Sunday, November 27, 2022

#332 / My Heart's In The Highlands


You can click this link for the lyrics to Bob Dylan's "Highlands," and you can play the song, one of Dylan's longest, by clicking here, or by utilizing that YouTube video, above.
I have been reading Ian Bell's second book about Dylan, Time Out Of Mind: The Lives of Bob Dylan. Bell has written another book about Dylan, too. That book, which came out first, is called, Once Upon a Time: The Lives of Bob Dylan. I haven't read the first book, but I have been enjoying the second one, and I particularly liked Bell's discussion of "Highlands." 

Bell is, by the way, a rather severe critic of Dylan, at least sometimes. That's the way he comes across to me, at any rate. Bell seems to think he knows better than Dylan himself what Dylan should be doing, and how Dylan should organize his affairs. As one example, Bell calls Dylan's participation with the Traveling Wilburys a "largely pointless if lucrative project." Since I pretty much love every song that the Wilburys recorded, I take exception to that assertion. It is, as I say, just one example of Bell's critical commentary.

On the other hand, Bell does have lots of important information and insights to impart, and I was struck by Bell's analysis of "Highlands," which Bell calls a "sixteen-and-a-half-minute masterpiece." Bell suggests that Dylan's song not only references the poetry of Robert Burns, which is pretty obvious, but that it likely also contains references to My Heart's in the Highlands, a much more obscure 1939 play by the Armenian American writer William Saroyan.

Bell says, for instance, "at one point in Saroyan's comedy ... a character remarks, 'In the end, today is forever, yesterday is still today, and tomorrow is already today.'" This is, Bell claims, the same view of time that is visible in Time Out of Mind, the 1997 album in which "Highlands" appeared.

Anyone who has been reading my blog postings with any regularity will perhaps remember George Fox, the Quaker, who claimed that "You have no time but this present time; therefore, prize your time for your soul's sake."
Fox's admonition is not just a kind of practical advice; it is, in fact, a profound insight into the nature of the reality we inhabit.

Bob Dylan has that kind of insight, too.
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Saturday, November 26, 2022

#331 / Good Advice From The "Grammar Table"


Ellen Jovin wrote an engaging column in yesterday's edition of the San Francisco Chronicle. Apparently, Jovin is the "proprietor of a traveling pop-up grammar advice stand called the Grammar Table." She calls herself a "roving grammarian." 
Jovin sits on the street of cities all over the country and answers questions from passersby. She reports that she has "done that in 49 states," and she says that "there is no topic I am approached about more than this one: "Oxford comma, yes or no?"

For those not familiar with the debate, you can click right here for a discussion of the Oxford comma. Jovin, of course, in her Chronicle column, outlines the debate as well. 

I am a strong proponent of the Oxford comma. Others, as Jovin notes, feel strongly just the other way. 

In summing up the discussion, Jovin told a story that resonates beyond the Oxford comma debate. Particularly after having written yesterday's blog posting, in which the claim was made that even "political enemies" deserve a "piece of pie," I thought I would be remiss if I didn't pass this along:

One thing I have learned is that when people bother to ask me about the Oxford comma, they usually want to keep it close. A man I met on a hot day in downtown Salt Lake City was an exception. I was sitting at the Grammar Table when he approached and told me that Oxford commas had been a source of friction between him and a friend.

“My friend didn’t want them,” he said.

“Yes, people can get very upset about the Oxford comma,” I replied. “Do you use them?”

“Well, my friend and I were having a knock-down, drag-out fight about this, so I did some research,” he said. “And I was right: either way is fine. She was not open to the idea that both were acceptable. That fight has served me well, though, because every time I argue with her, every time we come to an impasse, I say to her, ‘Remember the comma!’ ”

“I approve of your open-mindedness about the Oxford comma,” I told him.

I meant it, too. Perhaps this man could be a model of moderation for us all. Fighting over chores? A fence? Politics? Remember the comma!
Politics requires a debate between those with different (and often strongly held) opinions. "Either way" is often fine. Different, though; that's for sure. In a society that practices democratic self-government, we can, collectively, decide what we should do. Sometimes the choices before us are momentous. But we do have different opinions. The "democratic self-government" concept is that we debate our different opinions, and then collectively make a choice. If the result isn't to our liking, we can have that debate again, and maybe decide things differently, next time around. 

As we do engage in the debate, the idea that we should "remember the comma" is pretty good advice. Remembering that everyone should, probably, end up with some "slice of pie" is the same kind of admonition. 

We are, after all, "in this together," and "together" we must rise or fall, prosper or fail. 

So, if you care which way the debate will work out (and the consequences are definitely significant) then don't forget that your own participation will probably have an impact on which way that debate is determined. If we want "self-government," in other words, we will have to get involved ourselves

But when we do, let's "remember the comma."
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Friday, November 25, 2022

#330 / Political Enemies Should Get A Slice of Pie


My headline today comes from a headline, yesterday, on a Thanksgiving Day column by Tish Harrison Warren, an Anglican priest, and a columnist for both The New York Times and Christianity Today

Warren said that she and her best friend, named "Woody," have their own (imaginary) holiday. They call it "Interdependence Day." The point, says Warren, is "to recognize how we are all in this together." 

That phrase, as anyone who reads my blog postings with any regularity will probably remember, is one of my favorites. We are, truly, "in this together," and we are not either self-sufficient or self-made. 
Since Warren holds out scant hope that "Interdependence Day" will ever become an official, nationally-recognized holiday, she wants her readers to consider that the existing Thanksgiving Day holiday is a good stand-in for what she and Woody would like to see celebrated on its own, a day commemorating our profound "interdependence."
Warren has some specific suggestions on how we might notice and honor our interdependence. She suggests: 
  • Recognize our dependence on the earth
  • Focus on all the unseen people
  • Honor your political enemies
  • Take up the "art of neighboring"
Warren's last suggestion (not included in the bullet list I have just provided) is that we should "practice noticing." I like to think that these daily blog postings of mine, now heading into their thirteenth year, are a way that I am trying to respond to what I think is a very appropriate suggestion. 

I endorse Warren's column, and her specific suggestions for us, and I hope that a few of those who might read this blog posting will be able to conquer what is probably a New York Times paywall, and read Warren's thoughts in their entirety.
Everyone should get a "slice of pie," Warren tells us, including those with whom we have profound political disagreements, our "political enemies." Warren harks back, in providing this advice, to the advice of perhaps our greatest president, whose Second Inaugural Address, given shortly before he was assassinated, said this: 
With malice toward none with charity for all with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right let us strive on to finish the work we are in to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan ~ to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

"Aspirational politics," a politics that seeks to create the kind of world for which we most deeply hope, a world that binds us together, is the only kind of politics worth having. Let's not forget Lincoln's words (or Warren's advice):
We are all in this together

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Thursday, November 24, 2022

#329 / Hymn 92


Reflecting on my blog postings over the past eleven months, I am a bit surprised at myself. I have made quite a few references to music, even above and beyond Bob Dylan, to whom, of course, I have constant recourse. 
Hymn 92 in the United Methodist Hymnal seems a fitting reference for today. 
My sentiments, exactly!


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Wednesday, November 23, 2022

#328 / Modern Monetary Theory - One More Time!


A recent bulletin from Resilience addresses the topic of "Modern Monetary Theory." What is that?
One short definition is as follows: "Anything we can actually do, we can afford."

I don't see that claim being made very often, when I read my newspapers every morning. You are probably not hearing much about Modern Monetary Theory, either. 

Let me remind anyone who is a longtime reader of this blog that I have written about Modern Monetary Theory, also called MMT, on several occasions. For instance: 

This theory means that social goods can be achieved by a political choice to spend the money necessary to achieve them. If we want to upgrade and repair our infrastructure, we can do it. If we want to provide a college education to those who can benefit from that, we can simply do that. Health care? Mental health care? We can have the kind of health care system we ought to have. Housing? We can build the housing we need to make sure no one has to fight off other homeless persons to be able to sleep under a bridge. Money, says MMT, is not a constraint! Obviously, if this is true, you can see the appeal of MMT!
How will you pay for it? is the wrong question to obsess over. The right question is the more difficult and important one about the impact of government spending on the economy. Did it generate income inequality? Did it cause inflation? Or did it help build an economy that works for all? MMT economists favor policies for shared prosperity, like a federal job guarantee, a Green New Deal, tuition-free college and Medicare for All.
This brings me to the Kelton/Keynes assertion that "anything we can actually do, we can afford." I think there is a problem with this assertion. The problem is that we can't afford to do everything we can "actually do," all at the same time. We need to pay attention to that "opportunity cost" problem that I mentioned back in January. The problem isn't with the money, per se. We can afford to do anything we can actually do - but we can't "actually do" them all simultaneously.

Why is that? That is because our economy isn't, in the end, about money. It's about people. And while you can print money, you can't (not yet, at least) print out people. No matter how much money we have, there is only so much we (collectively) can do, all at the same time. That is why "politics," which is how we decide what we are (collectively) going to do, is always and necessarily about choice.

Individually, as I am fond of saying, "you can't be both a ballerina and a brain surgeon." You're going to have to make up your mind. You might have the ability to do either one of these things - but to be any good at either one of these activities, you will have to dedicate yourself to it, and you won't have anything left over to embark on the other potential choice.

Our society is the same. We can build the biggest military machine in the history of civilization, and we can provide health care for all, and a college education for all who want it, and child care, and housing for every person. But we can't do all these things simultaneously. It's not the money that's the problem. It's the limited capacity of our society to do too many significant things simultaneously. So, we have to choose.
Billionaires are buying whole islands in Hawaii. Billionaires are asserting a private right to conquer space and build cities on Mars, where homeless persons won't be able to exist. Let us direct our protests at those who are responsible, and do something about it. And I don't mean the billionaires, either. I mean all of us! Modern Monetary Theory says that we can afford anything that we can actually do. We can, actually, provide a place, a space, a home for every person in this incredibly rich country we call our own.


Speaking of "revolution," which I have been known to do, I think that trying to utilize Modern Monetary Theory would be a truly "revolutionary" way of reformatting our society and economy. It would be an important part of a truly "transformative politics."
I recommend that article from Resilience that I mentioned at the beginning of this blog posting. The article is dated October 7, 2022, and it is titled as follows: "Degrowth, Decolonization and Modern Monetary Theory." Click that link to read the article. If we want to address the climate crisis, and if we want to hold our nation (and the world) together as we face the huge economic, social, and political challenges that are coming along with the climate crisis, we need to figure out how to deploy Modern Monetary Theory.
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Tuesday, November 22, 2022

#327 / Sorry, Guys!

Maybe someday you will understand
That something for nothing is everybody's plan
Bob Dylan, "Maybe Someday"
The individual pictured at the top of this blog posting, Sam Bankman-Fried, travels by his initials alone: SBF. In this, he is not unlike a certain murderous Saudi potentate, congenially known as MBS
The picture above was obtained from an article, online, in The Wall Street Journal, which makes clear that Bankman-Fried is really, really sorry for losing billions of dollars of other people's money. In the hard-copy version of the paper, a November 10, 2022, tweet from Bankman-Fried is superimposed on the picture. Here's the tweet: "I'm sorry. That's the biggest thing."
Bankman-Fried ran FTX, a cryptocurrency exchange, and raised a prodigious amount of money from people who should have known better. As it turned out, the money SBF was raising was not, in fact, being used for what he said it would be used for. Instead, the money was used by him to speculate, acting through through another company he controlled, Alameda Research, whose CEO, Caroline Ellison, age twenty-eight, was in a romantic relationship with him. Bankman-Fried, Ellison, and other FTX insiders lived a drug-fueled, high life in the Bahamas, where both of these companies were based. Although he apologized to investors, after taking FTX into bankruptcy, it appears that SBF is withdrawing his statement of regrets about that.
If readers of this blog posting can penetrate the likely WSJ paywall, The Journal's article on Bankman-Fried is quite instructive. Not to mention fascinating. It's titled, "They Lived Together, Worked Together and Lost Billions Together: Inside Sam Bankman-Fried’s Doomed FTX Empire." The article is way too long to reproduce here, but here is how the article starts off, to give you the flavor:

NASSAU, Bahamas—Sam Bankman-Fried’s $32 billion crypto-trading empire collapsed in an incandescent bankruptcy last week, prompting irate customers, crypto acolytes and Silicon Valley bigwigs to ask how something that seemed so promising could have imploded so fast.
The emerging picture suggests FTX wasn’t simply felled by a rival, or undone by a bad trade or the relentless fall this year in the value of cryptocurrencies. Instead, it had long been a chaotic mess. From its earliest days, the firm was an unruly agglomeration of corporate entities, customer assets and Mr. Bankman-Fried himself, according to court papers, company balance sheets shown to bankers and interviews with employees and investors. No one could say exactly what belonged to whom. Prosecutors are now investigating its collapse.
Mr. Bankman-Fried’s companies had neither accounting nor functioning human-resources departments, according to a filing in federal court by the executive brought in to shepherd FTX through bankruptcy. Corporate money was used to buy real estate, but records weren’t kept. There wasn’t even a roster of employees, to say nothing of the terms of their employment. Bankruptcy filings say one entity’s outstanding loans include at least $1 billion to Mr. Bankman-Fried personally and $543 million to a top lieutenant.
The lives of the people who ran FTX and its related companies were similarly blurred. Ten of them lived and worked together in a $30 million penthouse at an upscale resort in the Bahamas. The hours were punishing, and the lines between work and play were hard to discern. Romantic relationships among Mr. Bankman-Fried’s upper echelon were common, as was use of stimulants, according to former employees.
Mr. Bankman-Fried, 30 years old, kept a hectic schedule, toggling between six screens and getting by on a few hours of sleep a day. He was at times romantically involved with Caroline Ellison, the 28-year-old CEO of his trading firm, Alameda Research, according to former employees.
“Nothing like regular amphetamine use to make you appreciate how dumb a lot of normal, non-medicated human experience is,” Ms. Ellison once tweeted. A lawyer for Ms. Ellison declined to comment (emphasis added).
Back at the beginning of the high-tech boom, the popular press started calling people like Bankman-Fried "Masters of the Universe." Financial Review, for instance, headlined one of its articles as follows:  "In Silicon Valley, the new masters of the universe think they know best."
Rich people seem smarter, right? If they weren't smarter, they wouldn't be rich, right? 

Let's all understand that the so-called "Masters of the Universe" aren't any smarter or better than the rest of us. Usually not smarter! At least, they're not smarter about the things that matter most. Crypto-currency, for instance, is - and has been from the start - just a mechanism for speculation, pretty much pure and simple.

Shame on us if we have suppressed our own intelligence, hoping to get "something for nothing."

And we might apply the "Masters of the Universe" lesson to Mr. Elon Musk, too. Is he rich? Yes! But he is now on a course that might well destroy Twitter, a recent business acquisition, while he continues to try to get the United States taxpayers to subsidize his absurd notion that we can escape our responsibility for taking care of Planet Earth by heading off to a life on Mars!
Whenever it's "something for nothing," and whenever it seems "too good to be true," it's almost certainly not true. So let's be smart enough, ourselves, to remember that and not lose our life's savings by giving our money away to those "tech bros," and "money guys," who seem to know exactly what they're doing. 
They're rich, right? They must know what they're doing. Oh, Yeah! And maybe they do know. Maybe they are absolutely, fully aware that they are stealing us blind.
But hey: Sorry, guys! I am really, really sorry!

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Monday, November 21, 2022

#326 / Transformative Politics


It turns out that Barack Obama, working with a friend, wrote the first draft of a book, while both Obama and his friend were students at Harvard Law School. If you can beat The Times' paywall, you can read about that book by clicking right here. The story in The Times is by Timothy Shenk, and Obama's manuscript book was titled, "Transformative Politics." 

Shenk is a history professor, and has recently published a book called, Realigners, in which Shenk discusses the Obama manuscript. Apparently, Obama's friend, with whom Obama wrote the never-published book, is named Robert Fisher. Shenk identifies Fisher as "an economist," but if you click that link to his name, you will see that Fisher actually seems to be more of an "attorney," though an attorney specializing in economic matters. Currently, Fisher is an adjunct professor at the Raymond A. Mason School of Business, located at William & Mary University, and also serves as Senior Special Counsel to the Director of the Examinations at the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).

Well, what was the Obama-Fisher prescription for a "transformative politics"? That's the real question, it seems to me. We could certainly use some of that "transformative politics," at least I think so, and it doesn't look to me like the Obama presidency ever delivered any such thing. 

According to Shenk, the lost manuscript, which he says demonstrated a "fiery brilliance," was "shaped by Obama's years as a community organizer in Chicago": 

Mr. Obama directed his fire across the entire political spectrum. He denounced a broken status quo in which cynical Republicans outmaneuvered feckless Democrats in a racialized culture war, leaving most Americans trapped in a system that gave them no real control over their lives. Although his sympathies were clearly with the left, Mr. Obama chided liberals for making do with a “rudderless pragmatism,” and he flayed activists — with the civil rights establishment as his chief example — for asking the judiciary to hand out victories they couldn’t win at the polls. Progressives talked a good game about democracy, but they didn’t really seem to believe in it.
Mr. Obama did. With the right strategy, he argued, Democrats could engineer a political realignment that would begin a new chapter in the country’s history....

Written during Mr. Obama’s final semester, the manuscript updated Bayard Rustin for the age of Ronald Reagan. Mr. Obama and Mr. Fisher’s plan hinged on recruiting blue-collar whites back into a reborn version of the March on Washington coalition. According to Mr. Obama and Mr. Fisher, these votes could be won over with a platform that appealed to both the values and the material interests of working people. That meant shifting away from race-based initiatives toward universal economic policies whose benefits would, in practice, tilt toward African Americans — in short, “use class as a proxy for race.”....
Mr. Obama rejected the idea that appealing to Reagan Democrats required giving in to white grievance. Chiding centrists at the Democratic Leadership Council — headed at the time by Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas — he warned against retreating in the battle for civil rights. Moderates scrambling for the middle ground were just as misguided, he argued, as antiracists implicitly pinning their hopes on a collective racial epiphany. Neither understood that bringing the conversation back to economics was the best way to beat the right. Instead of trimming their ambitions to court affluent suburbanites, Democrats had to embrace “long-term, structural change, change that might break the zero-sum equation that pits powerless blacks [against] only slightly less powerless whites.”
You might think it’s strange to hear Mr. Obama sounding like he’d just come from a meeting of the Democratic Socialists of America. But even though his days as a GQ Marxist were in the past, he brought an appreciation for class politics with deep roots on the left into the next phase of his career.
All the pieces of Mr. Obama’s plan fit together: an electoral strategy designed to make Democrats the party of working people; a policy agenda oriented around comprehensive economic reform; and a faith that American democracy could deliver real change. By mixing political calculation with moral vision, Democrats could resurrect the March on Washington coalition and — finally — transform politics.
Regrettably, it seems to me, when Obama had a real chance to try out his theory, and to "transform" American politics, he flinched. The 2007 - 2009 economic meltdown that has been called the "Great Recession," which was brought on by the bursting of the "housing bubble," was the perfect time to make clear to the American people that comprehensive economic reform was needed. Instead, Obama bailed out the big banks, and millions of Americans lost their homes, and the economic value that constituted all they had. Obama, of course, has progressed from being a "GQ Marxist" (Shenk's term) to being a "GQ Capitalist," with both Obama and his wife joining the list of the truly wealthy.  The Insider article I have just cited, now two years old, notes that the Obamas do "donate to charity" with their millions, but this is not the same thing as working for a new political coalition aimed at ending the economic inequality that is the defining feature of our current economy and society. 

I think that the Obama-Fisher proposal has a lot of merit. Maybe, Obama "flinched," as I have said above, or maybe not. Maybe the fact that Obama never actually published his book demonstrates that he actually was less interested in transforming American politics than he was in advancing himself personally. Who knows? I voted for Obama enthusiastically, but became disappointed. Bernie Sanders is the American politician who is actually trying to carry out the Fisher-Obama program to "transform" our politics. 

I have another factor to add into the political prescription advocated in the Barack Obama-Robert Fisher draft. Besides making clear to the American people that we need a politics that provides economic rewards to everyone, since everyone is helping to "Make America Great," I suggest that our politics needs to communicate to ordinary men and women around the nation - the working families that support our nation - that THEY own the government (not vice versa). The appeal of Donald Trump to the white working class voters who make up so much of his "base" reflects the fact that the very component of our society that Obama said had to be mobilized to change our governmental policies is, in fact, quite ready to do just that. 

Too bad the appeal to which this group is responding is an appeal to a totalitarian, not a democratic approach. 

Transformative politics? I think it's a lot like what Gandhi may, or may not, have said about Western Civilization

I think it would be a good idea!
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Sunday, November 20, 2022

#325 / Let The Mystery Be - Time After Time, II


The image above comes from a website called Astronomy Trek, and specifically from an article titled, "7 Mysteries Of Time Explained." Time is, indeed, a "mystery," at least it is to me, and that image conveys some hint of its mysterious nature.
I have written about the mystery of "Time" on a number of occasions, and after having done a compilation of "outside sources," discussing the nature of "Time," I wrote a blog posting featuring a song by Cyndi Lauper, "Time After Time."

When that "Time After Time" blog posting was published, back in October of this year, I suddenly remembered another blog posting, from more than ten years ago. That long-ago blog posting provided a link to "Let The Mystery Be," by Iris DeMent, and in thinking about DeMent's song, I realized that the phrase "Time After Time" can be heard two ways.

First, of course, the phrase, "time after time," indicates that time "comes back," that it can give us another chance. That is the way the phrase is used in Lauper's song. But... what about the idea that there is "Time," even after "Time" has ended? 

That is another possible interpretation of the phrase, and that possibility is what DeMent's song is all about. She is singing about what happens "when the whole thing's done." 

Maybe, DeMent says, though not using the phrase, there is, in fact, some sort of "Time" after "Time," and that we are going to "come back," in whatever form DeMent certainly doesn't pretend to know. 

Thinking about what these two songs might suggest about the nature of our human life, and eternity, is a kind of Sunday sermon kind of challenge. They are lovely songs:

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Saturday, November 19, 2022

#324 / Getting Off The Highway To Climate Hell


According to David Wallace-Wells, pictured above, author of The Uninhabitable Earth, "the global carbon surveillance state can't get here soon enough." That statement is the "headline" that tops Wallace-Wells' November 18, 2022, column in The New York Times. As is so often true, that headline is different from what you'll see, online. There, the headline reads: "The Global Carbon Surveillance State Is Coming." Make no mistake, Wallace-Wells is very much in favor of that!

For my part, I am, too, although the readings I make available to students in the Legal Studies Senior Capstone class I teach at UCSC provide lots of reasons to watch out, in general, for what happens when our government turns into a "surveillance state."

In his column, Wallace-Wells makes the following observation:
A new online tool released by the nonprofit coalition Climate Trace ... allows us to see emissions in near-real time. For a while, we’ve used ballpark estimates for emissions from countries, industries and the planet as a whole. The point of the Climate Trace project is to bring it down to the level of individual polluting facilities: to make it possible to track climate-damaging carbon released from more than 72,000 “steel and cement factories, power plants, oil and gas fields, cargo ships, [and] cattle feedlots."
A general understanding that carbon emissions are causing global warming that can, ultimately, destroy the habitability of Planet Earth is certainly "step one" towards a solution - towards doing something about it. Hopefully, we have all received that "step one" message. Until, however, we know who is doing what, where, and to what degree, we don't actually have the tools to get ourselves off that "highway to climate hell" that U.N. Secretary General António Guterres has warned us about
The "gold standard" of legislation (and other actions) to address our global warming / climate crisis is pretty simple: "Every identified emission of a greenhouse gas must be eliminated, at the earliest time that it is technically possible to eliminate that emission, and if it is not technically possible to eliminate an emission then that emission must be reduced, to the greatest degree technically possible, at the earliest time that it is technically possible to make that reduction."

Easy-Peasy to conceptualize and understand this principle. Hard to find the political will to impose the requirement, and almost impossible to achieve if we don't, actually, have anything but generalities to tell us where, and to what extent, emissions are occurring, and who is responsible for the emissions. 

Climate Trace can solve one part significant part of the problem. It can tell us, definitively, who is doing the emitting, where, and how much they are emitting. 

The political will to make them stop it? Well, that's up to us! The "gold standard," again, is pretty simple:
Every identified emission of a greenhouse gas must be eliminated, at the earliest time that it is technically possible to eliminate that emission, and if it is not technically possible to eliminate an emission then that emission must be reduced, to the greatest degree technically possible, at the earliest time that it is technically possible to make that reduction.

Climate Trace is giving us an invaluable tool to make it possible for us to do what we absolutely must do to preserve and protect the habitability of Planet Earth:

Will we do it? That's up to us!
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Friday, November 18, 2022

#323 / All Kinds Of Horrors


That is Noam Chomsky, above, smiling under my headline: "All Kinds Of Horrors." In fact, this distressing phrase is Chomsky's own, as he has reflected on American history:

All kinds of horrors have existed. Over time, their power has been eroded but never completely eliminated. Slavery was abolished, but its remnants remain in new and vicious forms. It’s not slavery, but it’s horrifying enough. The idea that women are not persons has not only been formally overcome, but to a substantial extent in practice, too. Still, there’s plenty to do. The constitutional system was a step forward in the eighteenth century. Even the phrase “We the people” terrified the autocratic rulers of Europe, deeply concerned that the evils of democracy (what was then called republicanism) could spread and undermine civilized life. Well, it did spread — and civilized life continued, even improved. 
So, yes, there are periods of regression and of progress, but the class war never ends, the masters never relent. They’re always looking for every opportunity and, if they’re the only participants in class struggle, we will indeed have regression. But they don’t have to be, any more than in the past.
Chomsky is now ninety-three years old (the picture shows him at ninety), and the remarks reproduced above come in a conversation with David Barsamian. Considering the quotation I have just provided, it is appropriate to show Chomsky with a cheerful expression. Despite all the problems, despite all the "horrors," Chomsky lets us know that better things can prevail. 

He tells us, in fact, that better things have prevailed! Despite all kinds of horrors, past and present, defeatism and despair are not our proper response.

You can click right here for the article from which I took the Chomsky quote. The headline on that article is, "Optimism of the Will." The article came to me thanks to Tom Dispatch, a political newsletter to which readers of this blog might like to subscribe. 

That "Optimism of the Will" phrase was first articulated by Antonio Gramsci, a Marxist, and a one-time leader of the Communist Party in Italy. Gramsci's complete thought is captured by the following: 

Pessimism of the Intellect, Optimism of the Will 

I have always loved this statement. It references (without ever directly saying so) the important distinction between "observation" and "action." It is critically important, of course, that we know what is actually happening. We need to look around us, and "observe," and to think about what we see. Our "intellect" is the power we bring into play when we seek to understand the world through observation. When we do, how pessimistic we can become!

But we are not only "observers." We can act. We are "actors," too! No matter how dire the horrors that our intellect observes, we must never forget that everything we see, in the human world that we create, can be changed by what we do. 

Let us not, then, be daunted. Let us remember, always, that we have recourse to that "optimism of the will" that informs us what is possible.
My father made sure I learned that lesson. And this was his favorite poem:
By William Ernest Henley

Out of the night that covers me,
      Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
      I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
      My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
      Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
      Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
      How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.

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Thursday, November 17, 2022

#322 / Hope In Apocalypse


I subscribe to Plough Quarterly, a rather unusual magazine. Plough is published by the Bruderhof. Let me quote what the Bruderhof say about who they are. They are: "an international movement of Christian communities whose members are called to follow Jesus together in the spirit of the Sermon on the Mount and of the first church in Jerusalem, sharing all ... talents, income, and possessions (Acts 2 and 4). Bruderhof communities, which include both families and single people from a wide range of backgrounds, are located in the United States, England, Germany, Australia, and Paraguay. Visitors are welcome."

The Summer 2022 edition of Plough Quarterly has an article entitled, "Hoping for Doomsday," by Peter Mommsen. The subtitle is this: "The times are troubled. That's why we need the promise of apocalypse." 

The suggestion that the "promise of apocalypse" is something "positive" is not what might be called "conventional wisdom." In general, we tend to think that the "apocalypse" will not be a good thing. In fact, the word is typically defined in a way that suggests that the apocalypse will be the opposite of good, if and when it arrives:
the complete final destruction of the world, as described in the biblical book of Revelation
an event involving destruction or damage on an awesome or catastrophic scale

Mommsen suggests that this definition is not, in fact, Biblical, and that in the Bible, "apocalypse" means "the revealing." This is putting a rather positive spin on the end of what we know, but I think it's worth thinking that this might, actually, be the right way to consider those "end times" that are more and more appearing to be inevitable. 

To me, at least, thinking only about global warming and the increasing dangers of atomic war, it seems obvious that "things can't go on like this." The world as we have known it is going to change - is changing. It is changing, in fact, even as we marvel at the fact that it can. What we have always relied upon as a constant can no longer be relied upon. What is popularly called "Climate Change" is the best example. We have relied upon rivers with water, and forests without fire. Such reliance is, clearly, no longer warranted. Things have changed!

Those who read my blog postings on any regular basis might remember that I have suggested that it is, in fact, possible to make positive changes in the realities we currently inhabit, and that there is no "doomsday law" that is inevitable. "Doomsday," in other words, might well be considered as a "revelation" of the possible, as opposed to a confirmation of the catastrophic destruction of everything we have built for ourselves, and have relied upon, in the human world that we have created. That is, essentially, what Plough Quarterly says. 

I find that a hopeful thought - and the title on the front cover of that Spring 2022 issue of Plough Quarterly wants us to see it that way. The cover proclaims: "Hope In Apocalypse." 

A revelation that real change is possible could well "speak to our condition," as the Quakers might say. Our dreams and hopes for the triumph of love over death might be waiting to be revealed as the reality it could, in fact, become!
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Wednesday, November 16, 2022

#321 / Name Those Billionaires!


That is Larry Page, pictured above. He is one of the co-founders of Google. He is also number six on a list, compiled by Forbes, of the 400 richest people in the country. I almost said "men," but there are a few women on the list. Want to see the entire Forbes 400 list? Click right here!
If you'd like to pare it down a bit, and don't have time to look through a listing of 400 people, you can use the following link for an article that is headlined, "80 California Billionaires Make Forbes 400 List Of Super Rich." That's where I got the picture of Larry Page. 
I, personally, qualify as a "Native Son of the Golden West," meaning that I was born in California, and when it comes to naming the billionaires, I always like to keep my focus local. I don't need to keep track of every billionaire in the nation or the world. My envy and outrage can be confined to that list of eighty! Maybe you're the same!

Actually, I like to think, I am not really that "envious" of the billionaires who have made that Forbes 400 listing (California-based or otherwise). A certain quotient of "outrage," however, might be admitted. 

For a nation of such great wealth, isn't it something worthy of condemnation, not congratulation, that a rather short list of people controls such a large percentage of land, money, and everything else, including both personal celebrity and political influence?  I do have an "egalitarian" bias, I have to confess, based on my belief that we are "all in this together."

Generally speaking, it seems to be natural to equate wealth with importance, but who is important, actually? My answer? EVERYONE is important. 
We are, in fact - and it isn't just a feel-good slogan - "in this together." The enterprises and activities that have produced the wealth that is documented in these lists of the billionaires were not created and made successful ONLY by the persons who have ended up with the most money. Wouldn't we all be better off if we were able to reduce the economic inequality that these lists of the billionaires document, and make sure the benefits of human ingenuity and activity were distributed to everyone - at least to the extent that everyone would could live a life that includes sufficient food, housing, health care, education, and safety?

That would seem fair to me, and that, at least, is what I suggest should be our economic, social, and political goal. We might start thinking of this as a "global" objective, too.

Such a more egalitarian distribution of the wealth that we all help produce isn't going to happen, though, is it? Well, it certainly isn't unless we change the rules.

And who makes the rules?

When I ask that question, I am back to that old Abe Lincoln prescription. Right near the end of the Civil War, which was fought to end a system of wealth acquisition based on slavery, Lincoln told us that the Civil War had been fought to ensure that a "government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

OF the people, and BY the people means that we have to get involved in government ourselves. Personally! 
I happen to know, from my own personal experience (in mostly a local context, I admit) that when more people get personally engaged in politics, in making the government do what most people want, in making the government do what we believe we need, the theoretical principle, articulated above (and which is hard to disagree with in principle) actually does work!


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Tuesday, November 15, 2022

#320 / A Shock To The System


Jamelle Bouie, pictured above, writes for The New York Times. So does Ezra Klein, pictured below. 

On Sunday, November 13, 2022, both Klein and Bouie wrote about the aftermath of the nation's midterm elections - those elections in which a predicted "Red Tide," favoring the Republican Party, did not appear. In fact, with all the ballots still not counted in California (and perhaps elsewhere), it could be that the Democrats will not only retain control of the Senate; it's possible that they might continue to have a majority in the House of Representatives, too. It's certainly going to be close.
Faced with these unexpected results, Klein propounded "Three Theories About This Political Moment." While Klein said he wasn't much for "postelection narratives," his article took up more than half of a two-page spread in The New York Times opinion section.
Klein first noted the "calcification" of our national politics. Whereas voters used to switch their allegiances between the nation's two main political parties, that is no longer true. However, as Klein noted, while voter allegiances have "calcified," there is a near-parity between the parties, which makes our politics highly uncertain. In addition, Klein says, national politics have moved away from a focus on "economic" issues, and "cultural" battles are now the focus of our political debates and disagreements. 
Here is Klein's bottom line analysis, given the "three theories" that he propounds:
If you were looking for a three-sentence summary of American politics in recent years, I think you could do worse than this: The parties are so different that even seismic events don’t change many Americans minds. The parties are so closely matched that even minuscule shifts in the electoral winds can blow the country onto a wildly different course. And even in a time of profound economic dislocation, American politics has become less about which party is good for your wallet and more about whether the cultural changes of the past 50 years delight or dismay you.

In short, the way Klein sees it, everything is unpredictable, and our politics is destined to play itself out in the future in just the way it did in these midterm elections, with high anxiety on all sides, and no certain results.
Jamelle Bouie, like Klein, believes that our national politics is "calcified," though he doesn't use that word. 2022, he said, "is yet another cycle in which the overall electoral picture changed less than you might imagine." This is not, Bouie tells us, what usually happens. Quite the opposite. Historically, what is "normal" in the politics of the nation is that one party possesses what Bouie calls political "hegemony." 

And that's coming, he says. One of our two major parties is going to achieve "hegemony," and Bouie thinks the most important question is "which party will be ready?" Here's Bouie's summation at the end of his column:

If there’s any period similar to ours, with two evenly matched coalitions, each struggling to attain a lasting victory over the other, it is in the late 19th century, with its sharp partisan polarization, closely contested national elections and astonishingly high turnout. Then, as now, the margins were narrow; then, as now, the fights were fierce; and then, as now, the combination of the two pushed some of the strongest and most ideological partisans to try to rig the game in their favor.
I think we are in for another round — or two or three or four — of close, hard-fought election cycles with no decisive victory or defeat for either party. But something will come; something — whether economic or environmental or constitutional — will shock the system and give one coalition or the other the chance to expand and attempt to win hegemony over the political system. The question in my mind is which forces in this country are best organized, either for good or for ill, to take advantage when that something eventually hits.
I do not write for The New York Times, but I do, nonetheless, have my own views about these topics. Both Klein and Bouie make very good points - at least I think so - but here is what I'd add, or maybe emphasize. The "shock to the system" that Bouie is predicting - the kind of shock that can lead to a restructuring of our "calcified" politics - does not have to be some kind of external event that shakes things up, starting from the outside in.
We can shake things up ourselves, working from the inside out. And that is exactly what we need to do. We can't afford to wait around for "two or three or four election cycles," until some external event breaks through the political petrification that afflicts us. 

Grab your political defibrillator! Let's shock ourselves back to life. The time to apply that shock to the political body politic - and we can do it ourselves - is not two, or three, or four election cycles in the future. 
It's right now!

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