sky to a crack in a smooth porcelain cup." Maybe, Gelernter says, the poet made this comparison because "these very different things made him feel the same way."

Gelernter's point is that human "intelligence," as it actually operates within real human beings, and within our human society, is something more than the ability to do rational calculations. There is, inevitably, an "emotional" or "feeling" component to our intelligence that makes it human. Since our efforts to advance artificial intelligence tend to overlook this fact, we are on the threshold of a world that could be a big problem for human beings.

What, asks Gelernter, would it mean if a machine had an IQ of 5,000? We might be able to create such a machine, and pretty soon, too, and if we put such a machine in charge of many aspects of our lives, what would be the result?

The machine might not "feel our pain." It might not empathize or sympathize with our situation the way a human being might. And if the machine were making the arrangements for us in the world we inhabit, its ability to do prodigious calculations would not, likely, make it sensitive to what we really care about.

Human beings do not make themselves. We are biological beings, born of the World of Nature, and as much as we study and learn about the mechanisms that help us function, "who" we are remains a mystery.

If we attempt to go beyond the "intelligence" that the World of Nature has provided us, and to substitute for that intelligence an intelligence that we ourselves design and build (those machines with the IQs of 5,000 that can run our lives better than we can), we will put the continuation of our truly "human" life in peril.

We humans, in other words, are creatures, as well as creators, and we are dependent on a world that we did not create, a world in which our existence and presence is always a mystery. If we ignore or deny this truth about who we are, as humans, an inhuman future will be forthcoming.

Image Credit:

Thursday, October 6, 2016

#280 / Seven Deadly Sins

I like the song entitled, 7 Deadly Sins, recorded by the Traveling Wilburys, and if you want to read the lyrics click the link. If you want to listen to the song, even better, you can click right here

My posting today is not about the song. It's about another list with seven sins. Specifically, I am reporting today on a very slim volume entitled, The Seven Deadly Sins of Legal Writing, authored by Theodore L. Blumberg, who is associated with a New York City law firm, and who specializes in entertainment law.

Blumberg's book has been published by Owlworks, which has some sort of relationship to the Archangul Foundation, listed as a local business in Altoona, Alabama. The Foundation, and its Owlworks printing operation, seems to be a bit unusual. The picture above, for instance, may (or may not) be associated with Owlworks. That would appear to be so, judging from the place I found it online, but who really knows? And how does it happen that a sophisticated Manhattan attorney ends up publishing a book through a group in Altoona, Alabama? From what I can judge, there is not much "there" there, in Altoona.  The Foundation website is non-functional, at least it was when I was writing this post, and even the spelling of "Archangul" is pretty weird.

I must also say that when I heard about this book (I don't remember where I heard about it, now), I decided to order it, and Amazon said it was out of print, but that private parties would sell me a copy for something like $95. That seemed excessive (for a 34-page book, not counting the exercises), and so I thought I should just try to order it direct. I was able to get Owlworks on the phone, and the Foundation's Administrator, Mary Burton, was so delighted to hear from me that she said they were having a "special promotion," one-day only, and that I was lucky enough to be calling on the special day. Accordingly, instead of having to pay $95 for the book, Ms. Burton sent me a free copy. That was pretty weird, too, but I am glad she did. I am recommending this book! Incidentally, I think it's actually selling for $7.95. That's what it said in the latest bulletin from the Modern Language Association, at least.

The Seven Deadly Sins of Legal Writing is not only engaging to read, its advice is worthwhile. Those interested in writing better should definitely get themselves a copy. While the book is obviously good medicine for legal writers, it is my belief that anyone who writes anything, in English, would benefit from reading this book. According to the online blurb about Blumberg, The Seven Deadly Sins of Legal Writing is now "used in law schools throughout the United States." That is good news for everyone. Like it or not (and most don't like it), lawyers, and what they do, end up affecting almost everything. With this book, those lawyers can at least make themselves better understood.

Here they are, the seven deadly sins (of legal writing):

  1. Passivity
  2. Abstraction
  3. Adverbiage
  4. Verbosity
  5. Redundancy
  6. Speaking Footnotes
  7. Negativity
Check out a wonderful little publication to read all about them!

Image Credits:

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

#279 / Some Good Advice From Ruth

On October 1, 2016, The New York Times carried a nice little "opinion" piece by Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The Times titled her piece "Ruth Bader Ginsburg's Advice For Living." Click the link to check it out. 

Here is what I think was a particularly timely observation by Justice Ginsburg:

Another often-asked question when I speak in public: “Do you have some good advice you might share with us?” Yes, I do. It comes from my savvy mother-in-law, advice she gave me on my wedding day. “In every good marriage,” she counseled, “it helps sometimes to be a little deaf.” I have followed that advice assiduously, and not only at home through 56 years of a marital partnership nonpareil. I have employed it as well in every workplace, including the Supreme Court. When a thoughtless or unkind word is spoken, best tune out. Reacting in anger or annoyance will not advance one’s ability to persuade.

This advice, and particularly the advice in her last line, seems relevant for anyone running for president, but I think there is one current candidate who could really benefit from paying attention.

I bet you know the guy I have in mind!

Image Credit: